We stopped at his apartment on our way to the book launch because he’d forgotten his jacket. Even though we’d been hanging out for almost six months, I’d never been to his place. And I got the feeling he didn’t want me to come up, but I was curious so I said I had to use the bathroom.
What struck me most about the way he lived was that everything was neat and coordinated. His books were organized alphabetically by genre. He had some rare book covers blown up and displayed in beautiful frames on the wall. There were also some album covers displayed the same way. His taste in visual art heavily favoured local artists. I wondered if any of the work was his own. In his kitchen, clear containers were filled with legumes and pasta and cereal separated by shape and colour. He had a small spice garden in his window.
When I opened the medicine cabinet, I felt guilty, but my interest was larger than the momentary pink in my cheeks. His cabinet was filled with regular stuff – shaving cream, razor, aftershave, electric toothbrush. I went a step further, looking in the cabinet under the sink, and I got a shock. I barely noticed the toilet paper and cleaning supplies. I saw the large box of condoms and the small box of tampons.
Oh. He’d never given an indication that he was dating anyone. And there were no other signs of a woman in his apartment. I knew he’d left a relationship before he had moved here, so the tampons were not a relic from his life with her.
When I walked back through his place, I tried to walk slowly and take in anything I might have missed, but he was impatient. I got the impression that he knew I’d seen something he didn’t want me to see.
Frank was a private person and I respected that. I was starting to fall in love with him and I didn’t want to do anything that would make him run. So, I accepted him as he was, as he was willing to give himself to me, without questioning the parts of his life he carefully left out of our conversations. But the tampons and the condoms made me wonder exactly what he was getting from our relationship.
It had been easy to fall in love with Frank. When we were together he was relaxed and funny and I always felt like we were the only two in the room, even at shows in dive bars and even when we ran into his friends. His scary intelligence, his genius, intimidated me at first, but he had a way of including me in that part of who he was like I was an equal that made me feel at ease. He loved to share his knowledge of everything and he loved even more when I disagreed with his conclusions, bringing the possibility of a new perspective into his life. But there were some topics he was devoutly committed to seeing a certain way. Like human nature. When we first met, he was a pure cynic, believing that it was our nature as humans to hurt instead of help, and he was always, always ready with the latest stupid newsworthy thing people did to back his case. But I thought he used cynicism as a shield. Underneath his sarcastic remarks, I saw his big heart in the way he filled patio dog dishes with water, and in the warm way he helped older couples carry food to their tables.
On the subway, we were both quiet. I was thinking about all the things we had done together. The concerts, the poetry readings, the lectures; all things I had seen as dates leading up to something more. But now I needed to scan back through our interactions to scrutinize what signals he’d actually been sending. And what I came up with was mostly what he hadn’t done.
Frank hadn’t made a move to hold my hand or put his arm around my shoulder or kiss me. I used to think it was because he was shy, because as confident as he was, there was something beneath it that I couldn’t quite name in the way he looked at me sometimes. And I wanted to give him time to work up the courage. He did put his hand on the small of my back whenever we were trying to get through a crowd, which I saw as intimacy, but maybe he was being a gentleman. Maybe he did that with all of his female friends.
Oh God, were we just friends? Did Frank not feel the sexual heat that I felt when we came within five feet of each other?
And what signals had I been giving him? In my attempt to respect his privacy, I had never asked if he was dating another person, or if he saw us as more than friends. I assumed I wasn’t the only one who felt that pulsing heat. I was careful to never show the slightest flicker of interest in any other man when we were out together, though, I never told Frank that I was falling in love with him. I hoped he would see it in my eyes when I looked at him with anticipation and acceptance every time we met up.
By the time we reached our stop, I’d made up my mind. Fuck his privacy, I thought. I would ask him if he was seeing someone else. And I would put it that way to let him know that I felt we were seeing each other. I needed a few drinks first.
We hung out in the lounge for a while, waiting for the publisher of a small house to introduce a first-time author. He bought me a drink, as he always had, even when at first I had insisted that I buy my own. And that was another thing. Who spends money on a girl he doesn’t want to eventually at least fuck, if not impress enough to actually build a relationship with, a love? But again, maybe it was the way he was raised.
I watched him through fresh eyes, bracing myself to see things I didn’t want to see. I examined his posture as he leaned against the bar with his drink in one hand and his long legs tucked together at his ankles. The angle suggested a comfort, but that was nothing new. He had practically grown up at events like this because his father had been a well-known publisher. He was quiet tonight, nursing his organic beer, scanning the room as I scanned him.
I wondered if he was uncomfortable with the scrutiny or if he was making room for it. If he was uncomfortable, he showed no outward signs, but I knew from my time with him that he was very controlled and reserved. He never let anything about himself that he didn’t want known slip out through body language or in conversation. I’d known a man like that in a past life, but it didn’t take long to recognize the differences between the two. There was no sinister intent, no malice, in Frank’s carefully constructed public persona. He didn’t leave anything to chance for a reason that was new to me, and I suspected it was simply a harmless defence.
He bought me another drink. I watched him as he watched the crowd, paying careful attention to who and what caught his eye. A curvy blonde, a tall man who made himself taller with a black and lime mohawk, a slender brunette, the contents of a very tight microskirt. He seemed to be watching the way they moved. Nothing at all about his facial expression gave away what he thought about the motion, but in paying attention to him this closely, I sensed what he appreciated and what he didn’t.
I didn’t know for sure until after my second drink was almost finished that he was deliberately allowing me to observe him. If he didn’t want me to, he would have deflected by leading the conversation to my life. I felt hope lick up from the bottom of my heart.
Frank asked me if I wanted a third and I shook my head. I said I was ready to find a place by the stage. I had heard the nervous author talk about needing to throw up.
He surprised me by looking at me then, square in the eyes, with a gentle firmness, or maybe determination. “Out with it.”
“You’ve been acting odd since we left my apartment. What’s on your mind?”
Caught off guard as I was, I blurted out, “Are you seeing someone else?”
Fuck, I need another drink.
“So, this is…” I trailed off, letting the MC’s awkward sound check take over.
He shrugged his shoulders as he stepped closer to be heard clearly. “What do you want it to be?”
“Well, I thought it was more than friendship, but now I’m not sure.”
I knew I was caught. He was close enough that I could taste his edgy excitement as it filtered through the air. He liked to be challenged and he liked to challenge. I knew he was annoyed that I had invaded his privacy. I didn’t see this ending well, so I decided to let everything out.
“Frank, I know you’re a private guy, and I respect that privacy, I honestly do, but when it comes to being strung along, I respect myself more. You get what I’m saying?”
“I thought we were dating, you asshole, and then I saw tampons and condoms in your bathroom.”
“You shouldn’t have gone through my things.”
I put up my hands in mock surrender. “Ya, I know I did a bad thing. But here we are. So, where are we?”
He gave something away then. He looked to the right, gritted his teeth so hard that I saw his jaw clench, and then he let out a loud sigh.
When he turned back to me, he was collected. “Where do you think we are?”
I shook my head. “Nope, no way. Fuck that, Frank, you’re not deflecting. I deserve the respect of a straight answer. Are we dating? Do you think of me as more than a friend?”
“I don’t think this is the place to talk about this.”
“Then why did you bring it up here?”
“Okay, let’s go somewhere to talk.”
“What about the author?”
“Fuck him, his novel isn’t that good anyway.”
He took me to a pub around the corner that wasn’t busy. With his hand on the small of my back, he guided me to the near empty back room. He ordered me another drink without asking and he ordered some nachos.
I wanted to watch him a bit longer to discern any scrap of what he could be thinking, but he wasn’t playing this time. He had given me my chance.
“Have you been here before?”
I shook my head.
“Best nachos in the neighbourhood. I think you’ll really like them.”
Thankfully the drinks didn’t take long. I took a big sip into my mouth, feeling the bubbles roll over my tongue, tasting the perfect blend of sober and sweet. And then I took a deep breath after I finally swallowed and tried to relax my shoulders. Without my noticing, my shoulders had hunched up toward my ears.
“So,” he said, looking directly into my eyes.
“So,” I shrugged.
He sighed again. “Listen, Caroline, this isn’t going to work unless you’re honest with me.”
This? I thought. Unless I’m honest with him?
“What is this?”
“I enjoy your company, you enjoy mine.”
Oh God. He was making this conversation difficult on purpose. I saw a faint smile play across his lips but it was gone as soon as I saw it and I was left wondering what I had seen. I started to squirm. I hated the fact that he was making me say it. That I really liked him, was falling in love with him. That I wanted more.
There – another glimmer of a smile. And then I knew for sure that he was enjoying it. That’s when I decided, fuck him. I’m nobody’s game. This is real to me. I echoed his tone and his words.
“Listen, Frank, I need to know what the fuck this is. I don’ play games.”
“Not even Monopoly?”
I knew on some level he was trying to keep it light, but I was getting more and more frustrated.
“Are you fucking someone else?”
He lowered his eyelids and then brought his gaze up to meet mine. “Yes.”
I took in an involuntary sharp breath.
“Are you fucking more than one person?”
“Were you planning to try to fuck me one day?”
“Is that what you want?”
“I want to know what you want, Frank. I know what I want. I have no idea about you.”
“I’m sapiosexual, Caroline, does that answer your question?”
“Because if you’re so attracted to me, why haven’t you made a move yet? And why are you fucking someone else instead?”
“I was taking my time with you.”
“So you want to fuck two people at once?”
The waiter dropped off the nachos.
“Eat,” Frank commanded.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You have to eat something, Caroline, that’s your third drink.”
“I hate it when you talk to me like I’m a child.”
“So why do you do it?”
“It’s how I talk.”
A thought came to me suddenly. “Are you seeing other girls that you also aren’t fucking?”
“I don’t understand. Is this some kind of competition? Are you pitting us against each other to see who’ll win?”
“No, if it was a competition, I would have let you know about the other girls.”
“Do you believe in monogamy?”
“That’s a tricky question.”
Oh what the fuck, I thought. One of these guys. I was about ready to stand up and leave, but Frank put his hand on my forearm.
“I’m really confused, Frank. I don’t feel like I know anything about you.”
We were both silent while he ate nachos and I took another drink. He tried to get me to eat again, but I shook my head. I swear I heard him whisper ‘recalcitrant’ under his breath.
“What do you want with me, Frank? Do you want a relationship?”
“And with the other girls?”
“They are both very different from you and from each other. You each have qualities that I deeply admire.”
“Will you tell me?”
“No, you don’t want to know.”
“So, what do you want? Do you want to keep going to lectures with me and fucking Girl 1 and doing God knows what with Girl 2?”
“I wasn’t ready to decide yet.”
“Who would fit with me best.”
“You said this wasn’t a competition,” I accused.
“It’s not,” he said softly. “It’s my life.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. His life, my life. While I was thinking the two lives were becoming intertwined, he was leading a very separate life from the one we shared.
“Tell me about the life you want.”
“Really? Straight honesty? What I truly want?”
“I want to get out of my head. I want peace. I want fun. I want to be happy. I want to experience everything life has to offer.”
“Have you tried love?”
“Once.” His face was perfectly expressionless.
“I was young and it broke me in ways I had not dreamed possible.”
“You’re afraid to get hurt again.”
“What person in their right mind wouldn’t be afraid?”
“But love doesn’t live in your head. True love is a real thing. It lives in your heart and your soul and it pours from you in waves and lifts you up and teaches you things about yourself that you’d never learn on your own. It allows you to do things you never thought you could do, and in this way you become more of the person you were meant to be.”
I sighed and moved to leave again. He put his hand on my thigh and this time he asked me to stay instead of demanding it.
“Why do you want me to stay? We’re miles apart on this relationship. Fuck, we’re miles apart on the idea of relationships.”
“I don’t want to let you go because you might be the one.”
“The one what?”
“That I could fall in love with.”
I stifled the desire to roll my eyes. “As touching as it is that you’ve opened up to me, do you truly believe that I’m supposed to put my life on hold while you test all the girls you’re dating in case I was the one and you can’t see it right now because you’re too afraid?”
“Fuck, Caroline, when you put it that way, it sounds so shitty.”
“It is pretty shitty. People aren’t placeholders. We aren’t bookmarks. If you’re not ready to officially date me after six months, I need to move on. What about my chance for love? What if while I’m sitting here as some empty placeholder for you, I miss out on recognizing my true love because I’m too wrapped up in the great mystery of Frank and whether or not you’ll figure out that love is worth trying again?”
“But what if I need some time.”
“Time for what?”
“To figure out life.”
“We all need that, Frank, but as a general human courtesy, I don’t go around asking people to live solely for me while I figure this shit out.”
“But what if you’re my one?”
“I don’t know.” I sighed. “Then you miss out because you’re not ready. And maybe in three or ten years when I’m single again, you might have figured out your life and you can look me up. Because I’m not about to miss out on a love that comes into my life while you’re still deciding if I’m worth taking a fucking risk on.
“And in many ways, even if you are my one, what am I supposed to do with my one when he’s not open to love? How am I supposed to work with that? You haven’t given me much to work with.”
“Jesus, that’s pretty harsh.”
“What else am I supposed to do or say, Frank? I am a real person. You see me sitting here in front of you? You see the way my hands move while I talk? You see the way my eyes darken with anger? You see the way I lean close and then away? You know these are governed by my emotions and thoughts and needs and desires. I know you cannot feel my heart pounding in my chest or the sadness creeping into my shoulders or the humiliation clawing through my gut. But I know you see the shine of tears in my eyes and the posture of my shoulders and the widening of my pupils. All quantifiable and indisputable signals. What you can’t see is that you trigger these feelings in me. You don’t think you can impact people this way. And I’m not sure if it’s because you lost yourself and you don’t know it or if it’s because you lost yourself and you don’t care.”
“See, this is why I love spending time with you, Caroline.”
“But I’m not interested in being a distraction. I want more. I deserve more.”
Frank looked down at the empty plate.
I stood up and went to him. I lifted his chin gently with my finger so he could see my eyes.
“No matter what you believe right now, Frank, I want you to know that you deserve more, too.”
I left the pub and hailed a taxi.