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In Real Life November 1, 2000
Years later, she still wishes what might have been
by Ruth Baxter
You are sitting in my desk chair, and you hardly fit. Your long legs are stretched out in front of you, almost to the edge of my neat, single bed. My dorm room is always small - with you here, it seems like a matchbox.
Like a matchbox - the air in here is hot, heavy. We are going to play tennis. You watch me as I cross and cross again in front of you, from bed to dresser to closet, gathering socks, shoes and racket.
'Are you sure you want to play today?' you ask, as I sit on the edge of my bed. I pull on my socks and nod.
'It's pretty hot,' you say. I nod again. As usual, I don't have a lot to say to you. Your eyes are dark brown, and they look at me like you know what I would say if I could find my tongue.
'It's pretty windy,' you persist.
'What else could we do?' I shrug, and stand again, stepping over your feet on my way to the dresser for the fourth time.
You catch my arm and pull me down to sit on your lap. 'Well... this,' you say, your hand cradling my neck, urging my lips toward yours.
In real life, we played tennis about once a week for the whole first summer I knew you. It's how we became friends. We even played together in a mixed doubles intramural tournament and lost miserably in the first round because of my bad serves. You were aggressive and severe while we played, but sweet afterward. We had ice cream and you walked me back to the dorm but left me in the lobby.
'Well, see you,' you said.
'Good night,' I said, and went inside.
It's November; it's dark and cold and a hard blue norther is blowing. Frigid air seeps through the long panes of my dorm room windows. The blinds rattle when the wind gusts. I am in bed because it's the only warm place in the building. I am reading my astronomy textbook and drawing pictures in the margins of trains, planes and Doppler effects. When you knock, I yell, 'Who is it?' because the door is locked and I don't want to move.
'Me,' you yell back.
I race across the room, flip the lock open and leap back into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin.
'Come in,' I say.
'Hey.' You drop your backpack on the floor. 'Shove over.'
You squeeze into bed beside me, and we sit side by side on the narrow mattress. Wintry air envelops your body. Your cheeks are red and your nose is running. You sniffle. 'Geez, it's cold out there.' Your clothes and your skin smell like snow. I wear a sweatshirt, sweatpants and wool socks, and still I shiver.
'It's a lot colder in this bed than it was a minute ago,' I say.
You haven't even taken your shoes off. They kick hard and clunky against my feet, way down under the covers at the foot of the bed.
'What are you doing out in this weather?'
'I was working late at the paper.' Your teeth still chatter, just a bit. 'I was getting ready to ride home, but I couldn't take that wind. I just turned back around and let it blow me south, wherever, and look where I ended up.' You smile, your beautiful smile just inches away from my face.
'Mmmmm,' I say. Suddenly, things don't seem so cold. I nod and pretend to scan my book.
'Hey, let me see that,' you say. 'I got an A in this last year. What are you doing, Doppler shifts? Look, it's like this . . . '
We snuggle up together, and you explain red-shifting and blue-shifting stars and other mysteries of the cosmos. The wind beats the windows. Someone is playing Led Zeppelin too loud, and the girls next door yell at each other. But here in my room, we share stars and galaxies, a universe, our small and limitless universe.
In real life, we had one class together - economics - and neither of us were passing it. We had to pull in a third-party tutor, a friend of mine, not yours, but you came over to my place anyway and butted in. We sat at the kitchen table. We were confused about different things though, and as you began to dominate the tutor's time, I wondered how I could be so in love with such an arrogant chauvinist. I was really tired of you by the time you left. It was the only time I remember ever wanting to see you go.
We are dancing. In the background, Springsteen tells his girl he would drive all night through the wind, through the snow, through the rain. We are alone, together, in a room with music and shadows. The moonlight comes in through a high, narrow window.
We are dancing close but you pull me closer. You smell like tobacco and cedar and your wool sweater is worn and soft under my cheek. Your chin rests alongside my temple. It scratches but I hold still and hold my breath, not about to say anything, just wanting to feel your arms around me. You're long-limbed but move gracefully, and your touch is light and warm on my waist.
Springsteen sings, 'Let them go, let them go, let them go to their dances of the dead...'
We are alive; we are silent, and in love.
In real life, we danced together a lot, to wild music. Talking Heads, The Clash, even Springsteen - but not the slow ones, never the slow ones. One time at a street fair we watched our friends, a couple, dance. They circled and swooped together and slid apart, touching and laughing at secret jokes.
'They look like Gomez and Morticia Adams,' you yelled over the music into my ear.
I laughed, but I thought, 'At least they look like they're together.'
We are in Belfast, working on a story. You write the words and I take the pictures. We crouch close together in a doorway and watch a riot breaking out on the street. You are muttering and scribbling behind me as I click off shots of the rioters' hostile, hopeless faces.
No one sees us, but when the rocks and bullets start to fly, they come too close. You drag me back inside and knock me to the floor, shielding me with your body. We stare at each other, eyes inches apart as we listen to the shouts and screams, the crack of guns. The window above our heads shatters, and you throw your arms over me and bury your face in my neck.
The clamor outside fades as the riot moves down the street. In the distance we hear shouting and glass breaking, sirens and a few random gunshots. Outside a woman is weeping.
'You can move now,' I whisper.
Your lips press against my neck. I am trembling, no longer from fear.
'No, I don't think I can,' you whisper back. Your hands stroke my hair, removing splinters of glass. You absently make a neat pile of shards while your lips brush my ear, my jaw, my temple.
My heart starts lurching and hammering. I don't know what to do or say. I want to fling my arms around you, but I lie still underneath you instead. I say, 'Hey. C'mon, the story...'
'Hell with the story...' you mutter.
In real life, we never worked on a story together. You became a real reporter and I tried it but failed and went on to other things. I used to have reasons to call you at your paper, but after a while I stopped. You worked in the Capitol pressroom, and I taught eighth grade. I didn't speak to you or see you and years went by.
I am getting married. The wedding is tomorrow. I haven't slept for weeks. I spend nights driving around the streets of our college town. It is summer, still hot, though it's past midnight. By the lights of the neighborhood tennis court I see you, alone, practicing serves. I park my little truck at the curb in front of your VW and sit in the darkness watching you.
You're so tall that the motion is like a rubber band, stretched out long and thin and then snapping with mighty force. The white lights wash out your features, but I can see your mouth open when you loft the ball and snap shut when you hit it. Your eyes fix on the stars, then shift to the ghost opponent across the net. The gnats and mosquitoes dance in the court lights.
You're done, walking to the car. You wipe the sweat from your neck with a towel. You hesitate when you see me getting out to greet you. 'Hey,' you say, but you don't smile.
'Hey.' I walk to the back of the truck and drop the tailgate and sit on it. You lean against the rounded hood of the Bug.
We look at each other silently. I know now that meeting you here is no accident. I knew you would be here, and I've come to find you, to tell you.
'Like you'd know,' you say. Then, 'Thanks.'
More silence. The lights by the court go out automatically. In the dark, it's easier to say. I tell you.
'I'm getting married tomorrow.'
It's not silence. I can hear you breathe. Your breath whooshes out fast, then you hold it, then you let it out slowly. You glance at the courts, the moon, the street.
'I don't think I should get married.'
'What do you mean, should?'
'I mean, I don't want to get married.'
'Then don't.' Your eyes are on mine now, steadily. I think I see blame, and betrayal.
I slide off the tailgate and try to stand. My hands shake. My legs shake. I start to sink back against the truck, but you pull me up to stand straight again, to stand up before you. Your hands clutch mine.
The insects' buzzing fades; even the moon seems to hold its breath. I can't look in your eyes another moment.
'I love you,' I tell your feet. Instantly, you fold me into your arms and hold me.
'Jane,' you say. The way you say my name - that long, slow drawl - buckles my shaky knees, but your arms are strong and hold me up. You murmur and shush and kiss the top of my ear. 'Janey. Why didn't you tell me?'
I have said what I've come to say. I just move my head. Weak, I lean my head against your chest and sob.
'Shh . . . shh.' Your big hands make circles on my back. You whisper in my ear, 'I love you, too.'
In real life, it happened like this: You called me on the telephone.
'Hey,' you said.
'Hey! How're you doing?'
I knew something was wrong. You never said, 'Great.' You usually said, 'Rotten,' and made a bad joke about it. I heard you take a deep breath.
'Jane, I'm... we're... I'm getting married. To Laura.'
'You can't!' Shocked, I could no longer hold my tongue, hold back the words I'd kept so carefully to myself for so long.
'You can't marry her!' I blurted.
'If you marry her, you can't marry me!'
A pause on your end. You might have expected me to give you a hard time, but you had not expected that. A faint laugh.
'I couldn't marry you Janey,' you said.
'Why not?' I was biting off my nails, one by one.
'You're my friend, that's why. In a lot of ways we're better friends than Laura and I are.'
'That's really stupid,' I snapped. I was down to the quick of my last nail.
'No, I mean it. I talk to you about a lot of things. You and I hold real conversations, we like the same stuff, and... I don't know. I'm marrying her. We're just... getting married. I want you to come.'
I grunted, to keep from sobbing.
'You're my friend. I want us to stay friends, always,' you said.
I hung up. Finally, I had from you what I always wanted - a permanent commitment.
I am standing over her crib and singing softly to my baby. She is beautiful. She has crazy curly blonde hair like mine, and her chin has your dimple. She is smiling and trying to sing, too. When you come in and rest one hand on my shoulder and the other on her crib rail, my whole world is in that circle, our baby and you and I. We are a family, and I am complete.
In real life, you had two children and a wife and a dog and a house. I had four apartments, one condo and two cats, who died. I had two cars and five boyfriends, who all lived to tell about it. I held four jobs, at least two beneath me. The last one has lasted five years. I went to seven baby showers and nine bridal showers and nearly got married myself, but didn't. In real life, I heard you got divorced.
The phone rings.
'Hey, Janey.' Your voice. The same hello, the same drawl, after ten years.
'Hey, how's it going?'
'Rotten, like the egg salad I had for lunch.' You laugh easily. I wait because, as usual, I don't know what to say. 'So... gonna be there a while?'
I am in the middle of planting flowers for my window box. My hands are covered with potting soil and grit is embedded under my nails. My table is covered with dirt, and the sweatshirt and shorts I'm wearing are baggy and grungy gray.
'I'll be here,' I say with a shrug that you can't see. 'Where are you?'
'On my way,' you say. 'I can't wait to see you.'
You hang up. The phone in my hand shakes as I instant-replay the conversation. I take a breath and wait for the bell, the beep, the buzzer, the rooster to crow.
But the sun is already up; it's a Saturday afternoon. All of my walls and furniture and books have hard edges and bright colors and nothing shifts quickly or dissolves slowly away.
I'm awake. And it's real life.
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