The car pulled up to the South Building in relative silence, the only sound that of the silence itself. The headlights pierced the brown brick wall before making their way through a copse of trees, where they relinquished. When the engine petered out, and no one moved, the silence grew ever louder.
Shy little Catherine’s going on a date?
It was the sound of the meanest words circling Catherine’s head, but in a new voice this time. They were back, better than ever, with a new spin. Because this time, they came in the voice of Nate.
Fearless, awkward, clever Nate. He was the last person who was meant to say things like that. He was meant to say things like, “did you know New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote?” in the middle of a conversation about cats. Sure, he said a lot, but never anything to hurt anyone. Certainly not Catherine.
And judging by the growing cloud of shame in the air, he knew it. Nate knew very well the line he’d crossed, the damage he’d done. And that any sane person would leave him behind in that car, alone. But not Catherine. Because, to her shame, a very simple question had paralyzed her: what would happen if she stayed?
You have no idea what you’re walking into.
So they sat, here in this homely black car, the seats molded to their bodies and their faces dimly lit by the warm street lights above. Her anger was gone, leaving behind only raw, throbbing, nearly-physical hurt. It gently stirred the shame permeating in the air like humidity. Catherine picked at the embroidery on her jeans.
“I’m sorry, Catherine.” Nate fell forward helplessly, leaning his forehead on the steering wheel. “I’m an idiot. I had no right. I didn’t know you were going out with someone, it caught me by surprise. I was disoriented. Angry you hadn’t told me, I guess. But I had no right.”
Catherine felt as he turned his head in her direction. In her periphery, his temple rested on the cold leather. Her face heated as he watched a single tear make its way down her cheek. She couldn’t move.
Of course he had no right. All she’d been doing for the last three months was trying to get over him. Trying to find a way to not want to scream every time she remembered how in love Nate was with somebody else. If only you could see your own halo, the way your eyes shine when it rains. That’s what he’d written, to whoever it was that wasn’t her. It was the letter that she’d found slipped inside a book in his apartment. A love letter. And before she’d found out, she’d gone over that night to confess. Instead, it had broken her heart then and it broke it now.
That was what he thought about the girl he loved, and this is what he thought about her - that she was homely, awkward, petty. Every moment of every day, she kicked herself for screaming, and then she screamed some more.
So no, he didn’t have any right to tell her she couldn’t date.
“I’m an idiot. I didn’t mean it. You have to know that. You have to know I’d never intentionally say anything to hurt you. I just went insane for a second there. I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Honestly. I’m so sorry.”
You know you have to talk on a date, right?
Catherine began to shake in sobs as all of it welled up inside her. The tears were for today, but they were also for yesterday, and the day before that. She wanted to cry every time she saw Nate, just knowing what she didn’t mean to him. What he still meant to her. It was agony like she’d never felt before. It was hell. And he had no idea. He was too busy loving someone else.
Nate tucked an arm around her, and she leaned into him, painful as it was. How much longer could she do this? How much longer before she lost him? How much longer before she lost herself?
She was pathetic, she thought. Crying in the arms of the boy who didn’t love her. Who thought she was nothing.
“Do you really think that?” Catherine muttered.
“No. God, no. I think you’re strong, and remarkable, and beautiful, and more than any guy deserves.” But he did. “I think you’re so special. You’re the most special person I’ve ever met. You’re my favourite person. You inspire the hell out of me.” She couldn’t decide if it sounded like a cruel joke or a miracle. “I swear, you’re gonna conquer the world someday. I can’t believe my luck to have met you. Catherine, you make me feel like something worth keeping.”
She rose like the wind, sudden and immense. You make me feel like something worth keeping. She’d heard that before. Read it, in fact. Her heart stopped beating. The world stopped beating.
“What did you just say?”
Nate looked startled, a little scared. “You make me feel like something worth keeping,” he muttered, less sure of himself.
That’s when she kissed him.
She moved her hand to the back of his neck, the hand with smudged tears still on the back. She tugged his face gently toward hers. She tilted her head up and pressed their lips together.
Because Catherine remembered that. The love letter in the book. She’d written it all down, all the moment she’d gotten home. Everything she could remember. The first page she’d found, hands shaking. There was a scribbled rendition of Nate’s love letter folded in a book in her apartment. Romeo and Juliet, the same as in his. And hidden inside Romeo and Juliet were the words “you make me feel like something worth keeping.” And Catherine had never stopped remembering that.
Nate relaxed into her, and she felt as their broken hearts lifted from their bodies like ghosts, and drifted off into the night. Because they were here, somewhere neither ever thought they could be. It was like a dream Catherine had had, one that had come back to haunt her, had woken her to midnight tears time and time again. But she wasn’t crying anymore.
All this time, she’d thought the cure was in forcing herself to let go. But it had been right here, in this moment, the whole time. Waiting for her.
At last, Catherine let herself think it - that her love was for the curiosity in his eyes, the way he had to know everything. How his eyebrows went up when he got caught. The way his voice sounded like a pirouette when he talked about European politics or quantum physics or eighteenth-century fashion or anything else you could think of.
When they finally pulled back, they didn’t really. Never again. They held their foreheads together and breathed the same warm air. Warmer than anything anywhere.
If Nate was confused, it was not a thought that mattered anymore. “I read your letter,” Catherine offered. She didn’t even dare to smile. Just breathe.
His eyebrows furrowed, with cute little almost-dimples that she couldn’t see but knew were there. “How-?” But he didn’t ask the question. Perhaps he was tired of his own endless curiosity, or perhaps he simply didn’t care.
“You make me feel like something worth keeping,” Catherine sang.
Nate inhaled against her cheek, but she felt it across her body like the scent of a campfire. “I-”
“I love you, too.”
And then he smiled, that big, aimless, beautiful smile of his. And so did she.
Slowly, Catherine felt as he ran his fingers through the waves in her hair, and kissed her until she was breathless. Until Catherine couldn’t remember the days she’d spent laughing a little too hard, watching him walk away, taking pictures, screaming just for him to never hear. The nights she’d spent watching the clock tick by, confessing to her ceiling, wishing for a way out, cursing everything inside her.
Because maybe it was just a story.