So. Turns out this chapter needed not just an edit, but some serious re-writing in places. Guess that's what I get for writing the first draft while sick :P
I hope you've continued to enjoy your new year :)
His hands are shoved into his pockets. I imagine his forefinger, tracing and retracing the cuticle of his thumb. That is the only sign of the posture I am used to. The rest of Paul has retained those rigid lines of formality. He looks like someone who has worked himself up too much over a job interview. All except for his eyes, which I can't hold for long.
I wait for him to start. It seems only fair, since he is the one on my doorstep.
When he does though, it is hardly satisfactory: "Hi, Melanie."
My hand tightens on the doorframe. A feeling that is like lightheadedness cycles through my whole body and makes my knees bend.
I intend to reply shortly, to ask why he is here in a frank way what would match the tension left between us. It is far worse than what I imagined when I thought I might try to reach out over the phone. I try to be abrupt, but there is something else that takes over before I can put my feigned indifference into action.
"Paul, I…I didn't think I'd see you again." I stumble over the words, pushing them past the heartbeat that has lodged in my throat.
Paul acknowledges this with a nod, but does not ask whether this is a good thing or a bad one.
He pauses. I let the silence stand because he is clearly gathering his words. This is excellent, since I can't find enough words to necessitate any gathering.
"I probably should have called," he begins. "I wasn't sure you'd answer."
It is my turn to nod. I can't do more, because I'm not sure either.
"I just…don't like where we left off. And," he stops abruptly, shakes himself, brings himself back to the original topic. "Things didn't go the way I expected, and I behaved badly. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize for that," I interject. "I didn't exactly use up my reservoir of grace."
Paul smiles dimly, an impulse rather than a genuine reaction.
"In any case, I just wanted to clear that up. I hope that's okay."
I breathe out in relief. This, at least, I'm unequivocally glad to share. "I've been wanting that too. I'm glad you came to do it. You're braver than I am."
"I had good motivation to be brave."
He looks me up and down, thoroughly, obviously. There is no mistaking his meaning. Against all odds, against the entirety of my history, even against my own designs, he has come back to see me.
"Paul," I begin, hardly aware of my own thoughts. He's surprised me so thoroughly, none of my faculties have had the chance to catch up.
My tone must be severe, though, because Paul pulls back.
"Oh," he says. "I'm sorry, were you in the middle of something? I didn't mean to interrupt."
I'm confused until I realize that he's commenting on my appearance, not my tone. I look down at myself and see what he must be seeing. The knees and shins of my sweatpants are soaked, clinging to my legs in a way that reveals the shapes sweats usually hide. My right sleeve is wet all the way up to my shoulder and my hands are dirty from wrestling with the valve. I wouldn't be surprised if I've smeared some of the dirt onto my face. I already know that my hair seems electrified in its makeshift bun, because I never bothered to try and tame it today.
"Oh yeah," I say, remembering in that moment that I really had been dealing with something. "It's not anything I want to be doing. You caught me in the middle of a plumbing crisis."
He winces. "Not too bad, I hope."
"It's not fun, but it seems manageable. I thought you were the Super, actually, but as usual, he's letting me fend for myself."
"We're not exactly best buds."
This time, Paul's grin is more natural. This is the most uncomfortable we've ever been around each other, and it's still easy to talk to him.
"Need any help?"
The question hangs there, deceptive in its innocence. It has nothing to do with my bathroom. If I tell him no, he will walk away and that really will be that. He'll leave, I'll have the closure I wanted, and I'll go back to my stretch of endless, meandering days.
Paul is trying to keep his expression neutral, but his mouth is turned decidedly downward. I know him. Despite everything I've put him through, I know what he wants my answer to be. I listen carefully, but my internal alarm has gone silent. Which is good, because I don't think I can bear to disappoint him again.
I breathe deeply, and the oxygen sparks the embers that I had thought were dead inside me.
"Sure," I answer casually. "I could use a hand."
I peel my fingers off of the doorframe and move aside. Paul, still cautious, but decidedly brighter, follows my unspoken invitation and steps inside.
I watch him as he crosses my threshold and sweeps his eyes around my apartment. I wish that we could have tried to reconcile our parting in a way that might let me feel less vulnerable. With him standing among my possessions, it's hard to pretend that I'm content with simply redoing our goodbye. But that is what makes sense. It is the smart thing. I lock my doubts away and prepare for this to be our last interaction.
Paul graciously ignores the mess on my table and asks, "Which way?"
"Hold on," I answer, and give myself a minute to gather my resolve by heading not toward the bathroom, but the kitchen. Around the corner where he can't see me, I let out the tremor that's been building in me since I opened the door. As collected as I'm ever going to be, I bring down the toolbox from the top of my refrigerator and walk back towards him.
Paul eyes the tools warily as he gets his first idea of what needs to be done, and then follows me at a respectful distance to the bathroom.
When I see it all again, I can't help but groan. "What a mess." It looks even worse now, with my clothes strewn everywhere and Paul staring with me.
"At least it's clean water," he remarks. "Better than a sewage leak."
I shudder at the idea. "If it was a sewage leak, I'd be finding a hotel."
We share a brief look, and I know that we are both thinking of his question about dirty restaurants. Paul is the first one to remember what followed that particular conversation, and he breaks contact.
"Where's the trouble?"
I hold in a sigh with difficulty. "Under the sink."
Back to business, I put the toolbox on top of the closed toilet lid and kneel back down. I reach under the sink again, retrying the valve, but my still throbbing hand makes it even harder to get a good grip.
"Let me try?" Paul requests. He sounds hesitant, and, though I can't blame him, I lament the loss of his usual easygoing style.
When I don't move right away, Paul edges closer. "Let me help," he insists. "Once you pull out the tools, I'm going to be useless."
I relent, moving aside so that Paul can squeeze his arm under the sink.
I don't like the subsequent silence, which is heavy and tense between us, so I say: "Not much of a handyman?"
"No," Paul answers, grunting with the effort and his awkward position. "I can wield a screwdriver like nobody's business, but that's about it." A pause, long enough that I don't expect more, and then, "You?"
"I know how to take care of things when I have to. My mom raised me to be pretty self-sufficient."
Paul makes a noise that I could swear is a humored chuckle, but the wrenching noise of the valve covers it up before I can comment. Paul's muscles flex impressively, and the sound of the running water finally stops.
"There," he says with satisfaction, pulling himself free. "That should make your life a little easier."
"Thanks," I acknowledge, and we trade places.
Before I can even think of what needs to be done next, I feel the tapping of a solid object at my shoulder.
"Here," Paul offers.
I turn and see him, cross legged on the floor, holding out my cheerful polka dotted trashcan.
Unwillingly, I look at what's left of what I'd been storing in the cabinet. Paul is right; the only option is the trash. He holds the can for me as I toss my entire supply of toilet paper, a roll of paper towels, and the mushed remains of a cardboard box that holds a few sanitary products not worth trying to save. In the very back is a ruined box of old hair accessories that will need to be gone through with the rest of the items I'm trying to purge.
That done, I choose a wrench from the toolbox and use it to first loosen, then reset the joint that is causing the problem. The threads are bare, and I can only get them to catch with some ancient plumber's tape lodged at the bottom of the toolbox. Throughout the process, Paul hands me what I need and holds what I don't with an almost telepathic precision. I do a better job than is probably necessary, since the whole thing is going to have to come apart again. Still I'm proud when, at the end, I am able to turn the water back on. It stays in the pipe, which I consider no small victory.
"Got it," I declare. "That piece will need to be replaced, but the Super can handle that."
Sore from my strange position, I sit against the wall a little way down from Paul. I indulge in a moment with my eyes closed, glad to be past the latest obstacle. In my makeshift bubble, I can clearly feel Paul's close presence. He is impossible to ignore. It is so obvious that I have to open my eyes to break the feeling.
When I do, I lock gazes with Paul. His chilly reserve has dissipated, and I notice that, though I'm spread out in my dirty bathroom, I'm more comfortable than I have been in what feels like a long while.
"Do you have a bucket or something?" Paul asks in a seeming non-sequitur.
"What do you mean?"
"Something to collect the wet stuff. And maybe a mop so we can fix the floor?"
I raise an inquisitive eyebrow at him, because there is something else in his expression.
"Nothing. I'm just trying to help. I know it's bothering you."
It is bothering me, but my guilt makes me grimace rather than smile at his personal assessment. "I'm not sure I deserve that. Considering."
"Melanie," he says, and my whole body might as well have received an electric shock. "I don't care what happened last time. That's not why I'm here."
The stress of having him here finally spills over. Our task is done, which means there's no more shield between us and the real issues. I can't go on pretending I'm indifferent, and it comes out in a biting comment. "Then why are you here, Paul? I appreciate the help, but you already apologized, and you didn't come here to mop up my bathroom."
"I came because I've been thinking about you."
The words are blunt, but I imagine them with a razor tip. They pierce through me, setting a fire as they go.
Paul looks down at his hands, clasped together over his knees. His position tells me the truth: whatever anger I invoked has been gone for a long time. "I know we only just met. But the time without you just hasn't felt the same. I missed talking to you."
Unwittingly, I flash through my week. The colors are washed out, the memories slow and claustrophobic. This moment holds more spirit than all of them combined and I know exactly why. I've known my remedy to my stupor the entire time.
Paul continues before I can even attempt to join in. "That seemed like a lot to give up on a whim. So I came to ask if you'd be willing to reconnect. Just as friends, if that's what you need. I won't pretend I wouldn't like more. But anything is better than nothing. If all you want to do is talk and hang out, that's fine with me."
I swallow deeply, gulping down his words. I imagine this is what it feels like to find water in a desert.
"You'd do that?" I shudder out. "For me?"
"No need to sound so incredulous, Melanie. A lot of people would."
I shake my head. He can't possibly know how rare he is, and I'm too embarrassed to tell him. How am I supposed to share this with him, when I can't even acknowledge it for myself, when I'm still waiting for the joke? By now Paul looks like the man I've grown used to smiling with. The rigid lines are totally gone. But while he is bent towards me, his feet point towards the door, as if eager to flee. My mind wars with itself as it tries to reconcile his truth and my experience.
"Either way," Paul says, exasperated with what I'm sure he views as my stubbornness. "That's why I came. What do you think?"
But I can't think. Every part of me has locked. I can only go back to that night after the bookstore, to the surety I felt then that it wasn't only my past that made this so unique. It would be easy, so easy, to fall for him. In truth, I am falling already. Only the strength of my will keeps me upright, gripping onto the certainty that this can't work, not really. That I will be left in pieces.
Paul takes in my silence, and I watch him deflate in increments. His eyes are sad, but resigned. He moves away from me.
I wait until he is pushing his body up from the floor, until I have a clear image of him walking out the door and never coming back. My paralysis breaks. My resolve shatters. My pulse quickens and my ears hum with a familiar wailing noise. It is the exact same alarm that made me pull away in the bookstore, the same instinct of self-preservation.
I am already in pieces.
I have one chance to stitch myself back together.
I let go.
Before Paul can rise, I reach out and grab his hand. It is exactly the declaration I knew it would be. His palm is softer than I imagined, the fingers strong; they curl between mine and rest there. The alarm stops. I don' t need it anymore. His hand in mind tells me more than all of my thinking and overthinking ever could.
"Stay," I murmur. "Please."
Paul settles back in, surprise giving way to acceptance. He does not let go of my hand. He is very close again, close enough for me to see the faint lines that the day has etched into the corners of his eyes. I recognize the smell of his aftershave from the confinement of his car.
It is my turn to confess. It comes out of me slowly, inner feelings unused to seeing the light of day.
"I don't know how to be just friends with you. That's why I left. I'm sorry."
"If we're moving too fast—."
"No," I cut him off. "I don't know….how these things are supposed to work." It is the closest I can come to admitting the full truth, but I see by Paul's surprise that he understands my meaning. I grip his hand tighter, because he's just proved my point before I've even stated it. "But I know we make a good team," I gesture perfunctorily around the bathroom. "We're on the same page. The way we're moving seems natural."
The weight on my chest is huge as I come to the point at last. "You scare the hell out of me, Paul. Always have."
Absurdly, Paul smiles. It is the unrestricted smile, the one that spares no room for embarrassment. I've missed it. "Good," he says. "I thought it was just me."
His expression passes to me like a contagion. Warmth floods through me. It starts at my fingertips, where they meet the ridged back of Paul's hand, and travels along my body in a languorous wave. I melt, letting it overtake me, trusting that when I reform, I will be made stronger. I'm unaware that I am crying until Paul reaches up to wipe my tears away.
I want to say something, but find we are past words. When the intensity comes into his eyes again, I do not pull away. I do not listen for alarms. I hold his gaze for as long as possible, noting the kindness there, the softness, seeing a friend. I am not falling alone.
Again, Paul pauses at the last moment. The heat of his breath ripples across my nose. He is waiting for me. I close my eyes and close the distance. Our lips meet.
When I'd fantasized, there were fireworks, hands exploring, breathless whispers. Things I'd seen on T.V. and imagined to be the truth because I had no other basis on which to judge. The reality is soft and quiet. The fantasy can't describe how his mouth feels under mine, supple and willing. It doesn't know that Paul tastes a little like coffee and that it makes me smile because I know why. It can't express the part of my mind that feels free, unchained, comforted. For once, I am not defined by my past or crippled by my future. All that matters is now. I have never felt more like myself.
At length, we pull apart. I open my eyes onto a world that is brand new. Paul exists in it, shining brightly.
"Okay?" he asks, the word travelling between us on a gust of possibility.
"Yes," I answer. I do not have to consider.
Paul leans back and there is a distinct squelching noise as he puts his free hand down. Amused, he picks up an unformed mass of wet fabric, dangling it between us. I laugh. There is little else I can do.
"Come on," he says. "Let's finish up."
It sounds like something that would ruin the atmosphere, but it doesn't. We transition seamlessly from our intimate moment to a more practical activity. I get my laundry basket and we take turns throwing handfuls of my dirty clothes into it. I find a mop and a scrub brush and we clean up the water and the stains. Together we fix the mess.
Note: This will likely be the last chapter for a while. I've had some stylistic plans that need re-working, and I'd like to get them completely clarified (and the new chapters that fall into that style choice totally written out) before I move forward.
I hope you've enjoyed these first chapters, and I'll see you soon :)