With each shallow breath that I took, I felt myself float further away from my body. My fingers and toes existed only in some far off distance, clinging to the rest of me by merely bone and muscle, and my eyelids were shut tight, heavy with exhaustion.
A distinct, rhythmic pattern of chimes echoed in the distance, but I did my best to ignore it. I didn’t want my session to be over. I didn’t want to have to rejoin the world. Not just yet.
I wiggled a few fingers first, hoping to take my time with the final stretches, but each movement was like a jolt to my core. The distance between my floating limbs and my awareness closed, snapping me back to reality instantaneously. Thoughts streamed through my mind, passing like a whirlwind of unrelated ideas, cluttering it with remembered appointments, unread emails, half-finished assignments, and a thousand other things I didn’t want to deal with.
Mumbled recitations of “namaste” accompanied the chimes shortly thereafter, but joining in seemed far too difficult; my head was still spinning. A minute passed and I began to resent the angle at which my spine was pressed against the gymnasium floor. After the music had stopped, and the quiet shuffle of my classmates’ feet had wound down to just a single set headed towards me, I released the built up tension in my ankles by rotating them each in turn until I felt a satisfying crack of the joint.
“Are you alright, Kassie?” my instructor asked. I could hear the furrowed brow in the tone of her voice.
“Of course,” I lied. “I just need a minute.”
I couldn’t see it, but somehow I felt her smile when she said, “Alright” before heading out. She always smiled during class, her eyes narrowing to an almost a cartoon-like slit the more teeth that were on display. It was the kind of smile that lit up her whole face and made you believe that all she ever wanted in life was to teach group fitness classes at a university health center to hung-over undergrads.
The door closed behind her with a distinct click and then I was truly alone in the gym, not just feeling like it. It smelled like the polyurethane wax they used on the hardwood floors and stale body odor from the 8:00AM spinning class, but I was at peace there. In that room, nothing could touch me.
As if to contradict me a familiar prerecorded voice drowned, “Message received” from across the room. Fuck. It was obviously my phone, mocking me for thinking that I could have even a few more moments of peace in my day.
I hugged my knees to my chest and rolled forward, rocking back and forth a few times until the momentum brought me upright enough to catch myself. It was something I used to do when I was little, trying to see how far I could go before I fell over. But even though I’m stronger now my balance was off and I nearly tipped to the side. It was that kind of day.
I got to my feet slowly, feeling the blood rush back to my lower limbs, and found where my shoes were placed up against the wall, toes facing outward and my socks folded neatly inside to hide my room key and iPhone. One new message, it read and so I unlocked the keyboard with a slide of my fingers over the touch screen and pressed delete without reading it. I already knew what it said; I’d been getting the same message for days.
Reluctantly I gathered my belongings and left the gym only to find Michael, the text message sender and my current boyfriend, waiting outside. He was leaning casually up against the wall by the water fountain, acting like he hadn’t a care in the world, but his shoulders were tensed in a way that suggested he’d been there awhile and I could tell that he wasn’t in a good mood. I started heading off down the hall towards the elevators, but he moved quickly and caught my arm before I could take more than a few steps.
“Kassie,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper, “we should talk.”
I made a point of ignoring him and pulled my arm from his grasp.
“Kassie,” he said, again. “Don’t be like that.”
I got a little further down the hall before Michael cut in front of me again, blocking my path. Nearly twice my size, he was too big to move. So I just looked through him, my face blank, hoping that would be enough to make him step aside. It wasn’t. Instead he looked back at me with his big brown eyes, the very same pair that used to make me blush when we first started dating a few months ago. But now I avoided their gaze, unable to truly look him in the eye.
“What do you want, Michael?” I asked finally.
“What do I want?” He laughed, but it was a hollow sound that was more sad than humorous. “You’ve been ignoring me for days.”
I gave an exaggerated eye roll. “And clearly you didn’t take the hint since you’re standing here right now.”
I watched as Michael bit the inside of his lip in that all too familiar way he always did when he was struggling not to say something mean. I’d seen him do it a hundred times before, when tourists have asked stupid questions, when he’s run into an ex-girlfriend, or when watching reality television. He’d even done it the first time we met at a fraternity party off campus when he’d saved me from having my blouse ruined by some drunk frat-star with a too full Solo cup.
After a few more moments of awkward stony silence, curiosity trumped kindness and the urge finally got the better of him. “What the hell is wrong with you, lately?” he asked. “This weekend everything was fine between us. But now…now I just don’t even know, anymore.”
This weekend. This weekend everything had been fine between us. Technically speaking it was Monday that was the problem. It was Monday that I didn’t want to talk about.
“Just talk to me,” he pleaded. “Just tell me what’s going on.”
I could see the desperation in his eyes as much as I could hear it in his voice and at that moment part of me wanted to tell him. I wanted to let him know what I was thinking, to show him how I felt, and to help him understand all of the chaos going on inside me. But I couldn’t find the words. They got caught in my throat behind defensive filters of sarcasm and attitude, shutting him out like the last three months hadn’t meant anything to me.
Because as much as I wanted to tell him, I knew that I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell him what I’d done on Sunday night slash Monday morning. I couldn’t tell him that I’d gotten drunk with my high school ex-boyfriend Kyle during a long weekend trip home for my little cousin’s bar mitzvah. Because even though nothing had happened, Michael would take it personally that I hadn’t told him beforehand about my plans to meet up with Kyle. The two of us had developed an odd sort of friendship since our graduation breakup and this weekend had allowed us to work out the last of our issues; it had been necessary. But even though I’d told Michael repeatedly that it was over between Kyle and I, it still made him uncomfortable to know that we were hanging out again. Telling him about it afterward, I thought, would only make things worse.
When I didn’t respond, Michael threw up his arms in a gesture of surrender. “Fine. Don’t tell me why you’re mad at me.” He raked a hand through his hair with a sigh. It was getting too long, again, falling into his eyes and making him look like a member of a boy-band. But unless I told him, it’d probably grow out for a few more weeks before he ever did anything about it. Michael was careless about his looks that way, like he didn’t know how attractive he was. It was one of the things that I liked about him.
“Just call me when you’re ready,” he said.
I watched him walk away, following his retreat towards the elevators, and let go of the breath that I’d unconsciously been holding. My thoughts were all over the place, caught up in everything that had happened recently. The events of this past weekend kept running through my mind like an old filmstrip, flashing a continuous stream of memories. I saw Kyle and I sitting on his back porch drinking beers and talking; I remembered my calls to Michael about the bar mitzvah ceremony; I remembered Kyle leaning in to kiss me and then saw myself pushing him away; I saw Michael waiting for me at the bus station a few days ago to pick me up.
Michael pushed the button for down and as he waited for the elevator to come to our floor I took another deep breath to steady myself. All week I’d tried to convince myself that I was innocent. But every time that I looked at Michael and his big brown eyes I felt them tug at my heartstrings, making me sick with unease.
The elevator doors opened and Michael stepped inside. Now facing the doors, he looked at me, still standing right where he’d left me in the middle of the hallway, my feet rooted to the floor as if nailed there. Time was moving in slow motion for me, thick with uncertainty. I was treating him horribly, but his expression was empty of anger. If anything he seemed disappointed.
What the hell was I doing? Why didn’t I just talk to him? Why couldn’t I just tell him the truth? He didn’t deserve to be treated like this. Awkward little freshman me had lucked into meeting him at that party. He was a junior and the type of guy that every girl on this campus wanted to meet; the kind that never forgot your birthday and brought you chicken soup when you were sick. He was adorable and sweet and I was half in love with him already. But right then I was caught between hurting his feelings and lying to him; I didn’t know which was worse, and neither choice was fair to Michael.
I didn’t even know who I could go to for advice about it, either. My new friends had never met Kyle and they wouldn’t understand what his friendship meant to me. They wouldn’t understand how much he’d been there for me in high school, how he’d stayed with me through my family’s financial crisis, my difficulties with my black sheep brother, and everything else, too. But my friends all knew and loved Michael; telling them about Kyle would only make them feel guilty, too.
Guilt. That was the feeling I’d been running from all week, wasn’t it? When I was little my mother always used to say that she could forgive me for anything, so long as I told her the truth. Lying, she’d said, was the worst crime. Lies crawled inside you like spiders, spinning webs around your heart and blackening it until everything was so out of control that you didn’t know which way was out anymore. But if I told him the truth, would I be telling him for the right reasons? Or was my own guilty conscience a good enough excuse to hurt his feelings?
The doors began to close, and before I really understood what I was doing I found myself calling out his name and chasing after him.
He looked up, surprised, and made a move to keep the doors open, but it was too late. I was too late. The elevator sealed shut with a metallic whoosh and then began its decent to the ground floor. Crap.
But there had to be stairs, right? Somewhere down this ridiculously long hallway there would have be stairs. The universe could not be so cruel as to deny me now, not when I’d already decided to be brave. I began to run its length, looking for the entrance to a staircase, my heart rate increasing from the adrenaline of my decision as well as the exercise, though I still had no idea what exactly I was going to say. I only knew that I was going to say something. Finally, at the far end of the hall I found the door marked with the little white and black symbol for stairs and followed them down the three flights to the ground floor.
I found him waiting by the elevator, trying to come back upstairs to me. “Patience is a virtue,” they say and Michael seemed to have had it in spades.
“What is it, Kassie?” he asked when I approached him. There was hope in his eyes, hope that I’d give him answers.
For a moment I struggled to find the words, again. What exactly was the best way to put my insanity into words? I couldn’t just blurt it out.
“I wanted to tell you…that I’m not mad at you.” I finally said for lack of a more eloquent delivery technique. “And that I’m sorry that I’ve been ignoring your calls recently.”
He smiled, almost like he was a bit proud of me for “manning up.”
I gave a weak smile back and then continued, trying to explain as best as I could. “But I’ve been avoiding you because I didn’t know how to tell you the truth. Not without hurting you. And I’m still not even sure if I should tell you the truth in case it does hurt you. Because hurting you is the last thing that I want.”
“And what is the truth, Kassie?” His body was tensed again, almost as if braced for the impact my words were about to have, and his fists were clenched at his sides.
I took a deep breath and then let it all out in a rush. Was I seriously about to do this? Was I really about to open that proverbial can of worms? I pulled my gaze up from the floor and looked into his face, searching for the right thing to do. And when I found his expression to be as soft and patient as ever I felt the guilt squeeze tighter around my heart. Yes, I was going to do this.
“That I saw Kyle this weekend,” I finally admitted, my eyes glued to the floor again. I couldn’t look him in the eye right then and say it; couldn’t face him that way. It hadn’t felt truly final until then, not until the words had actually left my mouth. But now that they were floating out there in the world and said aloud, there was no taking them back.
I wanted to disconnect myself from my body in that moment, to feel like I had just ten minutes ago on the gymnasium floor and to be too far away to see the hurt on Michael’s face. But at the same time, I experienced a deep feeling of relief; no matter what happened between us now, the damage was done. There was no going back.