It took a year to destroy his heart.
And I’ll never forget that year.
He came to me with a wide smile and a worn out soul. I was high on freedom and he was lost in loneliness when he stumbled through the haze. I had just gotten to the venue and headed to the bar to grab a drink with my friends. We returned to the floor and leaned carefully against the rails in front of the stage, a gaggle of pretty faces and dewy skin. I saw him among the crowd. His brown hair was swept back away from that handsome face, the face I’d see covered in tears many times after. Who knows why my eyes didn’t wander to the other men for the rest of the night? I suppose destiny wanted to play games with me.
I noticed a couple of girls and guys tagging along with him. I nudged my friend and nodded his way.
“Check this guy out.”
“Oh my god.”
“Go talk to him!”
The other girls and I turned into a giggling mess. I agreed to go talk to him if one of my friends went and talked to some blonde gym junkie nearby. It was only supposed to be a spectator sport. It was never meant to spiral into the depths that it did. A year was never supposed to start here.
When I started heading his way I was glad that I had taken a little extra effort to do my hair and makeup that night. That was back when I flaunted what I had when I had to. He’d later hold those nights against me.
As I approached him I had the shallow hope that one of those girls wasn’t his girlfriend. Even if one of them was I hoped that it was the one with the big nose and the baggy jeans, someone who couldn’t immediately hold a candle to me. I’m not going to act like I was a nice person back then. I wasn’t. I never was.
I decided to play dumb. I walked up to him and my voice raised a few octaves in anticipation.
“Hey! Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I asked.
He looked confused but smiled.
“No, I don’t think so,” his eyes looked me over and the skin on my neck prickled. “Maybe?”
“Do you go to Parkville?”
“Nah I hail from South Ridge, I’ve got friends who go there though.”
He looked me in the eyes as he spoke and I liked that.
“Oh okay, I just thought I’d ask because you look like someone I used to know.”
“Yeah totally, his name was Preston. He mixed audio for this band I was in.”
“Really? What kind of music did you guys play?”
It was set. The vibes were good, the crowd was growing, and we were having our first conversation. He kept asking me more questions to keep the chat going and soon I was sharing embarrassing tales of the very first band I sang in. In turn he told me about how he and his friends tried starting a punk band in 10th grade called “The Shy Piranhas”. I felt so comfortable holding his gaze as we spoke. It was like we were the only two people in the room and the air was electrified with our presence. It was instant chemistry.
I kept glancing at the girl closest to him, the one with the baggy jeans, who seemed to be tuning in to our conversation. Any jealous girlfriend would make at least one attempt to intervene but all she did was shuffle uncomfortably from one foot to the other. That’s when I knew that he’d come here alone. Had she clenched his hand or wrapped herself around his arm maybe things would have been different. Maybe. But he kept focusing on me, kept laughing at my jokes and asking me about my taste in music and where I was from. I went on about my desire to perform on stage and he told me about his passion for photography. His name was William but he told me to call him Will. It was a gentle name, friendly and befitting of someone like him.
I had a flicker of self doubt. This was just supposed to be a little excitement for the night. I wasn’t supposed to be getting this personal, this drawn into someone so quickly.
Will offered me to hang out with his group for the show. Another one of my friends found me and joined in as well since the other girls were preoccupied. I stood beside him as we listened to his friends make dirty jokes and fling light-hearted insults at each other. He asked me to join him in getting another drink. The other two girls he came with tagged along. I started to wonder if maybe he had a girlfriend waiting for him at home and if his friends were ready to give her status updates about his behavior via split second texts. But he was just so full of energy and humor it was hard not to steal his attention and run away.
I noticed the one unsightly girl following in his shadow as we headed to the bar. He didn’t really pay any attention to her closeness. I felt like she wanted to squeeze in between us at every given moment. She said his name a lot as if she was trying to prove her seniority over me. She bothered me, her and her stupid puppy love eyes.
The rest of the night was a fast progression of bright lights, loud music, and body heat. Will yelled at the top of his lungs for every one of his favorite songs and although he couldn’t sing worth a damn I enjoyed seeing it. I loved watching people get lost in a happy moment. I sang and jumped with him, turning and basking in sweat and excitement when the cymbals faded each time.
At the end of the night we filed out with the rest of the concert goers. I gave him and his friends my number. The loudest and drunkest of his group declared a toast and a group hug. We huddled and laughed together through hoarse lungs. I made sure to mark Will’s number specifically in my phone. I never asked if he had a girlfriend. Most of me didn’t want to find out. If I didn’t know for sure I couldn’t be hurting anything, right?
Will texted me a couple days later and I added him and the others as friends on Facebook. I was antsy before his messages came through and worried that he would just forget about me. It seemed silly at first but fate was just playing her favorite little games. I wasn’t used to feeling really concerned about if a guy would talk to me or not, even when things got physical. But him, he was different.
We talked frequently for a few days and he wanted to hang out with me again downtown. One of his favorite local photographers was opening a gallery for the art festival and he planned to meet up with some friends there. I felt a sort of excitement I hadn’t for awhile, something pure and girlish. My friends couldn’t stop asking me about him. I ended up checking his Facebook page and while I saw many photos of him with girls I didn’t see an official girlfriend to be spoken of. A pleasant hum played in my stomach.
I met up with Will at the festival a week later. I toned myself down a bit, trying to look effortless yet impressive at the same time. Less makeup, no jewelry, more clothes. He greeted me with a smile and a friendly embrace. He was wearing the kind of cologne I’d never forget. It mixed with the cigarette smoke in my hair to create a sort of bitter musk. As we walked down the street I felt my heart speed up.
Although my friends had encouraged me to get him in bed, I decided to let things flow naturally for once. Our night began and ended on friendly terms but there was no doubting the spark between us. Whenever I stopped in front of a wall of artwork he would stand right beside me, leaning close as he explained all the tricks the photographer used to achieve the shots. He paid for my food at the tiny burger joint around the corner from the gallery. At any given chance to be next to me, whether it was sitting down to eat or taking a smoke break outside, he was there. He opened doors for me and had a lighter ready for my cigarettes. None of it felt overbearing or intrusive. It was like that’s the way things had been between us for years.
After bidding everyone else goodbye with a hug and a wave, Will offered to walk me to my car. Since we were downtown after dark I was glad that he had, honestly. We talked about which pieces I liked the most and how he hoped to have a gallery himself some day. We hugged again before I got into my car and drove off, watching him walk back down the street in my rear view mirror. I sang the entire way home out of pure excitement. I saw his goodnight text right when I pulled into the driveway. My heart filled up with even more giddiness than before.
What was going on?
Will and I continued texting each other for a couple weeks even though I didn’t see him during that time. We made plans but they always fell through due to our work or school schedules. I kept an eye out for any weekend event that could be an excuse to ask him to tag along. Truthfully, he made me nervous and I fretted that someone else would scoop him up before me.
My saving grace came when our flirtatious banter became more obvious than ever. I found myself getting good morning and good night messages from him daily. I finally asked him to join me at the mall on one of the rare Saturdays that I had off. He checked his schedule and when he saw that he was free he obliged immediately. I told him that we’d be meeting my friend there so that we’d have a bit of a buffer between us. I was still worried about what could happen if we were alone together. I didn’t want to scare him off right when things were getting good. Plus, reading a person through text isn’t always the most accurate method of gauging where you two stand.
When that Saturday came I waited for Will in the food court and scrolled through my Facebook feed to kill time. I always saw a couple of girls who would often include him in their posts or pictures. One of the girls was the annoying one from the concert. She didn’t seem like a threat to me but sometimes you never know.
The friend that was supposed to meet us there texted me to let me know she couldn’t make it. My stomach began to feel emptier than it already was. So much for that plan.
Will wandered into the food court awhile later and I noticed that he had combed his hair differently and let some stubble grow in on his face. He was a rugged kind of gorgeous and my ultimate weakness. The hug we shared this time held for much longer than the first. He was beaming.
I told him that my friend said she couldn’t make it and he was perfectly alright with it. We started walking through the mall. People would have thought we were a couple in high school with the way we were acting. We joked around as he tried on beanies and sunglasses at what I’d remember as his favorite store, a place that now haunts me. At the time I loved watching him and the way he existed in the world, no matter where it was. I loved the short moments when his hand brushed against mine. I loved the faces he’d make when I tried on something that wasn’t flattering. I loved how excited he got when I told him I’d never had boba tea because it meant that he got to be the first one I tried it with. I began loving so many different things about him. It came effortlessly.
As the day kept winding down I felt a twist in my stomach. I knew I would have to ask about her: The woman in his life. I was so scared that the moment I found out then all of this chemistry and attraction would be dampened. I’d done my time as a home wrecker and wasn’t proud of it. I had also done my time as the home wrecker-in-waiting, which wasn’t much better. Girls like us would just hang around as the friend, staying within cozy limits of our guy of interest. We tested the waters with a flirt or two occasionally and would be his biggest supporter after a fight. With honesty that makes even myself nauseous of my old ways, I can say that girls like us knew very well what we were doing. He was the one guy that we really wanted and we could wait years through sub par relationships in order to have a chance to have him. We took advantage of the girlfriend through trust and her boyfriend through heartbreak. What a pathetic way to find love.
But I told myself it wasn’t going to be like that this time. I told myself to be honest, to do the right thing. As we were leaving another store I finally got the courage to ask him.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
He slowed down his pace and looked my direction. “No, why?”
His answer came like a reflex. It was comforting to know he was being honest.
“I just figured a guy like you would have at least some girl around,” I shrugged.
Will laughed. “Nope, nobody for me.”
“You certainly seem popular with the ladies on your profile,” I said jokingly. Was I pressing my luck?
“I guess, I mean I don’t really pay attention to it that much to be honest. People flirt and all but nothing follows through.”
I wondered if he considered us “following through”.
“I know how you feel. I haven’t had a real relationship in awhile.”
“So you just haven’t found the right girl yet?”
“Eh, I guess you could say that.”
He gave me a little smile. I started wondering if maybe the “right girl” just didn’t like him back at one point, in which case I would still be at a loss. I wanted to ask more about it but didn’t feel like spending the rest of the day listening to him go on about a crush or why she didn’t return his feelings. I was too drunk on my time with him, too drunk on selfishness as always.
I was expecting him to want to leave at any moment. Once we had made our rounds and purchases I could feel our day coming to a close. It made me feel sad as we approached the doors to the exit until Will stopped walking.
“So, what now?” he asked.
“Not sure, it’s up to you,” I prayed that there was something else for us to do.
“You don’t have to be anywhere tonight do you?”
“No, of course not,” I smiled. I thought I could feel my cheeks flushing. He probably noticed.
“I don’t know if you’d want to come hang out at my place or not,” he said with a shrug. My heart skipped a beat.
“Yeah, I’m cool with that.”
I was trying to be nonchalant but I couldn’t keep the grin off of my face. Luckily he seemed happy about it too. I agreed to follow him back to his apartment so that I could have my car there when I was ready to leave. That is, if I ended up leaving at all.
I felt too nervous to even sing in the car on the way to his place. When we finally pulled up I suddenly became more aware of myself than I had before. I got out of the car and followed him into the building. I took every cautious step up the stairs until we reached his door. He unlocked it and I followed him inside. There was a brunette girl sitting on the couch in the living room as soon as we came in. A shock wave rocked through my core.
What’s happening? Did he lie to me? Am I about to be caught coming home with some girl’s boyfriend? I stared at her but she kept her eyes on the TV as if I wasn’t there. She was really pretty. If that was his girlfriend then she would have at least given me a glance.
“Oh hey,” she said calmly to him.
“Where’s lover boy?” Will asked.
“He’s in the bathroom, we’re gonna leave soon.”
“Lover boy” came out of the bathroom and greeted Will. I’m pretty sure it was his roommate based on the photos I’ve seen on Facebook. He was another boy who, like Will, must spend some time at the gym. The red hair on his head stuck out to me. I’ve always been a bit fond of that color.
“Lover boy” went over to the couch and placed a hand on the girl’s head, tussling her hair.
“You ready to leave babe?” he asked. I felt the air come back into my lungs.
“Yep,” the girl said. She got up and grabbed her purse. “Is this the girl you were talking about?”
Will looked at me and saw my head tilted slightly in confusion. I wondered pleasantly if he had been talking about me. I never expected that to happen. Will seemed unshaken by the question and proceeded to introduce me to them. The guy was, as I assumed, his roommate and he was dating the girl on the couch. They were going out on the town for the night and Will and I were going to be alone. When the door shut behind them as they left I started picking at my nails the way I always did when I got nervous. I was glad that the fan in the window hadn’t left us in complete silence.
“My room is back there, unless you wanted to watch TV out here?” he said.
“I don’t really watch TV,” I said, afraid that I might sound odd.
“That’s fine by me. You want a drink?”
“Um…water would be fine.”
“Alright, let me grab it and then I’ll show you some of the photos I was talking about.”
“Awesome,” I smiled.
He grabbed a water bottle for me out of the fridge and showed me to his room. It was a mess, but a mess in the way that any artist would have it. Negatives and film prints scattered the walls of notes, posters, and sketches. His desk was littered and a few clothes hung off of his chair. I saw his camera plugged into his computer. I saw his medication sitting on the nightstand. How could something so small speak such volumes?
I sat down on his bed and started sipping the water. He directed my eyes to the prints on the wall.
“These are some of the ones from that class I told you about. I never thought I’d get into still life so much.”
“These are really good, wow…”
I loved how he mixed many different objects that were otherwise uninspiring into an interesting image. I also loved his simpler photos of a butterfly on a branch or a flurry of leaves in a puddle. He explained each picture to me, telling me again how the process worked and how he set up everything for the perfect capture. It took a lot of care and patience to take those photos, the kind of care and patience he wanted to give to me. The kind that I would waste.
At this point I felt pretty confident that he was interested in me. Still, I was scared of getting my hopes up. Half of my life was spent feeling like I was getting special treatment from a guy just to find out he treated other girls the same and that I wasn’t really special at all. I’ve spent more than enough years of my life in the “friendzone”, surviving on girlish dreams and hopeless wonders. But he didn’t seem hopeless. He was more present than any of the guys I’d talked to in the past few months. Will’s affection was tangible to me, it was reserved. I find it ironic that I wanted to be the only owner of a man’s flirtation when they wouldn’t always be the sole proprietor of mine.
Will’s phone started buzzing and it interrupted my thoughts. He sat down at his desk and answered it.
I heard a girl’s voice muffled on the other end. I took longer drinks of my water and looked closely at his photos again, pretending like I wasn’t listening.
“Yeah I’m—hold on slow down now. Okay? I….no they’re not here. Mhm. What? No, look I’m busy. Yeah. I’m just busy. Why can’t we talk on here? Look I—what? Yeah I’ve got company over.”
The girl sounded distressed. He kept talking and I realized that it was that girl from the concert, the one that lived in his shadow. He was telling her that he could only talk on the phone for a little bit. I could hear her asking again and again if she could come over.
“If you must know, it’s Brooke,” he said. He’d just told her that I was over here. I heard her voice rise and he told her to calm down.
“Shouldn’t you be calling your boyfriend?” he asked irritably.
I had a hunch she was that type of girl, the type with a guy best friend who she really wanted but couldn’t have so she settled with the next guy that took interest. I felt bad at first because I had been there, but then I felt put off by the fact that she wanted to come spend the night at her guy friend’s place. I, of course, was in no place to judge. I’d been there too. I wanted things to be different now though. I wanted to stop with the games. I wanted to stop if it meant I’d have a chance with Will.
“Just a second, I’m sorry,” he got up and stepped out of the room. I told him it was alright but I don’t think he heard me. I continued listening through the door even though I could only hear his voice now.
“Look, if you’re just gonna get mad then I won’t talk on the phone at all. You can text me but like I said I’ve got company over. Besides, I’m not gonna invite you over this late, it’s weird. Your boyfriend wouldn’t like it. I know he’d listen if you just called him, you don’t have to run to me first all the time. Like—yeah, I know that. I get it, and I’m not trying to be mean I just—No. I’m not. Chill, I’m trying to help. I know. I’m sorry, I can’t do that. Okay? Okay. Just call him. Alright. Cool. Text me okay. I’m sorry—I—I know. It’s okay. Goodnight.”
He came back in and sighed.
“I’m so sorry about that it’s my friend she—she just gets upset and is used to running to me for help you know?”
“It’s totally alright I understand. I’ve got friends like that.”
“I want to help but it gets tiring sometimes,” he groaned, rubbing the back of his head.
“Is she used to coming over here or something?”
“Not to spend the night. I’m not gonna be the guy who invites his friend’s girl over to stay at my place when she’s sad. Not gonna happen.”
“How respectful of you,” I replied. Truly, I didn’t know many guys who laid out boundaries like that.
“Well yeah. I treat other people how I want to be treated. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
“You just gotta do what you can.”
“I certainly try, even if being the nice guy still gets you fucked over sometimes.”
There was a bitterness hidden under his voice that I hadn’t heard before. He was a selfless heart and I’d soon get to know the very depths of his care. I’d get to know his infinite love and his ability to crawl back to someone who let him down, simply because he cared more about their happiness than his own. I would envy his love. I wouldn’t just want to have it, but to give it as well. I wish I had taken his words that night to heart. He was letting me in, showing me how good he was. To think I just threw it all away.
“But anyway,” he continued. “I feel like watching a movie. How about you?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“What about the movie you were talking about last week?” he turned on the TV and brought up Netflix.
“Oh yeah, do they have it on here?”
Thankfully he found just the movie I was talking about. He started playing it and shut off the lights before sitting on the bed next to me. He propped up some pillows for us to lay against and I was mindful of the space left between us.