Chapter 81: I Don't Know What To Say
My heart hammered as I stared at the door to Robby’s building the following Friday. It was strange to be back. Looking at the door, it didn’t feel like any time had lapsed at all. The white paint was still flaking in all the same places. It was as though time had been standing perfectly still; even if several life-changing events had taken place since the last time I was here. This was a building I’d spent a considerable amount of time in the last few years. It had been a second home to me. His flat had been more familiar to me than even my own, as I’d moved trice during the course of my studies. Robby had always lived with Tyler.
I gazed up. The walls still whispered of the many memories they’d witnessed between us, which we’d crafted together in their midst. They were mainly beautiful memories, but one remained painful to this day.
Last time I’d touched this door, a little more than a month ago, I’d been bawling my eyes out because I’d broken the heart of, and therefore hurt, one of my very best friends. He hadn’t deserved the heartache I’d caused him. All I could think of now, as I stared at the flaking white paint, was how crestfallen and spiritless he’d looked when I silently told him his feelings weren’t reciprocated.
I sighed and focused on his doorbell. It was ten past seven now, and I’d arrived fifteen minutes ago, but I was quite nervous, which was why I hadn’t announced my arrival yet. I kept going over how to handle potential scenarios, particularly one where he’d want to establish a platonic friendship. I was also worried about what he meant to speak to me about, since he’d said it was serious and wasn’t appropriate for text.
I was divided. Standing here, all our memories came crashing into my mind like a solid reminder of just how beautiful our friendship had been, and how precious he was to me. Regardless of how much I hated to admit it, William had been right to worry about this. I was feeling less confident about rejecting Robby now that I was actually standing here, facing a building that contained so many of our pleasant memories. Knowing what I did about my own feelings, it was easy to find William’s concerns nonsensical. I would never fall in love with Robby, and because I knew that, it felt unfair that we couldn’t be friends with respects to William’s jealousy.
But like I’d said, it was easy to find it nonsensical from my view. The harder part was to step outside my own perspective and into William’s. It was a conscious effort, and something I had to remain focused on. He couldn’t possibly know the measure of my love for him without being me. So I’d have to convey it in other ways, and the way to do that was through actions when it came to a man like William Night. He’d said it himself. He trusted actions, not words.
I consoled myself with – willed myself to believe – the fact that this was only temporary. One day, when William had learned to trust me more, Robby and I could be friends, and I was looking forward to that day already. This would be a hard thing to do, but down the road, I knew time would prove that it was also the right thing to do.
My phone buzzed in my pocket, then. Thinking it could be Robby checking where I was, I withdrew it from my pocket, but it was only a text from William.
‘I love you x’
It was obvious that he had sent it to remind me of his existence, as if I would ever be capable of forgetting. Knowing he was probably worried out of his mind right now, I pouted out of sympathy. I hoped he wouldn’t overthink while I was here, but knowing him, he probably would. Thankfully, I’d told him – in hope to reassure him – that I’d be coming over to his to spend the night straight after I left Robby’s.
‘I love you, too, Will. That’s not going to change’
‘Are you there yet?’
’Just about to head in. Talk soon x’
‘Don’t drag it out.’
I stared at the punctuation mark, knowing he’d meant for it to read as a command. Eventually, I rolled my eyes. Arsehole.
‘I’ll be at yours by midnight at the latest.’ I deliberately added a fine punctuation mark of my own.
I was just about to ring the doorbell when Robby’s wall-to-wall neighbour stepped out. I hadn’t met Nicole in quite a long time, and that became glaringly apparent when I saw her bump.
“Hiya, Cara,” she greeted, pink lips spreading into a warm smile. “How are you?”
I stared gobsmacked at her for a second, succumbed to surprise. “Nicole, you look wonderful,” I said and, with emphasis, dropped my gaze to her belly, which prompted her to run her hand over it.
“When are you due?”
I met her brown eyes again. Her dark skin was radiating. Pregnancy looked to be doing her well. “Suppose I’m late, but congratulations. Do you know the gender?”
“Boy,” she said, before she turned her head and yelled, “Michael, we’re going to be late if you keep this tempo!” Turning toward me again, she sent me an apologetic smile. “Sorry. Useless husbands...”
“Suppose you’re here to see Robby?” she asked while Michael came stumbling down the stairs.
“Nearly forgot your snack,” Michael murmured on his way. “Valid reason for being late, I’d say.” When our eyes locked, his lips spread apart with his grin. “Oh, Cara. Long time no see.”
“Yeah, congratulations, Michael. I heard you’re having a boy.”
He dropped a kiss on Nicole’s cheek before he grabbed higher on the door to hold it open for us all. “Yeah.”
“Well, it was lovely to see you. If you’re running late, I don’t want to keep you,” I said.
“It’s my mum’s birthday,” Nicole explained as she headed past me. “Suppose we’ll be seeing you around, though.”
“Have a nice time,” I said as I headed into the building.
“You too, love,” Michael replied and closed the door between us.
I halted in front of the staircase and reeled in a deep breath to steady my rising pulse. The surrounding quiet wasn’t helping my anxiety much. However, blending with the anxiety was an undeniable excitement. The idea of hugging Robby again, of inhaling his familiar scent, was delightful. I hoped I could embrace him for a long time. No words, just a hug to rejoice in our – albeit temporary – reunion.
I took slow steps for two reasons. One, I didn’t know when or if I’d ever be back. Therefore, I intended to extend my presence here for as long as I possibly could. Second, I was still mustering strength to look him in the eye and tell him that we couldn’t be friends for the time being.
I wondered if he’d see through me, if he’d see that it wasn’t on my initiative, but rather on William’s. He probably would. If he did, I wondered how he would react. Would he object and try to persuade me that William was being controlling, or would he respect William’s concerns the way I tried to? It could go either way, I reckoned, all depending on why he wanted to have a chat with me.
When I finally stopped outside his door, I had another deep breath and removed my cold and clammy hand – a sure sign that I was nervous – from my jack pocket to ring his doorbell. As soon as I heard his familiar footsteps approach from the other side of the door, my heart skipped a beat. Would interacting with him again be awkward, or as easy as breathing, as though nothing had ever really happened?
I jumped when he turned the handle, unlocked the door, and finally pulled it open. There he was, handsome and lean as ever, even if his familiar face looked paler than usual. I was certain my eyes were wide as I stared at him, trying to process reality.
Some silence lapsed before he stepped aside with a faint smile on his mouth.
“Come in, then. I won’t bite,” he teased.
The measure of my nervousness was somewhat overwhelming, so with fleeting eyes, I stepped in and resorted to small talk. “I met Nicole on my way in.”
“I gathered someone had let you in since you didn’t ring the bell downstairs.”
“Yes, I know.”
“With a boy.”
“Michael was with her. They were heading to her mum’s birthday.”
“Yes, I could hear her screaming about it earlier today.”
I chuckled. “Is she hormonal?”
“So Michael tells me. Tyler and I have agreed not to play music too loud because of it, to show some consideration.”
“She was always very sensitive to whenever you played music.”
He closed the door behind me while I toed off my white Adidas trainers, and as soon as I’d managed, I turned my gaze up at him. “Where’s Tyler?”
“He’s staying with Rosaline for the night.”
I gulped and nodded my head. “Because I was coming?”
He rubbed the back of his head. “Yeah. He gathered we could use some privacy.”
“Right,” I quietly wheezed out.
Another few seconds of silence lapsed, and we spent them staring at each other. In that moment in time, how much I’d missed him came crashing over me like a tsunami, so without another word, I attacked him with a hug. To my relief, he instantly wrapped his arms around me and squeezed me in his embrace. Mollified by his scent alone, I mellowed against him as my heart finally calmed.
“I’ve missed you, too,” I peeped and buried my face against his chest. In response, he squeezed me harder and rested his chin atop my head. Two months ago, he would have kissed it as well. Supposed some things had changed after all, but I was grateful he was being cautious. I wouldn’t have appreciated a kiss now, knowing his feelings hadn’t always been platonic.
We stood there for quite a while, just hugging. He was the first to let go.
While rubbing my arms, he asked, “Wine?”
“Sure, I’ll have a glass.”
“I wasn’t sure whether you’ve had dinner, so I didn’t eat. Gathered I could just order something either for us both or myself.”
“I haven’t eaten. Went to the gym with Jason after work, showered, then headed here.”
“Work, right,” he murmured as he sauntered toward his kitchen. “How’s that going for you?”
I trailed after him. Unsure of whether he was fishing for information about William or only being polite, I decided to reply, “Fine. I’m quite sure I want to specialise in corporate law now.”
“Yeah? That’s good to hear.”
He grabbed a bottle of red wine standing on the counter. “It’s great. I’m leaning towards specialising in international business law, however.”
He didn’t look at me while he searched for an opener in the top drawer below the counter. “We might have some classes together, then, but not all.”
I smiled at his profile. “We’ll make do.”
“How’s Jason doing?” he veered.
“Fine. Been partying a bit more than usual, but I reckon it’s because he’s been stressed lately. Life hasn’t been treating him all that well the past month.”
“That’s one way to cope, I suppose.” He handed me my glass. “What shall we have for dinner?”
That made him laugh, and the sincere sound of it made my heart tingle.
“You always want pizza.”
“I like pizza.”
“With plenty of mozzarella, I presume.”
He smirked and fished his phone out of his back pocket. “Sorted.”
“Wine and pizza. Lovely,” I cooed.
He paid me a wink while he lifted the device to his ear. As he made the order, I slurped on my glass of wine and relished the crisp, slightly spicy essence to it. What was this wine? It was both delicious and familiar. Grabbing the bottle, I noted with a smirk that it was Zenato’s Ripassa. Robby had always had great taste in wine, and he knew this was a favourite of mine.
“Cheers,” Robby said before he hung up. Leaving his phone on the counter, he grabbed around the stem of his own glass and focused on me. “Should be here in twenty minutes. Let’s wait in the living room?”
I guided the way, eyes roaming around as I smiled to myself. Everything looked exactly the way it had before. Nothing had been moved as much as an inch. Tyler’s colourful paintings were still hanging on the wall above their outdated telly, in need of a dusting, per usual. The bonsai tree I’d given Robby two years back was thriving in the windowsill behind their used sofa, and it made me happy to see that he hadn’t thrown it out but rather continued to care for it, as I’d said it represented our friendship when I first gave it to him, and that I would take it personally if he let it wither.
“You mentioned Jason’s been having a rough month,” he said as he lowered into the sofa beside me. “What’s happened?”
“Just things,” I said, because I didn’t feel it was my place to speak. Bringing up what had happened to Will wasn’t tempting. Besides, he had clearly stated that something serious was on his mind, so making this about the recent hardships I’d endured wasn’t something I was inclined toward. Furthermore, Robby was good mates with Colin, and though I knew Robby wasn’t one to spill secrets, it didn’t feel right to tell him of Jason’s interest in Olivia. Surely we had other topics we could entertain that didn’t involve gossiping about other people’s private affairs.
“Right. I’ll keep out,” he said, understanding. “You still seeing his brother?”
I tensed. With circumspection, I studied his profile, but he looked perfectly nonchalant. I found it somewhat irritating, because his ability to portray nonchalance about topics he obviously cared about was exactly the reason as to why I’d never noticed his feelings for me in the first place.
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
“So you’re in love with him, then.”
I sighed and turned my body toward him. “Robby, please don’t feel like you need to ask me about him out of chivalry. I’m fine avoiding the subject. I’m here for you."
A sad smile decorated his mouth while he stared into his glass. “It’s not like that, Cara. I’ve accepted your choice, and I also respect it. I didn’t invite you today to beg you to reconsider. I’m honestly just curious.”
My shoulders sank with my relief. William had been wrong. Robby didn’t intend to sway my mind. However, that made me curious as to what he meant to tell me.
“Well, then yes, I am in love with him.”
He glanced quickly at me. “Good.”
“Do you really mean that?”
He frowned as if I were being ridiculous. “Of course I mean that. Obviously I still care about you, so if you’re in love, I’m happy for you. I want you to be happy,” he paused. “You deserve to be happy, even if I’m not the one making sure of it.”
His statement was heartfelt, and it made me somewhat emotional. Biting into my lower lip, I stirred my glass and stared into the liquid, before I said, “He does make me happy.”
“That’s all I ask.”
“Thanks, Robby. It means the world to me to hear you say that.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. Obviously, I selfishly wish it would have turned out differently, but reality is what it is and I’ve come to terms with it. Hated it in the beginning, but recent events has made the whole situation with you somewhat unimportant.”
My head tilted. “Recent events? Have you met someone?”
He eyed me incredulously. “Cara, I said I’m happy for you. Not that I’m over you. I’ve been in love with you for the better part of three years. It’s going to take me a bit longer to move on.”
I swallowed. So Jason and Will had been right about that, at least. “Then I don’t understand why I’m here. You said you wouldn’t reach out to me until you’d moved on.”
He inhaled sharply before he swallowed a considerable mouthful of wine. I noticed that his hand started to shake. Something was clearly wrong, and from the way he was acting, it wasn’t something trivial. Noticing the same, he hurried to have another sip before he placed the glass onto the table in front of us and folded his hands together in his lap.
“Is Tyler aware of what’s bothering you?” I gently asked.
“Okay, good. Have you told anyone else?”
He shook his head.
“Robby, I’m growing worried. Is it proper serious?”
He looked toward me, and my breath caught in my throat when I saw that his eyes were wet. He was fighting back the urge to cry. Speechless, I could only stare at him.
“I...” he started, but soon paused. It was evident that he was struggling with converting his thoughts into speech, so I resorted to patience. Pressuring him was certainly not the best way to proceed, and his behaviour made that abundantly clear. Nevertheless, I couldn’t ignore how my heart raced. What had happened? I could hardly recognise him from the way he was acting. He wasn’t being his tranquil, laidback self at all.
“It’s Mum,” he choked out. My pulse dropped. Had something happened to Heather?
“What’s happened to her?” I immediately replied, concerned.
He heaved for air for a few seconds, and from the way his face contorted I could tell he was in agony. The man was even shaking, however faintly.
“She’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, and it’s spread to her brain,” he finally said, though his voice was barely in one piece. Shocked, I sat paralysed for quite a while, disbelieving of reality. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, and it had spread to her brain? What did that mean? Was it terminal?
I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Since Robby’s father had been a drunk, Heather had been forced to leave him when Robby was only four. Ever since then, he’d been absent from their lives, leaving Robby at risk of losing his only present parent if it were in fact terminal.
He was hiding his face from me now, and from the way he was shaking, I got a terrible feeling that it was indeed terminal. In all my life, I hadn’t seen Robby shed a single tear, but a transparent diamond trailed down his cheek before he hurried to wipe it away, seemingly embarrassed.
“Robby, what? Is it terminal?” I asked and rushed to place my glass beside his before I cuddled up to his side and wrapped my arms around him, desperate to soothe him somehow.
“Yeah,” he croaked out.
“Oh, my God, Robby, I’m so sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say. This was simply shocking. Lost for words, I held him tightly while he trembled in my hold.
Never in my wildest dreams had I expected this to be the reason behind his desire to meet. Heather had cancer, and it had spread to her brain. It seemed so impossible a thought. I couldn’t fathom it. It didn’t make any sense. Heather Cliff, one of the strongest women I knew. How could it have come to this? Hadn’t she noticed any symptoms, any lumps?
I truly could not imagine the weight of his pain. He didn’t deserve this at all. No one did, but especially not him. It was a sore reminder of just how unfair life could be. He was such a sweet, decent man. Truly, he was an exemplary human being, and yet life was tossing him all these undeserved lows. I couldn’t fathom it. I simply couldn’t. I hated the injustice. I hated it with all my heart.
I didn’t know how to console him. The very idea of losing my own mother was painful enough, and if she’d been my only parent, I didn’t know what I’d do with myself. Parents were irreplaceable. On top of all the things only a parents love could give, they offered unmatched guiding light, and Robby was about to lose his. It wasn’t just an idea to him. It was his reality. He was going to lose his mother all too soon.
I knew full well how precious his headstrong mother was to him, how she had inspired him all his life to be stronger for those around him. In fact, I was sure I had Heather to thank for the very fact that Robby wasn’t bitter toward my relationship with William.
She had raised him never to hate, always to be thankful and humble, and always to be kind. She had raised him into the outstanding individual he was today. Robby’s character said more of hers than words ever could.
I’d met her several times, and the amount of respect I held for her was tremendous. She’d provided for Robby and his younger sister, Sarah, when she had barely a penny to her name. Through hard work as a waitress, she’d given her children the most comfortable life she could. To think she would cease to exist, so suddenly... I just couldn’t believe it. Death seemed more like a distant dream than a reality, and yet here it was, about to bereave Robby of his only remaining parent.
“I don’t know what to say,” I stated in my disbelief.
“You don’t need to say anything,” he sniffed. “Just having you here is enough.”
“When was she diagnosed?”
“About a week ago.”
“Have the doctors given you any idea of a timeframe?”
Stifling sobs, he trembled in my arms. “They’ve been very vague,” he quietly said, and I could hear from his tone that he was struggling to remain composed. “Could be anything between three months to a year. Every cancer is different, they said, but she’s got an aggressive type. She’s receiving treatment right now, so hopefully her prognosis will change, but–” a sob escaped him, successfully interrupting his sentence.
I didn’t ask him to continue. Instead, I merely held him until the pizza arrived. Even if my appetite had vanished as a result of the news, I set the table after paying the deliveryman.
When I’d finished, I leaned away from the table and stared at him for a while. He looked so broken where he sat, and it played the strings of my heart in the worst of ways. I wished more than anything that I could cure his mother. I wished more than anything that he wouldn’t have to go through this. I hated this. I absolutely hated it.
“Are you hungry?” I gently enquired.
“I’m starving, actually,” he murmured from the sofa and rubbed his face.
Since I wasn’t hungry, I only kept him company by the table. He told me Sarah was flying over from Tokyo and would land tomorrow, and he asked me whether I’d like to visit Heather with him this upcoming Sunday, to which I’d said yes without as much as hesitating. Heather was a woman I had grown quite fond of over the years, and if it were true that she wouldn’t be with us for much longer, I wanted to tell her how grateful I was to her for bringing Robby into the world, since he was one of those who made it a better place to be. I wanted her to know that I’d looked up to her since the first time I’d met her, that she was one of few role models in my life, and I wanted to assure her that I’d look after her son for her when she no longer could.
We didn’t speak all that much, because there wasn’t much to be said. What he needed was the sheer comfort of my presence.
During intervals of silence, I wondered how to handle this, because it changed everything. There wasn’t a chance I was going to abandon my best mate when he needed me most. Frankly, it would be completely ridiculous to tell him that I couldn’t be there for him through one of the hardest times of his life just because William wasn’t comfortable with it, and especially when Robby clearly didn’t harbour any intention of interfering with our relationship. On the contrary, he’d expressed nothing but support. Not only that, but it had to count for something that I didn’t harbour romantic feelings for him. I had no sensible excuse to avoid him, nor did I want to.
However, there was no denying the potential havoc this could wreak with regards to my romantic life. This had, without a shadow of a doubt, placed me in a tricky situation. Part of me worried William would be blind to reason about this. I hoped to the God I didn’t believe in that he wouldn’t make me choose again. Not now. Not when his concerns were based on hypothetical outcomes that weren’t ever going to happen, and not when one of my dearest friends needed me most. At the end of the day, it was true that Robby viewed me romantically, but it would be absurd to let that thwart the friendship we shared. I knew that if things had been the other way round, he would have been there for me every step of the way. William would have to trust me. It was the only solution, and I would demand it.
I swallowed a lump in my throat when I realised that he was expecting me later tonight.
I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t see him now, not after what Robby had told me. I needed to think, to process, and I needed to care for my friend. Besides, clearing my head was absolutely paramount if I were to bring this matter up with the brutal force that was my boyfriend. Consulting Jason about my dilemma beforehand was probably a good idea, too. However, if I told William I wasn’t coming to his after all, I knew he’d overthink.
Unsure of how to proceed, I sighed and folded my arms.
In the end, if he overreacted because of this single incident, he had himself to blame. While I would suffer from a bad conscience to a certain extent, I found solace in the fact that he was mainly making problems for himself and reading too deeply into things. Just as I had a responsibility to respect his limitations, he also had a responsibility to respect mine, and if I wasn’t ready to talk today, that was something he’d have to accept.
Once Robby finished eating, I decided to ask, “Anything you’d like to do? Film you’d fancy seeing, game you’d like to play? Or do you just want to talk? Or not talk – we can do that, too.”
The smile that climbed to his mouth somehow managed to leave my heart in splinters, because while it was undeniably sincere, it shined of a vulnerability and sorrow that I hated to witness. With wet eyes, he replied, “Don’t know. Don’t care. As long as you’re around, I think I’ll be fine to do anything.”
Mirroring his expression, tears prickled my own set of eyes while I returned his smile.
After a beat, he continued, “Having you here... Just seeing you smile, hearing your voice... I’ve really missed you, Cara. As a friend, you know?”
I looked away from him and drew a slow breath. “Yeah, Robby. I know.”