It made me sick of myself that I felt so sad leaving such a disgusting country. I couldn’t keep myself from looking out the window of the plane, hoping that Michael would come at the last minute and stop me from leaving. He won’t try to stop me, I thought, but I couldn’t stop thinking of him—seeing the Americans on the plane reminded me of him. If I could’ve watched them long enough, I might have remembered how arrogant and ignorant they are, but I couldn’t watch them that long before I would have to look out the window, again, to see if he was coming. He doesn’t seem like the rest of them; I don’t see him as being arrogant or ignorant or self-involved and narcissistic. Am I wrong about him? If he had tried to stop me, would that be proof that he’s a fool like the others, or would that mean that he was actually different? Was it a sign of his foolishness that he let me go without another word? Perhaps the qualities I so admired about him were the same that kept him from trying to stop me. I wonder if he’s even thinking of me, watching the sky for the airplane that will return me to Germany, the place he once called “your wretched mother country.”
I met Michael when I arrived here in August. I’d been selected for a one-semester research position at the University of California in Berkeley, where I’d be able to work on my thesis. I could’ve finished at home, but they are starting this exchange program for master’s students and told me they’d let me finish in one semester if I came to America. My fiancé, Tivian, said that it would be good for me to have some time away from home before we start planning the wedding. He said that I hadn’t been myself for some time, and I think that it was because I was getting so frustrated with school. I just wanted to finish my Master’s degree and find some work. I’ve been in school all my life. I’m ready for it to be over. The research position would give me a little change of scenery and get me out of school sooner. I didn’t like the idea of finishing my studies in America, but I’ll still have a ceremony at home when the year is up.
It took me some time to get comfortable with the lab and my co-workers. There are a couple of Asian guys, a self-absorbed American girl, and one Australian guy working with me in the lab. It seemed like the guys all knew each other already, because they were always talking and hanging out. They still seem nice. All of the people from the lab would walk down the street to the coffee shop for their breaks. I usually just took a soda from the machine and would stand outside and smoke. The breeze on my face with the faint scent of the ocean, along with the sound of the leaves gently brushing against one another in the trees, made it nearly profane to consider spending time with a bunch of people who love to hear the sounds of their own voices.
On the first Thursday that I was there, I thought that I would like to take a cup of tea back to my room to relax for the evening, so I went to their coffee shop after work. I’d been pretty annoyed with the other people in the lab that day. The constant chatter was unbearable. I’d been in the country for five days, and I had no friends. I nearly cussed the American girl by 10 and couldn’t figure out for the rest of the day why I’d come here. My friend Christoph from Hamburg had suggested the night before in an email that perhaps Tivian had been so supportive of this trip because he wanted to enjoy some freedom before we were married. He’s never met Tivian, and doesn’t know what a wonderful man he is. I thought I’d disregarded Christoph’s comments entirely, but after nearly cussing the American girl, I realized that something must have been bothering me; perhaps I was a little worried about whether or not it was true that Tivian could be cheating on me. It infuriated me that I could be so lonely and miserable in this ugly country just long enough for him to give attention to some other woman at home. It was a stupid idea, but I was upset. So I went to the coffee shop after work.
The café was in a small building set in between two larger buildings, and it was further off the street as it had a courtyard in front of it. Perhaps it should be called a patio, I don’t know. It was paved with concrete and had a wrought-iron fence around it that was just over waist-height. There was a walkway down the middle leading to the café entrance, and on either side were scattered tables and chairs, some of the tables with big umbrellas in the middle. The front of the building is all windows and you can see the seating and counter inside. The counter was on the right side of the café and on the left there were a handful of tables and a few couches. There were some people sitting and talking at a few of the tables and a person sitting and reading on one of the couches. The counter reached all the way to a wall at the back end of the room, and on the left side of the room there was an opening to what seemed to be another room for sitting. I couldn’t see clearly from outside, and I looked at the hours posted on the door as I approached. “Chez Café – 6 AM to 10 PM.” What an American name, I thought.
Michael seemed to have been waiting just for me. His warm smile was the first thing I saw as I walked through the door. He was leaning against the counter by the register and said hi before I could even find their menu. I tried to look for it, but couldn’t stop looking at him. He was attractive, thin but muscular, and he had a soft face and deep green eyes. He was shorter than Tivian, but still taller than I am. Tivian is somewhat tall; Michael is probably an average height for a male. He was looking right at me, and he didn’t seem to blink at all. He was still smiling.
“How are you doing?” he asked, sounding very sincere. Should I respond? I couldn’t think of anything. I’d spotted the menu and picked the first tea I saw. I smiled back at him and approached the counter. I ordered my tea.
“Are you an international student?” he asked. Five years of English and still such a recognizable accent. I nodded at him. He was still smiling. I couldn’t stand to look into those green eyes. He wasn’t making my tea. I held out my money. “Okay…it’s a dollar eighty-four.” He gave me my change and then put what looked like a business card on the counter. “This is our stamp card,” he explained. “Get a punch every time you buy a tea. When you get ten punches, you’ll get a free tea. You can’t beat that!” He gave a small laugh and I couldn’t help but smile. He began preparing my tea. He set it on the counter in front of me and wished me a good evening. He told me to keep smiling. I nodded again and went straight for the door. I knew that I didn’t have any honey in my room, but I wouldn’t have been able to stand being there any longer. I couldn’t remember finding a man so attractive since before I’d even met Tivian, and it only made things worse that he was so friendly.
As I walked back to my apartment, I kept smiling and felt much lighter than I had in a long time. The coffee shop was not too far out of the way between my apartment and the lab, so it didn’t take me too long to get back. At least I was able to get a nice place to stay while I was here; I had expected an uncomfortable dorm situation, but they had arranged for the international students to have apartments of their own. And I didn’t have to pay much, as they’re eager for this program to work well. I drank my tea and read for a while before calling home.
“Allo?” Tivian answered.
“My lover in America! How is that fabulous country?!”
“Agh. It’s here. I want you to be, too,” I said, hearing my own voice with such sullenness in it. “How is my baby?”
“He misses you. He won’t even eat when I’m in the room. He sulks all day wondering where his mother is.” Mieza is my six-year old grey housecat. Tivian and I got him from a friend when she realized that she was allergic to cats. That had been three years ago, and Mieza still didn’t like Tivian much at all. If Tivian came to bed late, Mieza would lay with me until Tivian finally came to bed, and then Mieza would run off to sleep the rest of the night on the chair in the office. “I miss you to, Laura.” My heart fluttered to hear him pronounce my name. These Americans insisted on calling me Lohr-ah. It’s Lhow-ra! Please!
“I met a pleasant boy today,” I told him. I needed him to know that I might survive this trip, after all. “He was very nice to me, and I forgot for a moment how horrible it is to be away from home.” And he was very attractive, I thought.
“I told you that it would not be so bad for you to get away. You’ll be comfortable there in no time. And before you know it, you’ll be flying home. Mieza will be waiting anxiously for you. He might receive no affection at all until you return. And, of course, I’ll be pretty anxious for some, myself!”
“I love you, Tivian. Wish me good dreams, please?”
“Dream of me!”
“I will. Good night,” I hated to hang up the phone. I was in my room by myself again. And no one to stroke my poor Mieza so that he could purr himself to sleep.
I went to sleep soon. It was still early, and I dreamed that I was working in a coffee shop. I was preparing tea and lattes for the American students. I couldn’t make anything the right way, and the boss was yelling at me in English I couldn’t understand. She yelled and yelled and I could say nothing, I couldn’t look at her.
It was still dark when I woke up. I took a long, hot shower. I stood under the hot stream of water for nearly twenty minutes before I even began to shampoo my hair. I dressed and went to the lab hoping both that the day would pass quickly and that it wouldn’t end. After leaving the lab, I would have to find some way to spend sixty hours over the weekend without going mad. Even if I slept twelve hours each night, I’d still have twenty-four hours to deal with. What would I do with myself?!
Work was tolerable. I was able to work without having to talk to people most of the day. I nearly decided to go with them when they left for the coffee shop, but I decided that it would be better not to be associated with that group of people. I smoked my cigarette but couldn’t finish my soda. I longed for a cup of tea.
When they returned from the café, the other people in the lab talked about what they would do for the weekend. They talked of different bars and parties and bands. I knew I could go with them. Even the American girl would’ve let me come along with her. I would be happier sleeping, I thought. She even asked me, just before we left work, what I would do over the weekend.
“I just need to relax. I’ll stay at home this weekend. It’s been a long week,” I explained.
“Well, you can go out with me next weekend, then. You’re not gonna get the real feel for the night life here if you hang out with those guys,” she said, nodding towards the others. “I did my undergrad here, so I know where the cool places are. Okay?”
“Thanks, Amanda. I will keep that in mind.” I thought for sure that she’d known that I didn’t like her. I couldn’t understand why she was being so nice. I told her to have a nice weekend before I left.
I walked down the street towards the coffee shop. It was not the most direct path back to my apartment. I could see Michael through the window as I walked past. I didn’t slow down, and I walked instead into the deli just past the coffee shop. Perhaps the person working here would be as nice to me as Michael had been. I could start liking Americans by buying stuff from them, even if I didn’t really want any as friends. Maybe I could spend my weekend buying things anywhere in walking distance. Maybe I could learn to take the bus to these shopping malls and business districts and be happy and broke by the time I make it back to Germany.
The guy working in the deli was moderately attractive, a little taller than Michael and with broader shoulders. He was talking to another guy who was off to the side, a shorter, chubby guy with glasses. I stood at the counter and waited as they finished talking. After a few minutes, he finally looked over at me. He didn’t say anything, and I wasn’t sure if I should order yet.
“Well?” He held his hands out to the side and cocked his head.
“Um…could I have a turkey sandwich, please?” My voice was shaking. Please just get my sandwich.
“What kind of bread do you want?” He sounded a little gentler now.
“Rye,” I answered, becoming more comfortable.
“Lettuce, tomato, sprouts, onions, mayo, mustard?”
It took a minute to think about this one. “I’ll just have lettuce, tomato, and mustard, please.” This wasn’t so bad at all. He pushed some buttons on the register and then looked back up at me while the chubby guy put together my sandwich. I could see the total on the front of the register and found four dollars in my billfold. He gave me my change and, after a moment, the sandwich. They had already returned to their conversation, so I uttered quiet thanks and walked out.
How miserable was I that simple interactions with retail clerks affected me so significantly? I was cracking up. I walked down the street imagining, once again, that Tivian was at home, romancing girls and entertaining them in our bed. I imagined being found in my foul American apartment in two weeks, peeling the wallpaper from the walls and eating it. It didn’t even have wallpaper! I would try again the next day; I would find more nice places to go with this spare time. I arrived at home and ate a few bites of the sandwich. I wrapped it up again in the thick wax paper and threw it away. I took a nice, warm bath and even fell asleep in the bathtub for a while. I woke and drained the water before heading straight to bed, where I slept in my towel.
That night I dreamed of being home with Tivian. He cooked dinner for me and we ate by the light of a candle. He fed me bites of my meal slowly, patiently, and urged me to drink plenty of wine. He carried me into the bedroom after dinner and I nearly slept in his arms. He put me in a chair in the corner and I watched as countless beautiful nude women walked into the room. There were so many of them, and they were in bed with him! He was pleasing them all at once, and I was cold in my chair. I looked down to see that I was naked, too, but I wanted to hide. I woke up crying with no blankets. They’d all fallen to the floor at some point, and I had only my towel, which wasn’t covering me anymore. I lay there and cried for a while before falling back to sleep, this time with my blankets and a body pillow to cuddle with.
I woke again in the late morning with the beginnings of a very bad headache. I lay in bed for a while longer, trying to find the energy to get up and find a pain reliever. I had a few old aspirin in a bottle in a bag of medicine I hadn’t unpacked yet. I found them and took some orange juice from my little refrigerator and sat in the chair near my bed, suddenly remembering my dream. I needed to leave the apartment. I took a quick shower and got dressed before heading down to the street. I took the first bus that came by and was on my way to somewhere else.
I grabbed a bus schedule before sitting down, and I took a seat near the doors in the back. There were fewer people on the bus than I would’ve expected—a handful of college-aged students towards the front and more than a handful of young black kids towards the back. I was right in between. I thought that it might be a good idea to get off the bus where the kids did, as I would expect them to best be able to find pleasant places to be. We rolled from light to light and through a number of neighborhoods. I marveled at the old, dirty houses in the run-down neighborhoods and the incredibly busy four-lane streets in the business districts.
When I’d been in America as an exchange student in high school, I stayed with an upper middle-class family in Elgin, Illinois. My host family had a daughter named Sarah, and it seemed as though most of her friends would rather come to her house than go anywhere else, so I didn’t get to see much of that town other than Larkin High School and, once, the Fox Valley Mall (it was a bit of a drive for casual shopping, so we’d made a special day-long trip of it). We had nice times, I suppose, but that was so many years ago. I didn’t really leave feeling like I knew much at all about America aside from how much a problem the high school students seemed to have with alcohol. And most of them had been so superficial. I wasn’t unhappy leaving then, just as I didn’t expect to be unhappy this time around.
The kids pulled the cord to request a stop, so I got ready to get off the bus. I waited long enough to let them go ahead of me and then stepped off onto the corner near a strip mall. The kids ran across the street towards other businesses and even more strip malls as I surveyed this strip mall for promising places of business. I saw a pizza restaurant, a video arcade, a sandwich shop, and yes, a coffee shop. This was a Starbucks, and I was familiar with them, unlike Michael’s place. I assumed that his was the only one of its kind, but I didn’t know for sure. I had been to other Starbucks before, but I wanted to see this one now, to see how they could compete with Michael.
I walked through the front door to see the café in all its one-room glory. There were six or eight tables in the front part of the room with two chairs to each. There were also three big, soft chairs immediately to the left of the entrance in the corner with end tables separating them. The lamps on the end tables were identical desk lamps with light pink lampshades. There were three people in the store: one older gentleman sitting at one of the tables scribbling something in a notebook, a younger guy sitting in one of those comfortable seats to my left reading a book, and another younger girl standing behind the counter talking on a cell phone. She had medium length platinum blonde and purple hair and had a ring in her nose like a bull or a pig. She made eye contact with me briefly but continued talking as I surveyed their list of teas. When I walked up to the counter, she nodded at me, though she still held the phone to her ear. She wore thick-rimmed black glasses that slid down her nose a bit when she nodded, and I hesitated to order. She nodded again, this time holding both the phone and her glasses. I ordered my tea and she rang it up. I held out two dollars, and she walked away. I stood and listened to part of her conversation in which I thought I heard her say something about her roommate being mad about the sounds she made with her girlfriend at night. It seemed pretty funny that she would be so indiscrete, and she handed me my tea as I stood there and smiled. She took my money and gave me change, which I put into a tip jar by the register. She nodded again, and I saw her adjust her glasses again as I walked away. Though I was mildly amused by overhearing her conversation, I wasn’t impressed with the service. I sat and drank my tea, watching her go through the same exchange with the two or three other people who came in. I finished my tea and left, eager to find another place.
I wandered about, finding plenty of strip malls and shopping malls with interesting little shops. I drank four cups of tea, ate half a sandwich, bought a cookie, found postcards to send home, and found a novel by some French author that might help to keep me occupied for a week or so. Nowhere did I find anyone as friendly as Michael. I made it home by eight or nine that night and read my new book until I was sleepy. I fell asleep and didn’t dream, thankfully. Late in the following afternoon, I walked back to Michael’s coffee shop, hoping that he might be working again.
I saw him through the window again as I approached the door. He stood behind the counter with that same charming smile, and my heart was beating heavily in my chest. I took a deep breath as I opened the door. I could feel the sweat on my palms against the cold metal of the door handle.
“You’re back!” he exclaimed when he saw me at the counter. I smiled and ordered the same tea I’d had before. “You got it!” He began preparing the tea and then brought it to me. He rang me up and I handed him my two dollars again. “Did you bring your punch card?!” I remembered the little card he’d given me and dug it out of my wallet quickly as he got my change from the register. He stamped the card twice and smiled at me. I thanked him and found a seat near the window and started reading my book. I was comfortable there. I would look up to the counter occasionally, and he’d smile at me if he looked, even if he was helping someone else or cleaning something. After an hour or two, I got up and left, and he said, “Have a good night!” I could hear the sincerity in his voice. I smiled and walked out.
On the walk back to the apartment, I felt a wave of shame sweep across me so strongly that it nearly brought a tear to my eye. I was going to be married to Tivian in less than a year! How could I let myself be so enchanted by some boy in an American coffee shop?! I quickened my pace and walked so swiftly that my legs nearly hurt by the time I walked through the door of my apartment. I called Tivian immediately. I knew he’d be asleep by then, but I didn’t care; I needed to talk to him.
“Please tell me about a girl you’re attracted to, Tivian,” I begged. “I am so intrigued by this boy at the coffee shop, and I won’t feel okay until I know that you are attracted to some girl at work or a waitress, or someone!”
“Calm down, Laura, it’s okay…really. I know that you love me. No one will come between us,” he slurred, half asleep. It was so reassuring to hear his voice again.
“I’m sorry…I’m sorry. I’m just so lonely here. I just want a friend. And he was so nice to me. Please just tell me someone you’ve had a crush on, so I can know that we’ll be okay.”
“I don’t know, sweetie. I just can’t think right now. I do work with some attractive girls, but I work with them. It’s so hard to look at them like that,” he spoke slowly, as if trying to give himself time to remember one of these little crushes.
“You can’t tell me just one? Just so I can sleep tonight?”
“Oh…I just don’t know,” he said. He was silent for what seemed like forever. He would answer when he realized that I was still waiting. Had he fallen asleep again? “Okay, I got it. Three weeks ago. Carl and I had lunch at the little place a few blocks from his apartment. The waitress was hitting on me, and it crossed my mind that her eyes reminded me of yours. I was flattered that she hit on me, and I flirted back. Carl was mad because he’d have liked to have gone out with her. That’s it.”
“You see. It wasn’t that hard. Did you think about her since then, except to answer my question?”
“Well…yes. We ate there again the day before you left, and I wondered if she might be working again. She wasn’t, and the food was horrible that day, too. I don’t think we’ll go back there, anyway. Would it make you happier if we did?” I could hear some irritation in his voice.
“You eat where you want to, dear. Thank you. I don’t feel so bad. I love you. Get your sleep. Pet my kitty, if he lets you?”
“Of course. Good night. Sweet dreams.”
“I’ll dream of you,” I said, hanging up the phone. I went to sleep happy. We would be together again soon. Until then, Michael would keep me company with his smiles and Good-Nights.
Work in the lab wasn’t so bad after that. I began going to the coffee shop with everyone during our breaks, and I got along well with Amanda. I still thought that she was pretty shallow, but she was usually nice, so I was friendly with her. I even went out to the bars with her a few times.
Michael would sometimes be coming to work just as we got to the coffee shop, and he was always pleasant. He reminded me of my punch card and congratulated me when it was full. He’d ask me how I was, and I’d say “fine.” He always told me to have a nice day, unless I was there after work, when he’d tell me to have a good night. I began to know which days he would be there and which he wouldn’t. He would smile at me when I looked up from one of the many novels I’d read throughout the semester. We never talked beyond that. Once or twice I almost started a conversation, but I couldn’t think of what to say, and I didn’t want to make it impossible to return to the place that I had to go to keep from being alone.
Two short weeks ago, things changed. I had gotten over the idea of talking to him, and I was happy just to have someone who would always be friendly to me. And then that Friday, after work, he approached me as I was reading my book.
“Any exciting plans this weekend?” he asked. I hadn’t seen him coming. I held my book in my lap and my knees were locked together. “Big parties? Bar-hopping? Some new movie?”
“Not much. No. I don’t know.” How difficult was this question, really? I’ll sit in this coffee shop and watch you work. I’ll take two warm baths and sleep ten hours each night. I’ll talk to my fiancé on Sunday. “How about you?” I knew he’d be at work on Sunday afternoon, but not tomorrow.
“I’ll probably just hang out with friends, watch movies or play cards or something.” He sat down across the table from me, crossed his legs under his apron and put his hands together in his lap, one holding a towel.
“That sounds nice,” I responded, not knowing what else to say. What were his friends like? I wondered.
“Well, I do have a paper to write this weekend, now that I think about it…I’ll probably finish it tomorrow afternoon. Hang out with the guys when I’m done. You’ll be in here on Sunday, I imagine?” He smiled.
“Of course. There’s nowhere better,” I replied. And I’ve checked.
“Well, enjoy your book. I should finish my work,” he said. I looked at my watch and saw that it was already almost nine o’clock. I didn’t usually stay so late. My tea was empty. “My name is Michael, by the way,” he extended his hand. I reached out and embraced it.
“I am Laura,” I said, blushing. I’d known his name for a while, after having heard one of his co-workers address him at some point. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Laura,” he said. He pronounced my name correctly! Amanda still called me Lohr-ah after all this time, and he said Lhow-ra the first time! He picked up some glasses that had been left on tables and arranged the chairs the way he always did, and after a few minutes, I went back to my book. I was in no hurry to get home, and talking to him had been somewhat nerve-wracking, so I wanted to give myself time to calm down. Soon enough, it was ten o’clock, and Michael dimmed the lights. I looked around to see that there was no one else left.
“Good night, Michael,” his co-worker said, walking out the front door. I collected my things and stood up as he walked out from behind the counter.
“This is the first time you’ve closed this place down,” he laughed.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, not quite understanding him.
“I mean, you’ve never stayed so late. It’s just a pleasant surprise to still have you here.”
“I’m sorry…I just lost track of the time. I hope I haven’t kept you late,” I explained.
“Oh, no, it’s okay. We managed to get everything done pretty quickly tonight. I relax in here for a little bit after work sometimes, anyway. It’s the only time you can smoke inside, when no one’s here.” He placed an ashtray at my table and sat down again. “Care to smoke with me before you go?”
“I don’t suppose that would hurt anything,” I responded. I sat back down and got my cigarettes from my purse. He held out his lighter to offer me a light when I’d gotten a cigarette out, and I looked into his eyes as he lit it. “So how do you study if you work so much?” I asked, perhaps too eagerly. I knew that he worked four times a week, usually, and it just seemed like a lot.
“Well, I guess that I’m just the type of person who has to stay really busy in order to keep going. I’m only taking four classes, so it’s really not too much with the twenty-five or thirty hours of work a week. Usually not over twenty-five, unless I cover for someone. How about you? How do you manage to do anything at school when you read so many books? I’ve seen you with at least five this month!” He laughed, and I couldn’t help but laugh with him. I explained to him that I was a research student, and aside from long hours in the lab, we really didn’t ever need to take our work home with us. We talked about what we study and he asked me questions about Germany. In what seemed like no time, we had smoked three or four cigarettes, and I looked at my watch to see that it was already half past eleven. He saw me look at my watch. “Yeah, it’s getting awfully late. We really ought to get going, huh?”
“Yes, I suppose we should,” I answered. It had been so nice talking to him. He was funny. He was charming. He was nice and made me feel special. He was sitting right across the table, smiling and laughing with me. “So I’ll get to see you again on Sunday?” I asked, anxious for Saturday to pass us by.
“I’ll be looking forward to it all weekend,” he smiled. I should have told him about Tivian. What will he think of me? He held the door as I walked out and stood holding it as I turned to him. Our faces were barely half a meter from each other. “Good night, Laura,” he said. I stood looking into his eyes until it made me uncomfortable. I realized that it was might turn to speak.
“Good night,” I drawled. I watched as he locked the door from the inside and waved at me. I turned and walked slowly home. I was not worried about Tivian. He knew that I needed someone to talk to. But what if Michael wants more than someone to talk to? I went straight to bed, but just lay there, seemingly forever, thinking about our conversation. He was such a wonderful person. Why hadn’t I talked to him sooner? At least we had talked, I realized, drifting into my dream-world. I dreamed that Tivian delivered me to a beach, and I walked down the beach with Michael. The beach stretched endlessly in either direction, and when I looked back, Tivian was gone, along with the rode I’d arrived on. The strip of beach seemed to be all that existed anymore, with water stretching forever to our right, and sand to our left. Michael put his arm around me, and we walked and laughed and cried. I woke up in the mid-afternoon, once again with the beginnings of a headache.
I’d purchased some ibuprofen not long after that first weekend, but only now was I opening the bottle. I swallowed the pills with some orange juice and took my bath. I soaked in the warm water and thought more about our conversation, and felt almost ecstatic about being able to tell Tivian tomorrow that I’d finally talked to Michael. It had become my American saga, and Tivian watched from afar. He’d actually encouraged me to talk to Michael long ago, but those couple of times that I nearly did, I backed down. Finally, a change in the story! And how would I tell Michael that I’m engaged? It wasn’t likely that this ring gave it away; it’s so prudent compared to the extravagant rings that I’ve seen the Americans wear. It’s a simple white-gold band with Tivian inscribed inside the ring. Would he have known because of the ring? This wretched Saturday, day of waiting and wondering. I’d nearly forgotten how horrible it could be, I’d gone out with Amanda in the last two weekends. Perhaps I could break routine and go to the coffee shop on one of Michael’s off-days, for once. That would pass the time.
I walked into the coffee shop just after five or six in the evening and approached the counter to order my tea. Suddenly I heard my name from behind me…it was Michael! I rushed over to the table where he was sitting with a couple of books and a notebook.
“You’re not working today!” I exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“A guy can’t always study in the library, you know,” he answered.
“Will you be here long? Can I sit with you?”
“Of course you can. I’m finishing up my work, but perhaps I could distract you from your reading for a while,” he said, closing his notebook.
“That would be lovely,” I responded. “Let me just get my tea…”
“Your usual? Let me get it for you.” He went up to the counter and got the tea, and they didn’t charge him for it. “And here you are,” he said, setting it on the table in front of me.
“You didn’t have to do that. How will they make any money if I get free tea?” I asked.
“I’ll drink one less of my free teas to make up for it,” he said with a smile. “Did you sleep well last night?”
“Well, I realized after I left last night that I’d not told you something important,” I began, knowing that I should get this out of the way as quickly as possible. “There’s a man waiting for me in Germany.”
“Oh…okay…well, that’s good, right,” he said, half questioningly. He didn’t seem too upset, and I wondered if maybe I’d been too presumptuous. “I mean, you told me you’d be going back soon, anyway. I guess I wasn’t really hoping to talk you into staying in America,” he said. “You were pretty clear about your distaste for this country when we talked last night.” I’d told him all about my distaste for their political leaders and popular culture and how I didn’t enjoy much about being here aside from relaxing in the coffee shop. Apparently he was okay with the fact that I wasn’t romantically available, which was nice. “Besides,” he added, “I have pretty much come to expect that about all the nice girls that I meet, anyway.” He attempted to laugh, but it didn’t seem sincere and he looked away, as if he saw someone he knew. I briefly caught sight of a sad side to him that I hadn’t seen before. I told him that it was because he was so nice that I kept coming to the coffee shop to see him. I told him that I had worried so much about being attracted to him that I’d forced my fiancé to name a secret crush, just so he would be vindicated. We talked for a while about relationships and some of the problems he’d encountered and that sort of thing, and I told him about how Tivian and I had been friends for a long time before we became romantically involved. I tried to explain to him that I think that is what is so difficult for this “dating” that they have here.
“At home,” I said, “the guys almost have to get hit on their head before they realize that it’s become romantic. From the way it sounds, guys here assume it’s romantic until they’re hit on the head and realize it isn’t.” Was I being too blunt?
“I suppose that’s true,” he conceded. He really is such a wonderful guy; couldn’t he just find a girl who could appreciate that? “Romantic involvements seem to be about the only way I can relate to women, though. It’s not a very nice way to be, really; I am discriminating against women. I don’t see them as people I can be friends with, I see them either as romantic interests or I just don’t pay attention to them at all. To be really honest,” he continued, “I knew that you were going to be leaving, but I think that the hope was still there in the back of my mind. I’ve had a little crush on you ever since that first day you came in here, and it was only this week that I finally managed to talk to you,” he grinned. “And to think, maybe if I’d talked to you sooner I could’ve at least spent some time with you learning how to be a good friend with a girl before you left.” He looked away as he said this. He sat leaned slightly back in his chair with his left hand on his knee and his right arm resting on the back of the chair beside him. I was leaning forward and looked down at my hands, the right hand lying on the left on the table in front of me. He didn’t say anything for a bit, and when I looked up at him, he smiled.
“You are still a good friend,” I said, “even if you won’t get a whole lot of practice at it, with me.”
“Thank you, Laura. I appreciate your saying so.” He smiled. “It’s not very often that I’m able to get to know women, anyway,” he went on. “Usually the ones who approach me are just too crazy to even consider. And the ones I like just seem like they’re probably too sane to fall for a guy like me.”
“Oh, Michael, you can’t be serious,” I jeered, astounded that he would say such a thing. “You are smart and funny and very, very sweet. Not to mention very attractive!” I said, blushing though I didn’t care.
“Oh, come on. You don’t have to say all that. Look, I know I have some self-esteem issues, but I know I’ll meet someone great sometime. I’m really not too worried about it. Things have gone well with you, and so I’ll have the courage to approach someone else later on.” He was quiet for a bit. “I suppose we should probably get going soon,” he said, beginning to stand.
“I don’t want you to leave me,” I blurted. Michael stopped halfway up and slowly sat back in his chair. I gazed into his eyes briefly before looking down at the table. What was he thinking of me?
“I can stay for a while longer,” he said slowly. “If you want me to…”
“Let’s talk about something,” I said, and blurted out the first thing that came to mind about music or history or politics. He laughed at me before sighing deeply. He responded to what I’d said, and we talked about safe topics until the coffee shop closed.
“We could go somewhere for food,” he suggested as we walked out the door. I was enjoying our conversations too much to cut it short, so I agreed. We walked around the back of the building and found his car, a small, light blue Ford sedan. It was a two-door but was fairly roomy inside. I didn’t find it surprising that he drove car with a stick-shift. We pulled out of the parking lot and headed down the street.
We soon found a restaurant that was open twenty-four hours and I ordered a milkshake that I barely drank. He had an omelet and I instructed him on the proper German dining etiquette, which seemed slightly difficult for him. We had an old waitress named Doris who seemed to have been working there as long as the place had been open. I’d never been to a place like this back home. We talked a whole lot more about the differences between American and German culture and about our experiences with family and growing up and, of course, more politics. I told him a little about the research project we had been working on and how close we were to wrapping it up. “At least, we had better be close to finishing it, because I’m leaving in ten days. Hey, maybe you could take me to the airport? You don’t work in the mornings, usually?”
“No, not really, and I don’t have class because we’re getting ready for finals.” I told him about my flight and when I had to be at the airport. We exchanged phone numbers and then we talked for a while about the hassles with airport security since 9-11.
At two in the morning, the inside of his left thigh brushed slowly against the inside of my left thigh under the table. My heart raced and I wished that our thighs would remain resting against each other. With that slight brush of our legs, I could nearly feel his whole body next to mine as though we were lying in bed together and he was holding me as I fell asleep. Almost as soon as they’d touched, though, they were apart again. Had he even noticed that they’d touched? Had he felt me next to him? I don’t know if I had been talking or if it was he, but we were silent after that.
“I should get you home,” he said. “It’s late…and my roommate will probably be wondering about me by now, we usually hang out on Saturdays.”
“I hope I haven’t made you break your plans,” I said, beginning to feel bad about enjoying so much the time we’d spent with each other. How would I tell Tivian about staying out so late with some American guy? He knew I needed someone to talk to. Would this have been what he had in mind?
“No, it’s no biggie. Some of our other friends usually end up coming over on the weekends, anyway. They’ll probably just think that I was in a car accident and died or something. No one will mind.”
“Stop it, Michael. It’s not funny to joke like that,” I scolded with a smile. We paid our bill and he drove me home. When he stopped the car in front of my building, I looked over at him, still not wanting our night to end. His elbow rested against the window as he used his left hand to pull and twist a lock of hair on his head. He smiled at me and continued to pull and twist that bit of hair. “Would it be okay if I hugged you,” I asked.
“Of course,” he said, opening his arms to me as I wasted no time in pulling him close. We embraced briefly and I whispered to him that I’d had a great night. He couldn’t have known what I said, though, as I said it in German, so I added that I didn’t want to let him go.
“Sweet dreams,” he said as I opened the car door.
I’ll dream of you. I didn’t look back as I headed up the sidewalk. I returned to my room and got myself ready for bed. I had a hard time falling asleep, and the last time that I remember looking at the alarm clock, it said 6:32. I dreamed of a life with Michael, not in Germany, not in America. We were happy together. And then I saw Tivian in Germany, and I went to him. I left Michael in that nether-State alone. I woke up crying again. It was a quarter after three in the afternoon. I was supposed to have called Tivian at one o’clock.
I had no idea what to say to Tivian, and I felt like such a horrible person. I called Christoph in Hamburg, instead. I told him all about what had been going on, and he reassured me that I had nothing to feel badly about, as Tivian was surely back at home sleeping with everyone in East Berlin. I had to laugh at that.
“But seriously,” he said, “you found yourself in a dangerous situation, and you found your way out. You’ll be fine if you don’t go back to that situation.”
“Does that mean I cannot talk to him?” I asked.
“Will you be at risk of dishonoring your commitment to Tivian?” he asked.
“I don’t know. No? I shouldn’t be, right? If we just talk…just there at the coffee shop? I can’t just write him off. I don’t think there’s any harm in just being his friend for another week or so. Nothing would happen in such a short time.”
I became comfortable with things, aside from how I would tell Tivian why I’d not called him. It was nearly five o’clock by then, and he’d probably already be in bed. I shouldn’t wake him. I sent him an email, and I tried to write mostly about other things. I briefly mentioned that I was out late with the guy from the coffee shop, just talking. “It was a nice conversation,” I wrote. I went on to remind him when my flight would arrive and discussed other issues about returning home.
I took a nice, hot shower and a couple of ibuprofen before deciding how I would spend my evening. I knew that Michael would be at the coffee shop. Would we talk forever if I went there? I would be sure to keep things brief, and that way I would know that there was no problem with being his friend. So I went.
He was, of course, his usual cheerful self. He had my tea ready by the time I made it to the counter and asked me if I’d gotten any sleep. I told him I’d slept much too long, and I was worried I might not get to sleep at a reasonable hour that night. He laughed and said that he slept for five or six hours, as usual. I thanked him for the tea after he refused to let me pay for it, and I found a table and sat to read. He sat down with me to talk briefly, but we didn’t have a whole lot to say. We just smiled at each other, and I held my book open on the table. He went back to work, and I left after another half hour or forty-five minutes. He told me to have a good night, and I told him to get some sleep. That hadn’t been so bad.
I had no idea how I might sleep when I got home. Nothing works like ritual, I thought, so I poured a nice, hot bath and soaked for an hour or so. I went to bed with my book and read myself to sleep, which really didn’t take long, considering all of the sleep I’d had the night before. I dreamt of Michael, and we were in the coffee shop. He showed me into a room in the back with nothing but a couch in it. He lay me down on the couch and slowly undressed me. He stood above me and undressed himself. He lay on the couch next to me, and he pulled me close to him. I looked around, and we were in my bed together. I woke abruptly with at least two hours before I’d need to go to work. I took my time getting ready and began to imagine that perhaps I could blow off the final days of this research project and spend my remaining days in America making love to Michael. I wondered if I shouldn’t see him anymore.
Work was intolerable, once again. Everyone got ready at break time to head to the coffee shop, and I knew they were waiting on me. They knew nothing of what had been going on between Michael and me. After making them wait, I finally decided to go along. It should be safe to go with all of these people, I thought. I didn’t know if I could trust myself seeing him by myself. The group of us walked into the coffee shop together and everyone ordered their drinks as I looked around for Michael. I didn’t see him anywhere, so I ordered my tea. They gave it to me and wouldn’t let me pay. The person working the register had been working Saturday night when Michael got my tea for me. I tried to force my money, but he simply wouldn’t take it. Whatever, I thought before walking out with everyone. They hadn’t noticed the little scene, thankfully. Just as we walked out, I saw Michael approaching from the sidewalk.
“Good afternoon!” he said. “How are you?”
“I’m good. I’ll catch up with you guys, okay?” I said to the crew. “I’ll just be a minute.”
“Skippin’ out on work, huh?” Michael asked with a smile. “I gotta get a job like that.”
“We need to talk, Michael. I don’t know if I should spend time with you anymore.”
“Wow. Uh…what’s up? Is everything okay?”
“This morning I fantasized about spending the rest of my time in America having sex with you. I’m engaged. That’s not okay,” I blurted. I could feel the tears welling up, and I turned away from him. Would he put his arm around me? Would he make me believe that I could live in the nether-State with him? I felt a tear roll down my cheek.
“Well…” he said, “I guess that’s how it has to be. That…uh…really sucks. It sucks that it has to be this way.” He stood still and I could feel the distance between us.
“This is such a big mess, and I’m more confused than I’ve ever been. The things that happen in such a short time should not be able to make me question four years of my life! Or my whole life! I have to go,” I sobbed as I started walking. I wanted to hear his footsteps behind me, wanted him to call out my name in that way that no other American could. I had no idea who I was anymore, but I knew that, somehow or another, I was ready to fall in love with him. But I was already in love! I had to walk away from feelings, no matter which way I went. We’d spent nearly no time at all with each other compared to all of the time that I’d been with Tivian, how could I possibly think that I might fall in love? And what had our brief time together meant to him? Maybe he was just sacrificing his time because he knew he’d be rid of me soon…maybe he wanted me to cheat on Tivian and still leave. As I walked all the way to the lab crying, I wondered about all of these things. Once back in the building, I went directly to the bathroom. I sat down in a stall for a few minutes and composed myself, and then I washed my face in the sink. Amanda walked into the bathroom as I wiped my face with a paper towel.
“Is everything okay, Laura?” she asked in her American way, sounding genuinely concerned. She put her arm around me, and I rested my forehead on her shoulder.
“I’m just homesick,” I managed to squeak out. She held me as if her shoulder was stopping a leak until I thought I could pull my head away without opening the leak again. We walked back into the lab together and I put everything I had into our project. I didn’t return to the coffee shop all week. I waited in the evenings for my phone to ring, hoping that Michael would talk me into learning to live in America. Tivian had emailed me and hardly seemed concerned about my state of mind at all. Why would he be? I’d told him nothing. Michael never called.
On my last Friday night in the states, I couldn’t resist the urge to visit the coffee shop again. I thought that it could be my last visit to the coffee shop, that I could tell Michael good-bye before never seeing him again. I’d had the whole week to cool off, and I figured that I would be able to see him without crying or doing something stupid. I waited until after nine o’clock to head to the coffee shop so I wouldn’t be able to spend too much time there. As I approached the door, I felt as nervous as I had on that second visit to the coffee shop, but worse. My hands were not only sweaty, but shaking a bit when I reached for the handle to open the door.
Michael was standing at his usual spot by the cash register talking to a customer as I found a place to sit. Our eyes met as he was saying something to the customer and he stopped talking for a moment. He looked back at the customer and went back to what he was saying. I sat down and took a deep breath before opening the novel I’d brought. It was the same novel I’d read when I first started coming to the coffee shop. Of course I’d already read it, but I needed to bring something with me. I opened to a random chapter and tried to pay attention to what I read as I avoided looking at him. I’d nearly read a whole chapter, though I wouldn’t have been able to say anything about what I’d read, before Michael finally came to talk to me.
“Good evening, Laura,” his voice melted my heart as I made a labored effort to slowly, calmly look up from my book. I saw that he’d placed a cup of tea on the table. He stood on the other side of the table, leaning forward slightly with his hands on the back of the chair directly across from me. “I didn’t think I’d see you again. Is it okay to talk with you?”
“I had to come one more time before leaving,” I spoke slowly, hardly able to find words. “I knew you’d be working, and I do want to talk,” I said, glancing up at his eyes and then looking down at the table. I completed my thought as though I had more to say, but now I just stared at an empty spot on the table. I could feel his eyes on the top of my head, and I hoped all at once that he would put his arms around me and that he would yell at me, telling me to go away and leave him alone. I wanted to forget that I’d met him just as much as I wanted to forget my life in Germany and spend all of my time talking and laughing with him. He put me at ease from all of the confusion in my life and made my life infinitely more confusing at the same time. And his silence was heartwarming and terrifying. I looked back up at him, and his somewhat-dumbfounded expression hadn’t changed a bit. I searched his eyes for some clue as to what he was thinking of me at that moment. He remained silent until I looked back at the table, feeling a tear rolling down my cheek.
“I should help get this place closed up,” he said softly. “Can we talk more when I’m done?”
“Yes,” I said, “I can wait.” I tried to wipe the tear inconspicuously as I raised my head again. “Please try to be quick,” I begged. He nodded slowly, looking into my eyes before he turned to walk back behind the counter. I listened to the sound of dishes being washed in some unseen sink as I tried to figure out what I’d say to him. I watched his co-worker wheel a trash-can out the front door and make his way around the side of the building, and it occurred to me that I’d soon be alone with Michael. Had this been a bad idea? My stomach began to ache and my brow was moist. What has happened to me? I wondered. Who am I?
Michael said good-night to his co-worker before locking the front door. He walked to the table and sat at the chair across from me, placing an ashtray between us. I stared at the ashtray, hoping he’d have something to say. He asked if I needed a cigarette and I shook my head “no” without looking up. After a moment I reached into my bag on the chair next to me and pulled out my cigarettes. I held them in my hand, not opening the box.
“Can we go somewhere else?” I asked as I looked up at him, thinking it would be better if we weren’t in a building by ourselves. He looked confused but nodded his head.
“Of course,” he said, standing up. He inhaled a drag of his cigarette and exhaled the smoke. “Whatever you want,” he added. We walked out of the back door together after he’d set an alarm and made our way to his car. “It’s a bit messy,” he said as I got in, taking some papers from the passenger seat and putting them in the backseat. There were a couple of empty water bottles on the floor in front of me and a few books and papers on the backseat, but I didn’t think the car was that messy. I didn’t say anything, though.
“Where should we go?” he asked as we pulled onto the street. I thought for a moment and couldn’t come up with an answer.
“Just drive,” I responded a few blocks later. Neither of us said anything after that, and I enjoyed the cool breeze on my face from the open window. It was nice to ride in his car with him; I didn’t have to think about anything. I watched the buildings and the people pass by as we went up and down the city streets. I smoked a cigarette down to the filter and burned my lips as I took the last puff. We were sitting at a red light and I went to put the cigarette in the ashtray just as the light went green. When I’d dropped the cigarette in the ashtray, Michael was putting his car into the third gear, and my hand brushed his. I didn’t pull away, and in a moment’s time I was holding his hand to the gear-shifter as my heart pounded in my chest. I looked at his face for the first time since we’d begun driving, and he stared straight ahead. Perhaps his hand was trembling, or it was mine, or maybe the gear-shifter vibrated under both, and I said, “Stop the car.” He looked over at me. “Pull over somewhere,” I demanded gently. He looked back at the road and soon we approached a vacant church parking lot. He pulled in and stopped the car, both our hands still resting on the gear-shifter. With his left hand, he turned his headlights off and reached over and pulled the brake up. I lifted his right hand from the gear-shifter and held it up in front of me. I began to run the tips of my fingers around his hand, feeling the wrinkles on his knuckles, the smoothness of his palms, and the coarse fingertips. I squeezed the tip of his ring finger between my thumb and index finger. I let the tips of my fingers run down his palm, my thumb sliding slightly along the back of his hand, until I felt him shiver as I passed his wrist. I let go of his arm and looked at his face as his arm trembled in front of me. He stared at me, his mouth half-opened, and I leaned towards him. He quickly closed his mouth and seemed prepared to kiss me, but I pressed my right cheek against his left and he put the arm, which was now his to use again, around me. He was breathing heavily, as I imagine I was, too, and we held each other until I no longer knew whether I was awake or dreaming.
Just as though waking up from a dream to remember what the waking life is like, I recalled my engagement and my fiancé and my flight back to Germany. I let go of Michael very slowly, very reluctantly, and turned to look outside the passenger window again.
“Take me home,” I said, so quietly that I was surprised when he began to drive. Why was he so quiet? He didn’t seem to want to say what he wanted, what he thought about things. Maybe he didn’t even know. We arrived in front of my building, once again. I turned towards him but looked down at my hands, using the fingers of one to pull at the fingernails of the other. I glanced up quickly without raising my head to see that he was slightly turned towards me, and was also watching my hands. With a sudden jolt of self-consciousness, I folded my hands together in my lap and raised my head to look him in the face. He looked up at me slowly and when our eyes met, he began to speak.
“I’m sorry, Laura,” he said, looking back at my hands again. “That shouldn’t have happened. I should leave you alone; I shouldn’t make this anymore difficult than it is.” He looked in my eyes. “But I just really don’t know how…or think that I can.” He turned his head to the left and looked out towards the street through the windshield. I wanted to touch him again, to hold him more to ease the pain of this situation.
“It’s not your fault,” I began. “I came to you. I’m the one making things difficult and confusing for you. And now we’re both in a bad spot.” I sighed aloud and turned to look forward, just as he had. I crossed my arms on my chest and wondered what I could do about all of this.
“I should have respected the relationship you have with your fiancé. When I’m with you, though, it’s like nothing else matters. Especially some guy I’ve never met,” he shook his head and looked down at the steering wheel. “I guess I’m not quite the man of principle that I thought I was.” He continued to stare blankly at the steering wheel, and after a bit of silence I began staring blankly at the dashboard. “To be quite honest,” he finally began again, “I’m not even the nice guy that you say I am.” He turned and looked at me. “I only act sweet because I think it can get me somewhere…and when it finally has gotten me somewhere, I’m not sure that I like it. I feel like an asshole for tricking you into having feelings for me,” he said, his eyes watering up slightly. I reached out and put my hand on his cheek, which felt very warm. In the same natural motion, I leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth. We kissed passionately and my forehead began to tingle; I was getting dizzy. He put his hand on the side of my face and I leaned into it, falling out of the kiss. I looked in his eyes and sat up straight.
“It’s time for me to go,” I said. I opened the door and got out of the car, but looked back in at him before closing the door. He sat looking at me, and I leaned in and quickly kissed him once more before closing the door. I walked up to my building as if nothing had happened. As I watched the front door of my building close, I saw him drive slowly away. I woke up the next morning not quite remembering going to bed.
Saturday afternoon was horrible. The phone rang four or five different times, and I thought that it must be Michael or Tivian, or both, calling. Whoever was calling didn’t leave any messages. I sat on my bed smoking cigarettes through the afternoon even though we weren’t supposed to smoke in our rooms. I held the slip of paper with Michael’s phone number on it. What would I say if I called? What would I say to Tivian when I finally spoke with him again? I felt ill from smoking so many cigarettes, and I hadn’t eaten anything all day. The phone began to ring again, and I took my chances and answered it.
“Laura? It’s Michael. I’ve been calling all afternoon…I didn’t know if it was even your number for sure.” My answering machine simply told the caller in a robotic voice to leave a message after the beep.
“Yes, it’s me,” I responded. Silence followed.
“How are you doing?” he asked. “You know…with everything?”
“I don’t know. I’m trying not to think about anything. And I’m not eating.”
“You should probably try to eat something, you know,” he said. He sounded worried. “Maybe I shouldn’t ask this…but would it help if you had someone to eat with you?”
“When can you pick me up?” I asked without hesitating.
“Well, I could probably be there in fifteen minutes or so,” he responded.
“Ten minutes,” I said. I placed the phone on the hook and began to get dressed. I stood in front of my building for a few moments and got into his car without a word when he pulled up. He began driving.
“Where would you like to go?” he asked after a few blocks.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, watching the road intensely. I kept my hands folded in my lap. After ten minutes or so, we pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant where Amanda and I had eaten one night with a couple of her friends before going out. I’d liked the veggie quesadillas I had there.
“Is this okay?” Michael asked, seeming to notice my recognition of the place.
“It’s perfect,” I answered, and we went in.
I refused to think about all of this mess that we’d gotten ourselves into, so I forced Michael to tell me a story from his childhood. He told me about a time when his father had taken him with one of his cousins to a lake where they boated and fished. I made him tell me the story in great detail, beginning with his leaving the house in the morning all the way to when they returned home. I asked a lot of questions, and when he said that he didn’t remember something, I told him that I didn’t care. “Make it up,” I told him. I made him taste my quesadilla, and I don’t think he liked it very much. By the time we’d finished eating and drinking and he finished telling me his story, it was nearly eight o’clock.
“So what do you want to do now?” Michael asked when we’d paid for our dinner. I didn’t care what we did; I only wanted to spend time with him. “We could see a movie or something,” he suggested. He named a few of the popular films that were new in the theaters, and I shook my head at everything he named.
“There’s a movie I want you to see, but we’ll have to rent it,” I said, thinking of a Spanish movie I’d seen a couple of years before. The movie dealt with some of the same issues that we’d talked about in some of our conversations. And Michael should certainly be watching something with a little more culture than popular American films.
“Okay…” he answered cautiously. “Should we watch it at my place?”
“I think we would have to,” I answered, “unless we watched it on my notebook, and I don’t think that would be any good.” His place wouldn’t be as safe as the cinema, but I didn’t care.
We left the restaurant and picked up our movie before going to his place. There were a few guys sitting in the front room when we walked in, and they looked up at us as Mike closed the door. I stood close to him and stared at the floor, holding my hands together behind my back.
“How’s it going, guys,” Mike greeted them as he tossed his keys on the coffee table in front of them. “This is Laura.”
A couple of them said hello or “nice to meet you” and I looked up and quickly smiled before looking back down at the floor.
“We were just getting ready to go catch a movie,” one of the boys said, “do you guys wanna come along?” Michael looked at me and then back at the guys.
“No, we actually rented something, we’re gonna go ahead and watch it here. Thanks, though,” Michael said as they got up and started getting read to leave. They didn’t say much, if anything else, before they said good-bye. “Have fun, guys,” Michael said as they walked out the front door. He turned and looked at me, still standing where I was when we’d first walked in. “You can have a seat on the couch,” he told me. “Do you need anything before we start this? Water, a beer? We might have soda in there, but no tea…” he smiled.
“I’m fine,” I said, taking a seat in the middle of the couch. Michael walked into the kitchen and returned with a glass of ice water. He put the movie into the DVD player and then came and sat next to me. “Turn the lights down,” I said, looking over at him. He looked back without saying anything before getting up to walk over to the halogen lamp in the corner of the room. He watched my face as he turned it down, and I nodded when it was dim enough. When he sat down, I leaned into him and put my head on his shoulder. He turned a bit to the side and put his arm around me, so I lay my head on his chest just as the movie was beginning. In no time at all, I was sleeping. I woke to feel Michael’s hand gently caressing my cheek.
“The movie’s over,” he said. “You slept through all of it, I think. I should probably take you home, eh?” He ran his hand through my hair and smiled warmly at me. When I’d realized what he was saying, I began to sit up.
“No. I’m staying here,” I said. “I’m going to sleep in your bed with you. But you’ll have to wear your jeans to bed.” Michael stared at me and held his mouth as though he was trying to formulate a question, but I got up and stood in front of him. “Where is your bedroom?” I held out my hand until he reached out and took it, and I pulled him up off the couch. He led me to his bedroom by the hand.
Once in the bedroom, I told Michael to show me where the bathroom was. I went into the bathroom and washed my face, taking a good look at myself in the mirror before going back to his bedroom. I stood by his bed and he said that he would be right back. While he was out, I took off my shoes and socks and lay down on one side of the bed. I chose the side that would’ve been Tivian’s, if I’d been sleeping with him. I lay with my back towards the other side of the bed in anticipation of Michael’s arrival. He came into the bedroom after a few minutes and sat on the open side of the bed, removing his shoes and socks. He lay down beside me on his back, and I heard him whisper good-night. I rolled over and grabbed his far hand, pulling his arm around me as I rolled back onto my side. He rolled onto his side, as well, pulling my body close to his. I slept very well that night, not worried about the rest of the world until I woke the next morning.
I woke lying on my back as Michael gently caressed my face and ran his fingers through my hair.
“Good morning,” he said. Waking up next to him, I had to wonder briefly whether or not we’d made love. Even though we hadn’t, I still began to feel really badly for having slept in his bed with him. Would I ever be able to tell Tivian about this? If I told him how I’d been feeling, how would he be able to stay with me? And if I didn’t, how would I be able to stay with him? Michael was waiting for my response, but I looked away. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Do you need to be somewhere?”
“I need to go home,” I responded, still looking away. Where the hell is that? I wondered. “I need to walk. I need the time to think.” I looked at him, and his expression was one of warm concern.
“You’re sure?” he asked. “I could drive you, it would be no problem. We could have breakfast and talk, if you wanted.” I thought for a moment about this, not eager for my time visiting with Michael to be over. What was I to him, though? Maybe he was just hoping to make love to me before I left the country forever. Maybe he would want me to stay in America with him. But who could want that after knowing someone so briefly? Was I ready to make that decision? What was I thinking to make a decision to jeopardize my relationship with Tivian when I wasn’t ready to make a decision to choose something else?
“I need to be alone,” I repeated, sitting up to put my shoes and socks on.
Michael walked me to the door and I kissed him passionately good-bye. I didn’t know whether or not I intended to see him again, but I didn’t tell him that. I managed to find my way home, but I did find myself a bit confused a couple of times. Mostly I just tried to clear my mind, and the walk took three-quarters of an hour or so, and by the time I’d made it back, I’d nearly forgotten my worries. Walking into my apartment, it all came flooding back. I knew that I couldn’t check my email or my answering machine for fear of hearing from Tivian. I quickly showered and dressed and left the apartment to find somewhere else to be. I went to a bookstore and bought a few French novels that had been translated into English. I went to a park and read all afternoon, immersing myself in other peoples’ lives so that I might forget my own. I bought a quick dinner and went home. I unplugged my phone because the only one who’d call would be Michael, and I still refused to check my email. I read for the remainder of the evening, until I was tired enough to fall asleep.
I had only three days and three nights left to remain in the country. With limited time to finish our project, I was able to put a lot of time into working, leaving me with little free time to worry about. My phone remained unplugged, and I sent Tivian only one short email while making an effort not to notice whether or not he’d tried to contact me. In the email I only said when he should pick me up at the airport. I did not return to the coffee shop.
Thursday morning came at last. I plugged my phone back in and waited until the last possible moment to see if Michael would call. He had, after all, agreed to take me to the airport. What had he been through in the last three days? Did he give up easily and decide that he didn’t care, or had he been hurt? Did he miss me? I couldn’t help but regret not having spent as much time as possible with him since our night together, but I was also really glad that I hadn’t seen him. If I had seen him, it would’ve made things worse, and at least this way our project had gone well, and I should have no trouble polishing and defending my thesis. I dreaded seeing Tivian, but hoped that perhaps being home and seeing him would make this entire trip seem to have been a dream. Just before I finally called a taxi, the phone rang.
“You answered,” he said quietly, incredulously. “I didn’t think I’d ever hear your voice again.”
“My flight leaves in two hours,” I managed, not knowing what else to say. “If I’m going to make it to the airport, I must leave very soon.”
“Would you still want me to drive you?” he asked.
I carried my bags down to the street and packed them into Michael’s car when he arrived. We rode in silence to the airport. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. I’m sure that if he’d asked me not to get on the plane, I would’ve complied. He said nothing, though. He kept his eyes on the road until we arrived at the airport.
When we’d found the proper place for me to unload my luggage, Michael stopped the car. Neither of us moved to get out of the car, but we still did not speak. He looked over at me, finally, and reached out and touched my cheek. I put my hand on his and held it to my face, not wanting him to let go. I leaned forward and put my arm around him, and pulled him close to me, hugging him good-bye. I held on for as long as I could, but I knew that I was running out of time. I finally released him and sat back in my seat, still looking at him. He smiled meekly with a closed mouth and then turned, opening his door. We unloaded my luggage and hugged once more just outside the doors, where people were standing and smoking.
“I’ll miss you,” he said. He turned and walked slowly back to his car, and when he’d pulled away, I entered the airport.
I made my way through security and bag checks and all of the hassles and waited at the boarding gate until the last call for boarding. I looked down the terminal hallways and scanned the anonymous faces. I slept through the entire flight, waking after the plane had already landed. Inside the airport at home, I walked out to the place where I’d left Tivian so many months ago and found him standing in just that same spot, as though he hadn’t moved. I let go of my bags and ran to him. He gave me a confused look as I made my way to him, but held his arms out to catch me. I realized that I was sobbing, and he pulled my head to his chest, and I put my arms around his midsection and held on as tightly as I could.