I take the Turnpike heading south this morning instead of my usual route to work. It’s a white-gray day with wet roads and snow on the trees. I drive a few exits before turning toward the ocean through small villages and winding back roads and I am not entirely lost but not entirely sure of where I am going either.
Your hair is still wet when you slip into the booth across from me and throw your wallet and glasses and phone on the table, and I marvel at how everything about you is streamlined, compact, organized. I am always overflowing — flesh and wants and a purse stuffed with snacks and toy soldiers and tissues.
I have fallen in love like this before. The kind that starts as something unnamable and then turns into something unpleasant like dislike or hate, even, and only looking back do I understand its true nature.
Maybe it’s not love-love, but who’s to say? It is a definite restlessness around the heart. It’s days spent in a haze, imagining kissing the short hairs by your ears. It’s a crackling energy in my bones when you laugh. What is love, if not all of those things?
When you order the grilled tomatoes, I am sure. You have your choice of hash browns and fruit salad and toast, but you order the grilled tomatoes and I know you are going to order that maybe even before you do. You tell me about your anemia and your period and I want to both wrap you in a blanket while I make you a hearty beef broth and ravage your neck to drink your thin blood. My French toast is a poor substitute.
I have been telling people that I hate you. That you are difficult, unpredictable, demanding, neurotic. That you make my life so fucking miserable. It’s all true. And it’s also all a lie. Because what I really want to say is that you are intriguing and foreign and yet somehow familiar, like I have known you before. That you are willowy and snarky and funny and sort of scary-smart. That I am drawn to you like a child to a shiny, sharp object.
On my side of the booth, we are on a date. I am playing hooky from work, I haven’t told anyone where I was going this morning. I am wearing makeup and cute underwear. I brought you a heart-shaped stone. And I am keenly aware that, for you, this is just corned beef hash and eggs and those grilled tomatoes.
What got me to this diner in a winter beach town in the middle of December? Did I imagine our witty banter and easy laughs? Or your knee not moving away from mine under the table? Are you just someone who likes to stand too close and sit too close and touch too often? Did I make up the way your hand lingered on mine when you gave me a cup of coffee? Or the glances across the crowded room when it felt like we could read each other’s minds?
I suppose it’s all a matter of interpretation. How hungry are you when a morsel of kindness is offered? How wide open is your heart when someone passes nearby? Would even the gentlest breeze blow someone straight into your left ventricle?
Isn’t love always a combination of magical thinking, hope, and improbability? If I am lucky, a quiet glance means the same to you as it does to me, and you can clearly hear the wild thumping of my heart when I stand next to you. If I am not lucky, well, then we end up at a semi-awkward breakfast like this one.
To be fair, awkward meals have yielded good things before: making out in Budapest and Frankfurt and New York. Lying on a bed in London, having the truest talks with my best friend. Finishing bottles of Prosecco with an old lover in the back of a restaurant. Or really, when I think about it, that’s how I ended up with a baby and Sunday mornings years later watching him play basketball feeling like my heart is about to burst. You can’t get to the good bits without pushing through the muck of uncertain beginnings.
Now life has thrown a dark-haired, hockey-playing, power tool-using woman in the path of a chubby Eastern European Jewish girl as if to say: Here, are you bored of your middle-aged, middle-American, mortgage-paying, rule-obeying life? Do you feel just a little bit dead inside? Well, she will make you come alive just by saying your name — even though she can’t quite pronounce it correctly.
My heart might have embellished and misinterpreted some of our interactions, but not all of them are fiction. I am certain of that. I have sat with the turbulence you’ve caused for weeks now, to study its true nature and course, to examine my own motives. I have stared in the mirror many, many times asking: Why you?
Maybe my left ventricle is chronically open. It’s a design flaw, perhaps, this craving for it to be filled by impossible lovers, for it to always be unsatisfied by what is right here and mine. But my friend died this summer before she turned 36, so I can’t do anything else but drag my tired, saggy ass out of bed and armor up my stupid, open heart as best I can.
One of the first conversations you and I ever had was how you couldn’t really tell what was on my mind and weren’t sure I was always saying what I was thinking. (You were right.) Strangely, we came back to that in one of our last talks: the truths we reveal about ourselves, whether we can take people at their word.
When I hand you the blue heart-shaped stone as you finish your coffee, what I want to say is: Take me at my word. This is my truth.
In the end, nothing happens. I ask if I can see you again, which sounds like a request for a date as soon as I say it, and you say yes, but I know even then there will be no second breakfast or lunch or drinks. Maybe that’s one blessing of middle age: you know these things before you make a fool of yourself.
We walk outside onto the deserted, snowy street and have to duck between cars to avoid an oncoming trash truck. We hug and I get in my car and watch you speed away in your zippy white Prius and I think this is exactly what my unlived life looks like.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Doug Kerr