He plays back the message on his voicemail for the fifth time just to hear the sound of her voice. And then deletes it, deletes all of them. This has to stop. He has to tell her, has to put an end to this. It’s tearing him up inside.
“No fool like an old fool,” he mutters. He tosses his phone onto the bed and pours another three fingers of scotch into his glass, drinks it down and winces at the burn. Tears well up in his eyes, but he fights them back, pretends it’s just the sharpness of the alcohol.
She can’t call him anymore. He’ll have to tell her. Naturally, she’ll be hurt, she’ll be angry at him. Because she has no idea how deep his feelings run. He’s kept them in a straightjacket for months now. But he can’t anymore. Longing has grown like a tumor, threatening to break through his breastbone, spill out through his rib-cage. He’s not sure what kind of monster might be unleashed.
He stares at the phone on his bed and imagines her at home, on her own bed. Young, beautiful. Probably sleeping, since she likes to get up early and run before breakfast. And on the bed beside her, her husband. Also young, handsome, fit. An athlete. He unconsciously rubs a hand across his soft middle, pushes aside a mental image of the two of them making love.
He met the husband once, ran into them together at an ice cream place in town last summer, back when he only admired her loveliness from a distance. If only it had remained so. But she worked at the library, and he spent a lot of time there. When she found that he was a writer, she began talking to him on a regular basis. She had aspirations as a writer, and he agreed to look at her work. It was unpolished, but surprisingly good. It seemed they had plenty to talk about in spite of vast differences.
When was it he became aware that he was in love with her?
There were times when she sat across the table from him at the cafe in town, and she flirted. It was playful, not at all serious, but her eyes melted him.
She took him into her confidence. She would tell him about an argument she had with her husband, or about how her mother favored her older brother. She would sometimes cry and apologize for it after. But it cut him to his core. He wanted to surround her with love and protect her from even the smallest of sufferings. He did not let on how he felt, but took extra care in his appearance. He bought a small bottle of her perfume, kept it in his desk and would sometimes pull it out and breathe in her scent. And he looked forward to her calls.
She called him whenever she needed something. An opinion on her writing. Sympathy when her mother was cruel. A shoulder to cry on when she and her husband were not getting along. And he was glad to be there for her. It made him feel useful, made him happy to be needed by her.
But when things went well for her, she was absent. He’d go a week without hearing from her, and he couldn’t sleep, had no appetite, thought of her obsessively. He would come to a place where he could say to himself, ‘This is not healthy. She will never be yours. You are an old fool and you need to keep your perspective.” And then she would call him.
“I need to talk to you,” she’d say.
“Yes. I’m here.” Always there.
She would talk about the other people in her life, her other friends, her mother, her husband. And he would realize that he was just on the periphery of her life, not really a part of it.
He takes the glass into the kitchen, puts it in the sink, although he feels like hurling it at the wall. “Clean break,” he mutters, feeling the scotch. And he gazes into the refrigerator for the third or fourth time that evening, but still nothing looks worth eating. And eating alone seems unbearable right now anyway.
When he goes to his bathroom to shower, he almost picks up the phone and takes it with him, but turning away from her has to begin somewhere, he decides. So he leaves it on the bed.
He prefers his showers hot, but this one is barely tepid. He undresses, steps into the spray. His skin tightens on contact with the water. It strikes like a shower of icy needle-pricks, like a penance, and he wants to cry, but the scotch has stolen his tears; wants to masturbate, thinking of her beautiful face, her trim, young body in the sundress he saw her in last week when they met in town, but the alcohol and agony make it impossible. So he washes, turns off the water and gets out, towels off.
In the mirror he sees a middle-aged man, and the sight is a shock. It has been ever since he fell in love with her. Years fall from him with every flirtation, with every loving comment, every time she rests her hand on his from across the table at the cafe. But only from his heart. His heart feels young, virile. But his face in the mirror is creased and worn, his hair graying. “Old fool,” he says to his reflection. “You fucking old fool.” And finally the tears do come, making him feel even more foolish. He turns his back on himself in disgust, pulls on boxers and a clean t-shirt, heads back to the empty glass and half-empty bottle to pour another drink.
The phone rings and his heart thumps against his ribs like that of an adolescent. From where he stands by the bed he can see it’s her. It rings twice…three times. His hand is shaking as he picks it up, thumbs the talk button. “Hey, what’s up?” he asks, hoping his voice sounds steadier than he feels.
She sounds like she’s been crying.
He sits down on the bed. “No…no, I’m not busy. What’s wrong, sweetheart?”