This story is by Christy Shelsy and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Julie, this is Timothy. Timothy, Julie.”
Matt stepped out of the way after making introductions. But regardless of names, I caught myself thinking WHO.IS.THIS??
Electric and immediate, it was my one and only love at first sight. As enchanted as I was, I tried playing it cool.
“Hi. What’s uh…what’s going on with your beer bottle?”
“I can’t get the cap off…”
He struggled with the bottle opener and had chipped off part of the glass.
“Um, that’s a Rolling Rock. It’s a twist off. Here.”
I smiled as I took the bottle and carefully removed the lid. He smiled back.
“Pansy-ass beer bottle. What kind of crap is that?”
We laughed about it. It wasn’t that funny but if both of our heads were on fire we’d have found something to laugh about together, something to share in this nerve-wracking, chemical, magical new territory we’d embarked upon. His candor was macho, but his eyes told a different story. Two ice blue wells that ran deep.
We fumbled through the small talk a bit.
“Oh I just graduated from TSU in the spring. You?”
“I just finished, well, a couple years ago in ’98. Here at UT. I’m only here for one more week.”
“I teach English overseas. Japan this time.”
Intrigue and a touch of disappointment set in, but still…he was some kind of gorgeous. Maybe the best kind. It wasn’t just his eyes, though they held the promise of adventure. It was his cadence, his voice, his gestures, his…everything.
It was getting late. Soon enough there were just three of us-myself, Timothy, and his best friend Jose sitting on the floor around Matt’s coffee table. Timothy and I went on and on about our favorite bands, albums, literature, and authors. So many of our passions overlapped and the excitement of finding such a kindred spirit created sparks. Add “Devastatingly Handsome” to the list and the sparks created fire. In no time, Jose became background noise and he seemed to sense as much.
“Timothy,” he gave Timothy a giant grin. “I will catch you later. Call me tomorrow, OK?”
With Jose out of the picture, I became brave and did something completely out of character. I got my purse, retrieved the yellow journal I always carried, and shared my prose and poetry with Timothy. Up until this point, I’d always been highly secretive, even protective of my writings. My nerves were a wreck and I wound up chain-smoking the pack of Camels on the table.
There came a natural break in our conversation and reading together when I reached again for the lighter and pack.
I looked at him confused.
“Yeah, you um..” He tried to hide a smile. “You smoked like the last ten. We’re out.”
“Oh gosh. I’m so sorry.”
“No, no. It’s fine. Let’s just go walk down the hill and get more at the gas station.”
I welcomed the thought of some fresh air. But more importantly I welcomed a walk with him in the dark, crisp fall night.
We spent the following three days almost entirely together. We took long hikes in the daytime, welcoming the brisk air that was upon us. We crushed yellow leaves and walked hand in hand. I showed him the hidden caves I’d discovered on the greenbelt. He took me to some of his favorite restaurants he’d frequented in his college days, mostly dives.
He stayed nights with me, too, and though we were intimate, I could not give myself fully to him.
“I just…um…” I sputtered awkwardly as things were heating up. “I..I can’t do this all the way”
“Yeah. I just can’t. I mean, you’re going away and I really can’t do things this way. I’m sorry.”
My eyes pleaded with him as my heart ached. It was so fast and new, yet I’d never been so sure of my feelings for someone before.
“Don’t be. It’s really OK.” He brushed the hair away from my face. “I like it. It’s delayed gratification.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the waiting…it’s good to wait, to save things. It makes it better in the end.”
It was Fall again and two years had passed. Dozens of handwritten letters, gift packages, and precisely assembled mix CDs floated over vast seas between us. An invitation to visit him in Okinawa, declined. The postcard, in part, had read: “You should come see me. The beaches are beautiful and you’ll drive all the Japanese boys crazy.”
But by now, Japan had come and gone. This Fall he was in Korea and he’d gotten himself a Korean girlfriend. This, however, did nothing to stop our epistolary relationship. In giddy anticipation I’d check the mail, always looking forward to his letters. We’d include the general updates. He’d write about his teaching job and his sightseeing adventures. I shared some of my more colorful stories and encounters I had as a social worker. But between the lines of news, there were always the underpinnings of a mutual longing.
Like a school girl, I’d lie in my bed reading and re-reading his letters, particularly the sweet parts in which he opened up a bit. In writing to him I often felt like I needed to include plenty of day-to-day tales to cushion the little pieces of my heart—the tiny confessions and phrases of affection I sent his way. I made hiding spaces for them, tucking them neatly amidst anecdotes.
Then one day in September I drove over to Matt’s apartment to return some CDs I’d borrowed and he mentioned Timothy was in town.
Simultaneous excitement and disappointment hit me.
“Yeah he’s staying with Jose.”
It stung, knowing he’d travelled halfway across the world, was within miles of me, and hadn’t even let me know.
“Oh. OK,” I said looking down, pretending to fiddle with the zipper on my jacket. “Alright. I’ll see you later.”
I started for the door, determined to get out before the tears came.
I stood at the door, hand on the knob and my back to him.
“I was going to call you. Jason and Nora are coming over tonight to have some beers. I told Jose and Timothy they should come over, too. I told them you’d probably be here.”
“OK. Maybe I’ll see ya’ll then. It depends on work.”
It was a lie to save face. If I’d gotten off at 3 a.m. I’d go wherever he was.
After work I headed home to change. Digging through my closet I found the yellow floral, embroidered Mexican shirt we’d bought together on our road trip to Nuevo Laredo the past summer. I never wore yellow, but I’d bought it knowing it was his favorite color. Pulling it over my head, I went into the bathroom.
“What kind of idiot am I?”
I asked my own reflection in the vanity mirror. Washing my face, I reviewed the facts: We’ve been writing and sending gifts for two years. We’ve been on day trips, road trips every time he’s here on breaks. But now there’s this girlfriend. And now he’s here without even telling me.
With a clean face I looked again at my reflection. Idiot, for sure. Nevertheless, I got dressed. Pretty, but not too pretty. I didn’t want to look like I was trying that hard. I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to impress him, which of course I was.
Resigned to my vulnerability, I drove over. Matt answered the door and across the room I saw him. Our eyes met and he smiled but I turned to exchange niceties with Nora instead. My emotions were all mixed up. He’d always had that effect on me, though. Pride kept me standing still.
After less than a minute of small talk with Nora, I felt a hand on the small of my back.
Turning toward him, I placed myself in a half-embrace I wasn’t ready for. I pulled away.
“Come outside with me?”
Confused and flustered, I followed him out to the porch.
“You weren’t even going to call me?”
He looked at me in a way that made me forget everything. He didn’t answer, instead he pulled me close. He started to kiss me but then just held me instead. I pulled back and looked up at him, pushing against his arms.
Then I saw it in his face.
“You love her, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do.” He answered softly without letting me go.
I smiled at him as the tears came down fast. This time I didn’t care if anyone saw. I let him hold me one more time as the wind kicked up and blew the leaves around. The chill in the air meant the end of the season. Watching them, I noticed that the only yellow ones were now mottled with brown.