She was wearing mismatched socks.
One blue, one orange.
Her hair had been straightened—not by her; it looked too good—and it was hanging loose. The dress, long sleeved, grey, reached just past her knees. The heels on her boots, lying wet on the welcome mat, he knew without looking would be one inch high exactly.
She was carrying her favorite black jacket, twisting the arm as she smiled hopefully up at him. “George.”
That last month had been bad.
That night six months ago, on the phone, talking over each other: “I can’t come tonight; I’m sick.”
“I have to go pick up my aunt from the airport.”
The relief that she wasn’t going out, that he didn’t have to hide, and then running into each other later, at the same party. Staring at each other, not saying anything, because what was there to say?
The end, watching black heels disappear.
At a different party, two years ago. Her in a red dress, in red strappy heels, in red lipstick, her hair tied up in a red silk ribbon, drifting towards him. He hadn’t known, then, that she never wore red, that she had borrowed it from a friend, had come to the party, had come to talk to him, all on a dare. He had asked her name.
Cynthia. That name. It caught in the back of his throat, still, six months later. The sound of it, the way it looked on paper. That name. The most romantic thing about her.
In a month he’d been saying it every day, then he’d been shortening it, replacing it with pet names. Maybe that’s why her parents had never liked him. The things he called her. Cyn and Sin, a beautiful synonym, and her, pretending not to notice. Her, in red, so perfect.
“So, what do you do?”
Saying nervously, as if it were the kind of question she could answer wrong: “I’m in college
still. Going to be a teacher in a few more years. You?”
“I own a hardware store.” He’d always thought it something to be proud of, owning his own business before most people were out of college. But her parents hadn’t liked that, either. Maybe they disapproved of hardware.
Exchanging phone numbers at the end of the night, Cynthia fumbling for paper, mumbling something, her face as red as her dress. Beginning to realize she’d never done this before. It was the first of many times she’d forget her phone over the nineteen months they were together—hence the paper. Strange how someone could be so on top of everything else, yet always forget her phone.
At the little coffee place on Tenth Avenue, two days later. She’d walked in with black heels, a black skirt reaching just past her knees. A silky button up shirt. Her hair tied up, only a few loose curls hanging down.
A perfect half hour, her staring up at him, laughing sometimes. Half believing the fairy tales he told, but too smart, he thought, not to know that he wanted to impress her. Always looking surprised when he wanted her to contribute to the conversation.
Saying, as she stood to go, “I like you. I didn’t think I would.”
Why had she gone out with him then, he’d asked, and she’d told him about the dare. “Well, you didn’t have to go out when I called, just because we talked at a party.”
“I felt bad, though. And I’d never been asked out. It was going to be an adventure.” And that was when he began to wonder what was wrong with her, that no one had asked her out in twenty years. “And I do like you. You make me laugh. And you listen to me.”
Who wouldn’t? That smile, and her in red. Her, surprised to be listened to. He wanted to hear every word she had to say, forever. Wanted her to always be laughing. The problem was with them, clearly. The ones who’d never asked her out. The ones who’d never listened to her.
She’d told him, months later, that she didn’t like coffee.
“You could have told me.”
“But you asked me out for coffee. I had to have it.”
“You could have gotten tea. Hot chocolate. We could have done something else, if I’d known.”
“I’m sorry.” Almost always, their conversations ended like this, her apologizing for something inconsequential, even for something that he’d done wrong, not her.
It was on their fifth date that he first saw her not wearing a skirt. He’d planned that date very carefully.
“Yeah. You know how to ride a bike, right?”
“Everyone knows how to ride a bike.” Well, there were a lot of things everyone knew that she didn’t. He’d thought it would be best to check.
“Great. We can ride down that path behind the park—you know the one?—there’s this really nice little hill back there. We could have a picnic. I’ll bring the food.”
She agreed, reluctantly, and they met at the park the next day, her in blue jeans and a silky button up shirt, tucked in. Flip flops. The first time he’d seen her not in heels, and suddenly she was one inch shorter. Her hair downgraded from a bun to a pony tail. She looked nervous.
He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Their first kiss, and an incentive, he hoped, to dress like a normal human being more often in the future. They could work on the shirt thing; jeans were a start. “You look great.”
She blushed and didn’t say anything, but when they got off the bikes, when they stopped for lunch, she was talkative and giggly. Leaning over the food he’d laid out, inches from his face, listening wide-eyed to every word he said, and forgetting to look surprised when it was her turn to talk.
Meeting the parents came two months later, an awkward affair that saw the reemergence of Cynthia’s skirts, and George in dress pants and a tie.
“So. You never went to college.”
Her mom leaned forward. “And you’re from Illinois.” Her face scrunched up as she said it, and he looked around the table for lemons.
“Yes, ma’am.” Maybe she didn’t know where Illinois was. Difficult for an Iowan. Maybe she had something against Chicago; some people did. “Western Illinois. About an hour east of here.”
“I see.” Clearly, they weren’t seeing the same thing. George glanced over at Cynthia, but she was staring at the place mats, and wouldn’t meet his eyes, even when he kicked her under the table. She didn’t talk much around her parents. Didn’t smile much, either.
For him she smiled. Talked. Yelled and screamed and laughed. He’d taught her to play basketball—it only took her three hours to stop screaming whenever the ball came towards her, but she’d never gotten the hang of dribbling. Running across the court, holding it close to her chest, laughing and yelling as he caught her and wrestled it away. And he’d taken her camping—her parents hadn’t known they’d shared a tent, because they’d never have believed nothing happened. It had rained all night, and they’d fought for the first time, shouting over the thunder about whether they should go home early, until he realized what it meant that she was arguing with him. That she trusted him. More than her parents—she never said anything they wouldn’t approve of. That she actually thought her opinion mattered, no matter what he said. He’d stopped and just listened to her yelling, until she realized and stopped too. Sat there, staring up at him, quizzical. Asking what he was smiling about. Him laughing a little, trying without much success to explain.
Her, sitting on the checkout counter in a flowing, flowery skirt, swinging her legs, as he took inventory and got ready to close. Her, laughing at a joke he’d told, then stopping mid-giggle, stricken. Him, asking what was wrong.
“I love you.”
As if it were a bad thing, almost, but then she’d swung around and jumped down behind the counter. Stood there waiting until he kissed her, until he said it back. Cynthia, his Cyn, like Heaven in a flowered skirt. Perfect.
She got her first student teaching position when they’d been together a year. He’d visited the school during lunch the first day, mostly to see how she’d get on with messy, noisy, disorganized, informal kids. But she was magic with eight year olds, beautiful, like she was with him, on those days in the apartment above his store. When he could pull her away, just for an afternoon, from the strange world she lived in.
Sitting on his ratty blue couch in jeans and a tee shirt, her hair still wet from when they went swimming, and she refused to take off her cover up and let him see her mostly naked. Pulling him down for a kiss as he walked past to open the door for the pizza guy. Picking off pepperoni and flicking it at his head when he told her to be brave, to try something new. That was the Cynthia he loved, and that was the Cynthia that taught third grade. Her parents had never met that Cynthia.
They probably wouldn’t have liked her much.
He’d been her date to a wedding that spring, for some distant cousin she barely knew. Five hundred people there, and all the women in shades of pink. Cynthia’s mother in that special kind of pastel that somehow makes one more intimidating. Cynthia herself in almost-white, with a pink ribbon around her waist—he still couldn’t understand, after all these months, her aversion to color anytime they were in public.
She’d looked very nice in it, that first night. That red.
It was at the reception that her mother said, “Don’t you think it’s about time you settled down, Cynthia, dear?”
Panicking, she’d glanced at him. A mistake; she never made eye contact around her parents.
“I…I’ve only been with George a year, Mom.”
“Yes, and I think we can all agree that’s quite long enough.”
Silence for a moment before they understood, then Cynthia stood up quickly. Too much. A year of hate. For his store, for Illinois, for calling her Sin, for whatever. But to say that to her. To tell her at a wedding that she should dump him. It was too much, and he saw the tears in her eyes before she turned away.
“I have to go.”
George had followed, had found her in the front seat of his car. “You okay, Cyn?”
She stiffened as he wrapped his arms around her. “I have to choose, don’t I?”
She pushed his arms off and turned to look out the window. “You’ll never be what they want for me.”
“Oh. Me or them.”
“Well. It’s you, of course.” Her voice caught, and she kept staring out the window. He touched her shoulder.
“Let’s get out of here. I don’t even know the groom’s name.” She turned suddenly to smile at him, holding out the keys.
They’d gone bowling in their wedding clothes, and he’d dropped her off at her apartment after midnight, too tired to care about parents. Gone to the school at lunch time the next day, to check up on her.
“Hey.” He touched her, and she turned around. “How you doing?”
“Great,” she said, her smile just a little too big, and then, just a little too fast: “How are you?”
He hadn’t known, then, what that too-big smile, what that too-quick question, would mean someday.
She stayed in his apartment most nights after that, sleeping on the couch; her parents had paid her rent for the next six months, and she was done.
They were good, those months she slept on the couch. Dragging him out of bed in the morning when he didn’t want to go to work. The day she tried to do his laundry for him, and dyed all his shirts pale pink. Refusing to go into his room after dark, because she was a proper young lady, even if she was living with her boyfriend. In the bathroom in the morning, fighting with a flat iron, burning her neck, calling him in to help, sending him away. Coming out, finally, with one curl still sticking up in the back. Giving up when he laughed, sticking her head under the sink. Her, shuffling into the kitchen at six in the morning after a very late night, still half asleep, to see him before he went to work. Her, a virgin goddess in mismatched socks, too tired to see what she was wearing. Noticing, running back to change them, eating bacon, kissing him goodbye, becoming human again. Her. Just her.
And then the phone call, then the long, stressful nights, crying. The bright colors, so recently introduced, disappearing from her wardrobe again. Black for mourning, getting a head start. Long days without her, her at her parents’ house, her at the hospital. Him at home, because he would never be what they wanted for her.
She’d chosen him. “Of course,” she’d said. But there were some things “Of course” couldn’t compete with. A phone call from a doctor. A mother in an operating room that smelled like death, thin and pale and bald. George had only seen her once. After that, he waited for Cynthia to come home, held her while she cried. He’d tried to joke, a little, at first, and she’d tried to laugh, a little, at first, but they’d given up on that after the first few weeks, and she’d stopped coming home from the hospital at night.
A funeral, finally, at the end of the summer, hot and beautiful, the sun shining, black pants stifling, everyone sweating. Her, standing beside her father, her, with a black dress that made her look half dead, her, crying in front of a gravestone. And him, standing at the side, only there for decoration. You couldn’t miss your girlfriend’s mother’s funeral. Even if she did hate you.
More long days and nights alone, Cynthia back at home, back with her dad, saying “I’m sorry, he needs me, I’m sorry,” until he was glad to see her go, just so he could stop forgiving her. Brief meetings outside the school at lunch time, long, sad phone calls, then short, strained ones. Her dad all alone now, a pain he couldn’t compete with. George would never be what they wanted for her, and her dad had suffered too many disappointments already.
And finally, the meeting at the party, the one she’d been too sick for, the one he was going to miss for his aunt at the airport, the aunt he never had. The Nothing that they said, with the music too loud around them, her dress the color of clouds at midnight, her hair slipping out of its bun, their relationship tumbling down under the weight of two small lies and all that they meant. The friend who’d invited them both, not knowing, standing to the side, looking traumatized. Staring at each other for an eternity, and she was the first to look away, to walk out the door and get in her car. By the time he followed, she was gone.
The final day together in his apartment, one last drawer to be emptied out, a small pile of underwear and blue jeans at the door beside her purse.
“What about all the shirts?”
She had closed the drawer. “Keep them. Burn them. I don’t care. Dad’s expecting me for lunch.”
Staring at each other, him on one side of the threshold, her on the other, too far away to invite back in. Thinking he could stare at her like that forever, if only she’d let him, but time on her parking meter would be running out. Her leaving, the door still open, him standing there, waiting for an apology that never came, for one more “I’m sorry, George.” When she was gone he’d opened the drawer again—all the shirts she’d left behind were bright and colorful and casual.
All those black skirts and heels. He understood now. Twenty one years old, a little girl still playing dress up. He’d thought he could take care of her, but maybe love wasn’t supposed to work like that.
But she had been wonderful.
Then, at the coffee shop on Tenth Avenue, three days ago, their eyes meeting across the room. Drifting towards him, floating almost, like a dream, like a party two years ago. But she was wearing a white jumper and black heels, so it must have been real—in his dreams, she always wore red.
Inviting herself to come see him, so calm, as if it hadn’t been six months, as if he hadn’t always been the brave one. As if she were the grown up now. But she was nervous, he could tell. The way she stared into her coffee cup, rotating it in her hands (she’d never liked coffee; it must be hot chocolate), the way she never once met his eyes, not until the very end, when he said yes. Then she looked up and smiled at him, finally. Mumbled something. Fled.
Waiting all morning, staring out the window, trying to find the colorless speck that would be her.
And finally she came, finally she knocked, and slipped off her boots at the welcome mat. Smiling up at him, saying his name.
Cynthia at home, his goddess in mismatched socks.