go away a little closer

I AM LYING on his couch, wrapped up in his arms. He is staring into my eyes, reaching up every so often to brush the hair back from my face. I search the wall, the ceiling, the back of his plaid couch for something to study, my gaze finally settling on the buttons of his flannel shirt. Anything else. Anything else is better. Finally he slides a crooked finger under my chin and brings my eyes up to his. I can’t handle this.

“I should get going,” I say quietly.

Watching me, he slides his hands behind his head as I sit up and begin pulling on my shoes.

“Okay,” is his reply. “I won’t try to make you stay.”

I stand up, slip on my jacket, and grab my purse off the floor. “Bye,” I say, turning towards him, sliding him a smile as I open his door. He just smiles back at me, then returns his eyes to the TV as I leave.

***

He calls me. I know he’s getting close…it’s in his calls. Two days after one date, then one day after our next, and then a call hours after I get home from this last one.

“Hi,” he says. “Just calling to say hi. I know you’re probably standing by the phone, screening your calls and listening to me right now. But that’s okay. I’ll let you. Just don’t forget to call me back this time.”

I look down at the floor and smile. I’m leaning against the kitchen counter, next to the phone, listening to him after I had screened his call.

***

Here we are again, lying beside each other on his couch, talking about our “first” first date. We call it that because there were months in between our actual first date and our next one.

We met on the internet (cue the rolling of eyes from my mom), and I really liked him – he was ridiculously handsome in his photos, and his messages were hilarious enough that I found myself laughing so hard I was crying. And we had a great first date, but three time-warped months passed between him asking for another date and my affirmative response.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you that whole time,” he says now. “Pretty, whip-smart Amber. It’s hard to just turn your back on that kind of combination.”

“I liked you, too.”

“Really? I didn’t get that impression from you at all,” he replies, still staring at the ceiling.

I’m quiet, not knowing how to defend my position.

“You don’t give away much,” he points out, now looking at me. It’s another one of his loaded statements – take it at the surface if you wish, but it means something deeper, broader. “I notice that you’ll ask me questions, yet you don’t reciprocate the information.”

“I just figure that if you want to know, you’ll ask,” I reply quietly.

“But I don’t, because I figure that if you want to share those things with me, you will when you’re ready.”

I look at him, my eyes apologetic. I can tell that it hurts him, but I don’t know how to rectify it.

“It’s okay.” His eyes return to the ceiling as he takes another drag off of his cigarette. “I’ve made a few suppositions about you. I’ll wait to see if I’m right or not.”

***

When I’m with him, I feel both easy and tense. Getting ready for our date, I pull on my favorite pair of jeans and a long-sleeved white thermal shirt and then look in the mirror. I’ve been dropping weight, and it shows. The jeans still hug my hips in the way that I’ve always loved, but there’s a gap in the waistband that I haven’t been able to fill in a long while. I smooth my shirt over my stomach and toss my long hair over my shoulders, trying to see what he might see. A girl with possibilities underneath those clothes, instead of just a sleeping shell. Maybe, I think. Maybe I can be that, tonight, with him. I slip on my orange puffer vest, grab my keys and wallet, and head out to meet him.

He is ten years older than I am, thirty-five to my twenty-five. There’s something I secretly love about that. It fits his easy swagger and rugged handsomeness, the knowing smirk he has when he’s about to say something smart and sarcastic. When we sit in his favorite bar, talking, I find myself laughing, gesturing…and I think, I remember this. The pleasant feeling of being charming; of being easy, breezy and light. I find myself gravitating towards him – leaning in as I speak, closer still to catch his words above the din of the bar.

It’s when we’re alone that I find myself feeling as if I’m made of steel. I don’t like when he stares at me. He notices. “Is it really so bad that I want to look at you?” he says, after I sit up to light a cigarette. I smile back at him to throw off the anxiety I feel and shake my head slightly.

“You are kind of pretty…I think you know by now that I’m not just ‘objectifying you for your body’,” he continues, referencing an inside joke. “You have to understand that sometimes a person likes to look at someone pretty, even if that pretty someone happens to also be smart, snarky, and not into cheesy crap like that.”

I laugh, but still look away when, later, he holds his face close to mine and challenges me with his eyes.

***

The night grows late. “I should probably get going,” I tell him.

He looks at me. “Would it really be such a bad thing if you stayed?”

Just that. That is all he says, but it’s the way he stares at me…his gaze long and serious. Would it really be so bad for me to stay, to want to spend more time with him, to let him see that?

“No,” I reply. “I’ll stay.”

He gets up to collect a pillow and a blanket from his hallway closet, and I walk into the bathroom. Staring into the mirror, I try to calm the shaky fear, the quickening nervousness that makes my hands feel jumpy and the nerves in my arms tingle. You can do this. It’s going to be fine, you’re going to be okay. Just go. Nodding with resolution at the thought, I open the door and click off the light.

“Hey,” he says softly, holding up the blanket for me.

Instead of laying down next to him on the couch, I instead find myself sitting on my knees on the other end of the couch, shivering slightly and staring down at the plaid cushion.

He props himself up on his elbow. “You okay?”

“I haven’t…” I look up at him, trying to explain. “I haven’t really done this in awhile.”

It does that to you. That was one thing I found out, after. Either you become a sort of addict – wanting to just feel something, anything, other than this – or you become totally sexless, numb. I used to try, at first. Late at night, I would lie in bed and try, because it’s healthy, right? I should want to, I would tell myself, and so I would try to conjure up the old faithfuls, the mental lock box of trusty scenes. And it would work, at first. But then the old gutted cries would cut in between the climax, and always, in the end, I would find myself with my forearm thrown across my eyes, sobbing my insides out into the dark.

So I stopped trying. After, at night and while lying in bed, I would think about it, but then simply turn over and go to sleep. I did that a lot, back then. Don’t think about it. Just go to sleep.

“Really?” Seeing my reaction to his surprised tone, he smiles sheepishly. “I mean, it’s hard to believe that any guy out there would let you go too long without it.” I raise my eyes up to him again, and he laughs out loud this time. “I mean… I’m sorry, it’s not coming out right. You’re so pretty. It can’t be from lack of opportunity.”

Feeling awkward, I stare down at his feet. “I just haven’t really…felt like it.”

“Well, that’s okay. Do you feel like it now?”

I stare at him for what feels like a long time. I nod.

“Are you sure? Because we don’t have to-”

“Can we just not talk a lot about it?” I ask softly.

He leans toward me and smooths a hand over my cheek. “We don’t have to talk at all,” he says quietly. He cups my face with both of his hands as he rises to meet me, and then his mouth is on me…soft lips and warm, wet tongue. I breath in and let myself kiss him, really kiss him.

The want and heat of it makes me rise up on my knees, and as I do so I feel his fingers pick up the hem of my shirt and raise it, his carpenter hands rough and exquisite against the soft skin of my stomach. Maybe this is why people wait on purpose, I find myself thinking. Because when you do, when it’s been this long, it feels like every nerve is thrilling at another person’s touch, yelling out finally, finally.

The thoughts float from my head to the ceiling, as I lie on the couch and press my hands against his solid, muscular back. This is okay, you’re okay, this is fine, this is good, this is great. I wait for it to come, as the heat rises inside me, and I let myself start climbing that wall. Just sink deeper, close your eyes. Remember how this feels? To be touched, to touch, how this used to be all you ever wanted…how it felt, in the dark, to just feel this…

No, don’t. I close my eyes tighter, trying to wipe away the body that has wafted in. His smooth strong back, his broad tanned shoulders. No. Don’t, I quickly tell myself again. You’re here, right here, don’t. You’re here.  

You’re here. It is lost, and I open my eyes, staring up at the ceiling as I hear him take a deep breath in. It whooshes out again, and every muscle relaxes. It’s over, I didn’t cry, I’m okay.

***

With careful precision, I slowly lift his arm and slip out from underneath. Dressing quietly in the dark, I’m careful not to let my belt clang against my jeans or let my balance slip and land a thudding foot on the floor. Just before I go, I lean down to kiss his parted lips. The touch startles him, and he opens his eyes. I whisper a goodbye, and then slip quietly out the door.

On the backroads of Wisconsin, the moon lights the landscape in a fashion that is both enchanting and eerie. Outlines of trees that have lost their leaves reach out like old skeletal hands, and the silver moon hangs over the gray road in a way that reminds me of a grandfather, whispering encouragement and promises of safety at the end of a long journey. What is wrong with me, I wonder, as I steer my car southward, toward home. He’s crazy about me. And then just like that, my face begins to crumble and tears press against my eyes, against the truth I don’t want to face. Everything he feels – the heat, the happiness, the pursuit of wanting to know more, have more, be more – is like a spotlight shining on everything I don’t. I feel like I should, but I don’t. I don’t want anyone to touch me, to kiss me, hold me close and stare into my eyes…or tell me I’m pretty, or that they want to spend more time with me, to know more about me. I don’t want any of those things. And I know I should. I know it should make me happy – he’s handsome, and funny, and smart, and I like him – but instead it all only makes me break down, feel crazy, panic. Run away.

Because it’s not that it’s him. It’s that he’s not you.

***

I am still living with your ghost. Sometimes I think it’s only natural… You left so fast. One day you were here, as you had been for the last three years of my life, and then you were just…gone. I try to tell myself that of course I would still expect to see you standing there…force of habit, and all that. But sometimes I think I’m losing touch. Once, in the middle of the night, I had been lying on my stomach and felt my hair being brushed away from my face, the length of it smoothed across my bare back. I opened my eyes, feeling this strange sense that you were right there, standing by my bed, watching me sleep. You always did that, I found myself thinking as I closed my eyes again. That’s how much you loved me…you used to watch me even while I slept. You would lie on your side, your body close to mine, and brush my hair back with your fingers while you watched me fall asleep. I remembered how that felt before I turned my head the other way and tried to go back to sleep, tried not to think about it too much.

And even now, as I lean against my kitchen counter, stirring honey into my hot tea, I can almost hear you, suppose exactly what you would say, exactly the way you would look at me if you were still here. You would stand across the kitchen from me, leaning up against the fridge with your arms crossed over your chest. You would shake your head and smile wryly at me, as if to say, “You’re still doing it. You’re still doing the same exact thing you did to me.”

But you knew me. You knew me so well…you always knew exactly what I was doing when I was doing it, which infuriated me. “You can’t keep doing that, Amber. No one can keep fighting this,” you said once, gently poking a finger at my chest, “forever.” Your smile was kind but your eyes were somber, making sure I knew that you meant what you were saying. You didn’t mean the heart. You meant the wall. You always hated my stubbornness, my propensity to close you out when you said something I didn’t want to hear. And you were never afraid to say those things. Sometimes I miss that about you. I miss so much about you… The way you knew me, the way you figured out exactly how to hug me, how to hold my hand, how to look at me without making me want to turn my eyes away from you.

And maybe I’m going crazy again. I was close, before. I could feel the edge staring up at me when I would open my eyes in the morning and expect to see you lying next to me, then remember that you had been dead for months and that I should know by now that you’re not going to be there when I wake up. When I saw a man in the grocery store who looked just like you, and I dropped the loaf of bread I was  holding and lost my breath, thinking that I was seeing your ghost. When I didn’t talk to anyone or leave my house for a week, too scared to venture out or open my mouth for fear of what would come next…a scream, tears in public, a glass thrown, a car crashed.

But the sky is green and the grass is blue. And I don’t miss you, and I don’t have to pretend anymore that you’re still here, that you’re not really gone…That that black train never really hit your red loader and you weren’t pulled out and away too late. That my life didn’t slowly close and I didn’t have to figure out a way to survive so I didn’t lose myself to grief. That I didn’t stay alone for a year and am now finding it too hard to figure out a safe way to be with someone again.

***

He emails me. At the end of his message, he writes “P.S. – Thanks for the kiss you gave me before sneaking out…that was cool. I felt like I was in a video or something.” I laugh at first, but the gentle admonishment doesn’t escape my notice, and I find myself growing quiet and reading it again, wondering how much more of this either of us can take.

We go out again that next Friday. After stepping back out into the night, I see him standing just outside the circle of tiki torches. An apple festival, he told me, when I asked him earlier that evening where he was taking me. “All the hippies will be there.” Handing me a cup of beer, we walk into the periphery of one of the many open tents and watch kids from the local environmental college dance and sway and do-si-do to the music of fiddles and banjos. He tells me about a guy he knows whom he thinks has undiagnosed Aspergers, and points out the way the kid is just a beat behind everyone else when it comes to laughing at jokes or following what everyone else is doing. I nod and laugh at the correct assessment as I study the guy, his hulking figure somehow more awkward than the rest, his motions and facial expressions robotic, practiced.

“Let’s take a walk,” I hear him say. I look at him, and with his head he motions over to the foggy docks. Sliding once again into his easy confidence, I nod and follow him through the throng of dreadlocks and patchouli.

We walk slowly down a long pier shrouded in light fog. I think about making a joke about being in an episode of Dawson’s Creek, but stop myself. Instead I try to get comfortable, try to look forward to the good parts. He slips his hand into mine as we walk, and pulls my steps closer to his. “Remember how awkward walking and holding hands at the same time was, when you first started doing it?” he asks.

I nod and laugh. “Stiff arms and sweaty palms. I always felt like I couldn’t move my hand at all, otherwise it would break the spell…like he’d snap his hand away from mine and then break up with me because I didn’t know how to hold hands the right way.”

He laughs. “You’re pretty good at it, now, though.”

“An acquired skill.”

“You’ve got a lot of those.”

“Yeah.” Maybe this will be one of them, I think, as red lights from passing ships wink at us through the fog, then disappear. Maybe someday I’ll be able to say this is the way I used to be.

– “go away a little closer”, featured in all the things you never knew

//

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