YOU & I
Your back is up against the armrest like you’re pinned against the wall. You’ve crossed your legs, creating a barrier between us. It’s working. If I try to lean forward to hug you, to kiss you, or just to rub my fingers across your stubble like I usually do, I’ll stumble over your lap. I pull my knees to my chest, maybe to try to protect myself from the verbal assault that I know is coming, maybe to create a barrier of my own. I’m not sure yet.
You won’t look me in the eye. You inhale deeply, so deeply your ribs seem to be trying to push through your skin, and hold it in. One, two, three, four, five seconds pass before you release it and lean forward.
Your attack begins.
“It was an impossible situation to keep up. We both fucked up thinking it wouldn’t be.”
“What you did—,” you shake your head, then scratch your scalp with your fingers, stretching out. I can’t help but think it’s a male dominance thing, stretching out to make yourself appear bigger. It’s meant to intimidate the opposite sex, to infer some sort of sexual prowess and power. Women, apparently, try to make themselves appear smaller in order to seem more attractive, more vulnerable, fragile. I guess that’s what we’re doing now. You’re splaying out, your knees becoming blockades, your arms becoming turrets; I’m sucking in, my knees becoming a defence.
“It fucking killed me.”
“I was preparing myself for this,” you say, “I’ve been panicking over you, over everything. I’d send you a text in the afternoon and it got to the point where you wouldn’t bother to reply until the next morning.”
“I’d be constantly checking and stressing out until you did. After that, I’d be fine. But I can’t keep basing my emotional stability on a fucking text.”
I don’t know if you guessed that I’d been doing this on purpose. I’d been dropping hints that things weren’t going well for us, without saying it explicitly over a handheld device. I was just being cowardly; trying to wean you off of me. Day by day I’d go longer between replies, leaving shorter replies, asking less questions. It was pathetic and juvenile.
“You’re not the girl you were before Christmas.”
“I don’t know whether it’s the stress or the anxiety over this all but—,” you bring your arms down into your lap, placing them on each joint like kneepads. “You can’t give me what I need anymore, and what I need is who you were when we met.”
Sting? It’s not an attack, it’s just honesty, but it hurts me when you say it.
What you don’t know is just how little you know me. The girl I was when we met was restrained, for you. I filtered out my thoughts. I spoke sparingly. You’re timid, shy, quiet; I’m everything but.
You felt safe. You made me feel safe. You weren’t ashamed to hold my hand or kiss me in public. You were guarded, as was I, but it was nice to peek through the cracks in your walls and imagine that we were getting to know each other.
I got to know you, but you didn’t care to know me. On our first date I asked you everything that came to mind (movies, music, writers, habits). You answered, but you didn’t care to hear my own response. I don’t know if you were just nervous, or if my answers didn’t interest you. I didn’t pry. I was just thankful to find someone who let me exist with them for a little while. Everything about you screamed ‘Safe Choice’ and ‘Dependable Human Being’, and I believed that was exactly what I wanted. At the time, I think it was. You were the Arthur Miller to my Marilyn Monroe and it suited me for a while. But, when I was looking through the cracks in your walls and learning about you from your childhood family photos, I came to realise that you hadn’t even tried to look for the cracks in mine. I thought you were watching from afar, one eye screwed shut and the other pressed up against a magnifying glass, but it became clear to me that you didn’t want to see through the cracks. The walls themselves suited you just fine.
You look like you’re about to say something, then catch yourself, laughing like it would have been a ridiculous thing to say in the first place. I want to tell you how sorry I am, but I can’t articulate it in a way that will make any of this this seem better.
Neither one of us talks for a while.
I extend an arm toward you. You look at it like it’s coming to wrench your heart out from its chest. You don’t move. Forcing your hand into mine, I feed my fingers through yours, interlocking them. Even though I’m putting pressure on your hand, trying to get you to squeeze it back, it’s limp. Your fingers are cold and clammy. I try to rub my thumb across the back of your hand but it sticks to your skin. My cheeks burn. I squeeze gently; as a form of encouragement, a sign of solidarity, an apology, something. Your eyes are unfocused. I want to tell you how sorry I am and how guilty I feel and how awful this situation is and how much you don’t deserve it, but I can’t. If I start to talk then I’ll start to cry and I hate doing that in front of people, especially in front of you. I rarely cry in front of my friends, my parents, so I don’t want to do it in front of the guy who is breaking up with me.
You, the one breaking up with me.
Technically, I started all of this right before Christmas, one night after we’d fucked on the floor and were lying in a pile of clothes and blankets. The button from your jeans was digging into my thigh, but it gave me something to focus on. You had started to fall asleep, but my eyes wouldn’t stay shut and my jaw wouldn’t stop shivering. My flat was always cold and even though you shaped your long limbs to mimic the curves of mine to warm me up, my jaw shuddered. Half-heartedly you pulled a corner of a blanket out from under us to cover our legs, but the rest of it was stuck underneath us like we were an avalanche of rocks. Your arm hung over me, the other under my neck like a headrest, your breath on my hair and your fingers running across my hand. You told me that you were happy to be here in your sleepy, syllable-blurring voice that always used to make me laugh.
All I could think of was how much I wanted to throw up.
It was past midnight and I had to be up early for work, but I still couldn’t sleep. I felt sick to my stomach. The darkness sucked me into its vacuum and it was like I stopped existing for a second. My eyes were wide open and all I could think about was how sick I felt, how sick I felt to my core. It wasn’t the normal kind of sick. No; it was the sickness stemming from guilt and fear that stews inside and churns and churns until I sat bolt upright and said: “there’s something I need to tell you.”
You didn’t really wake at first. You were groggy and tired; you hadn’t slept well the night before. You’d worked all day and fucked me for almost an hour, so now all you wanted to do was sleep. I understood that, but the guilt churning in my stomach did not.
‘What is it?’
You didn’t even sound worried. You just sounded tired and that made it all seem a little bit worse. Your stomach hadn’t even dropped yet. The arm that had been acting as my pillow groped around for my hand, which I offered.
‘You’re going to hate me,’ I said.
I heard your stomach drop, somersault, drain its fluids from where I was sitting. You tore your hand away and I started fiddling and twisting my hair out of habit.
“What is it?”
This time you sounded worried. The seconds ticked by – I don’t know how many – I felt relief knowing that my guilt may soon be alleviated, but I was scared as hell because I was about to hurt you in a way I never thought I would.
“I think I’ve fallen for another guy.”
You rolled away from me, showing me your back. I didn’t know what to do; whether to cry or beg for forgiveness or to try to get some sleep. I saw the questions in your head: unspoken, pressed against your skull, turning your skin pale with dread.
I wished I could take it back or make it untrue; to return the colour to your face and let you sleep in peace on the floor. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know what I wanted. I wanted you and him. I wanted this to not hurt anyone. I wanted this to be over quickly.
With him, we’d been best friends from the first day we’d met. But with you—well—I was still learning how to understand you. When I was with him we never stopped laughing, talking about stupid stuff that I can’t recall, just being with each other. With you, silence played a bigger part in our relationship. He made me laugh; I made you chuckle. He was impressed by my intellect; I was impressed by yours. He understood me. I understood you. There were parallels everywhere. I’m sure they mean something, but it hurts too much to think about it.
I released the breath I’d been holding. You and I looked at the words on the floor, imagining the words “I think I’ve fallen for another guy” scorched into the floorboards, turning them over in our minds.
Minutes on end passed.
The shivering had spread from my jaw to my arms, from my arms to my hands, from my hands to my knees. Usually you would have pulled me close and held me until it stopped, but this time you ignored it. Then you picked up your glasses, cleaned them with a corner of the blanket on the floor, and sat up cross-legged.
It was the first time I noticed your legs as a barrier.
I didn’t know if you hated me, if you were angry, or sad, or jealous, or relieved. I couldn’t tell. You looked at me, puffy eyed and disappointed and you folded your arms across your chest. I was frozen, unable to see through your walls.
“Turn the lights on,” you said.
I flicked them on. “I don’t know what to say,” I resumed my place by your side, a little bit closer this time, “I’m so sorry.”
You looked at me like I’d just told you that two and two make seventeen. “You haven’t said anything.”
I thought I’d said it all.
That was where it began to unravel. I’d thought about how this scenario would go: you’d be angry, then you’d yell, then we’d break up and you’d tell all your friends that I was a mistake and you’d never speak to me again.
But you thought I would pick you over him.
What else was there to do? I was torn. I didn’t want to do the big part, the horrible part, the brave part; I wanted you to make the decision.. If this scenario was flipped around I would have been out the door so fast my shadow would’ve struggled to catch up. Maybe that’s just my inflated sense of pride, or your deflated one.
You stared at me some more. I caved and looked down at the pillow like it was the fucking Mona Lisa. There was a dust ball the size of my fingernail dead in the centre of it, grey and furry, like a stormy cloud. There were a few strands of my hair littered on the surface, so I picked one up and twisted it around my thumb. It snapped, one side broken bigger than the other, lopsided like a seesaw.
“A few weeks ago you tell me that you’re falling for me, and now you’re telling me this? I don’t understand,” you sounded angry and hurt and sad and tired. “I don’t fucking understand.”
I’d never been in this situation before, with someone’s happiness hanging on the end of my choice. It was too much. I’m indecisive; always have been. It was too much. My head grew foggy. It was too much.
“I’m sorry,’ I said, in a voice both nasally and bumpy. ‘I’m so sorry. This is awful, and you deserve better.”
“How long have you been waiting to drop this on me?”
“I didn’t know if I was going to tell you.” I didn’t know if that made it sound worse or better. “I didn’t know what to do. I felt so sick and I couldn’t hide it from you.”
“You need to explain to me what this means.”
Your words vibrated off your tongue. I’d never heard them like that before. I noticed your hands balled into fists at your sides and I wondered, I wondered how you’d become like this. You didn’t feel you like anymore. We’d met in the summer and it was December; there must be a metaphor lurking in the changing of the seasons but it didn’t quite cover the change we went through. You were angry, and you made me feel guilty. I made myself feel guilty, and you made it even worse.
“Things are different with him. There’s this thing between us.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t put it into words,” I said, still twisting my hair like I was trying to go bald. You took one of my hands and placed it on your knee. “I didn’t see this happening. I thought I was done looking when I met you – and I wasn’t looking, not ever – but then I met him and it’s so different.”
“So this is it, then?”
We both knew what you meant.
You stared at me and it made me feel uneasy. Like I was on trial. I think, really, that I was. I looked at the blue and yellow striped wallpaper, at the straightness of the lines that travelled vertically up to the ceiling, then at the ceiling itself. There were cobwebs hanging from the lampshade.
“I don’t know,” I said, closing my eyes. “I don’t see how we can move past this.” The words came like smoke from my mouth and burnt my throat. I was trying to be honest with you. I didn’t know how to tell you that he, ‘The Other Guy’, kept slipping into my head during our conversation.
You were silent and pressed your fingertips into mine like you were trying to fuse them together.
“No,” you said. “I don’t want us to break up. I want us to be together. What we have is special and I’m not giving you up without fighting for you.”
You looked so forlorn and hopeless that I collapsed onto your chest in some form of agreement. I’m not sure when you came to understand that the fight had already been lost. I just never wanted to see that look on your face again. It makes my heart pound a distress signal every time I picture it. It’s the clearest memory I have of you; well, that and our first date. I was telling you about the novel I wanted to write, and it sounded so stupid so I laughed about it, telling you it would be better than I was making it out to be.
“You don’t need to justify yourself to me.” Right then you made the biggest crack in my wall any guy had ever made. You didn’t see it, though. You didn’t look through it even once.
After telling you about him I felt like I needed to constantly apologise to you. We didn’t talk about it again, but I bought dinner, cinema tickets, cookies on my way home from work. The Saturday after that conversation we’d fallen asleep in the afternoon, and I woke up to you rubbing my back with your hands under my shirt. You grew forceful and it felt like you were trying to tear the skin and muscle away from my bones. After you fucked me I went to the bathroom and I cried. My back was raw, my shoulders bruised, scratch marks burned hot on my skin. I think you needed to get the anger out of your system, and I was the one that you thought needed punishment for hurting you. I guess I agreed, otherwise I wouldn’t have let it happen. I don’t know.
I don’t like to think about it.
Later we’ll speak on the phone and I’ll ask you how you’re doing. I’ll tell you that I miss you and you’ll tell me that you miss fucking me. Perhaps that’s all you were really scared of losing.
Throughout the run-up to Christmas and over New Year we acted like nothing was wrong. We pretended that I hadn’t fallen for another guy; you pretended not to notice when he texted me; I pretended that it wasn’t him I thought when you kissed me; we pretended that our situation wasn’t completely fucked up.
Until today, that is.
You’re rubbing that patch on your chest which means you’re thinking, and I know that you’re deliberating what to say next. You’re not a talker. You’ve never been a talker, so I don’t want to interrupt and de-rail your train of thought.
“Everyone kept asking,” you say, your eyes transfixed on the farthest wall, “if I was really set on you. I didn’t care what they thought. It didn’t really matter. I know we didn’t see each other all the time but you didn’t seem to mind, so I didn’t either. I’m completely certain that if we’d spent more time together this wouldn’t have happened.”
“You’re right,” I say, not knowing if I really agree with you.
“We both fucked up thinking that we could maintain this without things changing,” you repeat.
Silence creeps in again. I’m looking at the back of my hand: at the veins and the wrinkles on my knuckles. You’re looking too: at the way my fingernails are unevenly cut with nail polish chipped off the ends. You’re looking at the length of your fingers compared to mine and the different shapes of our nails; I’m looking at the different shades of skin tone, how my skin looks fair compared to yours.
This is it, this is the prime moment to tell you I’m sorry and that I hate myself for how much I’ve hurt you but all I can do is look at our fucking hands like they’re the most important thing in the world. They’re the most important thing in the fucking world.
“I don’t want you to hate me,” I say.
You squeeze my hand.
“I don’t want you out of my life, either.” It’s a big ask, I know, and I regret saying it immediately because you jam your eyes shut, squeezing the bridge of your nose between two fingers. That is the picture of pain right there, right on your face. I can’t bear it anymore. I look at our hands again. Yours has gone limp once more, too heavy for me to hold at such an awkward angle. Your fingers are lying on the back of my hand, motionless, like they belong to a dead person. My eyes burn at the thought of that. I want nothing more than to wish this all away, to make you happy by being with you completely, in giving myself to you and loving you like you deserve to be loved. And I wish I could tell you all of this, articulate it so you might understand that this is hurting me more than I’m letting on, but all I can do is look at our fucking hands.
“I’m so sorry.” And I am, I am.
You sigh, yanking my arm so that I awkwardly clamber over you. You hold me like you still care, and maybe you do but soon you won’t.
“This really isn’t even remotely comfortable,” you say, and roll me slightly to the side.
I laugh. I laugh more than I should, out of nervousness and tiredness and a sudden release from anxiety. You laugh too, but with tears in your eyes. My forehead touches yours. I rub your stubble with my fingers like I usually do, unsure of whether you want me to or not. You’re hard to read, like a book written in a language I’ve never seen before. Like a wall without a door. Cryptic and careful, that’s you.
“I’m sorry.” I’m a record that’s skipping repeatedly. I don’t want you to despise me but I haven’t worked out why. I don’t trust anything that goes through my head. I want you to leave, but I also want you to stay so I can alleviate some of your pain. I’m being selfish. Cryptic and cowardly, that’s me.
“I know,” you say. You don’t look at me.
You close your eyes and tilt your head, pulling mine towards you and then we’re kissing, so softly, almost sweetly. I try to tell you, silently, through the angle of my head and the pressure of my mouth that I am sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I don’t know if you get that or not.
You take me by the hand and lead me to my bedroom. We fuck and it’s nice because we don’t have to talk for a while, but afterwards—when you hold me—it feels so final. I can’t bear to look you in the eye so I take your hand in mine and study it like it’ll crumble the second I look away. You’re looking at me, but my shame prevents me from returning your gaze, so I stare at our hands, press them to my lips, and then stare at them some more. The tears are sliding freely down my cheeks now but I can’t wipe them away because one hand is wrapped in yours with the other beneath your torso, which is warmer than usual and sweaty. I don’t mind. You’re wet, I’m wet; it’s a mess. It’s also kind of nice. You tell me that you don’t hate me, but I don’t quite believe you. I make you promise to call me when you want to talk because I’ll miss you, but I know that you won’t because that’s not how it works.