By Brittany Terwilliger
The buzz of his snore breaks through my early morning sleep. I look up as if from a tomb, calculating moves that will change nothing. Most mornings, if I close my eyes again I can fall back to sleep. But never when Sebastian stays over. Dust motes float through shafts of light above us, tiny swirling universes with faraway cares. I wish he wasn’t here. But that’s not true, is it. No, the truth is I wish he was always here. Which isn’t that different, when you think about it. I might never see him again and the thought of that makes me want him and despise him at the same time.
We slept back-to-back and I roll over slowly to put my arm around him. He’s gained some weight, and my hand falls on the hairy roll of his belly. Thickness makes him seem more adult to me somehow. More masculine. Or maybe it’s just this lens that morphs his body into something resembling his attitude: distant, sexy, unconcerned. He moves his arm sleepily and puts it over my arm, trapping me. Later I will remember it differently; I’ll wish to be back here again. But in this moment I need presence. Existence. The solitude makes me restless. He is a body without a soul.
I extricate my arm, almost spitefully. Think briefly about using it to whack him on the side of the head. The immense satisfaction of a big, loud smack. He stirs for a few seconds, long enough for him to turn that precious head and kiss me on the mouth. Then he rolls over to face me and pulls me toward him and resumes his snoring. His chin stubble grazes my forehead and I shift to breathe. I can hear the neighbors puttering around the upstairs apartment, their footfalls making light creaks and thumps on the ceiling. Worlds stacked upon worlds.
Naked and chilly, I search the floor for the pajamas we haphazardly tossed aside in our haste to undress last night, almost stumbling as I put each leg in. Breakfast. If I’d known he was coming over, I would’ve gone to the store yesterday. I would have shaved my legs, too, for that matter. One egg is enough to make pancakes, right? I’m not that hungry anyway.
God, look at me, cooking his damned breakfast. Pathetic. I wasn’t always like this. You should’ve seen me in the beginning. Confident. Together. I was the one in control. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that day and prevent myself from showing.
It was a Saturday and we stood in line, oblivious of one another, at a café with purple walls and papier maché gargoyles. I ordered a double bergamot Earl Grey. He got a cup of plain black coffee and proceeded to put approximately 7 teaspoons of sugar in it.
“You’re judging the sugar, aren’t you,” he said as we each navigated the stirring station.
“No. I mean,” I said, laughing, “maybe a little bit.”
We sat in adjacent dusty velvet armchairs because the rest of the place was full. I like to sit on Saturday mornings with tea and read. But Sebastian has a fear of silence, and a simple hello between strangers soon became something else, as he ran through his arsenal of coffee shop conversation topics.
“What’s your favorite board game? Don’t have a favorite, oh, are you from one of ‘those’ families? You know, the ones that don’t play board games. Mine played all the time. Well, ok not ‘all’ the time, but almost every Sunday night. Mostly Sequence.”
“I’ve been listening to a lot of Rolling Stones lately. I go through phases, right now I’m in a Stones phase.”
“You seem like an ISFP. Am I right? I’m an ESTJ. What do you mean, you don’t know what I’m talking about? You know, Myers-Briggs. You’ve never taken the Myers-Briggs test? It tells you what kind of personality you have. Here, I’ll pull it up on my laptop. Take it and tell me what you are.”
“I don’t believe free will exists. I think that if we could map out everything – every conversation, every missed opportunity, every touch – that has ever happened to everyone from conception to the present, we could predict everyone’s behavior. Of course, that would be impossible to do, so we could never really do it. But that’s what I think.”
I listened and mostly wished to be sitting across from someone else. He was charming in the way of someone trying too hard and knowing he’s failing. The pitiful kind of charming that made you want to put a hand on his shoulder and say “it’s ok. Just stop.” He mentioned the other women he was seeing, how he was beginning to wonder if “fuck buddy” relationships were healthy and ultimately what he wanted out of life. I left the coffee shop hoping never to see him again.
But, a few weeks later I did see him again, and he asked me out. A movie. I didn’t have anything else to do that night, so I went. Why not? It was the perfect venue for us: minimal talking, but nearness to a person who, in the dark, could be someone else. Our knees touched across the theater seats and he occasionally ran his thumb in circles over my kneecap. We went to a tar-stained local bar afterward and played darts.
“Ok,” he said, “your turn. Something no one else knows about you.”
“Sheesh, I don’t know,” I said. “New subject.”
“Come on, there must be lots. I’m always doing all the talking.”
I laughed. “I know, I’m starting to wonder if you’re ever quiet.”
He looked at me and smiled. “No, I am very social.”
“Oh, does that mean I’m antisocial?”
“Well.” He threw a dart.
“Ok, fine,” I said. “Something no one else knows. I write stories. In my free time, I mean. I write them and then I delete them all.”
He paused to look at me. “Why do you delete them?”
“I don’t know. I never like them. They’re too… naked.”
“Speaking of naked,” he said, throwing his last dart, “here’s one for me. I have a third nipple.”
“What, really? Gross.”
I took the darts from the board as he sat on a stool and picked up his beer.
“It’s not gross, it’s cool.”
“Ok,” he laughed, “it’s kind of gross.”
There was plenty of laughing that night. Thus commenced the game, the one that swims around in my head when I know something in my life doesn’t exactly fit but kind of want it to anyway. It was a hunt for signs. For yeses and nos.
The apartment begins to smell like butter; it sizzles in the pan as I mix egg, flour, milk. Baking soda. Salt. Salt, which he did not bother to use on his sidewalk that first night I went to his house. I almost face-planted getting out of the car. I’d stopped by on my way home from dinner. It was snowing big sloppy snowflakes that stuck in my hair and slicked every smooth surface with glistening near-death.
He waited for me on the front porch in bare feet, smiling, trying not to laugh at my near-slip. He opened the door. His body, as I crossed him, was warm and smelled like soap. I was nervous because I didn’t want to sleep with him and I didn’t not want to sleep with him and hoped it just wouldn’t come up. His bedroom was painted cornflower blue.
“I hope you like Gatsby,” he said.
“Hm. How literary.”
“Not really. There’s just nothing else on.”
He put an arm around me, and it was all surprisingly uncomplicated. I fell asleep beside him watching a man chasing the dream, catching glimpses of it as snow whirled and blew outside the window. That was a yes night.
But the nos rolled in quickly enough.
He slept over for the first time on a Friday. We drank bourbon on the couch and I got very drunk, ready to be discovered. But he didn’t kiss the way I wanted him to kiss. He didn’t move the way I wanted him to move. It had all been so much better in my head. I faked an orgasm and left him snoring to go in the other room and watch TV. The next morning he wanted to take me to breakfast, and all I wanted was for him to leave.
He must have sensed it wasn’t going well when he invited me to trivia night with his friends. I got there late, introduced myself to silent head nods around the table as I took my coat off. I sat down and ordered a beer, and soon found that being in his circle was something like being teleported back to high school and sitting at the lunch table in that group of people with whom I always wanted to belong but never did.
“I would’ve done it. I’ll do it now,” a guy named Chad said.
“No you wouldn’t,” Miranda – everyone called her Randy – replied.
Dave, the guy no one really listened to, chimed in: “You are hilarious.”
“He inspired at least three major literary characters,” Chad said. “And Peter Watson gave him a Picasso.”
“Sarah is a writer,” Sebastian said, pointing at me. “Maybe she can help you out.”
I looked up at him quizzically, but he didn’t notice.
“What are they talking about?” I asked. No one answered.
“So, tell us about Cornbread Farm,” a guy named Penn said.
“What?” said Dave.
“On his t-shirt,” Penn said.
“Bluegrass band,” said Sebastian. “They’re pretty good.”
“Dumb name though,” said Penn.
“Whatever,” Sebastian said, smirking. “I liked it before it was cool.”
The announcer read the next question. “Which is higher, the number of miles in a 5k, or the number of times the Cubs have made it to the World Series?”
“Three miles in a 5k,” I said.
“Jesus, don’t say it so loud, everyone will hear you,“ Penn said.
Penn. Talk about ridiculous fucking names. I was mostly quiet after that.
On the way home I watched a cyclist navigating the grey, slushy street in front of us as the seat heater cooked my butt. “Are those really your friends?”
Sebastian looked distant and thoughtful. “Some of them I don’t know so well, but Penn and Chad, yes.”
“You seem different from them,” I said.
“What do I seem like?”
“Nicer, maybe,” I said. He snorted and then went silent again. “You don’t think so?”
“I’m not really sure. Sometimes it feels like I spend so much time trying to be a certain way, that I forget who I was to begin with.”
No, I thought as I got into bed and pulled the covers up. Definitely no. I slept very well that But, that’s the thing about nos. They make the possibility of yeses all the more intriguing.
Sebastian and I began meeting for lunch at a burrito joint every Thursday. It started almost as a lark – I didn’t even like this guy much, and only tolerated his company out of sheer boredom and curiosity. Which made it sort of pleasant. In fact, I recommend dining often with people you don’t like.
You can let your guard down; there’s nothing to lose. He would tell some awful joke (“My friend’s bakery burned down last night. Now his business is toast.”). I would tell him about some article I read (“The Romans thought third nipples were a sign of excess femininity”). We would talk about plans for the weekend (“I’m going out to the lake with Chad and Penn. Wanna go?” “No.”). And, ever so gradually, he started growing on me. Soon we’d established “our” table in the back near the window, and I looked forward to seeing him every week in a twisted, antithetical sort of way.
“I think I might like you,” I said to him one day.
“Well, I’m a likeable guy,” he said.
That was not the response I expected, after all his efforts. I’d been waiting for him to fall down and kiss the ground any minute.
“Are you happy?” I asked.
“Yes?” He looked at me blankly.
I thought for a moment. “Maybe we should… be a couple.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really want a girlfriend right now.”
This was not going at all well. “Oh,” I said.
There was an awkward pause, but I think it was only awkward for me.
“Why have you been spending so much time with me then?” I asked.
“I like spending time with you.”
“But… you don’t want to date me.”
Sebastian was silent.
“Nothing. I don’t know,” he said. “It feels good, it just doesn’t feel right.”
“It doesn’t feel right,” I repeated. Had I done this? Had the cynicism leaked out of me and found its way across the table and into his burrito? “If it doesn’t feel right, then maybe we shouldn’t be seeing each other at all,” I said, wondering if he would contradict me.
“Maybe,” he replied. Then he put his hand on my hand and held it.
Ah, the delicious allure of maybe.
It wasn’t a “yes” – and really, where’s the fun in yes? Yes is the end of all zest, all anticipation – but it wasn’t a “no” either. It wasn’t the lackluster is. It was maybe. It was every vibrant thing that could be, might be. The gauntlet was thrown down, then; I became a gambler. The bet was that I could make him see me. That I was worthy. That my friends were as good as his friends. And I would win.
I invited my friends over that weekend to meet him. I made pot roast and we drank wine and played cards. He made toasts and generally charmed everyone, in his awkwardly charming way. They winked at me behind his back. Later we all went to see a funk band and he twirled me and dipped me and we made up funny dance moves. It was that silly, careless attitude of his, that’s what it was. It lured me in because I so wanted it for myself. That is, I wanted to be careless. But in the subsequent weeks, my affection for him grew in direct proportion to the pace at which his affection for me diminished. The more certainty I felt, the more he was plagued with doubt.
One night, up late eating nachos in bed and kissing, I brought it back up again. We were having a good night, so it seemed the opportune moment.
“What are we doing?” I put my fork down.
“What do you mean?” he said, shoving a chip into his mouth. “Eating nachos?”
“You know what I mean,” I said.
“Oh.” He looked up and finished chewing. “Come on, do we have to talk about this?”
“No,” I said. “I was just wondering.”
“I had a great time with you tonight. Why do people have to label everything?”
Coffee spits and sputters as I flip the first pancake.
No one ever tells you that true freedom is a state of apathy. Anonymity. The drive to notice, to feel, to care what the story reveals about you, is a chain tethering you to your destruction.
Sebastian’s footsteps slap the floor behind me. He looks at me and smiles his charming smile.
“I woke up thinking the pancakes might be a trap,” he says.
“Luring me out of bed. I couldn’t decide if I wanted pancakes or more sleep. Clearly the pancakes won.”
“Sorry. You could’ve slept longer.”
“Here, let me do that,” he says, taking the bowl of pancake batter out of my hands and pouring cupfuls on the griddle.
“Do you want some coffee?”
He nods and I pour the coaly liquid into a blue Albert Einstein mug, adding the heaping spoons of sugar the way he likes it.
“So… does this mean we’re going back to being friends now, or are we dating?”
I register the icy stiffness of his shoulders as the words come out of my mouth.
Sebastian is silent, focused on flipping the pancakes.
“I just wish I understood what you want,” I say calmly.
“I don’t know.”
I look at the floor in frustration. All the things unsaid hang between us in an impenetrable fog.
Afraid to upset our delicate balance, I accept another defeat.
We eat and talk about trivial things. When we finish he helps with the dishes, then kisses me on the mouth and says he needs to get home. He walks out and I watch him go, half desolate and half relieved at the prospect of erasing his story. When he comes back again in a few days, I will get up and unlock the door.
Brittany Terwilliger lives and writes in Bloomington, Indiana, where she is currently finishing her first novel. Find her on Twitter @Brttnyblm