“Are you telling me the truth?” Through the corner of my eye I could see him staring at me, trying to detect any flick of my eyes or scratch of my nose that would tell him I’m lying. I felt sick. I turned to him and held his stare.
“Of course I am,” I smiled at him and pulled my hands out from under the table. I set them politely on the tabletop, careful not to cross my arms or pull my knees together. My eyes flickered to the tile floor and the big, tinted windows that reached up the walls. He placed his hand over mine. My stomach lurched. I couldn’t do this. I pulled my hand away and reached across the table for my styrofoam cup. “I should have sat over there.” I told myself as I looked over at the empty chair across from me, mocking me. If I had, he’d be less likely to try and make a move. As soon as I thought that, he closed the distance between us and set his arm on my shoulder. My heart skipped a beat- but not in a good way. “I’m overreacting.” I told myself.
“I can’t do this.” I thought. Around the room were a few other people, mostly older couples and a few moms absorbed with impatient toddlers. I needed an escape route, maybe a friend to say hi to or… his hand began rubbing my back. I instinctively pulled myself away. I got up, brushed my sweaty hands off on my jeans, and mumbled that I needed the bathroom.
My heart was racing. Something was wrong with me. He was so sweet and I’d always been comfortable around him. Until we started dating…
As I walked into the bathroom, I went back to the day he asked me out.
I was working on a local garden and I’d asked him if he’d wanted to help. I was planting violets in fresh dirt when he arrived. I was expecting more people but it was just us and my parents. We were chatting, looking back, we were flirting, as we had been for months since we’d started sitting together in the back of the room in science class.
Back in the present, I washed off my hands and dabbed a paper towel across my forehead. My face burned. I placed my back against the checkered tile walls. I stared down at my shirt and plucked the dog hair off the bottom. I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror. I knew what I’d see. Two big, anxious eyes over giant dark circles and two thin, pursed lips, trying not to say the words on the tip of my tongue. I told myself that this discomfort was new, that it was because the spark was gone in our relationship and I was ready for it to end and he wasn’t. But it wasn’t new. I had a bulging stomach from stress eating that’d started six months ago, not three months ago when we broke up or two weeks ago when we finally spoke again. I was really craving chocolate at that point.
I went back out and sat back at the table we were seated at near the tinted windows, sitting on the opposite side this time. He smiled sadly at me and stuck his tongue out at me. It was a silly thing I’d done for years when I didn’t know what to say or I wanted to show affection, which had been incorporated into our relationship. I did it back. He was a sweet guy and he’d been there for me for nearly the past year. I ran my hands along the red fabric pulled tightly over the wooden chairs. I tugged at the rubber band tightly wound around my wrist. If he hadn’t told me he was moving next month, I wouldn’t have agreed to go out today. But here I was, sitting in a nearly empty mall in the middle of a sticky summer day, where the only tolerable place to sit was under the air conditioner. I smiled sadly at him and tried to make the most of our day. He really was a sweet guy.
Almost six months later, long after the summer heat had passed and he’d moved to a new country and taken up a new job, we still talked nearly every day. I’d smile at his texts and he’d send me funny jokes and updates about his life- his new job, his baby sister, his new house, even his first time seeing snow- I was happy to hear all about it.
It was easier over text message, there was no physical touch or awkward hugging. Don’t get me wrong, I loved him, just not in that way.
It wasn’t until January, when I’d started college and began to meet people that I had a series of conversations with my sister and admitted to myself that I didn’t like him. Not in a romantic sense, anyway. My sister made a joke about me being a lesbian with my short, half-shaved hair and love of plaid flannels. I’d liked girls before, but I’d always had reservations about dating them. (Because I was inexperienced and I’d always considered boys a “safer bet.”)
I was in the backseat of my brothers car while the three of us- my brother, my sister, and I- were chatting about my sister’s boyfriend and my brother’s girlfriend when it occurred to me that I wasn’t like my sister- I didn’t get butterflies in my stomach when I was around the guy who was my boyfriend. In fact, I’d never been like that. But I remembered a girl scout summer camp I’d gone to as a teenager and there was a beautiful girl who I was always nervous around and couldn’t help but grin when she looked my way.
Could I really be that dull? The pieces all began to fit together as I sat silently in the back of my brother’s car, while my siblings kept laughing and singing to the radio.
That was a month ago. I thought back to that day at the mall, where he’d asked me if I ever really liked him. I couldn’t tell him. He would be devastated that the first girl he ever said “I love you” to never loved him back. In the darkness of the car, as we drifted down the highway, I decided to keep that fact to myself. He would never have to know.