(inspired by “Edge of Desire” by John Mayer)
a short story by Kelsey Kingsley
Where did it all go wrong?
I asked myself that very question, standing across from you in the kitchen of the apartment you were never ready to move into, so you never had. I remember I had rented it out several years prior to that moment, with every intention of turning it into our home, but you had prolonged any chance of us cohabitating. You were always tied into a lease, you always felt guilty leaving a roommate stranded, you always had other more pressing matters on your plate… The list was endless, and eventually, I stopped asking, feeling like I had been nagging you during a time when you could have done without my relentless talking of things you weren’t ready for at the time. Eventually I just took it on good faith that it would one day happen, as you always assured me, but when the time was right. I hoped desperately, standing across from you as you stared at the box containing the ring, that the time had come for things to finally fall into place.
I had been so excited walking into the jewelry store, I remember. As I scanned the illuminated cases full of sparkling promises, I couldn’t help but remember all of those hours we had spent in the early years of our relationship, lying on the twin-sized bed of my dorm room. We would spend so much time getting lost in each other’s eyes, talking about the future we would one day have together. I had made a promise to you then that I would never make a spectacle of you in a public space when I finally proposed, and as the woman with enough hairspray to make a 80’s hair-metal band jealous took down your ring size, I plotted how I would do it. How I would pour a glass of wine when you came over that night and how I would take your hand and recite the speech I had agonized over for hours. I had imagined you calling your mom and screaming into the phone that, oh my God, we were engaged and, oh my God, we needed to start planning a wedding right now. I imagined the tears in your eyes as you gave me a resounding yes that shook the walls of the apartment before leaping into my arms. I imagined carrying you into the bedroom, where I would make love to you for the millionth time as the love of my life, but for the first time as my fiancée.
And you know, I knew that things between us hadn’t been perfect in a long time. I knew that you and I had different ideas of when we wanted things; the apartment was a perfect example of that. I knew that your displays of affection toward me hadn’t been as prominent as they had been in the past, but I also knew that everything changes and relationships weren’t exempt from that. I knew that eight years was a long time for a couple to be together without the plan of spending their lives together, and I knew that I loved you and wanted nothing more than to be your husband. Was it wrong of me to assume that you would’ve wanted the same after all that time?
But the look on your face said it all, as you stared into that box, at the ring I had agonized over, after I had recited a speech I was so sure would bring you to your knees. The color had drained from your face as your hands trembled, looking into the box as though it were nothing more than a death sentence, and I swear the glimmer from the diamonds died as they met their reflection in your eyes.
You asked if I was sure I was ready for such a huge commitment, as if I were the one avoiding taking steps toward the future. I chuckled at the question, shaking my head in disbelief at the way the perfect night was unfolding. Your lips curled into a forced smile, and you asked if you could think about it, if I needed an answer that second.
My heart urged my voice to tell you to take all of the time you needed, that I would’ve waited forever just for the promise of you by my side. But my better judgment chimed in, telling my heart that if you truly wanted me, you wouldn’t need time. That inner voice that I had heard whispering in the back of my mind but had always managed to hush; all the love in the world was suddenly too little to silence him, and he took over.
I couldn’t stop the overflow of memories that began to flood my mind. All of the sacrifices I had made, all of the money I had spent, all of the time I had waited – all with the promise of you one day, someday being ready to live your life with me. But in that moment, standing across from you as you held that little velvet box, I realized you were never going to be ready. Not with me.
That feeling was enough to purge my heart from my body and send it flying into the blender on the counter, and with reluctance, I told you that I didn’t think I could do “this” anymore, my voice nothing more than a whisper in the candlelit kitchen. You didn’t seem to hear me, asking me to repeat myself, and through my agony and gritted teeth, I did. Your face twisted into one of confusion, looking down again at the ring and then back up at me, probably wondering why I would ask you to marry me if I was only going to break up with you not ten minutes later. But maybe that was what it took for me to see things weren’t going anywhere for us, or maybe I just needed to ensure that it would hurt as badly as it possibly could.
As if you needed clarification, you asked if I was breaking up with you, and all I could do was nod. With a smirk and an eye roll, you asked if that was what I really wanted, and what I wanted to say was, no. No, of course that’s not what I had wanted. I wanted you. I wanted you more than a flower needs the rain in the droughts of Summer. I wanted you more than the Earth wanted the Sun after a night of darkness. I wanted you to want me the way I had convinced myself you did all of those eight years. I wanted you to want me the way you wanted me years before, lying on that little bed in the dorm. But with my newfound realization that I was never going to have what I wanted, I nodded again, covering my eyes and pinching the bridge of my nose between my thumb and pointer finger, keeping my eyes off of you. There was a knowledge somewhere that told me if I looked at you, dared to see you standing there with your bag slung over your shoulder, I would rush to you, wrap my arms around you, and beg you to stay.
I hadn’t seen you take the key from your bag, nor did I see you place it down on the counter top with a soft clink. You threatened that if you walked out that door, I would never see you again, and the air caught in my throat. Fear struck my heart, terrified of my life without you in it, but I said nothing, and I continued to say nothing as you turned on your heel and walked across the living room to the door.
And then I heard the door creak open, your footsteps landing on the tile floor of the hallway, and when the door closed behind you, I exhaled.
Did you ever truly love me? I asked myself the question a multitude of times over the last six bottles of beer, staring at the little velvet box, still sitting open on the kitchen counter.
Looking back, through the wisdom that only alcohol can bring, I guess subconsciously I had known for a while that things would end for us. For years, maybe somewhere around the five-year mark, I had seen it playing out in my mind. I guess maybe I should have just ended it then, when I started spotting all of those red flags and stop signs popping up every place I looked. Maybe I should have, but then again, I guess I’m also a glutton for punishment and I had to see the whole thing through. Like a movie where you just know the dog dies at the end, you keep on watching anyway, regardless of how badly you know it’s going to hurt.
Or maybe I just thought I could fix it with a turned down promotion that would have taken me states away. An apartment that I thought we could’ve turned into our home. Cancelled plans with my friends and family to spend time with you and yours. A seven-grand engagement ring. Maybe I thought that with every gesture, grand or otherwise, I could draw out that woman I first fell in love with back in college. The woman I knew you still were. I would catch a glimpse of her every now and then, when I would do something stupid on purpose to make you laugh or in the aftermath of intimacy, when our bodies seemed to melt into one on the bed. It was those moments that kept me hanging on, assuring myself that it was the progression of a long-term relationship that brought them further apart. Ignoring the hushed little voice in my head that kept asking, why are you the only one trying?
Plucking the ring from its resting place, I turned it over in my fingers, entranced by the glittering stones in the glow from the outside world. I saw our Christmas tree from a few years back, the lights reflecting like a thousand constellations in the tinsel you loved so much. It was your first Christmas away from your family, your first Christmas spent with me, and I had wanted you to have the best one you could possibly have despite how homesick you were. You had shared with me how much you loved tinsel after you sighed with a dash of sadness at the sight of the garland I had bought. After you explained that it was a family tradition, I had scoured a dozen stores for that shit, I remembered. It was damn near impossible to find but I did eventually find it, and when you came over to decorate that tree, the honest joy that I saw from you made that stupid search all worth it.
Sort of like the time I waited all night to get you tickets to see that band I still can’t stand, I suddenly remembered as I left my seat at the kitchen island to walk into the hazy darkness of the living room and sat on the floor. You had talked about seeing that band for the six years I had been with you at the time, and you had always said you would sell your first born to be able to see them in concert. I wasn’t sure a first born would ever be in the cards for us, as much as I had hoped it would, but I knew I would grab you those tickets the minute it ever came to pass, and that’s what I did. I stayed up all night to make sure I was on the phone with the box office the moment they went on sale, and the moment it was a done deal, I called you to let you know. I could still hear your ear-piercing squeal of childlike glee through the tinny speaker of my old cellphone, and although I had to hold the phone away from my ear while you screamed your delight, I smiled and enjoyed the swelling of my heart.
Which reminded me of the first time you brought me home to meet your family. My eyes squeezed shut at the memory simultaneously with the squeezing of my hand around the ring as I laid myself back against the carpeted floor. I had only met the family of one other girlfriend, which you had known, but what you hadn’t known at the time was how much they couldn’t stand me. I never did find out the reason why, nor did I care to know as that was a very fleeting relationship, but my confidence in “meeting the parents” had been injured from the experience and I was scared shitless of meeting the family of the woman who I thought was The One. What if they hated me and I were to be their son-in-law? What if I hated them? It was a nerve-racking twelve hours, the time it took us to drive to their place in Virginia, but when we arrived and I was welcomed with the literal outstretch of arms, I could have cried. The instantaneous bond I shared with them was enough to make that Thanksgiving one of the best I have ever had.
I wondered what they would say about all of this. I wondered if your mom would accuse you of behaving foolishly, for letting me slip away. Would your sister scold you for throwing away the man who would have given you the world? Would your dad mourn the son-in-law he never got to have?
Or would they back you up out of obligation through blood? Maybe they would gather around you at the next holiday, perhaps even Thanksgiving, and insist you were better off without the man that would have sold his soul to the devil for you. Maybe they’d comfort you by saying there were so many other men out there who would be lucky to have you, and what a fool I was to let you go.
What a fool I was to hold on for as long as I did.
My heart seized at the thought of never knowing what they would say to you, and what hurt more was knowing I’d never see them again. People I had grown to love and view as members of my own family were in an instant mere fragments of my past. Ghosts.
I squeezed tighter around the ring, the setting cutting into my palm. All of those years, all of those memories, all of that fighting and all of that trying, what had it all amounted to? Eight years, almost a decade, and it took minutes to blow it all to pieces. I imagined our relationship as a house of cards, one I had worked so meticulously at perfecting. Years of my life spent creating a castle out of thin pieces of cardstock, shielding it from every hurricane that should have by all accounts blown it over, only to have it crumble to the ground with a gentle breeze. I had been so focused on creating that grand palace that I had forgotten to check the foundation that held the whole damn thing together.
My fist shook from the force behind my white-knuckled grip before I brought it up to my forehead, hitting myself. One time, two times. Angry, heartbroken tears made their way past my eyelids.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
That beautiful four-lettered word became my mantra as I steadied the hand against my forehead, still clutching onto that goddamn ring, my breath coming in heaving sobs. I repeated myself over and over again, starting out in a hushed tone and gradually building up to something of an agonized scream. I didn’t know a sound like that could come from me, but it did and it filled the apartment in a way that brought me to embarrassment. My eyes snapped open and I steadied my breathing, pulling myself from my pathetic chant, hoping that I hadn’t woken the neighbors.
When it was determined that they had either slept through my outburst or they were too awkward to knock on the door, I sat up from my place on the floor. As I blinked the remaining tears away, I contemplated for a few moments walking to the convenience store down the street for some more beer to numb the pain. To put my bipolar frame of mind to rest. But I was weary, emotionally drained from the emotional turmoil of the night, and bed suddenly felt like a better option. Besides, sleep might have been exactly what I needed after the night I had, and so I pulled myself to my feet with some help from the couch you had insisted I bought. I looked at it for a moment, feeling a little tug at my heart before angrily thinking a bonfire might be somewhere in my future, after I had done the sufficient amount of mourning. I halfheartedly chuckled to myself at the thought of setting fire to every memento from our time together, uncertain that time would ever come, and shuffled my way to the bedroom in a dreamlike daze, holding onto the ring as I went.
Although you had never lived there, never even so much as left a change of clothes, the promise of your return had always kept the queen-sized bed from feeling too big on the nights I had slept alone. With a tinge of guilt, I always enjoyed those nights. They were a free pass to be a selfish sleeper, to revert to my habits as a single man. I could stretch out, I could hog the covers, and hell, I could lie in the middle of the bed if I so pleased.
But despite how much I enjoyed indulging in the pleasures of sleeping alone, nothing compared to sleeping beside you, and lying alone then, I wished I could have had fewer nights alone. As if the memories could have filled the void you had left behind on the bed that was suddenly feeling far too big for me to comfortably handle.
The clock at my bedside table ticked away the hours, each passing second bringing me further from us. I tossed and turned through my obsessive thinking about everything we were and everything we could have been, desperate to find that position that would make my consciousness melt away. I found myself eventually with an arm around your designated pillow, my face buried in the smooth coolness of the pillowcase and just like that, my mind was silenced by a blend of your shampoo and perfume. A gentle hush washed over me as I nuzzled my face against it and hugged its plush body into me, inhaling as deeply as I could. As if I could permanently engrain the scent into my memory but knowing all too well that one day I wouldn’t remember your voice, let alone the sweet floral scent of your perfume.
With the aroma filling my nostrils, I could almost feel the long strands of your hair, tickling against the bare skin of my neck as you leaned down to kiss me, a prelude of things to come. So many times, I had lost myself in the throes of passion on that bed with you. So many times, I had been overcome with the overwhelming sense of completion that came from making love to you, a feeling I was certain I could never feel with someone else.
God, I didn’t want there to be someone else.
With urgency, I forced my mind to think of something else, anything else, and I treated myself to what it felt like to fall asleep with you. The way you would nuzzle your face against my bare shoulder and tangle your fingers in my chest hair as you drifted into your slumber. Your leg wrapped around one of mine, pinning me on my back. I always hated sleeping on my back, you know, but to know you were comfortable was always more important than my own preference. In the stillness of the room, I could almost hear the soft sound of your breathing as you slept, something on the verge of being a feminine snore due to your open-mouthed sleeping. God, that had once irritated me so much to a ridiculous point, to a point of almost anger on those sleepless nights, but I missed it so much then. So fucking much.
My fingers moved absentmindedly to the breast pocket of my button-down and pulled out my phone and as if on autopilot, I pulled your number up from my contacts, and my thumb hovered over the ‘Call’ button. I wondered, had I called you right then in that moment, what I would be interrupting. Were you out with your friends, bitching about the asshole that just broke up with you over a bottle of wine and an engagement ring? Were you looking for some hook-up to dull the pain of losing your love of eight years? Were you celebrating the freedom you suddenly possessed? I wanted so much to hear your voice, to hear you say my name once more, but then an image of you hanging on the arm of some faceless man popped into my mind’s eye and I shivered with repulsion.
I cancelled out of the would-be call and found my way through my phone to the album of memories, treasured moments frozen in time on the screen. Pictures from our trip to the islands; a cruise I never thought I’d ever take, but you had insisted it would be fun, and despite the food poisoning, it had been. Pictures from Halloween not too long ago, when we dressed up as Beetlejuice and Lydia, an idea you weren’t too thrilled with but we pulled it off so well. Pictures of the pumpkins we had carved throughout the eight years we had been together, a tradition that I would never see again. Pictures from the surprise 30th birthday party my parents’ had thrown for me, and you had the job of getting me there without suspecting a thing.
Pictures I had taken of you, lying naked in my bed on the night of our eight-year anniversary. Your laughing face, shielded more and more by your manicured hands in every consecutive picture, looking out at me through the screen. The last picture, a shot of us kissing in the warm glow of the flash from the camera, wrenched what was left of my heart. I squeezed my eyes shut again, trying to hold on to the memory of your lips on mine, knowing that one day that memory would be nothing more than a ghost of a whisper in my mind.
One day, I thought, those lips would be kissing someone else. One day all you would remember was the feeling of someone else’s lips on yours, and mine would never cross your mind again. Hell, there might come a time when you never thought of me at all. You might not ever speak my name again. Your kids, were they to ever become a reality, might not ever know that there was once a man in your life named Sam who was at one point crying into a pillow because he was never enough to make you want to commit to him. But that would be okay, I thought, as long as you remembered me, as long as you remembered that you were once loved so goddamn much, but what if you didn’t even remember that?
With my body shaking and my mind reeling, there was nothing left to do but hoist myself out of bed and find a distraction. I moved my sneakers along the carpet of the living room, the darkness enveloping me like a sickness that reminded me of how lifeless the apartment was without your presence. Once in the kitchen again, I went to open the fridge, noticing the ring was still clutched in that hand. I opened my fist to look at it, stuck to my palm from the sweat that had accumulated there over the hours.
I remember the sales associate at the jewelry store noticing the beads of sweat dotting my forehead under the bright fluorescent lights. She had smiled at me then, revealing a set of teeth that had been whitened one too many times, and assured me that you would love the ring. That it was a symbol of eternity, and that it would mean the world to the woman who received it.
I remember wanting to ask her, just out of curiosity, how many men came in there hoping that buying a seven-grand engagement ring would fix all of their problems. How many of them prayed for the first time in their adult life that buying an engagement ring would give them the reassurance that the woman they loved more than anything would finally love them almost as much?
I wanted to go back there and ask her how many men had to return the rings they had bought for the woman of their dreams. How many of them had proposed only to be shot down? How many of them had proposed only to find themselves single ten minutes later?
The ring was released from my grasp finally, back onto the counter but this time without its protective box, and I turned my attention back to the refrigerator. I pulled out the bottle of wine that had been open earlier that night, and I popped the cork with the skill of a seasoned veteran. Drinking straight from the bottle, my mind traveled back to the pictures from my 30th birthday. That had been, what? Two years ago? Was I thirty-two? No, thirty-three, I realized, and with a sinking feeling in the pit of my gut, I inched myself into one of the chairs at the island.
Thirty-three. My life was barreling towards middle-age at a lightning speed. I wanted a wife, I wanted kids, I wanted a house, and I wanted all of that with you. Nobody but you. I had built my entire life around what we would hopefully have, and now what was there for me? Was I supposed to start over? Was I supposed to just find someone new and hope that everything worked out for the better, and maybe have kids by the time I was fucking forty? Chase around toddlers as I neared fifty?
I gulped down more of the bottle, my future suddenly appearing bleak through the amber glass. I fingered at the ring again, a thought toying at the back of my mind. What if…
What if I just forgot everything I had said to you about breaking up? What if I told you that it was okay that you didn’t want to get married yet, okay that you didn’t want to share my apartment with me, okay that the prospect of kids wasn’t in the cards just now? What if I called you up and told you I wanted to give it one more shot, with the promise that you would at least think about our future just a little more? What if you had decided during our several hour spin with freedom that you really did want the same future as I did? What if you were just waiting by the phone for me to call and tell you I changed my mind?
I spun the ring on the counter like a coin about to tell me if my fate would lie with heads or tails, and as it clattered to the counter’s surface, I had made my decision.
You’d be here again, I told myself, and I wouldn’t be alone. Anything was better than being alone.
With determination, I walked into the bedroom again, ring tucked safely in my hand once again, on a mission to find that damn phone. Finding it just where I had dropped it on the bed. I pulled your number up in my contacts, and without a single moment of hesitation, I pressed the ‘Call’ button and waited anxiously for the phone to ring, for you to pick up, for me to tell you that I loved you and needed you more than I’ve ever needed anything before in my life. To tell you that I was willing to look past everything you didn’t want, and to accept that I might never have the things I did want, at the cost of being with you.
“Hello, you’ve reached the number of…”
Through the pain of a gaping hole in my heart, I stared at the wall of my bedroom, at a framed picture of us from a few years back. I was standing behind you with my arms wrapped around your shoulders, my smiling face nestled into the crook of your slender neck. I had always seen the happiness I felt in that picture, I focused on it, but I had never noticed that your arms hung limply at your sides or that the expression you held was really one of indifference and not what I had interpreted as Mona Lisa-wistfulness. How had I not seen that before?
With reluctant clarity, I opened my hand to look at the ring one last time. It was a symbol, I realized, but not one of eternity, as the sales associate with the stockpile of hairspray had said. It was a symbol of everything I thought I wanted with you, and everything I knew you never were. It was a symbol of an end, and the symbol of a new beginning, but one I could never have with you.
And then, just like that, I remembered the reasons I bought it in the first place. The idea of you that brought me to spending so much on that ring, and I made a promise to myself to hold onto that idea and hold it tight. To remember you for that person, the person you never were.
“Um, hey, it’s me,” I croaked through a lump in my throat. “I just wanted to call and say that, uh…” That I didn’t want to be alone. That I didn’t know how to continue my life if you weren’t in it. That I didn’t even know who I was without you. That I was terrified of you going through a day without my memory crossing your mind. I wanted to say these things, but as I blinked away the tears and filled your inbox with dead air, I reminded myself that if you had wanted to hear those things, you wouldn’t have sent the call to voicemail. Hell, if you wanted to hear those things, we wouldn’t have been in that position altogether.
And so I took a deep breath and allowed one last tear to trickle through the stubble on my cheek. “Just remember me, okay? Don’t remember me as being some loser who couldn’t let you go, but as that guy who loved you so fucking much, he didn’t want to.”
In that moment, I remembered the first time I ever confessed my love for you. I had never before said it to someone without some semblance of an obligation attached to it, and I never knew what to say to you that would seem like enough. I had spent hours concocting a speech that seemed to be worthy of you, and I took you out to that overpriced restaurant, thinking that was the appropriate gesture for such a huge step. I had reached across the table, holding your delicate hand in mine, so afraid that I would break every tiny bone if I strung the words together wrong. I talked and I talked, ending in those three little words, and you smiled, telling me that you loved me too. It was a moment of satisfaction, but I was never able to shake the thought from my mind that it wasn’t enough to keep you feeling that way. Nothing I ever did had been enough. If I had said different words, if I had done more, if I had done less, maybe it would have been enough for you to shed a tear and declare that “oh my God, Sam, I love you too,” and stay that way forever.
But as I prepared myself to hang up the phone one last time, to delete your number from my contacts and my memory forever, I stopped myself and said in an unintentional whisper, “I love you.” And without wondering what your response might have been, knowing I would never know, I took the phone away from my ear and ended the call, knowing it was enough.
I had always been enough.
© 2016 Kelsey Kingsley