She hadn't expected to find him there, outside her door. Not this late at night, not at all. He gave her a foolish grin, a pleasant greeting. She stepped aside in silent invitation. He walked inside. Her apartment was familiar to him, he'd been there often in the weeks and months before she left him. She worked so hard to make her home one of warmth and mirth that he had never bothered coming back after she ended it. He didn't want to disrupt the positive energy there, and besides, so far he had only good memories of the place. It had been in a coffeeshop, on a vile, biting day in January that she had broken up with him. He'd walked home alone that night; his scarf wrapped tightly, shivering from cold. That was his bad memory. The rest of his memories, they were all good. She'd brought a part of him to life that he usually kept buried, beneath layers of work and books. He was a scholar, it was a profession, and so he didn't spend a lot of time just letting go, but she… she'd torn him away from that for the hours he spent with her.
She offered him something to drink, coffee or water, perhaps? He declined both. He sat down on her couch and smiled at her. She noted he had a package in his hands, a large, manila envelope. She asked what he had brought as she sat down across from him. He put the package on the coffee table between the couch and the armchair was sitting in.
"It's done," he told her. She reached for it and opened it. Inside was a manuscript. He grinned. "162 pages, double spaced." She pulled it out.
"I'm proud of you." The tips of his ears went red. When she met him, he didn't seem like the kind of person who wrote novels. He was too staunch, too stoic, but she discovered that beneath the standoffish personality, there was a very talented writer. When she'd left him, he told her if it snowed, he'd write a novel about her, and three inches had fallen to the ground that night. She smiled because she knew he'd follow through on it and her ego—her ego liked this man very much.
He thanked her quietly. He was a soft-spoken man, with his gentle masculinity. He never knew how much she appreciated that. In the time she knew him, he had never once raised his voice. No, she took that back. He had raised it once, as she walked off alone into the cold flurries. As she turned to go, he stood there, desperate, but still sturdy, his black coat specked with white flakes, and he'd raised his voice. I would never regret this, he called after her. Even knowing everything I know, I still would never regret this.
She had frozen. She had her secrets, but she often suspected he knew. She shuddered visibly and continued walking. He turned and walked the other way, home alone that night.
She thumbed through the pages. She skimmed exerts. Parts of it were startlingly accurate. But of course it would be—the dialogue especially. She'd thought he was being dramatic the first time he told her he remembered every word she'd ever said, but it was true that he did. It made sense too. This was a man who earned his living from data and facts and analysis, and an uncanny knack for coming up with answers for questions that there very frankly wasn't one for. Of course he would remember everything.
She glanced at the title and asked him where it came from. He gave her a straight-line smile, a grimace really. "You know," he told her, and she did. She just didn't know how he knew. But the look in his eyes told her he knew everything. Those secrets she had wondered if he had guessed the night he called after her, his eyes gently told her that yes, he knew. Even then, he knew.
"It's my greatest work of nonfiction," he told her. She winced. There were a lot of reasons she had left him, but the secret was the worst one. Of course, she also left him because when you're twenty-seven and have been dating the same person for almost two years, it's either break up or get married. She wasn't ready to be married, so she broke up with him.
She sighed softly and continued to read excerpts. Nonfiction indeed. She told him he seemed to have taken just a touch of creative license.
"Well, I had to tell a story," he told her. "And yeah, just a touch." It was a very small touch of creative license. She was annoyed that he had captured her as a character so masterfully and seemingly effortlessly. She liked to believe she was an enigma, but the truth was, she wasn't. He would tell her she was actually painfully ordinary.
"I'm glad you told a story," she told him quietly. She'd known when the flurries began falling on their way out of the shop that he would. She'd been waiting for him to come, but not… not this soon. It was still a fresh wound. Their break up was bigger than just the two of them.
"I wanted you to have a copy." He stood. She asked if she was leaving. He told her he'd planned to go Mass that evening. She raised her eyebrows in surprise.
"Since when do you go to Church?" she asked him. He hadn't in the past. Religion hadn't been much of a use for a man of letters. He'd told her that when you enter into a factual world—an entirely empirical one—religion just gets on your nerves, and more the point, the fact that you believe in it bothers you the most. She had nodded back then, like she understood. She just had her beliefs. She didn't really think about it.
"I started going a few months after you left," he said. "I needed something. So I went and I prayed, for us. About the choices we'd made. You weren't around to forgive me, and I needed something."
"What did you need to be forgiven for?" she asked, standing as well. He had a weak smile on his face.
"I cried the first time I went back," he told her softly. "For the choices we made." His voice was crisp. She knew what he was talking about. She wished he'd just say it, just get to the point, just tell her he knew—oh he knew what she had tried so hard to keep hidden from him.
He fidgeted. She stood as well. "I guess that's it," he said. He gestured to the manuscript. "I mean, I should go."
"Don't," she said, and she touched his arm. "It's been so long since I've really had a chance to talk to you."
"Yeah, well, we're both busy people, I guess," he mumbled non-committedly, as if trying to excuse it.
"I threw a party last week," she noted. "I invited you."
"You and your parties," he said, his lips twisting into a bitter, but fond smile. "Always throwing your parties to cover up the silence."
"You didn't come," she said baldly. He shrugged.
"We used each other, you know." He nodded to reaffirm his statement. "You used me in a traditional warm body, occasional laugh way, and I used you to escape myself and so I could write again. I've written a novel now. If I don't need you anymore, there's no point in me coming to your parties. Neither of us could stand it if I wasn't using you."
She felt as if he'd slapped her, or punched in the stomach. His bluntness bothered her sometimes, and this was one of them. He wasn't supposed to say that, he was supposed to dance happily around the issue, hinting at it, maybe with an elaborate allegory.
She steadied herself. "Aren't I good for anything else?" she asked him.
"Not that you'd let me have use you for." He sighed. "I used you too, because about two years ago when I met you, I was ready to love someone, someone other than myself. We both know that before you, I never loved anyone but myself, and even after you, it's still questionable. But you didn't want me to love you, you couldn't have been there that way, so what would be the point? I couldn't use you then, as much as I wanted to."
She looked down at the floor at first, then over to the coffeetable, at his manuscript. She felt stretched and weak. He noted her state and felt comforted by it, but not decidedly so. It was a weak, tasteless comfort, like tea not left on long enough. He shrugged, almost embarrassed by his honest outburst. "But anyway, it's all in there." He smiled at her. "I've so much to tell you—it's all in there."
"I have to be good for something else," she told him firmly, ignoring what he'd just said. "I use you for a lot of things. You entertain me. You comfort me. You anger me. You made me very happy. I know I've got some other use you can find." She grinned. "I miss you. You need to use me again. I know I'm bound to be good for something else."
He looked away, folding his arms in front of him. He looked back at her. "You would have been good mother for my child, but you didn't want to be that."
She stopped. Everything in her stopped and froze like it had the night she left him. Goosebumps popped up on her skin, and she couldn't meet his eyes, despite persistent attempts to.
"I wasn't ready to be," she whispered. She hadn't talked about it since she had done it. "We weren't ready to have a child."
"I was," he said firmly. "I was ready. It was my child too!" It was the second time he raised his voice to her. He softened. He looked like he might cry, really cry. He felt like sobbing. "It was mine too."
"It was my body," she said firmly. "I wasn't ready to have a child, especially not with you. I wasn't ready to marry you, or settle down with you. I'm still not ready to have a child."
"It would have been nice if you had told me," he informed her. "I know you're not required to, but it's common courtesy to let a fellow know you're carrying his baby. It would have been nice to have been told, not just find out, and then get left."
"How did you find out?" she asked him, her voice hoarse and scared.
"I found the pregnancy test," he told her. "And then you left me."
"So you did know. I was afraid you did." She shook her head in amazement and she beat him to crying. She sat back down on the sofa. He still stood. He felt stronger standing, more masculine. She held her head in her hands.
"Yeah, I knew," he said quietly. "I knew the night you left me. I knew it. I thought you were going to tell me you were pregnant. You didn't. You left. You already probably had done it." She nodded. She had to break up with him afterwards. She couldn't look him in the eye, look at him and know what she had done. She'd always been advocate for the right to choose, but she'd never envisioned having to do it herself. It had been hard. She was vaguely aware that if she had come to him, he'd have supported her, but she couldn't let him. She would have known how desperately he wanted a child, wanted one with her. He'd probably have proposed. She hadn't been ready.
"I'm sorry you found out that way," she told him, and she meant it. "I'm sorry you knew. I wish it could have gone differently. I regret it."
She looked at him and waited for him to agree, to say he had regretted it too, but he didn't. Instead he nodded dumbly, not agreeing, just acknowledging what she was saying.
"Do you regret it?" she asked him, pleading with him to.
"No," he said, in his soft, firm voice. "No, I don't regret anything that happened with you. I'd never give that time in my life up. Even knowing what I knew, I meant what I said—I'll never regret it."
"It's times like these," she said slowly, not meeting his gaze. "That I wonder if you're really too good to be true, or just a self-righteous asshole."
"It's a mixture," he admitted. "But the fact of the matter is, I still love you."
She nodded quietly. She returned the sentiment, unfortunately. This would be so much easier if she hadn't fallen for him back then. It had been easy to leave him, because she hated herself, so she'd been able to make believe she hated him.
"I realized it last night, about seven o' clock. I was at a dinner for work, and I wanted you with me." He stopped and paused. "I realized I still loved you."
"Were you alone?" Her gaze was penetrating and he knew there was a right answer and he had no clue what it was.
"No," he told her. "I've been seeing someone since you left."
"Who is she?" The question was not bitter or invasive, not even angry. It was a curiosity.
"Someone I work with. She's actually, uh, she's actually someone I knew in grad school. Dated in grad school. She had a bit of a crush on a professor and that professor had a bit of protégé and he suggested she pursue him instead so we went out for a while." He grinned. "I made her very unhappy but she liked me anyway."
"Do you love her?" He shook his head.
"No, but I'll probably make her very unhappy for a while."
"I always said you'd make someone very unhappy." She wrung her hands thoughtfully. "I thought it would be me."
"Yeah, well, I wrote you a book, so the polite thing would have been to marry me, but that's the past now." He looked away. She realized suddenly he was very sad, very distraught. He wanted her near him. She wondered why he'd been able to stay away. She sighed. He was in pain.
"Why don't you just write another novel?" she asked quietly. "One about a man who is good and so giving that he's never done with someone, that he still loves this woman who hurt him so badly."
"No one would want to read it," he said softly. He wanted to continue to tell her that more to the point, it was a subject matter with which he was unfamiliar. He was done with her. He had used her, every moment she was using him, and now… he was done. He was hurting yes, but he'd be done hurting soon.
"I wouldn't." He smoothed the front of his shirt nervously. "You know, I plan to make her very unhappy for a while. If she gets smart and dumps me, I'll look you up. But you know, I just wrote a book, I can't write another one. Not now. Not yet." She understood what he was saying. She knew his heart couldn't handle her again, the same way it couldn't handle destroying the possibility of reconciliation. She sighed.
"I'll read it, you know." He nodded. He turned to go again. "I'm sorry," she called after him.
He turned. He gave her an encouraging smile. "Yeah, me too. Wish it would have worked out differently." He shivered slightly. "I've so much to tell you, but it's all in there, you know, but I don't think I'll make Mass, and she's waiting for me afterwards."
"I'll read it," she repeated.
"I'll never regret this," he told her again. She nodded. He turned to go and she let him leave.
She picked the novel up and left the living, not so much consumed with the desire to get out of the room and escape his looming memory, as to read the novel. She would devour it, reading quickly and alone. He was off making some woman very unhappy. She smiled because she'd made him very unhappy, and he'd done the same to her. But as she began to read, she remembered his enduring love, and his quiet sadness, his stoic masculinity, and she knew he'd never regret it. She felt forgiven. That made her very happy.