Rain drenches the city in unforgiving sheets while he’s standing in his kitchen in nothing but rubber ducky boxers and a black silk tie. He turns on the coffee pot. The bachelor party was the night before and he’d gotten a little too drunk and a little too loud and a little too handsy with the strippers at that club, and he feels all too regretful this morning as he stands with bare legs in his drafty kitchen, listening to the rain pelt at his windows and the sound of bacon pop and sizzle on his immaculate stovetop.
He cooks two eggs and two slices of bacon and one English muffin because he loves to be a hungover chef.
The aroma of freshly cooked food summons the stranger with long blonde hair out of his bedroom. She’s shimmying on her dress from the night before, heels hooked around her index and middle fingers, and he doesn’t bother glancing up at her performance when she struts to the counter. He notices when she realizes there’s no breakfast for her, and without a word he fills his coffee mug to the brim, too much, overflows, dumps his food on his plate, avoids her icy blue gaze, and heads outside to where the fat raindrops tumble precariously off the awning protecting his sliding glass door.
He takes up residence on the outdoor couch under cover. Goosebumps pepper his exposed legs, and he curls his toes against the concrete, toenails scraping, and rips open a packet of sugar. The door to his apartment shuts with a slam that leaves an uncomfortable ringing bouncing around his skull. He distractedly pours the glimmering crystals into his mug, watches the granules sink and dissolve with a blank gaze, disappearing into a black abyss that scalds his tongue and his lips and the roof of his mouth.
It’s been years, years of busy living and striving for promotions and distancing himself from those he loves dear, all for the prestige of working in a law firm, his dream. And it’s a night off for him, and plans are made to meet at The Low Moon. That’s where he meets her, under a fluorescent crescent moon with a beer pressed against his sweaty palms and a lump in his throat.
She’s luminous and effervescent, more so than the moon hanging above them, and the smile on her face when she walks in instigates momentary cardiac arrest. Butterfly wings scrape his stomach lining. She’s on the phone but drops it into her bag as she slips onto a stool two seats down. He watches her without watching. She shrugs off her jacket, flips her lion’s mane of auburn hair over her shoulder, orders a Guinness, gets too vocal about the sports game splashed on the bar TVs. The moon glints above her.
She’s a little too much. Like when a cup is filled to the brim with soda, and the fizz threatens to spill over, and it causes breath to be held. He exhales. Her presence unsettles—intimidates in a way that makes his stomach tingle with fizzy bubbles—and he blurts out a mundane observation about the decent quarterback. That’s all it takes, to have her eyes on him.
The evening is theirs as they engage in a heated debate about the quarterback; she’s pro, he’s therefore the devil’s advocate just to grind her gears in a manner that lights up her eyes and invites a whiplash smile onto her lips. He drains his beer, tepid from the warmth of his palms clutching the bottle for too long, and orders another. She sucks her margarita from a straw slowly, savoring it, only pulling away to hurl defenses against his unwanted advocating, trying to keep her grin hidden behind her cherry-colored straw.
Thunder rumbles beneath his feet and he knows it isn’t long before the cityscape is illuminated by sharp strikes of lightning. He stands up to lean against the balcony railing and his hands tremble as he clutches his coffee, making it his anchor. It’s lukewarm now and adds some feeling into his clammy palms.
By the end of the night, he’d gotten her number and that had been the kickstart to their friendship that deepened rapidly in the way only two compatible spirits can form a connection so effortlessly. She was vivacious; she swore too much and drove too fast and hated to brush her hair in the mornings and always stole his French fries, or a bite of his burgers, or the first bite of his dessert. She listened when he ranted about his family and the pressure he felt because of their ideals and why he chose to loosen the ties to those people and she would watch wordlessly, chin propped up on her curled knuckles, and then when he was spent, breathless, winded from the verbal vomit he spouted with fire, she would stand up and hug him. You’re not like them. You’re you. I’m sorry they can’t appreciate everything you are, she would say, and she would mean it, and he would be okay.
And he supposes, now, that that’s how people fall in love. When they find someone who speaks the words their souls long for, and it unburdens them, frees them of Atlas’ job, and then the recognition dawns that the emotion is deeper, more than imagined, and then there’s fear. Fear that it won’t be reciprocated. Fear that it will be. Fear that this changes everything, and there’s the gut-wrenching twisting as butterflies try their damnedest to escape through his mouth, to flee from the turmoil he’s harboring internally.
The first strike of lightning hits and he doesn’t bat an eye.
He’s meeting up with his best friend, the one he hasn’t seen since beginning law school, the one who cried when the class rabbit died in 8th grade, the one who only eats the purple Otter Pops, the one who hugged him so hard he felt like he might not be broken forever after all when his grandfather died during junior year of high school. He waits for him at The Low Moon and it’s been a few weeks since he’d been there last, since he’d met Her, Lila, the nurse who savored margaritas and fought for bar TV quarterbacks, and he smiles at the memory and sips his whiskey with calm.
He’s perfectly punctual as always and his face splits into an enormous grin of genuine happiness at the sight of him. He stands and they hug, thumping each other on the back in a show of comradeship, before sitting down and ordering shots of whiskey and going through the rigmarole of getting reacquainted with the other’s life. He’s doing well, he’s enjoying himself immensely, and then his friend drops the bomb. He’s engaged. He’s engaged to the most amazing woman he’s ever met and they’re to be married in November, and will you please be my best man?
How can he say no?
He laughs, now, in a way that is equally sardonic as it is heartbreaking. The laugh of a man who is losing something he knows he’ll never find again. And he can’t stop, he can’t breathe, he’s wheezing with laughter, doubled over, fingers pulling at his tie with desperation until it finally gives and oh, God, he can breathe again. He inhales. His body shivers from the rain pelting his body like a soggy jacket while raindrops roll off of his chest.
It wasn’t enough that he constantly felt the ripping of his heart, as though butterflies with razor-tipped wings were let loose in his chest cavity, whenever he saw her. He had immense difficulty dealing with the surplus of guilt that struck him at the thought of the two of them together. Two people perfect in the best of ways, perfect together, perfect without him. It hurt. Guilt chipped and chipped and chipped at him, dousing his misery with self-loathing in generous helpings, and he wondered if his smile looked as hollow as it felt.
They never noticed. He was a brilliant actor, but his lines had been long forgotten.
The mug of icy coffee is brought to his lips once more and he chugs and he chugs until it is drained. He chugs until he has drowned his damned butterflies and looks out at the cityscape with eyes that do not see.
Deirdre White is currently a Creative Writing major at Western Washington University. She enjoys writing about emotions she’s never felt before, tends to hoard books in attractive stacks everywhere she can find space, and aims to become a published author.