She was younger, much younger, but felt a lot older – in the way she spoke, in her silences. We met for coffee, late one night. She ordered tea. We hadn’t seen each other until then, but neither of us was disappointed. There were no sparks, no obvious undercurrents, but we couldn’t look at each other very long. We averted our gazes quickly, each time it became longer than was acceptable at a first meeting. We talked about books, and more books. And work. And random bits of our lives that were benign enough to share with strangers.
The coffee place began to close its doors and we decided to walk. We walked toward her apartment, just a few blocks away. We reached her gate, and since we’d already discussed in glorious detail how we each liked our chai, she asked if I’d like to come up for a cuppa. I hesitated. Was this all going too fast?
She made chai the way I liked it. I sat in a neat, tight coil on the edge of her bed; she on a chair, three feet away. We spoke about our families. I tried to plumb her depths, to peep in without being intrusive. Her hair kept falling across her face as she spoke, and I had to stop myself from reaching out and pushing it back so I could see her eyes. Each time I felt the urge, I’d look away at the books on her table or up at the corners where the ceiling met the walls. It was like she had this cocoon around her, an invisible shield with a ‘keep out’ sign. And the slightest touch, deliberate or unintentional, might have been jarring. A reasonable amount of conversation later, I uncoiled myself and stood up to go home. It was 3am.
I’m not sure precisely when I began to care, or why: to care if she’d eaten, to care if she was working late, to care if she needed a ride home, to care if she wanted to be left alone. There were long silences between one text message and the next, one phone call and the next. I suggested meeting a few times, but she was too busy, mostly, and perhaps a little uncertain – she seemed to be juggling a fistful of wanting and a sackful of apprehensions.
We chatted quite often, online. And spoke on the phone sometimes. I understood her work. She was stressed out and too busy to spend time with me. I didn’t mind. I didn’t expect regularity. She’d call sometimes, late at night after she got home… or sometimes in the evenings, as she stood outside her office, smoking. I failed to notice when her voice became a drug, and I when I got addicted. That voice… heavy with things unspoken but vaguely suggested… drawn out lazily, threatening to unhinge my mind with its sheer languor, barely concealing the tautness with which she held herself in.
I asked her out again a couple of times, but she was too busy. So I let her be. I was drawn to her, but not desperate. A few days later, she called and asked if I’d like to meet. It was a relaxed, fun evening. We had a few drinks, chatted a lot, got just a wee bit high. We walked up to her apartment and said good night.
I didn’t know where it was going, and the mixed vibes weren’t helping. I was always turned on by intelligence, and when it comes packaged in a voice like that… serious trouble. I wanted to look deeper into those eyes and see what lay behind, to hear what they weren’t telling me. It was attraction driven by curiosity more than physical desire. I had no agenda and was happy to go with the flow. But she wasn’t. She needed time, but that didn’t mean time would help. It didn’t mean time would bring her around. I could tell she liked me, but she wasn’t ready to give precious time to anything new, not even to give it a chance. I don’t know if I understood, or pretended to, but I decided to let go. We didn’t meet again, or even speak.
Somewhere between then and now, it dawned on me that those nicotine-edged conversations were like the ad breaks in her life… the sounds I made were just enough to fill the vague empty spaces in her that the smoke couldn’t reach. Those cigarettes fared better. Each tasted a bit of her. Each left a bit of itself behind – in her breath, on her lips, in her hair, on her fingertips – while I remained a voice outside the ring, forgotten as she dueled with herself… too far to touch her, and perhaps, too willing to matter.