It takes twenty-seven minutes to travel from my house to the train station. The cab driver is quiet. Maybe he senses the mire of tension spiraling through my mind. Maybe he’s just as shy as I am. I’ve always wondered if my desire to avoid human interaction actually kept people from approaching, if it was somehow written clearly across my face or if I had an atmosphere around me that just felt really uncomfortable.
The train ride spans three hours. I’ve never ridden a commuter train before. But I don’t have a car anymore. It was the latest is a long list of excuses. The ride is smoother than I expected. Trees, warehouses, the occasional body of water flash past the window in a blur of color. The seats around me are sparsely occupied, for which I am grateful. See my musings above about my anti-social nature. I eat a sandwich I brought with me, feeling suddenly very Ron Weasley. If only the moment lasted, if only I were racing toward a magical castle rather than something even more uncertain. And that’s taking into account the annual peril waiting on the other side of the Hogwarts Express.
When I arrive at the station, I expect to wait maybe thirty minutes. That’s how long he told me it would take to pick me up. I even texted him about ten minutes before the train was due to arrive. My estimate remained the same. The seats in the station are comfortable, as if they knew their patrons had long, tense, possibly endless waits to endure.
Thirty minutes pass. Then an hour. Then two. I try to avoid anyone even at risk of making eye contact, sure it is plainly clear I’ve been stood up, abandoned, forgotten, like an old soap opera.
Hey, sorry. Got busy. Headed your way now.
As if he wasn’t my only ride, in fact, the only reason I am even sitting in this station. I sign even as my heartbeat picks up in anticipation of seeing him again after so long.
A note about Dragon. First, no. I don’t know why he’s called that. His real name is Daniel, but I supposed Danny or Dan were too mundane. He had the nickname well before we met freshman year. Ninth grade feels somehow so far away and yet, like it’s recent history as well. In reality, it was about ten years ago.
Dragon is the only friend I have from that time. Dragon is the only friend I have period. At this point, he’s family. Albeit, the type of family you sometimes have to cut contact with… for totally non clichéd, superhero-esque reasons. By superhero, I mean that annoying tendency they always have for leaving those they love to “protect” them. If only I could have a remotely more exciting characteristic in common with superheroes.
I left Dragon because he wanted one thing (the same thing everyman allegedly wants, I guess) and I wanted another (too bad I didn’t and still don’t really know what that is exactly). But at one point, we were good together. I found myself suddenly alone and he offered his couch. I was unemployed and he offered a temp job. I was broke and he bought me food. He tells me that I gave him things too, to balance out our incredibly disparate relationship. I’m not sure how much I believe him. I couldn’t give him the thing he most wanted.
I am not a good friend. Or girlfriend. Or family member. Or whatever it is we are. I’m not great with other people’s emotions or desires. I’m not good with actually living a life rather than letting it live me. Dragon took issue with that when we cohabitated. I’m not great with my emotions either. I love Dragon, desperately. But in all the wrong ways. My head says, yes. Jump that. You want it. And I really do enjoy being around him most of the time. But my body (still really my head since that’s where feelings and desires happen, regardless of various anatomy they are synonymous with) says, no thank you. I’m good. Really, from him or anyone.
For years and with other guys, I thought they simply weren’t the right one. That I’d fallen out of like (never really love), or attraction, or whatever, with them. That I just wasn’t into them anymore, or that I wasn’t ready, and that’s why it felt uncomfortable to be physically close. But then I started to doubt that reasoning. With Dragon, I was pretty sure of my feelings, romantically and physically. And then, same thing. We get as close as I’ve gotten with anyone, and it’s that same reluctance, the same pit in my stomach making me think something isn’t right.
Eventually, I couldn’t stand to continually disappoint him. Hurting him hurt me too. And when his feelings deepened beyond simply trying to get into my pants, I had to leave. Because I knew that a love of the minds wouldn’t be enough for him. Romantic love, but limited sexuality.
And so, my only family, one I didn’t even know I needed until I found him, was gone. A different apartment in a different city. Only a text away, but those dwindled quickly. He’s very much an out of sight, out of mind kind of guy. I got birthday texts, Merry Christmases, the occasional request to visit, but little more.
It’s been four years since I’ve seen Dragon, heard his voice. I don’t know much about his life these days. We never manage to talk about the serious things. Not even when I left. So why come back now, even for a visit? Aren’t I scared it will all be the same? Or worse, different, for him? Yes.
Here. You ready?
If I’d been imagining a sappy reunion in the middle of the crowded station, dropping my bag to embrace him, him lifting me off my feet, then I was disappointed. But by this point, I know better than to let my expectations soar so high. Well, mostly.
I hike my stuff out to the passenger pick-up, looking for a basic black sedan, suddenly worrying he’s gotten a new car and that I’ll have to wander around embarrassedly, looking for him. But no, the car’s the same.
“Hey,” I say, not meeting his eyes when I get in, bag stuffed by my feet. Even right next to him, the years span between us.
“Hi. How are you? How was the trip down?”
I shrug. “Alright.” That’s all I can muster for a few moments. It could be an answer to either question. “How have you been?” Finally, I force myself to look up.
He hasn’t changed much on the outside. His hair is still dark and curly, though a little shorter now. His face is clean-shaven, which is new, and I am glad for it, even though the main reason I objected to his scruff was how it felt when he kissed me. No longer a relevant concern. Even sitting, I can tell he’s bulked up. He’s always been huge, especially compared to my own petite stature, but now even more of it is toned muscle.
“I’ve been good. Keeping busy. You know, working out. Still in real estate.” He doesn’t look at me either, though he had the excuse of watching the road as he drives.
The awkwardness in the car is palpable. There’s always been an edge of tension between us, factoring in my natural anxiety and social gracelessness, and his blunt evasiveness. Not to mention the years of history that continue to pile up. But with my largely unexplained flight four years ago hanging over our heads, it is almost impossible to talk, as if the weirdness is oppressing our very words and thoughts.
I want to say so much more. Want to ask a dozen questions, and not even all of them about his relationship status. No, I tell my head, my heart. If you can’t be with him all the way, then stop pining after him. But I’ve never been good at taking my own advice. So we are silent all the way home.
Another thing that hasn’t changed. He still lives in the same two bed, one bath place that’s walking distance from the city center where he works. Walks through the park, bringing him lunch, afternoons shared in the office, flash behind my eyes. They flicker uncertainly, as if my mind already knew how those moments could never last even as it tucked away the memories.
Inside, however, the apartment looks like a completely different place. Not exactly as if he’s moved on, but as if he’s grown into the space I vacated, adding to it as the years have no doubt added to him. Art I’ve never seen hangs in the small living room, a handful of shiny new appliances crowding the kitchen counter. The couch is the same, but the TV is new, a flat screen to replace the boxy old thing I’d inherited from a previous life when I moved in.
Despite starting on the couch back then, I’d eventually taken over the second room. Now, I peek through the open door to see a computer desk, weights, an old radio, a guitar and amp, a motorcycle helmet, and a few other odds and ends that didn’t used to live there. Of course, I took most of my stuff with me when I left, but it still pangs my chest to see my room is no longer my room.
Dragon notices my gaze. “Yeah, sorry,” even though he has nothing to apologize for. I shrug. “I have an air mattress if you still want to sleep in there. I can move some of the stuff,” he offers. “Or, there’s the couch. Or…” He trails off, and I wonder where else he thought I could sleep. Together, our eyes travel to his closed door.
“The couch will be great,” I tell him. I’m used to it, at least. And it seemed the path of least resistance, least difficulty. I drop my bag beside the couch and perch on the arm.
“So… it’s been a while, right?” he initiates lamely, knowing I won’t no matter how uncomfortable the ensuing silence.
I chuckle hollowly. “Yeah, definitely.” I wonder if he will let it rest there. Neither of us has even been inclined to conversation, especially anything beyond the surface level.
“So… what have you been up to lately?” he eventually asks.
I shrug. “Not much, I guess. Working. I still have that job at the book store, you know?” He nods, clearly hoping I’ll elaborate. However, elaboration isn’t an area in which I excel. I shrug again, looking away
After a moment, I settle fully onto the couch. Dragon sits beside me, close, but not touching. We linger in silence for a few minutes before he clicks on the TV. I don’t recognize the show playing, some heavily narrated drama, like a cross between a cop show and a daytime soap. I wonder if he’s actually watching, invested in the story, or if it acts as both a buffer to the silence between us and background noise to accompany whatever’s going on inside his head.
Once or twice, I see him move slightly from the corner of my eye, reaching out a hand or leaning toward me. But he then he stops himself. On screen, two of the leads, presumably, begin making out. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention to recall what sparked their interlude. Now I look away again. Dragon clears his throat.
Internally, I want to roll my eyes. It is ridiculous. Reading and watching stuff like this never used to bother me. Even as I began to discover I had a different relationship with physical intimacy than other people, watching it happen with fictional characters didn’t make me any more uncomfortable. Until I left Dragon. And especially now that I am sitting beside him again.
A sudden lack of sound draws me from my reverie and I realize the low drone from the TV is gone. He must have switched it off. I dare to glance over and find he’s staring at me. He doesn’t look away, doesn’t reveal a hint of embarrassment at being caught when I meet his gaze. His eyes burn with a dark intensity absent from them as we exchanged meaningless pleasantries earlier. He isn’t just staring. He’s glaring at me.
“What?” I expect him to shrug and grin, or maybe finally drop the insistent gape.
He releases a pent up breath in a huff. “You,” he says abruptly. His voice is soft, but he may as well have shouted. “You’re just sitting there, like we have nothing to say to each other. Like nothing’s changed. Except, if nothing is different, then it wouldn’t be so hard to just sit next to you.”
It’s more than I’ve heard from him in months. Probably years. “I – I don’t know what you mean.” I want to look anywhere but into those pleading, angry eyes. But I can’t.
“Yes, you do,” he argues. “You might act like you don’t have any common sense sometimes, but I know you do. And I know you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
I bite my lip, unsure at first how to respond to that. “What do you want me to say?”
He sighs again. “The truth.” It’s clichéd, but he speaks without an ounce of irony, his face set in serious lines I genuinely can’t say I’ve seen before. “I just want to know what is going on with you, really. Why are you acting like this? Why did you leave?” The last comes out a little broken and I’m not sure how much more explicit emotion I can take. Not even at our best together did we have a weighty conversation like this, about real things, about how we felt, about whatever it is between us.
I am quiet for a long time. So badly do I want to answer him. And yet, forcing the words out is harder than it should be. He holds me hostage with eye contact, making it harder to think. But this is important. I don’t want to do more damage if I can help it.
“I was so confused,” I say at last, my voice barely above a whisper. “I still am. And I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“You hurt me by leaving,” he tells me gently, his anger banked, though I think I can still see it smoldering deep in his eyes. He hesitantly takes my hands.
“I’m sorry. I know I told you that before, but I really am.”
“I know.” Those two words settle on me, heavier than I expected. He makes it sound like he’s acknowledging more than just my guilt. But when I wait for him to continue, his lips are pressed in a firm line.
“I was confused because I… I um – I love you.” It’s the first time I’ve said so in many, many years. Of course I love him. In one way or another, I almost always have.
He nods and almost smiles. “That is definitely confusing,” he says with some characteristic self-deprecation that lightens just a hint of the tension between us.
I can’t help but return his smile, but it fades as I press forward, suddenly desperate to explain, damn my usual lack of eloquence and the consequences I’ve spent the last four years, and probably longer, fearing.
“That’s not the confusing part,” I correct him, shaking my head. “Of course I love you.” He opens his mouth to respond again, but no matter what he may or may not plan to say back, I can’t let him yet. “It’s just that, the love up here” I point to my head, “and in here,” now pointing to my heart, trying to indicate that these are the same love for me, “are different… than what you feel, what you want.” I gesture aimlessly to his entire body, letting my eyes drift toward his waist, a touch lower, before they are magnetically drawn back to hold his gaze. How to explain that, for as long as I’ve known him, he’s been largely interested in a physical relationship, whereas I am almost exclusively interested in an emotional one?
“Explain that,” he encourages.
“Um, right. It’s just that, it’s me, I’m the problem. Not you.” I can’t help but cringe at the terribly overdone, terribly vague it’s not you, it’s me line, even if it is accurate. “I don’t feel the same way you do.” He looks slightly stricken and I put my head in my hands, whatever spell that was forcing the longest sustained eye contact of my life suddenly broken. “No, that’s not what I mean,” I assure him. “I care about you, I really do. I-I want to be with you. But I can’t. I can’t be with you the way you want me to.” I emphasize that I don’t just mean with him on this couch or in a relationship. “I don’t feel that way about anyone, I don’t think.” I want to say more, and also wish I’d said nothing at all. Now I can only pray he understands.
“And that’s why you left.” It isn’t a question. “Because you don’t feel sexual attraction the same way I do.” The way he is so succinct, so clear and unbothered, irks me.
“I’m sorry.” I don’t know what I am apologizing for.
I realize I am breathing heavily when we are quiet again and it’s the only sound.
Then he grins. “I don’t care. Don’t ever think I won’t take you just as you are, Lynn. I love you too. I’ve loved you since I first met you. Nothing will change that.” He pulls me close and it feels right. I finally feel home again.