Will is squinting at me from across the room. I am reading on the couch when I notice him in my peripheral vision. I subtly straighten my spine, relax my shoulders. I move the book a little closer to my face, make my expression more thoughtful.
“Don’t do that,” he says.
“Adjust. You have to be yourself if I’m going to be able to tell you why I don’t love you.”
Will is my friend, has been for years, but unfortunately, I am in love with him. He is doing this as a favor to me, because I asked him to and because he feels bad that he doesn’t love me back, even though, to his credit, he tried. He continues to stare at me like people do when they’re inspecting a piece of cheese that they’re afraid has gone bad.
“My lips are thin,” I offer, because he seems at a loss on where to begin.
Will nods. “Thin lips, yes. Unruly hair. Fidgety.” He is gaining momentum. “Posture could be better. Lack of grace in general, really. Too little tolerance for people at a party who start conversations about TV shows. Too much tolerance for people on the street who start conversations about God.”
He stops and looks at me again as if he just remembered I am still in the room. “That’s not it though.” I am unsure whether he means that those aren’t the real reasons I’m unlovable, or that there are numerous additional reasons that he still needs to list. Maybe both. (“Not unlovable,” Will would correct. “Just unlovable to me.” I don’t bother with the distinction.)
I could not tell you why Will is unlovable, because I can only manage to love him. The worn-wallet-damp-grass-toasted-cotton smell of him. The sinewy-armed-warm-skin-sloped-shoulder feel of him. Meanwhile, he has gone back to staring at me.
“I’m too needy?” I suggest.
“No, you’re terribly capable. Awfully in support of yourself. Utterly needless.”
“I’m not needy enough?” This potential diagnosis pleases me, because it’s one that I can seize and wield against him, against my love for him. But he’s shaking his head. He always responds to questions with a nod or shake of his head before he answers with his voice, so it seems like he’s waiting to see what his head thinks before agreeing with it.
“No.” He moves across the room to me, still assessing, and I stand up from the couch to give him a fuller view. He frowns. “You’re not completely without need. But I’m not sure what it is you need.” He picks up my hands and holds them in his long fingers. “Sometimes, when you look at me, I get this feeling like you might swallow me whole.”
I don’t argue. I am looking at him like that now.
Will’s gaze melts into mine. “You are looking at me like that now.”
We stand inches from each other. My thoughts gasp and flop in a rather ungainly way. I wonder whether he would let me bury my nose into the hollow of his chest and draw in his scent for them to swim in. But his soft eyes are growing firm around the edges with doubt.
“I feel a little afraid of you sometimes. Like if you were able to swallow me, every last crumb of me, you wouldn’t be satisfied. You would realize you were still hungry. And all I would ever be, from then on, is just a step toward that realization.”
Will lets go of my hands overly casually, like someone in a store who doesn’t want to let on that the interesting item they have picked up costs much more than they expected. His phone buzzes in his pocket and he looks relieved to turn his attention to it. As he pulls it out, he gives me one more guilty glance.
“It’s not that I don’t like you. You mean a lot to me, you know that. I actually think about you all the time. I imagine telling you something I saw, or thought, and then imagine what you would say back. I love the way you think about things.”
“That’s not me though,” I point out.
Will is reading a text message and only half-registers that I said something. “Who?”
“The person in your head, that you talk to. It’s not me talking back to you. It’s just you.”
Will doesn’t hear me. He is typing back a message, and I am too busy loving him while trying not to love him while simultaneously being unlovable to bother repeating myself, but I know that he is right about one thing. He is not a cure for hunger. The words he types spill into the air and hurry away to someone who is not here, the same as me, the same as both of us.
Kelsey Rexroat is a San Francisco–based writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Hairpin, Litro, and The Cortland Review.
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