- verb: direct one’s gaze toward someone or something or in a specified direction.
- noun: the appearance of someone or something, especially as expressing a particular quality.
- exclamation: used to call attention to what one is going to say.
There’s an eerie feeling that permeates the car as we get closer to Palm Coast. It’s like a winter fog’s coming in through the vents, even though it’s a mid-June afternoon in Central Florida. I glance over at Cassie and she’s looking out the window at I-95 racing beneath us. We pull off at the exit and she points at the large, detailed welcome sign that displays Palm Coast’s name over a beach background.
“You know they spent a million dollars on that?” she says, then looks back out the window. “I remember everybody being all pissed off about it.”
“Mm-hmm,” I say. I do know this about her hometown. She knows I do too, she tells me every time we see it.
“Waste of money,” she says.
“Mm-hmm,” I say again.
“You ok?” she asks, turning to me. Her eyebrows slant downward, giving the impression that she’s concerned. But her pupils shift rapidly, searching my face, and her mouth is puckered so that her lips jut out a little in a slight pout. She’s not concerned, she’s annoyed.
“Yeah,” I say. “You?”
“I’m fine,” she says, looking away. “You’ve said like two words since we left the apartment.”
The drive from Orlando to Palm Coast is an hour long. I definitely said more than two words during that time. At least ten, if not more. I both commented on someone’s FSU license plate (Florida State University, my alma mater; it’s ingrained in me to comment when I see a fellow Seminole), and explicitly ranted about someone’s erratic driving on I-10. Not huge speeches or anything, I know, but enough to be able to point out that her statement is, in fact, inaccurate. I’m not going to do that though. That would be a small and very short-lived victory on my part, as it would undoubtedly open me up to a daylong argument. The last time I did that—pointed out that she was fucking exaggerating—things escalated and I ended up with a broken car windshield and a cop standing outside our apartment telling us to stop yelling at each other.
“I haven’t not been saying anything,” I say, then quickly add, “I’ve been driving.”
I pause, flinch a little.
“Mm-hmm,” she says, and I sigh. The temperature drops a couple more degrees as I pull into the public park, that imaginary fog filling the air even more. It’s the park we’ve just pulled into that’s escalating the negative vibe though, not just the vibe in the car itself. The vibe during the entire drive over here, during the entire past year or so. That’s something else altogether, a by-product of something developing within me, within Cassie, within us. Something I haven’t consciously admitted to myself yet, though it’s inadvertently driven every single one of my actions over the last eight or nine months, every lingering moment at the Starbucks on University of Central Florida’s campus, where I work on my graduate thesis and debate going home at all, every second glance at the girls that come in there in droves for their iced lattes and skinny mocha frappuccinos, every “accidental” missed turn into the apartment complex where we live. Cassie’s right, in a sense. I mean, I did say more than two words on the way here, sure, I know I did.
But talking and communicating, as any Dr. Phil enthusiast will tell you, are two completely different things. I am not a Dr. Phil enthusiast, though. She is.
* * *
I pull up to Cawthon Hall at FSU, open my cell phone and text Cassie to come downstairs from her dorm room. A few minutes later she runs down the steps and walks tentatively up to my car. She’s smiling nervously, squinting to see through the tinted windows. She opens the door, climbs in the passenger seat and we stare at each other for a moment. My skin tingles with tension.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” she says, then giggles and looks out the window.
I chuckle, leaning back in the driver’s seat a little to make myself seem more relaxed. I am anything but relaxed. After two weeks—days worth of phone calls, three days of officially being a couple, anticipation of this very moment where we would return to Tallahassee from our semester break and get to actually see each other as boyfriend and girlfriend for the first time—this moment has grown into one that can barely carry its own weight. Which might actually be a good thing, I think. I pull off from the curb and think that this might be a very good thing, the sexual and emotional strain that’s smothering me right now. Maybe my brain will just overload with sensory detail, say fuck it and just give up on sustaining the nervous twitch in my thigh and the itchy, sweaty feeling beneath my shirt.
“I’m really glad you’re here,” she says.
I smile at her, hesitate, then move my hand on top of hers. She grabs it, squeezes, and my heart beats a little faster.
We arrive at a local Cracker Barrel and go inside, get a small table in a back corner. We talk about our time in our respective hometowns—me: Miami, her: Palm Coast—the upcoming Fall semester and our families. She asks me about my writing, my short stories and the novel I’m working on, about my hopes for the future. I tell her about my plans to enter an MFA program when I graduate in a year, my dreams of writing for a living, of traveling, experiencing any and everything and putting it all down on paper. She smiles a lot and tells me that’s awesome. I ask her what she wants and she thinks she wants to teach, she’s not sure yet. She’s a freshman, she has time. I put my fork and knife down and place my hand on top of hers again. She doesn’t grab it, instead brushes her finger lightly back and forth across my palm.
“Are you nervous?” I ask.
Her face turns red.
“No,” she says, then smiles and covers her mouth. “Why?”
“Your face is red,” I say, and it turns redder.
“Yeah,” she says. “It does that.”
“So you are nervous,” I say. This is my tactic; a recently adopted one (recent as in five minutes ago), but one that seems to be working. It consists of me displacing my own nervousness by commenting on hers, thereby bringing hers to the surface and helping me to shove mine deep, deep down and act like I don’t feel like I’m about to puke.
“Whatever,” she says, grinning and looking away. “Obviously I’m nervous.”
“It’s cute,” I say.
“It’s just—last time I saw you we weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend. And now we are. It’s weird.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” I say. I lean over and put my mouth against hers. She parts her lips and our tongues slide against each other, and I understand completely what people mean when they talk about electricity and sparks and all that stuff.
Half an hour later we’re at my apartment and the soft kiss from the restaurant has transformed into something animalistic. Within moments of being in my room and slamming the door closed we’re naked and on my bed, touching each other’s bodies in exploratory ways, laying a hand down for just a second before moving it to a new spot, then another, and another.
Afterwards, we lie there silently, listening to the sound of each other’s breathing.
“I didn’t expect that,” she says.
“What?” I say. I come off sounding a little hurt. The male ego is a fragile thing, and my mind instantly takes her words in a negative connotation. She sits up and leans over me.
“I thought we were going to wait a while before we had sex,” she says.
“Really?” I say. “I didn’t.”
She giggles and kisses me.
“I’m happy,” she says.
“Me too,” I say.
“Wanna go again?” she asks, nibbling on my ear.
“Awesome,” I say, rolling back on top of her.
* * *
Cassie opens the door and makes a move to get out of the car. I don’t.
“You ready?” she asks me.
I look at her, shrug.
“You?” I reply.
“Yeah,” she says. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
She gives me a weird look as she says this, staring me down then up then glancing out the window and flaring her nostrils a little. This is the weird look, her weird look, the only look that can simultaneously piss me off and make me feel like a two year old.
I ignore it, open the door and get out, walking through the gated entrance of the park. There are kids everywhere: screaming little babies, prepubescent bad-asses with devious eyes, and full blown young adults who look at all the younger ones like they’re dogs without leashes. I instantly redirect the tension I felt in the car towards the scene I’m approaching. I already didn’t want to be here, but watching all these kids running around and screaming is making parts of my face twitch. I don’t know why I feel like this—I usually love kids—but it has something to do with the look Cassie just gave me. The look I’ve gotten used to, despite my strongest efforts not to. I’m walking like we’re marching to our deaths when Ally—Cassie’s best friend and the reason we’re here—lets out a squeal and runs over to hug her. I stand patiently and wait for the semantics to be dispensed.
“It’s been so long,” Ally says.
Cassie nods, smiles, and Ally glances at me.
“Hi, Patrick,” she says.
“What’s up,” I say, looking at the pavilion Ally ran over from. There are two tables beneath it and, as we make our way over, I see that one has a vast assortment of food and food-related items: cake, chips, hot dogs, hamburgers, plates, napkins. The other table is piled with presents, with more presents on the ground surrounding it. Big ones, small ones, reused bags, leftover wrapping paper from Christmas. For one moment I find myself actually jealous at the turnout, wondering why, in any person’s life, the stockpile of birthday presents seems to reduce exponentially as the amount of candles on your cake increases. I don’t even remember what I got for my birthday last year, and here’s this baby who has no idea what’s going on right now getting all types of shit that she’s going to grow out of in like two months. Fucking waste.
Then I tell myself it’s stupid to be jealous of a baby’s birthday presents. Then I tell myself that telling myself an emotion is stupid is counterproductive. Then I just tell myself to shut up.
Something hits me in the leg and I look down to see a pudgy, freckled kid with ketchup stains on the corners of his mouth grabbing onto my pants in an effort not to fall over. Behind me, everywhere, are the ever-present children, littering the concrete and grassy areas around the pavilion like worms after a storm. Ally, who is still standing next to Cassie, who is standing in front of me, turns around and plucks one of them from the ground. I assume this one is hers by the way the baby girl automatically grabs onto Ally’s cheeks and hair.
“She’s getting so big,” Cassie says. I step to the side and catch a glimpse of her eyes as she says this, the gleam in her pupils. She glances at me and I look away quickly before she notices I noticed.
“I know,” Ally says. “Still remember being pregnant.” She chuckles and rolls her eyes. “Glad that’s over with.”
Cassie laughs and looks at me again so I chuckle, turn, and walk away. Standing by the presents I look at a few of the tags, names I don’t recognize next to drawings of happy faces and clown faces and children in pink pajamas. Ally recently turned twenty. This is her baby’s first birthday party. In attendance are many other nineteen and twenty year olds with their own babies of various ages. I am twenty six, and this party is having the very disorienting effect of making me feel both extremely old and extremely young at the same time. This isn’t a new feeling for me. In fact, I’ve become uncomfortably aware that I’ve experienced this feeling much too often over the past year or so. Yet, every time it pops up, it’s still just as unwelcome as it was the time before. It’s usually associated with Cassie and her friends, and I’m starting to think the age difference that wasn’t an issue when she was eighteen and I was twenty-three and we were both undergraduates at FSU has crossed some invisible barrier into the territory of “an issue.”
Cassie motions for me to come back over by her and I oblige because it’s just what I do in situations like this. It’s what my father does, and what I assume his father did before him—we stand next to our girlfriends or wives (or whatever she is to us) when we’re at social functions, especially when she calls us over. It’s not so much a requirement as a choice between two outcomes: either follow the rules and make her happy or risk a night of frigidity. We can drift, wander, make small talk with the other husbands or boyfriends or whatevers, but she is Home Base. It’s protocol.
I make my way through the sea of miniature people surrounding Cassie and find out when I arrive that she’s called me over with a specific purpose in mind. Ally’s mother has made an appearance. I stand in front of the older, bleached blonde woman and stare. She stares back, smiling absently. I met this woman a month ago, on another visit here to Palm Coast. I helped her fix her cell phone then. The mp3 player wouldn’t work and she was frustrated, repeating her woes over and over and over until I decided I needed to either do something about it or leave. There was nothing wrong with the phone, she just didn’t know how to use it, so I showed her. She stares at me now as if she’s never seen me before. According to what I’ve heard about her and her love for white, powdery substances, she probably believes she never has. I smile, hold out my hand.
“I’m Patrick,” I say. “Cassie’s boyfriend. Nice to meet you.”
I try, occasionally, to be amicable.
There are about two dozen people under this pavilion besides Cassie and me, and each of them has their own story to tell. I figure this out after about half an hour of milling around, smiling and nodding with my hands in my pocket and a piece of gum working its way around furiously in my mouth.
Everybody’s buzzing with internal conflict, with the shifty look in their eyes characteristic of people with something nagging at their tongues, begging to be freed from the shackles of mere internal dialogue. The problem is that—from what I’ve gathered during the preparatory conversations I’ve had with Cassie leading up to this day and the way each person here keeps taking furtive glances at another person who is also taking furtive glances back at them—each of their stories involves somebody else who is also under this pavilion. The result is hard to describe, other than to say that it almost feels like there’s a large vacuum under the pavilion, confined to the pavilion, sucking everybody’s words out of their mouths even as they’re speaking them. For the half an hour leading up to the cake-cutting/present-opening portion of the day, I stand around listening to people not-talking about each other, which is basically the equivalent of listening to people talk about nothing whatsoever.
After twenty minutes of this I want to go play on the jungle gym on the other side of the park, anything to get away from here. Protocol advises against that though, so I just pull out my cell phone and pretend I’m checking something important.
* * *
Cassie sits across the living room flipping through the TV channels and pouting. I know exactly why she’s pouting, why she’s been pouting for like two days now. And yet, I refuse to comment on it. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I’m fucking tired. We’ve been together for two years now and you’d think I’d be used to this. I’m not. I turn towards her.
“You hungry?” I ask.
She shakes her head, does that thing with her bottom lip meant to indicate “no, not really, I’m not hungry, thanks anyways.” She doesn’t look at me as she does this, which automatically gives the gesture an added note of hostility. I sigh.
“Can we talk about this?” I say finally.
“Talk about what?” she asks, looking at me and raising her eyebrows in a look of genuine confusion. She should be an actress. I want to scream at her, tell her to stop looking at me like she doesn’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. That’s exactly what she wants me to do though, so I smile.
“You know what,” I say simply.
She looks back at the TV, flips a few more channels.
“Nothing to talk about,” she says.
“Well,” I say. “We’ve barely talked in two days. So I think there is something to talk about.”
“You want me to be honest?” she says. She doesn’t wait for me to answer, just puts the remote down and turns to me. “We’ve been together for two years,” she says. “I’m transferring to UCF for you, and we’re both going to be living in Orlando. I’m doing that for you, Patrick, and now you’re acting like it’s such a problem to do this for me.” She pauses. “It makes no sense why you want to get separate apartments.”
I stare at her, try to see how set in her opinion she is right now. If I have any wiggle room. I can’t tell. I didn’t ask her to move to Orlando with me, or to transfer schools. That was all her decision. I don’t think it’s wise to point this out.
“I just think we need to give each other some space,” I say.
“I practically live with you right now,” she says.
I want to say “exactly.” I don’t. That is the thing I most want to say and the last thing that I ever would. I also want to point out to her that her two year qualifier on our relationship doesn’t include all the many details that I think are very legitimate reasons why we are not ready to move in together: the fact that, in these two years, both of us have had sex with other people; the fact that, in the past two years, on numerous occasions, both of us have grown enraged and destroyed items belonging to each other, many of them expensive and/or sentimental; the fact that, in the past two years, we have both become much angrier people than either one of us were before we started dating.
“Do you love me?” she asks suddenly.
“Of course I love you,” I say. The words fly out of my mouth, as if my brain is jumping for joy that there is something it knows the proper response to.
“If we’re going to be together in the long run,” she says. “I just don’t see why we can’t be practical, save money, get a place together.”
I glare at her, at her ability to slip the word “practical” in that statement and make it sound like it belongs. Then I sigh, close my eyes and rub my forehead.
“I just,” I say, then stop. I have nothing. “If we do it, I want two bedrooms,” I say finally. “I need an office. That’s all I’m saying, a place to get my work done, get away from—” I pause. “The world.”
She stares at me and a smile slowly breaks across her face.
“Sure,” she says. “You need space like that, that’s fine. I didn’t know that’s what you meant. I can give you all the space you want.”
She hops up and jumps over to me, grabs me and hugs me and falls into my lap. I laugh even though there’s this feeling in my chest, like a hollow space has just opened up right below my heart and is widening, threatening to engulf my entire life source.
She kisses me then moves her face about an inch away from mine, so our eyes are directly in front of each other. So I can see the exact shade of green in hers perfectly, part of her overall beauty, searching my eyes for something, I don’t know what.
“We’re moving in together,” she says, triumphantly.
“Yeah,” I say, hug her. “Awesome.”
* * *
Eventually, the children start to get rowdy and Ally decides it’s time to open the presents. I stand in viewing distance, next to Cassie. Edwin—the father of Ally’s child, and her recently proposed fiancé—sits next to her and essentially plays garbage man. Ally grabs present after present, pulling off the wrapping paper and dropping the crumpled pieces in Edwin’s lap, at which point he swiftly shoves them into a large black garbage bag and turns back, waiting for more. There is an unmistakable blankness in this guy’s eyes that I don’t think anybody else notices. He’s just turned nineteen and looks all of sixteen. I do not envy this guy a bit, I will say that. I don’t, however, feel sorry for him. Because he doesn’t look miserable, not even the slightest bit melancholy. The only emotion on his face, actually, is complacence. Edwin’s just fine right now. Which, for some reason, upsets me. It upsets me that this guy, this kid, is okay with his position in life. He’s okay being an accessory to this situation, known to most everybody in this room as “Ally’s fiancé” or “Ally’s baby daddy.” He’s okay with his future.
I look around, wondering if anybody else sees what I see: the vacant look in Edwin’s eyes, the automatic quality to his smiles and movements. Nobody seems to notice. They all look like they’re having fun, actually. I find this odd until I realize that there are quite a number of guys here with looks in their eyes similar to Edwin’s. It’s not that they don’t notice him, it’s that there’s nothing for them to notice.
For the first time since I arrived I feel like an outcast, which gives me the fleeting desire to pick up one of the kids scampering around me and hold them like they’re my own, smile and point at the presents and tell them that their birthday will be soon and similar. For just a second I want to do this. Just a second.
The reason Ally needs Edwin’s assistance with discarded-wrapping-paper-pick-up is because she’s busy with the rest of the parents surrounding her, making oohing and aawing sounds at the tiny clothes and shoes and playpens bestowed upon her child. She shows every gift to us, the crowd, before turning and showing them to her baby daughter who grabs the corner of each item and swiftly shoves it in her mouth, which prompts another bout of oohs and aaws. Cassie is part of the oohing and aawing crowd and, without realizing it, I’ve moved about ten feet away from her. She doesn’t notice, which is good. I don’t want to have to explain the move. I don’t know if I could if I tried, actually.
After presents, there’s the cake cutting, which seems to excite everybody into a frenzy of conversation.
“I’ll get the candles,” Edwin says, running over to a fluttering plastic bag on the food table.
“Bring her here, Ally,” Ally’s mother says. She motions towards the cake and Ally shoots her a glare.
“I got it, Ma,” she replies.
“This is so nice,” somebody else says and I turn to stare into the crowd of faces, any of which could have been the speaker. A few others look at me expectantly and I look back at the cake and clap my hands together. I have no idea why I do this, it just seems appropriate given the sudden excitement.
Ally lights the one candle Edwin sticks in the cake and holds her baby’s face half a foot from the flame and says “blow,” then blows the candle out herself. Everybody claps and rubs the baby’s and Ally’s backs and, for just a brief second, before I can stifle the urge and keep myself in the reverie of the moment, I wonder what’s the point of any of this. What has ever been the point of it. I know from pictures and family stories that my parents did the same things with me when I was a baby. I also know that I don’t remember being a one year old and having my mother blow out a candle for me, and neither will this baby. Ally’s daughter doesn’t know what the hell anybody’s talking about, so in a sense everybody here is tricking themselves into believing that an infant just made a birthday wish and blew out a candle.
The thought process continues unabated as I watch somebody hand Ally a plate with a slice of cake on it and Ally turns and drops it in the crib next to the food table. She places her daughter in the crib next to the slice of cake and, naturally, the first thing the baby does is smear icing all over her face. Another bout of oohs and aaws. It hits me then that the only truly realistic person here is this baby, completely oblivious (for the time being) to this perpetual necessity of ritual. I’m momentarily moved by the utter cuteness of Ally’s child until Cassie turns and catches me smiling and looks positively delighted.
“Isn’t she cute?” she asks.
My smile instantly disappears and I nod. I wait what seems like an appropriate amount of time to completely separate my words from the words she just spoke, then lean in towards her.
“Can we go soon?” I ask.
She looks up and I can tell she’s trying not to glare at me. After three years, I can tell what trying-not-to-glare-at-me looks like. It’s a variation of the look she gave me in the car when I asked if she was ready—the same look down then up and nostril flare—only this one is much more subtle. It’s its own type of glare, a different sort of love-hatred you can only have with somebody you’ve been through a certain number of rough patches with—too many to give a number to if people ask, other than to say “we’ve been through some shit.” I also know that the trying-not-to- portion of her trying-not-to-glare-at-me look is not for my benefit, but hers. She doesn’t want to be embarrassed in front of these people by allowing her annoyance to be visible. Which gives the look that much more of a sinister tint.
“You said you wouldn’t,” she whispers, loud enough that it’s like a scream in my ears but low enough that nobody else overhears.
“Wouldn’t what?” I ask.
“We talked about this,” she says. “On the way here. Don’t rush, we’ll leave when we’re ready.”
I want to point out that she just contradicted her earlier declaration that I hadn’t said more than two words during the ride over here. I don’t, though.
* * *
I will be playing NBA 2K11 when it happens. Cassie will come in, lay on the bed and sigh. I will keep pressing buttons on my Playstation 3 controller, take Dwyane Wade down the court of American Airlines Arena and dunk on somebody. She’ll sigh again. I’ll glance at her and she’ll be staring at the TV, so I’ll look back at it and keep playing. She’ll sigh again and I’ll pause the game.
“What?” I will ask. I won’t even try to hide the annoyance in my voice.
“Nothing,” she’ll say.
“Ok,” I’ll respond, turning back to the game and unpausing it. She will wait a while before getting up and heading out of the room, stopping in the doorway.
“You don’t even try anymore,” she’ll say.
I’ll pause the game and close my eyes, rubbing my forehead. When I open my eyes, I will look at her and realize I don’t see her so much anymore. It will almost be like she’s blending in with the wall. I will see everything around her, the things behind her, the things outside of the apartment that could be happening right then, in the future for me. But I won’t see her. I’ll squint.
“What are you talking about?” I’ll ask.
“You don’t even try,” she’ll repeat.
“I’ve been trying to talk to you for days now.”
“Really?” I’ll say. “Where was I?”
“Here,” she’ll say, then look down at the carpet. “Not really, though.”
“Here we go,” I’ll say, rolling my eyes.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she’ll say. “But we’re not acting right. You’ve barely talked to me since you got back from Miami.”
I will think back to my visit to Miami the weekend before. A few days after Ally’s baby’s birthday party, my parents ask me to come down and house-sit while they are out of town, and I spend the weekend writing. I write for hours and hours, uninterrupted, then watch episodes of Californication and Dexter from Netflix, play video games and my guitar and masturbate in the shower by myself, blissful solitude. It will be, undoubtedly, the best weekend I’ve had in months.
“I’ve been talking to you just fine, Cassie,” I’ll say. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You haven’t talked to me about what I want to talk about,” she’ll say.
“I don’t want to talk about it now,” she’ll say.
I will groan, loud.
“I don’t want to hear this shit right now,” I’ll say.
“You know we haven’t had sex in like two weeks?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that was a problem.”
“It’s not,” she’ll say. “At least, it wouldn’t be if we were being sweet with each other in other ways.”
“Cassie, I don’t want to deal with this right now.”
“You never want to deal with anything.”
I’ll look at her and it will hit me like it usually does, the urge to get as far away from her as I can. My shirt will begin to feel like it’s shrinking, constricting my breathing until I clear my throat, pull at the collar.
“Can you just go away, please?” I’ll ask.
“No,” she’ll say. “We need to talk.”
“Cassie,” I’ll say, closing my eyes. “Just leave me alone for right now. Like five minutes.”
She’ll stay standing there until I open my eyes and stare at her. I’ve told her on numerous occasions that I get claustrophobic in certain situations, that I can’t handle confrontation the way some people can. She insists, though, that she can’t just walk away when she’s upset, give me a minute to calm down, cool off, think rationally. Instead, she stays and pushes, prods.
“You don’t listen to me,” she’ll say. “And it really bothers me.”
“Why can’t you just listen to me?”
“Why can’t you just leave me the fuck alone?”
And just like that, things will escalate. The way they always do, only this time there will be a sense of finality to it. Some dam will burst in me and every negative emotion I’ve felt for the past three years will come rushing out. I’ll tell her everything, every desire, every lack of desire, every twist and turn in my head that’s been sitting beneath the surface for so long. I’ll tell her I don’t want to marry her, I’ll tell her I don’t want to have kids with her, I’ll tell her I never wanted to move in together, that the only reason I stayed in Florida for graduate school was because of her and that I’ve come to regret that decision. I’ll tell her I feel constricted, and I don’t know if I can do it anymore. When I’m done she’ll barely be coherent and I’ll feel like shit. I will not want it to end like this, but she’ll pack up her things anyway and walk out. And I’ll know that it doesn’t matter how I want it to end. It never did.
* * *
I step back over to the table with the food, stare at it for a moment then grab a plate and start to grab chips from a big bowl, then decide that, fuck it, I’ll have a hamburger. Bun, ketchup, burger. People are still milling around when I’m done eating so I decide to have a hot dog. Bun, ketchup, dog. Still no interesting developments so I walk about twenty feet away from the pavilion, hoping it will prompt something to happen, anything that will get me out of here.
I glance at the parking lot and briefly wonder what it would feel like to just get in my car and drive off, back to Orlando, back to our two-bedroom apartment where we’ve decided to try having separate rooms in an attempt to give ourselves some personal space, a trial that’s only resulted in me wondering even more why we ever agreed to move in together in the first place. Part of it was her prodding, yeah, but part of me also thought it would fix things, despite the numerous accounts of other’s personal experiences in which they assert that, hell no, moving in together will not fix anything. Quite the opposite.
Then, for just a second, I seriously consider leaving. Not to Orlando, though, but somewhere further. Away from not just Cassie but anybody connected to this life I have right now. This life so structured around personal relationships. I finger the key ring in my pocket and stare longingly at the headlights of my car and think about running over to it, hopping in the driver’s seat and just driving north, or west, to California, L.A., to sell my car and hop a boat then just keep on going, to Hawaii, take up residence in Honolulu and serve tables at a resort restaurant during the nights, meet people and experience things then write about it all in the mornings, lying on the beach with nothing but a six pack and a takeout container from the closest restaurant. No franchises, keep it local. No aspirations other than my own. No goals other than to die happy. Nobody to distract me from achieving it.
I turn and Cassie is still there talking to Ally, peeking at me every few seconds with an impatient look on her face. This one is characterized by contrast: when she’s looking at Ally and her baby, her eyes are slits, due to her smiling cheeks pushing the bottom lid closed a little. Then she looks at me and her smile drops, her eyes go wide and her eyebrows raise, a slight jerk of her neck. “Get the hell over here,” it screams. The diversity of her facial muscle capabilities baffles me. I walk back to the pavilion, making sure to keep a wide berth from the cake table and crib.
Eventually, finally, things start to wind down and the goodbyes commence. Ten minutes later we’ve finally said bye to everybody and bye to Ally five times. We’re making our way back to the car when Ally calls out and approaches us and I sigh as discretely as I can.
“So good to see you today,” she says to Cassie.
Cassie hugs her and I stand next to them with my hands in my pocket.
“We’ve got to visit more,” Cassie says to Ally. She doesn’t look at me when she says this, and I realize I’ve stopped expecting her to.
“So glad you came,” Ally says, and they hug again.
In the car there’s silence for the first ten minutes. We’re on I-95 when Cassie reaches over from the passenger seat and turns on the radio, then turns the volume down a little.
“That was nice,” she says.
I don’t know why she does that—turns on the music right before she talks—but she does. Like she needs background filler or something. I’m not in a good mood.
“Yeah,” I say.
“So many kids,” she says.
“Yup,” I say.
“I don’t know if I can do that,” she says.
I look over at her, surprised. There’s a moment of silence between us and some guy on the radio tells us to call him if we wreck our car.
“Really?” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “It was a little depressing. I feel like we all just graduated high school, and now here I am going to my best friends’ baby’s birthday parties. It’s just so…weird.”
“Yeah,” I say. Another moment of silence in which I ponder taking the bait or not. What the hell. “I don’t know if I could do it either.”
She turns and looks at me, raising an eyebrow.
“It wouldn’t be that bad though,” she says, then nods and pats my hand. “Didn’t seem that bad at all.”
She says nothing after this and, for a while, we drive in silence, the trees on I-95 speeding past us at 90 miles an hour. In the silence, I allow my mind to wander and catch a glimpse of the future, of everything that will come, the eventual end of me and Cassie’s relationship, the eventual end of Ally and Edwin’s engagement, the months of self-reflection and elation and freedom and bouts of self-doubt and ponderings on the meaning of life and love. The vision is overwhelming, extensive, emotional, visceral, and extremely uncomfortable to experience with my girlfriend sitting right next to me. It’s a vision of an alternate reality like no other, one I can see coming into existence but have no idea how to get to. So I stifle it all, an ability I’ve become quite adept at, though my cracks are starting to show. Eventually I look over at her and she looks at me and smiles the same smile I’ve seen every day for the past 36 months. I smile back, reflexively.
“I think we’d make awesome parents,” she says. “You can see it, can’t you?”
I keep my eyes on the road and give a stellar, successful effort at not letting my smile slip in the slightest.
“Sure,” I say. “Awesome.”
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