You have never been bold. It is a statement, a fact, something all-encompassing and universal. You are bright enough to realize its validity, and to recognize your own inherent lack of drive to confront it. It was true when you were six and will just as true when you’re eighty, and there is little to nothing you can truly do to mend it, if it is a problem at all.
It’s okay, you justify. You’re not bold, unable to say what is in your heart and on your mind, but you are kind, and can make good chocolate chip cookies, and you’re good enough at English that people pay you to help edit their essays – which makes you a little uncomfortable, because that might be illegal, or at least against university policy, but Whole Foods’ bread is expensive and you are weak in the face of good food.
She makes you wish you were bold. She was in your required physics class your last semester of freshman year, and might as well be the only reason you passed. She is studying applied math, and talks about calculus in a way that most people use for poetry, literature, or really good cups of coffee. She seems profoundly aware by the lack of women in her major at your school, and wears her pride at her skills in math with a sort of prickly defensiveness that makes you suspect that someone, somewhere, has tried to make her feel bad for being who she is.
She found you frustrated and terrified after the first physics midterm, faux-leather jacket collar flat against your neck in a feeble attempt to stop rain from dribbling down your already scared-sweat drenched back, talking to your befuddled mother on the phone and trying not to cry. You were going to fail, you were sure. Math and science and anything real had never been your strong point – more of your older brother’s, who got a scholarship to learn how to make rockets. If a psychologist chatted with you, they might say it’s the fear of competing with your sibling that scares you away from the sciences. They might be right.
She was quiet – so silent that you did not notice her at all until you hung up the phone and wiped at your dribbling nose. You almost screamed when she asked if you were feeling all right. No, you said, and she said, I’ll tutor you.
Your hackles had risen, and your pride had surged up, and you opened your mouth to tell her to just go away, you’ll be fine.
Growing up, you hated the “love at first sight” trope. Overdone, overblown, overused, unrealistic – there were many reasons to despise it, you thought. You were rational, logical, too smart for the nonsense of love at first sight. Love was based on personality compatibility and years of affection and knowledge about the other – the idea that it could be instantaneous was almost insulting.
Except then she smiled, and maybe you could understand why people wrote about love at first sight.
Besides not being bold, you are also remarkably easy when people with lovely smiles aim those smiles at you. Hers was particularly nice.
She had freckles, and little wrinkles in the corners of her eyes, and her smile was a tad higher on one side than on the other, and maybe it was because of the rain or the stress of exams or just because her smile was that perfect, but for a moment, you were in love.
She tutored you once a week for free. No matter how often you tried to shove wads of crumpled cash in her backpack, she refused to take it – just dropped the rubber-banded wads in front of you with a raised eyebrow and a hint of that smile. Pass the class, she told you. That would be pay enough.
You feel better on the second midterm. Not perfect, but good enough. She walks back to your dorm with you after the exam lets out, and you stop by the campus store to buy two tubs of ice cream – vanilla for you, some raspberry chocolate mix you think is revolting but is all she likes – and stubbornly refuse to talk about the exam as you sit outside on the soccer field and eat out of the carton with plastic spoons. You talk about TV shows you thought had bad writing and ones that were okay. She pointed at the stars and said her dad bought one for her when she turned sixteen, but she could never remember which one it was.
You pass physics. Part of you thinks you should tell her…something. That you think she is beautiful, that you like her smile, or that you love the way she talks about math – like it is a poem, like it is a song. You want to ask her to go dancing, or go to the movies, or whatever it is when people go on dates because you’ve never actually been on one; you’ve just heard stories from your brother and seen them on TV. She is someone you want to learn how to go out on dates with, and learn to kiss, and embrace, and be with. You want to learn to love her.
But you don’t.
You hug her before you leave to go back home for the summer and spend all of May wondering if that was too forward. She had felt stiff and awkward in your arms, and you had been too panicked at your own sudden surge of courage to even enjoy the sensation of holding her. She must think, you decide, that you are a complete and utter creep. She is not a touchy person, and always seems a little unnerved when someone tries to initiate any sort of physical affection. You know this, and yet you hugged her. Yeah, you are a creep.
Texting her is truly terrible. You feel stilted and awkward. What you mean comes out wrong, or maybe she just doesn’t think you’re being witty. Whatever the reason is, she hardly responds to your texts, and you have the nagging sense that anything you’re texting her about is a distraction, an irritant, a mistake. You stop for three weeks, and try to not be frustrated when she doesn’t ask if you’re okay.
Logging into anything social media and seeing her hurts. She is out to dinner with her family, on a boat with her cousins, hugging a tall guy that is unreasonably attractive, and hugging him in such a familiar way that you cannot help the spike of jealousy that lights up within you.
She seems delighted to see you in August, and helps you carry a sofa into your tiny, cramped apartment that you’re sharing with your roommate from last year and another few kids from your Nordic epics class you took in the spring, and watches two superhero movies with you while eating cheese pizza. You came back with this half-baked idea of falling out of love her – because it might be easy; she snorts when she laughs, she’s got absolutely no sense of how loud she is, and she doesn’t shut up during movies. But she has that smile, and she’s funny, and she’s just so happy with being herself that it makes you happy too, just sitting there with her. You do wish she would learn to close her mouth when eating, and not talk while chewing, but part of loving someone is loving their flaws.
But still. Gross.
You could tell her at Halloween, when she talks you into being the White Rabbit to her Alice in Wonderland, and your tail falls off halfway through the night and the heel of her shoe breaks off and it ends up with both of you trying to get a taxi to take you home but you’re laughing so hard that you can hardly flag one down - but you don’t.
You could tell her when she stays up all night to help you finish a Spanish paper – even though she can’t speak a word of Spanish; she was just there to smack you awake when you nodded off and hand you energy drinks and make you laugh when you get to the point of stress when the universe feels like it will cave in on top of you, but you don’t.
You could tell her when you help her edit her essay for her required writing course, and it is all about patterns and math in nature, and how beautifully elaborate the universe is, and although the style is simple and her grammar is enough to make you cringe, the core of it is so true and so her that you cannot help but love it anyway. You could tell her, but you don’t.
This is the theme of college:
Going to parties
Regretting going to parties (hangover/late homework is mandatory for this one)
Going to class (hangover optional)
Trying to start homework
Watching dumb videos on the internet
Realizing at nine o’clock that you spent four hours watching videos on the internet and you still have homework to do
Starting at your textbook at unreasonable hours of the morning and wondering if you could be a successful hobo if chemistry decides that it wants remains a mystery
Writing papers (being drunk helps (sometimes))
Editing papers (being drunk is not helpful (ever))
Crying when papers disappear from your hard drive (it’s because you were drunk)
Discovering that your roommate is a computer whisperer and can recover your papers
Eating far too many boiled eggs because the food in the dining hall is alive, you’re sure of it, and it’s murderous (never try to eat in a dining hall while high)
Loving her (it’s like being drunk and high and stupid all at once, like falling out of an airplane and getting launched off a cliff and punted off the moon into the vastness of space)
Not telling her (and watching her with her boyfriend – now, that is like being kicked in the stomach, having your insides ripped out with a dull knife, and a dog’s pissing on your favorite pair of shoes to boot)
Deciding it is okay to not tell her (at least it’s your choice)
The last one is important.
You cannot do that – put your feelings on her, like a wet dog or a soggy blanket or a soaked jacket. They would cling to her, make her uncomfortable, and she would never forgive you for draping her in your soppy feelings. She would feel like she would need to dry them out and make sure you don’t fall ill over it, and why did you compare love to a damp piece of cloth or a canine anyway? Besides, she got a boyfriend in your junior year. You don’t like him, much. He is nice, but a little bland.
She always talks about traveling. She wants to go to Singapore, and likes Korean barbecue, and is frighteningly obsessed with scuba-diving. Boytoy is Midwestern, small-town bland, and eats a terrifying amount of potatoes. He wants to go to Miami, likes hamburgers without pickles or cheese, and is alarmingly interested in baseball. He is nice, but sometimes you’re a little baffled as to why they are together at all. What do they talk about? What kind of potato chips they like?
Whatever they have in common, it’s enough to keep them together to graduation.
You graduate. You don’t remember much of actually graduating. You might have been hungover. Or drunk. Do hangovers depend on going to bed at some point? You didn’t, not before graduating.
She looked lovely – she curled her hair and put on mascara and wore heels and a dress that looked wispy and gauzy and lacey. You would probably rip it the moment you touched it. In your somewhat fogged mind, this translated to not hugging her. She looked a little hurt as you stumbled around, so focused on not touching her that you forgot about the step down of the stadium where graduation took place.
You end graduation with a smear of blood dribbling down your nose.
You go to work for the study abroad office at the same school that tormented you for undergraduate. You thought about grad school, but your grades are nowhere near good enough. You have a BA in international affairs and a minor in Spanish, and now you help fresh-faced kids bogged down with dreams and debt go off to discover themselves (or exotic parasites/STIs) in far-off lands.
She goes to graduate school. She is brilliant enough for it, and you think she should. Bland boytoy goes with her. You are less supportive of this. He’s writing a book, or something. You see his growing beer belly and try to not crow about how you’re still in (relatively) good shape (you were never in shape; there’s no shape to fall out of).
You start seeing one of the women who works in the study abroad office. She has a purple streak in her hair, speaks fluent Russian, and likes superhero movies. She has Opinions and wants the world to know them. She is bold. You’re dazzled. It’s not love in the way you love her, the woman who speaks in math and has a star she can’t find named after her, but it’s close enough.
She gets married to bland boytoy in early October, when the leaves are just starting to shift. Your shoes pinch, and that is the only reason you cry, you swear. The sky is heavy and overcast, and the ground is squishy from a solid week of rain, but she looks beautiful. She looks like math made solid – sine waves and cosine curves in the fall of her dress, and she is wearing the Golden Spiral necklace you got her as a gift for her birthday, a few years back.
He looks bland, you think. Nice, respectable, gentlemanly in his tux, but bland.
She comes to your wedding, when you marry the woman from the office. You get married in May, and your wife has flowers braided into her hair. You’re wearing some odd Renaissance faire garb that she insisted on, and the mountain air is so pure that it makes you sneeze. You’re higher up than you are used to being, and the altitude makes your head spin sickeningly.
Your wife looks beautiful.
Like a traitor, you think she looks lovelier.
You love your wife. You love her spirit, her Opinions, and how she manages to balance work with her rigorous webcomic reading schedule (she follows forty that you know of, and there’s probably more you don’t). You love how messy and absentminded she is in the morning, how she likes her coffee black, how utterly incompetent she is once you try to get her to cook something beyond pasta and burgers and grilled cheese.
But you love the women who speaks math and has a star named for her that she can’t find, and that is never going to change.
You and your wife work in the office. She and bland boytoy go back to her university. You have a son, who insists on gumming everything and who you love irrationally, whole-heartedly, unconditionally, even when he slobbers on student applications. She has twin daughters, who are apparently hellions, and once tore up the nicely edited copy of her thesis before she could make any changes.
You stay in touch in the guilty, half-hearted way many people do. Every email-text-call-visit is plagued by comparison of what-is-now to what-was-once, and to who you-and-she used to be. You have wrinkles and have put on sixteen pounds in the last five years. She looks constantly tired, cut her hair short in an effort to get her daughters to stop pulling on it, and can’t stay up past ten any longer. Look, you wish you could tell yourself. She is so disgustingly human. She eats ice cream out of the carton, never goes to the gym, and looks so goddamn grateful if someone else offers to watch her kids for a bit (her daughters are nefarious, and yet completely adorable, and totally aware of it. This leads to what your mother calls “shenanigans” and she calls “the little shits trying to drive me to an early grave”.).
But love doesn’t work that way. She is still beautiful behind the years and the responsibilities she has. She teaches math at a college, and researches waves in fluid conduits – she has tried to explain it to you before, but it is like listening to Korean or – as it is – advanced mathematics, and none of it makes sense. You still work in the study abroad office. You like it there. The kids are carrying such big dreams out into the world with them. Some of them find what they’re looking for. Some just find places where the drinking age is lower, which might be what they were looking for anyway. It’s not changing the world, but it changes some kids’ lives, which is good enough. They can go on and shape the future – you’ll rest with the knowledge that you shaped them.
You and your wife start fighting. Her tongue has always been sharp, and a part of her has always suspected that you are not entirely in love with her and never will be. Your son learns to be sullen and slip away the moment voices start to rise. She threw a plate once, but looked so shocked afterwards that you suspected it was not intentional.
You stay later at work. She starts sleeping in the guest room. Your son is fifteen when you divorce – old enough to understand it is not his fault, but young enough to still hate you and your ex-wife for doing this to him.
You get half-custody, and every other Christmas. Your ex goes to Aspen, Colorado and moves in with a ski instructor with a nice bum and bleached teeth. Your son says he likes Aspen with the subtle-but-not aggressive irritation that seems to be a teenager’s super power.
She calls to say she is sorry. It’s fine, you tell her. You wonder if, had you married her, would you have ended up like this anyway? Alone, since it’s not a week where you have your son, eating a frozen dinner in front of the TV?
How is she? She says she’s fine, with the sort of contrite terseness that means she does not want to talk about it any more. Her daughters are thirteen. The way she talks makes you suspect she can’t wait for them to turn eighteen and leave her alone.
You date some, but you find it hard to commit to anyone – not with the wound of your ex still raw, and not with her, still out there. You join a bowling league, and last about a month before you realize no, you can’t do this, you think bowling’s stupid. Instead, you learn how to rock climb and take a class on baking. Your son likes to cook, so you enroll him and yourself in a class at a local culinary school and experiment with recipes on the weekend.
The years are drifting by in the confused, aimless manner you associate with kittens coming out of surgery and still high on painkillers. Time bumps into walls, stares aimlessly into space, and then suddenly bolts off at dizzying speeds.
Your son graduates high school, then college, then meets a girl and falls in love. You go to a snow-dusted January wedding in Aspen. Her daughter – the older twin – gets married on a beach. She sobs the whole time, and she still looks as beautiful as she did that first night, when she saved you from failing physics.
You get old in spurts and starts. Your hair is wispy and colorless, more like the color of a prism than anything else. You can’t see without coke-bottle glasses. Prunes and plain fizzy water are suddenly appealing snacks.
She is old now, too. She has a hearing aid, and her hands shake if she has to pick up anything heavier than a pencil. She wears louder and louder prints, and once – when you are visiting for her second daughter’s wedding – you notice she has some lipstick on the edge of her teeth. But her eyes still crinkle, and she still has freckles, and one side of her smile is a little higher than the other, and god, you are so gone. You gave up years ago on ever not loving her.
Except now, you wonder why you never told her. You are siting in the living room of your apartment in your assisted living home, watching reruns of some show you didn’t like, even when you understood enough pop culture to get the jokes. Your son, his wife, and your granddaughter just left. Your life has been long, and maybe not that exciting, but you are still a good person who makes decent cookies and can help edit essays – you help your granddaughter all the time. There were reasons you had, when you were young, as to why you never told the woman who spoke math and had a star that you loved her, but they seem silly now.
You’ll tell her in the morning, you decide. Boytoy is still alive, but his mind is so gone that sometimes it is more like he’s not. It is wearing on her. Her eldest daughter had a miscarriage. Your ex died two weeks ago from throat cancer. Life is meandering on, and it stops for nothing. You do not know why you did not realize this when you were young. The world would have not stopped, if you had told her you love her. You and her are not the centers of the universe, and the cosmos hardly care about the dramas of your lives. You did, though, and did not realize the benefits in risk.
But you were not bold.
Now, you are too old to care.
You’ll tell her in the morning, you say to yourself, as you get ready for bed. You’ll tell her. You brush your teeth, drink a bit of water, shut off the lights, and climb into bed.
You’ll tell her.
You shut your eyes.