(a short story)
THE ROOM NEVER became completely silent. Even in the aftermath, when things slowed down nearly to a stop, sounds continued to echo in the small room. Traffic from outside. Air coming in and out of lungs, rushing still, the way their bodies weren’t anymore.
She preferred it that way; these background noises gave her mind something to latch onto, kept it from entering yet another loop she would struggle to escape. For now, it was all about the passing of cars, and the passing of time.
His hand on her skin distracted her, fingers trailing her collarbone, causing a new shiver to travel all the way down her toes. While the sensation was somewhat dimmed compared to what she’d felt only minutes ago, it was made sharper by sheer sensitivity.
It succeeded in shifting her focus back to him, though, reopening her eyes and meeting his gaze, his head close to hers on the pillow. His glasses were gone. She wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the exact moment he took them off. The sight of him like this was familiar—intimate. To her, baring his face of his eyewear was like baring her skin of clothes, his vision so poor that few people ever got to see him like this.
Can you even see me? she’d asked him once a long time ago, half-jokingly, in a moment like this one.
He hadn’t smiled, always more on the intense side.
He’d brought a hand to her face instead, and traced each of her features with soft fingers, slowly, meticulously.
I see you, he’d said.
She’d believed him, too.
Tonight, she found herself mimicking him from all those years ago, her left hand up to his face, fingertips resting lightly on his cheekbone, before she let her nails scratch his short beard. That was new, a difference that irremediably changed the way he looked, offsetting the deep-seated familiarity she had with the rest of his features.
He reached for that hand on his face and gave her fingers a small squeeze. He stopped faster than he probably intended, as the pressure caused them both to become aware of the ring on her finger, the gem atop it digging into his flesh. When he could have released her, he didn’t—not completely.
His fingers moved instead, soon fidgeting with the stone; the engagement ring barely budged.
“It’s too small.”
His voice came out slightly hoarse. These were his first spoken words in a while.
She pursed her lips. “Yeah, I know.” She’d felt it the moment she put the thing on.
Receiving a ring that did not fit her wasn’t dramatic in itself; it happened, and could easily be fixed. It could even become one of these things she and her husband-to-be would laugh about in a few years. She doubted her husband-to-be would care, though; not enough to get it adjusted.
When he finally let go of her hand, the rest of him moved, too, shifting his entire body against hers to nuzzle the expanse of her neck his fingers had been trailing a minute ago, his breath on her skin creating yet another shiver. Her hand sank back into his damp hair, clutching at it without much force, simply responding to him as innately as it had always been between them.
For a few moments, there was silence again. It was a heavy kind of silence, though, as the unsaid filled the air, louder than the sound of cars driving by; it was wedging its way between them, pulling them apart despite their physical closeness.
“What are you gonna do?”
The words were half-muffled, his lips still pressed to her skin.
Inside her chest, her heart sped up again, her fingers stilling in his hair. She’d been expecting it, that one question or sentence that would force them to acknowledge what they’d done. Now that it was upon her, she had no idea how to answer it.
She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Although whispered, the words seemed loud.
He moved, unpinning himself from her to meet her eyes.
“You’re gonna go through with it?”
I don’t know, was the only answer she had for him, even if she didn’t say it again.
She didn’t need to say it out loud; he knew her well enough to read it in her eyes, his body progressively tensing against hers.
“What are we even doing?” His next question left her just as unable to speak, the frustration clear in his voice.
This was no time for humor, in any shape or form, but it would have been difficult for her not to fall back on one of her main coping mechanisms.
She was not exactly surprised when it caused him to tense even more. He moved, shifting onto his back, further away from her, forcing her fingers to slip out of his hair. A long, frustrated sigh escaped him as he stared at the ceiling, one hand up to his face, his thumb pressed to his forehead.
“We shouldn’t have done this,” he eventually said.
He was right, of course.
It still hurt.
“What were the odds?” she asked then, her voice as thick as his had been.
He dropped his hand, turning his head to look at her, frowning.
“What were the odds of us just bumping into each other like that?” she continued.
He stared at her, barely blinking.
“You knew I might be there,” he answered after a while.
She shrugged. “Maybe I did. Not consciously, though. And really, what were the odds of me not only being there on a day you were in, but also at the same time? If I’d taken the next subway, you would have been gone by the time I got there.”
If she’d hung around her apartment five minutes longer, she would have taken the subway fifteen minutes later; by the time she reached the restaurant, he would have gone home with his take-out.
The way he pursed his lips was as familiar as the feel of his hands on her skin. “You’re not gonna put it all on fate, are you?”
She gave a half-shrug. “All I’m saying is, the probability of it happening at all was next to zero. Yet it happened.”
He was getting more and more frustrated with the way their conversation was evolving, restless energy oozing out of him, affecting her, until he eventually sat up, clutching at his hair.
“That’d be too easy,” he said. “Maybe it was a freaky chance encounter, but what we just did is on us, not on some mystical force bringing us back together.”
She pulled the bedsheet closer to her chest when she mirrored him and sat up, already shaking a little at the temperature drop, now that he’d moved away from her and she’d lost his body heat.
“I’m not trying to make excuses,” she said.
“Still sounds like excuses to me.”
She looked away, her throat clenching painfully…nearly sighing in relief when his hand reached for her face, cupping her cheek.
“I’m just being honest,” he said when she looked back at him. “This is as much on me as it is on you, but I’m kinda lost, here.”
She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “I’m sorry.”
She encompassed much more than their current situation in these two words, including the way she’d treated him all those years ago, when she’d caused this rift between them. Whatever ‘this’ was leading to, it would take more than a meager apology to make up for what had happened, but it was a start.
She felt the loss of his warmth again when he pulled his hand away from her face, his fingers now ruffling his hair. “I just…” He swallowed hard. “I’m worried about you.”
She frowned, confused by this admission.
“You just got engaged, today,” he said, almost flatly. “Most couples celebrate afterward. They don’t usually end up cheating on their fiancé with their ex.”
The accusation was justified; so was the pain it made her feel.
“I’m really not trying to sound judgmental,” he said. “I’ve got my own shit to sort through, jumping back into bed with you like this despite everything that happened. Turns out I’m still not immune to you, and like I said, that’s on me to figure it out. What worries me is that you can sleep with someone else, and still not be sure afterward whether or not you should marry the guy who proposed to you.”
He was right, of course. She couldn’t explain it to herself, let alone to him, how he’d made her feel in that restaurant, tonight.
She’d been content until then.
She hadn’t cared that the ring on her finger was too tight. She hadn’t cared that the man who’d proposed to her two hours prior to this chance encounter had done so the way one laid out a business proposal, before leaving for his work trip with nothing more than a kiss on the forehead.
She had a good job, a good situation, and a steady relationship with a man who didn’t demand anything of her, beyond the easy companionship they shared--and bills split equally. She’d been fine.
Until he reappeared.
Maybe it was fate that had taken her to that particular restaurant. Maybe it was her subconscious making the decision for her, before she became too ensnared in that webbed life of convenience. She’d forgotten what it felt like, to be looked at the way he looked at her, with an intensity that caused her toes to curl. She’d forgotten how a simple touch could cause her insides to clench, how her body could become possessed by its own force and its own will.
It was like seeing colors again after living in monochrome for years.
There was nothing wrong with the monochrome palette of her life, but it didn’t compare to the vibrancy in her soul when she was with this man.
That vibrancy was what she sought when she lifted a hand and sank her fingers in his hair again, knowing the way he would close his eyes before he even did it, because no matter the gap, these years in between, she knew him, just as he knew her.
More talking would come, after, but not for now. Right now, she only wanted to feel, and from the way he responded to her, to her skin against his skin, that was all he wanted, too.
There was silence afterward, just as there was at the beginning.
She lay on his chest, more focused this time on the slowing beats of his heart than she was on the passing of cars. She didn’t have to look to know he’d fallen asleep.
When she moved, she did it carefully. She searched the ground for her discarded clothes, eventually finding what she was looking for. She didn’t even leave the room, dialing the number, listening as the line rang twice, before going straight to voicemail, as she knew it would.
“Call me when you get this?” She spoke quietly so as not to wake her lover, but there was no hesitation in her voice. “We need to talk.”
She went to the bathroom, next, and got a bar of soap.