Page 77 of Before (After 5)

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I’ve outgrown Hampstead. I know it. Trish knows it. Even the local bakery has grown suspicious of my recent behavior and the fact that my weekly trips to buy sweets there have tapered down to nothing.

Suddenly I crave more of this world than living in this town. I want to move to the States, away from the daft minds of my mates who have no plans for their futures—and even farther away from my two favorite lovers. I’ve quickly become a fifth wheel with Ken and Max and their ladies. I want to learn more about the world, about people in general, and I can’t settle down here. Everyone around me has their roots firmly planted here already. They’ve opened up bank accounts and chosen a local university. I can already foresee their ambition short-circuiting when they take their first job doing what one of their parents did. They settle into these roles and never audition for any others.

Trish has become one of them. She’s gone from being an excited liberal arts major to barely attending her classes. She and Ken moved into a small apartment across from the campus of his school to save travel time. He’s a mess lately, working so much. Every time I see him he’s behind a stack of textbooks. Trish is less of a lover and more of a mother to him now. She sets his alarm clock every evening. She makes sure his clothes are clean and laid out on their bed in the morning. She makes his coffee, his breakfast, packs his lunch. She waits for him to get home, she feeds him a hot meal and is ignored in favor of his books, and then the next day the same tedious cycle repeats all over again. She’s no longer the vibrant risk-taking flower child she once was. She’s the overworked and underslept waiting woman. Because of her efforts, their apartment is as clean as it is small, and she’s managed to charm up the place. Trish has even taken in a stray kitten and named it Gat after one of my favorite characters. I suspect Ken doesn’t care for the creature, or the name she chose.

Her what-if games that I enjoyed on the hill become less and less frequent every day, and more and more of what she expresses can be called free-floating anxiety. She no longer indulges in flights of fancy that entertain us both; instead she worries about minute things, and I’m no longer a playmate in a grassy field, but someone who has to reassure her, even though I’m not the first in her heart.

Even through this, though, she still keeps her humor—and I pray to God each night that she won’t lose it completely. The more often I stop by, the brighter she seems to burn. I make it a point to stop by weekly, then twice a week, as she asks me to do. The hours Ken’s gone become longer, leaving their home emptier. She shares with me her worries and whispers her darkest questions into the dark room. I pretend to have all the answers, and like a good friend to them both, I encourage her to share her fears with her lover.

Quickly, I regret this decision. One night, a rare night when Ken is at home and not studying, we’re all sitting around the kitchen table, each of us with a glass of whiskey in hand. During a lull in the awkward conversation in which we try to catch up with one another’s recent life, Ken refills his glass. He doesn’t bother to look for ice—he never does anymore.

Trish sighs loudly and gets up, only to go into their small living room and sit on the arm of their couch. “What if the whole world exists in a glass case inside some alien child’s bedroom, like an ant farm of sorts?” I swear Trish’s accent grows deeper each time she drinks.

“What a fucked-up question,” I snort, the whiskey burning in my nostrils. Ken doesn’t break a smile; his lips don’t even make the slightest upturn. I get up to stretch, to not be the only one sitting at the table with him.

“Fine. What if the world ends tomorrow, proving that we all are wasting our time working so hard and sleeping so little?” Her eyes are light in the dim room. Gat climbs up onto her lap, and she runs her fingers through his burnt-orange fur.

I begin to think through her question. If I died tomorrow, would she know how much I ache for her? How much I love her?

Ken finally laughs, but his comment is not what I expected. “Working hard? As if you know anything about that.”

He’s smiling now, head tilting back in a sinister way as he leans over the table. Gat seems to sense the threat as Trish takes in a deep breath. I’ve never seen them fight, but if they do, my money is on Trish. The cat jumps down and prances off into the hallway. I should follow it—I should leave and stay out of this—but I can’t.

Ken lifts his glass to his lips and gulps down the remainder of the brown liquor in his tumbler.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t possibly have heard that correctly,” Trish says through her teeth.

I ignore the way my hands shake under the table when he stands up and starts raising his voice. I ignore my instinct to tackle him and shake him until he wakes up from this sleepwalking state he’s been slipping into lately, a state in which he starts yelling at her, calling her terrible names, and saying terrible things about her. I ignore the way my stomach feels like surging lava when she slaps him across the face. I ignore the way her tears burn through the flesh of my arms as I hold her on the couch, after he’s been gone for thirty minutes, drunk as a fish and out driving somewhere even though he’s incapable of walking straight—but after the way he stormed out of here, not bothering to turn around when I called after him, I’m glad he’s gone.

“What if he doesn’t come back?” Trish’s lips tremble as she finally starts to calm down, her head on my chest.

“And what if he does?” I ask her.

She sighs and squeezes my hand between hers. I look down at her face, and my heart aches. She’s so beautiful, even when her lips are red from chewing at them, and her eyes are swollen from wetting them with her tears. She’s calm now, her eyes stuck on my lips.

“What if I’m losing sight of the man I thought I knew?” Trish’s question comes out quickly, her next even more so. “What if I would rather have attention than a stable life?”

She seems frantic now, pushing her fingers through her thick brown hair. She faces me, squaring off her shoulders. “What if I confused friendship with love? Do you think Ken and I did that?”

She looks down at my hands, which are reaching for her without my having realized it.

“I don’t know,” I say, pulling my hands back to run them over my hair and then sitting back against the couch. I confused friendship and love when I chose friendship over my feelings for Trish, but now my best friends have made a life together. The problem they face isn’t a lack of love, it’s a lack of time. That’s all. He loves her, and if she loved me rather than him, she would have told me long before now.