Battle of Heart and Mind
“The love that lasts longest is the love that is never returned.”
~W. Somerset Maugham
Tremondre entered the Mustafic household with the enthusiasm of a corpse bled dry. A button near his collar was missing. Ash colored his cheeks, turning his complexion sallow and dead. The ill-fitting jacket and cuffs restricted his movements to the point of intolerable discomfort, so he immediately sought to remove the oppressive outfit upon coming in. He tugged and pulled. The jacket seemed to grip onto him with a stubborn refusal to let go. He continued to wiggle and strain until a tell-tale sound made him freeze.
Tremondre knew the sound of an excessive split all too well and examined the black jacket to analyze the extent of the injury. The sleeve was barely holding on by a thread. He cursed underneath his breath but not at himself. No. He blamed the very girl whom he believed to be the cause of his new anguish. Fatima Said was his enemy. She, alone, had the power to end him once and for all, to ruin him, his reputation, and his dignity.
Tremondre wondered how it was all possible. How could one person know so much? How was it possible that she could scrutinize him and pick apart the most shameful secrets of his soul? Someone must have told her. It was the only way Tremondre could rationalize it. But who? Tremondre had never told anyone about his secret love for Mrs. Mustafic. After all, his shame was so great that he, himself, couldn’t bear to hear it aloud. He had protected his secret, had built walls with brick and mortar, sealed it in darkness, with the hopes of taking it to his grave. And now that someone other than himself finally knew, Tremondre was a single thread away from madness.
No one could know, he chanted to himself. No one could ever know.
The tightening in his chest returned. As if Fatima Said, herself, had reappeared within the same room, he felt his ribs hardening into stone. His breath shortened until each puff of air was shallow and quick. Spots floated in front of his eyes, and he blinked to shoo them away.
Leave me alone, he pleaded. But Fatima Said was nowhere to be found.
“Leave me alone.”
What he had not expected was for a wavering voice full of hurt to respond back.
Tremondre opened his eyes to see Samir kneeled in front of him. His kind eyes darkened like storm clouds from overwhelming concern, and a crushed up water bottle crinkled in his hand.
“Could you at least drink first?”
Tremondre snatched the bottle from his hand and chugged its contents. Water streamed in rivulets down his chin, drenching his already ruined dress-shirt. He drank and drank until he downed the very last drop. Breathing heavily, he returned the bottle to Samir who absent-mindedly received the offer. He was far more concerned with his friend’s ghastly behavior.
“You alright?” Samir forced a joking smile although there was nothing to joke about. “You’re kind of scaring me a bit.”
Embarrassed by the scene he caused, Tremondre scooted away, distancing himself between his friend. “I’m fine. I just came to return the clothes I borrowed.” Tremondre went to pick up the jacket on the floor and showed Samir the tear. “Sorry.”
Samir took one glance at the jacket and laughed. “You’re good, man. The last time I wore this jacket was for some funeral I attended in Sarajevo. I don’t even remember who died.”
Tremondre felt his chest begin to open. He began breathing more freely. “Wasn’t it some old heroin-addict reject?”
“My Aunt Medina!” Samir’s expression brightened upon the recollection. “Ah. She will be missed. But on a more serious note,” Samir said, turning back to his friend. “If you’re getting a panic attack over tearing my jacket, I’m guessing the date didn’t go so well.”
“Right. The date.” Tremondre’s smile dropped. “Listen––”
Samir didn’t want to hear a word of it. With one arm around Tremondre’s shoulder, he loudly declared in a jovial spirit, “You’re going to be okay, Tre. Think about it this way. Love is like...like that stupid American game no one plays anymore. You know...the one where you’re in a pool and close your eyes while everyone shouts ‘Marco’ and one person shouts ‘polo’. And you’re supposed to find the person saying ‘polo’.”
Tremondre blinked twice. “Bro. I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I never went swimming or had friends.”
Samir scratched his head awkwardly. “Well...what games do you know?”
“You’re seriously not comparing love to children’s games, are you?”
Tremondre couldn’t help but gawk at his friend in disbelief. Without meaning to, a hint of anger leaked into his words, and he feared that Samir would catch onto the secret festering inside him. Tremondre’s chest tightened again, but then he remembered that Samir wasn’t Fatima. He was smart and analytical, but he was also practical and easily put his trust in others. Confident that his secret was safe (for now at least), Tremondre relaxed.
“I mean...yeah.” Samir said with utmost sincerity. It had been a while since Tremondre saw his friend in a serious mood. “Think about it. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Some people cheat to win and they lose. And if you lose, then you get to play again. But the thing about love is that it’s kind of rigged because at times it feels like you have free will until your decisions start to narrow down and you’re forced to make decisions, hard decisions. Sometimes, when the decisions become especially difficult, you just want to quit the game completely.”
This time, it was Samir that was out of breath now. When Tremondre looked into his friend’s eyes, he saw that Samir was somewhere else reliving his best and worst moments. A tear clung to the corner of his eye, glistening in the dark.
Samir’s voice broke. “Sorry. I forgot what I was saying.”
Entranced by his friend’s burst of emotion, Tremondre was quickly able to pinpoint exactly where Samir left off in his strange yet eccentric metaphor. “Something about quitting the game…”
“Oh yes! Quitting. Yeah...you can’t quit.”
“Ever?” Tremondre suddenly felt nauseous.
“Ever.” Samir sighed gleefully. “Even if you go into the game with the strategy of playing it safe, you’ll still manage to get yourself wrapped up in something stupid. Like a good game of hide-and-go-seek, the seeker finds you whether you’re ready or not.”
Tremondre turned awfully pale again and began tripping over his own words. “Okay. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say I do find love, right? But it’s with someone who’s completely out of my league. And not only is she out of my league, but loving her will ruin everything.”
Samir buzzed with excitement. “Everything?”
Tremondre shouted, “Yes! Everything! All my relations, my reputation, her reputation, and everyone we care about. Some people would even say that my love is wrong. What do I do?”
Samir took one long look at his friend, registered the distress derived from the outrageous hypothetical scenario, and felt his heart swell with much love for his friend. With his hand placed firmly on Tremondre’s shoulder, he seized his gaze and gave him a look of reassurance.
“Well if loving this person causes you that much pain, maybe it’s not worth the cost. Even if you love her, you can always choose not to engage in the relationship.
A heavy sensation sank Tremondre’s insides. If what Samir was saying was true, if Tremondre really did have free-will and the choice to not act on his feelings, then why did Samir’s answer leave him feeling disappointed when he should feel elated and relieved? A powerful migraine wreaked havoc on Tremondre’s head, causing him to double over in pain. When the heart and mind clashed, it was always an ugly battle, the kind that resulted in significant damage and ruin.
Samir mistook Tre’s emotional ailment as a physical one and called for his mother’s aid. Ms. Mustafic came to the living room equipped with hot tea, a thermometer, and a fresh change of clothes (the breathable kind). With expert hands, she took Tremondre’s temperature and read the three glowing digits with a frown.
“You have a fever.” Ms. Mustafic said as she showed Tremondre the thermometer. “I’m going to need you to change out of those clothes and into these.”
She handed him folded clothes into his hands. Her fingertips accidentally brushed against his. The softness of her skin sent a chill down his spine, which would normally cause him great embarrassment had it not been the excuse of his fever. However, the excuse did nothing for his fear. He withdrew his hand like he had been burned and took the clothes.
“I’ll take the clothes, but I really need to go.” Tremondre began heading straight for the door, but Ms. Mustafic wasn’t having any of it.
“Go where, exactly? To that truck of yours?”
Tremondre winced. He turned around and saw her standing with her arms folded over her chest in a cross maternal stance. Even in her night clothes, she seemed sharp and alert. She was not the kind of person to sugarcoat the truth, especially when it hurt the most. She knew how to put her foot down when it mattered and was a firm believer in tough love. Ms. Mustafic made sure people listened to her and would seize people’s attention with a tyrant’s grip if necessary.
It made Tremondre’s war torn heart soar even more.
“Samir, take him to your room. Make sure he gets out of those clothes. I’ll be back with an Advil and extra blankets.”
Samir’s eyes lit up with excitement. “Twenty-years-old and I finally get to have my first sleepover!”
Ms. Mustafic raised an arched brow. “Did I raise a dumb ass? Who said you two get to sleep together? You’re sleeping on the couch. Tremondre gets the bed.”
Samir’s former excitement deflated if only slightly. He turned to Tremondre and jabbed him with an admonishing finger. “You can use everything in my room. Just clear my search history before using my laptop.”
Although he felt particularly grateful, Tremondre did not know what to say. He could only watch helplessly as Ms. Mustafic walked to the kitchen. His eyes would soften with a look of endearment, the same kind that only fools in love took on. His face burned red from feverish heat, and Samir’s voice would melt into white noise as he stared longingly at Ms. Mustafic face, which was fixed intently among the many rows of medication in her cabinet. He suddenly had the great desire to know what she did on the weekends, her greatest failures, and her hopes and dreams. He wanted to know everything about her and craved the feeling of her fingertips, the same touch that scorched his nerves.
Tremondre Thompson was in love, alright. And he wished, more than anything, to be turned back into stone.