|credit: Joel Westworth|
The heat waves roll before me as I make my way down the crowded sidewalk. I’m not usually out and about at this time of day. I reach around the back of my head and pull my long hair to one side, twisting it so it won’t blanket my neck and shoulders, acting like a rainforest on a day when I need ice floes. I smooth the slightly wet hair at the base of my neck. Sweat. I can feel it pooling above my lip, inside my bra, around my navel, between my chaffed thighs. I keep walking. I ignore the doubts in my head, and I keep walking.
I can feel the sun, directly overhead, beating down on me, burning me through the sunscreen I put on earlier. The air is so damp and thick, it’s like I’m swimming through it. The crowds of people waiting for buses look miserable. All I can smell is hot asphalt and car exhaust, and the occasional cloud of second hand smoke. The advancing crowd parts as I pass through. I feel like Moses. I feel too visible on this wide sidewalk, sandwiched between a large historical building that’s been converted to a shopping center and a long row of sheltered bus stops.
Quentin is waiting for me at the other end of this building. I’ve known him for months, I’ve been meeting him at this building for months, but I still feel nervous. Closed in. Fidgety. I switch my purse to my other shoulder and shake my hair out of the twist I put it in. I straighten my dress. I try to keep my head in one piece. I keep walking.
Looking through my dark sunglasses, I catch a guy in a white button shirt and linen shorts staring at me. It’s as if he knows that I’m not supposed to be here. I told Nick I was in a meeting all day. In reality, I called out of work. I put my phone on airplane mode so I wouldn’t receive calls. I know what I’m doing. I feel ok. I square my shoulders. I keep walking.
I’ve spent nearly ten years, half of them with Nick, striking a balance between what I wanted and what I could get. Within a month of meeting Quentin, I knew I could have more. I knew I could have it all. And it threw everything I knew into a spiral.
The platform at the end of the building is more crowded than the sidewalks. People gather at the corners, waiting to cross at the busy intersections. I scan the crowd. No one knows me on this side of town, but I see myself as a giant target.
This happens, I tell myself. My feelings aren’t my fault.
There’s a group of dancers in the middle of the platform. Three men in neon colored t-shirts doing rhythmic break dancing. I wedge myself amongst the people circled around the young men. They’re incredible. I pull out my phone to take a picture. As I hold it in front of me, I see Quentin. He’s on the opposite side of the circle as me, arms crossed, dark sunglasses taking up most of his face. I recognize his patterned shirt and the faint silver streak running through his mid length hair. My heart starts to race. He wore that shirt on the first day that I met him, almost a year ago. I try to fight it, but I feel the smile grow involuntarily on my face. I feel the bolts run through me. For the first time all day, I forget about Nick. I forget about the bright sun, the insane heat, that this is my fault. I take his picture.
He smiles and heads around the crowd, toward me. I stay right where I am, the smile on my face growing wider with every step he takes toward me. Finally, he’s in front of me. As he pulls his sunglasses up, I can smell his sweet sweat. I can smell the sun baking his shirt.
“Hey Que,” I manage to eek out.
“I’ve been waiting for you all day,” he says at the same time he hugs me hello. Nothing matters, now. That I spent the afternoon walking around and sweating. That people are bumping into us trying to get a better look at the dancers. That he asked me to leave Nick. That I still hadn’t answered. Right now, everything is ok.
Weeks earlier, we were on the bed, facing one another. “How much longer?” His eyes bored into me, letting me know there isn’t one part of him that’s joking. I rolled onto my back.
“Fuck…” I crushed the sheets between my fists, drawing the sheet up my chest. “I wish you hadn’t brought it up. I don’t want to use what time I do have with you talking about him.”
“What am I supposed to do?” I feel him, adjusting the sheets. Trying to get closer. “This isn’t my bed. This isn’t our bed. I wish you’d make up your mind.”
I stared at the ceiling.
“We’ve been through this. I love you, but it’s not as easy as—“
“Oh, come on. It is that easy.”
“It’s that easy? We live together.”
“That’s just a lease. ”
“No, it’s more. It’s about time. Our families are entwined. Our friends. I have—I just… I feel like I can’t just up and leave him.”
“But you’re not happy here. You’ve told me. I’ve seen it.”
“I know I’m happier with you. But Nick hasn’t done anything wrong. Leaving isn’t something I can just do.”
“It was that easy to start sleeping with me. You could just do that.”
“Don’t. That’s not fair.”
“Is it?” We were drawing swords with our eyes, but I felt myself backing down.
“I… I don’t know. I love you. But I don’t know what to do.”
“You do know what to do. You know have to make a choice between him and me. And you just don’t want to. So what’s the point of me being here?”
I broke the stare and rolled away from him. Feeling like my rib cage was collapsing. Feeling like I was torn in a million different directions.
His hand reached over and touched mine. I wanted to turn to him. I wanted to face him. To take his face in my hands. Tell him that I wanted to choose him, but I couldn’t. As his hand wrapped around mine, I knew I couldn’t risk what I already had. What I had already invested in.
I turned to look at him.
“Beth… why do you allow yourself to be so unhappy?”
“Why do you stay if you know I won’t leave him?”
The questions we didn’t have the answers for.
“You should leave.” My breath came faster.
His hand gripped mine harder.
“I’m not leaving.”
He pulled me into him. Pulled us back into the mire. I buried myself in it. Not ready to admit that I didn’t know if I could bank on our future together.
I linger in his hug. I don’t want to notice the heat. The noises from the crowd. I want to block out everything, the way I could before, when it would just be the two of us. I feel his head on my shoulder, feel my hands in his hair. I try to focus on him. On us. But I can’t. We are just two people hugging in a crowd. I step back, out of the hug.
“This isn’t happening, is it?” he asks, full of unease.
“I’m so sorry, Que,” I don’t finish the sentence before I feel the tears. He lowers his head and crosses his arms. I try to say something more. I want to say something more. I move my lips, try to make more words happen. But all I can do was look at him. Look at him as he looks everywhere but at me.
“I’m sorry… that I couldn’t make this, or us, better, but I can’t —“ I reach out for him, and he steps away. I walk toward him, but every step forward matches his every step back. “Que, don’t,” I find myself pleading. I manage to grab him by the wrist, to pull him close to me. “Please, please don’t leave,” I can barely hold my voice together.
He takes my hand off his wrist, and finally meets my eye. His eyes are so clear, and so soft. But so broken. I feel my heart stop as he starts to speak.
“Good bye, Beth.”
He takes two steps back, looking at me. Before I know it, he turns into the crowd. I feel all of the heat on me, all at once. I feel it in waves, rolling down me. I can’t move as I watch him walk away, dissolving into the crowds and heat.
I can feel the sun beating down on me. I can feel the people brushing by me. I can feel the sweat and the tears running down my face. I can feel my breath, coming in short bursts. But what I can feel most is the emptiness. The emptiness of a mistake I can’t take back. The emptiness of watching my happiness turn around, and walk away.