You play back the message on your voicemail for the fifth time just to hear the sound of her voice. And then delete it, delete all of them. This has to stop. You have to tell her, must put an end to this. It’s tearing you up inside.
“You imbecile,” you mutter. You toss your phone onto the bed and pour another three fingers of scotch into your glass, drink it down and wince as it blazes a trail. Tears well up in your eyes, but you fight them back, pretend it’s just the sharp edge of the alcohol.
She can’t call you anymore. You’ll have to tell her. Naturally, she’ll be hurt, she’ll be angry, because she has no idea how deep your feelings run. You’ve strongarmed them down into a far corner of your heart for months now. But you can’t anymore. Longing has grown like a tumor, threatens to break through your breastbone, spill out through your rib-cage. You’re not sure what kind of monster might be unleashed.
You stare at the phone on your bed and imagine her at home, on her own bed. Young, beautiful. Probably sleeping, since she likes to rise early and run before breakfast. And on the bed beside her, her husband. Also young, handsome, fit. An athlete. You unconsciously rub a hand across your soft middle, push aside a mental image of the two of them making love.
You met the husband once, ran into them together at an ice cream place in town last summer, back when you only admired her loveliness from a distance. If only it had remained so. But she worked at the library, and you spend a lot of time there. When she found that you’re a writer, she began talking to you regularly. She wants to write, and you agreed to look at her work. It was unpolished, but surprisingly good. It seemed the two of you had plenty to talk about in spite of vast differences.
When was it you became aware that you were in love with her?
There were times when she sat across the table from you at the cafe in town, and she flirted. It was playful, not at all serious, but her eyes melted you.
She took you into her confidence. She would tell you about an argument she had with her husband, or about how her mother favors her older brother. She would sometimes cry and apologize for it after. But it cut you to your core. You wanted to buffer her with love, protect her from even the smallest sufferings. You didn’t let on how you felt, but you take extra care in your appearance these days. You bought a small bottle of her perfume; you keep it in your desk and sometimes pull it out to breathe in her scent. And you began to look forward to her calls.
She calls you whenever she needs something. An opinion on her writing. Sympathy when her mother’s cruel. A shoulder to cry on when she and her husband aren’t getting along well. And you’re glad to be there for her. It makes you feel useful, happy to be needed by her.
But when things are going well for her, she’s absent. You go a week without hearing from her, and you can’t sleep, have no appetite, think of her obsessively. You get to where you say to yourself, “This is not healthy. She will never be yours. You need to keep your perspective.”
And then she calls you.
“I need to talk to you,” she says.
“Yes. I’m here.” Always there.
And as she talks about other people, her friends, her mother, her husband, you realize you’re just on the periphery of her life, not really a part of it.You take the glass into the kitchen, put it in the sink, although you feel like hurling it at the wall. “Clean break,” you mutter, feeling the scotch. And you look in the refrigerator for the third or fourth time that evening, but still nothing looks worth eating.
When you go to the bathroom to shower, you nearly pick up the phone to take with you. “No, you’ll learn to be alone again. You were before, you were for years. You can do this.” So you leave it on the bed.
You like your showers hot, but this one is barely tepid. You undress, step into the spray. Your skin tightens on contact with the water, which strikes like a storm of icy needle-pricks, like a penance. You want to cry, but the scotch has taken your tears; want to masturbate, thinking of her loveliness, her trim, young body in the sundress she met you in last week, but the agony makes it impossible. So you wash, turn off the water, get out, and towel off.
In the mirror is a middle-aged man. The sight is a shock. It has been ever since you fell in love with her. Years fall from you with every flirtation, every time she rests her hand on yours from across the table at the cafe. But only from your heart. Your heart is young, alive, virile. And the face in the mirror is creased and worn, the hair graying. “You fucking old fool.” you say to your reflection. And finally the tears do come, making you feel even more foolish. You turn your back on yourself in disgust, pull on boxers and a clean t-shirt, head back to the empty glass and half-empty bottle to pour another drink.
The phone rings. Your heart thumps against your ribs like that of an adolescent. From the where you stand, you can see it’s her. It rings twice…three times. You pick it up, your hand shaking, and thumb the talk button. “Hey, what’s up?” you ask, hoping your voice sounds steadier than you feel.
She sounds like she’s been crying.
You sit down on the bed. “No…no, I’m not busy. What’s wrong, sweetheart?”