Yvette ran her hands through her hair. It was dark around her. And cold. And she was pretty sure the man in the mural across the street just winked at her. She had not needed that last shot of tequila. Screw Milo for messing up her night out. How was it fair that she got kicked out of the nightclub when Milo was the one accidentally falling and groping every woman he passed. He really shouldn’t have been surprised when she accidentally dented his face in after he accidentally pulled down her top. Fuck little boys with big connections. She knew she was stomping. It felt good. She didn’t feel like walking lightly upon the earth tonight, she felt like cracking the earth asunder.
Yvette crossed the street and shoved her finger into the chest of the man painted on the brick wall. “Who do you think you’re winking at, mister? I’m not an object, I’m a person with feelings which is more than anyone can say about you, huh?” She knew she was yelling at a wall, and yeah okay, it was not her finest moment, but she didn’t care. It felt good. It felt good to insult a face that couldn’t argue, fight back, or walk away. He just had to stand there, in the stupid pose he was painted in, and take it.
“You’re so smug. You’re one of those Olympic athletes that won a medal right? What are you? A swimmer? A runner? Well, you’re not better than the rest of us just because you’re fast!”
She slammed her palm against the wall by his head as if to emphasize her point. The young athlete’s eyes stared back at her. His eyes spoke of hardship, dedication, and triumph.
Yvette lowered her own. She didn’t understand the hard work or commitment that drove these individuals to success.
Frowning, she asked, “Why do you try so hard?”
She stepped back to look at the lifesize rendering all at once. The artist had done a good job depicting how strong this man was even through the warm-ups he had on. The jacket was snug around his shoulder and biceps. The pants stretched a bit at the thighs before hanging loose around the rest of his legs. Having tried and failed many workout routines in her past, the level of dedication required to shape a body into this specimen felt alien to her.
“Why put the blood, sweat, and tears into something that others will just tear down and tell you isn’t good enough? I mean you look smoking hot and all, but how many matches did you lose getting to this point?”
Yvette leaned against one of the trees planted in the sidewalk. She laid her head back against the trunk, looked up between the branches, and swallowed hard.
“Does your heart feel like it’s tearing into pieces when you lose?”
She closed her eyes and took a shuddering breath.
“Does your throat constrict so violently that you’re afraid you may never speak again?”
She let the silence stretch between them. Her thoughts meandered back to grade school P.E. classes and races she never took seriously. She’d been asked to pair up for some exercise and she watched as all her close friends grabbed a partner. She remembered the exact moment when she realized that none of her friends had chosen her. Her shoulders had curled in on herself and her arms wrapped around her midsection. Her breaths had become short and started to shake with each exhale. She had squeezed her eyes shut tight trying to keep the traitorous liquid at bay, but it was no use, the floodgates had opened and her runny nose betrayed her as well. She’d buried her face in her hands and ran to the bathroom.
“Have you ever felt the pain of rejection?”
She opened her eyes and realized she’d slid down to sit on the ground still propped up by the tree. She looked up at the young man grinning at her as if to hide the unease he felt at her question.
“No? Well, it’s like a blade so sharp you don’t notice how finely it’s cut you up at first. But then it begins to sting a little, and suddenly your whole body is in agony and you spend ages finding all the places you were cut and doing your best to bandage them despite a worldwide shortage of bandages. So by the time you’re done, you’re still bleeding in some places but you pretend you don’t notice and you pretend others won’t notice either, but they do. They see the wounds that never healed and they poke at them out of curiosity or malice, just to see how much more they’ll bleed.”
She cocked her head to the side and sighed.
“I don’t understand you. How could the euphoria of winning ever be worth the pain it took to get there? It seems so much safer, so much simpler to pretend you never wanted to win at all. Why not let others fight over the prize, so that when it invariably ends up in another’s hands you can say ‘I never really wanted him.’”
She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Take Tony for example. Are my friends bombarding me with sympathetic platitudes and concerned texts? No, because I never told them I liked Tony. Which is so much better than if I had. Now, I don’t have to pretend to be strong in the face of their sympathy, or watch the pity flash across their faces. Nope, none of that. I just get to go out on a Friday night and pretend everything’s normal. Pretend it doesn’t make me nauseous watching Jessica hang on Tony’s arm as they walk together, or pretend I enjoy dancing while Jessica grinds on him and he throws his head back in ecstasy.”
“And I know what you’re thinking. You could have stopped it all if you’d just told him how you felt. No. Wrong. He chose someone else, he was always going to choose someone else. I just curtailed the pain before it became real heartache.”
His silence and unwavering gaze agitated her. She stood up abruptly and scoffed.
“You could never understand. You’re handsome and talented. If you lose one match, so what? There’ll always be more matches.”
She stalked away from her wall in the direction of her apartment.
The night was cold but the breeze was warm. The city lights lightened the sky and erased the stars. The moon didn’t help. The moon was full and brilliant, hijacking the night and leaving everlasting twilight in its wake.
She stopped short on the sidewalk in front of her building.
Tony was sitting on the front steps.
She walked slowly towards him and then called out, “Tony? Are you okay?”
He smiled and it looked relieved.
“I’m fine, Vee.” He stood up. He was wearing the same blue jeans and black t-shirt he had been wearing at the club tonight. “I was wondering if we could talk inside.”
“Um, yeah, sure. Here I’ll get the door.”
Tony followed her through the front door and up to her unit. She gestured at the couch as they entered her place.
“Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you a drink or anything?”
“Beer, water, tea?”
“-well, maybe a water, thanks.”
Yvette poured a couple of glasses and set them on the coffee table where Tony had taken a seat. Tony picked up his glass and took a couple sips. Neither one of them spoke for several moments.
“What happened?” Yvette broke the silence.
“What do you mean?”
“Why aren’t you still at the club?”
Tony’s eyebrows rose at the question, “Vee... you got kicked out of a dance club. I came to make sure you were okay.”
She grinned. She felt a certain pride for her actions tonight. She’d never been kicked out of a club for a better reason.
“I’m fine, how’s Milo’s face?”
Tony shook his head and smiled wryly, “Still bleeding when I left.” He sighed, “Vee, you’re not usually violent...”
“Don’t tell me you think he didn’t deserve it!”
“No! No. He definitely deserved it but... I was worried about you. You were sexually assaulted and then kicked out, alone. Are you okay?”
“Oh… um, yeah, I’m fine.”
“Do you want to report him?”
Yvette was quiet for a minute. She’d never even considered reporting it. Dicks that covertly fondled girls in clubs were a part of the landscape. You just learned to navigate it and deal with it. What was a butt grab here or there? She wasn’t hurt by it. So why did it make her blood boil when she saw Milo grabbing every pair of tits that walked by tonight? It just wasn’t right. Those other girls shouldn’t have to deal with his wandering hands and severe lack of boundaries.
But she’d clocked him.
If she went to the cops, she might get charged with assault. He could claim that he’d slipped and accidentally pulled down her top but convincing the cops that she’d accidentally slammed her elbow into his jaw would be much harder.
“I duno. I don’t need assault on my record.”
“I was thinking about that... what if you said you just tried to turn away quickly to cover yourself and your elbow accidentally caught him as you turned.”
“It’ll be my word against his.”
“It always is. And honestly, he probably won’t get convicted of anything, but maybe having to talk to the cops will make him think twice next time.”
“You don’t think the bloody nose I gave him will have him thinking twice?” Yvette smiled.
Tony answered her smile with a sad one of his own.
Yvette sighed. “Yeah, it’s not really a lasting consequence, is it?”
Tony shook his head without saying anything.
“Where... why aren’t you with Jessica right now?”
“Jessica’s fine, she’s with Rachel and everyone back at the club. She won’t even miss me.”
Yvette scoffed, “I don’t know about that. I bet you leave a void in her chest everytime you say goodnight.”
Tony looked down at his hands and then scratched his head.
“Do you have a void in your chest, Vee?”
Yvette could feel her heartbeat in her fingertips as she twisted the ring around her thumb. She took a deep breath and leaned back against the couch cushions.
“What are you asking, Tony?”
“What do you think I’m asking?”
Ignoring the question, she stated the obvious, “you’re dating Jessica.”
“I broke up with her.”
She blinked quickly several times as if she was glitching under the abruptness of his news.
“Right after you left the club.”
She leaned forward on the couch so she didn’t miss a word, “why?”
“She didn’t want me coming to check on you.”
Yvette raised an eyebrow without answering.
“She says she doesn’t like the way I act around you. I think she thinks there’s something between us.”
“But we’re not dating. There’s nothing between us.”
Tony looked up at her and the question was plain across his face before he spoke it, “is there really nothing between us, Vee?”
“I- I, uh, I’m gonna grab an iced tea,” she raced towards the kitchen, “do you want one?”
“I like you, Vee.”
She stopped in her tracks. Her mind was racing. This was uncharted territory. Every word, every move felt dangerous, as if a pit of vipers was just a step away. She couldn’t look at him. Her heart was jackhammering against her ribs. She felt sure the pressure would crack them. Warning bells rang through her mind. If she lied and told him she didn’t like him, he’d be hurt. But if she admitted that she liked him back… she’d just be setting herself up for more pain down the road. Eventually, he’d change his mind. He couldn’t like her forever. No one liked someone forever. Without turning around she asked, “what if I don’t like you back?”
Tony’s deep chuckle wrapped around her and urged her to face him. She complied.
“Then I’d know, and could move on without regrets.”
“But it would be painful. How could you not regret that pain?”
“Pain is a part of being alive,” he walked towards Yvette and placed his hands on her shoulders, “I don’t want to live avoiding sadness. That’s not the road to happiness.”
He pulled her into a warm bear hug. A hug that demanded nothing. A hug that just gave.
The pounding in her chest subsided and her breaths steadied. His warmth flowed through her and warmed her veins that had been frozen with fear. She didn’t understand it, but she felt safe.
Eventually he led her back to the couch and pulled her into his arms.
He nuzzled her neck and whispered, “when the time is right, will you admit that you like me?”
She smiled up at him but her throat felt tight.
The hope and vulnerability in his words cracked something inside her. Maybe over the years, she’d layered so many bandages over her heart they’d become a cast. As she held his gaze, a lightness grew in her chest that she didn’t recognize. With Tony wrapped around her, she felt invincible.
She snuggled closer. Sighing in contentment, she closed her eyes and let the rightness of this moment engulf her.
Her phone buzzed on the coffee table. She squinted against the light of the room as she groggily palmed it to see who the text was from.
She had a new message from Tony. She didn’t have to look behind her on the couch to know he was gone, but she looked anyways. She fumbled to unlock her phone.
Are you okay, Vee? I’m coming over if I don’t hear back from you in 10 minutes.
She checked the time on the text. 9:32am. It had just come in.
Her eyebrows pulled together as she crafted a reply.
I’m fine. But why’d you leave?
She watched as the typing bubbles lit up at the bottom of her screen.
I guess Rachel told you that I left Jess at the club last night. We had a big fight. I slept on it last night and decided to break up with her this morning. I’m sorry I didn’t reach out to you sooner to see how you were doing last night. Jess was messing with my head. She made me think checking on you would be cheating on her.
Yvette re-read the last message multiple times. She looked around her apartment and saw a cup of water on the coffee table. Just one cup of water. She scanned the couch and entry area for any sign of him. Nothing.
A chill raced up her spine.
She typed a quick response.
So you went directly home from the club and haven’t left there since?
Well… not until now.
A knock sounded on her door.
She jumped and looked from her phone to her door. She stared at the door without getting up.
A second knock reverberated in her small living room.
She hustled up to the door and leaving the chain lock engaged, opened the door to confirm her suspicions about who was calling on her.
Tony’s smile was slightly apologetic.
“I know I said I’d come over if you didn’t respond, but I wasn’t expecting you to respond… so I was already on the way.”
Yvette smiled stiffly and closed the door to disengage the chain lock. Then opened it again and ushered him inside.
Bits from last night were flying back to her like bubbles of memories bursting in her brain.
She felt the crunch of Milo’s jaw beneath her elbow.
She heard herself yelling at a mural of some athlete.
She saw herself stomping home.
She remembered curling up on the couch instead of crawling into bed.
She remembered a whispered promise to the man she loved.
Yvette smiled and felt the fear of pain fade to the background.
“Tony, I’m glad you came over. There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”