Part 3 of 5, Chapter 17
I broke her gaze and looked down at the box of relationship-droppings, outside her dorm room. “You broke up with him.” Junior Midshipman Obvious, sir, reporting for duty aboard the USS No Kidding. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine as soon as I get everything that was his out of my life,” HCE said. “Here, you can help. Find his books in the shelf and put them in the box.”
“Which ones are his?”
“Which ones are stupid? At least give me some good news. How is your girlfriend?”
“The internship was great, but I’m not offering her a permanent position with the firm. I gave her the ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’ speech today.”
HCE glanced up at me with a look I refused to try to interpret. “Really?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
“As long as I’m here with the girl of my dreams, how could I not be?”
She giggled. “How do you feel about cheap vodka and Mountain Dew, to celebrate our emancipation? It’s all I have to drink, unfortunately, but it’s exactly what I feel like right now.”
“Rockin’. Let’s party like it’s 1863.”
The box packed and shifted to a remote corner of the suite, we deployed Scrabble on her bed and commenced punishing our taste buds. I hate Mountain Dew, but when mixed with cheap sick-feeling vodka, it was terrible and perfect.
“Why did you break up with her?” she asked.
I decided not to lie.
“I told her that I was in love with you instead, and I couldn’t date her anymore.” I felt detached. HCE’s laptop was playing jazz on her desk, giving heft to the subsequent silence.
She looked touched. “Why did you say that?”
I have found that there is a stable equilibrium associated with loving someone you can’t have. Every time HCE’s hair was in her eyes but I wasn’t brushing it out with my fingertips, every time she made me laugh so hard but I wasn’t telling her how it reminded me that I loved her, and every time I held her without trying to kiss her, I was creating a habit that, when restraint no longer became necessary, was tough to break.
Also, I’m an idiot.
I didn’t look her in the eye or move closer to take her hand. “It’s true. All I do is think about you,” I monotoned, motionlessly. I utterly failed to smile or press her close to my chest. My robot voice continued. “I couldn’t date someone else when you were right there.” I did not then pull away to look in her sparkling eyes, not pausing only long enough to gather a ragged breath before not bending down and kissing her lightly, then more deeply on the lips.
Nope, I pretty much just sat there and looked down as I said those things.
“Oh,” she said.
“But I think she took it pretty well.”
“Okay,” she said.
It was my move, so I stopped talking then.
She’s under a lot of stress, I thought. She can’t be expected to just jump right at another guy who says he loves her. I need to give her time and wait until she’s ready to be with me. Which will be inevitable.
Hours later, fully drunk and after losing to her in Scrabble enough times to seriously turn me on, we groggily climbed onto her bed to cuddle.
HCE flopped herself around to face me. “Justin,” she asked. “I miss him already.”
“Hush,” I said. “You did the right thing. You deserve someone better.”
“Aww!” she giggled. “You mean like you?”
“Uh,” I raised myself up on an elbow. “Not necessarily,” I heard myself say. I paused. Somewhere, deep within my soggy skull, the demonstrably miniscule part of my brain that knows how to get laid was, somehow, losing a fistfight to the section that knows how to be a helpless and pedantic antisocial nerd. “I wish I was able to convince you empirically of the extent to which you just needed to not date him anymore.”
“Subjunctive tense, Justin. You wish you were.”
“Whatever. I don’t want to bias you or anything. You just need someone who deserves you. He didn’t.”
“I need to pee.”
“No, you need to move, because I need to pee. Whoa. Oof, your elbow is not helping.”
At that time, it was around two in the morning.
Opinions differ about how close I was to kissing HCE that night in the spring of 2003. Some say it was just a matter of actually trying. A minority who know the situation more intimately dissent, citing HCE’s flirty attention-seeking nature.
Unfortunately, we will never know, because I’m about to do the stupidest thing since Napoleon invaded Russia, and at least we got a Tchaikovsky Overture out of that mistake. I didn’t get a damn thing.
As HCE wavered off to the bathroom, I caught her best friend and suitemate walking to her own room. “Hey,” I said. “Let me ask you a question.”
“Now that we’re single, do you think a guy like me could get a girl like HCE?”
Land war in Asia. Taking the wind instead of the ball in overtime in the NFL. Removing the restraining bolt from a pre-owned droid just because he says it can help him retrieve more of some cryptic message. Who cares what a stupid friend thinks! Was my confidence really not able to handle this situation?
Well, if I have to ask, the answer is . . .
“No.” She shook her head. I looked away. The suitemate disappeared into her room and locked the door.
HCE reappeared, but my world was already crumbling along with my destroyed confidence. At some level, I believed it was true. “I have to go.” I said.
“No, I don’t feel good.” I didn’t. “I need to get home, I think.”
The air outside was chilly and didn’t make me feel better. The ground was a boat. There wasn’t anyone on the roads as I walked home. Half a block from my apartment, on the quiet, residential street where I lived, the enormity of the prior moments became too heavy and I collapsed onto my hands and knees. I had gone from holding the girl I loved to deciding I wasn’t good enough for her in a few minutes, and what bothered me the most was that I was convinced it was right. She just wanted to be my friend, I thought, and I was wasting my time.
With tears on my face, I threw up into the grass next to the sidewalk.
A few seconds later, it started to rain. I gathered myself up, let myself into my apartment, and went to bed.
END OF PART III