Joe was a man of few words, but the ones he spoke were more valuable than anyone else’s. His speech was in bold, swaying in italics, in constant capitalization and always underlined. To me, at least.
It was hard to even hear him sometimes. I was used to leaning in, getting closer to his dark, ever-changing hair and the juniper smell he stole from the woods. The extra effort was worth it time and time again. In groups, sometimes he would duck his head to mine and mutter something only meant for me, and I would laugh, drawing attention to us that made his hands plunge into his pockets. He smiled nonchalantly until everyone looked away, then he’d always cast a look at me. Really? My lack of subtlety was always cause for admonishment.
Joe and I have always been that way. He’s quiet, I’m too loud, and that doesn’t seem to bother him. Our friendship has lasted years; different towns, a different state once, and far through the boyfriends I’ve had. His eyes have even stayed the same—brown, intense, and like a pair of hands that hold everything they can until it hurts. They make me forget what I’m about to say next, more times than I could count. He’s tall, a bit nerdy, built himself a little cabin in the woods and is cleverer than I’ll ever be.
I just wonder if he looks at everyone like that, if he speaks to everyone the same.
My friends tell me I have him in the bag.
“He clearly likes you!”
“Guys don’t [have inside jokes, give you those looks, put up with rambling] unless they like you.”
I can hardly let myself believe them. And yet, I do. The way he watches me in a room brimming with friends or even in a subway full of strangers—I don’t think it’s platonic. He’s never seemed to notice the parts of me men gravitate to, instead I catch him looking at my hair, my lips, my neck, my hands. Always with the grasping, absorbing look I’ve only ever seen in him.
I’m meeting him today for dinner, at his cabin. It’s small, but clean and remarkably well-decorated for a man that rotates through the same five flannels and two pairs of jeans. He works from his computer, designing bridges and gates on a program that makes my head hurt to look at. Joe’s never hidden his view on my job. Ethics and Compliance at a major retailer, talking on the phone for most of my work day. He physically recoils when I bring it up, grinning when he asks how I still manage to speak as much as I do. I counter by asking how he isn’t miserably lonely, living in a remote area without anything but virtual bridges to look at. He’d shrug, pursing his lips.
I decided to dress casually, opting for warmth over style like Joe did. I brought a bottle of wine and a deck of cards, hoping he would be up for some sort of game though I didn’t know any myself. I liked being there after the sun went down, when his cabin got even cozier and where I hoped his hand might linger on my shoulder or close over mine.
The drive was long, but always worth it. I walked on his carved pathway in the snow, the gusting Maine wind making me nearly sprint to his door. I let myself in, stamping the snow off my shoes. A golden warmth greeted me, and it didn’t just come from the fire.
“Joe!” I called, not seeing him perched by the fireplace as usual.
“What?” he barked back from the loft.
“I’m here!” I smiled, heading for the fireplace. His footsteps bounded down the wooden stairs, and I inhaled the familiar piney scent of his cabin.
“Amy, what a surprise. Help yourself to the fire, I guess,” he glanced away, grinning. I watched his back as he peered into his oven.
“I brought wine. What’re you making?”
“Lasagna?” he was bent into a crouch, palms on the oven glass. The concern on his face made me laugh.
He turned around, confused. “What?”
“Nothing. How’re your bridges?” I smiled, sitting on the lip of the stone hearth. Joe sighed and sat next to me, glancing back at the oven before speaking.
“Not structurally sound,” he said, turning to me, “but that’s a problem for tomorrow.”
He grinned, making his cheeks dimple. My heart crumpled and every word I’d ever known was momentarily erased from my memory. I smiled.
“How’re your...assault cases?” he asked, grimacing. His eyes held mine, curious, genuine and possessing a focus my brain could never compete with. I felt my cheeks warm.
“Good!” I immediately blushed, faltering. “Not good, but I mean I’m getting them sorted. Talking to managers and CEO’s, all day, on the phone, getting tough cases sorted out, it’s very rewarding—” I paused when his lips twitch into a suppressed smile. “Lots of talking, every day,” I continued, making him groan. “And then I leave and go out, with more people, who talk a lot, and we have fun, and then I wake up and go to work—”
Joe cowered away, throwing his hands out to protect himself. “Stop! I will faint,” he lurched from the hearth, circling back to his oven.
I giggled menacingly, the fire warm and comforting at my back. This was what I wanted. Here, with Joe, just us and the woods. He turned and gave me another grin, making my heart implode again. I wanted it so desperately. Him, today, tomorrow and every single day after that until death do us part. I saw it all with him almost two years ago.
No one really believed me, so I stopped bringing it up. My friends tease, but they don’t really know the truth. Quiet, strong, wholesome Joe was very far from what anyone expected of me. They assume fire goes with fire, and that I’ll forever want someone to explode with. I may burn bright, but Joe is like coals, silently smoldering with a ferocity I can’t explain.
He crouched by the oven again, worry crossing his face. His hair was getting long and brushing at the nape of his neck in coffee-colored waves.
“Amy,” he said, his back to me, “come look at the lasagna.”
I did as I was told, forcing down giggles at his expense. Only taxes made me that nervous.
I crouched next to him, our socked feet nearly touching. My shoulder was pressed to his, and I wondered if he noticed. Did he smell my perfume?
“I think it looks okay,” I said, not sure what to look for. I saw a pan full of something with cheese on it, cheese that was nearing a burnt shade of brown. “Maybe take it out? Don’t want the cheese burning.”
“Amen to that,” Joe stood, pulling oven mitts out of a drawer. He opened the oven with a flourish, making me laugh again.
He managed to keep the lasagna un-burnt and I was surprised at his first attempt turning out so well. I told him so, and his eyes skittered away from mine when he smiled. He sucked at taking compliments.
We broke out the wine and sat by his fireplace, cross-legged on the carpet. He gave me one of his blankets to wrap around my shoulders, and I was elated to see that the sun had long since sank under the horizon. The urge to scoot closer to him was getting stronger with every minute. I set my wine glass to the side, not wanting to make a fool of myself if I paired the urge with an alcohol-induced lack of impulse control. I grabbed the cards from my purse instead, brandishing the deck in my hand.
“Cards?” Joe said, his wine glass balancing precariously on his knee. He had just finished a story involving a rowdy group of civil engineers and breaking his rare streak of talking was something I didn’t do often.
“Yeah, you know any games?”
Joe shrugged, taking them from me. “Not really,” he said slowly, “I might know Uno.”
“Too bad those aren’t Uno cards,” I said, my idea of a fun, potentially flirty evening fading.
Joe nodded, scowling sarcastically. “Why didn’t you just bring bocce ball?”
I rolled my eyes, tucking the cards back into my purse. “I know a game we could play. A game that takes nothing but our brains.”
Joe raised his brows, taking a sip from his glass before setting it on the hearth. He gazed at me, and I nearly stumbled over what I was going to say.
“Truth or Dare,” I smiled coyly, laughing when he groaned.
“Amy, we’re twenty-six,” he laughed, but threw his hands up. “Whatever. Let’s go. You first.”
I was surprised he agreed. Surprised and encouraged. He knew what this game could entail and he agreed anyway; maybe I was right. I felt another strong urge to squeeze him, sit closer to him, or just touch his hair.
“Okay. Truth or Dare,” I grinned, pulling the blanket around my head.
“Dare,” he said immediately. I was caught off guard.
I blew air out of my cheeks, looking around at his tiny cabin. There weren’t many dare-able activities to conjure up. I dare you to go sit at your desk and spin in the chair. Not very threatening.
Joe watched me think, seeming to enjoy the time it was taking me. Before I could start blushing I thought of something.
“I dare you to go get me a scoop of snow.”
“No,” he said, scoffing.
“Absolutely not, it’s too cold,” he gave me a dimpled grin, but I was disappointed. That’s not how the game worked.
“Okay...truth, then?” I laughed, pulling at the tassels of the blanket.
Joe groaned. “Fine.”
“Hmm,” I put my hands over my eyes, feigning deep concentration though the question was on the tip of my tongue. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?”
He looked surprised. “I dunno. I just don’t,” he reached for his glass, casually shrugging before taking a sip. “Truth or Dare.”
“Joe. That was an awful explanation.”
“I just...” he started, looking progressively more uncomfortable. “I guess I’m unlikable?”
I laughed. “You’re very likeable. And I pick Truth, too.”
Joe looked away, clearing his throat. I loved how easy it was to make him turn pink and become uncomfortable. He was so bad at hiding it.
“Okay, um...” he looked up at the ceiling, squinting. He had a nice side profile. A strong jaw, cute nose and a short beard that always melded perfectly with his features. I looked away into the fire before he could catch me looking.
“Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”
I gave him a look. He wasn’t being very original.
“Come on. Haven’t you had, like, five in the past two years? Not that that’s a bad thing,” he rushed, seeing my face warm. “I just mean, someone like you, it’s gotta be easy to get who you want, right? So why no boy?”
“Someone like me?” I repeated, putting my hand to my chest. He froze, and I could see his face go another shade paler.
“Amy, seriously, I meant that in a good way, it came out bad but I didn’t—”
“It’s okay,” I laughed, watching confusion spread over his face. “Joe. I know what you meant.”
His whole body relaxed. “Thank God. Okay, so then why?”
It was my turn to shrug. Those guys weren’t you. No one is. “They aren’t...” I started, my eyes staring off into nothing.
“Rich enough? Hot enough?” Joe deadpanned, finishing off his glass. He poured himself another one while I scoffed. I loved when he let this side of himself show. No one realized how funny he could be.
You, they aren’t you. I wanted to say it, and if I hadn’t stopped myself earlier the wine may have pulled the answer off my tongue.
“Not up to my standards,” I finished, sniffing prissily. He laughed. “Your turn.”
“That wasn’t a very good answer—” he started, but stopped after I gave him a look. “Alright, fine. Truth.”
He perched his chin on his knee, watching me. The fire flickered in his eyes in amber sparks, and his cheeks had a warm, wine-induced glow. I wanted to sit here with him forever. He was safety, joy, and he was home. The very cabin we sat in he built from nothing, never saying a word about it to anyone. Every guy I knew would be eagerly spouting that story for years. Joe wasn’t like that. He built cabins, held open doors, tipped generously and never made me feel like anything less than a person with value. And I loved him for it. I couldn’t take not knowing anymore.
In one impulsive moment, I blurted it out. “Do you love me?”
His eyes creased as his smile dimpled. He laughed, and I smiled, not sure what he was thinking. I felt like my heartbeat was audible, banging in my chest as panic swept through me. I shouldn’t have said it. I had a very strong urge to vomit.
“Amy,” he started, before breaking into laughter again. I kept grinning, waiting. Wanting to throw up. “Do I loveyou? Sure, yeah. We’ve been friends for a long time. And I appreciate that,” he grinned again, taking another sip from his glass. “Why’d you word it so dramatically?” he laughed, getting to his knees to stack another log on the fire.
I felt the vomit rise in my throat. I swallowed it down, focusing on the shattering waves in my chest and the bleary confusion in my head. So this was heartbreak.
I didn’t know if I could conceal it. I knew I should laugh, continue with the game, make it nonchalant, but I couldn’t speak. Luckily he was focused on his fire, attentively prodding the logs with a poker and sending showers of sparks up the chimney.
Could I come back from this? Would Joe ever feel the same, with the possibility of the feelings ever being returned dashed into irreparable pieces?
I knew things wouldn’t go back. They couldn’t, not ever. Joe would have to just be Joe, not my Joe, the one I created in my head, the one that loved me back but was too shy to say it. I felt shamefully stupid, thinking he would ever like me back. Love me back. I wasn’t good enough for him, or maybe not smart enough, not kind enough, not pretty enough. Something about me wasn’t good enough for him.
I forced a laugh before the silence became too awkward. “You know me, always gotta be unreasonably dramatic.”
Joe turned from the fire, settling comfortably in his own blanket. “Yeah you are.”
He grinned, like my heart hadn’t just shattered. Like he hadn’t just proven every doubt I’d ever had about myself.
I tried to return the smile, tried to think of another joke to keep things casual. I couldn’t. I felt tears prick my eyes, and I quickly turned to fiddle with my purse.
“Your turn again. Truth or Dare,” Joe said. I could hear him swishing the wine around in his cup.
I turned around, pulling out my phone with me. “Oh shoot. I didn’t realize the time, I have to get to work an hour early to go over something with a client.”
Joe’s expression remained nearly the same. He looked a little sad, but probably equally as happy to have the cabin to himself again. He wouldn’t miss me anymore than any other friend of his.
“Really? That sucks,” he stood with me, taking the blanket from my shoulder. His hand brushed over my collar bone and I fought back a shiver. I felt the tears threaten again. “Well, thanks for coming. Drive safe.”
Joe handed me my purse and ducked to peer out of his kitchen window. “Looks like more snow.”
I nodded, gathering myself one last time. “Thanks for dinner. Bye, Joe.”
I hurried to his door, a huge part of me still wanting to linger and force time to move slower. The lasagna pan clattered in the sink and Joe started to whistle something off tune.
“Bye!” he turned as I opened the door, giving me a wave and a smile. I returned it, struggling to make my body comply.
I started to sob the moment I closed his door. I hurried to my car, sharp flakes of snow whizzing across my face and bare hands. The drive home was a dark, tearful blur, and the ache steadily got worse. I tried to be angry, even offended, but the hurt didn’t want to be replaced. I could only be angry at myself, and that wasn’t enough.
A month went by. Then two, then three. I saw Joe off and on, but it never felt the same. I knew it never could. I think he sensed something was off—there was a new confused look in his eyes that I had to ignore, even when his gaze lingered. I even tried to replace him, but like I’d always known, there was no other Joe. No one could compare to that.
Surrounded by pain and embarrassment, I got a job in a different city. I left Joe and his cabin and all I ever felt for him back in the woods. With the distance it became easier, and the ache started to dull. I thought about him every night, but not for as long.
I wondered if he ever thought about me, if he would ever come to realize, regret, or ache for me like I did for him. I doubted it.
But I like to wonder.