He was late. He was always late. It was the one thing she could count on. But, today he was early. It wouldn’t be until later she would find out he was working up the strength to endure what he knew was coming. He doesn’t offer a verbal greeting as she makes her way through the restaurant. Instead, he waves and slides a book across the table to where her place will be. He isn’t smiling.
“Finished it last night,” He grunts, crossing his arms across his chest. She doesn’t look at his eyes. She nods, smiling weakly and trying her best not to glance at the happy couple on the cover. Even more so, she tries not to think about how that will no longer be them.
“What made you decide on now?” He questions. She shrugs, brushing off his question and picking up her menu. She looks at it intently, as if it is the most interesting thing in the world to her. She can feel his gaze on her, she can feel her heart quivering in her chest.
“Know what you are getting?” Her words come out far shakier than intended. She curses herself for sounding hurt. After all, the avoidance of hurt was the only reason she was putting herself through this.
“Yeah,” He answers. That one word cuts straight into her. She thought she knew what she wanted when she asked him to meet, could she have been wrong?
“Well I’m not sure yet.” She forces a little smile, putting on her best face. She leans against the wall to her left, needing some kind of support. He had been her rock and now she was pulling him out from under her. She was becoming her own undoing.
“There’s so much to choose from.” He opens up his own menu, sensing her discomfort. He didn’t like to see her hurt. They had something, no matter how fleeting. They both would cherish it and he didn’t want it to end so badly.
Eventually she settles on a side salad, knowing she wouldn’t be able to stomach much after their words. He looks at her funny, knowing she always has a heavy appetite for someone so petite. She blushes, mumbling something about not being very hungry.
“You know I care about you,” He offers up after they order.
“I know. I care about you too, that’s why I think this is best.” She takes a sip from her water. She’s already downed two glasses, but it gives her a break from looking busy.
“I guess I saw it coming. You want big things. You want New York and the world.” He smiles, knowing some day she will have it. That’s something he admired in her, her ambition.
“Even if I stay in Texas, who’s to say you will? You could go to grad school anywhere after next year.” She sighs, trying to be the rational one. Even if she was younger, she was always the voice of reason in their relationship. Maybe that was her problem, putting everything into logic and pushing feelings aside. It was going to cause her major trouble one of these days.
“I’d like to stay friends,” She blurts out, knowing it’s what no one ever wants to hear. Still, she needs something to cling to besides memories.
“We can do that,” He breathes, despite his whole brain screaming at him it was insane. He still cared about her, being friends would kill him. It would be better to stay as far away as possible, rip the band aid off. It was one thing to never see her again. It was another to have her in his grasp, but let her slip through his fingers right in front of him. If they stayed friends, could he stand by and watch her fall for another?
Their food comes and they each silently take a bite. The young girl scrunches up her nose, regretting ordering a wilted salad. Of course, she was regretting a lot of things at the moment. The salad was the least of her worries.
“I don’t think anyone could ever eat this entire sandwich,” He jokes, pushing his plate towards her. He notices how she is just picking at her salad, barely touched it at all. In fact, she has never ordered a salad in the entirety of their jumbled up relationship, it didn’t make sense for her to order one now.
“I’ll just take a fry,” She whispers, grabbing the smallest one from the top. She didn’t want to share things with him anymore, but she wasn’t about to let so much food go to waste. She takes a bite, but the mere idea of it makes her sick to her stomach. She doesn’t take another.
Somehow, they manage to steer the conversation into mindless chatter. They talk of graduations and of grandparents and of sports and of books. They strategically dance around the subject that had brought them there.
“Here’s the bill.” The waitress smiles at the couple, unaware of their tension. She hands it to the boy, not knowing what it will cause.
“I’ve got mine,” The girl offers, already reaching for her wallet. The man stops her, shaking his head.
“Let me get it.” He frowns. It is his last chance to pay for her and he wants to hold on to that tiny shred of hope as long as possible. She quietly thanks him, knowing he would, despite her protests. It was the entire reason she had ordered the salad, it was the cheapest item available. She had already taken so much from him, she didn’t want to take a penny more.
“Don’t worry,” He adds, shrugging his shoulders. “I just won’t consider this a date.”
His words are monotone, but she knows there’s bitterness hidden underneath. Somehow, they hurt her. He didn’t say things like that, in fact he barely said much at all. Neither of them did. Maybe that’s why they worked so well, maybe that’s why they didn’t. Tears blur her vision and she tries her best to blink them away.
“What are you thinking about?” He asks her, catching her off guard.
“Nothing,” She lies before sighing. “Actually, everything.”
“What do you mean by that?” He questions, not quite understanding. He never could comprehend the pain she felt over things. He kept his emotions to the minimum, but she felt everything.
“Everything is just jumbled in my mind, blurring together all at once,” She tries to explain, gesturing with her hands. It amazes her how much her brain can handle to contemplate, and how rapidly it does it. She thinks about him, about the guys before, and who could come in her future. It’s hard to imagine a future where he isn’t with her, but she tells herself it is best. A single droplet of water falls from her eyes and unto the table.
“What are you thinking about?” She forces a small, looking up. She hated attention, she needed it off of her.
That one word undoes her. It takes every fiber in her being not to grab her purse and sprint right out the door. She curses herself for falling for him, she knew his charm would always get her. She can feel his gaze on her, but she doesn’t look up. If she looked at him, she would change her mind right then and there.
“Should we go?” She asks, ignoring his last effort at winning her over. He tries to hide the disappointment in his face.
“If you’re ready.” He folds the receipt carefully, placing it in his wallet. It would be months before he finally took it out.
“I’m ready,” She answers, even though she isn’t. She never will be. She gets up and he trails behind. An elder couple smiles at the pair, unaware of what has just happened. To everyone else, they were just another couple on a date. They were happy, there was no heartbreak between them. When she exits, he doesn’t hold the door for her like he always has before. The tension in the situation has caused him to forget his southern charm.
“Where’d you park?” She asks, turning to face him. Her eyes focus on the to-go box in his hands.
“Over there.” He gestures to the left.
“Oh,” She sighs. “I’m the other way.”
Inside, she’s laughing at the irony. She was a writer and she lived for this stuff. They had fallen for each other when he walked her to her car after work. In fact, it took her weeks to realize he was parking near her on purpose. Now, now she would walk alone. They would go their separate ways not just to their cars, but in life as well.
There’s a tension hanging between them and he wonders for a moment if he should kiss her one last time. She sees it on his face, clear as day, and wonders if she will let him. After all, she owed him at least that much. But, he was never one to make the first move. She was the one that instigated the first kiss; she was the one that instigated their meeting today. Trying to hold herself together, she pulls him in for a hug, burying her face in his chest.
“Don’t be a stranger,” She whispers, smelling the scent of his familiar cologne once more. “Call me at least.”
He rubs her back gently, holding her there. He wants nothing more than to scoop her up in his arms and make everything better again, but he knows it’s no longer his place. Instead, he offers her up the only comfort he can.
“I will,” He promises, the words hanging between them. It’s not ‘I Love You’, but it’s the closest they will ever get.
She didn’t want love, so she pushed it away. She breaks away from his hold, turning on her heels. Tears are falling freely down her face now. She doesn’t turn around and look back at him, as she knows he will do, but stares straight ahead. She walks into her future and doesn’t look back, leaving him behind in her wake.