Sunday, August 13, 2017

Affective Needs--Chapter Twenty Nine

By mid-November it happened. Brian Cardwell asked me if I would go out with him that Saturday. We had just finished reviewing chapter ten of our organic chemistry textbook at our usual table near the back of the campus library. Packing up our things, books, notebooks, stray papers, Brian had taken a deep breath and I swear to God I knew it was coming. Once he managed to fumble out the initial question, forever altering our current arrangement, a deep and uncomfortable silence settled around us while he waited for my answer.
Seconds ticked.
Brian shrugged. “It’s just a house party . . . my friend said . . . if, you know. I mean . . .”
Christ, make it stop. “I’ll go,” I suddenly blurted. Whether it was to make him please shut up or whether some deep unacknowledged part of me actually did want to go, I had no idea. Whatever the reason, it was good enough for Brian. His entire face lit up. “Great!”
I gave him my now-signature weak smile.
“I’ll walk you to your car.”
Ugh. “Thanks.”
By the time we were halfway to the parking lot, I realized I’d made a mistake. It’s not that there was anything wrong with Brian; he was a really nice guy. He was also really, really smart. Even good-looking in a squeaky-clean, ultra-wholesome way. One look at Brian, and you just knew he had a million friends back home in Iowa, a sweet ex-girlfriend, and a fully intact family that went to church every Sunday and ate dinner together every night.
One look at Brian and you knew there were too many facets to my screwed-up personality that his background had simply not equipped him to understand. To date Brian, seriously, would be to never be myself. Being with him was being forever careful to keep the ugliest parts of myself hidden from his view.
Honestly, as messed up as it was to think, he was too good for me.
Plus, I hadn’t gotten as far as I should have with the whole “moving on” thing. Brian’s biggest flaw, as far as I could tell, was that he was not Porter. For the hundredth time, I thought about calling my mother and telling her I had changed my mind—I was wrong, please tell me where he is.
I turned my head to look at Brian. His mouth was moving but I had no idea what the hell he was saying.
It was November. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Porter since April. How much longer? Would I be over him by Christmas break? New Year’s Eve? Next April?
Was I ever going to get over Porter?
“Ruth?” Brian asked.
I looked at him. “What? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” We had just pushed through the double glass doors that led out to the parking lot where Vader had been parked all day.
The space between his eyes wrinkled—he knew I wasn’t listening to him. “Before the party,” he repeated. “I thought we could grab something to eat?”
I was about to give him another, sure, then stopped. Why? To make him feel better? To make the situation worse than it was already going to be because I’d said yes to the first question. Still, I didn’t have a good reason to say no. I needed some time to think of a nice excuse. “Let me see, okay?”
It was so passively lame, I hated myself for even uttering the words. I didn’t want to go anywhere with Brian—why not just say so?
Because, despite his major flaws of being practically perfect in every way, I still didn’t want to hurt Brian’s feelings.
Sometime in the last year I must have accidentally become a human being.
“Oh, yeah. Sure,” Brian said, the hurt in his voice glaring.
Thankfully we were almost to my car. “I’m just a few rows over,” I said. “You don’t have to walk me the whole way.”
Brian looked up at the sky. Pink streaks colored the soft blue that was fading with the setting sun. One of the parking lot lights hummed to life. “It’s getting dark,” he said. “I’ll feel better if I know you’re safe.”
It was sweet. Really, it was. “Thanks,” I said again.
When I had first parked earlier in the day, I’d had a hard time finding a space, but now most of the cars had cleared out. Not many people, even at Princeton, chose to hang in the library past five on a Friday. I lifted my eyes toward Vader. “I’m just parked—”
I stopped dead.
Two steps later, Brian stopped too and looked worriedly at my face. “Ruth?”
My eyes—they were making a mistake. It wasn’t what I thought.
Was it?
The blood drained from my limbs.
“Ruth, are you okay?”
My heart worked hard in my chest to keep me upright.
My head felt light. “I might pass out,” I whispered.
Brian lunged for my arm to hold me up just in case.
I couldn’t even feel him there.
My eyes were locked on one thing—the person sitting on the hood of my car.
The heels of his black boots used my bumper as a foot rest so he could lean forward, his elbows rested on his knees, while he locked eyes with me from under his mop of disheveled brown hair.
He didn’t move.
I didn’t breathe.
And Brian stood at my side, holding my forearm up like I was a Victorian lady aiming for the swoon couch. “Ruth?” he asked as his eyes eventually followed mine and noticed what had frozen me in place. “Is that your car?” he asked.
I gasped, “Yes.”
“Should we call the campus police?” he asked.
I shook my head. “It’s okay.”
“You know that guy?”
I nodded. “You should go. I’ll be okay.”
Brian didn’t want to. Maybe he thought I was in danger. Maybe he realized there was probably no hope in hell of me going to a house party with him on Saturday now—but he must have eventually taken a clue and evaporated into the background.
I didn’t even remember him leaving, but by the time I was able to take a step, he was gone.
Porter watched me walk the entire distance between us. His hands hanging between his knees. When I was only a few feet away, his eyes moved to the ground. “I thought I’d stop by,” he said. “See how college was treating you.”
When he looked back up, his questioning eyes on mine, my heart stopped as a million emotions fought for space inside me. I wanted to kiss him, slap him, throw myself into his arms, pull his hair, and shake him hard.
I wanted to hold his face. Punch his chest. Was this real?
I had no words to start with, nothing that made sense would come.
So instead of the logic of words, my body defaulted to tears. It started with my chest, hot and tight, then all the relief and confusion of seeing him here clawed its way up my throat, warped the shape of my mouth until the whole hot mess of emotion found its way to my eyes and finally spilled down my face.
Porter stood up. “Ruth . . .” Watching me, seeing me fall apart, he was trying to figure out what to do. He stood with his arms limp at his side while I cried.
I swallowed hard and found a single point of mental clarity to throw at him. “Where the hell have you been?”
He searched my face then fell back against Vader’s hood. For the first time, I noticed the piece of paper he had cupped in his hand, and I watched as he unfolded the tight square one section at time. When he finished, he flattened the worn sheet of notebook paper against his thigh then handed it to me like it was an answer.
I recognized my handwriting immediately.

I know your life sucks right now.
One day, you will make it better.
I believe in you, Porter Creed.
And I love you,

I held the letter and shook my head at him.
“I couldn’t . . . I needed to make my life better. At least start to. Ruth, I needed to do that first. For me. For Paige.” He stood up and moved toward me. He reached out his hand, unsure, waiting for me to let him know it was okay. “For you.”
I stared at his waiting hand, then reached out, touched the tips of his fingers.
His shoulders sagged. He curled my fingers into his and pulled gently until the space between us disappeared. His other hand reached up and cupped my face and his thumb brushed the wetness from my cheek.
My hands moved to his chest and I looked up into his eyes with a ragged breath. I didn’t know what to say.
Porter closed his eyes, wrapped his arms all the way around me, and bowed his head until his face was buried in my hair. I could feel his body shaking, his lips moving against my neck.
“I’m trying Ruth,” he breathed. “But I need you. It’s too hard without you.”
All the worry, fear, doubt that I’d been carrying, like a brick pressing on my chest for months, started to crack and break apart. The reason he stayed away from me for so long—it wasn’t because he didn’t want me.
It was because he did.
He pulled me back with him, against Vader’s hood, and in each other’s arms, the sky grew darker, the air colder—we didn’t care. I kissed his eyes, his mouth. His lips, soft and warm, on my neck. Whispered words in my ear.
“Don’t ever disappear on me again,” I breathed.

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