Yours is the story I don’t know how to write. Mostly because it feels, if not unfinished, incomplete.
I felt you before I ever saw you. That first day I looked up, and there you were, standing in the lobby, all tan-skinned and tall and unnerving, your lips parted ever so slightly. You had this goofy look on your face—one of mild surprise—like you’d been caught mid-thought. I don’t believe in love at first-sight, I really don’t, but I sure as hell believe in whatever I felt that first time I saw you: a tidal wave of oh shit.
I began the job at the start of September, but we didn’t speak until November. No one introduced us and neither of us was courageous enough to thrust out our hand and say hello. But once, in those first few weeks, as I was collecting glasses and water pitchers, I looked up to find your eyes on me. You were standing at your desk, twenty paces away, chatting into the phone, the whole of your body turned toward me. I held your gaze for as long as I could, my eyes finding the floor only after my cheeks flushed red. Our only exchange in those first two months was, when in a moment of unexpected bravery, I managed to ask where you were going in response to the overnight bag in your hand. You answered with a grin and a word, a place—California—your body already out the door. West. Westward. Onward. You were your own sort of frontier.
I was nothing if not afraid. It feels important to say that now, all these many months later, by way of explanation. And apology.
By November we’d pause to chat in the kitchen. We talked about small things: where we lived and where we were from and the cat your father rescued that rarely came out from under the couch. Information was parsed slowly and tentatively. You asked for my help one morning and late in the afternoon came to my desk just to chat and say thank you. I was out of my depth, confused by your kindness, unsure of your interest. I remember how you stood there, a coffee mug in one hand, the other pushed deep into the pocket of your slacks.
Occasionally, when the office was empty and we’d both stayed late, I’d pause, I’ll see you tomorrow, I’d say, glancing at you, careful not to look too long, and you’d nod several times, pursing your lips; we didn’t smile easily around one another. But once, I called out to you as you passed, and without breaking your stride, you looked over your shoulder and smiled at me—unguarded and happy—and I thought, Oh, so that’s what it is to make a man smile. It was like standing in the sun, like the first day of spring after a very long winter, a long cool glass of water on a summer day. I’d never felt anything like it before; I’ve never felt anything like it since.
There was a holiday party at the start of December. I didn’t know too many people and so paused near the entrance of the bar. I tilted back on my heels, taking in the space, and began chatting with the men pouring drinks.
Something strong, I requested.
One of the men smiled, Vodka-based? Gin? Whiskey?
An Old-fashioned? A Manhattan?
Nope. Just whiskey. Neat. Please.
He paused, taking me in. I held his gaze, coolly. And then I grinned in that way that sees my teeth grip tightly to the side of my lower lip. He smiled, I’m not supposed to do this, he said, but I’m going to pour from this bottle and keep it here for when you want some more.
You approached the bar, standing off to the side by yourself, and ordered a beer. I watched as the gold liquid filled the tall, thin glass. We both stood there, awkwardly, holding our breaths. I started to say something. You glanced at me, open-mouthed, and then someone pulled you away. Almost.
I dated a man once who explained that men approach the bar when the woman they want to speak to is standing there. And another who told me that while studying abroad he’d toss his glass of water out the open window just to have a reason to go into the kitchen and flirt with his housemate. But I didn’t know then, was only told after.
My eyes went in search of you that evening, found you across the room, wearing a dark blue blazer and looking handsome as few men have any right to, your eyes already on me. I glanced behind me, sure you were looking at someone else. I couldn’t understand how someone as handsome as you—you with your Kennedy-hair-swoop and light green eyes and movie-star good looks—might ever find me attractive. But you looked at me and I knew that I was, and I knew it had little to do with what I looked like. Because your gaze wasn’t calculated or aware; it wasn’t a means to an end. It simply was—a man who looked because he could not. not. look. And with your eyes on me and my knees weak, I felt like enough.
You paused as you left, your charcoal overcoat—the one you’d wear on special occasions—already on. Hello and goodbye, you said. I grabbed your arm, just above the elbow, my fingers tentative, but firm. Don’t go, have another drink, I said, not knowing what else to say. And there we stood, frozen in position, me with my hand above your elbow, you with your coat on—saying a little, but not enough—afraid of what those around us might see or say, afraid of what we both already knew, but couldn’t yet admit. Almost.
I left not long after. Sat on a crowded subway, closed my eyes and felt the motion of the train, my stomach warm with whiskey. It was in a tunnel somewhere between Manhattan and Brooklyn that I realized that with your charcoal overcoat already on, and my hand just above your elbow, you had said to me, You look really beautiful tonight, and I didn’t even hear you. Almost, almost, almost.
The next day at work you did that very charming thing that men do where they look without actually turning their head, as though they think that makes it less noticeable; it doesn’t. God I was nuts about you. You and your goofy grin and perfect teeth and low voice. The way you’d muss with your hair and how your hands always seemed to have a bit of dirt beneath the fingernails.
It was in January that I ruined it. You’d just returned from Christmas break and I was newly nervous in front of you—something about too much time passing and not enough courage and how damn tan vacation had made you. You said hello and wished me a happy New Year, your voice buoyant and light. You looked so handsome standing there with your hands in your pockets—so at ease. And I took one look at you and cocked my head to the side as though I couldn’t understand why you were speaking to me. Because to reveal anything would be to reveal everything and I was so scared, so afraid of what you’d given me no reason to be afraid of. It was self-preservation of the highest order and it was at your expense and I’m sorry—God, I’m sorry. If I could go back and undo any one thing from the whole terrible mess that was last year, it would be that very quiet moment, Monday morning, six days in, when I barely met your eyes and mumbled, Yeah, fine, happy New Year, shuffling the papers in front of me, pretending you didn’t matter.
People tell you that you can’t ruin love. That such a small thing can’t undo such a big thing. But when that thing is true and good and just beginning, and when both people are looking to the other for their cues, well, I know now. How fragile it is. How delicate and uncertain. And I’m sorry. How much I lost out on because of fear.
We could never really come back from that. There were the occasional moments of courage, but we never figured out how to be courageous at the same time. There was never enough to hold onto to assure us of the other’s affection. And as many times as you turned your head to look at me before getting on the elevator, or as many times as I walked into the kitchen hoping you’d follow, there was never evidence enough. It was always going to require a leap. Almost. How heavy that word now feels.
When I left that job, months later, you stood ten feet away from me, your eyes barely meeting mine as you said goodbye and see-you-around and best-of-luck like we weren’t even friends.
I regret little I’ve done in my life. Given the chance to go again, there are of course things I’d do differently, but I don’t regret much. I am not sorry that I never told the first man I loved that I did in fact love him, and I am not sorry for the mess of the others—all of the mistakes and missteps in-between. But occasionally when I think about if I’ve ever really made a man smile—or if I ever could—your name sticks at the back of my throat. And my fear is that I never gave you a smile to equal that. And that is my great regret—that I didn’t look at you in a way that said, you are enough—you with your kind eyes and confident stride and inexplicably messy hands are exactly, totally, thrillingly right. Which makes this more apology than anything else and still, frustratingly, not enough.
This essay was written by Meg Fee and originally published in her ebook “Places I Stopped on the Way Home” which is available here.
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