Maybes and Pink

It’s their anniversary. It’s the first anniversary since she started exposure-response prevention. The bed sheets are warm. The room is yellow. When she’s the first to wake that morning, she forces herself to notice how his face forms an adorable, almost angry look when he’s asleep. She forces herself to smile, imagining how his voice will sound half-convincingly not-annoyed when she wakes him before they’ve crossed the threshold of slept-in. She forces herself to hold him close, and repeat, and repeat;

I do not love him. I do not love him. I do not love him.

Janice and Mike are in creme-white bedsheets he recommended to her. It’s sunny in his apartment’s bedroom. There, as the room fills with a morning-warm, a thought seeps into her. Janice says to herself that she should preserve this moment, crystallize it—maybe via photo—lest her life slip away with her failing to acknowledge what it's like to be young together around sunrise.

Janice holds herself afloat on the tides of this thought.

I do not love him, Janice thinks, and I will be with him forever, because tonight, he will propose.


When she first explained all this to him, they decided to meet in public, on the bank of the Iowa River where the shining green lawn of the old capitol building meets the water. They sat on a park bench. Every conversation is an uncertainty, and hers was a doubt disorder. She memorized a few lines from a post she saw that summed up the condition in a way she found wise. This went against the tenets of exposure therapy.

It was overcast. They had broken up six months ago.

“Everyone,” Janice said to him, “every now and again, has moments of dread. We ask ourselves: What if I’m sick? What if I offended them? What will happen when I die?”

“I get those thoughts, yeah.”

“Have you ever had the thought, ‘What if she isn’t the one for me?’”

“You mean, about you?”

“About me, yes.”

He seemed offended. His soulmate—that’s what he’d called her so many times. Who could ever admit to such a thing to a soulmate?

“Not ever,” he said. “Not even once.”

To this, Janice closed her eyes in frustration. She told herself: maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it means something. Maybe it doesn’t.

“That’s silly,” she said. “You’re being silly.”

“I haven’t.”

“You’ve never once thought, would my person say this? Or would my person do that? Out of all the things I’ve ever done, you’ve never once doubted me?”

His confusion was stubborn.

She kept trying. She said, “Like on your birthday. You cried.”

In the flow of conversation during a Thanksgiving dinner, Janice had accidentally built upon one of his brother’s comments that had—unbeknownst to her—crossed the line from banter to bullying. She laughed and riffed off of his brother’s joke, while Mike’s heart fell. She had often picked apart that memory’s seconds. And yet she couldn’t remember it all: always, there was a monster in the gaps of her memory, if she could only find it. If she doesn’t, how can she be certain she won’t hurt him again?

“When I did that,” Janice said, “you never experienced a moment where you thought—maybe that day, maybe days or months after—‘would the person I’m meant to marry have said that?’”

Now he looked ashamed. Janice had broken up with him. Why was this conversation happening? “What do you want me to say?”

Janice said, “I’m just trying to say that it’s a normal thought to have.”

She was getting to him.

He nodded. Now, she approached the line of the abnormal.

“I hate how fake it sounds to say it,” she said.

“To say what?”

“It’s just,” she closed her eyes, “I feel like if anyone saw me say this they’d think I’m making something up.”

He really did love her.

“Just please,” he smiled, but not at her. “I’m the only one who will hear it.”


Janice tried her best, then, to bring Mike with her to the crack of dawn above an ocean, where one can witness a whole lifetime of uncertainties swimming in the darkness. The two of them hovered just above a forever-black sea. This is the dread: the maybe-leviathan below the surface at all times. From that spot hovering above the waves, above the water, if you squint, you can see an image: a memory. You can see childhood tears shed in a conversation with Janice’s mother. Janice was turning seven. When looking at this memory, you can see her tears as she realizes that each and every year was the only of its kind. Six was over—and forever. This was a doubt disorder. When the impermanent year dies, doubt dresses as a kind of mourning and asks: are you wasting your years? And so she then brought him to an image, foggy in the water, of life quickly escaping, carrying in its hands the incessant question of whether the body of your retreating life is, indeed, hollow.

And then she brought him to a small bright thought, a comfort—or, rather, a thought disguised as such. Something was singing in the ocean rain.

Life is leaving you, the thought said, bobbing up and down in the deep in the shape of a buoy. That is true. But one day you’ll fall in love. Could any life where you fall in true love be a life wasted?

She told him a story of how she held fast to that promising spot of bright water, a pillar of light down to the seafloor, not realizing that when the time came for her to fall in love, only then would the light vanish, and the ocean would once again become a void of liquid uncertainties. At any second she could find herself no longer alone in the water. At any second, she could not be in love.


Janice says, “So when people think, is this person the one for me, most people experience a relaxation—a moment where the thought goes away. But that thought stays, for me.”

He’s nodding, but he’s angry.

She says, “It’s because there’s no Love Ministry that can come down and tell me that I’ve found my soulmate. I am stuck in the not-knowing, forever. So that question, is this person the one for me—I ask it all the time.”

He closes his eyes. He’s so angry. This is so hard for him. He says, “I don’t think we should kid ourselves.”

Janice feels like they should be holding hands. She wonders if that is a sign. She says to herself maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It hurts, on either end of the maybe.

“What?” she says.

He looks so sad. “Your mind only does that when you’re with me. Isn’t that what it’s a sign of? Shouldn’t I not be here?”

“I don’t know if I love you.”

He got up to leave, but she held him by the forearm.

“But I might,” she said. “I might.”

Mike stopped. He said, “What is this about? What is this really about? If you’re asking us to try again—if the only reason you want to try again is because you’re guilty-...”

Her arms are limp at her sides, the numbness of post-bravery.

She says, “I might love you. And isn’t that something? I might love you.”

Alone to herself, she thought: And I might not.

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to be with you,” she said. “But I am with you. Does that make any sense?” Janice groaned, exacerbated. She said, “This is real. This is what happens in my head. I’m not making this up. You should Google it. It’s real.”

She felt so guilty. But she had to be honest—that’s what the scriptures of Good Relationships mandate. And yet, no one, and certainly no boy as lovely as he, deserved to be told I might not love you.

She said, “Every five seconds or so, some people with this condition ask themselves: am I sick? Am I in control? Every five seconds, I ask myself: am I in love?”


She plays with his hair in a yellow room. She notices little laugh lines first blossoming near his cheeks—so beautiful. She prepares to say, Good morning and I love you.


There’s a breakfast place that reminds her of one she used to go to as a child in downtown Syracuse. It’s called Niko’s, and it’s a diner run by an Italian couple. His name is Sebastian and her name is Julia (no one there is named Niko, to her knowledge). Once, when one of the customers asked to send an omelet back—“it’s just inedible”—hellfire infected Sebastian. That was his wife’s cooking.

Now, in this place that reminded her of her childhood, she sat and laughed with Mike as they remembered the day Sebastian invented new slights in the Italian language for exactly what that customer was.

They laughed.

She tried not to think too much about love languages. They are traps. A rubric like that exacerbates questioning. And then hours pass. But Janice nevertheless liked to tell herself that she was good at delivering words of affirmation. She said, listening to you speak feels like saying yes so loudly, and meaning it.

Nothing in her meant it less. Nothing in her felt right saying it.

While voices on her shoulder were denouncing her, interrogating her, she spilled egg on her face and he, her partner, wiped it away. It grounded her. She could feel a thank you on his fingertips, an I love you, a cherishing, all bones to be held up before her X-ray for dissection by such wounded and guilty hands.

She kisses his hand, and they go back to eating.


Her best friend Sammy can’t understand it.

“You’re supposed to know, I mean you deserve to know,” Sammy said.

People talked to her about love using that word a lot: talking about what she deserved.

“I think so too,” Janice explained. “But I have to say to myself that love might never get to look that way for me.”

Sammy said, “But how do you know that?”

Sammy was back home in Boston while she lived in Syracuse. It had been months since they’d seen one another. When she heard the textures of Sammy’s voice over the phone, she could still see every one of her gestures.

Sammy asked, “What does your therapist think? Does he think you should be with him? I just feel like you’ve never been in love.”

Sammy catches herself.

“Or at least you’ve never been in love before this relationship.”

“I don't know,” Janice says, “I don’t know if I love him.”

“Do you tell him that you love him?”

At first Janice wants to say yes. But she knows that it will be hard for Sammy to understand. Sammy would often cite song lyrics to her when they talked about love. Sammy convinced Janice that the first priests must not have claimed communion with God, but with whatever it is that tells us about love. Sammy had signs and symbols, rituals to follow or perish without, signs of love’s presence in every changed heart or mind moved by forces outside known physics. And so, the kind of thoughts Janice navigated were blasphemous. Thoughts like:

Do I really love him? Am I supposed to be with him? Is my life ruined because I chose to stay with him?

Janice’s mind was cast into a hellish place among the paradises and purgatories of Sammy’s divine word for love: no less capable of restraining itself from committing sins against love than wind can constrain itself from spiraling.

So instead Janice said, “I have to accept that my brain doesn’t process love like yours.”


Instead of those beautiful rituals, she had to dedicate half-an-hour every day to certain thought exercises. This was exposure therapy. It would help her healing—or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it would.

She imagined him in his corduroy outfit at age 45. She imagined having a glass of wine at 8 P.M. and realizing that she hadn’t touched his skin in a little over three months. There on the couch, while he turns on some bland thing on the TV, she would have a thought about a boy she knew back in college. Maybe he was real, maybe he wasn’t. But she’d imagine him nonetheless—he who had a smile that made her long for reincarnation, for lifetimes and lifetimes. Once that boy was in the room, standing across from her, every atom of air in the distance between them would be exactly where it was meant to be, every sound audible in the room was the sound of a promise fulfilled. She used to watch so many marriages crumble. And she used to say, But when I fall in love, it will be different. She watched the banished look back at their lives and wonder what if? But no, she wouldn’t be like that. She’d fall in love.

And then she’d imagine herself, age 45 on that couch with a glass of wine, realizing that she was wrong. Here she was, in another one of the hell circles she’d seen so many times before, sipping wine with a husband who’s heart can no more touch hers than sunlight can touch the ocean floor, fantasizing about some maybe-real love. Because if her heart is to be forever wounded, such woundless fantasies might as well serve to salve.

She’d imagine herself at that age. And then, that older self would lock eyes with the younger. The older self would command her, while you still have a choice for what your one life will be: run away from him. A day will come when you look down to realize your heart has forgotten how to beat, forever lost to you.

Leave him, she says. Leave him. You deserve to fall in love.


She finishes the exercise. Triggering dread helps her to navigate the condition by offering her the opportunity to intentionally resist compulsions in response to distress. She thinks that it really does work. It gives her mind tools to fight against the hours spent spiraling down a dead end thought, but she can’t help but feel something absurd—like the whole of society is walking around in clown make-up—when firstly, she thinks to herself:

I do not love him, and I will be forced to be with him unhappily for the rest of my life’s precious, precious days.

And then secondly, she closes her journal, takes a deep breath, remembers that there is a sun outside, and texts him:

Can you bring over some spaghetti sauce for dinner tonight I don’t think we have any here


Here’s what she can’t do: her brain has become masterful at finding temporary escapes from the chaos of love’s uncertainty, so at any moment, if she finds herself seeking temporary calm—the cigarette’s inhale so quickly metabolized—she must stop herself, turn the cigarette around, and let the lit end burn until extinguished.

But sometimes, she can’t help it.

During spring break she visited Boston to see Sammy and the two of them had wine in Sammy’s apartment and watched musicals they used to know all the words to back in high school. They wore sweatpants and Sammy didn’t clean in preparation for her arrival. It felt safe.

A song started to play that Janice remembered singing with the first boy she ever fell in love with back when she was 18—or maybe it wasn’t love, or maybe it was. That was a lifetime ago, but her mind is masterful at another skill: turning the ever boiling dread of an obsession into the squealing fever-pitch of an overflowing kettle.

Was that first love more exciting? Was it more pure? Did such uncertainty infect it?

Sammy sings the song low, criss-cross on the floor. Here are some thoughts that could bring her comfort:

Each love is different.

That wasn’t love.

Infatuation hits harder at that age.

He treated you horribly, and the person you’re with now treats you so well.

These thoughts aren’t helpful: they’re temporary and will quell the boil for only so long before another poignant lyric transports her back to a time appointment to be X-rayed. Because memories have no weight. She can pile them atop one another on either side of a balanced scale in hopes that one of them will cause the scale to tip—leave him or marry him—but in the end, hours will pass in search of a measurement.

So here’s what she says instead:

Maybe you did love him more, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you will fall in love, maybe you won’t. Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t. Maybe.

“Are you okay?” Sammy asks. Janice is sitting on Sammy’s twin bed. Sammy stays seated on the floor, but turns back to look up at her.

“Sorry,” Janice says. She groans. It’s okay to relapse, sometimes.

Eyes closed, Janice says, “Can we skip this song?”

She sees something in Sammy, then. Something she never noticed before. Something tired, exhausted even.

Sammy says, “I know why you’re asking that.”

Janice feels guilty about it, but resisting such horrible thoughts atrophies her mind like a muscle—only so many repetitions before her defenses against staving off the dread fail.

Janice doesn’t open her eyes. She says, “Can we just please skip the song?”

Sammy looks at those closed eyes, mouth agape, offended at her sudden urgency, before Sammy scoffs and starts to fast forward. It’s quiet now that the music has stopped.

Janice says, “You can say what you want to say. I know what you’re gonna say.”

Sammy says, “How much longer?”

Maybe forever, she tries to tell herself.

She says, “That isn’t the point. I can’t think about it in terms of—”

“It’s been so long,” Sammy says. “You’ve been unhappy for so long. I don’t want that for you.”

Janice finds a way to say, “I know.”

“I’m just trying to tell you what I think.”

“I don’t want you to worry about me. You can trust me when I say: I’ll know when it’s time for me to go, if ever.”

And, at this, Sammy finally lets go of caution, finally lets go of the learned script-speak composed of correct words pulled from expert articles about her condition. Sammy lets go of the politeness and says, “Will you?”

“What do you mean?”

It should be the case that our gut senses will lead our journey with love. It should be the case that everything that is right feels right, for everyone. It should be the case that love isn’t an improbability, a hail mary, a gamble, an uncertainty, a sprint towards a spot a million leagues under the sea, in the dark, where there might be light—and where there might not be. Sammy spoke from her gut, and it should have been the case that her advice was wise.

Sammy said, “What if all you’ve done is go through tireless therapy, tied your brain in knots, all to navigate the pain of a simple fact, so much more simple than all those gymnastics you run your mind through—the simple fact that you’re not in love with him, and there’s no reason for it, and it's awful.”

Sammy had said those words before; to herself, in her mind, while holding her tongue. She could tell. Sammy, in the silence, buries her head in her hands so her curly hair disguises a guilty face. Sammy shakes her head.

Sammy says, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happens in your mind when I say things like that. But it’s a normal thing to say.”

The issue was, in normal circumstances, Sammy’s statement truly might have brought to life a deep-buried and terrible thought: a disguised lovelessness. A guilty, decrepit idea that lived and mutated in some chasm where the light of conscious thought had never shown on its pale skin. Such a statement could bring the thought into the light, and make it burn. And in normal circumstances, she would cry. She would either defend her love, defend her boyfriend, deny and deny all the way down. Or she’d burst into tears, admit to herself that Sammy was right, admit and approach that mutated thought, and embrace it.

But this thought—this possibility that she wasn’t really in love, and that all this talk of some niche neurological condition was merely a trick to disguise this reality—was not a thought deep in some cavern. It was in the sky. It was above her, with bat’s wings and clawed hands that gripped her and pulled her off the ground. It blocked her path, covered her eyes with scaly hands.

“Thank you Sammy,” Janice says as they hug. “I need people on the outside who will tell me how they think. It’s okay.”

And much to her surprise, Sammy was crying.

Sammy said, “Sometimes I look at Daniel and I think to myself, you know, after so many years being together—is this it? It can feel like, now that we’re engaged, that once that wedding hits I’ve reached the end of my love story. Well, until kids come, I guess. So it’s hard not to think: oh. Well, I suppose this is my love story. This is it. And it's wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but—”

She sniffed and now they sat face to face, teary eye to teary eye.

“I’ve thought that before,” Sammy continues. “And there have been times I’ve just obsessed over that thought. Tried to prove to myself that this is a non-stop fireworks show. Tried to force excitement into every second. Tried to talk with him about some adventure somewhere. And we’ll have those things. But talking about going to Italy doesn’t help the thought. And then I start thinking: I’m about to get married. Should a bride be thinking like this? And then I start to feel so guilty.”

She knew what Sammy was doing. Sammy was trying to demonstrate that she has met that bat-winged thought, and they’ve had their battles, but:

“The thing is, a moment always comes,” Sammy concludes, “where I can let those thoughts go. They leave me. I love him. So they go away.”

Janice is overwhelmed by it all.

And, in defiance of a million screaming thoughts in her head, Janice says, “Sammy, listen: I do love him. I just do. OK? Please stop. I just do.”

Each word is hollow, attacked by a thousand claws, carved into nothing, an apple’s skin in its perfect oblong shape—meatless.


When their anniversary came Janice knew that Mike would have something planned, but it felt unsatisfying for her to never lead adventures. If he was going to propose tonight, she would plan something too.

His passion was food, and baking most of all. There was an old recipe she held close to her heart, passed down from mother to mother for generations—a recipe that came from Ireland, hundreds of years ago before her family moved here. It was a cherry pie, and its taste—this recipe’s taste—had so many hearts strewn within it. So, she thought, that she would explain this story to him, and that they would make it together as proof that she knew: more than words or gestures or gifts, its taste is closer to how the word love felt in his mouth.

He was downstairs and it was still sunny. They had plans for the evening—even though she didn’t know what—so now was the perfect time to bring out that old, cream-colored recipe card. She walked downstairs after getting ready. He was across the room.

Quickly, terror came.

She held the note card, both hands on it like it were a weapon requiring careful handling lest it cause calamity. She stared at him as he sat on the couch and typed something on his laptop.

She was frozen because she knew what would happen once she shared the story with him. He would smile, and it would let her know that he appreciated every thoughtful sentiment that flowed through her head. He would regard this gesture with the reverence and kindness that she’d always wanted another person to treat her family stories with. He’d hold her hands the way she would want them to be held, and it would be perfect and disgusting. He would say something funny, and make the baking into a thrilling journey—back across time, stories, countries, and homes.

A moment would come when she shared with him food only reserved for those she called family. The sun would still be bright, the kitchen air would be warm, and outside of her control she’d think that he above all deserves such a title: family. He above all deserves to be called home. And outside of her control, she’d think:

I love him.

She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t bear one more moment where everything she ever wanted was boiled into something pale and watery in the brine of obsession.

She was utterly breathless as she looked at him, thinking about how badly he deserved the note card in her hands.


It was another world and another lifetime, but on the night they met they went to an arcade bar called Points. Red and blue lights made the air seem warm and thick. The laughter sounded like children’s.

And for some reason she needed—despite the fact this day could have so likely been their final meeting; and despite how infant their connection with one another was—she needed to feel something unforgettable springing off of him.

She felt so far away from him, and when this happened, she thought that there must be a way to hold in her hands something comfortable and perfect inside him. So she found herself making bets against God, saying to herself:

If he finishes his soda before 9pm, then he’s the one for me. Or: if he’s a Libra, then he is the one for me. Or: if he gets more than a hundred tickets tonight, then he’s the one for me. Maybe if he orders a rum and Coke, majors in Theatre, is the youngest sibling, is closer with his mom, reads often, jokes about death, knows how to dance, recognizes her favorite song, smiles when he’s not supposed to, forgets to laugh when he is, hugs her in a way that somehow feels how it ought to—maybe if he does something, and sometimes, if she feels something, at some time, it will be a sign.

She remembers it now. They were so young. Life has carried so much away from them since. Back then, it was so much easier to say that life is long and mean it.

The lights were red and blue, the laughter was child-like, and they were playing skee-ball while she asked God for a sign that something worth worshiping was in the room with her. She said to herself, to the sky, to that pale thing behind her eyes:

If he makes this shot, then we’re meant to be.

There in the kitchen, she can see his white baseball tee shimmering pink-ish in the light. She sees him take those calculating eyes off of his skeeball target and turn to her.

He looks at her and says, “I don’t know the last time I’ve been to such a beautiful place.”

Here in the basement of the bar, the barrier between what he was feeling and seeing was blurred.


Standing there in the kitchen with a note card in her hand, she remembers the broken symphony of bets against God. She remembers flowing in and out of the present moment, back and forth to and from the deepest valleys in her mind, fast asleep upon every other second of their meeting.

And yet, that night, she could feel in some place outside her mind that, yes, she should be close to him. She could hear the person behind his words escaping his mind like pollen off sunflowers. Something was being built between them with every word Janice and Mike spoke. And because of it all, note card in hand, today she realizes something. Terrifying and precious, she realizes something and holds it close to her heart.

She can’t remember if he made the shot.

JOHN LYONS holds an Ed.M. from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where he studied Creative Writing education. He was chosen as a finalist for the Anthony Grooms Short Fiction Prize and is published or forthcoming in The Headlight Review, Creation Magazine, Book of Matches Mag, InkLit, and elsewhere. He's in the process of seeking representation for his first novel, which tells the story of a young person grappling with the condition Existential Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.