The next morning, we woke up to a fog so heavy we could only see a few feet in front of us. The beautiful view of the ocean from just outside our yurt was replaced by an eerie sea of white floating all around us. We’d made tea with hot water from our electric kettle and gone outside into the dense white mist long enough to build a fire in the pit to cook batches of chocolate chip pancakes. Then we hovered a little longer under the canopy observing the fog, keeping our hands warm with steaming cups of tea, and hoped it wasn’t going to linger all day. We had planned to get an early start and explore the views offered along the paved pathways, but after a few minutes of freezing on the porch, we decided to amuse ourselves indoors.
We sat at the small wooden dining table and began assembling a jigsaw puzzle of Claude Monet’s painting Fishing Boats at Étretat. I watched Gene as he picked up pieces and searched for their mates, biting his lower lip in contemplation. He had two tiny, dark freckles on his forehead that I never got tired of, and his normally straight hair was curling up with the moisture in the air. Glancing away quickly as he moved for another puzzle piece so that he wouldn’t catch me staring, I grabbed the long bundle of my hair, tied back in a pony tail, and pulled it forward, twirling the frizzy ends of it with my fingers as I pretended to be searching the pile of unmatched pieces. Pretense turned to luck when my analytical eye spotted corresponding shapes, and then, hooked, I got lost in the hunt for more matches.
Satisfied with my progress a few minutes later, I looked up to see him watching me with his hands propping up his chin. Unlike me, he wasn’t fazed about being caught in the act. Instead, his eyelids hung low over his dark eyes dreamily and he grinned sheepishly at me. I leaned back in my chair and mocked a castigating look at him.
“Do you like what you see, sir?” I chided him.
His mouth fell open to protest, but then he grinned. “I do, actually, madam,” he freely admitted before resuming an even wider grin, though a tinge of pink appeared on his cheeks.
I bit my lower lip, smiling back at him. His eyes were twinkling at me, and I felt like I was supposed to say something. I could have commented about his laugh lines that I loved so much or even joked about the two freckles I couldn’t stop staring at, but I couldn’t verbalize any of that. I reached out and put my hand on his, hoping my touch would work like a conduit connecting him to my thoughts. A beat passed and then he squeezed my hand as he returned his attention to the unfinished puzzle.
Luckily, the fog did eventually dissipate, enabling us to venture outside. We donned all-weather jackets because it was still rather grey outside and headed down to the shore before we hit the trails. We sat in the sand near a pile of giant driftwood away from the reach of the waves. Leaning back with his legs stretched out in front of him, Gene seemed unconcerned about the elbows of his thermal sleeves digging into the wet grains. I caught him gazing at me when I turned my head toward him after a few minutes of watching the turbulent ocean waves. He blinked lazily as he smiled, his finger drawing circles around my knuckles. By his expression, it was obvious that he wanted to tell me something, but he couldn’t seem to find his voice. The pause stretched out longer and he apologetically grimaced at me, knowing he was dragging the silence on.
I gave him a small laugh and shifted closer to him, leaning my knee on top of his thigh. I put a reassuring hand on his arm. “What is it, Gene?”
He inhaled a deep breath and blew it out with a sigh of raspberries. He stopped tracing my knuckles and took my hand, lacing our fingers. “OK, well,” he started, but his voice cracked, and he cleared his throat nervously. “I’m just gonna, um, tell you…” he hesitated briefly before continuing. “Um…Kittie, I wanted to tell you that I love you and I’m really glad we took this trip. I wanted to say it last night, but I was so tired, I was afraid it would come out wrong.”
Ohhhh, I thought to myself. I also cringed inwardly with cowardly inadequacy. Out of all my juvenile traits, The Three Coveted Words was in the top five of Things I Didn’t Want to Say. He was watching my face and I knew I was supposed to say it back.
But instead, I moaned, “Oh, but now you’ve said the big L-word.” I regretted it as soon as I said it. I was trying to make a joke out of it, but the disappointed expression on his face made it clear he wasn’t interested in jesting. The look he gave me made me feel even more pathetic for moaning about it instead of being mature and just saying it back immediately. After all, he was brave enough to say it to me. I could feel my blood pressure spiking along with my anxiety, yet I couldn’t make myself say the words.
He closed his eyes and shook his head and I felt a slight panic. “It’s OK,” he lied. “You don’t have to say it back.”
I could tell he didn’t mean that. If someone says those words to you, either you have to say them back or you have to say Gee, I’m sorry, I wish I felt the same. But if you take the second option, the person who professed their emotions tends to lose their love for you. It might not happen right away, but the first fracture is all it takes for the inevitable break to begin. I knew that from experience because I told a man once I loved him and instead of saying it back, he acted like he thought I was lying to him. It took me a long time and a few more attempts that received the same reaction to realize that he didn’t love me and didn’t seem to want to.
The problem I was facing with Gene wasn’t a lack of love for him. I’d been smitten with him since we’d met earlier in the spring, before I knew much of anything about him, and the more I knew him, the more I adored him. I’d been on the cusp of taking my gooey heart out of my chest and offering it to him in hopefulness more times than I could count. But the problem was that I was a big chicken shit. Even though I knew exactly how Gene must have been feeling at that moment, I couldn’t stop myself from being a big chicken shit, and I could feel that invisible fracture forming.
My silence lingered as I kept looking at him, trying to think of the right words to say to him that weren’t The Three Coveted Words but something just as good. Words like “ditto,” or “same,” wouldn’t work because those are super lame. Nobody wants to hear that.
He got tired of waiting and let go of my hand to push himself up to a sitting position, wrapping his arms around his knees as he stared out into the grey water. I moved closer to him and put my arms around him, resting my head on his shoulder. He leaned his head on top of mine, so I knew that, at least for now, it wasn’t all bad. I sucked up all the bravery I had and tilted my head so I could whisper in his ear.
“You are really special to me, and I like being here with you, too,” I told him, mentally crossing my fingers.
I could see his chest heave as he sighed silently. The silence was heavy as moments passed and he didn’t say anything. The words I’d offered him were obviously not good enough.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. I cursed at myself for being a cowardly shit and ruining what should have been a perfect moment. I was going to try saying something else, but he touched my arm, making a move to stand up.
“Why don’t we go check out the trails now? I’m tired of sitting,” his voice was quiet and flat.
“Um, OK,” I said, watching him as he got to his feet. I was surprised that he still helped me to stand up instead of walking away by himself toward the trails.