Chapter 37: Pretend
1. Imagining something isn’t what it really is to maintain one’s sanity.
*Chloe’s Point of View*
Two weeks had passed since Asher and I agreed we wouldn’t be anything more than friends. It was strange and painful, the way we’d been forced to adjust the relationship we’d had into the one he felt we needed, which was edging on strangers. There were no more harmless touches between us, like the way we’d cuddle on the couch when watching a movie or playfully nudge one another to get the other’s attention.
In fact, I barely saw him at all. I didn’t see him at school unless we had class together because he’d found a new place to each lunch, where ever that was. During class, we’d sit on two different ends of the room. Luckily, he didn’t seem to acknowledge the flirty girls around him, which made it easier to maintain my composure at school.
Despite living in the same home, we generally tried to avoid one another unless Amy or Prim was in the room with us. Or more so, Asher tried to avoid me, while I tried to cling to something that no longer existed.
It was difficult for me at first. And presently. And during all the time that had passed in between. I tried to convince myself I hadn’t lost anything and had no right to be heartbroken. Asher and I had never actually dated. But even if I could pretend long enough that there was no lost romantic relationship for me to mourn, then I instead agonized over a lost friendship.
I could barely sleep at night anymore. I couldn’t take the nightmares. And they weren’t my usual ones either. I didn’t know what was worse to wake up from: the screeching sound of metal that I was used to, or the dreams where Asher would hold me like it meant everything to him.
I even tried writing about how I felt, but I couldn’t jot down anything except the exact same sentence over and over again.
It feels like someone is playing darts and my heart is the dartboard. It feels like someone is playing darts and my heart is the dartboard. It feels like someone is playing darts and my heart is the dartboard. It feels like someone is playing darts and my heart is the dartboard. It feels like-
There really were only so many ways I could describe the hurt.
I built myself a fortress out of pizza boxes and empty ice cream containers and I drowned in a constant loop of When Harry Met Sally, The Notebook, Pretty Woman, Twilight, 50 Shades of Gray, and every other romance movie that had been released in the last forty years.
The only time I could cry was usually at night in my room when I was finally alone, and I took advantage of that practically nightly. I understood I probably appeared outwardly colder than usual to others, but if my words didn't come out sharply then I feared they'd come out a warbling mess instead.
I was used to heartache, and I thought I’d felt every version of loss, enough to prep, but this was different than any death I’d endured. Very different actually, as I could still hear Asher in his room across the hall at night and that would be unnerving is he was deceased. I still saw him in my day-to-day life too, so I couldn't even pretend he was dead.
It was also a different experience than my breakup with Devin, who I certainly hadn’t cried over after the first week of our severed relationship had passed.
Each time I saw Asher, whether it was only the two of us or we were surrounded by people, I felt a nearly uncontrollable urge to press myself against him, to caress his lips with mine, to explain to him that I didn’t care if he felt he was good enough for me because I’d always known he was. But I couldn’t.
I wanted him and he wanted space.
At school that morning, I spied Asher walking by himself in the hallway but, per usual these past few weeks, he avoided my gaze when I looked in his direction. It still hurt whenever he’d make it blatantly obvious he couldn’t be around me, but I turned back towards my locker like it was nothing, pulling out the binder for my next period.
I felt the presence of another person beside me, but I refused to turn and face whoever it was. I wanted to savor the possibility that it was Asher for as long as I could. Sadly, I couldn’t avoid whoever it was forever and I closed my locker as I turned, sucking in a breath when I locked eyes with him.
Hayden tilted his head at my reaction to him standing there. I hadn’t spoken to him since our terrible date and, since he never tried to talk to me again in person, I had planned on avoiding him until I graduated. That wasn’t an option now that he was standing in front of me.
“Hey, Chlo,” he greeted, his hand lifting in a small wave.
“Oh, hi, Hayden.” I returned his hello but simultaneously took a sweep around the hall, searching for anyone to save me from the awkward situation I knew I was bound to face. With no one I knew in sight, I tugged my gaze back to him, grinning uncomfortably. “What’s up?”
Suddenly, before I could ready myself, his forehead crinkled in confusion and he asked me a question I dreaded answering. “Did I do something to offend you? Because if I did, I really am sorry.”
I found myself shaking my head, awkwardly tugging at the strings of my backpack. “No, I’m fine. I’ve been busy.”
“You don’t have to lie. Really, I’d rather know the truth.” I didn’t answer and he sighed. “Can't you at least tell me why you’ve been ignoring my texts these last few weeks?” He chuckled, shaking his head slightly. “I try to smile at you in the hall and you disregard me. I feel like a complete idiot.”
His laughter pulled a smile onto my face, though I did fight the expression for a moment. The reason I’d been avoiding him truly didn’t even have to do with our failed date, though that was reason enough. After learning about Hayden’s betrayal towards Asher and their family ties, I felt it would be disrespectful of me to continue whatever Hayden and I had going. I wasn’t going to tell him that I knew about his family secrets, though.
“You’re not an idiot.” I sighed, my smile melting as I tried to deliver him a partial truth to avoid his secret. “After our last date and how it ended, I feel a bit weird...”
Embarrassed, I looked away. He shook his head, his own expression plummeting.
“I didn’t mean to make you upset.” He leaned forward, taking my hand into his. My eyes fell onto our attached hands, feeling nothing but disappointed when our skin collided. “I really like you, Chloe. I don’t want you to think that sex is all I want from you.”
“Isn’t it?” I asked as I returned my gaze to his.
“Of course not!” He appeared almost panicked that I’d think so little of him, not that he gave me much of a choice after how he had treated me. “I’m really interested in you.”
A smile grew on my face from hearing those words; I’d been craving to hear them, even if Hayden wasn’t who I wanted them from. “Really?”
His grin was bright and cheery as he rubbed his thumb against the back of my hand. “Of course. I’ve missed talking to you.”
“I guess I’ve missed talking to you too,” I joked. It was true that I’d missed having him around sometimes. He was good company and an even better distraction, as terrible as that sounded.
“I’d hoped you did.” He moved a little closer, his eyes not wandering from my face. “This is going to sound extremely out of the blue but, believe me, I’ve wanted to ask you this for a long time. Will you be my girlfriend? Like, officially.”
Not expecting that type of question, I took a stammering step backward, Hayden’s hand in mine the only thing keeping me upright. “What?”
“I don’t want this-” He indicated between us. “-To go on any longer without a label. I really like you a lot. I want to take you out for real this time. So what do you say?”
The lump in my throat was the size of a boulder and it halted both my words and my breathing. When I finally managed to swallow, which was five uncomfortable seconds later, I muttered, “Can I think about it?”
“Of course.” Hayden grinned, potentially happy I hadn’t said no, giving my hand a tight squeeze. “I’ll call you later, okay?”
I nodded and he released my hand, his enthusiasm evident as he stepped away from me. I couldn’t help but notice my own enthusiasm was nonexistent as I stood alone in the busy hallway.
To say Hayden’s request was on my mind for the rest of the day was an understatement. More accurately, his question had held my mind hostage all morning and well into my evening. Strangely enough, the thought of answering it wasn’t what was making my stomach churn, but instead, it was clueing in my roommate that really made me sick.
I stood in the hallway outside of Asher’s bedroom for as long as I could manage. This conversation would be the first real one that we’d had in weeks. I wished we could have had it under better circumstances.
I peeled the door open and stepped in, shockingly enough, without knocking. He was putting a few articles of clothing into his dresser drawer as I stood in the doorway, watching his eyes expand when they landed on me.
If it had been a month before, Asher would have laughed and commented on how I’d rudely entered his room. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a month earlier and he didn’t seem to find my arrival very humorous.
His eyes narrowed sharply at me, but not in an angry way. He looked more confused than anything. “What are you doing in here?”
I realized that was the first time in weeks I’d placed myself in the same room as Asher while it was only the two of us and, to keep things safe, I didn’t move from between the doorjamb.
Trying to figure out how to navigate myself through the sentence, I opened my mouth, my voice trembling when I uttered the words, “Hayden asked me to be his girlfriend.”
There was no hesitation in Asher’s response. “What did you say?”
His expression hadn’t shifted from confused, making my heart beat slightly faster. He didn’t look upset, which bothered me.
“I told him I’d think about it.”
Surprising me in every way, his mouth twisted into a small smile. I thought the expression was authentic until he dared himself to speak. “Of course, you did.”
I frowned, crossing my arms over my chest. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Tossing another pair of jeans into his dresser, he spun away from me, snapping, “If it’s not me, it’s my brother.”
My mouth fell open and I sputtered out, “T-that’s not-”
“Fair?” he cut me off, shifting to once again face me. “None of this is fair.”
My features dropped into anger, my lips pursing into a scowl. “You’re right, Asher! None of this is fair. The way that I feel is not fair; the way you’ve treated me is not fair.”
Asher’s expression appeared less irritated than before after a second passed. He looked entirely defeated when he murmured, “I think you should do it.”
“What?” I was so nervous that I couldn’t move, but it pained me to stay still.
Even quieter, he said, “I think you should tell him yes.”
My arms dropped from across my chest in utter disbelief. For a moment, I was sure I must have misheard him, but he repeated himself again and I instantly felt sick.
“You want me to be with Hayden?” Though he’d said it more than once, I still feared his explanation.
His voice louder, he responded through a sigh. “I didn’t say I wanted it. I said I think you should.”
I was relieved he’d admitted to not wanting me to be with someone else, but bewildered over his answer nonetheless. “Why?”
His shoulders fell as the second fog of defeat invaded his space.
“Technically, I don’t think you should date Hayden. At least not after whatever happened on your last date.” He shook his head quietly like he didn’t want to think about it. “I think you should date someone and move on from me.”
“I don’t want to move on from you.” Frustration took over every inch of my being and I found myself taking a full step into his room.
That action was matched when he took an equally broad step away from me. I ignored his hesitance to be near me, focusing too much on my instant irritation for his words.
“I can’t be around you, Chloe,” he responded tensely. With my temper reaching its boiling point, I scowled.
“Why are you calling me that? What is wrong with you? What the hell happened to us?” He was silent, which seemed to extinguish many of my flames. With a sigh of utter disappointment, I let my head fall. “I wish you never told me you had feelings for me in the first place.”
“I really need you to leave,” he stated quietly, diverting his eyes towards the floor.
Despite how angry I’d become, I responded as calmly as I could. “I didn’t come in here to upset you.”
“You’re not upsetting me,” he whispered. “I just can’t be alone with you in my room.”
Ignoring his request, I didn’t step away from him. “It shouldn’t be this hard for us to be around each other.”
Returning his eyes to me, he frowned. “No, it shouldn’t.”
I mirrored his expression. “Then why are you making it so difficult?”
“Because being around you for a single second makes me wish everything was how it used to be. And it can’t be that way anymore,” he expressed with wide eyes. “Do you think I’m enjoying this?”
I threw my arms out to the side. “I don’t know, you could’ve fooled me! I have been trying and trying and trying to be your friend and my efforts are met with silence.”
With furrowed brows, I experimentally moved closer to him, watching him scurry backward like a frightened gazelle. Halting my movement, I crossed my arms over my chest once more as I pressed my lips together tightly, speaking slowly as I said, “Being this close to me... it scares you.”
Asher’s eyes rolled and he let out a scoff. “It doesn’t scare me.”
Sending him a sarcastic nod, I took another step forward and he stepped back again, seeming almost embarrassed as he did.
I huffed an annoyed breath. “This is insane, Asher. We used to be able to be this close to each other. You’re my best friend. I don’t want this to be so weird.”
“Then you need to leave.” His eyes were extensive, his words honest, but I shook my head.
“We agreed to be friends, not strangers. I’m not going anywhere until things are back to normal.”
“Fine. Stay then,” he snapped, irritably.
I thought he’d accepted the fact we’d be stuck in his room together until we’d fixed what we’d broken, but instead, he gathered up all the courage he possessed and moved towards me, slipping past me and entering the hall. My mouth agape, I flipped around, watching him slide into my bedroom across from his and shut the door behind himself.
“Asher! That’s not what I meant,” I exclaimed, following after him and pounding on the hardwood of my own door. The room was deafeningly silent on the other side of the thin slab of wood and, when he didn’t respond, I brought my fist back, hammering onto it a second time. “Asher!”
Finally, after thirty seconds of restlessly knocking, I heard Asher’s audible sigh on the other side, almost directly next to the door, which led me to believe he was leaning against it the same way I was.
“Look,” he breathed out, sounding almost pained. “I said I wanted to be friends, but it’s too hard to be around you.”
I’d expected his words, seeing how he’d acted the last few weeks, but they still hurt. It felt like I’d fallen on a staircase and a step had hit me right in the middle of the back; the wind was knocked out of me, yet I was standing completely still. With teary eyes and a shuddering voice, I mumbled the first words to pop into my head.
“I miss you so much,” I confessed, understanding my honest words would change absolutely nothing.
“I miss you too,” he shared after a long moment of complete silence.
I was surprised he’d admitted it. “You do?”
“Of course I do, Dol.” His usage of my nickname only made me cry harder, more audibly, though he kept talking regardless of my tears. “But I can’t go back to what we were. Not after I’ve had a piece of what we could be. I was satisfied with friendship, I really was, but now that I’ve told you how I feel, I can’t pretend that I don’t feel this way about you when I do. It’s like I’ve cracked some sort of dam inside myself where I can’t overlook everything I’d been neglecting anymore. It’s easier to avoid you than to act like I don’t think about you every second.”
Closing my eyes, with his voice in my ear, it was almost too easy to pretend that the door wasn’t there between us and that it was Asher I was leaning against. My voice came out a fumbling mess when I asked, “Can you please open the door?”
With a moment of consideration, my bedroom door cracked open, forcing me to step back from it so that Asher could join me in the hallway. His posture was rigid when he stood in front of me, rubbing his forehead like he was warding off a headache.
“We were never normal,” he told me quietly.
“What?” I sniffed, wiping away my never-ending sadness.
He frowned. “You said you wanted us to go back to normal. We were never normal. Our friendship was never innocent and I can’t go back to it.”
I inhaled hard, hoping to ease the tightness of my lungs as I lifted my head. “We don’t need to be exactly the same, but I don’t see why we have to ignore each other when it’s just us.”
He stepped around me, making sure that he didn’t touch me or get too close. “Because it’s too tempting to be around one another.”
Fearing that he was leaving, afraid this was the beginning of the end of us speaking entirely, I blurted out, “What do I tell Hayden?”
As pathetic as it sounded, I really had missed talking to him, even if it was arguing.
Asher’s features were pinched when he turned to face me. “Do whatever you want. Why do you need my opinion on it?”
“Because I don’t know how I feel!”
Taking a moment to consider what I’d said, Asher’s head shook slowly and he stepped back into his room. With an exhale, his words were extremely slow. “The fact that you don’t know how you feel about someone when they ask you to be their girlfriend is the answer to your question, isn’t it?”
Not giving me the chance to respond, not that I had anything I could say back, he shut the door in my face. The gust of wind that came from the slamming door was enough to knock me back a step and, turning into my own room, I closed the door gently behind myself. I collapsed into a heap on my bed, tugging my phone from my jean pocket, sighing as I clicked on Hayden’s name.
My finger hovered over the call button for a long time, but I was a coward and I knew I couldn’t talk to him. Instead, I texted him a short explanation, telling him I couldn’t accept his request; it wasn’t meant to be. His contact name popped onto my phone no more than a minute after I’d pressed send, but I didn’t answer his call. Instead, I pressed decline, hoping he’d forgive me, and turned off my phone.
I tried to pretend I was crying over the fact I’d hurt Hayden, not that Asher had officially severed whatever relationship or friendship we’d once had, or would ever be capable of having. That was the cruel thing about pretending — it was all make-believe.