Will was holding out an unsleeved coffee cup, face full of pleasantries and ease. This was her first time meeting Will. Will, who was a middle school teacher with an exuberant, wide smile and a faded purple scar above his right collarbone. Will had ordered a matcha latte, not coffee. She insisted on paying, so he had contributed generously to the tip jar. He was gingerly uncovering his drink now - setting aside the lid bearing tufts of green foam.
“This is too sweet,” Will said after taking a sip.
She retorted with something about liquid cane sugar, how everything always comes sweet - the sort of reply that would procure a polite chuckle. It came out of her mouth in a blurb, slipped between her teeth without her mind’s notice.
It was spring but deceivingly cold and windy. The kind of wind that would make your ears burn. She vaguely recalls it being sunnier out that very morning. But that was so long ago. She can’t quite remember at all.
She didn’t even want to sit outside, you see. It was a Saturday, and there were people around, cars revolving endlessly through the drive-thru. Faces. When talking with Will, she played into the animation just in case of passing eyes. Tried to flash a smile that matched his warm posture, a smile that would look good in a photograph. Posing without actually stopping to pose. Reaching for her hair when the wind stirred it—smiling while she was thinking—smiling at nothing. Her smile felt like pins in her cheeks.
Will was assiduous in conversation, a master at skirting silences. Where he was open and earthy, she was callous and distant. And, she was cold - her decision to order an iced drink quickly mocked her. Every time the wind picked up, her posture heaved inward, hands balled beneath her sleeves. She almost asked to hold his drink. So she could smell the sweet steam—warm her hands. Refraining from doing so felt the most decisive exercise of control all day.
Will and she had so much in common. He knew all of her favorite shows and books, providing prompt after prompt about subjects she could talk about for hours. Unguarded. But it happened again - a stream of hot words in succession that seemed to come from a different part of her. Even as her mind formed sentences, she was also hidden. Trapped. Behind her eyes. Simultaneously aware of the feeling that she wasn’t speaking at all. Will did not know this. How could he? Will had brought books for her. The kind with auburn pages and wrinkly spines - paragraphs that beheld the marks of many owners. Will was full of this longing, this procedural giving that felt obtrusive rather than charming to her. He represented all the simple goodness, the simple expectations, the way a relationship is supposed to move from inception to intimacy. All of which fell flat at her feet.
More than half an hour had passed, and Will was still holding the same overly-sweetened latte. She had barely touched hers. Will was in the latter half of his 20’s now, with a studio apartment she didn’t even want to see. It was always better to leave things to the deviance of imagination. He was an ordained minister, she learned, which seemed to explain a lot.
At some point, she felt her stomach catch and coolness rush to her head. She fell straight out of the moment. Sick. Will was talking. Will was talking about his past relationships. She didn’t catch any of it. Will was talking, and she was falling. She reached for her phone and started staring at anything, just skimming over words. She was tapping and swiping while he was talking. She went to Google Maps and typed in her address. She was 20 minutes away. Where was the nearest hospital? She knew sitting here it would never pass. She would live and die in this moment.
But men are always so bad at partings. She’d had too many craned neck kisses, too many prolonged doorstep conversations - chapped-lipped heavy silences. Will was better obliged because she forced it upon him. Will had nothing to do but accept it. Abruptly insisting on leaving, she spewed blank apologies. Will quickly went and got her those books (those old books with the auburn pages and the wrinkled spines). She didn’t even look to see what car he drove. She wished he’d never handed the books over. It felt like a trap. A way to ensure she’d one day return them, that she’d have to see him again. In parting, Will hugged her. She felt his hand graze over her spine twice.
Her car was stuffy. She longed for her mother. A gloved hand, even. A doctor who would ask her easy questions until she became assured of where she was. The inexplicability of the situation was paralyzing. She thought about the grotesque joy she would achieve from keeping it a secret. From pushing Will away.
There was someone behind her eyes, you see. Hands tightly on the reigns. Her own knuckles were white now - at 10 and 2. She pulled away quickly, testing her luck in reverse. It was a Saturday; there were a lot of people. She drove home floating. Ruined. Staring at the different outlined heads in the vehicles in front of her. Overwhelmed by this feeling that she could crash the car and nothing would happen.
Two days later, the books were still in her car. She had tucked them under the backseat. Will only texted. Never called. She tried to feign illness to buy time. But the way she watched her hands move in front of her as if watching a movie... It felt like a curse, not a symptom. Will would never understand this. Will wanted to take her to dinner. Thai food. Another box to tick off. Will wanted to marry people. He wanted to build a life systematically. While she continuously reminded herself of the pain exacerbated by things drawn out. She preferred every past experience of romantic spontaneity, even though they all faded out brusquely. She loved that they were unfulfilled. That they came and went with lucidity and ease. Mementos. Untethered.
The hardest pill to swallow was that a person who doesn’t feel like a person can never fall in love. This was not a wounding reality to her. To her, it resounded in the same almost beautiful idea: I was created to observe. In fact, the greatest wound came from the potentiality of hurt that her mere presence could cause in the experiences of others - the words that came pouring out unwittingly on default, the smiles made for passerby glances, the whole temporary act. The potentiality that Will would call one day, and she’d have to explain it in an abruptness mirroring that cold afternoon parting. She would lie to him again. She would lie to mercifully kill the prospect of one day having to say, “I don’t even remember meeting you.”
Cheers to a burden made stationary.