“I have to tell you something,” Steven says.
He’s not looking at her.
Melinda is sitting next to him on the black leather couch. She is wearing her robe. Steven is in his underwear, those soft cotton briefs that he likes so much. He leans forward, placing his forehead in his palms. Everything is unraveling, that is certain, but Melinda can’t help admiring the length of his back, the way it accentuates his physique.
She has no idea what he is going to say. When a gaping hole like that opens in a conversation, the possibilities can seem endless. Some revelations can be surprising, some positive. Yet she remembers no expectation of a joyful admission.
Others can be unthinkably painful. She tries to mentally guess a few, mostly in this direction.
“I have to tell you something,” he says again, “and it’s going to hurt you.”
“What?” she asks, already hearing the creep of a shrill tone in her voice.
“It’s why you can’t stay at my place. Why I don’t invite you over.” Steven still isn’t looking at her. Melinda gets up. She doesn’t want to be close to him. His force field has always been so strong for her. She could be permanently attached to him, shoulder to ankle, and be happy. Or she could shrink herself down and just live in his jeans pocket. The front one, on the right. Tight and warm and dark and content.
But right now her attachment is making her nauseous.
“What? Tell me.” She is starting to feel wild now, like he is going to tease her with this preamble, and then leave. She has to know.
“I have a girlfriend.”
The world starts to shift. Is it dark outside? Are there lights on in the house? Is she drunk? Sober?
“We’ve been together for almost six years.”
The sensation leaves her arms. Her fingers are thick. She cannot speak.
His confession takes an odd turn. “But I use a condom with her, too, because she’s not on the pill. Like you.”
Melinda gapes at him. Not at the idea that he has another partner, but that he equates them in this clinical way.
Perhaps they are the same to him. But then he clarifies the discrepancy.
“You don’t want to have kids. She wants to have kids with me.”
Here, she remembers protesting. A ridiculous argument from a boy barely beyond puberty. Yet, perhaps not. How can she compete with such domestic expectations?
It just shows how little she knows him.
He rises from the couch and paces the living room. Is he putting his clothes on yet? She can’t remember. The conversation continues. Is it seconds? Minutes? Is she speaking? Is he? She only remembers, at some point, taking shelter in the kitchen.
She leans over the stove and stares at the coffee maker. She registers chrome and steel, burners and Formica.
The world begins to split, to reconfigure itself. Every conversation, every text, every whispered sentiment can now be categorized in novel ways.
Until this moment she has nurtured certain beliefs. They need to be reevaluated.
For example, the belief that Steven is a truth teller. Isn’t everyone a truth teller until they prove otherwise? He is just a kid who plays games, and she can conquer this.
Then there is the certainty that Steven wants to be exclusive with her. And so they are. Or were. They are both exclusive.
She also operates under the premise that Steven is, was, perhaps, falling in love with her. She is, most definitely, falling in love with him.
What is past tense and what is present?
Despite her shock, the challenge of this re-categorization lights a cerebral flame. Mentally, she observes this flame, as if an outsider to her own brain waves, and recognizes its potential. It represents a hope that life goes on, no matter how grim.
Because there are new categories with which to attend. These new categories are already starting to form. They are brilliant. They explain. They help intellect triumph where emotion has failed. But right now, only one of these categories preoccupies her mind. One is stuck on repeat as she stares at the kitchen countertop and the grates over the gas burners.
Steven is a liar.
Their entire interaction, months of texting, hours of violent, time-shifting sex, rushes up to meet this truth. Every thing he’s ever said to her smashes up against this new barrier. It is like a concrete wall in the middle of the sea. The waves don’t know where to go, what to do. They flounder. She flounders.
“Say something,” she hears him say, while she drowns.
She can’t respond.
“Look, it’s okay. You can see other people too. Just don’t tell me about it. But I’d like to keep going with you.”
She does not, cannot speak. There is a hard-boiled egg pressing against her larynx. Yet her mind flashes with hope. It doesn’t have to be over. He’s just said so.
“Can’t we keep going? This is the best sex I’ve ever had.”
She doesn’t say anything.
“Say something. Why don’t you say something?” Now his tone is growing shrill.
It is time. In these moments, she is a thinker, not a feeler. Though the feelings will shred her later, for now, logic wins. It always happens this way.
She thinks of the words written on a door in his apartment, seen only in a photo.
Dream of Tomorrow
But Live Today
She turns around. She meets his eyes for the briefest second, and then drops her gaze to his chest as she passes by. As she passes by she holds her breath so she won’t smell him. Then she speaks her last words.
“I don’t ever want to see you again.”
She walks with long strides to the front door and holds it open. She stares at the door as he passes by, silent. She closes the door behind him and walks back to the kitchen.