She sat on a bench in the deserted square, the cold wind whipping her hair across her face and chilling her to the bone. She couldn’t feel her toes anymore, but that was fitting, since she hadn’t been able to feel anything besides the utterly necessary physical sensations for days. Everything else had shut down long ago, but her body just wouldn’t listen—it persisted in its recognition of hot and cold, pain and fatigue, hunger and thirst, and she was worn out from the effort of simply sensing what was around her.
Her eyes are closed, a soft smile spreading across her face as she snuggles deeper into the bed, pulling the blanket up around her nose. The heavy beat of the rain drums against the window, drowning out the ever-present sounds of the street below them. Inside, it’s a cocoon, every noise and motion self-contained within the walls of the apartment, buffered by the rain from the world outside. They’re in a bubble, alone, sheltered. He’s back from London just for the week, and she’s kind of grateful for the rain—it’ll keep everyone else away for a while.
The sounds of breakfast float into the room—the crackling and bubbling of the coffee percolating, the clang of a frying pan hitting the stove, the crack of an eggshell, the sizzle of the whites hitting the hot pan, the metallic release of the toaster popping.
He pads back into the room, and she hears him before she sees him—the quiet slap of his bare feet against the hardwood floor, the soft whistle of his breathing through the lingering cold that he hasn’t quite been able to shake, the whisper of each leg of his sweatpants brushing against the other.
“Breakfast in bed or in front of the fire?” he asks, his voice still slightly rusty with morning.
“Mmmm,” she mumbles into the pillow, pulling the blanket up tighter and snuggling in. The bedsprings squeak slightly as he lies down on top of the covers beside her, and the click of the switch tells her that a lamp has been turned on.
“Come on, Ace,” he whispers into her ear. “I’ll build a fire and we can sit around all day in our pajamas, eat junk food, watch movies, and listen to the rain.”
“Mmmhmm,” she agrees, sighing softly, the noise amplified in her own ears by the pillow over her head. “Breakfast… good…” she mumbles, fully awake, not wanting to get out of bed.
The microwave beeps, shrill in the morning quiet, and they both jump. He rolls off the bed, pulling the blanket with him, and she squeals when it disappears, her body curling up into as small a ball as possible.
“Come on,” he repeats, tugging her off the bed by the hand, and they walk into the kitchen hand-in-hand, their footsteps hitting the floor in perfect unison.
A solitary student trudged diagonally across the quad, nearly doubled over against the wind. Dead leaves and discarded scraps of paper plastered themselves to the fronts of his legs, and only a sliver of skin showed between the scarf wrapped around his face and the hat pulled low to his eyebrows. His presence didn’t register with her, even though he walked directly through her line of vision, until he stopped twenty feet away and looked at her.
“Are you okay?” His words were ripped out of his mouth and carried away by a strong gust, but she got the gist of what he was saying. She nodded, a small concession to social niceties, and he shrugged and kept walking.
She sat up straighter, though even she couldn’t have said whether it was in defiance or defeat. Was she standing tall against the wind, or was she opening herself up to expose as much of herself as possible to its numbing force? She didn’t know anymore.
The multi-vitamin catches on her tongue, rubbing against her taste buds as she swallows, and she grimaces at the bitter aftertaste.
“Ready, Ace?” he calls from the bedroom, standing in front of the mirror adjusting his tie.
She takes one last gulp of water, swirling it around her mouth and spitting into the sink, patting her mouth with a towel and reapplying her lipstick. “Almost,” she calls back, hopping out on one foot, adjusting the sling-back of her other shoe with a finger.
“You look beautiful,” he comments, giving her a lingering kiss on the lips; and she savors the fact that she can taste his slightly waxy Chapstick whenever she wants again.
“And you look… here,” she murmurs into his mouth, reveling in the faint remnants of his mouthwash that tease her tongue as it brushes against his lips; in the taste of his voice in her mouth, not over a phone.
“And we’re going to miss our reservations,” he teases, giving her one more kiss before pulling away, taking her hand, and leading her out the door.
“Hey,” she stops him, tugging on his hand so they’re standing in the doorway together, looking in at the apartment. “Welcome home.”
Dinner tastes better than usual tonight, but she’s not surprised. Anything would taste good since he’s eating it with her; the fact that it’s filet mignon instead of mac ‘n’ cheese is just a bonus.
They’re on dessert, a rich white chocolate cheesecake with a thick ganache coating, a cap of real whipped cream, and a drizzle of raspberry when his eyes cloud over for the first time since arriving back in Connecticut. She almost misses it—she’s so used to picking up on his non-verbal behavioral clues that she’s almost forgotten how to read the visuals—but catches it in just enough time to swallow and wait on another bite until after he’s said what he needs to say. If it’s something bad, she doesn’t want this cheesecake to be forever ruined because of it, because of the bitter taste that will rise in her throat.
“I have to go back,” he blurts, placing a chocolate wafer on his tongue immediately after the words come out, as though lessening their effect.
“What?” Suddenly, she feels like the vitamin is scraping its way down her tongue again, branding a bitter trail in the middle of the sweet aftertaste of the cake.
He sighs. “Just for the next few months. You remember Will and Alan? The guys were doing the magazine start-up for the company?”
She nods. “You were helping them out as an extra project while you were there.”
“They need more help,” he says quietly, and she winces.
“How long this time?” The bitterness is spreading to the roof of her mouth, a nauseating acidity coating her tongue.
“A week here and there.” He tries to smile, one dimple trying to break free, before taking another sip of his wine.
“Here and there?” she asks.
He nods, and his eyes suddenly look tired. “About ten days a month, for the next four months.”
She takes a sip of her wine, and the bite washes clean the inside of her mouth, and she smiles at him. “Okay,” she says simply.
“Okay?” He looks up, a bite of dessert halfway to his mouth.
“It’s better than being over there permanently. Or all the time. And maybe I can go with you once or twice, since I’m finished school now, depending on how work happens.”
“Okay,” he replies.
And that night in bed, when he’s holding her and the chocolate and wine is gone from her mouth, she tastes the salt on both their lips and knows that it will be okay, but it’s not quite yet.
How—why—had she ended up here? She didn’t know that, either. She had driven around for hours, circling the town in ever-shrinking concentric circles, and had tried to drive in the opposite direction more than once, but it drew her in with its siren song, refusing to let her escape.
She hadn’t been here in months. It was just too much—a too-painful reminder of what might have been, could have been, should still be. When did everything fall so irreparably apart?
Lately, she had been avoiding everything—she had hardly spoken to anyone in days. Feigned illness to get out of social engagements, postponed meetings, skipped meals. It was all too much.
She comes home from a long day at work to find his jacket already hung up by the door. “Marco,” she calls, peeling off the fitted blouse that’s been fitting uncomfortably all day, grabbing a red sweater of his that’s draped across the couch. She pulls it on, pushing the sleeves up past her elbows, and lets herself relax, shedding her work posture and professional demeanor and becoming just a girl wearing her boyfriend’s shirt.
“Polo,” he calls back from the bedroom, and she makes her way towards him, ready to suggest ordering pizza and sitting in front of the TV all night. She’s tired and cranky, her heels are rubbing blisters into the sides of her feet, the tag on her skirt is itching right at the small of her back, and even her earlobes hurt, itching from the cheap metal earrings that she knows she shouldn’t plan on wearing all day, but they’re just so cute that sometimes she talks herself into it anyway.
When she reaches the bedroom door, though, she stops short at the sight of his small carry-on sized suitcase lying open on the bed, sagging into the doorframe so the sharp edge is digging into her shoulder.
“Again?” she asks, the word rolling out of her mouth and coming to rest heavily between them.
“I’m sorry,” he sighs, dropping the pants he’s folding and holding out his arms to her, approaching her and pulling her in against his chest.
She lets her cheek rest on his shoulder, feeling the familiar beat of his heart against hers and the soft cotton of his dress shirt against her face, and slips her arms around his waist, no longer needing to trace and memorize the specific contours and muscles to recognize them as his.
“When?” she asks, then before he has a chance to answer, she asks the question she’s dreading more. “How long?”
He stiffens, the muscles in his back bunching into knots under her hands. “Tomorrow morning at six. Two weeks,” he says, and a rush of air hits both of their chests as a crack of space opens up between them.
“You said you were finished there,” she protests, stepping away and walking to the window, placing her forehead on the cool glass. Maybe, if she lets it, it can cool the frustration and anger that’s bubbling up inside her, but even as she steps away a moment later and runs her hand across the window, there’s a warm spot.
“I was.” He goes back to packing, running the cloth through his fingers before snapping out the wrinkles and folding each item precisely. The silence that falls is full, and she feels it tightening around her head like a steel band.
“That’s it?” she finally asks. “You were? Now you’re not?”
He sighs, and reaches across the bed to take her hand, but his skin is cool, and she nearly pulls away for fear that the simmering resentment just under the surface will burn him, too. “I will be. I promise. This is the last time. They just need me to help tie up some loose ends with the next issue, and then they’re on their own.”
She tugs her hand away, crossing her arms against her chest, shoving the arms of the sweater up once more. “You promised last time.”
“I know.” He reaches into the dresser drawer for some socks. “But this is it.”
Something snaps, and scalding tears fill her eyes. “You can’t keep doing this.”
“What, my job?” he retorts.
“No,” she yells, “leaving me behind. You’ve been gone almost as much as you’ve been here. I miss you. I’m tired of explaining to everyone that, yes, you’re back from London; and yes, we live together; and yes, we just got a new apartment; and no, you’re not a figment of my imagination!” Her voice rises, catching on a sob at the end of her words.
“And it’s easy for me?” he shoots back, his words clipped and biting. “I don’t like it any more than you do. But it’s almost over. This is the last trip, and then—“
“And then what?” she interrupts. “And then you’ll have to go on another one, and another, and another, and I’ll be just like my grandmother, spending my nights—spending my birthday night!—alone in a cold mausoleum while you’re off…” she flounders, gesticulating wildly with her arms, “saving the world!”
“You’re not your grandmother, and you knew I’d be gone on your birthday, and I don’t want to save the world,” he shouts, his voice rising above hers. “I want you!”
She yanks open a dresser drawer, nearly sending it flying. “You always say that, but I’m starting to wonder how much you mean it!” Her fingers touch the worn denim of her favorite jeans and as she pulls them out, a t-shirt that was stuck to them with static flies across the room. “You’ve promised twice now that it’s the last time, and you always go back. Three strikes and you’re out?”
She pulls off her skirt and pantyhose and flings them onto the bed, flexing her calves as they escape the constricting nylon, letting her legs breathe again. She yanks on the jeans with more force than necessary, wiggling into the comfortable fit so they sit properly on her hips and hug her legs, and then shoves her feet into an old pair of slip-on shoes and heads for the door.
“Where are you going?” he demands.
“Out!” she spits back. “Finish packing. I’ll see you before you leave.”
He crosses the room in four angry strides. “Wait!” he roars. “Talk to me!”
“Not when you’re leaving!” she shouts back, trying to maneuver past him to the door. “I’ll talk when you decide that you’re finished living half your life in London!”
He reaches out to take her hand, but she pulls it away, and in a flash of desperation, his hand grabs her forearm instead.
He tries to pull her back, but she twists, trying to wrench out of his grasp, and his fingers tighten on her arm until she gasps and cries out in pain. “Logan!”
He drops her arm, staring at his hand and then at her face, white and transparent. Her eyes are wide and frightened, and he drops his gaze. They both stare at her arm, at the red marks on white skin, and Rory knows that they’ll be purple before the night is over.
“I’m…” his voice is little more than a whisper, and his face blanches.
“Don’t say it,” she warns, pulling the sleeves down and opening the front door.
The last thing she sees as she walks out is his face crumpling in a mirror image of hers as he sinks to the couch with his face buried in his hands. She pulls the door shut, sinks to the ground against the wall beside their apartment door, and sobs, soaking the cuffs of his red sweater with her tears.
A freezing gust blew a small whirlwind of dust into her eyes, but even that irritation failed to bring her dry tear ducts to life. She hadn’t cried in weeks, and even now, she refused to shed tears. It had been her choice, and she wasn’t looking for pity—if there were questions, they were ones that she needed to answer on her own, without anyone else clouding her judgment.
She wiped the dust from her face and willed her body to shut down, or get hypothermia, or frostbite, or windburn, or something. Anything that would make her feel like this windy exile had accomplished something. All around the quad, the stone buildings glowed with warm light, creating a soft, living frame for the vacuum of a picture enclosed within. Life and vitality and love and momentum were all whirling around her. Relationships and classes and careers and goals and dreams were all moving, and she sat motionless in the center, just out of reach of the arms reaching towards her, trying to draw her back into their circle.
She comes home to the smell of marinara sauce and fresh garlic bread filling the apartment, and he greets her with a peck on the lips and a squeeze around her waist, holding out a wooden spoon for her to lick. She takes the spoon, making appropriately appreciative noises as she tastes the sauce—he really can cook surprisingly well—and kisses him back; giggling as she inadvertently smears red sauce on his lips.
Maybe today will be different. Maybe tonight, the game that they’ve been playing for the past three months, ever since he got back from his last trip to London, will be real. They hang on the balance of strike three, but she’s almost stopped keeping track. Almost.
She sets the table, the scent of dinner making her stomach rumble, and she even lights a candle, the sharp sulphur of the match stinging her nostrils before giving way to the smoky comfort of the flame. He brings out steaming plates of pasta and bread, Caesar salad, and wine, and the conversation comes in fits and starts, and though it feels like her smile is brittle most days, her laughter fragile, today it becomes genuine. Tentative still, but genuine, and it feels like things are getting better.
“Let’s watch a movie,” he suggests as they’re clearing the table, her hands submerged in the lemon dish soap-scented water. “I’ll make popcorn; you pick a movie, okay?”
She leans over and kisses his cheek, keeping her soapy hands away from him, accepting the suggestion as a peace offering, an olive branch.
She wraps herself in a blanket and curls up on the couch, claiming most of the space, as he pours the microwave popcorn into a bowl and steams milk for lattes. He laughs when he sees her, yet as she relieves him of the bowl and points the remote at the screen, she sees the slight hesitation before he perches on the other end of the couch, propping his feet up on the coffee table and settling into the corner, stealing glances at her every few minutes.
She falls silent, suddenly tired, unable to muster the energy to snark at the movie and mock it all the way through, and they watch in near silence, focusing on the movie, even when he picks up her feet and places them in his lap, angling his body so he’s lying halfway off the couch, his feet still on the coffee table, the bowl of popcorn nestled between their torsos. Her eyes keep drifting shut, and she keeps finding that she’s missed entire chunks of the movie.
At one point, her eyes snap open as a wave of fresh espresso hits her nose, and as she sits up groggily when he brings fresh coffee into the room, he laughs, and she wrinkles her nose at him, taking a long draught of the beverage, hoping it’ll keep her awake to finish the movie, but she knows within seconds of turning it back on that it won’t, and her droopy eyelids betray her.
When she opens her eyes again, she’s battling something heavy and oppressive, weighing her down and trapping her. It’s dark, and she tries to kick, to release herself, but there’s something covering her nose and mouth, something familiar and sweet, but it’s filling her head, binding her body, and she can’t move.
“Shhh,” she hears near her ear. “It’s okay,” but the words that should be reassuring are accompanied by more of the cloying darkness, and she fights even harder.
“Ace… Rory!” His voice is sharp and concerned, pulling her out of the dark restlessness, and she gasps when she opens her eyes and sees his face leaning over hers, his hand hovering above her face, reaching out to smooth her hair off her forehead. She catches a whiff of his cologne, still present even at the end of the day, and she shrinks back, her body drawing away from his touch, his presence even as her mind reminds her, screaming loudly, that it’s Logan, that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
“Ace?” he repeats quietly, his hand hovering in the air above her face, and she feels like a frightened child. He sighs, dropping his hand down to his side. “You’re afraid,” he says coldly.
“It was just a nightmare,” she protests weakly, sitting up and drawing the blanket around her shoulders.
He chuckles sardonically. “No,” he says, flicking off the TV and reaching for his jacket. “This is the nightmare.”
She watches him go without saying anything, and when he’s gone, slowly stands, cleaning up the stale coffee and popcorn, their faint scents still lingering in the air, and crawls into bed without even changing, suddenly too tired to do anything else.
If only it was different. She pulls his pillow close, burying her face in the cotton pillowcase to smell the mixture of his shampoo, soap, and just him. It’s the one place she finds comfort now—she misses him on her, misses branding his skin with the essence of her own perfume and her body. Misses claiming him as hers every time he wraps his arms around her and she breathes him in, as comforting as fresh laundry or mountain air.
But she can’t make it different. She can’t make herself stop flinching, and she can’t make him understand why. She doesn’t understand why herself—she knows he’s trying; she knows he didn’t mean it, but her subconscious won’t let her move forwards or backwards. She’s stuck in this tug-of-war between what she wants and what she fears, and neither side is winning.
She wakes up when he returns home and slips into bed beside her, careful to keep a distance between their bodies. Her arms are still clutched around his pillow, and she breathes deeply into it so she doesn’t have to acknowledge the other smell that’s come to be associated with him more and more often lately. The pungent bite of second-hand smoke in his pores and alcohol on his breath seeps through the more comforting and welcome bulk of the pillow, though, and she tries to hold her breath until she falls asleep with dried tear stains down her cheeks, pretending that the pillow is the reality, not merely a faint memory.
She didn’t see him sit down beside her, or, if she did, she didn’t acknowledge him. It was more that she eventually realized that the wind wasn’t stinging her right cheek with the same ferocity, and her bangs fell out of her eyes, rather than being plastered across her forehead.
Still, she sat staring straight ahead, hands balled into fists and shoved in her pockets, back ramrod straight. For the first minute or so, he kept looking at her, then away, then back at her, his brown eyes searching her face, begging her to say something, but she pretended not to see. Her eyes remained focused on something straight ahead, something undefined; perhaps—probably—even something that only she could see in her mind’s eye.
It doesn’t look like home anymore. His things are all in boxes in the front room; hers are in the bedroom, and the stacks look like trenches with a no man’s land in the middle. It was never supposed to be like this, but she can’t even muster up the capacity to cry right now, watching the movers take his things out to the truck that’s sitting on the street in the bitter February wind.
He’s not there, and she’s not sure what’s keeping her in the apartment, especially since she doesn’t need to supervise his movers. Hers will be there tomorrow, and she just hopes that the right boxes go in the right truck, and she doesn’t end up with a box of his clothes or books or music.
She walks aimlessly through the apartment, taking in the cracks and quirks that they laughed at when they rented the place; that they created themselves. The small stain on the rug just outside the bathroom door, where her coffee had spilled when he snuck up behind her and slipped his hands under her shirt, making her jump. The wide windowsills in the bedroom and living room that had been filled with framed photographs of friends and family. The empty refrigerator door that had proudly displayed her collection of quirky magnets. The front closet door that had squeaked every time they opened it, no matter how many times they oiled it.
She ends up in the bedroom, surrounded by all her boxes and a sleeping bag on the floor, since the furniture is gone too, and she leans up against the wall, looking at the empty space in front of her, at the dents in the carpet where their bed, dresser, bookshelves, nightstands had been standing. Images fill her mind as her eyes drift shut, moments from nearly three years together, and yet she feels numb. None of the emotions that should be coursing through her in response to the loss of a love this deep are present; instead, all she feels is a cavernous void.
The empty room mocks her, reminding her that she could have stayed, didn’t have to move, but… without him, the apartment is a cave, and her own emotions are empty enough; she doesn’t need to be living in a place that perpetuates the emptiness, reminding her with half-full closets and gaping bookshelves of what used to be.
No, better to start fresh somewhere else, to go away. To leave—let the memories and the ghosts stay behind and have the apartment to themselves, until they’re subsumed by someone else’s life. The cold night of a loveless marriage? The expectant joy of a new family? The worn-in comfort and love of a couple of grandparents? She can’t even bring herself to wonder, care, speculate.
When they had moved out of the apartment in New Haven, they’d spent the last day giggling over their memories and wondering who would move in next, what essence they would leave behind for the people who came after them, but this time, she knows that they leave nothing. They leave behind a neutral, empty shell, ready for whoever comes to fill it up next.
Kind of like her.
She doesn’t hear the door open, but the crack of light along the floor moves, and she looks up to see him pushing it tentatively, sticking his head inside. He gestures with his head, and she nods listlessly, so he sits, finding a box to lean against, across the room from her.
He says nothing, and neither does she; instead, she watches him one last time, impassively for perhaps the first time since she’s known him. Blonde hair, tousled and blown by the wind; brown eyes that glitter at her like shards of topaz; scuffed tennis shoes; jeans worn slightly at the knees, but not shredding into holes yet; a thick sweatshirt over a long-sleeved thermal shirt, protection from the icy wind. And behind it all, a body that she knows intimately, yet looks like a stranger’s. No, more than that, a person she’s supposed to know better than anyone, who became a stranger again.
She closes her eyes, but his image is still burned on the backs of her eyelids, and she realizes that he hasn’t become a stranger at all.
“You didn't change for me. You found new ways to protect your old habits,” she says, eyes still closed.
“What?” His voice startles her—she’d almost forgotten that he’s in the room.
Her eyes open, and she sees him watching her the way she was just watching him. “We didn’t really change, did we?” she says, a hint of regret finally coloring her tone. “We’re still the same people we always were; we just managed to hide it for three years. We pretended to change, but when things fall apart, you still go out and try to forget it all in the bar.”
“And you still run away,” he finishes for her, tired, with no venom left in his voice. “Even when you were here, you weren’t here.”
She chuckles, a dry, mirthless laugh. “Maybe we rubbed off on each other more than we thought.”
“What do you mean?”
She smiles with the corners of her lips only, realizing that she’s having as little an effect on him as he is on her, and wonders when they both became so impassive. “I’m not the one moving to London.”
He wrapped his scarf more tightly around his neck and pulled a pair of gloves out of his pocket, settling in for however long it took.
Finally, she turned, her face chapped and red from the wind, and his hands moved toward the scarf draped loosely around her neck, and she could tell that he was refraining from wrapping it around her face himself.
“The movers got everything out yesterday,” he yelled, leaning in so his words wouldn’t disappear on the wind.
She nodded once, staring straight ahead again.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he continued. “If they gave you any of my stuff, give it to Honor—she’ll hold onto it until I come back to visit.”
She didn’t respond, and he rubbed his hands together, blowing into them, while he waited for some acknowledgement to his words.
Time passed, the night getting darker, the buildings getting warmer, and still they sat, silently, in the cold void in the middle of the square, until, finally, he turned to her once more. “I guess… I’ll see you around?”
She met his eyes for the last time and held his gaze as she smiled sadly, nodding her head once, and then he was gone, swallowed up by the buildings surrounding her. As he walked away, the cold wind bit into her skin and she shivered, pulling her jacket tightly around herself while a tear slid down her cheek, freezing halfway down, as she sat on a bench in the middle of the old campus, living out the end where it had all begun.
* The break-up of Rory and Logan. This must be a total, end of the relationship story. Leave no hope.
* A red sweater
* "You didn't change for me. You found new ways to protect your old habits." Can be spoken by either Rory or Logan, but it must be one of them.
Things Not to Include
* A proposal
* Children of Rory or Logan
* References to Mitchum and Shira Huntzberger