It was almost painful.
Knowing after this, I wouldn’t be able to take her home, tangle her in my sheets and kiss her slow. I couldn’t lie over her sleepy frame, press my lips to her shoulder, feel every breath, every stir, every motion - and still not be close enough.
I took a sip from my cup as she started explaining why so and so’s second album was ‘a little pretentious, but still worth the listen’ and how I would love whoever they were; and knowing her, was probably right.
But I couldn’t assemble the strength to focus on her conversation, only her lips. Those lips I used to devour.
A speck of red glow from the marquee hit a pocket of hair as she timidly slipped a few strands behind her ear.
God, she was beautiful.
The worst part of it all, she was so painfully unaware it only made her more endearing.
Especially when her hair was mussed up, clinging to sides of a pillow. All traces of lipstick, previously perfectly applied; destroyed, leaving reckless blots of what once was, donning a tired smile to match weary eyes.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m incapable of remembering her any other way. The fact that at one time, I was present for such an exquisite state - that I was the reason that version of her existed, even if only for a few nights, was reason enough to permanently cement a visual to memory.
I watched as she whirled her now empty cup back and forth, eyes darting across the room for something to focus on, anything that wasn’t me.
“Need a refill?”
She looked at me, finally, a little perplexed.
“Uh, sure,” she answered, hesitantly.
“What are you drinking tonight?”
She smiled for the first time.
A small laugh escaped my lips as I took the cup from her.
“Of course, I’ll be right back.”
I made my way over to the bar and put in my request and glanced across the room to where she stood. She was playing with the metal heart at the end of her necklace. She wore that necklace for as long as I could remember. She always fiddled with it whenever she was nervous. This was nothing new. I made her nervous quite a bit. But I could tell, this time, she was trying to settle a different bundle of nerves.
The bartender slid the cup across the counter and I nodded a quick ‘thank you’ before heading back.
“Here,” I said, as I handed the drink over to her, my fingers lingering on the tips of her own.
“Thanks,” she responded, with a polite smile.
For a minute we just stood there. Her looking at her feet, into her cup - though she’d shoot an unsure smile my way every now and then. I couldn’t help but stare, study the girl I used to have within my grasp only but a year ago, but seemed so much farther away than I understood.
I took a step forward and cleared my throat.
“Do you want to sit?” I gestured to the couch opposite of where we stood.
She glanced over the seating area, a wave of contemplation splashing her features.
I held up my hands in defense.
“I promise I won’t bite.”
But sometimes, I did bite. Her lower lip, her pulse point, her earlobe - once even her arm, she didn’t like the latter too much. She always used to tease that ‘biting’ was my fetish. Maybe it was. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hold on to her long enough to indulge in any of hers.
I let her lead the way, making sure to situate myself close enough to smell her perfume, but far enough not to smother her.
“How are you?”
She traced the rim of her cup, before turning to me.
“I’m good,” she replied, nonchalantly.
We caught each other’s eye, silently challenging one another.
“I’m really good,” she corrected, forcing a smile I assumed was supposed to appear content, but only came across sad.
“I only ask because you haven’t checked in, in a while,” I continued on. “I know I’ve texted you a few times… I’m not trying to invade your space, I want you to live your life, but - “
There it was. She said my name. My actual name. Not ‘Tennessee’ like everybody else - who apparently didn’t feel it was bad enough that my first name was actually Memphis, so they, of course, would nick name me Tennessee.
It wasn’t so much that she said it - she was always one of the few I didn’t mind using my government name, she made it sound good. It was how she said it. Like I’d forgotten to take out the trash one time too many and this was the last straw.
“You know what.”
I did. I knew this wasn’t supposed to be happening. We weren’t supposed to be talking, not like this. We weren’t supposed to be talking at all - let alone casually. Nothing with us ever was. We tried our hand at it the first time we parted ways. We attempted friendship, to talk every once in a while. We’d send the ‘casual’ text, have the ‘casual’ phone conversation. We made ‘casual’ plans, which led to falling into bed together, her crying and telling me she loved me and me ‘casually’ sitting there, like an asshole.
I tried to search her face for any sign of disappointment, any fraction of regret, a hint of discomfort - but I didn’t find any. Which only meant, she was as grateful to be near me as I was her.
“I can’t do this.”
Or possibly it was wishful thinking.
It was her body that gave her away. She wanted to be anywhere but here. Legs crossed, hand in her hair; she was sitting up extra straight, it almost wasn’t natural. I was trying to read her, desperately trying to decipher her, cling to anything familiar. I knew she was uncomfortable but this was me.
And it was her.
And this was us.
“Can’t do what?” I asked, playing dumb.
She was starting to become anxious and I could tell whatever was to leave her mouth next, I wouldn’t be a fan of.
“Hey, close your eyes,” I quickly interrupted.
“Just trust me. Okay?” I reassured her.
She looked at me skeptically for a moment before eventually complying.
I reached into my back pocket for my wallet. I pulled back the worn brown leather and felt the silver graze my thumb.
I leaned in and captured her right hand, circling her palm with my index finger. Her shoulders stiffened at the touch but immediately relaxed once I placed the cool article within her grasp. She opened her eyes and glanced down between our intertwined limbs.
Her face lit up with too many emotions to calculate as she retrieved the canary gemmed band from the center of her palm and slid it onto her middle finger.
“Where did you find this?” she asked, a flood of emotions flustering her speech.
I remembered the night she called; she had just gotten into an argument with her mother over the state of her relationship with her father. They hadn’t spoken in months over her mother’s disapproval of her choice to cut out the father who never learned to accept her. She was crying when she uttered into the phone, “Can I please see you?”
When I opened my door her eyes were dry but all evidence of her anguish lied in the curve of her mouth, the frailty of her posture, the apparent exhaustion embodying her ample frame. She instantly fell into my embrace, her small hands clinging tightly to the small of my back. I cradled her head to my chest and kissed the top of her hair for lack of finding words adequate enough.
I sat on the bed with her head in my lap, stroking her tresses, listening intently as she recounted all the details of the altercation. She spoke in long-winded discourse, full of frustration and vulnerability. Whenever she spoke of her parents, her inner teenager always seemed to find it’s way out. There was a rebelliousness about her that was so loud; you almost didn’t notice the quiet helplessness lying underneath.
“Sometimes I wish I wasn’t here.”
It frightened me - the words, as much as the tone. I couldn’t imagine a world without her here, a world without me wanting her here. I didn’t say anything, just stared at her, trying to memorize every angle and facial feature as if she were about to vanish right before my eyes.
She paused, the weight of her declaration starting to dawn on her.
“I just mean, sometimes, it feels like I was the last thing they wanted… but they went through with it anyways, having a child I mean…”
She wiped furiously at her tears, inadvertently staining her cheeks with black ink. A flood of new ones started to intrude, much to her dismay, and she let out the tiniest whimper; like she was being cornered and the ground was giving out beneath her.
“I tried to kill myself once when I was seventeen.”
She looked up at me, alarmed.
“It was after my mom left, after she and my dad got into a fight about the divorce. About how she never wanted kids and the pressure by my dad was the start of it all…she exclaimed, as she walked out the door to join her new family and pop out two more.”
She swallowed, but let me continue.
“It made me feel like maybe it wasn’t that she didn’t want kids, maybe I just didn’t turn out to be the kid she had in mind. I mean, I know I’m not the… manliest. I like sports okay, but I sucked at football, I could almost feel her disappointment on the field, even at eight. It probably didn’t help that in high school I’d rather smoke weed and learn the piano than chase girls.”
I took a breath.
“I’ve always been okay with who I am or at least who I’ve become along the way. It just never seemed like it was okay with anyone but me. When she left, it was like, a big fuck you. My dad was distant - we weren’t close back then like we are now… I just felt like nothing and I had no one.”
She tried to interject but I kept going.
“So one day after an argument with my dad, over something I can’t even remember, I downed a bottle of pills. It wasn’t even planned; completely spur of the moment. It was like a switch had turned on – I’m just going to kill myself, I was that far gone. Coincidently my dad was looking for some painkillers and he figured out the bottle was gone. He confronted me, kicked my ass, called poison control, had my stomach pumped, kicked my ass again…I was on suicide watch for a month and had to complete half a year of therapy and up until I was twenty-one, the closest thing to pills in the house were tic-tacs.”
I peered down to find her staring back at me, the same way I was staring back at her only moments ago. But there was something else, a hint of something more. Fear.
She was scared, but I couldn’t stop.
“You know the funniest part about the whole thing, I actually expected to feel different the next day. I wasn’t sure exactly how, but just assumed there would be this change in the atmosphere. That I’d find clarity somehow, a reason for why some higher power up there apparently felt it was necessary to spare my life. But I came to school and everything was the same, I went to all my classes, the same kids still cared about the same un-important shit…nothing had changed - it was ordinary. ”
A tear trickled down her face. I pressed my thumb to her cheek and wiped off a streak of mascara.
“The world doesn’t seek pity on you when you decide to give up. It keeps on turning, it doesn’t stop for the ones who can’t keep up.”
I brought her face closer to mine and gently grasped it by the edges.
“I can’t have my days be ordinary. If you ever leave my world, I’ll be left in a mediocre, common existence. Everyday would be colorless, run-of-the-mill – standard. You don’t want that for me do you?”
I looked on as she tried to conceal a sob.
“You are not quitter, you do not give up; you don’t surrender. You’re the strongest woman I know… if you can’t continue to be that for yourself, at least be that for me.”
It was true. She was the strongest woman I knew, hell, she was the strongest person I knew. She definitely put me to shame but I always felt a certain way whenever I was with her. Like I was capable. She had no idea just what a force she was.
I could feel her eyes poring over me. She said nothing, but she was searching. For what, I didn’t know.
She sat up, slowly, taking both of my arms and wrapping them around her, her own clinging tightly to my back. We stayed like that for a while, maybe five minutes; her, breathing in and out softly, as I inhaled the scent of tangerine scented hair, committing it to memory.
She was the first to pull away, she looked at me, really looked at me, with this expression I couldn’t place. She put a finger to my lips, almost timidly and traced the shape of my mouth. I tried to stay as still as I could but the slightest touch had fireworks going off inside me. I almost didn’t catch it, but even in the darkness I couldn’t mistake the way her tongue chased the outline of her bottom lip.
She was concentrating. Whatever was going through her mind, whatever she was debating, had her full concentration. She sat up straighter, so we were both at eye-level. She closed her eyes and I knew it was an invitation. I kissed her slowly, patiently, not wanting to rush into overdrive, even though I wanted nothing more than a collision.
She sank deeper into the kiss, her hands falling to my chest, pulling at my t-shirt. I disentangled from her embrace and hoisted the shirt above my head. I placed my palm softly at the side of her neck, lightly kneading the skin. Her eyes met me with a permissive glance and it felt like everything slowed down after that.
I brought her forward and brushed my lips against her forehead. We started to peel away each other’s clothing one by one, like we were peeling away the layers of grief we walked in with, only to leave it on a pile on the floor. We worked in ample silence, uncovering the undisclosed. I sat there a moment, admiring her silhouette. She didn’t turn away or shrink back, she settled, stilled with an unassuming confidence, patient while I studied the blueprint of her design.
She was waiting. Waiting for me to make a move, to actualize her thoughts, to begin. So I did. I pulled her by the waist and set her flush against me. I captured her lips once more, only it was less controlled, more frantic. I fell back onto the comforter taking her along, never breaking rhythm. I rolled over, placing her under me. I watched her chest rise and fall as her breath quickened. I’m not sure what it was about that particular moment, but I knew, looking down at her, I knew, it wouldn’t be the same again.
I could see realization starting to encroach, as she got lost in her thoughts.
I twisted my hands together.
“I found it edged between the sides of the mattress. It must off fallen off during…” I trailed off.
Flashes of her naked finger gripping sheets flooded my mind.
She nodded in understanding.
“Thank you, for this. You have no idea how much this means to me,” she said, her face softening.
I decided to be bold and put a hand over hers.
“I know you’re grandma misses you too.”
I could see a shiver run through her, momentarily breaking the façade.
She turned away glancing to the opposite side of the room.
“Looks like she’s not the only one,” she muttered.
It was a flippant remark but I caught it.
She turned back and looked at me curiously.
“Memphis, what are you doing here?”
“What do you mean?”
I saw the faintest beginnings of an eye roll starting to form before she quickly segued.
“I just mean, the bar, this club, this isn’t exactly your… scene.”
She had me there.
“If I remember correctly – and I do, this isn’t exactly your scene either.”
I took a swig from my drink, suddenly remembering it was there.
She paused. I had caught her.
She stole a sip from her own before letting out a sigh.
“I know. I just come here for Teej,” she admitted, straightforwardly.
I glanced over the DJ booth to find TJ, one of her best friends, manning a Mac book Pro.
She stared at me for a second, a look that was a bit smug.
“Which, you would probably know if you asked around enough…”
I put my hand over my chest in mock shock.
“What are you insinuating?”
She looked down, the tracings of a smile starting to appear.
I looked down too. She’d caught me.
“How else was I supposed to get this back to you?” I asked, outlining the lemon colored stone on the hand I was still holding.
That eye roll finally appeared, paired with an exaggerated smirk.
I tightened my hold on her hand and laced my fingers with hers.
She sighed, no doubt already regretting what hadn’t even happened yet.
She took a glimpse of our interlocked fingers.
If there ever was a moment I wished telepathy were an actual thing, it was right then. I was ready. At least I wanted to be. I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell her with my eyes. To have her be able to see it when I look at her. But you couldn’t tell someone with a look.
A silence I couldn’t define, suddenly washed over us.
She drew in a breath.
“Memphis, I told you I lo –”
The red light from the marquee flickered above us, 2 A.M. flashing in digital lettering.
“Last call guys!” TJ’s voice boomed over the mic.
I felt fingers slip away as she released herself from my grip.
She stood up and dusted herself off.
I reached for her hand and held it with voracity.
“What were you going to say?”
I knew what she was going to say. I wanted her to say it. I wanted her to confront me, to tell me again, what exactly it is she felt for me. I wanted her to say it, so I could say it back.
I couldn’t initially. Even though some part of me already knew. It had already happened at that point, but I knew that was the night, when I realized. That night I held her in my arms and wiped her tears. That night I saw her, vulnerable and exposed. That night we were naked in so many other ways than physical. The night I tried to say it back without my words.
She gazed down at me, an expression of distress briefly appearing.
“I just wanted to say, thank you for returning my ring.”
With that, I watched as she slowly turned around and made her way towards the exit.
I’d probably imagined a hundred times how this moment would go and I have to say, this wasn’t it.
I looked around the club, people were already clearing out, TJ was packing up his equipment.
I tossed my cup to the ground, not caring about the brown substance spilling out.
The light from the marquee clicked off and I was left sitting in darkness.
I sighed, taking a last glance at the emptiness around me.
I grabbed my car keys and slipped my phone in my pocket and followed the glow of the exit sign.
It was almost painful.