She stood at his front door, heart pounding with anticipation, all her buried volcanoes emitting alarming signs of imminent and simultaneous eruption. Her breathing was shallow and quick, making her feel light headed and slightly ill. It didn't help that she hadn't eaten anything all day. She simply couldn't. Yet at the same time she was exhilarated, and determined to confront. Above her, a crescent moon angled itself perilously against the pale blue of an early evening sky. She felt clouds of despair gathering about her, threatening to obscure and destabilise.
'God help me.' she pleaded under her breath. She bit her lower lip till it hurt, adjusted her dress yet again, and struck the white wooden door twice, sharply, with the faded brass knocker. Before she could run away, the locks turned from within, and the door swung wide open to reveal his wide, beaming smile.
She stifled a gasp at the blueness of his eyes, and the slightly tousled hair, freshly fluffy from his shower. The late evening sun streaming in from the garden door behind him bathed him in a warm glow. Something burst its bounds deep within her. She was sure that if she spoke, something sulphuric would pour out of her mouth.
'Hiya!' he laughed softly, a little nervously she thought. 'He's acting like nothing has happened in all this time.' It struck him afresh how small she looked in the door frame, and how deliciously fragile in that little flippy blue dress that he always liked. Of course, she'd worn it deliberately for him. She stepped wordlessly into the small entrance hallway and was immediately enveloped in his deep embrace. She struggled to keep herself perfectly still, tiptoeing upwards to meet his towering height, and hoped he couldn't feel her thumping heart. By now it was threatening to bust her right open as she hovered in that timeless space within his arms, her face pressed against the damp hollow of his neck. One by one, the stars outside crept out stealthily from behind the curtain of deepening dusk, jostling for position as they made their timid debut for the night.
'Oh God don't lose it; not just yet!' she chided herself, but with less conviction than she liked. She dared to inhale a little, recognizing the scent of his soap. Unknown to her, he too was secretly breathing her in. She always reminded him of the fields of wild flowers he'd walked through as a boy, when his father would take him with his brothers on nature trails, pointing out to them each distinctive call of the birds in the woods. She was so cold to the touch, he wanted desperately to keep her against his body, to warm her up. He felt the old familiar stirring within himself that she inevitably caused. But something about her was a little different tonight. Her stillness stopped his hugging. Pulling back and giving her a quick study before he released her, he fumbled for the right words.
'So how are you?'. The words ricocheted between the walls in the hallway, like misfired bullets. Both of them ducked the threatened impact.
It was so much warmer inside his house than outside, even though the day had been a scorcher. It felt stifling. She didn't look up at him, or reply. It was uncharacteristic and drew a half laugh from him, inappropriately, and they both faltered uneasily for a moment. The grandfather clock struck a single bong, out of time, making them both jump. At that she turned her back on him and walked into the front lounge, plopping down her handbag on the small chair, as she always did. She didn't see him slump; it was as if she'd slapped him instead of hugged him. He knew that she had every cause.
'Something to drink?' He was fast running out of ammo.
'I'm cold. Do you have herbal?' She made herself say something, anything, as long as it was about nothing. Relieved, he brushed quickly past her into the kitchen to put the kettle on.
She followed him, deliberately slowly, and hovered just inside the kitchen door, watching him as he reached for the box of peppermint tea. He looked flushed, and thinner, she thought; and probably tired from the day's work. In a certain light she could see the dark striations across his brow which hinted at his broodings. It had been five months since they last saw each other, and in all that time he never once made contact, or responded to her desperate messages. Eventually loyal friends and ignominy had forced her to stop, and her half hearted texts fizzled out like a dying comet. She was gutted by his sudden and unexplained abandonment. Beyond the window the sun was trying to go down; it was still strong and seemed reluctant to descend any lower than it had half an hour ago. Everything here was crying out for some sort of closure, she thought. It had taken all her courage to arrange this meeting, and she was surprised he'd agreed.
Taking in an inaudible breath of air, she forced herself to open her mouth a second time.
'So how's things with you?' There. She'd let him get away with murder again, as she always did.
He looked up from stirring tea, half shrugged, and launched gratefully into a re-run of his day. It turned into an account of the last months, backtracking into events that she'd already heard about when they were last together. Somehow as he was describing everything, they'd retraced their footsteps into the lounge, carefully avoiding any physical contact as they squeezed past furniture, and settled themselves at either ends of the long sofa by the bay window. 'At least we're sitting on the same sofa,' she told herself, 'and not on separate chairs like last time.' She winced deeply at the memory of how hurt she'd been when he'd pushed her off his lap and stood up, so she couldn't snuggle into him. It had been a very bad night in every way and ended with her leaving, driving home in the small hours, crying all the way. He'd then retreated into his man cave for weeks after that.
'Yes I remember you telling me that,' she said. Without even realising it, she'd kicked off her shoes as she normally did, tucked her tiny feet under herself, and curled up against the arm rest as she hugged her mug of tea. She didn't want to drink it; she just needed something to hold so her hands wouldn't fidget. Or creep into his in a moment of weakness. She remembered the advice from a trusted ally who knew she was meeting him that evening: "Just be yourself!" So she didn't rant, didn't bite or scratch, or look for something to smash. She merely started to tell him everything that she'd been up to, but as if she was doing the weather report, and still avoiding his eyes as she did so. She knew though, that he was looking at her, that she was defenceless as his gaze wandered all over her, taking in every detail as she spoke: the gesturing of her hands, her jet black hair framing flawless skin and large, expressive eyes. She betrayed all her emotions in those eyes, but she never knew that. It was what had alternately moved him and wounded him.
Over the rim of his coffee mug he registered how tightly she was curled up in her corner, and this wide distance from him on the sofa; she was like a wound up coil that was going to spring any moment. It unsettled him, hot drinks and innocuous chat notwithstanding. With a pang his eyes rested on the curve of her collar bone; he longed to reach out and trail his finger along it as he used to, draw invisible lines across her delicate frame. She was burbling softly on about her work. He'd heard every word, but his mind was on her mouth, her luminescent skin - how they felt against him when she was soft and yielding. Right now, she was anything but that, brittle was the closest word to describe her state of mind. He blamed only himself, and the guilt sank like liquid metal into the pit of his stomach, leaving a taste of rust at the back of his throat. Her eyes flashed once in a while when she forgot herself and raised them to meet his.
'Come on; let your guard down,'he urged silently.
Knowing that there was an undercurrent of other emotions running beneath their few words for each other, she eventually fell silent. The grandfather clock in the hall creaked and they held their breath, waiting for another ill-timed bong. It never came. They had always been able to talk to each other, and until now, she had never held back from expressing the quirky but endearing jumble from her heart and mind, knowing that he listened, and was captivated. As a couple their orbits had so aligned that they saw things,and especially people, through the same eyes. It was what made them fall for the other in the first place. So this silence, even when disguised behind a barrage of everyday words, was a complete travesty in their world. She was confounded by their failure to succeed; he knew only regret in how he had sabotaged every opportunity for them to remain together.
She peered into her peppermint, and for a moment he thought she resembled that small Oriental rabbit baying at the moon, because he could almost see her twitch her nose in an attempt to divine where lightning would flash in the darkening skies above. Here it comes, he thought, bristling instinctively but hiding his quills as quickly and best he could.
'So where were you all this time? What was all this about? I thought you said I was important to you. What does that mean, 'important'? I thought you said you wanted me in your life. Did you mean anything you've said to me?'
The words tumbled out, like the whiplash of a fishing rod - you could almost hear the snap of the wrist as the line was cast out and the fly sink deep into fast running waters. The release ought to have felt better for both of them, but it seemed only to heighten the tension. The hook demanded a bite.
The sun suddenly set, as though night had got fed up with waiting, opened her mouth and just swallowed him up for her tea. So the land was immediately overcome by darkness, and the stars moved a little more boldly in their gambit for dominance. Somewhere towards the east, there was a crack of thunder, heralding a rift in the heavens and the shadow of a storm. Inside the house, there was a distinct chill settling in the front room; he couldn't tell whether it was emanating from her heart, or his own. But knowing he'd been subpoenaed for an answer, there was now nowhere to escape to. In the growing dimness of the room, he finally capitulated.
'You know that each time we get close, my instinct is to run. I'm sorry. I don't blame you for being angry with me.'
A first hint of lightning flashed in the distance. One Mississippi. The moon wisely gathered up the skirt of clouds about her, and hid her face. Only the evening star refused stubbornly to exit, stage left. It's not you; it's me. It was basically that: a typical guy admission of his inability to commit to a relationship. Why not call a spade a spade, she thought with barely concealed irritation. Two Mississippi. Her tummy growled, but not with hunger. Fuming dangerously, she pondered how that answer used to suffice, and how it was no longer enough. She knew,and he knew, that with each retelling of this same emotional impasse, the distance between them would continue to grow, because each fresh wounding of her heart would make it harder for him to believe in her forgiveness.
But she was born to be expansive in spirit. All she could do was look at him, her sloe eyes limpid with pain. Three Mississippi. Silently, she watched him finally take the bait.
'You must know that I never meant to hurt you.'
A huge clap of thunder roared just as her first tears fell. She flicked them away impatiently, and shuffled awkwardly in the dent that she had by now made in his sofa.
'What are you doing?' he said softly, watching her struggle to regain her balance and decorum, a smile slowly creeping upon his lips. She was so funny when she was flustered. His heart cracked wide open; he knew he could never resist her for long.
'I've fallen into a hole in your sofa...' she remonstrated, like a small girl, sinking even deeper into the crater she'd created. Huge tears rolled uncontrollably down her cheeks as he melted into gentle laughter.
'Will you stop fidgeting, and come over here?'. She paused to consider his half opened arms. Above them, the constellations clicked into place just at that moment, and despite the outburst further below the cloud line, the stars finally shone with all their given glory. In an instant, she had crawled over towards him, and fallen against his waiting chest. They sat like that for a long while, exhausted by their non-fight, listening to the gentle patter of soft rain upon the pavement outside. It was receding as quickly as it had begun and soon all would be still, and dry, again.
She didn't know how to reconcile the growing aridness of her heart with her undeniable need for his touch. She only knew that she was desperately hungry for him and would remain so for the rest of her life, even though he was flawed and injured. And despite his ruthless cruelty each time he ran away from her. She had come to question her own motives: was she destined to be drawn to wounded souls? But that night, she didn't want to think; she was just too tired. So she stayed, nestled against him in the dark, listening to his occasional snoring, and the overnight freight trains rumbling past outside his window. She resolved again to take lightly his new promises - well, they were the same old ones that he hadn't kept last time he pledged them. But she told herself to hope; maybe this time? Unable to sleep, she'd peered through the net curtains: it was a moonless night afterall, and only small pinpricks of stars reeled in the deep black sky. She sighed, and tried not to think beyond the next morning, when she knew he would be silent and strange with her again.
Turning away from her soft, warm body, he chased his dream of wild meadows, and the path that would lead him away from the prison where he was the only inmate, and the key to which he held in his own hands. As he fell into a deeper level of slumber, his last conscious thought was how he wouldn't be able to sustain this level of openness with her, but that he was grateful for how she allowed him to lose himself with her in such moments. He longed for someone to take the key from his hands: it weighed a ton in his dream.
Very early the next morning, before the world stirred awake, the planet Venus was spied by only a vigilant few to have tracked its steadfast path across the surface of the Sun. Had flesh eyes been able to zoom in closer, they would have seen a veil of condensation swirling round her like the train of a jilted bride. It is said that she will not return for some time to come.