She giggled for the fourth time in two minutes, eyes still glued to the smartphone in her hands. For his part, Amir did what he had always done: make a little smile, indicating amusement, as he died a little more inside. She noticed this smile once or twice. She never reacted to it, only continued to tap away at the keypad, stringing her reply.
He went and got two cups of water from the kitchen. Hers was always warm water – never outright hot or cold, but not quite room temperature either – that he had to mix water from the dispenser and kettle in an exact ratio. It was the way she liked it, and he always remembered that. He set her cup down on the coffee table before her, and she only took her eyes off the screen for a second to look at him.
“Thanks,” she said, smiling like the sun. Her fingers grazed his forearm in a gesture ambiguously hovering between friendliness and romantic intent. His heart melted a little at her touch.
She must know what she does to do me, he thought as he watched her drink from the cup. Girls were supposed to be good at picking up subtle gestures. If that was true, then she was either deliberately toying with him, or being selectively good at noticing the little nuances in people’s actions. There was no way—no way that she had not noticed the thousand-yard stare when he looked at her, with his chin rested in his hand. Or how he had been there when she broke up with David (that jerk) just earlier this year, always ready to listen to her cry on the phone, or to go mamak together to take her mind off things, or even to hang out just so she won’t have to be alone.
He even bought her chocolates on Valentine’s Day. Chocolates. On Valentine’s Day. Was it so hard to put two and two together?
She giggled again. And then came the familiar sour wrench in the middle of his chest. Still, the little smile came to his face, already a conditioned response whenever he was around her.
“Woi, who’s that lah,” he jested, raising his eyebrows at her when she looked over, “New boyfriend ah?”
“Tch, bising lah, Amir,” she said, the goofy grin lingering on her face. Her eyes and attention returned to the phone before he could say anything in response. She didn’t say no, he thought, and the corners of his mouth suddenly felt very heavy. She didn’t say no.
She didn’t say yes, another voice wrestled back with all the strength of a beetle against a boulder. It doesn’t mean anything, the voice tried again, but weaker this time. He sighed heavily, and somewhere at the bottom of his throat, something bubbled and welled.
Who was he kidding?
It had been the subject of a hundred nightmares. Seeing her walk away with her hands holding the hands of another boy, leaving him behind. They would be talking; laughing; sometimes even singing together; and he would be left behind. Forgotten. Like a second-hand car that was only useful for as long as the shiny new car took to come around; then is left alone, or sold off for the next person to make use of.
Why do I let her do this to me?
Because I love her. Because she’s important to me. Because if a guy breaks her heart, I will break his face. Because I want her to be happy, no matter what. I only want the best for her.
She laid the phone down and leaned back into the sofa cushion, sighing wistfully. There was a faraway look in her eyes. The dimple on her right cheek was sinking in, and around it her skin was turning a soft pink color. He noticed these things.
He also noticed her fingers stroking the protective cover over the back of her phone, like she was trying to wrap her fingers around a hand that wasn’t there. She made a little laugh to herself and buried her face in her hands, completely oblivious to the world around her.
He opened his mouth to say something. He wanted to tease her for her girlishness, or even poke fun at her and make her blush even harder. He wanted to go over and pry the phone from her – she would wrestle him to get it back – and see who was this fellow who was taking up all her attention. He wanted to pull her up by her hands and get her to do a crazy dance with him in the middle of her living room.
But none of these things happened. The words that were supposed to come out got caught in the middle of his throat, and a little strangled sound came out. He masked it as a cough, even holding his hand to his chest for added effect.
She looked over at him. Pearly white teeth peeked out from behind pink lips. “What? Never see people fall in love before is it?” she teased. He chuckled and waved a dismissive hand as his heart went through a blender inside his chest.
As long as she’s happy, I’m fine, the voice in his head repeated over and over. As long as she’s happy, I’m fine. As long as she’s happy, I’m fine. But honest to God, fine was the last thing he was feeling. And despite what people would tell you, repeating a lie often enough does not, even for a second, cause it to become true. And, dear Lord, he was done lying to himself. He was done playing Éponine or Sydney Carton or that guy in the E. E. Cummings poem. He was done with pretending.
“I better head home.” His voice came out in a croak, more due to his fake coughing fit than any surge of emotions. But the emotions were there, all right. “Shower, have dinner, those things,” he said.
“Please,” she held up a hand before her. “Knowing you, you’re going to end up watching cat videos on YouTube until your dinner goes cold. Don’t think I don’t know you.”
He held up both hands in mock surrender as he got up from the sofa. “You got me,” he said. “Guilty as charged, your honor. What will my sentence be?”
She grinned wide, and then her face scrunched up tightly. “You,” she said, pointing a finger and squinting at him, “Are sentenced to an hour’s conversation with me, on Skype, later at nine-thirty, my computer’s time. For every minute you’re late, an extra hour will be added to your sentence.”
He made a dramatic nod. “As you say, madam,” he said, and headed for the door – and not a second too soon. The side of his face twitched, and he felt something hot at the back of his eyes. He heard the squeak of the cushion as she got up to show him out. He waved her away without looking back.
“No need,” he kept his voice level the best he could. “I know my way out.”
He lingered at the door for a split moment. It wasn’t even enough to notice; but as he stood there, foot ready to cross the threshold, he came to the dreadful realization that there would be no turning back. Not for him.
The moment passed and, with his heart in his throat, Amir stepped beyond the door. He was out.
“See you,” she called as she closed the grill gate behind him, watching him go. Ordinarily, he would have turned back and returned a “see you soon” of his own, meaning every word of it. But this time, it was different. He was outside now. This time, he didn’t turn back, and what he said was:
And he meant it with all his heart, even as the first teardrop escaped the corner of his eye. He walked away and, somewhere terribly far away, a lone bird sang.