Bouncy Ball

           It started out all right. We were eating Thai and arguing about whether Netflix or Hulu was better, before the inevitable came up.

           “I just can’t date you,” she said. Again. 

           She said it easy, smooth, no stutter or pause. It was a line she'd been repeating for quite some time, so it wasn't tough to say. She set down her noodles and ran a hand through her hair, frowned at the lack of whiskey in her glass. The puppy-dog eyes came, and so I sighed and got up, went to the kitchen to fetch her the Bushmill’s. If you think it’s weird that did this stuff for her, trust me, you’re not the only one to blast me over it. It was one of those things I couldn't help.

           “I don’t want to ruin the night,” she said.

           “You’re not,” I said as I came back in. She held up the glass and I poured a finger, dropped in a few ice cubes.

           “You’re a great bartender.”

           “I’d be a great boyfriend, too,” I said. I shouldn’t have said it, but since it was fast becoming a knife fight, I decided to show my blades too. I’ve told her several times that when it came to verbal combat, I was the Russian winter and she was the German army. She would laugh at the absurdity of it, but deep down, I think she knew I was dead right.

           She didn’t say anything as I sat back down next to her. The music I'd chosen filled our stupid, immature silence. I looked out my living room window and saw that snow had started to dance its way down—yet another worry. Some of my friends told me which worries to drop from my life, but, just like them, I never listened.

           “I’m sorry,” I said, eventually.

           “It’s OK.” 

           She picked up her noodles again and started to eat. Something in my brainidiotic, definitelytold me to keep going.

           “I can’t help but like you. I can’t help it. Despite everything. Despite all that we’ve been through. Four years is a long time. I can’t throw away four years. There isn’t a hole big enough to throw away four years, you know? If there is, I don’t know where the fuck it is.”

           She took this in and gave a slow nod. I could tell she was seething inside. She was tired of discussing this subject. She had told me so many times that it wasn’t a good idea, that it would never be a good idea. She did admit, however, that she led me on. She had called me, texted me, had me drive her around, pay for her, and had been flirty. It was only natural, she opined, that I would fall for her. It made total sense that I would want to kiss her, she said. But every time I tried, or thought it appropriate, her fire took over, and I was left cold. 

           “Even my goddamn friends think we should date,” she said, finally.

           “What do you mean?”

           She gave me a disgusted look. “Give me a break. They’ve seen you come into Starbucks. They say, that’s a cute guy right there. He’s handsome. He’s into you. You see that, right? He’s fucking into you. I always say nothing and walk away.”


           “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

           She finished her meal and let it sit on my makeshift coffee table. Jason Isbell came on and was singing basically the same song we'd sung to each other right there. I got up to turn off the music. I didn’t feel like having a soundtrack to my soundtrack.

           “Leave it on,” she said. “It’s nice.”

           Instead of changing the playlist, I grabbed us two beers. I looked at the snow and figured she could stay the night if she didn’t feel like driving back home. But it was a hopeful wish that would turn into shitty luck. In time, it would. It’s amazing to me how people get together and keep it going. I don’t know the gift or the secret. It’s stunning to me that people make anything work.

           “I’m sorry,” I said as I opened her beer, let the cap fall into her empty plastic dish. “I shouldn’t have opened my big goddamned mouth.”

           “You always open your big goddamned mouth,” she said, but she said it with a joking lilt and smiled, so I leaned back and her head fell onto my shoulder. “You’re an old man. An old fool.” It took her a few seconds this time before she popped back up.

           “What’s wrong?”

           “See, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s my problem. I’m the problem.”

           “What do you mean? You’re fine.”

           She ran her hands through her hair and let out a pissed-off sigh. “I sit here and say I don’t want to date you, I can’t date you and then what do I do? I put my head on your shoulder, I get cuddly and playful and it’s only natural that you react the way you do, and then I get mad. Not mad. Confused. I don’t get it. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

           “Nothing’s wrong with you,” I said, but I was thinking something different. I wanted to do something to relax herrub her shoulders, touch her back.

           “Something is wrong with me. You’re a great guy.”

           Others have told me different, but I didn’t say so. I looked at her and I have to admit—with her watching me and the snow falling, I could have died right there. It was just right.

           “I’m not that great. I’m really not.” 

           “Yes, you are. We go out to breakfast. You invite me over for a nice dinner and all of this. You listen to my shit. And still, I can’t. I just can’t. It means something is wrong with me. And it’s annoying.” She stood from the couch and went to my bathroom. She had problems shutting the door like always and I heard the fan running.

           I took advantage of the pause to stand up and look out the window. I held the beer and whiskey as I watched the flakes, wet and large, pelt the walk and drift, covering my dying flowers, the watering can I left out months ago. I looked at the scars and paper-cuts on my hands, wondered how so many of them had come so quickly. Dillinger, my cat, came to watch the snow. He gave it a cursory chirp and walked back to where he'd been, as though it all annoyed him. With both my beer and whiskey gone there was only the worn sound of songs I'd heard before. I guess that’s what happens when you're a drinker. 

           She came back out. Before I could say anything, she held up a hand and said, “I know what you’re going to say. I know you that well.”

           So I said, “What am I going to say?”

           “You’re going to apologize. You’re going to say this is all your fault. Well, it’s not. OK?”

           “OK,” I said.

           “It’s not. Because it never was. It was me from the start.”

           I waited because it sounded like a monologue was coming. She walked to my fridge, stared at the beer, didn’t take any. She met my eyes and took my look as a signal that I wanted another drink, but that wasn't what I wanted. I took a step forward and thenI just couldn’t do anything but watch what was happening around me. Watching was the best thing I could do. Talking, writing—failures. Watching and drinking, though. I was a king at those. She walked over to the other chair where she stored her bag and coat.

           “Hey, don’t go,” I said. I took another step.

           “I want to go. And no, it isn’t because of you.”

           “I don’t care about that. It’s snowing out. You’ve been drinking.”

           “I’ll be fine.”

           “I said, it’s snowing out and you’ve been drinking.”

           “I heard you. I only had one. It’ll be OK.”

           “Just stay for a while. Maybe it’ll clear up. We’ll put on a bad Nicolas Cage movie and we’ll laugh like idiots.”

           She smiled, but sat down and began to tie her shoes. “Kevin, I need you to listen to me. And I actually want you to listen. Not that you ever didn’t, but I really mean it, OK?”

           So I sat down in front of her and listened. It was a pleasure to do so, to be honest.

           “If I’m going to be in your life,” she said, “I want to do good by you. You’ve done so much for me and all I've done is hurt you. You've given me so many chances, it’s even a miracle that you still talk to me.” She looked into her bag for her phone and answered a text. “Why do you even talk to me? If someone had done that to me, I certainly wouldn’t talk to them.”

           I felt the weight of my shoulders as I shrugged them. “I think it’s obvious why I do. I don’t think my feelings are ever going to away.”

           She smiled. “Maybe they will one day.”

           “I don’t think so. You know I have problems letting go.”

           “This could make things awkward.”

           “I don’t want things to be awkward,” I said. “I just want everything to be OK.”

           There wasn’t much to say after that. She put on her coat and scarf and walked to the window to watch the snow. I stayed on the floor and watched. I was great at watching.

           “Just stay for a while.”

           She sighed. “I have to get home and check on the dog.”

           I nodded, my chances ruined.

           “It’s like,” she said, then let it drop. I waited and she began again. “It’s like, I feel like we would have been great if it was just another time. You’re older than me, but we want the same things. And when I first met you, I was nowhere near who I am now, and I feel like I’m seeing things from your point more and more now. Like, you were always the type of person I wanted. From day one. But, when I was younger, I didn’t want that. I guess you can always take comfort in the fact that you were right all along.”

           “I don’t want to be right. I just want to not be alone.”

           “Who doesn't?”

           I didn’t know what else to do, so I started cleaning up the dishes and gathering the glasses and bottles. I could feel her staring me down, probably debating whether to strangle me or kiss me. I hoped for both.

           “I’ll walk you out,” I said.

           “It’s snowing. You don’t even have shoes on. You never have shoes on when you walk me out, you old fool.”

           “Then we’ll keep on with the tradition.”

           “Stay inside. It’s cold out. I’ll be fine.”

           Suddenly, I was very tired. “You can at least text me when you get home. Just so I know you’re safe.”

           “Such a gentleman,” she said. “I promise I will.”

           “OK,” I said. “Good.”

           She gave me a hug and I could have died right there, just like I wanted. It wouldn’t be the first time I'd felt like that, and sure as shit wouldn’t be the last. There was just so much fucking warmth to it. I watched her as she ran a hand through her hair. I didn’t know what else to do, so I broke away and she opened the door and I watched as she walked out into the snow to the parking lot. Her tongue was out to catch all the dancing flakes. Within seconds, she was gone. I heard the car engine turn over and it was like she had never been there at all. Like I had been love with some character that was written and just as quickly erased.

           Inside, Dillinger stared at me.

           “If you got a suggestion, give it to me now,” I said. But he didn’t. He went back to his red mouse. I gathered up the rest of the mess and threw it away, took the recyclables out. I watched the snow for a while, but I didn’t have my coat, so I went back in. I turned off all the lights downstairs and went up to my room to read while I waited for her text.

           As I got ready for bed, I took stock of all the things thrown in a pile on my bureau. My wallet, a few pens, my tangled headphones. I saw a bouncy ball that she'd given me a few weeks back at the arcade. She had won it after getting enough tickets at one of those crane games. It was white and green and it barely bounced, but I couldn’t throw it away. There were other things—the notes and the letters she'd written me, one of her hair ties, a few photos of the two of us—that I'd hidden away, things I should have had the guts to toss. But I lacked the energy, I'll admit it. I may be spineless, but I do know how to love. At least I know that. The only part I can never nail down is getting someone to love me back. This was only one of many nights that had played out in the same way—the kind of story that would make anyone ask, what the fuck is wrong with you? If it were me on the other side of the conversation, I'd say, there isn't enough time in the world to explain.

           I looked at the bouncy ball and I left it right where it was. In bed, I began reading a Bolaño collection that had been on my nightstand for weeks. Her text never came. I’m almost certain it slipped her mind.

KEVIN RICHARD WHITE is the author of the novels Patch of Sunlight and The Face of a Monster. His short fiction appears in Grub Street, The Hunger, Hypertext, Lunch Ticket, The Molotov Cocktail, and Dime Show Review, among many others. He reads fiction and nonfiction for Quarterly West. He lives in Pennsylvania.