She took a deep breath. "You shouldn't do this, Mark. You shouldn't leave me." She kept her gaze on the counter as she spoke, allowing the pain his rejection caused her, intensified by her knowledge that she would have to acknowledge his lack of love for her to get him to stay, flooding her body, leaking salt into her eyes and forcing them to fill enough to wash that bitterness out.

'I can do this,' she thought calmingly to herself. 'I can and will convince the love of my life to settle for me. That will be enough. It has to be.' Her fingers spread on the counter top and her head bent, appreciating how those small physical expressions of her overwhelmed state helped her by acting as a drain for the pain stretching it's fingers inside her. 'A moment,' she compromised. 'One moment of weakness. That's all I need. He doesn't have to see.' She closed her eyes and inhaled silently, focusing on feeling the chemical flood of emotions burning her lungs and chest. A moment passed, and she opened her eyes.

He paused at her words, then turned to look levelly at his lover of seven months. "I don't love you, Julia. I want to, truly I do. You're beautiful and you're so patient with me, but I just don't have that in me." He watched her as she stood bent over the counter, realizing he would miss her ability to remain so still and composed as other's words and actions internally split and crushed her. No theatrics or dramatics for Julia; she accepted and processed. He wondered what she was thinking now, why she would try and convince a man who didn't love her to stay with her. He didn't understand, but in that moment he felt a tug of affection for her tasteful but blatant display of humanity. He did care for her, it just didn't seem enough to justify the pretense of love.

With compassion born of appreciation and respect he told her, "I'm sorry. I want something more. I'm going to leave." Her eyes flew from the counter top to his own and the corner of her mouth quirked up in an unhappy smile as she intoned, "No, you're not." His eyebrows shot up. "Oh?" She studied him.

Now he was interested. Julia had that effect on him. Carefully, so as to avoid his question being interpreted as heartless, he asked, "May I ask why you would want me to stay when I've told you I can't love you?" Her quirked mouth turned into a full-on grin. Mark admired the contrast of her smile and the tears pooled in her eyes. 'But,' he realized, 'it's not really a contrast with her. Those eyes and that smile fit together. There's too much sadness in her happiness for there to be no tears in her smiles.'

She walked around the counter towards him, and leaned against it. She crossed her arms and queried, "Darling, don't you wonder why you've stayed with me so long?"

"Well," he replied, "I stayed because you interest me in a way no one else does. I like you, and thought if I had a chance at love it'd be with you. You're everything I admire and want, and I respect and care for you. I simply don't love you." His eyes fell from hers and his teeth toyed with a lower lip. Frustration, she noted.

Determined to keep a calm and hypothetical tone, she began speaking. "So you don't love me. You don't love anyone, Mark; you don't think you're capable. Christ, I mean, whenever I listen to Morrissey and hear "and if the day came when I felt a natural emotion, well I'd get such a shock I'd probably jump in the ocean", I always think of you. Do you think it's possible for you to care for anyone more than you care for me?" She cocked her head as she waited for a response.

"That doesn't mean I don't want to try for it." His voice was rough.

"Have you stopped looking for it since we've been together? Have you denied yourself the possibility of finding that with someone else?" He watched her silently for a few moments before replying coldly, "You know the answer to that."

"Then you're not being rational." She didn't let any emotion show in response to this newest blow.

A dinner they'd shared months past came spontaneously to her mind. He had ordered salad, she a steak. She remembered how beautiful she thought it that gender role reversals meant nothing to him, how he simply did not understand that he wasn't care about petty stereotypes or worry about how he would be perceived if he failed to fit them. He didn't even see what he was, what he was doing merely by being himself. She had wondered how disgusted he would be with her if he knew exactly how much of her behavior was tempered by her concern of another's opinion.

She had fallen even more in love with him that night, and the evening had been woven with symbolic perfection, every exchange charged with her anxiety and infatuation. Now, she wondered if he had been looking at the waitress for signs of connection while she fell even more deeply in love, the other patrons for some clue of potential while she marveled at the behaviors that came so naturally to him.

She decided it didn't matter. She couldn't have had that night with anyone else, nor could she in the future. He was perfection to her, and she was ruined for anyone else. 'Being able to experience what I feel when I'm with him trumps any other option I might have. I could find someone who treats me better, but why? I love him. I could find someone who cares about me more, but I wouldn't feel this. This is worth everything.'

She continued. "Stay with me, because you care for me. If one day you find the great passion you've been waiting for with someone else, then leave me. Until then, stay because I'm the person you like most in the world. Stay because of what we have. Don't abandon what we share for something that doesn't currently exist for you."

His expression revealed nothing. "But is that fair to you, Julia?"

"Are you going to sacrifice us, our dynamic that you find so much pleasure in because you're concerned about me? That's not you, darling. You're much too selfish for that. But, just to cover propriety: let me worry about me. I'm a big girl and all that." She waited. He did nothing. "You don't have to love me. I'm selfish too; your feelings don't matter all that much. I just want to love you. Stay, and get the most you can. Stay, and let me indulge." Her eyes were pleading him to do or say anything, to give her something to go off.

He shoved his hand into the pocket of his jeans and leaned against the arm of the couch. "You don't care that I don't love you?" His question was disbelieving. She took a breath and looked down. With an effort, she replied, "I can't not care. I wish you did. I can't tell you-" she broke off, blinking back tears and tightening her jaw. "But it won't factor in. You enjoy talking with me, sleeping with me, confiding in me. Our relationship is intimate and love isn't absent. For now, until and if there's more you might be able to have, won't you stay?"

He stood and walked to her, hugging her body to his. He smelled the relaxing, familiar scent of her shampoo and hugged her even more tightly. Her hands slid across his back, grasping his body to hers. "You know," he whispered, "if I loved you anymore than I do, I'd leave you. You're torturing yourself. You deserve more than this. You deserve the world."

She smiled into his chest. "I deserve to love. That you just said that means more to me than any love declaration I've ever or could possibly ever receive." They held one another silently for a while, Julia absorbing everything she could in the moment, Mark thinking over his choices.

He remembered the night they met. It was the openness in her expression, the vulnerability she seemed unconscious of wearing that compelled him to speak to her. She'd been so out-of-place in that bar. He recalled thinking, as he walked towards her, that someone was going to hurt her very badly one day. Five months into their relationship he told her this, thinking she would be amused; it hadn't been long after introducing himself that he realized she was no ingenue. Instead of laughing, she had withdrawn from him and gave him a questioning look. "What?" he had asked. He remembered her forced laughter. The self-derogatory comment she had made.

'I hurt her, so maybe I should give her what she wants. But she would be more hurt if I stayed when I wanted to leave, lying about my desires, and that would be a betrayal of both myself and what I do have with her. I care for her too much to lie to her in such a basic way.

But I don't care for her enough to leave if it's in my best interest to stay. She's right; I do feel more with her than with anyone. I won't have to act, not that I ever did such a good job of that. And... she'll keep her word if I find something more elsewhere. She's too proud to not, and she does love me. She loves me. I can find validation in that fact, rather than the usual annoyance I feel when others feel for me. That says something.

Perhaps I should be selfless and go. Maybe I do care for her enough to deny myself, if I decide it's best for me to stay. She deserves someone to love her. But, then, that's her decision.'

They waited there together, Julia bearing the weight of her emotions and Mark bearing the weight of his thoughts, each equally burdened. Time slipped by. Pulses quickened and slowed. Resolves formed and were aborted. No good choices appeared.

Mark pushed away and uttered honestly to Julia, "I don't know what to do."

That sentence took on form and hung in the room, reiterating itself like an echo with every further moment of quiet. She licked her bottom lip, felt chemicals burn her eyes, and pulled his forehead to hers. "Stay," she whispered, the word thick with feeling. "If you're ambivalent, then stay. Because I'm not ambivalent. I know what I want, and that's you. That's us."

She took him by his hand and led him to the sofa. They sat; she turned on the television. A character made a joke and neither of them laughed. He put his arm around her. She leaned against him. Another joke was made; they acknowledged it with a forced smile and breath of laughter. One of the characters failed charmingly at a pick-up; they both laughed. Mark remarked, "You know it's television when drinks are priced that cheaply." Julia elbowed him playfully in the gut. He caught her hand and kissed it. The television played on.