He calls for the last time on a Sunday night in late September. His voice is soft and slurred, and before he asks I tell him that I’m not coming this time. But we both know it’s a lie. So I pull myself together as I have done many, many times before, and I drive through a chilly rain to our old spot. He’s already in our booth; ghostly, half asleep and tapping his lucky blue lighter against the Formica.
“This is the last time,” I say as I slide across from him.
“We’ll see.” His smile is still my undoing.
“You look like hell.”
“You look good.”
“You need coffee.”
“You need something.”
“Well, you look like hell.”
“Yeah, you said that already.”
When I look at him; when I really look at him, I am right back to that night in the park so many Junes ago. He was lovely then; peaceful, and his mind was temporarily quiet. That park was our safe place; it was the neutral ground that we often needed. But I was determined. I was leaving that night. That time I left for good, because I knew that if I didn’t get into my car right at that moment I would stay until we inevitably burned each other to ash. We were dangerous in that way. We fought, and I cried. We fought for the sake of fighting, I think, because we were best when we were fighting. I needed him to beg me to stay. I needed him to take my hand and tell me that I was his future. I needed him to at least try to love me like I imagined he should have.
We are both hollow people now, but he can’t hide from it the way I can. I have mastered hollow. I fill the void with a career that I pretend to like because it’s just easier that way. I live a life that’s bigger than I can handle, and I collect pretty people and pretty things. None of it has any substance or meaning. It’s all a poorly produced facade. But I stopped longing for substance and meaning a long time ago.
“How’s everything? He asks.
“Everything’s fine. Good,” I tell him. I wonder if he can tell I’m lying.
“That’s great. That’s really great.”
We didn’t care for each other at first. He thought I was bossy. I thought he was a slacker. Somehow we both ended up drunk on a mutual friend’s 7th floor balcony on a chilly October evening, and he asked me for a light. And that was it. We spent all night on that balcony, arguing about J.D. Salinger through chattering teeth until we realized at the same time that we were supposed to be more than what we were.
“How’s your job?” I ask.
“It’s fine. It’s good. Busy.”
“Is that why you’re drunk on a Sunday night?”
He sighs and sips the coffee I insisted on. He drinks it strong and black just like he always has, because he doesn’t like to complicate things.
“It was just a bad week,” he says. “A very bad week.”
“Do you wanna talk about it?”
“Course I am.”
“Are you okay?”
“Course I am.”
And it's the truth. He’s always been okay. He’s comfortable with okay in a way that I never wanted nor understood. Actually, that’s my lie; at first, I was okay to be okay. In the beginning when things were simple, I was happy to be in that middle ground of contentment where nothing had to be just perfect. We didn’t want to lie to each other, and there was no unnecessary pressure to be something more than what we were. We existed as two separate units who complimented each other in a way that neither of us fully understood. It was good then. We spent late nights right here, at this table in this diner, discovering each other’s secrets. We built a foundation of trust and respect and shared experience that grew into love.
He absently runs his finger through the condensation on the window next to us; little tendrils that become larger and larger until he pulls his finger away, leaving the picture unfinished.
“How’s your family?” He asks to the streetlight outside the window.
“Everyone’s doing fine.”
We sat on the floor of my apartment and he held me in his arms and we cried together the night my dad died. That was the beginning of the end; the love that had grown between us had started to morph into a dark organic bad that began to wrap its tendrils around us as we stood still. We couldn’t see it then, but we unwittingly nurtured it and allowed it to grow into an uncontrollable thing that neither of us knew how to tame. I thought that I needed him to take care of me then, but I never realized that what I really needed was space to grieve in my own way. Instead I clung to him and grew resentful and sullen when he didn’t care for me in the way I wanted him to.
“Do you remember that red robe you used to have?” The corners of his mouth turn up in a hint of a smile.
“That was a really nice robe.”
“I still have it.”
The night I drove away from our park, I thought I was driving towards the future. It wasn’t until the last exit off the freeway when I realized that I was driving away from him. It hit me squarely in the chest, and I had to pull over for fear that the sadness would consume me. It was always what I needed. I NEED. I used those words too often and too carelessly, until they finally lost all meaning. It never got to be his turn to need. He needed me to stay. All this time he’d needed me to pull him up and keep him afloat and pull him to shore now and then. He needed me to love him in the way he deserved to be loved.
“Want me to take you home?” I say.
I take his hand. “Okay,” I say. “Let’s sit for a while.”