When he first told her he loved her, she was all of twelve years old; newly flowered and naïve. She rebuffed him. Her mother had been very clear on what it was men wanted from women. No matter how they phrase it, she had said, what a man is really asking for is your legs in the air. There had been no talk of love. Thus, when she found herself in the arms of a boy she had known all her life, hearing words that both terrified and exhilarated her, she reacted instinctively. She pushed him away, turned and fled. He could not mean it. He was toying with her. There was nothing to love. She was awkward, unattractive and timid. He must simply want her legs in the air, and she’d be damned if she let that happen.
He was away at school when she realized she loved him. It was not so much a realization as a calm acceptance of a truth that she had always denied. Of course she loved him. She had always loved him. Even when, after her rejection, he had stopped speaking to her, she had continued to love from afar, watching him with tender eyes and wishing him back into her heart. But years later, when he was no longer within sight, her heart confirmed what she had always known. And so she waited. She thought up increasingly fanciful ways to confess her love when he returned. At one point she decided to put it in writing, and she composed several letters that she never got the courage to mail. It must be in person. He had extended her that much courtesy.
She arrived at his place minutes after he did. She had seen the bus pull in at the station, and had literally raced to meet him. He looked different now. Grown up. She smiled happily when she saw him, and when he grinned and pulled her into a hug. For a moment, they were twelve years old again; all the words that had gone unsaid over the years were now rushing out of her in a dizzying wave. Hours later, when she had asked him every question she could think of about his school life, she took a deep breath and decided to take the plunge.
“You remember what you told me when we were kids?” she began, hoping he would take the hint and save her the agony. He looked intently at her, then he shook his head and said: “No, it’s ok. I apologize; I was out of line. And you were probably right. I’m just glad we can be friends, right?” Her heart took such a dip that she half expected to hear it drop into her stomach. She opened her mouth, intending to say no. Such simple words; I and love and you. Instead, she beamed and nodded unconvincingly. “Sure, friends.”
She was dating someone else when he came to his senses. He had expected it, of course. Hers was a sneaky kind of beauty, but it was beauty all the same, and it had only been a matter of time before someone else realized it. That did not make it any easier to bear. ‘Someone else’ was in this case a student of medicine at some university. He was tall, relatively attractive, wealthy; everything he was not. And on good days the sun shone out his ass. It only took one encounter to break his resolve. One encounter, and all the reasons he had laid out in his head for staying away from her blew away like chaff. They seemed silly, in fact. How had he stayed away for a whole year? How had he ever left her side?
She went out with the perfect man all through college. He waited, always on the fringes, asking in a falsely jocular tone how her ‘marriage’ was going. And each time, her response was more enthusiastic. He bought her shoes last weekend, and the weekend before that he took her wine tasting. It was amazing just how attentive the bastard was. She was meeting the parents this Friday. He looked for the spark of doubt in her eyes, that single ember of lingering affection but saw neither. Perhaps she had never felt the same way. How long must he disillusion himself? Slowly, he channeled his frustration into a single ball of anger. He was angry at her for being happy, angry at himself for his timing, angry at love for being so bloody difficult. It was this anger that sustained him in the three years he distanced himself from her.
They met again at his wedding, and there was such an ominous air about the meeting that they both knew it was to be the last. She stood at the door to the church, clutching the invitation that she had kept with her since she received it weeks ago, and she felt such a pang clutch her heart that her knees buckled beneath her. He found her like that, seated on the floor, staring at a point in the wall. She was a mess; her hair was a tangled tuft of wayward curls, her face haggard and forlorn. She had never looked lovelier.
“Why did you invite me?” she asked as he lowered himself onto the floor beside her.
In truth, he was not sure why he had invited her. It may have had something to do with the anger he still felt towards her. But at the heart of it all was the one thing he knew for sure; she had to be there. In whatever capacity. He did not know what to tell her, so he turned and kissed her. He tasted tears. The sadness poured out of her in waves. Still, he kissed her. It was a kiss hello and a kiss goodbye. With that one kiss they acknowledged their love and refuted it. It must happen, it could never be. And then they broke apart and went their separate ways. Him to a wife he would never love, her to a life that had never had much meaning. There was more to life than love, surely?