“You only grow when you are alone.”OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- I'd swung by the grocery store after work, picked up some frozen mussels and lean turkey sausage, boiled them together in a four-quart sauce pan with enough herbs and seasonings to satisfy my craving for Deep South spiciness.- Paul Newman
I sat in front of the television, in my favorite curb-recovered chair, hit the PLAY button on the DVD remote and the MUTE button on the TV remote simultaneously.
Instantly, my quiet sanctuary of an apartment was wrapped in symphonic wallpaper, that familiar overlap of diegetic and non-diegetic sound that often accompanies the opening scenes of a motion picture.
I suck down my dinner, watch Mallrats for the nine-thousandth time. Cigarette butts fill a handmade tin ashtray, a touristy trinket from Nogales, or Tucson, Arizona, or maybe from that trip to Cuidad Juarez.
It's 7:30, Eastern Standard Time. I glanced up at my cheap wall clock every 20 minutes or so. Despite my best efforts to do the simple time change in my head, I kept counting back the three-hour difference on my fingers, aloud, like a brain-damaged First-Grader.
I waited, nervously, for her call, expected sometime at or around six o'clock, Pacific, nine o'clock Eastern. I'd hoped beyond all hope that I'd figure out some way to reiterate the "You know this doesn't mean anything, right?" agreement we'd reached back in December.
An agreement I thought we'd reached. Correction. One party decided to renegotiate. For the record, there is no right way to have such a conversation, but there are literally hundreds of wrong ways. And such conversations do not get any easier with age, experience, or distance.
* * * *
Just about the time the film reached one of its major turning points, a scene involving a three-nippled fortuneteller in a strip mall, my cell phone bounces across my end table, the air around it vibrates and sends the sucker dancing into the tin ashtray. The sound the Mexican metal makes reminds me of a cowbell.
I hadn't made up my mind what to say. I answered and just started bleating into the mouthpiece, random salutations and bad jokes and comments about my ongoing dedouchebagification, my new year's resolution. She laughed, asked for the second time that day and dozenth time in a week what I was doing, who I was spending my time with, and, well, if I thought about her at all while...
I stopped her, mid-sentence.
I started to tell her all about how I thought she was starting to get the wrong idea about my intentions back in December, that, well, I still thought we could be friends and that she was a really cool person to spend time with.
What came out of my mouth was, of course, different than what my brain and heart really wanted to say.
"Well... I met this really cool chick the other day... you know. Up at the bookstore. We've been spending a lot of time together...you know... hanging out... grad student..."
Not a fib, not an untruth. Not even an impromptu distribution of strategic disinformation.
A blatant, bold-faced lie.
"Oh... Soooo.... Are you doing anything with her later?"
Once one lies, well, there is no turning back.
"Um, yeah. She's coming over and we're gonna go to a movie or something."
"Yeah. You know... Hey, you ever ask that guy from the surf shop out?"
Silence. Silence so painful my eyes could literally hear the flashing MUTE button on the television screen before me, could feel the freeze-framed image of Jay and Silent Bob eating away at my soul as I winced in anticipation.
I'd been leading her on.
For fuck's sake, dude! A girl calls that much, you're beyond the friends with benefits excuse.
YA FUCKED UP, YA FUCKIN' ASSHOLE.
Didn't mean to do it. Just happened. Hadn't paid attention. I'd been leading her on, in fact, since December, since I responded to her first text the day after, since I answered her calls and emails the weeks afterward.
* * * *
In a different life, one not separated by thousands of miles and the too many differences in personality and interests, I would've handled things differently.
Sadly, however, there are no different, interchangeable lives beyond the singular ones we are given.
"Well... Better be going. Don't want to keep you from your date."
"Okay. Talk to ya later, chica."
Click. A hard, angry click on the other end, so firm that her own mouthpiece broadcast the slapped slide of her instantly disconnected mobile across an entire continent.
* * * *
The lie - one of the oldest and most cowardly ways to start and end It's Just a Hook-up, Right? conversations - does work. Works when a guy's 19, just as surely as it works when a guy's 29, 39, or well into his nursing home years. Women use it, too.
Unfortunately, it's also the most gut-twisting way to handle the ending of a fling.
It ends friendships, too. Ended one last week, in fact.
Someone once asked me why nice girls get lied to so much, why being a good and decent person often leads to such lead-ons and put-ons and other affronts to mutual respect.
The truth of the matter lies in the fact that nice girls are the only ones, at the end of the day, a guy worries about hurting - especially if a guy knows, deep down, that he's just too damaged to get involved with someone who deserves an equally nice guy, someone he knows dreams about tiny beach cottages and kids and perfect marriages and things he'll never want.
* * * *
I flipped my phone shut and pressed the antenna to my lips. I felt like I was going to puke up my spicy steamed mussels, almost spewed half-digested turkey sausage into that very fine Mexican ashtray I'd already filled with a dozen nervous butts.
I stared at Jay and Silent Bob, still frozen in digital clarity. I tried my best to remember how she felt, how we'd laid in bed and talked things out afterwards, how I'd felt like she, of all people, would understand that, well, sometimes, friends just fuck each other and write it off as nothing more than a simple act of mutual, spur-of-the-goddamn-moment attraction.
I couldn't. I could only think about what was in front of my face.
My hot grad student, my completely fictional imaginary date, was actually a fat guy in a trench coat and a skinny, foul-mouthed stoner.
Alone. Completely alone. With only a dirty soup bowl, dishes in the sink, and a flickering television for company.
My conscience throbbed inside that silence like a cancerous heart.
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