In the end it was the little things. That and a healthy dose of courage. For months I had watched for something, a sparkle in her eye, a spice in her tone, a hint in her touch.
Three years we had been together. Three years knowing she had seen something in me - desperation perhaps - that made her think I could be worth her time.
Some part of me knew, had always known, that I was worth it. Still, years of loneliness, daydreaming, envying, made it all so...heavy. I wanted to be perfect, but I wanted to real. I wanted to be who I imagined she wanted, but I wanted only to be myself. My rational mind was locked in brutal combat with my insecurities.
Until I made her laugh. Not just first-date-polite-chuckle laugh. No, this was fully caught off guard laughter flowing from the chest as naturally as a river bubbling over stones. I saw her then through those crystal clear waters, and I knew I could do this. I was enough.
I still feel that way when I make her laugh. It's like I've handed myself over to the universe, thrust out a rumpled, handwritten note like a schoolboy asking his crush to the dance: Yes? Or no?
The paper floats back to me, 'Yes' circled in affirming crimson ink.
It's the answer I want her to give. Week after week the question has ping-ponged back and forth in my mind, a hollow plastic sound. I've tuned it, mixed it, taken it from an irksome noise to an acoustic musing to a soul-filling symphony.
It's just right.
My question waits, four bars of rest, for its answer.
I watch her scrupulously, searching for a sign that she wants this too, that when I take the leap, we'll fly together.
Our lives have grown routine. How could they not?
I'm first to rise each morning, showering to the tune of her two-step with the alarm and its snooze button. She hates to talk in the morning. She turns gruff, lots of nodding and mmm-hmm's. There was a sweet spot in the timeline of our relationship when she was comfortable around me but not that comfortable. She would force herself to be social, fully awake, fully assuming the mask she would wear all day. A Normal Person. When this stopped, when the silence fell, I panicked. I thought we were through. Until I realized our nights had changed as well. Her touch, her kiss, the way she wrapped herself around me and tucked herself into my embrace like a Lego brick snapping its way into the final, perfect product. This was love.
I steep her tea on the narrow kitchen counter (5 minutes). I pull her lunch from the fridge and leave it by her keys. I take my coat from the hook revealing hers underneath. She pads into the kitchen just as I’m about to leave.
"Morning," I smile.
I kiss her, tasting the dreams she has yet to fully wake from.
"Your tea is-"
"A bit." She crosses her arms.
Did she frown then? Does she not want to go? It's too early to bother her with my interrogations.
"It's the place you like," I offer.
"Mmm-hmm," she accepts.
"I should get going." I reach for the door. I turn back. She's uncrossed her arms. She looks relaxed. Is she glad to see me go?
I drop my hand from the doorknob and take a step towards her. Towards Her, my everything. No, not everything. Just the right amount of something. She has never consumed me, stolen my life from me with the magic of her. Wherever I go, I am with her, she is part of me, but I’m still me. Just me.
Is it enough?
I want to hold her, feel her in my arms if only for a moment before I have to leave and be me with her, but without her. Before I can take another step she has launched herself at me. Her arms twine round my neck, the weight of her, the warmth of her, pressed against me like this is the last time we'll ever touch. I would absorb her if I could.
I reciprocate in full, thinking, yes. This is it. This is yes.
"I love you," she says, her breath a spring breeze in my ear.
The evening's chill is siphoned out of me by the warmth of the restaurant. I'm surrounded by the fizz of conversation, as effervescent as champagne. She loves this restaurant. She once told me she would eat here every night if she could. As far as I know, she's never changed her mind.
I sit there, alone in the crowd, the anchor of the small box in my pocket threatening to pull me under when it was meant only to ground me, hold me fast in my resolve. I play through the question again, whispering it to the dancing flame of the candle.
"Will you-" Simple enough. "Marry-" Don’t be frightened, it's only a word. "Me-" Hey I know him. He can do this. I can do this.
I see her weaving her way back to me. I feel the grip of her around my stomach, deep in its depths, where the butterflies frolic. The light plays with the colors of her hair. Shadows find the creases round her eyes where a lifetime of smiles has left its mark. When she sits across from me, I almost scan the room to see who might be raising a glass to me. Yes, cheers mate, well done, how lucky you are to be there at that table across from that woman.
"Sorry," she huffs. "I got stuck at work. One of the girls is having trouble with her boyfriend. Couldn't pull myself away until we solved it." She swipes a finger beneath both eyes to clear any fallen makeup. Her cheeks are flushed, a remnant of the icy wind outside.
"Not a problem. I'm glad you were there to help. You look beautiful," I add softly. "I love that dress on you."
I receive a tight smile in return before she's deep in the menu. "Did you order drinks yet?"
I start to frown, and then I realize. She's nervous. I sift through a million reasons why she should be nervous. What could I have done to-
She's figured it out. She knows why we're here, women always know. I swallow a cocktail of emotions. I'm pleased she knew it would happen, proud she's clever enough to reach the conclusion, slightly embarrassed I'm so obvious, and just a bit disappointed it won't be a surprise.
It hardly matters, I tell myself. All that matters is the answer.
We settle in, enjoying drinks with our appetizers and splitting a bottle of wine with the meal. The dessert menu sneaks its way onto the table. I smirk as I see her gaze drift to the sweet treats.
We'll order something decadent to celebrate.
"Before we…" I gesture to the menu. "There’s something I wanted to say. Well, something I wanted to ask." A nervous laugh escapes me. "I’ve been-"
"Can I go first?"
I splutter. I wasn’t expecting an interruption. My careful orchestrations are put on pause. "I, um, please," I say. "Do."
She takes a breath. Her demeanor shifts. She tucks her hair behind her ears. She isn't looking at me. I watch the rise and fall of her chest, its tempo increasing.
A blast of cold air hits me. I look to the door, prepared to scorn the careless intruder who let the night in, but there's no one. The room is still.
"I want to- no I mean I need to-" Her eyes meet mine. "I think we've come to the end."
"The end of what?" I say stupidly.
"The end of...us. Of this. I-" She takes another breath, this one less steady than the last. "I'm ending things."
The words begin to rush out of her, the river that once brought me her laugh on its current is suddenly sweeping me up, carrying me off, choking me with silt and battering me against its banks.
At least, that was how I felt. That was what I expected. I expected to look at my hands and see my fingernails torn, my palms cracked and bloodied from desperate attempts to find a grip, to hold on, to keep this moment from sweeping over me.
But when I look down, I see my hands resting gently on the thick linen napkin in my lap. I see a splash of red, but it isn't blood. It's tomato sauce. As humble as can be.
The room is still there. The other diners continue their conversations without feeling the earthquake that has rattled me and me alone.
Her voice begins to penetrate my fog. Two different directions, I miss the passion, no surprises.
"Sometimes I feel like you don't even see me," she says. "It's like you look at me and you see who you think I am. Who you want me to be."
"No," I say, little more than a mumble. "I do see you. I love you. You're everyth-" But she's not. She's not everything. She shouldn't be everything. No one should be everything to anyone. We should be independent, strong enough alone, stronger together. My thoughts tangle into a knot, a mess of string declared hopeless.
"I need more than this," she says, mist in her eyes.
"I thought we were happy," I cry. "I thought we were good. I thought we were enough."
"I want more than just enough."
"How can you be so certain?" I ask. "Where has this all come from?"
"Please, darling, believe me, I've been thinking about this for weeks. Months even. I wouldn't do this if I weren't sure. I mean look at us. We're here in the same restaurant as always, I'm wearing the same dress as always. I'm late as always, you're on time, as always." Her tears begin to fall. "I promised myself I would wait for the right moment. I guess I was waiting for a sign. And this is it.”