My friend Drew turned from the fireplace to face me where I sat on his low slung green couch.
“We have to get this figured out,” he said. “This conversation isn’t over until we get our situation figured out.”
He looked handsome and earnest, and I admired him for broaching a conversation about our situation even as I was terrified to discuss it. Our situation was that I was in love with him but couldn’t yet admit it to myself because I seriously doubted our relationship would develop into a full partnership like I wanted. I knew he liked me; as friends who once briefly dated, we’d liked each other for years.
Despite our mutual affection, I still questioned whether he saw me as a viable partner. Was I about to find out? I gulped and rubbed my sweaty palms on the edge of the sofa. When we’d dated before, the issue of my inexperience had come up, thanks in part to our more than twelve year age difference, but I preferred to believe that poor timing had caused our relationship to end, not that we were mismatched in self-possession or in stage of life.
“You know I find you attractive, right?” he asked.
I glanced down at my pilling sweater and blushed. I felt confused, he was always confusing me. He would flatter me like this from time to time, then proceed to act like I was just another one of his throwaway pals, taking too long to reply to my texts or not responding to them at all.
“I find you attractive too,” I said slowly. I wanted to show him I was receptive to this conversation, but my throat contracted before I could say more.
“So what are we going to do?” he demanded. He was so forceful. He was the kind of person who could make a decision without agonizing over it for years and years. That’s one of the things I like about him.
I like so many things about him: his confidence, his tolerance for being disliked, his ability to overcome trauma without therapy or antidepressants. His scent of vanilla tobacco, his copper beard, his paisley shirts, his Japanese hot water dispenser. On and on and on.
My head was swimming. It was bewildering to me that I could like him so much–love him, if I was being honest–and still feel riddled with fear about bridging the gap between us.
“I didn’t think you liked me like that,” I said. I was so pathetic.
“Of course I do. I always wanted it to work out between us,” he said. He sat down next to me on the sofa.
He laid his head down so that it was touching my leg and stretched his hands overhead to slide them under my thigh. His feet stuck out over the far arm of the sofa.
I knew he was telling the truth. He could be cavalier at times, but he was not disingenuous. I was too anxious to speak, so I reached out to stroke the smooth part of his forehead. I felt frozen in place, torn between not wanting the moment to end and longing for us to come to a satisfying resolution about our relationship.
The truth was I’d been hurt by him twice before. The first time when he ended our brief relationship with a text, the second when he dropped me as a friend for months to be with his new girlfriend, whom he was no longer dating but whose presence was not yet unfelt. This behavior was understandable, I’d told myself when he’d reached out after his breakup, but the mark it left remained. I thought I might be an idiot to try again.
“Just breathe,” he said.
His words softened me. Rarely did he acknowledge the difficulty I had in conveying my emotions or the requirement that I breathe when panic caused me to suck in my breath. His hands were gently squeezing the back of my thigh.
“Are you going to stay or are you going to go home?” he asked. It was getting late, the point in the evening when I typically called it a night.
“What should I do?”
“You should stay,” he whispered.
I touched his face, imagining what it would be like to date him after years of skirting the issue by being just friends. In spite of everything, I was deeply invested in our friendship; I valued it to the point of believing it would be better to stay friends if taking a risk meant losing him forever. It was not an original dilemma, but the consequences of my decision felt dire.
As we lingered in the glow of the corner lamp, I inhaled a shaky breath and thought about how, several days ago, I’d mentioned in passing that I was craving the taste of citrus. When I exhaled I felt certain, assured from his earlier-in-the-evening divulging that there was orange juice in the fridge, purchased with an inkling of hope, or perhaps a premonition, waiting for no one else to drink it but me.
Lane Pybas is a first year high school English teacher living in the Missouri Ozarks.