It was seven minutes past midnight when Carl showed up on her doorstep. He was drunk. Carl, though, had always been a frighteningly sober drunk. Drunk, he’d driven miles across nights and deep snows and put together theoretical models on research he should have done weeks earlier, and sober, and entertained guests and even talked a co-worker back from behind a locked door and a bottle of pills.
Carl was drunk on her doorstep and he would not have been there otherwise, something both he and she were well aware of and mutually disheartened by. He wasn’t supposed to be on this side of town and he wasn’t supposed to be on her doorstep – which was not, in fact, her doorstep. It was the doorstep of the house she was sleeping in and only a few steps from the couch she was currently sleeping on. But he banged on the door and she answered it, because she knew the sound of him, his boots, and she was expecting him in the way one expects it to rain right after washing the car.
She opened the door and let him look at her, the look on her face. He was chastened by it, and his eyebrows told that story while his flushed face pulled itself together to whisper at the appropriate volume. She wasn’t going to say all the things he’d done wrong coming here, nor what it did to her internally. She didn’t say those things in the best of moods and the affection she bore him hoped it would stop him and turn him around. It didn’t, and never would.
They were, after all, two broken people jiggling at the locks of each other’s better judgments.
“You’re just going to have to let me say this,” he said.
She didn’t say anything.
He wiped at his mouth, as if he could wipe off the short beard and the evening’s stubble curling over his cheeks, and sighed like a dog locked out of the kitchen. “I’m old and I’ve gone through this a few times,” he said. “And I’m exhausted from holding myself back from saying it. I know what love looks like and I know what love feels like and I’m not particularly happy to feel this way right now.”
It was all too clear to him, no matter how wide he opened his arms, that he was a very small man in a very big night in a very moist suburb. And for a moment all of time opened itself up to him; the hundreds of weeks of failures and small triumphs that pulled him from his childhood into middle-age; and the hundreds of weeks still to come; how empty and small this moment was, and how it was simultaneously the most and least important thing that could happen to anyone, anywhere. And suddenly it meant everything to him again.
“I love you,” he said. “And I’ve been lying to you since the first day we walked down that street. Not the first night I met you but the first night I saw you under that street lamp. That one. I have loved you since then and I didn’t say it and still don’t want to say it because that’s insane and the last thing I want is for you to think I’m crazy. But when I say I’m crazy about you I literally mean I’m crazy about you. People don’t do this in a sane world and it is the last thing you need in your life right now, one more asshole taking advantage of your friendliness.”
Carl grasped the lapels of his coat and straightened them matter-of-factly. “I want to go to sleep with you beside me and I want you to be the first thing I see when I wake up. I want to cook you breakfast and I want to hold your hand and I want to hold you so hard that it hurts whenever you’re not with me. I want to think about us and when I’m out there on the street I want to put my hands to my nose and smell the parts of you I’ve touched.
“And I could tell you that it’s a mystery to me why I feel this way, but it’s not. It’s simply that you are so beautiful to me, so maddeningly and exasperatingly interlocking to those parts of me that need to be interlocked with. So, I love you, and I realize that may mean that you don’t want to see me anymore and that’s fine.”
Carl said that, and he may have meant it when he said it, but after she shut the door and locked it behind her he reconsidered.
It simply wasn’t possible for her to respond in any meaningful way to this drunken declaration. Not verbally.
Carl stood there on the doorstep feeling the years rushing at him and away, their weight and nothingness rolling off his shoulders. Everything they knew opposed what he had done, and opposed her giving in to him. Even if that love were reciprocated, she was not the kind of woman to believe it without reservation. She would need time to think it over.
But now that he’d come to her doorstep and let months of truth loose into her borrowed home there was nothing left of them but the dream. And as he walked back to his car, parked somewhere deep in the cul-de-sac, he wondered how much of that dream she’d really shared and if this love was completely manufactured on his behalf. If he had waited, if he had lied a little longer, would it have served him any better? Or was it all a lie and had he, at this age, confused love for strong affection and stronger lust?
He wondered these things in a loop during the long drive home. And it could have been the alcohol, and it could have been the hour, but the home he drove to never passed his window. He just kept driving until he ended up somewhere else.