She met him when neither of them could stand to be alone. They remedied this by getting together. Now they’re face to face and he’s trying to tell her how now he can’t seem to be with anyone. The tightrope walk between being available and being alone is an act he’s made his own. Acrobats carry a pole across that wire. He traverses with wit and charm. He breaks the cardinal rule that you must never look down.
She looks at his face as he speaks, as he nervously fidgets until his fingers find the plastic wheel to flip through the options on the table-side jukebox. She wouldn’t go so far as to say he didn’t look a day older than he had the last time she’d seen him, but it was hard to believe that several years passed since then. Deeper smile lines, that’s all. Micro chasms marking the fluency in his facial expressions presented for the people he’d met since they parted ways. Were any of those smiles about her?
He finally punches in a combination of letter and numbers and looks back to her. He’s trying to explain himself. Not that he’s guilty of anything, he just wants her to know who he is now. So he begins to tell her and she doesn’t stop him even though she is certain she already knows of every bean he is about to spill.
She knows how he is trying to stay single, but that he is magnetic and that being alone requires just as much effort as if he was in a relationship. She knows he is always trying to save face. She knows when he talks, he makes you feel like you are the only girl in a crowded room and she knows that when you get up to go and someone else takes the seat at his side, they will feel that way, too. She knows it’s not his intention (but of this he’s fully aware) that all this charged conversation makes it less easy for you to not care. She knows he will tell them, with disclaimers so precise and dignified they would think he studied law, that “us” will never come of “this” (then he does a hand motion between your bodies to illustrate, one she’s seen before), and all he asks is that you don’t try, don’t hope, don’t say he didn’t warn you. He thinks that will help keep clear air. She knows these words come from his head and not his heart and that there was a time when she spoke the same words to him. She knows the opposite effect those words tend to have. Her logic didn’t work on him. How could his work on them?
She knows what they think, even if they don’t say it, about him.
It is so unfair! Surely he doesn’t mean this. Who, how, why would a man like this opt for such a lonely existence? Surely I am the one who is different. He, the handsome prince harboring a dark, tormenting secret; I, the princess in waiting. Is it not he who will make a princess of me? Fairy tale mentality is alive, whether the mousey vault is open or shut.
She knows it better than he knows it, of that she is sure.
He does not wish to condemn the ideal, but the ideal has drained him of more than he ever wanted to give. Temperance of permanence, the unconscious battle plan he’s come to live by, it keeps him just within the blast radius for when things go awry, but at a safe enough distance where he will walk away with only superficial wounds to which he can tend on his own. The wall of mortar, brick, and stone he’s cast around his heart is a paradoxical palace. From it he sends mounted scouts out on ventures of necessary socialization, only to return with happy maidens nipping at the hooves of their frustrated horses. The drawbridge closes and they are left to turn back from whence they came.
She knows, being the last one who truly held his heart, that he is not the man she or any before her loved. He’s kept himself apart. He’s denied himself through the others he’s denied. Each new place he travels to he must start this all again.
He tells her to trust him, dear, the wondering goes both ways. He knows he has missed out. Missed out with her. Missed out on the possibility to begin a life, to discover his life, with that of another. Each falling feels the same. It’s a wonder he opens his mouth anymore.
Can he help it?
She listens as he tells her how a former love asked him if he’d corrupted any hearts lately. He says it was a crushing blow, the way her words fell on the temple he’d built within himself. His breath stood still in his throat. He knew the answer was no, but all he could do was lower his eyes from hers. Those words, so crushing because he was young and wrong and she is, after all these years, still pained by the hurt he caused in her. Crushing because they both still suffer silently. How many others do? he wonders with a wonder than never ceases.
It looks, to many, that he is at fault. The nice one (“too nice,” they’ll eventually say when they realize he’s not going to be claimed by them), who smiles at them, who listens to them, and throws back the sassy flirtation they throw at him, and who cannot stop being that way. He isn’t that way just to them. He is that way to everyone. Every girl he talks to is the only girl in the room. His ways do not change; they become disillusioned.
She sits there, her turn to choose a song on the jukebox, and waits to address the silence from the machine. She hears him tell her that easy love has a sour taste, a taste he knows all too well. She knows this, too.
She clears her throat and she speaks. You are the only person you can control. Hope is real. Love is real. I know you know that is true. Hold out for those. You’ll never get further than where you’ve been if all you’re doing with the doors presented you is kicking them shut. Walk through one of them. You never know what you’ll see when you step through.
He sits back in the booth and the smile lines deepen yet another degree. An answer was to be found somewhere between his apathy and her conviction. He thanked her by lifting his coffee mug and clinking it against hers.
Okay, let’s talk about something else, he said.