Maybe it would take a week, maybe less, but I would end up screwing this up. It was what I did. The only thing I was better at than destroying things was singing, and with my behavior today, I was beginning to realize I was in danger of destroying that, too.
More than anything, I didn’t trust myself. With Mace I’d been obsessed with him a few weeks ago. I liked him enough to go through this elaborate scheme just to keep my parents from scaring him off. Then boom, I woke up and couldn’t care less about our relationship.
That was how I worked. Or rather . . . how I didn’t work.
I couldn’t do that to Cade. What if we got together, and I woke up one day and wanted out? I liked him more than I liked myself, so I’d probably end up sacrificing my own happiness to keep from hurting him. It would be just like all the years I played at being Alex to keep my parents happy. But instead of blond curls and cheerleading, it would likely mean kids and a minivan.
I may not have been the most self-aware person in the world, but I knew enough to know that if I let myself care about him, I would sabotage my life to better his.
Or I would sabotage it all just because I could.
Or maybe I wouldn’t have to sabotage it. Cade was obviously getting over that Bliss girl. Now, she . . . she made sense with him in a way I never would. What if being with me was just a phase, an overcorrection after things didn’t work out with her?
How long would it take for him to realize that I wasn’t really what he wanted? And how badly would it hurt when he did?
I felt sick from my stomach to my soul.
I waited until Cade’s breathing evened out, and I was certain that he was asleep. Then I slipped out of his arms and slipped on my shorts. I’d only wanted a little space to think, to breathe. But the minute he was no longer touching me, my blood pumped faster, singing run, run, run with every beat. I looked back at him, the hard lines of his body, the relaxed expression on his face, and I did just that.
I grabbed my heels and my purse and opened his front door as quietly as I could. It was nearly four in the morning. I couldn’t walk home alone in this neighborhood, but I couldn’t stay either. I was minutes away from a meltdown of ugly proportions.
So, I called Spence to pick me up. He lived in Northeast Philly and had a car. Despite the late hour, he answered on the second ring. I sighed in relief at hearing his voice, and tears pricked at my eyes.
“Spence, I’m so sorry, but can you come pick me up?”
His voice was groggy, but he didn’t hesitate before he said, “Yeah. Yeah, of course. Where are you?”
I gave him the cross streets, and he told me he’d be here in about ten minutes. I ended the call and pressed the phone to my chest.
I knew what I was doing was awful, but if I was preventing a bigger tragedy did that make it so terrible?
I needed to stick with my intuition. Cade deserved better than me. And I couldn’t give him what he needed. He needed a girl who could commit to him with the same care and complete abandon that he gave her. That wasn’t me. I was broken and patched and missing pieces. I couldn’t give him all of me, because I didn’t even have that. There was a piece of me still on that highway, a piece of me buried with my sister. I’d left shards all over this city, and he didn’t deserve to have to clean up that mess.
And he wouldn’t want to . . . not when the luster wore off and he got a good look at the girl he’d caught. Then he’d see me for what I really was . . . toxic. And he would want nothing to do with me.
I sat at the top of the stairs at the end of Cade’s hallway. I wrapped my arms around my middle. The muscles of my body were tense, once again trying to hold myself together by sheer force. I remember the way his arms had wrapped around me tonight and that time on Thanksgiving when he’d been the one to hold me together.
And I lost it. My vision swam with tears, and I held my breath, like that would keep the tears at bay, too. I shuddered and pressed my face into my knees. For the first time in nine years, the first time since Alex, I couldn’t push the tears down. I couldn’t control them. I cried. I sobbed. The emotions ripped free from my chest, taking pieces of me with it.
It was four in the morning. If I couldn’t cry now, when could I?
So, I let the guilt wash over me, and I said good-bye to something beautiful and terrifying and delicate that I’d held in my soul for a few short hours. I said good-bye to something that should never have been mine.
A door swung open on the floor below me, and laughter floated up the stairs. I tried to wipe my eyes, but I was too far gone and not fast enough. Cade’s friend Milo and a pretty girl were at the bottom of the stairs, staring up at me. I ducked my head and scooted close to the wall so they could get by. The girl walked past me in silence, but Milo sat down beside me.
I pressed my lips together and tried to concentrate on breathing.
“It’s Max, right?”
I didn’t think I could speak without crying, so I nodded instead.
His eyes took in my appearance, and I knew I must have looked like a complete wreck. He sighed. “Did you at least leave a note?”
I looked at him in shock.
“What? You’re out here at four in the morning, crying, with major sex hair. It doesn’t take much to put things together. All I’m asking is if you told him why?”
God, I didn’t think I could feel lower than I already did.
My phone buzzed. Spence.
I knew it was terrible, but I wasn’t changing my mind. I looked at Milo and shook my head.
“Tell him I’m sorry.”
Then I ran, leaving behind the best thing that could never happen to me.
I stayed in bed the next day until the sun was on its way down again.
He didn’t call.
It wasn’t that I wanted him to, but I just thought . . . I don’t know what I’d thought.
He let people go. He’d told me that. He didn’t fight for the last girl, and he didn’t fight for me. If I was honest, a small, terrified part of me had been counting on that. If he came for me, I didn’t think I would be able to say no. And this was for the best. I had to believe that or I’d never be able to get out of bed again.
I was saving us both.
So I kept busy, passing the time as best as I could.
I hadn’t told Mom and Dad anything about “breaking up” with Cade. It didn’t matter anyway. By the time I’d battled off the depression enough to call Mom, they’d already booked both of our flights.
I would tell them something when I got there—he was sick or a family emergency or something. Hell, maybe I’d just tell them the truth.
What did it matter anymore?
I didn’t have that much longer until I left for Oklahoma, and this all came crashing down. The important thing was squeezing in as much rehearsal time as possible before then, especially now that we had to find a new drummer to replace Mace.
Music was what mattered now. The only thing that mattered.
The bed was cold when I rolled over, and already I had a sinking feeling. I didn’t know if it was how quiet she was as we went to sleep or the way she’d clung to me in that hug, but I just knew something wasn’t right. Though she’d lay right beside me, she’d felt miles away. Even so, I got up and checked the bathroom.
I tried the living room and the kitchen.
I called her name, and it only echoed back at me.
That was how I felt, too. I sat on the bed, numb, but not really surprised. I should have listened to what my brain had been telling me all along. It was obvious just from looking at Max that we came from different worlds. I was naive to think she could ever be happy with someone like me. And I was naive to think it had only been physical attraction. It was so much more than that. All I knew was that I was pretty damn tired of having my heart handed to me in a blender.
Eventually the emptiness was filled up by anger, and I ripped the sheets off my bed and threw them down. They still smelled like her, and I refused to let her linger in my life the way I’d done with Bliss. If she didn’t want me, fine.
I was probably dodging a bullet anyway.
I stayed calm as I stripped the bed. I grabbed a laundry basket and dumped the dirty clothes already in it to make room for the sheets. I checked the clock.
That wasn’t too early to go to the Laundromat.
The sooner she was out of my life the better. I had to keep moving forward. One foot in front of the other.
But where was the damn detergent?
It wasn’t in the bathroom, where I normally kept it.
I checked the kitchen and my closet, and all the while the muscles in my neck and back grew tenser until they were as hard and unforgiving as stone.
I searched my bedroom, but instead of finding detergent, I found Max’s sheer black tights.
I stared at them while my control unraveled. I wanted to throw them in the trash. I wanted to return them. I wanted to keep them. I was a mess of wants, none of which mattered, because she didn’t want me.
I picked up the lamp beside my bed and threw it against the wall. I watched it shatter, and wished I had the satisfaction of seeing myself break that way. It was worse, when you couldn’t see or touch the part of you that was in pieces.
The anger only made me feel worse. It gave way to guilt too easily, and after a few days, I was left feeling even emptier than before.
Over the next week, I didn’t spend much time at home. I couldn’t. Every time I touched my door, laid something on my table, or slept in my bed, I saw her. I could still smell her on my pillow even after washing my sheets. Or maybe the memory was so ingrained that I thought I could. I saw her behind my closed eyes while I tried to sleep at night. So I avoided home as much as I could. One night with her had tainted it.
I put in more hours at the library, stayed longer after class, and volunteered to help with random stuff around the theatre department. You need someone to organize that storage room that no one has opened in years? Sure!
You need someone to build that prop? Gladly!
I made it my goal to be the best in every assignment, in every class. To be perfect. And as such I demolished my midterms. I just had to fill my mind with enough things that there wasn’t room for her. That was the plan at least, but Max was larger than life and tended to beat out the other stuff no matter how hard I tried. And when classes ended for the holiday, there was nothing left to keep my mind busy.
Near the end of the week, I came home to find Milo sitting on my couch, eating a bag of my potato chips. I hadn’t told Milo what happened because I didn’t want to relive it more than I already had.
I said, “You know . . . I gave you that spare key for emergencies, not so that you could come in here and mooch my food.”
He swallowed the graveyard of chips in his mouth and said, “Where the hell have you been all week, Winston?”
I threw my bag in a chair and shrugged off my coat. If he was going to try to get me to some bar or club or anything, I wasn’t up for it. I headed to the kitchen and said noncommittally, “Around.”
He stood but didn’t follow me into the kitchen.
“You all right?”
I opened the cabinet to get a glass, and said, “Yeah, why do you ask?”
“I saw her, Cade.”
My whole body tensed, and I nearly dropped the glass I’d gotten from the cabinet. I took a deep breath and opened the fridge to grab the pitcher of filtered water.
I let the fridge block my face as I asked, “Her?”
“Quit bullshitting me, hermano. Be real with me.”
My hand shook as I poured the water.
“What? We had sex. She left. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“Not that big of a deal? I will call bullshit on that so many times that the word bullshit will lose all meaning.”
I sighed. “What do you want me to say?”