He could be starving in a desert, and if the wrong person held out a glass of water to him, he’d nod politely and say no, thanks.
I swallow the goiter in my throat. “You can say anything. Whatever you need to.”
He lets out a breath, checks the floor, meets my eyes for barely an instant. “You know how I feel about you,” he says softly, like even as he admits it, it’s still a sort of secret.
“Yes.” My heart has started racing. I think I do. At least I did. But I know how much I hurt him by not thinking through things. I don’t totally understand it, maybe, but I’ve barely started to understand myself, so that’s not all that surprising.
He swallows now, the muscles down the line of his jaw dancing with shadows. “I honestly don’t know what to say,” he replies. “You terrified me. It doesn’t make any sense how quick my mind works with you. One second we’re kissing and the next, I’m thinking about what our grandkids might be named. It doesn’t make sense. I mean, look at us. We don’t make sense. We’ve always known that, Poppy.”
My heart is icing over, veins of cold working their way into its center.
Splitting it in half and me with it.
Now it’s my turn to say his name like a plea, like a prayer. “Alex.” It comes out thick. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
His eyes drop, his teeth worrying over his bottom lip. “I don’t want you to give anything up,” he says. “I want us to just make sense, and we don’t, Poppy. I can’t watch it fall apart again.”
I’m nodding now. For a long time. It’s like I can’t stop accepting it, over and over again. Because this is what it feels like: like I’ll have to spend the rest of my life accepting that Alex can’t love me the way I love him.
“Okay,” I whisper.
He says nothing.
“Okay,” one more time. I tear my eyes from him as I feel the tears encroaching. I don’t want to make him comfort me, not for this. I turn and barrel toward the door, forcing my feet forward, keeping my chin high and my backbone straight.
When I make it to the door, I can’t help myself. I look back.
Alex is still frozen where I left him, and even if it kills me, I have to be honest right now. I have to say something I can’t take back, to stop running and hiding myself from him.
“I don’t regret telling you,” I say. “I said I’d give anything up, risk anything for you, and I meant it.” Even my own heart.
“I love you all the way, Alex,” I say. “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t at least told you.”
And then I turn and step out into the brightly shining sun of the parking lot.
Only then do I really start to cry.
I’M HEAVING. WHEEZING. Splintering as I cross the parking lot.
One hand clamped over my mouth as sobs snap through me, slice and stab in every sharp little corner of my lungs.
It’s both hard to keep moving and impossible to stop. I’m power walking to my parents’ car, then leaning against it, head bowed, horrible sounds coming out of me, snot dripping down my face, the blue of the sky and its fluffy cumulous clouds and the rustling trees alongside the parking lot all turning into a summery blur, the whole world melting into a swirl of color.
And then there’s a voice, spread thin by the breeze and the distance. It’s coming from behind me, obviously it’s his, and I don’t want to look.
I think one more look at him might be the tipping point, the thing that breaks my heart forever, but he’s saying my name.
“Poppy!” Once. Then again. “Poppy, wait.”
I shove all the emotions down. Not to ignore them. Not to deny them, because it almost feels good to feel something so purely, to know without question what it is my body’s experiencing. But because these are my feelings, not his. Not something for him to swoop in and shoulder, like he does almost compulsively.
I wipe my hands across my face and make myself breathe normally as I listen to his steps scuffing over asphalt. I turn as he’s slowing from a jog, taking his last steps at a determined but casual pace until he stops, closing me in between the van and himself.
There’s a lull before he speaks, a pause that’s just for our breathing.
After another second of silence, he says, “I started seeing a therapist too.”
Despite myself, I give a phlegmy laugh at the idea that he’s chased me down just to say this. “That’s good.” I wipe at my face with the heel of my hand.
“She says . . .” He rakes his hands through his hair. “She thinks I’m afraid to be happy.”
Why is he telling me this? one voice says in my head.
I hope he never stops talking, another says. Maybe we can keep talking forever. Maybe this conversation can span our entire lives, the way our text messages and phone calls seemed to for all those years.
I clear my throat. “Are you?”
He looks at me for a long moment, then gives the smallest shake of his head. “No,” he says. “I know if I got on a plane with you back to New York, I would be so fucking happy. For as long as you’d have me, I’d be happy.”
Again that kaleidoscopic swirl of colors blurs across my vision. I blink the tears back.
“And I want that so badly. I do regret every chance I missed to tell you how I felt, all the times I convinced myself I’d lose you if you really knew, or that we were too different. I want to just be happy with you. But I’m afraid of what comes after.” His voice cracks.
“I’m afraid of you realizing I bore you. Or meeting someone else. Or being unhappy and staying. And . . .” His voice catches. “I’m afraid of loving you for our entire lives, and then having to say goodbye. I’m afraid of you dying, and the world feeling useless. I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep getting out of bed if you’re gone, and if we had kids, they’d have these horrible lives where their amazing mom is gone, and their dad can’t look at them.”