Reversal:Curio Vignettes 03(2)By: Cara McKenna
I wrap Caroly in my arms, so tight I hear her huff with surprise against my shoulder. She strokes my back, realizing how desperate an embrace this is. “Didier?”
As I let her go she rubs my arms, gaze taking an inventory of her broken lover. “Is everything okay?”
I take a deep breath, swallow, clear my throat. “I had a scare,” I admit. Simply speaking English is a comfort, a tiny taste of security, hiding behind the affectations of a different man.
“I can tell. Here, let’s sit down.” Her eyes dart to my shoes. They tell her I left the flat, the state of me implying it didn’t go well. “It’s awfully dark in—”
I rush to flip on the lights before she can suggest we open the curtains. She heads to the couch and I follow. Seeking walls wherever I might find them, I wedge my hip against the armrest. Still I sense the city behind me, hear it growling, feel its hot summer breath on my neck.
Caroly scoots close and takes my hand. Her purse is still slung over her shoulder. “What happened? Did you go out?”
“Did you get lost?”
She rubs my knuckles with her other hand. “For how long?”
Her eyes widen. “How awful. No wonder you’re all shaken up. When did you get back?”
“Minutes ago. I’m sorry—dinner’s going to be late. And I didn’t have a chance to bathe or—”
“Shush. I’ll pick us up something from down the street in a little while. You can shower while I’m out.”
She says these things to fix the situation, to make me feel better, but in truth it only triggers more shame. It’s my job to be a perfect host, to be ready when a visitor comes calling. It’s my craft and livelihood to please and spoil women, and I’ve failed.
I fail Caroly constantly. She’s the only one I care for deeply enough to put myself in a position to fail.
This afternoon I’d gone out in search of a token, some trinket from a store my mother used to take me to when I was young. She would browse the jewelry while I mashed my face against the glass case full of watches.
I was going to buy Caroly something—a bracelet or a ring or a pendant, something shiny to excite her inner magpie. She always brings me gifts. I was going to get one for her, and tonight I was going to tell her I love her. I was going to go out into the city on my mission and nothing would keep me from it, and I’d return home triumphant from the longest walk I’ve taken by myself in years. I’d prove myself a recovering agoraphobe, not a terminal one, and tell her I’m in love with her.
I never reached the store. I made it six shaking, sweaty blocks in the July sun, only to find my meticulously plotted route blocked by metal gates, partitions corralling a parade. Any chance I had to find my way back was swept away in the streaming crowds, my brain wiped blank by the music and shouting and the squeals of children. Just remembering, I feel panic rising in me like bile.
“Where did you go?” she asks, still rubbing my hand. The contact smoothes the roughest burrs from my nerves, but my voice comes out thin and brittle.
“I was going to visit a store my mother took me to years ago. But there was a parade blocking the streets and I lost my way.”
She frowns her sympathy. “Four hours, huh?”
I nod. At least one of them I spent locked in a café restroom. “I found a cab eventually but…” I shake my head. Surely men get stranded in the wilderness for days on end and are less traumatized than this. Useless.
How had I ever thought I was ready to present myself as a man worth loving? Of asking this woman to consider me her boyfriend? She could have any number of men, and some day her self-consciousness will fade completely and she’ll realize that. She’d be a masochist to saddle herself with the likes of me. She’s smart enough to know she deserves a whole man, not some mess chewed half-hollow with the wormholes of his own anxiety.
“Well, you’re home now,” she says, patting my hand and sitting up straight. “Why don’t you take a shower, and I’ll get us some dinner.” It’s a statement, not a query. She’s already on her feet, checking her wallet for cash.