He came to me one day a year after he disappeared. I was reading a sci-fi novel at my favourite cafe and didn’t look up until he cleared his throat. He could have been standing there for twenty minutes for all I knew.
When I saw his face again, unchanged other than having lost its charming boyish quality, my heart stopped. It took me a few minutes, looking at him look at me with questions in his eyes, to remember to breathe. He was waiting for something. Always the gentlemen, I guessed he was waiting to be invited to sit down.
This is when my thoughts kicked back in, rushing into my synapses and through my neurons faster than my blood had curled up into my torso to cradle my startled heart. Memories of the last time I saw this man clouded everything else. I stood up with a little too much force, walked up to him, put both of my hands on his shoulders and pushed hard.
He had braced for this. His legs were strong and steady, but he let the passion of my long unspent anger sink his upper body back. He didn’t fight me. He never fought me.
Though I had imagined pushing him again and again for more than three hundred days, the thing I was most afraid of started to happen. He searched for something in my eyes that he didn’t find, bowed his head and turned to walk away.
Every capillary in my lungs constricted. I reached out for his shoulder, struggling for air, this time to pull him back. I wanted to tell him that I still love him, that I had not been able to stop thinking about him or why he left, that I needed to know in order to let him go. But I also wanted to ask if he ever loved me, if he ever thought about me, and those were the questions that scared me the most.
I couldn’t speak. When he turned around, he seemed to find what he had been looking for in my eyes, because he gestured for me to sit, and then he took a seat across from me.
“How’ve you been, Claire?”
I shook my head. If I could speak, I would have said, miserable.
My tongue felt thick and my teeth sunk so deeply into the inside of my cheek I tasted blood. I could barely look at him, waiting for him to chastise me for my uncontrolled anger. I was surprised to hear the gentle tone of his voice and something that I swore sounded like regret when he spoke again.
“Claire, I hope you’ve been well.”
Oh God, I thought, what did he come here for? Did he hear something? Does he know I’ve been miserable? Does he think it’s all his fault and he feels guilty or something? What does he want?
I looked up at him, trying to figure out why he was here without asking any questions. But with my guard down, looking into his eyes only brought me back to the pain. Hot tears came quickly to my eyes and spilled over without notice. I was horrified. I put my face in my hands and sobbed. The last thing I wanted to do in front of this man was cry.
He came over and knelt beside me, holding onto my arm until the sobs subsided. When I had wiped my cheeks and my nose, I looked down at him, surprised to see that his eyes were wet with emotion.
He cleared his throat. “Are you okay?”
I shook my head.
“Are you going to talk to me?”
“Why are you even here?”
“I don’t know.”
I whispered, too ashamed to speak out loud. “I don’t understand what happened.”
What I really wanted to say was, Why don’t you love me?
He sighed, stood up, and went back to his seat across the table. “It’s complicated.”
I thought back to the last weekend we had spent together. On Sunday morning, Gene woke me up by kissing me on the forehead. He had a huge smile on his face but his eyes were darkened with thought and melancholy. I didn’t think anything of it, because his eyes were often dark with something. He told me that I had said “I love you” in my sleep. I remember feeling naked and embarrassed. It was something I had felt for a while, but I knew he wasn’t ready to hear it, so I kept it to myself. I was worried that if I said it out loud, he wouldn’t say it back. I didn’t think he loved me yet, but I was hoping that he would soon. And then it was out there and I didn’t know what to do. I put my head under his pillow and pulled his sheets all the way over my head.
Gene had come under the pillow with me, brushed my hair away from my face and said, “Hey, it’s okay.”
His smile gave me the assurance I needed to be okay with blurting it out like that in my sleep. But I got caught up in wondering how he felt about me. He didn’t say how he felt. I didn’t ask. I figured since it was out there now, asking him how he felt would be too pushy.
That morning he had made me breakfast in bed. We made love until late afternoon and then I had a nap. When I woke again it was dark. He wanted to go for a walk. We walked hand-in-hand through the city streets on a warm August evening. We stopped in at bookstores and record stores and then ended up in a pub with a live band. I don’t remember the band’s name. They weren’t all that great. But it was too loud to talk, so we enjoyed the atmosphere together. The longer I sat there beside him with his arm wrapped around my shoulder, the more I wondered how he felt about me. We stayed out late, even though we both had to work the next day.
When we got back to his apartment, I curled up beside him, letting the quiet of the space bring me back from the noise of the pub. And that’s when he told me that he was leaving.
“What?” I had said, stunned. “Where are you going?”
“I have a job in New York.”
I was in shock. He hadn’t mentioned it at all before this, so he clearly wasn’t interested in my opinion. There I had been, building up this future for us in my head the whole six months we had been together, and there he was, making decisions to move to a different country without even talking to me about it. The reality of how far apart we had been without my being able to see it hit me hard. I got angry.
“What the fuck, Gene?” I pushed away from him and stood in front of him. “When are you leaving?”
“The job starts in two weeks.”
“Jesus Christ, are you fucking serious?” My hands stabbed wildly through the air. “And how long have you known that you had this job?”
He looked down. “Six weeks.”
“Six fucking weeks? And you’re just telling me this now?”
He stood up and took my arms in his hands at my wrists. “Claire, I’m sorry.”
“Really, you’re sorry? That’s what you have to say? “Hey girl I’ve been fucking for six months now, I’m fucking leaving you, I’ve known for six weeks and I’m sorry.’ That’s all you got?”
He shook his head softly and let go of my wrists.
I was furious. I was angry with him for keeping it from me, for not giving a shit about my opinion, for not thinking twice about leaving me, for letting me tell him that I loved him without telling me how he felt, for the fact that he just fucking stood there shrugging like it wasn’t up to him at all, like it hadn’t been his decision, completely shirking all responsibility.
Fucking typical, I thought.
And the more I thought about it, the angrier I got and the less he spoke.
“You don’t give a shit about me. You never did. I was just a fuck to you.”
My voice rose with frustration as he didn’t respond to that. He just stood there with his head down. Maybe he was waiting for me to calm down, maybe he was embarrassed by my behaviour, I didn’t know. But the way he shut me out set me off. I needed him to see me. I needed him to say something. I needed him to want to explain what the fuck was happening.
“Are you going to say anything?” I screamed.
He shook his head.
I pushed him hard against his shoulders. He wasn’t expecting it because I had never done anything like that before. He stumbled backward and almost tripped over the overstuffed leather chair in his living room before catching himself.
His voice was stern, but there was absolutely no violence in his eyes. “Claire, that’s not okay. You need to stop acting out of control. I know you’re angry and shocked, but – “
“But nothing, Gene. Fuck you.”
I gathered my stuff and left.
He didn’t call me or come over to my apartment or by my work ever again. He left it like that. He was gone two weeks later.
And here he was today, one year later, back in the city. I knew his being here wasn’t a coincidence. So he must have come with something in mind. But what?
“I’m sorry I pushed you,” I said.
“I guess I deserved it.”
“It just didn’t make any sense the way you left.”
“The way I left?”
“Uhm, ya, the way you fucking left the city without even saying goodbye.”
“Claire, you said goodbye to me the night I told you I was leaving.”
“No I didn’t. I didn’t say goodbye. I was hurt and angry that you made this huge decision to leave without even asking me how I felt about it. I loved you, Gene. And you left the country two weeks after you knew that I loved you.”
He looked up at me. “I knew you loved me before that.”
“You’d been saying it in your sleep for almost two months.”
“So why didn’t you say anything before?”
“I didn’t want to embarrass you or force you to say something before you were ready.”
“But you said something the last day we were together.”
“Oh, Claire, I knew it was hard for you to say stuff like that, but my job in New York kind of pushed things forward.”
“Pushed things forward as in pushed you to push me to know that you knew?”
He shrugged. “In a way, I guess.”
My eyes teared up again. “That was cruel. Telling me that you knew how I felt but not telling me how you felt. Why would you do anything like that? What’s wrong with you?”
“You didn’t actually ever tell me how you felt about me. You let it slip in your sleep. And when I told you that I heard it, I was hoping it would give you the courage to say it out loud to me.”
“Because I wanted you to be ready.”
“Me? Ready for what?”
He took a deep breath. “Ready to open up to me, to feel safe enough to be vulnerable with me.”
“You didn’t think it would be easier for me to open up if you had opened up to me?”
“Listen, you don’t know this about me, but in most of my past relationships, I’ve been the one to open up too soon and it’s always ended in pain.”
“So you were scared.”
“Yes, I can see that now.”
“And you let that fear keep us apart when you knew that I loved you?”
“I never really saw it that way.”
“Well, that’s exactly what happened. If you had told me how you actually felt, none of this would have happened.”
“Really, what would have happened if I told you how I felt.”
“Well, honestly, I don’t know. I don’t even know how you felt.”
“I loved you, Claire.”
I rolled my eyes, anger rising up in me. “And you knew that for sure then?”
“Aha!” I jabbed a finger at him. “You’re making it sound like it was all me, all my fears of being vulnerable, but you didn’t even know enough about how you felt to fucking say it to me when you knew it was how I felt. Don’t pin this shit on me. You left. And you didn’t know how you felt about me. Admit it.”
“It’s not you I wasn’t sure about, Claire. It was never you.”
“I don’t get it, Gene. What does that mean?”
“It was love itself that I wasn’t sure I could believe in.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I hope it never makes sense to you.”
I closed my eyes.
“Do you realise that today is the first time you’ve told me that you love me?”
“At least you got to hear me say it for weeks. What did I get to hear from you?”
“You’re still angry.”
“Of course I am! I feel so fucking ripped off.”
“Why do you feel ripped off?”
I took a deep breath. “I wanted you to love me.”