The word fell flat. His face fell with it.
"Oh my god--"
She turned so as not to face him. The sun was in her eyes. She felt almost blinded by it, the tears collecting quickly and filling with sunlight. It was painful. Every feature about it. How could she have let it go on for so long? She should have left so much sooner.
His hand on her shoulder reminded her of the pending explanation. The let-down. The break-up. Everything she had been hoping to avoid. Everything she was intensifying due to her long and silent gripping to what she had left. Her hands hurt from holding on so hard for so long. How would her knuckles ever regain their color from the hold she had on Thomas? And who was he to her anyways?
A place-holder? A lover? A man.
"Alice," he said, his voice quivering although he desperately tried to keep it together. "I, I, I understand, but..."
With palms open to the sky, with a look of pure sadness and confusion, he uttered,
"What did I do wrong?"
She lost it then. How could she ever explain to Thomas that she didn't love him? The question was unsettling to her. Did she really not love him?
He was so fun to be in love with. His shaggy hair and the feeling of it between her fingers. The taste of his lips and how great of a kisser he was. The little tendencies he had to slip into Romeo. To sing to her, to take her to the top of a mountain or a high building and tell her he loved her. The way he held her at night. The sound of his humming as he buttered his toast in the morning. All these things she knew she loved. But then...
Then there were those terrible nights. Those stone cold evenings where scarcely a word was spoken. Whenever he went home and didn't stay with her in her apartment. The songs that she listened to purposely whenever she was alone. The way she looked out her car window at the rain. When she'd put down her windows to feel the wet chill on her skin and remember that she was alive. And that love was still out there waiting. How badly she wanted to feel that again.
After apologizing profusely, offering tissues, and getting Thomas to sit down and put the ring back in his pocket, she started the long and gut-wrenching descent.
"You have done everything right," she said, blinking back a swelling ocean of guilt-ridden tears. "None of this is about you, Thomas."
He wasn't looking at her anymore. He stared straight ahead, as if seeing through her. His head was tilted down and Alice considered if perhaps he wasn't hearing her at all. She was so worried about this. So worried about how he would take it all. He was a fragile piece of pottery to begin with. Darkly tinted. Beautiful. Broken. But never shatterproof. Like herself.
She took his hand and massaged it gently.
"Please look at me," she whimpered.
A breeze blew through the tree above them and he gave out a sigh that struck her with sadness.
"I would..." he whispered. "If I could. But if I do right now, I'd be a mess. And..."
He looked up at the tree to avoid her eyes. She noticed tears collecting there.
"I don't want you to see me like that."
She nodded painfully and waited for the strength. He withdrew his hand from hers. He stood. Turned. Broke down and walked a few paces, his back to her.
"Thomas," she half-moaned. "Please forgive me. I never meant for any of this. I did love you."
"You did?" he half-shouted. "Then why didn't you say so? And when did you decide to just stop?"
An evil half-chuckle escaped from his sarcastic and frustrated lips. Even now, she still wanted to kiss him. She'd give anything to have avoided this day a little longer.
"It was never my decision. If I could make that decision, I would."
"What are you even saying? Does it make sense to you!"
"Don't patronize me."
"You have the ability to make YOUR OWN DECISIONS! Who is making them for you, Alice?"
The pungency of his sharp words stuck in the back of her throat. More tears that she didn't even know she had erupted.
Guilt mixed with honest pain mingled and came flowing.
His face softened as he watched her tangled and shattered heart lay there on the grass beneath him, writhing in an unforgivable and all too familiar pain.
He couldn't bare it. He apologized. That was mean. He sat down next to her again and, for what might be the last time, held her gently in his arms.
After a while of soothing her and kissing her forehead, smelling the aroma of her sweet hair, she finally came clean.
He turned to see her downward cast face. To watch how her eyelids shut, waiting for the blow. Her teeth gritting. Every muscle tense with the reality that she had never moved on. That Thomas was just nothing more than a rebound gone terribly, terribly wrong.
"I'm still in love with him, Thomas."
Her confusion was so innocent, so unflinching, so sad, that he couldn't help but empathize with her.
"Hey, hey..." he said softly as she put her head to his chest. "Just talk to me, okay? I'm not going to yell. Not anymore. That was wrong of me in the first place to get so worked up. We can talk about this, baby."
"No," she repeated, the word too soon reminding him about his lost dream. "I don't think we should. I don't want to hurt you anymore, or waste anymore of your time."
She stood then, finding it very difficult to separate from him.
"Just please know that what we had was love. It was always something so special to me. And that's why I can't say "yes," and make you happy. I so desperately want to make you happy. But I'll never be happy knowing that my heart is off somewhere else."
He nodded, still shocked, still sitting shattered by the tree.
"You can call me," she said finally. "But if I don't pick up, give me a day."
And then, before rushing away she managed to echo his words of not too long ago,
"I love you."