[a short story]
Carrie loves Paul. Certainly she does. That he loves her is more or less a given, though she convinces herself that he doesn’t, couldn’t possibly. Don’t ask why, the denials and psychobabble garbage that would follow aren’t worth it. Normally a razor-sharp wit and strong intellect, she is reduced to an idiot-ditz when it comes to him. He is not much better at decoding his feelings or hers.
He’s sitting across from her in the restaurant. He’s talking about something and while she is paying very close attention to everything he says, she is so busy trying to decipher hidden meanings that may or may not exist that she misses the obvious and doesn’t realize he’s essentially acknowledging the true nature of their relationship. Maybe in a week or more she’ll realize the possibility of it when exhaustively recounting the conversation to a friend. The friend won’t have the heart to tell her that she is tired of hearing about Paul.
For now, however, because she fails to pick up the opening he has left for her, Paul gives her a puzzled frown. He is cautious in his own way and interprets her lack of a response to be a response. He resolves to overcome his feelings and move on. He can accept her friendship if that is all she can give. In any case, he can’t bring himself to end it.
A few weeks later they meet again for a movie. He brings a date. Her name is Vivian. Carrie covers her jealousy by being very nice to Vivian. Just shy of overly nice to Vivian. Over the course of the evening, Carrie becomes meticulous in measuring herself against the girl and finds herself wanting in all but a few ways.
In appearance Carrie decides she is woefully inferior to the perfectly groomed, fashionable, and made-up Vivian. In nature the easy going, bubbly, and imminently “fun” Vivian is also found to be superior. Carrie is willing to admit that it may be a draw between her own history-given knowledge of Paul and Vivian’s newcomer naiveté of him. But he might find the first binding and the second refreshing. He responds with warmth and humor to Carrie’s knowing jokes and references to their history but seems equally pleased by Vivian’s pleasant surprise and open curiosity about him.
However he feels about her personal insight, Carrie considers her own intelligence and experience superior to Vivian’s seemingly shallow understanding of the world around her. That Vivian’s curiosity seems to end with Paul, Carrie feels is to her own advantage. Nevertheless, it is Vivian and not Carrie who accompanies him home that evening.
After that, Carrie quietly avoids spending any time with the couple. She tries to keep her inquiries about the relationship subtle. She tries to keep from knowing more than she wants to while managing to succumb to the overpowering and mesmerizing need to know it all. To cover for it, or maybe to punish him for answering her questions, she goes out of her way to seem unaffected and to discuss men she is interested in. The fact does not occur to her that she is not actually interested in anyone else. Nor does the illogic of trying to make a man, who is not interested in her, jealous with talk of other men.
Paul is vaguely uncomfortable when she mentions other men, but simultaneously doesn’t believe any of them are a real threat for reasons he can’t pinpoint and also denies even to himself that maybe he’s jealous.
After a few months, Paul becomes bored with Vivian, who is admittedly very nice, very pretty – though she wears more make up than he normally likes – and basically good in bed. But she is not what he’s looking for. “There is no spark”, he tells his friend Jennifer, who rolls her eyes in response. But really, Vivian is not Carrie. He catches himself meticulously measuring Vivian against Carrie and finding Vivian wanting in most ways. He breaks up with Vivian, who will spend several weeks pretending to be very upset about it, before almost completely forgetting about him.
A group gets together at a bowling alley some time later. Among them are Carrie, Paul, and his friend Jennifer. The rest are what Carrie thinks of as his “testosterone buddies,” and though she likes them, she barely notices them most of the time. Jennifer suspects that Carrie is in love with Paul and knows that Paul is in love with Carrie – though he has never said so. To everyone in public, both Carrie and Paul profess a close friendship; “… like my brother,” “… like my sister.”
It is a practiced response. Everyone suspects them of being a couple and asks them. It doesn’t occur to anyone that “the couple” really doesn’t know they are a couple, and therefore no one points it out to them. It would shock most to learn that they have not even so much as shared a peck on the cheek.
Jennifer and Paul, on the other hand, had dated a few years earlier. They ended it quickly once they realized that they were not meant to be lovers. “It was like sleeping with a sibling.” Even though it is obviously the truth, Carrie doesn’t believe it; probably because she never means it herself when she says “… like my brother.” When Jennifer pulls Carrie aside at the bowling alley’s bar and asks if she is in love with Paul, Carrie senses danger and denies her feelings. To add weight to her denial she makes a disparaging kind of joke at Paul’s expense and both women laugh wickedly.
Paul pounces on Carrie as soon as he gets a chance and asks her what the two women had been whispering and laughing about. He is too intense when he asks. It is obvious that he thinks they were talking about him and that he thinks the topic was romantic or maybe sexual. Carrie assumes that his desire to know is fueled by his thinking Jennifer might have expressed renewed interest in him. She is hurt that he would use her to flirt with another woman but uses it to her advantage and denies that they were talking about him at all. Her fear urges her to do or say anything to avoid detection.
“It was nothing. I don’t even remember really.” But he presses the point, impossibly more intent than before. “Really, I don’t want to repeat it. It was just something stupid about the bartender.” She is the image of innocence.
Paul believes her and can’t hide his disappointment. He moves away to take his turn at the pins. She is even more convinced that he is interested in Jennifer and curses her bitterly that she, herself, is not the cause of that self-interested curiosity she sensed in him.
Jennifer tells Paul the next day that she thinks Carrie loves him. He shakes his head and is amazed that Jennifer could misread Carrie so badly. But the seed is planted. Whether he wants to admit it or not, he sees a possibility he hadn’t before.
Carrie is happy to discover herself spending a lot of time with Paul. She finds each encounter torturous in a way, but she cannot bring herself to end it. The pleasure of his company, platonic though it be, is too sweet.
He invites her to the Museum, a grand opening of the new wing with a spectacular collection of Asian art. She stops in front of a statue of Buddha. She had seen a picture of it in a coffee table book once and had loved it. Not a typical statue the book had said, because it is a “starving Buddha from his time on the mountain. It is rarely depicted, because it is before his enlightenment.” She feels connected to the wrinkled, kindly-smiling face.
While she stands admiring the statue, contemplating life hermitted up on the side of a mountain, Paul moves from the tapestry he was looking at and comes to her side. He puts his arm around her shoulders. His hand rests gently on her right shoulder and she feels her knees go weak as the heat from his hand burns through her sweater. It occurs to her that he never touches her. The thought confuses her and as if to wrap herself in the confusion, she lets other conflicting thoughts fly through her. He never touches her because he doesn’t trust himself to. No, he never touches her because she is repulsive to him. For whatever reason, the second is easier and somehow less painful to believe and therefore she does.
It takes him a moment to remember to breathe after he’s realized that she didn’t shake his arm off. Whenever he touches her, she moves away as quickly as possible. But not this time. He smiles back at the skinny, wrinkled bronze figure behind the glass.
A few days later, they go to a book reading at a local bookstore. The author is witty and clever. His jokes are peppered with the kind of self-deprecating humor that reveals a true belief in his own talent. Unfortunately, they both agree, his talent is not so very evident in his writing. After the reading she expects Paul to want to leave right away. He usually does, as if he can’t wait to get away from her. Instead, he suggests they get dessert. A bakery just a few doors down from the bookstore has excellent chocolate torte. Her favorite.
She practically beams as they turn toward the bakery. When it comes to time with him, she is very greedy. They find a table away from the door. As she takes her coat off, he asks her if she’d like anything to drink in addition to her torte. She had taken it for granted they would go up to the counter and order their own things, like they usually do. He says he’ll get it, and happily saunters to the counter to order. She asks him how much she owes him when he returns, and he waves her off. “Don’t worry about it.” They talk for a long time and there is nothing she can point to that is necessarily different about this conversation from the hundreds of others they have had, but she can’t shake the feeling that it is different … somehow.
Paul is distracted tracing the lines of her face and neck, the way she moves her hands while she talks. He catches her catching him doing it and can’t help but smile as she arches her eyebrow at him, punctuating something she’s just said with “right?! I mean c’mon, you know?” It’s just so damn easy to talk to her. She can slide effortlessly from dissecting the theme of the book they’d heard excerpts from that evening to debating with him what should be in the top ten best pies of all-time list to zinging him for how much sugar he puts in his tea and then digging into some other topic. And she doesn’t let him slide on his bullshit. She mentions that she has a scar on her stomach from being hit by a lawn dart when she was a kid and they spend another hour topping each other with stories of childhood mishaps. Before he knows it they are the last customers in the bakery.
When they leave, he ignores the brief moment outside the bakery that he feels she is anxious to get rid of him and he walks her home, without actually mentioning it or acknowledging that’s what he’s doing.
They stand in front of her apartment building talking for another half-hour and all the while she cannot shake the feeling that they are on a date, which is absurd. She flushes at the thought and berates herself for foolish flights of fancy. When she looks up at him it feels like he is standing closer than he was a moment ago; practically towering over her. She is suddenly very aware of the proximity of his chest and shoulders to her own. The urge to reach up and grab his shirt and pull him to her for a kiss is unbearable. In a panic she makes a hasty good-bye and flees upstairs to the safety of her apartment. To the loneliness of her empty bed.
That night she imagines that she had pulled him close and that they had kissed. A kiss that starts out soft and tentative and builds in urgency until they are consumed by passion, desire, love. But unbidden the fantasy changes each time to him pushing her away from an attempted kiss. Rejection. Excruciating embarrassment. She feels the impossibility of it all and her heart constricts. It takes her hours to fall asleep.
The next time she sees him is at a party. She fears it isn’t her imagination that he has been avoiding her, is being standoffish. He is polite, friendly, and even jokes with her, but something is gone or off. It is almost as if he is treating her the way he had before the museum, the book reading, except she can’t bring herself to believe he was treating her differently after those events to begin with. She thinks that despite her attempts to hide it, he sensed her desire that night in front of her apartment building and feels like putting her off now. Convinced nightmare will be reality, she stays away from him, but can’t help watching him. He spends most of the night chatting up a woman Carrie imagines is the type he’s attracted to – in other words, nothing like herself.
From where he sits, he can see Carrie in the corner she retreated to after a few attempts at small talk. He is embarrassed that she fled upstairs when he leaned in to kiss her that night in front of her apartment. He is confused, but mostly angry with himself for letting his guard down. He appreciates that she didn’t mention it, but he saw how uncomfortable she was. How uncomfortable he had made her. He had misread the signs. Never should have listened to Jennifer.
He can see Carrie talking to one of her friends. One he doesn’t know very well. One that he has always thought does not like him very much. The friend, he thinks her name is Debra, pats Carrie’s hand and says something that looks soothing from the way she leans forward and speaks softly. Debra turns and looks at Paul for what feels like an age. It is a thoughtful look, but other than that, he cannot tell what she is thinking. Before Carrie looks up and sees him staring at her – just what he doesn’t want – he turns his attention back to the woman who seems to have planted herself next to him.
This woman is pretty, but something in her eyes makes him assume half of what she says is a lie. A woman who will present whatever she thinks men want to see. That she would sleep with him, seems obvious to him, and another time he might have tried. If Carrie weren’t there and, if for no other reason than to push away the disappointment or distract him from the embarrassment he is feeling he would consider it. Carrie is there, however, and it would not distract him or destroy the disappointment of Carrie’s rejection.
The evening wears on and both Carrie and Paul want to leave, but neither can bring themselves to move out of the sight of one another.
Carrie can’t tell Debra why she is agitated any more than she can hide the fact that she is. Debra doesn’t push, and Carrie doesn’t know if she wants to hug her for it or cry, because she thinks that if Debra knew what was troubling her, maybe Debra could convince her she’s being silly. But Carrie is certain that Debra would actually be impatient. They are grown women, not teenagers with a crush. Debra has made it clear that she doesn’t think Paul is worth the time and energy Carrie spends thinking about him.
Carrie watches the woman with Paul tilt her head back and laugh. It is a laugh any woman could tell you is fake. The laugh is meant to specifically draw attention to her neck and at the same time make the person it is aimed at feel he is clever and she is fun. Paul smiles and looks down at his hands before he continues whatever he is saying. Carrie is disgusted and angry that he would fall for something so blatantly calculated to manipulate him.
She squashes an image that flashes through her mind of those hands traveling from her face to her neck, her breasts, caressing her, brushing a strand of hair from her face. Maybe it is the flash of fantasy or the woman’s flirtation or a sense of wounded pride that he reacted so poorly to the idea of her wanting him or maybe feeling judged by Debra. Whatever it is, she makes up her mind.
The woman he talks with excuses herself to go to the restroom. She finds an excuse to touch his knee and he resists the urge to swat her hand away. For a moment she blocks his view he is startled to see Carrie moving his way. She looks determined, maybe even angry. He’s not sure what to expect but feels unprepared.
She asks him if she can talk to him for a minute. Alone. He nods, but doesn’t say anything, unless the little exhale she heard was a “sure.” Having gotten the first couple of words out she feels a little bit steadier, but the butterflies in her stomach are fluttering and she swears they are multiplying. As she turns to lead him someplace quieter, she sees a look on his face that may be fear or dread. It makes her heart sink, because he must know what’s coming, but it also steels her to her decision.
She takes him to the back porch, a very quaint enclosed room with one wall of windows showing a staggering view of the city below. She doesn’t see the view even though she’s staring at it through the window until she hears him close the door. It is cold on the enclosed porch, which is probably why it’s empty. She is relieved no one is there to witness what is about to happen. She turns to face him and realizes the lights are off. She can barely see his face, though hers must be lit plainly by the light coming through the French doors from the kitchen. It will be easier, she tells herself, if she can’t see him clearly. She begins the brief speech she has prepared while watching him flirt.
She tells him that she doesn’t think it is a good idea for them to remain friends. It is obvious that one of them wants more than the other can give and it is breaking her heart. She cannot continue pretending that she is not in love with him. She is very sorry if she’s made him uncomfortable and hopes that he understands that it’s just too painful for her to be around him knowing he can’t feel the same way for her.
When she is done talking, he is surprised at the sound of his own laugh. It is more a jagged release of breath and tension than a laugh really. His head is swimming, and at the same time he realizes he is shaking a little, he also sees the tears in her eyes and the crease of confusion on her forehead. It is less than a step to cross to her and less than a second for him to put an arm around her waist and his other under her chin to lift her face slightly. Everything else is irrelevant. Passion, desire, and love consume it all.
Categories: Short Fiction