…I wasn’t just the messenger?
I slip out, mid-meeting, eyes hidden from the sun and anyone else inclined to pry. My face is a mask of no emotion, in the same way that white light is all colors condensed into a single bright and burning ray.
(Is there pain? I refuse to feel it.)
My feet pound the pavement with an almost angry urgency, slapping against the concrete in a way that I can almost feel my bones rattle with every impact. I pretend this is another favor, another thing I do as a “good friend,” but the speed at which my feet fly, the heedlessness with which I cross the street (daring cars to run this girl, so young and hopefully hopeless, over) betray the fact that I want this.
(Is there pain? I guess I crave it.)
Under tinted lenses I’m too blind to see the screen, and I can’t tell if it’s my phone vibrating or my hands shaking as I try to tell myself to be still. My heart knocks against my ribcage like a bird beating its wings against the wrought-iron bars of its aviary. The metal buzzes in my palms with urgency. I squint, make out your words, break into a run.
I chase after you as I have always chased.
Inside I ready myself for a climb, hoping the breathlessness of physical exertion will drown out all thoughts of longing until I am somehow normal. Except you decide to meet me halfway (or what you think is halfway), and so instead I am rushing to look normal, to find a semblance of nonchalance, to pretend that this means absolutely nothing to me. I barely manage not to look windblown. I put shades on to hide eyes I fear will betray everything.
I am so focused on breathing and looking straight ahead, definitely not in the direction of the stairs, that I almost do not notice you coming–do not notice the flash of red and black in the corner of my eyes, the lanky stride that I’ve unfortunately come to memorize. I look down at the phone in my lap, counting my breaths, counting the steps you take until you are too close for me to pretend to not see coming.
I look up. “Hi.” I say.
“Hey.” You fumble in your pocket, produce the tiny gray notebook that belongs to a girl who is not me, who really should be running this fool’s errand, except you don’t know her number, you can’t text her directly, so there was no other choice except to contact me, was there? You fidget.
“Exams?” I ask, trying to break the tension, except it’s too late, it’s gotten to me, and my voice is darker and more deadpan than usual, less amiable and more abrasive.
We didn’t use to have these one-word, one-line conversations before, I don’t think, but I don’t trust my memory anymore, don’t trust my thoughts. Once upon a time they made me think you were a friend, someone rare and precious, when in fact you were a stranger, were like everyone else–seeing more of my dark than my light, if you saw my light at all.
I almost want to ask: Do I repulse you?
“Oh,” you say, and I worry my lip a bit, “Uh…Good luck.”
You stand there for a beat longer, hands in your pockets, before giving me an awkward half-salute, half-wave and walking off in the direction I had come. I watch you walk away, the notebook cradled in my shaking hands. When you have disappeared from view–when I am sure I will not awkwardly bump into you again–I head back to my meeting, to my cup of iced coffee sweating on a café table, to the things that supposedly matter more than this little errand and the object burning a hole in my palms.
Almost without thinking, I open the notebook. What would you have to say to her? Why would she even ask you? I knew you first, and only recently did I introduce you, out of some misplaced desire to have the people I think I love loved by the people I try to love. I flip quickly through the miniature pages as I walk, ignoring the voice in my head that says I shouldn’t punish myself like this.
I’ve always been a bit of a masochist.
Finally I come to your unmistakeable handwriting, delicate and fine as a convent schoolgirl’s. I can barely read the sloping letters through the haze of bright sunlight. I see enough, though. Enough of your friendly well-wishes, your apologies for not talking enough, your promise to honor her request to collaborate on a new music project together: “Wouldn’t if be epic if we managed to do it while you were away?”
I’ve asked you for help hundreds of times, with song after song after song suggestion. Each time, you were too busy, but “Maybe some other time, when I can.” It goes without saying that “some other time” never comes.
I swallow hard. I can’t let my group-mates see me like this.
I cross a little bit of bridge on the way to the coffeeshop. Underneath, a creek runs into the sewers. Briefly, I flirt with the idea of throwing the notebook, well-wishes and all, into the dirty water and watching it disappear along with your sentiments. I immediately dismiss the gesture as immature and pointless, anyway: even if I made the letter disappear, it would make the truth go away. My chest feels like wet cement is being poured into it, constricting my breath and making everything feel heavy.
The heavens break open. I start to cry.
By then the momentum of my feet has carried me into the coffeeshop, and it’s all I can do not to break into a run for the bathroom. I frantically build the wall back up, turn my face to stone. I make excuses, dismiss my tears as stress-induced. She is there. I shove the notebook at her and head to the bathroom, claiming a need to “freshen up.”
Inside the bathroom I repeat your last words to the mirror. “Wouldn’t it be epic if…” I sigh.
Wouldn’t it be epic if I was her?