Is love just a figment of his imagination? Because he hears those words coming out of her mouth, but anyone can say those words.
"I love you, Vance."
It's been two months and nine days since they met. That's seventy days of thumbs flying over the keyboard, sending silly texts between dates. He's gotten pictures of her at work, song recommendations... goat videos from the internet. Judy loves goats.
That's why he's taken her to the petting zoo today. He wanted her to have a good day, because she had to work the holiday weekend, and she needs a win.
She also needs to loosen her grip, because it's kind of hard to breathe right now. Though that might be because of the words she just said. He still hasn't responded.
Judy loosens her grip to look him in the eyes. He can see the goat, that darn goat, staring too. They're all waiting for it.
That's not the it they were waiting for.
Her smile fades for a second before she nods. It'd be weird to say he's welcome. It'd close the window, that small sliver of open window left, to say it back. He knows this.
Why isn't he saying it back still?
It's not like he's never said the words to anybody. He's said them to his mom and dad, if that counts. He's said them to his best friend, and his dog, and to the girl who served him a triple scoop ice cream sundae that he got at the shoppe across town.
The words crawl up into his mouth. All he needs to do is open up, and the words should come right out. Okay, here it goes.
"What are the llamas doing?"
Still not the right words. But come on, they're being very distracting, doing some inappropriate things in front of small children. Things that he won't be doing later, because he screwed up. That window is shut.
She gives it another shot three days later while they're talking on the phone, and he's in such shock that he doesn't say a thing. He can hear her on the other line, asking if he is still there before hanging up. He feels like this is a lost cause.
Mirabelle needs to give his heart back. She stole it, and took hers back, and here he is, seventy three days into a rebound.
On day seventy four, his mother calls. He's hanging out with Judy, so he keeps the conversation brief.
He should have been more brief.
"I love you too, Mom," he says, hammering the nail into the coffin. He hadn't known it'd be such a big deal.
She's hovering over him, buttons undone. She dips down to place her mouth by his ear.
He knew those words would resurface. It has become a game to her, some attempt to get him to say it back and prove that it isn't a one sided relationship. They either both win, or both lose, and judging by the way that she's pushing him away as he swoops towards her neck instead of echoing back words he can't say, he thinks he's just lost.
"I can't do this." She's pushing off him, refastening her shirt. Her shoes are sliding on as he protests for her to come back.
"I'm sorry, Vance."
He should feel more broken than he does. He's sunk into the bed, pants still undone.
He could go after her. It'd take ten seconds to zip his fly and fumble into the flip flops by door. But what's the point? There's a girl that ran off with his heart, and he can't reach her on foot.
Changing her contact in his phone (from In the Moody for Judy to Judy Your Ex), he pulls his pants the rest of the way offs and falls asleep.
Mirabelle haunts his dreams. She's there, blonde hair flowing in the ocean breeze.
"I love you, Vance," Dream Mirabelle says.
"I love you too." He reaches for her, and she dissolves into the sunset. It forces him awake. Part of his body is more awake than others, so he takes care of it and grabs a sock from his laundry pile.
He needs to buy more socks.
Or rather, he needs to stop indulging in this figment of a lover and accept that she's not coming back. It's been seventy four days without her, and he can make it seventy four more. Two more rounds then, and it'll be a year.
He can make it a year.
He meets a girl, Hayley. She has a body like Mirabelle, and smells like Judy's perfume, but she has a personality unlike both. She puts notes in his mailbox and makes her own trail mix for the hikes that she takes him on.
They hit the two month, nine day mark. He doesn't think it's a rule, but he isn't an expert on girls, so he avoids Hayley all day in hopes that she won't say it.
Midnight passes, and he exhales. He's made it through the day.
Things are different with her. With Judy, he was never over Mirabelle. He was always waiting for her to reappear, to sweep him off his feet (literally, as the girl was strong) and tell him that she missed him. He had tried to keep things casual. A man has needs.
Hayley though, he isn't sure what kind of magic she has coursing through her, but he hasn't dreamt of Mirabelle in weeks. He hasn't had to buy new socks again. He goes to bed and sees her face, dreams of her cashew kisses.
Day seventy four hits. She still hasn't said it. He doesn't want to worry; he refuses to. She isn't the sappy type, and she's admitted to as much. Her ex would romance her until he was blue in the face. She liked that Vance was a simple man.
He's trying very hard to remain casual.
Round two passes, and it's day one forty eight. They're at a point where her toothbrush is in his bathroom, and he has a drawer at her place. They share homes, and he'd like to believe hearts, but she hasn't said those words, and he's scared to.
The last girl he told he loved left him behind.
There's a new restaurant in town, so he makes reservations. They're going to wine and dine until he's inebriated enough to say the words.
When they get to the restaurant, they're placed at a table by in the corner where the light is dim. He wishes it were dimmer. There, kitty corner to him is the sock killer, Mirabelle.
He blinks, turning back to the menu. "Yeah?"
"Don't look now, but my ex is right there." Her head jerks slightly, and she raises her voice. "I think I'm going to get the lobster ravioli."
Raising his menu to cover his face, he scopes out the table. "That sounds delicious. I think I'm going to go for the shrimp scampi."
His voice is louder than it should be. Mirabelle glances over. All she can see are the senior specials, and he angles the menu so that she sees the cover too, and not the couple whispering behind it.
Are their exes dating each other?
"He's...very muscular." He only caught a glimpse. Lots of bulging muscles, like he should consider getting a bigger shirt size bulging, and a military haircut.
"I meant the girl."
The waiter chooses then to come by, taking the menus away with him. They both steal a look to the table and confirm that it is indeed Mirabelle. Scrunching closer to the wall, they continue their conversation.
"Wait, when did you two date?" He's suddenly terrified that she's the mystery lover that she left him for, and that he's dating the girl, falling for the girl, that helped his ex break his heart.
"Two years ago? Ish. She broke it off with me for some guy she was crushing on. Said that I was just an experiment and that she wasn't gay after all. It stung, hard."
Oh no, it's worse.
He's the mystery lover.
There's two routes he can take. The honest one, where he cuts his losses, because they haven't confessed their love yet, or the dishonest one, where he consoles her and pretends that he didn't steal her girlfriend from her.
He opens his mouth to speak as the waiter stops at Mirabelle's table, dropping off the food. He turns to refill their glasses too, because he has nervously chugged his dry.
"Thanks." He takes a long drink. "Sucks to be her."
She cracks a smile, and then he hears those words, the lilt in her voice.
"I love you, Vance."
Crap. Looks like he's destined to take the dishonest road. Because unlike with Judy, this time he can find the words.
"I love you too, Hayley." The table jabs his stomach as he leans across to kiss her. He can hear the gasp coming from the diagonal. He ignores it. He's wasted too many socks on that girl. He sure as heck isn't going to waste his kisses too.
They pull apart when the pasta arrives. She asks for to go boxes, and they eat in his car, far away from the prying eyes of their ex. The same ex who parked next to them, and catches his eye as she climbs into the passengers seat.
Is that heartburn, or the guilt?
He should have told Judy he loved her. He should have said it back, and moved her in, and adopted a goat together. Then he wouldn't be her, eating pasta out of a Styrofoam box with the victim of his former lover.
No, he should have never flirted with Mirabelle. Should have never pushed that strand of hair out of her face, never let his lips rub against hers.
He thinks he's going to be sick.
Taking the last roll from the doggy bag, he blows chunks.
"Is the shrimp bad?" She sets her lobster ravioli on the dashboard.
Why did he say he loved her back?
He hurls into the bag again, tying it closed with a knot.
"Yeah, I guess so."
Just like him.