By George Ojema
He reaches for it and wraps his palm around the base of the bottle, his fingers just covering hers. She doesn’t pull away.
“So, what’s this thing you wanted to ask me? No jokes this time.”
He exhales, ready to tell her. Involuntarily, his gaze falls to the table as though he is looking for his courage in the remains of his poor choice in supper. But he looks up again, adjusting his gaze so his eyes are looking right into hers, trying to be a portrait of confidence, trying to keep up appearances because deep down his insides have given way. His knees have abandoned the will to remain steady and slump against each other in the invisible fear of what might come. His toes, confused, have curled as though retreating into the soles of his feet. His calf muscles tense and relax, almost ready to purpose his fears and give energy for flight. But he thinks he can feel his eyes give a steely gaze because she gazes back. She doesn’t flinch, she doesn’t stir. She just sits and stares expectantly at him, her face almost made out of glass with a smear of a half-smile plastered on it. Those eyes, expressive as they are attentive, have him pinned down in this silent war.
Then he feels her fingers twitch underneath his on the bottle. His eyes dart for a quick peek and back. The half-smile mask on her face begins to break its mold for a blush. But all hopes of this moment being made any easier disappear as with one effortless exhale she retrieves her mock composure and fixes her gaze yet again on his face.
But the façade has been broken, she’s curious. Anxious even.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a while but…I just…”
A dull buzzing breaks the tension. It’s coming from close by. Her fixed gaze is fixed no more as her eyes dart towards the table and her jumper. The lingering fingers abandon his at the bottle as they dig into a hidden pocket to retrieve her cellphone.
“Just hold that thought”
He sits back, quietly acknowledging that the moment has been interrupted, broken and yet it could be fixed. He’d already started so he had to finish it. That’s the mark of a real man. His knees are back on his side, propped upright under the table. They might be unseen at this stage but it feels great to have them back. His toes also spread out inside his shoes and socks, getting traction, giving support. Then he suddenly remembers that he has only begun speaking and has not yet said anything of any consequence.
“Just a reminder. Ignore that,” she says as she puts the offending device on the table. “I’m so sorry. You were saying?”
She doesn’t miss a beat. He stares at her, then at the teenage couple and back at her. ‘Just do it’.
He sits up and squares his shoulders.
“We’re almost closing,” says the waitress who has silently crept up on their table. She stands by his seat, a fatigued expression on her face, rubbing her eye furiously to keep the sleep at bay and holding a table cloth in hand, ready to wipe the table.
He looks across at her and can see she’s disappointed.
She nods in response. He looks at his plate of French fries and decides there’s not much worth delaying over. With a generous tip offered to the sleepy waitress and the fizzy beverage downed quickly, he ushers her out and they leave into the now cold October evening.
“You’re sure you won’t feel cold?”
“I have a jumper. You’re the one who should be feeling cold”
“Nah. I’m fine”
The phone buzzes again, interrupting him before he could say what was right on the tip of his tongue.
“Just a minute”
She says it with an embarrassed smile, as though she knew what the phone call had interrupted. He watches her, trying to see what signs she would let past her defenses. Did she know he was watching, observing every move, trying to interpret it all, seeing cypher and decoding it…or trying to decode it. That skip in her step, that dance-like stride, that spring-like motion at her heels. It feels like it should mean something. And yet it could be nothing.
He hears his name mentioned and his senses all dart to the call. But the call ends, so abruptly he feels the universe has toyed with him.
“It’s Jane, she wanted to…”
The phone buzzes again.
“Jane! I’ll call you back when I get home!”
She ends the call and puts the phone in her pocket. Then she looks up at him and he can see the mischief in her eyes confirmed by the playful smile across her face.
“I like you,”
He stops walking and she stops in front of him. He looks at her and a slight smile cuts its way into his cheeks.
“I like you”
Her face remains playful for a second longer and then everything changes. Carefree cheer becomes confusion.
“You like me?”
“Yeah. A lot”
“I don’t know. I just…like you”
“Wait, is that what you wanted to tell me all night?”
His heart sinks and he feels an incredibly big lump in his neck. This is not how he thought this would go, not even by a long shot. He takes a step back, allowing her hand to fall gracefully from his. He tries to look at her face but his now shattered pride will not allow him. He stares humbly at her feet, ventures bravely to her knees or hips but his gaze always returns to her feet or evades her face completely to find solace in the stars but that only reminds him of his first love, the star he ‘claimed’ for her and the ego battering break up that inevitably ensued. So his gaze returns to her feet where it begun.
“Just…forget I said anything”
She takes a step towards him and he steps back again. “I think I should…take you home. It’s late and…”
The walk is long and the silence is torture. It feels as though lead weights have been implanted into his shoulders as they tilt ever closer to the ground in their dejected splendor. His throat feels swollen with the knowledge of words he should never have had the courage to say. His lips, dry with regret, are pursed tight lest he say more things to make things worse. The cold evening air seems to have acquired a sharper edge to its fangs that now pierce deep into his muscles. And all this torture he would withstand if she says anything to him, anything will do.
But she’s as silent as the moon in full beam.
He gets her home, gives her an awkward, fumbled attempt at a hug and departs. He barely remembers the walk home. Why should he? The only foreseeable comfort is his cold hard bed and tonight he is numb to its cold nature.