I’m driving my beat-up, taupe 1990 Chevy station wagon on the I-355 towards downtown Chicago. The October chill is leaking through the cracks of my dilapidated car doors; so I use my fist to bang on the dashboard, hoping it will make the heater work even though I already know it won’t. As I take the exit for I-294, the nerves begin to kick in.
His house is on the North side of Chicago in the Lakeview district. Miraculously, I find parking on the street right across from his small and rather shitty-looking house. Taking the key out of the ignition, I turn my head before stepping out of my car to stare out at the peeling yellow paint and dirty, darkened windows of number eleven.
Unwilling to move, I sit in my parked car as anger bubbles up making my cheeks hot.
Why did I come here? If I knew it would just dredge up my unreciprocated feelings, why would I come? I haven’t seen him in months; I was starting to move on until I received his invitation. Honestly, it was masochistic enough to love him at all. Why would I voluntarily put myself through something like this?
I yank myself from my reverie of nauseatingly harsh introspection before taking a deep breath and stepping out of my car. I don’t lock my car doors. I never do. No one would want to steal my car and if they did; good riddance. Man, would I love if someone stole my car. But my happiness probably wouldn’t last for long as they would likely return it in less than twenty-four hours once they realize what a piece of junk it is.
I walk up the front steps and stand on the seemingly precarious floor boards of the porch. The nerves feel more like ants crawling throughout my veins; the friendly butterflies which once inhabited my stomach seem foreign to me.
I knock on the door and wait as I hear the soft chattering of voices and the clinking of glasses. He opens the door and his eyes light up when he sees me. And I relax completely as I forget about those pesky ants.
“Oh my god, you came,” he roars jovially.
He pulls me in for a hug and the embrace does that same damn magic it always used to, nearly making me forget my own name this time. Jesus, I suppose that’s a bit cheesy, isn’t it? I tend to be like that.
“Happy birthday!” I say as I try to dull the overzealous look in my eyes so he won’t suspect the nature of my affection.
I nearly climb over the splintered doorframe and pull off my overlarge wool coat. I look around for a coat rack before resentfully laying it on the large pile of other party-goers’ coats crumpled on the floor
Turning to look at me, he exclaims “I need another drink. Want one?”
He leads me past a few other people I probably should know from college but don’t and into the kitchen, where countertops are filled with an assortment of liquor and mixers along with beer and the like. He grabs a dirty glass with a half melted ice cube in it and pours in some generic brand coke before adding probably double the amount of rum which is typical. I watch him as he does this, both admiring the way his brow furrows in concentration and hoping to God that drink is not for me. I sigh with relief as he takes a swig before turning to ask what I’d like.
“I’ll have a rum and coke too.”
I only say this because it’s what he’s having. I am such an ass sometimes. After he hands me my drink, he starts talking animatedly with one of his housemates so I make my way towards the living room. Tasting my drink as I walk, I would bet all my student loan debt that he put at least three shots in it.
I sip my drink as I attempt to make small talk with another girl who graduated from our college. She seems affable and even mildly interesting but I am still unnervingly aware of where he is in the room. It feels as if I have some sort of weird detection device in my brain; throughout the night it would go off like an alarm, shrieking ‘where is he…oh there he is, five feet and two centimeters to the Northwest.’
As the evening continues, I contemplate my resurfacing feelings. I knew I still cared for him but this is a lot worse than I imagined. When we were in school together, he had been in a relationship with a girl named Emily. I always remember that name. It’s the most annoying name in the world.
I down the next drink, hoping I might either gain more hutzpah or just forget my goddamn feelings entirely. The hour becomes later and inhibitions grow smaller and the music reverberates louder. Before I know it, every single one of us is dancing in the middle of the living room with the couches pushed aside.
As the base shakes my chest, the floor feels like it has fallen out from underneath my feet though everyone is somehow still standing. The sensation invigorates, rather than scares, me. I look down. There is a large and intricate Persian rug beneath my feet, whether there was a floor below that rug, I didn’t know.
Eventually, the music becomes softer. I drop to the floor, still breathing heavily, and grab a half empty glass of something from the side table. A few people walk to the kitchen for more drinks, a few went out onto the deck, and a few went to the basement to smoke some pot. The girl who plopped down next to me suddenly springs to her feet and, covering her mouth, runs to the bathroom. I take a sip from the drink in my hand, which is likely not mine, to find him sitting cross-legged in front of me.
I revert my eyes, looking down at the Persian rug concentrating on the pattern as if there might be a secret message for me in the design. There wasn’t one. A few moments pass in silence as the knowledge that we are completely alone sinks in. I, then, evaluate my state of mind. I’ve had around three or four drinks, I can’t quite remember how many. But it isn’t so bad; isn’t so bad that I can’t talk to him. But talk to him about what? What do I really want to say?
I look up at him and he looks directly at me. That is one of the things I really like about him: the way he looks at me. Hell, he probably looks at everybody like that. He looks at you as if, in that moment, he could think of nothing he would like to do better than to listen to you talk for hours. He does it just as well as he always did even though I can tell from his disposition that he’s drunk. After a time, I open my mouth to speak.
“You were saying earlier that you had a really tough summer. What happened?” I whisper, my voice sounding strangely loud after the silence.
His eyes flash with sadness before he answers, “Oh, that. You remember Emily, right?”
Oh boy, do I ever! But I just nod my head.
“We broke up and it was a bit of a mess. It ended rather badly.”
I see on his face that it still causes him agony to think about it. Suddenly, neither my contempt for Emily nor the returned affection I wanted from him seem important anymore. In that moment, I care only for him and his hurt. Of course, it won’t last very long, just like all my moments of selflessness that I constantly build up into grand gestures that don’t actually play out.
I attempt to draw his slightly unfocused eyes back to me before saying, “I’m so sorry that happened. I really am, I wish there was something I could do to help.”
We sit there in silence a bit longer. I start fiddling with the white fringe, yellowed with age, on the edge of the Persian.
“I really miss seeing you around since graduation” he confides.
I raise my head slowly as it feels all foggy for the rush of emotion; or perhaps the alcohol.
“I-I miss you too” I breathe.
Something inside me snaps then and I just don’t care about the consequences anymore. I don’t know if it’s the liquor or the dancing or the simple fact that I know what the response will be and I’m at peace with it.
“I never told you this but…all last semester…you know, while you were with…Emily, um…I had feelings for you. I really care about you.”
I look away from his face, down to my hands which are clasped together in my lap and wait in the silence. I want a moment to myself before I look up at him again. In that moment I expect everything yet nothing at all.
“Wow, really? Thanks!”
I look up at him, confused. His unfocused eyes come into focus as he smiles sluggishly.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Thanks. Thanks. I keep repeating it over and over again in my head until it doesn’t even sound like a real word anymore. He’s drunk. I should have known better. I mean, I knew he wasn’t going to suddenly fall deeply in love with me or anything. But I thought I might get more than three words. I expected something more along the lines of ‘I’m so sorry, I care about you so much but as a friend.’ Yeah, that would be shitty but it would be clear and sad. Then I could’ve gone home to cry over my tragedy-stricken broken heart. But Thanks?
I force a half smile and pick myself up off the floor as a few of his friends come back in from the deck. I retreat into my mind for the remainder of the party. You know, it really is amazing how one word can undermine everything you feel. In one swift instant, my opinion of my affection towards him transformed according to his disregard. That affection was not worthy of a response and therefore has become, even to me, foolish.
After a time, the party began to quiet down and at about 1 a.m., I grab my coat to leave. He must see me doing this since he walks over to hug me goodbye. I grip his back tightly trying to remind myself that he is real and what I feel for him isn’t completely made up. I decide at that moment I won’t see him again and my chest begins to feel heavy as I turn to leave.
I climb into my Chevy and make my way towards the highway. I drive considerably slower than the speed limit and consider how perfunctorily he brushed off my vulnerability and how suddenly I allowed my feelings to be invalidated. I would never do something like that. I believe in the importance of loving someone. That might be foolish. But, in all honesty, I’d rather be foolish than say thanks.