By Natalie Intihar
Cole sits, perched at the end of my bed. With his head in his hands, he just stares off into space, and I watch him, tapping my foot against the shag carpet. My head is completely spinning and I’m at a complete loss for words. It is a good thing he speaks first, breaking the awful silence:
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to want to be with anyone else again,” he says quietly. “I just feel so messed up after everything that happened.”
Though what he is saying is cutting me to the bones, I completely understand why he feels this way. When the person you once thought was the love of your life won’t allow you to move on, you fall into this loop of being stuck on them, even if you don’t realize it. I’ve been there; I think he knows this. But that doesn’t mean this moment doesn’t sting.
Looking up at me suddenly, he asks me if I think there’s something wrong with him. If I’m being entirely honest with myself, I don’t know. But out loud, I tell him no:
“She was your first love. It’s only natural that it will take you a really long time to fully get over it. It’s hard. You’ll probably never get over it all the way”
He sighs. I try to stop tapping my foot, but instead end up spinning my heart shaped ring around my ring finger. Cole doesn’t notice. He looks like he’s off in another world, and I wonder if he’s thinking back about his past.
I don’t want to be talking about Lily right now. What I really want is to be pulled flush to him, his hands around my waist and mine in his hair, with nothing on my mind but the feeling of bliss and the taste of his lips on mine. But here we are.
I’m just trying not to cry. Trying my damndest not to think about the heat of his skin pressed against mine, the way my eyes fluttered shut as we leaned in before he pulled back suddenly and panicked. He isn’t helping; as he sits in silence processing, I can feel myself getting closer and closer to running out the room sobbing. I didn’t start this, but I sure as hell am ready to end it.
He finally looks up at me, staring deep into my eyes before whispering.
“I think you should leave.”
I hold his gaze for a second too long and feel my breath catch in my throat. Cole’s been sleeping at my place most nights to avoid his roommate, but I need it to myself tonight.
As he’s grabbing his things, he turns back to face me one last time. “I’m sorry, Ari. I wish I was ready.”
All the things I want to say to him are stuck in my throat beneath a thick layer of tears. It takes all of me to whisper goodbye, and to watch him shut the door as he walks out. The minute the door is closed, I collapse to the floor in a fit of tears.
3 Months Earlier
It had been six months since I had seen Cole. For two people who spent almost every day together before I went away, it had been exhausting and difficult to stay as close as we were prior to my departure. But we were trying to fight through the communication issues, and therefore were on a strict regime of talking twice a week. One night, we were on the phone and he mentioned her name for the first time since our last argument.
“Lily hasn’t texted me in a while.”
“About a month.”
“How do you know?”
“You told me the last time she texted you.”
He paused here and waited for the inevitable snippiness he had come to expect from me in our conversations about Lily. When it doesn’t come, he said, “I wonder if it’s finally over.”
“I doubt it,” I told him. “She’s gotten what she wanted. Why would she let you move on now?”
I could almost feel him cocking his head at me across the phone. As much as a part of me wished we were having that conversation in person, I was glad to be able to stare at the bouncing Hulu logo across my TV screen instead of his face while we’re talking about Lily.
“But I have moved on,” he said, and I wondered if he’s telling himself this or telling me.
“No you haven’t.” I bit back the urge to snap. Cole’s indecisiveness had nothing to do with Lily coming around every time he’s finally willing to give us a legitimate shot. I took a deep breath before continuing. “You think you’ve moved on because you don’t wanna be with her anymore. But that doesn’t mean you wanna be with anyone else.”
Pushing back against my worn, leather couch in the middle of my apartment, I got to my feet. “Just by being in your head, she’s still getting exactly what she wants.”
I could suddenly hear the crickets outside my window in the silence while he pondered this. “I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
I nodded, forgetting briefly that he couldn’t see me. “Yeah.”
“You’re good with putting my thoughts into words, Ari.”
The conversation shifted here to talking about what it’ll be like when I finally got to visit him back home in Jacksonville the following week. And I almost forgot entirely about Lily for a brief moment. It’s easier that way, to ignore the sinking feeling in my chest everytime I hear her name on his lips. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to deal with it.
When we were finally back in Jacksonville again, Cole and I went to brunch with his dad and older sister Carly. He insists on me going with them, even though it’s their last time together for the next couple of months. I realized partway through the meal just how comfortable I am with them, and how this time has reaffirmed how easy it would be for me to fit in his life. Across the table, he beamed at me, and I wondered if he’s thinking the same thing.
On the drive home, his phone lit up. I was driving my truck, my left hand waving out the window in time to the country music blaring through the speakers. I thought nothing of his sudden silence- if after all this time, we couldn’t sit in silence, there was something wrong with us. As I hummed the words to one of his favorite songs, he piped up.
“You were right.”
I was surprised by this admission; It isn’t often he willingly concedes something to me. “Huh?”
“She did text me again,” he said, and I can feel him in the corner of my eye watching me, looking for my reaction.
The last time she had texted him, it had caused a whole lot of insecurity on my end. It was really hard to watch this cycle go over and over again, knowing it was pulling him back and knowing it was pulling me back. I knew that conversation is weighing on his mind as I keep driving, facing straight ahead as though I never heard him.
I snorted after a moment. “Can I say I told you so?” It was taking all of my energy to keep my eyes on the road, to not give in to the ringing in my head. While I rarely get angry, the feelings are multiplied when I do. I could feel the blood rushing to my head, and I knew that if I was to tell him exactly how I’m feeling about it, it wouldn’t go well.
“What did she say?”
He looked down at the message, and I realized he hadn’t looked at what she had to say until telling me first. “She asked if I was back in Jacksonville yet.” Back with me, though I highly doubt she even knew I existed.
Instead of responding, I pulled into the bank parking lot and put the truck in park. I asked Cole if he needs anything before hopping down and immediately landing in a puddle of muddy water. For a second I just stood there, screaming at the sky, feeling like an overdramatic teenager. Then I went inside, hoping that the handful of moments I’ll be without Cole in the bank will help me to calm the screaming inside my head.
It didn’t. And when I got back in the truck, he asked me what’s going on. I gave him the truth, that I don’t know why it makes me so mad, but it makes me so mad that I can’t see. When a couple seconds passed without him responding, I asked him if he still wants me to take him back to his apartment for a bit.
He surprised me when he says no. “I’ll come back with you until you’ve calmed down.”
I nodded, suddenly choked up. I doubted that he had any idea how badly I needed to just be with him for a minute, without the pressure of any pretenses. One of my favorite things about him was how I could be completely myself in his presence — no need for me to filter or to try and be something more than what I was in that moment. He was the first person to ever truly accept me for every part of me, no matter how messy. And I figure that was why I felt so strongly about everything involving Lily, that it’s just some weird, protective instinct I have over him.
That day is the last day I allowed myself to be bothered by Lily. He sat with me on the couch watching Love Island until I nod off. When I woke up later that afternoon, he had wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and had gone and passed out in my bed. When I wandered in to see him sleeping soundly there, I realized there is no need for me to feel so threatened by someone who is so far away when he’s clearly right here with me, completely ignoring everything else.
Cole was camped out on my giant papasan chair when I got back from work one night. The long nights are a staple of my job as a clerk at one of Jacksonville’s many law offices, and making it back to my apartment late in the evening is not unusual. Cole’s presence is also not unusual, though the tired look on his face is. While I’m not surprised he’s there — he tends to abuse his key — I am surprised at the thoughtful way he looks at me when I walk in. His long, toned, tanned, legs are stretched out across the cushion, and he’s staring at the black tv screen thoughtfully while running a hand through his floppy chestnut hair. I’m frustrated that I notice how he looks. I wave at him and walk into my adjoining bedroom to take a shower; I know he’ll be in the same spot when I get out.
True to what I had anticipated, he hadn’t moved in the time in which I showered. I grabbed the remote from him and flopped on the couch adjacent to where he was sitting. He looked up at me after a few minutes of watching the first Star Wars and asked if he could tell me something. I nodded, too exhausted to wonder what was actually up.
“I just remembered something.”
“What?” I deadpanned.
“I used to sit on this kinda chair with Lily.” I raised an eyebrow at this, and he elaborated. “Yeah. She’s really short, so she’d curl up on me here,” he gestured to his muscled chest, “and then her legs would go over the edge of the chair.”
I squinted at him a little. While Lily is no longer a point of contention between us, I was still surprised he would bring it up so randomly, which I voiced: “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I was trying to figure out if we would be able to fit on it.”
At this admission, I thought what the fuck to myself. We had been very intentional up to this point about keeping a reasonable amount of distance between ourselves — when he slept over, we both almost fell off the bed trying to stay away from the other. Out loud, however, I accepted the challenge in his eyes. “Oh? Why would we not be able to?”
“You’re a little taller than she was,” he said, which is weird, because I’m only 5’3. “Plus the chair is more of a turtle shell.”
At this, I rolled my eyes. Any excuse to talk about an animal. While Cole worked as a physical trainer now, in another life, I saw him being a marine biologist. Cole’s obsession with animals popped up in many conversations between us, particularly ones in which animals were certainly not relevant.
“Doesn’t mean I couldn’t do it,” I said.
“I don’t buy it.”
“Fine,” I said, and tossed my blanket onto the floor. “Move over.”
After a series of awkward maneuvers where I attempted to climb on the chair without either knocking the chair off its base or straddle him, I eventually made it on. I realized soon after curling up against him that it was an absolutely terrible idea for me to be this close to him. The tension in the room was palpable. But since he didn’t say anything, I kept silent, and instead baited him into an argument about whose legs get to be stacked on whose.
We sat like this for a while, watching the first Star Wars in the background. And at some point, I felt myself let down my guard a little, and rested my head on his shoulder. When he turned to be a smartass about it, I muttered “shut it” and we both laughed before returning to a happy silence. I caught myself thinking more than once about how lucky I was to feel so happy with someone else. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment when you’re so close to someone that you can feel their heartbeat, I told myself, that’s all.
He surprised me at the end of the night by pressing a kiss to my forehead before getting up off the chair. In my half asleep state, I blinked up at him a couple times, and he just smiled softly back at me. It all felt so natural, and some part of me wondered why even minutes earlier I was so focused on ignoring the feelings building in my chest.
I’m sitting quietly on the couch reading a book the day after the failed kiss when there is a sudden knock on the door. The sound surprises me — I’m not expecting any deliveries or any guests anytime soon, nor do I want any company after last night. I know that Cole will want to talk about it later today, but for now, I’m burying myself in the depths of another cheesy Julia Quinn romance novel.
“Coming,” I call out as I swing my legs off the couch and place the book facedown on the table.
Opening the door, I am greeted by a familiar face, though one I never had anticipated meeting in person. Lily is as tiny as Cole had described her, though she fidgeted nervously with a piece of her sleek black hair. All I could do was blink back at her as we stared at each other in silence.
She eventually broke it. “Hi,” she said, her voice deeper than I had anticipated. “Is Cole here? He gave me this address.”
I shook my head, a million thoughts coursing through my mind. The loudest thought was wondering why Cole hadn’t told me Lily was coming. He gave her my address, not his own, which made no sense.
“He’s out running.”
“Oh.” She paused. “Can I come in for a minute?”
I’m still in shock at this point, but curiosity ultimately prevailed over my internal disdain for the entire situation. “Sure,” I say, and wait until she’s walked through the door to slam it shut behind her.
She sits awkwardly at the edge of the couch, and I hesitate before telling her to make herself comfortable. I doubt this conversation will be particularly fun for either of us; she might as well make herself feel more at home.
What I want to say to fill the awkward silence is some variation of ‘what the fuck are you doing in my apartment,’ but I tell myself that the time to be bitchy will ultimately be with Cole, and not Lily, who I don’t even remotely know.
“Do you know who I am?” she asks quietly, though not rudely.
I nod. “Do you know who I am?”
She shakes her head, so I continue. “I’m Ariana. I’m Cole’s…” at this I have to pause before continuing, “best friend. This is my apartment.”
Lily looks at me with something like sympathy in her eyes, which sends a twinge of anger through me. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m here.”
“Yep.” What I don’t add is how much I am wondering why she is here, and not at Cole’s apartment. Did he really want us to meet that badly? He never gave me that idea, though the fact Lily is here at all is making me question how well I knew him.
I can feel her wanting to hold back the information she’s clearly here to tell Cole. But she invited herself into my apartment, so she gets to answer my questions.
She pauses before blurting out in a rush, “Cole and I slept together a month ago.”
The amount of swearing in my head has reached new levels I did not know were possible. “And why are you telling me this?”
She doesn’t respond immediately, diverting instead to ask me, “Do you know why he gave me your address instead of his own?”
“He’s here a lot.”
I can see this register before she wonders out loud, “Are you two together?”
She nods before continuing. “He came over last time he went back to Tampa. I’m sure you don’t want the details,” I nod emphatically and she goes on, “It was just for one night. And I was coming to town this weekend and he wanted to see me so, here I am.”
I’m wondering how insecure I would seem if I ask her if he mentioned me when she speaks up again. “I’ve been in love with him since we were seventeen. I thought we were over for good because he stopped responding to me, but then he asked to see me and I guess I was wrong.”
All I can think is that I guess I was wrong too. And I’m opening my mouth to say something when the door swings open and Cole walks through, a look of shock on his face at seeing me and Lily together.
I immediately get up and walk over to him. “You have a lot of explaining to do, but I don’t want to hear it right now. Talk to Lily. Figure your shit out and then you and I need to talk.” I say all of this low enough that she can’t hear it before throwing on shoes, grabbing my keys and storming out of my own apartment.
When I get back to my apartment hours later, the sky is painted pink and purple and the sun is hiding behind the thin veil of trees in the distance. My head is still spinning; Cole’s truck is still in the parking lot. And I know down to my bones that no amount of driving around the city, no amount of staring at the waves crashing on the beach will calm down the inferno going on in my head. My whole body is cold, even as it is 80 degrees outside; anger keeps me warm.
When I push the door open, Cole is alone, sitting on the papasan chair, playing on his phone. He looks up when I come in, and sits up in preparation for the conversation that is to follow.
“Hi,” he says cautiously after a few minutes of me putzing around the kitchen, ignoring him.
I don’t respond.
“Ari,” he tries again. “Talk to me.”
I still don’t say a word.
Eventually, I sit down on the edge of the couch, eerily similar to the way Lily did when she entered my apartment earlier this morning. His eyes are worried; I stay silent. I have nothing to say to him.
He takes a deep breath. “I should have told you.”
“I don’t know why I didn’t.”
At this, I just glare at him, a single eyebrow raised. “Yeah, right.”
I don’t know how he expected me to react. For someone who knows me better than anyone else in the world, I feel like he should know exactly how this conversation needs to go, but he’s talking to me like I’m someone he doesn’t know. If anything, he’s someone that I don’t know.
“You lied to me,” I say, pursing my lips as I look intently at him from across the room. “We don’t lie to each other.” We had made a pact about lying days after meeting, and neither of us had ever broken it before.
“Were you ever actually going to tell me?” I ask.
His silence is enough of an answer that I don’t need to ask any follow up questions.
“You almost fucking kissed me last night. And then you didn’t even have the decency to tell me the real reason why you didn’t go through with it.”
I can no longer sit still. “For months now, you’ve been leading me on. And then you went and slept with your ex, soon after telling me I no longer had to worry about her, that someday you would want to be with me and only me.”
Taking a swig of water, I pause. “How fucking dare you.” I slam the water on the counter before continuing. “I don’t give a flying fuck that you slept with your ex. I care that you didn’t tell me. I care that after all we’ve been through, after all this time, you chose her over me.”
Cole has been staring at his hands the entirety of me yelling at him. After I stop, he looks at me for a minute before responding. I have a lot more I want to say, a lot more names I want to call him, but I want to hear him speak.
He sighs. “I should have told you.” Another sigh. “I didn’t plan on this happening. I promise. It just kinda happened.
“After it happened I was just so confused and didn’t know if I still had feelings for her or not. It literally didn’t hit me until last night that I realized I did still want to be with her. Until then, I still wasn’t sure if it was you or her.”
I stare at him incredulously. “You spent an entire month debating if you wanted to be with her, and didn’t feel like mentioning it once?”
He nods, looking more resigned than ashamed. “What was I supposed to do, tell you and then figure it out later?”
“Yep. Because I could have walked away a month ago instead of today.”
He blinks. “You would have walked away from me?”
“I am walking away from you now.”
He still looks completely flummoxed, even as he realizes I’m being completely serious when my face doesn’t soften or break out into laughter.
“Obviously you want to be with Lily and not with me. And obviously you don’t value our friendship enough to let me know how you really feel about me. So I’m done.” I get up from my perch one last time. “I hope she’s worth it.”
Making eye contact with him for the first time since I walked in the door, I frankly say, “I’m getting all your shit you’ve left here, and then you’re giving me your key and leaving,” before walking into my closet and taking a calming breath out my mouth.
I take a second to assess how deeply Cole has become intertwined in my life. A couple of his sweatshirts are hung in the closet, and he has a pile of laundry on the floor next to my hamper. I throw the towel he’s been using on the floor, and chuck his toothbrush straight into the pile of dirty socks. I toss it all into a plastic bag before heading to the kitchen, where I throw all his food out from the fridge straight into the garbage while he watches.
“Are you really doing this, Ari?” he asks, seeming shocked at me tossing all his belongings into a bag and kicking him out the door. “I didn’t think you’d react like this.”
I pause my venture into the hall closet to grab his winter jacket to retort, “You clearly didn’t think at all, Cole. We both know that.” After throwing the coat and his hats into the bag, I hold out my hand.
He undoes the key from his lanyard and mutters something about if it would kill me to be supportive, to which I smile broadly and tell him it would indeed kill me to be supportive. Then I add that he shouldn’t come crawling back when everything blows up in his face in a month. Clapping my hands together and beaming like an elementary school teacher, I bend down and hand him the bag containing all his shit.
Cole tries one last time after taking the bag from me to get me to listen to him, almost pleading at this point.
“Ari, come on. I deserve a chance to tell you everything before you kick me out.” He looks at me with pleading eyes, but I am far beyond falling for that shit.
“I don’t deserve what you’ve put me through.” I say bluntly. “Obviously you’re not the man I thought you were.”
He rolls his eyes there, and I just open the door and wave him out. “Good luck,” I say, gesturing at the walkway and waiting for him to leave.
Cole picks up the bag and his pillows from the living room and walks over to the door. “Bye, Ari. Call me when you’re ready to talk.” He dips the bag onto his arm, reaches to pat my head and then walks out. I slam the door shut behind him, and slide down along the door, putting my head in my hands and breathing slowly to attempt and lower my racing heartbeat.
Six Months Later
I run into Cole’s older sister Carly at my favorite beach one sunny weekend. She’s alone, and when she walks over to me, I don’t immediately realize it’s her. Carly and I got along fabulously while Cole and I were close, and I can’t deny that I’ve missed her company in the last couple of months since my relationship with Cole ended. Their family was originally from Destin, though Carly moved to Jacksonville soon after Cole and I graduated from Florida State.
Carly asks if she can put her towel next to mine, and I nod, putting my headphones back in their case and sitting up. She lays down and we sit in silence for a few minutes, the waves crashing in the background filling the silence between us.
Eventually, she breaks it. “I’ve missed you, girl.”
I nod, smiling sadly. “Me too.”
We go back to sitting in silence and just enjoy the moment. Before Cole and I stopped speaking, Carly and I spent many a day at this very beach, unwinding and just hanging out. My job made it difficult for me to make many friends, but Carly was an easy, steady presence in my life for almost as long as Cole was.
As the sun shifts across the sky, Carly and I chat about her new job as well as my upcoming travel plans. We have plenty to catch up about, and spend the day quietly enjoying each other’s company; Carly is as comfortable to be around as ever, even after all the time we had spent apart. She is certainly aware of the situation with Cole at the present, but is kind enough not to bring it or even him up immediately.
When the sun starts setting, she rolls over and I can tell she’s wanting to ask if I miss Cole, or if I’ve talked to him at all. Because I love Carly, I save her the energy of figuring out how to word it.
“Sometimes I do miss him. But I still don’t want to talk to him.”
I roll back onto my back, facing the setting sun once more. “I just want to move on. It’s just easier to forget.”
She nods. “Maybe you’ll come back together and be friends again someday.”
Out of politeness, I say, “maybe someday.” But we both know that as certain as the waves crashing on the beach, Cole will stay in my memory, and that’s how it was meant to be.