“I’ll Be” by Edwin McCain from Songs to Get Weepy To: A Mix
“No kidding?” Hank asked as he slid into the red pleather booth, the clatter of silverware and post-bar patrons filling his ears.
“Not a bit of kidding,” Gail replied. “It’s not funny, but…you know.”
“Yeah, exactly. I mean, he just bled his heart out in front of me over one date. And not even a real date. A coffee date. I…how does your heart not break little for that, you know?”
“So you gave him another date?”
“Oh goodness no. I said it broke a little. Just a little.”
Both giggled and opened their menus in unison.
After ordering the two eased back into their respective seats, backs slouching against squeaky candy apple red and eyed each other.
“Anymore funny date stories,” Hank asked hopefully.
Gail shook her head, “Nah. You?
Wordlessly, he raised his hand and pointed to his wedding band.
“Right,” she groaned, mining slapping her own forehead, “I still forget.”
“Well, it has only been three years, so recent really, anyone would have a hard time remembering.”
“No need to be sarcastic,” she fired back in reply, smirking.
Hank held his hands up in mock surrender.
“It’s just…weird, you know? You’re definitely an adult now. Married, house, car…all that nonsense. Most of us still have our parents’ names on the titles of our vehicle and are living in trashy apartments telling ourselves exposed brick makes up for a criminally small amount of square footage.”
“Ahh, the good old days. I remember them well.”
“No you don’t. You were out in the real world for like a week before you got engaged. You have no familiarity with any old days, good or otherwise.”
Waving her away, Hank changed the subject and the two lapsed into that old rhythm. They interacted in the way old friends who want to be good at staying in touch but never really are do. Trying to extract some random bit of old news and asking for an update, hoping like hell it was accurately recalled. Sanding down the edges of sharp memories. Avoiding the still unhealed hurts a relationship can gather on its hull. They revisited each others’ exes, the ones they hated and the ones they kind of liked and the ones that never really made sense. They told the story, in tandem to each other, of that one time they stole beer from the front steps of that fraternity and drank it all on the roof of the library, with two more of their friends, on the roof of the library. They internally smiled at the altered, forgotten, or ignored details and tried to not note their own moments of doing the same.
And, in this way, an evening passes quickly.
“Do you remember the third night of Senior Week,” Gail piped up. She had not intended to bring it up. It was not one of she and Hank’s greatest hit stories, but something had triggered the memory of it the other day. It had stuck with her since and she, almost literally, could not herself from giving voice to it.
Hank paused, sipping his third cup of coffee, then squinted, as though he could see the memory in the distance and needed to bring it into focus.
“Yes,” he began hesitantly, spitting out details, “North side of the Greenville Green. Sitting against that one ugly gnarled tree. Watching the Luau Dance. Passing back and forth a bottle of…wait what the hell was that?”
“It was a water bottle filled with Rum and Coke.”
“That’s right,” he almost shouted, slapping the table, “We made them in Jakey’s room just before and then promised we would meet them all, but we had to run back to my dorm for something. And instead, we walked until we were hidden in the dark and sat against the tree and drank.”
Both sat in silence, the coolness of that May night several years earlier settling around them again, in a diner some 800 miles away from where they went to school.
“Christ,” Hank muttered, as the rest of the memory caught up with him, “That was…I just—three hours before that I found out my uncle had died. How did I forget that part?”
Gail offered a noncommittal gentle half smile, feeling lousy. This was what made her hesitant to bring it up.
“Wow. Yeah. But I don’t remember that night being bad though. Weird, right? It should’ve been terrible, but…”
“But what?” Gail pushed him.
“Nothing,” he shrugged. “I just…I can remember not wanting that moment to end. Not wanting to have to get up and go back to my dorm. Not wanting our friends to stop dancing and screaming on the other side of the field. Not wanting the morning to erase all those stars.”
She nodded, “Yeah, I vaguely remember you saying that. I remember thinking I agreed. It took almost 4 years and I don’t know how many water bottles filled with coke and rum, but that was the first time I felt like, ‘Yes, this is college.’”
After playing with the edge of her napkin for a moment, she added, “Wow. I was such a fucking melancholy 22 year old, huh?”
Hank pondered that.
“I never thought so,” he concluded. “I always thought you were just…I don’t know. Happier with the flat spots, not the peaks or the valleys. You liked when everything seemed to stop. I remember Breanna saying that the ideal place for you was in the middle of the parted Red Sea. That you’d just dig on that feeling of being, somehow, right in the middle of utter chaos and yet utterly and completely standing on dry land.”
He took another drink of coffee, cringing at it having gone cold, “I don’t know, she put it better than that.”
“Were you…you were going to kill yourself that night, weren’t you?” she whispered, finally asking that question she had kept under her tongue since it first occurred to her.
“What?!” he balked.
“Sorry, sorry. It’s just…you dropped the note when you pulled your keys out. You were drunk. We both were. But you didn’t notice and I did. I grabbed it out of the grass and…I shouldn’t have, but I was wondering what it was, this light blue envelope. So I opened it up. And there was your note.”
He stared at her, eyes glassy.
“I never told a soul,” she rushed to reassure. “Not one! I waited a half hour and slipped into your room when I knew you were asleep and hid it in your jacket pocket.”
“Were you…were you worried?” he croaked out.
“Terrified. I sat in the hall outside your door all night. Hoping I’d hear you if you tried anything so I could stop you. When you went to the bathroom at 5, that’s why I was there. It wasn’t because I had just woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep so I was there to borrow a movie.”
“God, Gail, I’m so sorr—”
She grabbed his hand across the table. “Don’t be,” she soothed. “I just…I never said anything to you because I was scared I’d…I don’t know. Maybe that just mentioning it would push you over the edge.”
“That’s not how—”
“I know that now. But then. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea you were so…that you just felt so alone. None of us did. If I could’ve guessed who was planning to die that night, I would’ve guessed most of our graduating class before I even considered your name.”
“Yeah,” he breathed out, staring at the “Solve the Maze” children’s paper placemat in front of him. “Why tell me now?”
“I got tired of carrying Hank,” she admitted. “I felt like I was hiding it from you and I got tired of that. And I wanted to, finally, make sure you’re ok.”
He laughed a little, laughed with honesty, but the laughter broke the crystal sheen over his eyes and tears began to weave their way down his cheeks.
“Yeah. Yes,” he reassured her. “I’m ok. I’m very much ok.”
The duo went quiet, listening to the bustle of the 24 hour diner as the drunk and their designated drivers began to seemingly file out all at once.
“Can I…can I ask why not?” Gail managed.
“Why I didn’t kill myself that night?”
“Yeah. Right. That.”
“Really? You want that I go through with it?”
“No I just…your note sounded so…decided.”
“I was. Then I wasn’t. Then I was. Then you said, ‘I can’t believe this is almost over. Everything’s so damn temporary.’ And you were right. And I knew it. I was miserable and in so much pain, but it was just temporary. If it lasted another day, another week, another month, it would still end. I didn’t need to open my wrists to do it.”
“Plus, the next morning, after I gave you that movie, I ran down to the caf for a corn muffin and ran into Melanie and we totally hooked up.”
“What? You’re kidding me!?!?”
“Ass!” she exclaimed, slapping his arm, “What the hell?!”
“I don’t know, it’s just a better ending then, ‘I grasped the concept of time passes.’ And I really wanted to hook up with Melanie.”
“So I saved your life?” Gail asked, blushing a bit.
“Yeah,” he admitted, somehow sounding nonchalant, “You basically did.”
“Wow,” she whispered to herself.
The waitress brought the check then, looking annoyed at them holding the seat for so long. Hank put down a large tip and her demeanor changed.
“Sorry for hogging the table,” Gail apologized and the waitress left, mollified.
They left the restaurant and walked in loping strides to the subway stop at the end of the block.
“So,” Hank said, a statement and question at once.
“Are we…are you…is this good?” he asked.
“Very. So very. I love you, you know that.”
“And I love you too Gail. And thank you. For tonight. For then. For everything in between.”
She nodded but didn’t dare say anything. He nodded back and grasped her shoulder for a moment. Then, without another word, Gail ascended the stairs to go uptown and he descended the stairs to catch the last train out.