She looks questioningly up at him. She doesn’t understand. He always wants her there. He hates that she lives so far away.
So how can he be asking, pushing her to leave? Yes, it’s late, and she has class the next afternoon, but that’s never kept him from holding her until the last possible second.
She knows this is best, that she should leave, because it’s the last week before finals, but she can’t help the crushing feelings from all but overwhelming her. He walks her to her car, kisses her tenderly, and walks back to his apartment.
* * * * * * *
She’s eating dinner with her best friend and his buddy from high school. They joke, laugh, and entertain her with stories from their past, but she can’t get past the feeling that she just doesn’t like Chris’s old friend. He’s arrogant, somehow.
Midway through the pizza and wings, Zack looks up at her and asks, “So you’re dating someone at the Lawrenceville Friday’s?”
She shoots an annoyed glance at Chris who just gives a guilty, boyish grin.
“Yeah. His name’s Tony. Why?”
“Really? I work there. Tony and I hang out sometimes. I didn’t know he was seeing someone at GSW.” He has this smile that’s shifty, sneaky, satisfied, and gloating in one. How could anyone truly like this guy?
She’s already decided to ignore him when she hears Chris ask, “What’s that supposed to mean?” Apparently, he had heard the hidden implications as well.
“Forget it, Chris. It doesn’t matter.”
Chris looks at her, says, “Okay,” then glares at his old friend.
* * * * * * *
“How was your trip? Did you guys have fun at the bachelor party? Where did y’all take him?”
“Vanessa, we need to talk. Take a seat, I’ll order you some coffee. White mocha?”
What had happened? Was he okay? Had they gotten into trouble? She fidgets with the edge of her red skirt and the straps of her bookbag, worrying about the seriousness in Chris’s face.
Chris was always smiling – what could have happened?
He squeezes his way back over with two coffees, sits, and begins to nurse his own.
She blows to cool hers, waiting as patiently as she can.
Several minutes pass, and Chris watches people passing outside with dark clothes and umbrellas. It’s not a pretty day.
“Well?” she demands.
He visibly steels himself, turns to look at her, and baldy states, “Tony’s cheating on you.”
“I saw him last night at Friday’s before we took Zack to the strip club. He was waiting tables. Every time he had a minute away from his tables, he and this girl were all over each other. Zack caught me before I did something you might regret.”
“That’s not funny, Chris.”
He looked worn, much older than his twenty-one years. He closed his eyes and nodded once.
“Why would you say that? Tony loves me! He wants to marry me! I can’t believe you would do this to me…”
She storms out of the cafe, angry with Chris and his games. Why couldn’t he ever just be happy for her? As she passed the window next to their booth, she noticed that he hadn’t moved a muscle.
* * * * * * *
In the hour since she’d stormed out of Joe’s, Chris had called her ten times. She was at the point of turning it off for awhile when “Brown-eyed Girl” sang from its speakers.
She almost dropped it in her haste to answer. “Tony!” she breathed in relief. She hadn’t even realized she was holding her breath until that moment.
“Ness.” He’d been crying.
“What’s the matter, hon?”
“Ness, I’m so sorry. I’m so stupid. I’m so sorry.”
Cold fear spread from her fingertips and toes, up her arms and legs, through her torso and around her heart. When it managed to pierce even there, tremors began racking her limbs. How long all of this took, how long she sat shaking, she wasn’t sure.
“Ness? Vanessa? Oh, baby… Can we see each other? I need to see you. I’ll drive there-”
“No.” She didn’t want him here, bringing his bad news to her warm, safe apartment. “I’ll drive to you.”
She hit the end button and began throwing random things into a bag. As she was locking the door, she realized she had no idea what was in the bag, because what could she possibly use from her living room to fix this?
The drive didn’t seem to take nearly as long as it should. She pulls into a spot just below his stairs, grabs her bag, and is at his door with no knowledge of ascending the stairs. She hopes she locked her doors.
He comes to the door, bringing a whiff of the cologne she bought him for Christmas, pulls her into his arms, releases her with something like fear or shock – she’s not sure which – in his expression.
They walk to his bedroom; he’s carrying her bag of miscellaneous items. She numbly realizes he’s probably thinking she came to spend the night. He places it on the chair outside his bathroom door, and they sit facing each other on his futon.
She uses all her self-possession to keep from jumping off this unfaithful bed, from spitting on its lumpy old comforter.
He pulls her hand into his lap, and he begins to talk.
* * * * * * *
She didn’t scream or rage, and she didn’t cry like she thought she would. But her insides are still frozen, and she’s been pulling away physically every few moments. He’s done. He’s been done. He’s waiting for her, and she thinks she sees a trace of that earlier fear before looking back at her interlocked hands.
“Is that all?” He nods, tears escaping onto his khakis. “Okay. I should leave, then.”
She makes to go, and he clings to her. “Wait! Can’t we, can’t we talk? You can’t just leave. We have to talk. We have to figure this out!”
She’s never seen him beg before, never seen such raw, yet boyish, pain. She considers him for a minute, then gently unclasps his hands from hers. She shoulders her bag and leaves, closing his bedroom door behind her. She takes a moment, then makes her way through his now crowded living room, blindly nodding at who she assumes are his roommates, and she arrives at the door. She turns the handle for the last time, pulls it to her, and slips into the chilling air. Funny. She didn’t notice the winter wind earlier. She climbs down the first set of stairs before sinking onto the landing.
The gates are open. The flood has come. She succumbs.
Her arms wrap themselves around her knees, her bag is gone, her head falls forward. She sits for days releasing her pain, washing her heart clean.
A distant jingle-jangle dances through the air, and she thinks of her cat, her furball, sitting at home waiting for her. She’s almost to her feet, wiping her eyes as she pushes herself up, and “Vanessa!” cuts through the cold night and lands in her chest.
She doesn’t turn, she doesn’t answer. She can only look down at the beautifully carved hilt sticking from her breast, knowing she won’t be able to remove it.
Tony picks up her bag from some three or four steps below, looks up into her face, then lifts her across his chest. He carries her back to his room, murmuring sweet thanks into her ear, heedless of the blood and life seeping from under his hands.