Daniel finished reading.
He sighed, took off his specs, and rubbed his nose ridge, right where the glasses had made its scars. I think he opened his mouth to speak once, but not a word escaped those thin, ash-black, nicotine-stained lips. Then, just as imperceptibly, the void closed. He was cleaning his specs now.
He was clearly very impressed with the story. Probably deciding how best to turn me down. He does not speak yet. I wait.
I wonder if he has ever regretted our days in college, specifically the “our” part of it. That friendship has had its costs for him, and here I was, in his living room, sipping his imported tea, demanding another. I look up to see Daniel’s face. He seems sad. I would not blame him if he decides to end it now. I know I would have, had I been in his position.
I pat myself on the back. Great job, Ned. Another one down the drain. Burn ’em brighter. May these burning bridges provide the heat for the coming winter on the streets. That is, if I am not 6 feet under by then. Daniel still has not spoken. I take a sip of the tea and dare venture a word to break this silence.
“… right. So, how’d find this… It’s my finest work really. Surely…”, my voice fades out, just as weakly as it had begun. He has not looked up. He is still cleaning his glasses. For a moment, I wonder if I had imagined speaking.
I take another sip and try again, “So, how is it? Printable?” I use all the tricks in the book: The ingratiating smile, the loose, but energetic body language, the polite laugh, I even remember to wrinkle near my eyes.
There is silence.
“… you know how it is Ned. In this business … I cannot really make any, you know, compromises.” And so Daniel has spoken.
I look down at my tea. The color is beautiful.
He talks on after that, assuring me that everything will be fine, informing me my alternatives. He even ends with another apology.
That’s what he says, probably. I did not listen. I did not need to listen. I have heard this a million times now; memorized are not just the words, but the pauses and inflections as well. We humans are eerily similar at breaking bad news. I suppose we never really develop our own style; maybe we do not even want to. It’s the same moves learnt from the same books and movies.
Daniel has finished speaking, waiting for an acknowledgement or reply. I look up.
His glasses really were quite clear, but his eyes were dark. I look into those hazy orbs a while longer, far longer than is polite. He gracefully lowers his first. I stare on before going back to my tea.
I take another sip. Loudly. I do it another time. And another. Each louder than the one before. At the point, if anyone had asked me why, I believe the answer would have been instantaneous: I hate myself. I wonder if that is not the only answer to all questions that have been asked of me.
“Yes, sir. The reason I dropped out is because I hate myself.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to be drunk that day on your birthday party. I just hate myself.”
“I did not want to be late. I just found it impossible to wake from the bed because I was busy hating myself.”
I cannot take another sip. The cup is empty. I no longer possess a reason to stay. I get up. I do not look back. I do not shake his hand. I exit.
The resentment dies the moment I set foot on the curb. I am, quite frankly, extremely embarrassed.
Though that is nothing. It’s the creeping shiver from the winter breeze, and the clawing desperation under my skin that preoccupies me.
There is nowhere to go next.
My story will not be published, I know. I always knew, even before I ever started.