It seemed an ordinary hug at first. His arms around my back, mine atop his shoulders and around his neck; identical to our dozens of others, identical to our thousands of others with others. Quotidian and unremarkable, an ordinary goodbye for an ordinary evening.
Until he drifted his arms slowly to my waist.
Then he tightened them; just a smidge, as one might do a belt, or a winch, or a knot.
His arms settled to stillness across my back. And suddenly my body had become softly flush with his. So much so I could feel my heartbeat conducting through his shoulder and back into my chin, touch the heat radiating under his skin, smell faintly the furtive place between the collar of his shirt and the nape of his neck. His fingers were splayed wide inside the small of my back and up my spine, one hand a featherweight above the other; I could have stroked with my thumbs the baby curls of dark hair at the back of his head.
If there is anything I have come to understand in the time that has passed since that moment, it is that one cannot overthink the imperative of forward movement. That now is the right time to strike is not always clear — sometimes one must move in spite of oneself. Especially for those of us still reeling from earlier pain it is altogether too easy to insist that, until the coast has been discerned completely clear, we will never move forward with anything again. The necessary catch in this modus operandi, however, is that no coast is ever completely clear, ever; no relationship, whether friendship or more than, is perfect at first, and it is only through journeying our lives together that the complex beauty of our bonds is revealed.
The quest for certainty will crush the life out of you if you let it.
He leaned back slightly. I looked up at him and he down at me, the moment a mirror of the evening’s first, when I had unlocked my door to find him damp with the thunderstorm he had met on his way over. For some reason he’d been sheepish about being caught in the rain, or maybe I had smirked upon first seeing him and made him self-conscious. But now, at the end of the evening, there was a difference to the look in his eyes: a foreign glance, a peculiar touch of something jarring, that I had never seen before in him. His face was so close that I could see faintly the smile lines at the sides of his mouth, the half-day’s worth of stubble laid over his chin. My feet were square to his, and my necklace had slipped off earlier in the evening, its exhausted clasp unwilling to stay shut for so long. My neck felt uncomfortably exposed, especially with him so close, and I almost stepped back.
And then he smiled. Just a little one, so small that, in memory, I’m not even sure it quite reached his mouth. But it was there in his eyes, whose sudden, startling heat felt like the center of an African savannah at high noon, irises just as sharply blue as its sky. Something flashed there, in his eyes, and abruptly the silence we were standing in felt heavy, cluttered and overwhelming. And in that second of his smile the critical junction burst upon the road we had been walking since first I had opened my door what seemed only moments before. From the epicenter of the rupture a wordless question charged through; in that instant I knew exactly where he wanted us to go. And I knew, in a deeply protected place two steps past words, where I wanted to go, too.
The question, released, now hovered in the air between us, patiently awaiting its response.
In my daily life I endeavor insistently to steel myself against feeling anything too intensely, at least not in the immediate moment a situation may call for it. This inclination is the result of a melting pot of internal hardwiring and experience; unlucky loves, childhood training and trauma, refusal to repeat the mistakes of my parents and peers. This does not mean that I am incapable of intense feeling — I am, on the contrary, a fairly sensitive person who often experiences a wide spectrum of emotions in the course of a day. And for the things I do desire, I desire these fervently, almost to the point of obsession. But I neither immediately trust nor immediately follow strong feeling; and sometimes, neither becomes never.
This is one who keeps things aggressively to herself.
In the proximity between his mouth and mine continued to flutter the question, suspended in the silence of the eleven o’clock air. In the manner of its presenting — the tilt of his body, the raw burn of his eyes, hands still gently holding my waist, but no forward movement — it was clear into whose hands the power of decision had been committed. But how to answer? For until now this moment had been sealed in a mausoleum of imprisoned wishes, for which I had built endless storyboards in my dreams and then locked into a Pandora’s Box of dangerous and inadmissible things. A crack, however, had unexpectedly appeared, and one wish had escaped, fluttering out like a paper lantern over the sea entombing my way of living in the world.
The wish floated in the air of my mind, desperate to be the question’s reply.
But I did not trust him. And in retrospect, I perhaps should have. Not necessarily with all of my feelings in a grander sense, but with that moment, for what it would have represented to me at that crossroads to walk a path different to that most familiar. For that night was not about its implications for the day after, or the weeks and months after that; it was about challenging my own vulnerabilities, my reflexive defenses against affection offered to me, my reticence to lay my true desires out on any table, and this singular action that, while it might not have been an instant curative for these things, would have been a meaningful first step towards breaking those walls down.
Our most profound moments of growth happen here, in the capricious darkness of the unknown. The times when we didn’t know whether we would fly, or hit the ground and break our legs, or our teeth, or our heart. The chasm between what might happen and what actually does is the space in which strength and wisdom germinate. Life is uncomplicated without risks, certainly, but without risk there is no aspiring to greater heights of experience, greater depths of understanding. It is a life of facile placidity, where nothing is truly bad but nothing is truly spectacular either. Which is survivable, perhaps, even manageable. But it is not really a life.
Heart and mind disaligned; a millisecond’s delay is all it took.
I stood frozen in my spot, rooted to my certainty, full of uncertainty.
The question was answered.
Outside, the rain continued to quietly fall, incredulous witness to the verdict.
Yet he did not completely accept his dismissal, though the answer was understood. And, barely missing a measure, he reached into the lingering void to make this clear. Leaning into me as though for his kiss he instead pressed into me a purposeful miss; his mouth glided towards mine but, instead of touching down, landed a deliberate hair’s breadth away, perpendicular to the split, and came to a languid stop. His mouth rested there, soft and unmoving, for what was truthfully a mere few seconds but in that moment felt an electrocuting eternity. If I had moved my head a fingernail’s width towards his I could have tasted his stubble inside my bottom lip.
Instead his face brushed the place beneath my mouth but above my chin. A peculiar place, a place with no name; nameless and intimate as the space in which we continued to stand suspended. I remember it being vaguely painful, the scratch of his hours-old beard, but I also do not fully trust remembered sensual perception as objective fact; the remembered hurt could have as much been literal pain, as the pain of stopping in its tracks the train towards that which, until that moment, had seemed inevitable.
But I persisted. Did not change course, did not move; did not say or do anything to communicate I felt any differently to what I had written into the previous seconds’ silence.
He pulled back.
“Goodnight,” he said, with the faintest nod of his head, a slight uptick of the corners of his mouth.
Regret is a terrible bedfellow.
There are a countable number of choices in my life that I would wish to rewrite; it is a matter of principle. I believe, for the most part, that if I make each day the best choices I am able to make with the information I have at hand, there should be little more said; peaceful sleep at the end of a day of best-possible choices is fairly earned. This, however, is one of the few occasions for which remorse is the memory’s decided aftertaste. And, appropriately, this is one of the few I have turned over and over since its transpiring, milling for an acceptance that has never fully arrived.
This loss is no catastrophe. Far from it. But it is our naked desires that transform our worlds; not the things we think we should do, the things we believe we should want, the measured ways in which we behave such that we might control for outcomes that may not even be ours to inherit. Whether I had fallen for him and had my heart summarily broken, whether we had become something greater, or whether we had pulled back and realized the moment was perfect for what it was and nothing more — it would have all held meaning, for our lives’ real alchemy is founded upon the lessons we learn from the risks we take. And, thus, for someone like me, so often petrified by my insistence upon knowing everything before doing anything — taking an uncalculated risk based solely upon desire unadulterated may have been one of the most transfiguring decisions I could have made in the otherwise decidedly rigid paradigm of my life.
“Goodnight,” I replied, one hand on the door frame, the other holding the door ajar.
He turned and I watched him as he walked away, and I continued to watch him as he turned the corner, and then I kept watch with my ears until I could no longer hear his footsteps over the hallway carpet. And then I slowly, delicately, closed the door, with barely a sound from the click in the lock. As if to delay the dreadful moment of recognition: that something extraordinary had flitted irretrievably out of my grasp, and escaped without resistance into the night.