Ben walks into the room and stubs his toe on the leg of a table that used to be two feet to the left, next to the sofa. She’d rearranged.
“Would you like some coffee?” she asks, already headed to the kitchen to brew it before Ben has a chance to respond. He can’t say no to coffee, she knows that.
He hates how well she knows him.
A decorative mirror hangs on the wall. The kind of mirror you buy from Homegoods. Next to it, a painting of a young boy feeding a baguette to a duckling.
She’s seeing someone, Ben’s sure of it. Virginia hated interior decoration—she thought it was pointless. There was no way she would willingly enter a Homegoods on her own, let alone purchase anything and hang it on her wall, unless she was convinced by someone she loved a lot. Someone like a boyfriend. A boyfriend that wasn’t Ben, not anymore.
He looks at the couch. Throw pillows.
Five months after their first date and three months after they became exclusive, Virginia’s mother, Gwen, came to visit. “To meet the new guy,” she’d said. “And make sure Ginny’s finally picked a good one.”
Dinner was quiet, but not necessarily unpleasant. Gwen sent her food back once because it was cold and again because the chicken was dry, so the meal lasted longer than it was supposed to. As they were leaving, Ben held the door open for Virginia, who tersely smiled at him, and Gwen, who squeezed his arm and patted him on the cheek.
“You’re not bad,” she’d said. “Not yet, anyway.”
The three of them returned to Virginia’s apartment, spotless after three days of panicked dusting and polishing and cleaning and dusting again. Virginia held her breath as Gwen entered and silently spun in a circle and sighed.
“Oh Ginny, honey. It looks like a prison cell.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
Gwen tsked. “Do something. Some artwork for the walls, throw pillows, candles. Just make it look like someone actually lives here.”
“Mom, it’s fine the way it is.”
After Gwen left, Virginia kicked off her heels and sunk into the couch. “What’s the point?” she’d groaned into the cushion. “What’s the point of having trinkets that don’t do anything? Fancy pillows aren’t even comfortable, for fuck’s sake.”
Now, Ben counts five throw pillows. Five fancy throw pillows that sure as hell aren’t comfortable.
For fuck’s sake.
Virginia enters and hands him a yellow mug.
“One sugar, right?” she asks, staring at him staring at the pillows.
“I actually switched to two sugars a few months ago.”
“Oh. Sorry, I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t expect you to.”
The silence is so present it feels tangible, as if the air was pressing on their skin. Both are too afraid to say something wrong, so they say nothing at all, staggering under the weight of awkwardness and unfamiliarity and unfulfilled expectations.
Outside, Ben can hear the honking of horns and the murmur of people rushing, always rushing, to get to where they think they need to be. He wishes they’d stop. It doesn’t seem right for everyone down there to act like nothing is different when everything has changed for the two of them, isolated, seventeen floors above the cars and people and hustle.
She even looks different. Her hair is the same white-blonde it was when she left, and it’s still long, but now it’s tied up into a ponytail so tight it lifts the edges of her face. She never used to wear her hair up. He wonders if the new boyfriend influenced this decision at all, if he’s the kind of person who prefers his women ponytailed. He tries to convince himself this doesn’t matter.
But it does matter. Of course it does. Her hair, always down and always uncontrollable, was how they’d met, in the hustle of this city that never sleeps, no matter how exhausted everyone in it is.
The day they met, Ben had forgotten his earbuds at his apartment, so he couldn’t huddle in the corner and close his eyes and listen to Stephen King audiobooks and ignore everyone else like he always did. On the same day, Virginia spilled coffee all over her favorite polka-dotted blouse on her way out the door and had to take two minutes to change, two vital minutes that caused her to run into the station right as her usual train was leaving. She was going to be late, again. She had to take the next train, the train in which Ben was mindlessly opening and closing the same three apps on his phone to avoid eye contact. He was closing out of Facebook when he caught a glimpse of blonde in the corner of his eye, but he didn’t look up.
The train became more and more crowded, and eventually both Ben and Virginia gave up their seats and ended up standing near each other. Virginia flicked a section of her hair behind her shoulder just as Ben was zipping up his coat, and a chunk of blonde got caught in the slider and entwined with the teeth of the zipper.
“Ow!” Virginia yelped as Ben took a step back.
“Oh my god,” Ben stammered. “I’m so sorry. Your hair—”
“Can you untangle it?”
And so he did as the train rushed on, as Virginia laughed because of course this would happen the same day as the spilled coffee and the missed train, as he tried not to notice how nice her laugh was.
When the hair was finally out of the zipper, she turned to face him. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Ben. “And I’m sorry. I hope it didn’t hurt too bad.”
“Oh, it’s not your fault. This damn hair always gets in the way,” Virginia laughed. “I should really just cut it already.”
“Don’t,” Ben said, without meaning to.
“Well, do what you want,” he said quickly. “It’s your hair, you do what you want with it. I just—I like it how it is right now.”
“I do,” Ben said. Paused. Then, “It’s pretty.”
After that, she put her number in his phone under the name “Girl from Subway w/Pretty Hair.” He’d texted her the second he got out of work. They had drinks that night and her hair was aglow even under the dim bar lights. On their second date, they’d gone to Virginia’s after dinner to watch a movie. He ran his fingers through her hair as the movie played, as they kissed, as the credits rolled and as the screen went black. He loved her hair—how it really did always get in the way, how it got caught in her eyelashes, how it felt against his fingertips.
And now, all he has left of her hair is the runaway strands he still pulls out of the knit of his sweaters during nights when he, like the city that is simultaneously too crowded and too empty, cannot sleep.
“Is the coffee okay?” Her voice is loud, shattering against the silence like glass on pavement.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” he says. He hasn’t taken a sip.
“I made it with a Keurig.”
“A Keurig?” Ben turns to face her. They’re standing like sculptures—shoulders back, weight centered on both feet, arms at the sides, still.
“Yeah, I bought a Keurig. A couple weeks ago. It’s convenient.” She tightens her ponytail.
Ben takes a deep breath and tells himself to let it go. He doesn’t. “You hate Keurigs. You think using a Keurig is cheating.”
“I guess I changed my mind.”
“Yeah, I guess you did.”
Silence. Ben sips his coffee. It needs more sugar.
“How have you been?” Virginia asks. She sits on the sofa and crosses her legs away from him, casual. Collected. He sits next to her, as close as possible without touching. He’s struck by the sudden instinct to pull her closer, to kiss the top of her head, to feel her hair tickling his face. How many times had they sat on this sofa in this apartment, just like this? How had it felt so right before and so wrong now?
Ben laughs. “How have I been? Really?”
“Well, yeah. It’s been a while.”
And whose fault is that? The question lingers between them, unspoken but increasingly present. They have conflicting answers.
“I’m fine,” Ben says.
Ben’s hands smack onto his knees, a thunderous clap in the quiet. “Jesus, Virginia,” he says. “Of course not. Is that what you want to hear? I’m awful. Of course I’m awful. You know that.”
Virginia shakes her head. Her lip is trembling like it always does when she’s trying to be tough, which is always.
She didn’t cry in front of Ben for the entire first year of him knowing her. Not once. Her lip would begin to shake and she’d disappear from him until her lip had stopped and she was back to being unbreakable.
Her dad died on their one-year anniversary. Heart attack. Unexpected.
Ben went to her apartment to pick her up for their date and heard her crying on the other side of the door. He knew, of course, that the sound he was hearing was crying and that it was coming from Virginia, but the concept of Virginia, tough and impenetrable Virginia, crying was so strange that Ben almost convinced himself he was mistaken.
“Gin?” he’d said, knocking gently.
“Oh god, Ben, I’m sorry. I’ll call you later. Please just go.”
“I’m not going to leave you, Gin.”
“I’m telling you to.”
The door was unlocked, so he walked in, leaving the bouquet of tulips he’d brought on her kitchen counter. She was on the couch, hair tangled, makeup-less, sobbing, unrecognizable.
When he’d finally reached her, she clutched him as if he, too, were about to have a heart attack and collapse and die. “I’m so sorry,” she mumbled into his neck as he hugged her. “You shouldn’t have to see me like this. I scare myself when I’m like this.”
“I want to be with you,” he said. “In every form. Happy, sad. I want all of it, Gin.”
He wants to hold her like that now, to tell her that he still wanted to be with her, even when life was hard, because it was so hard, but it was harder without her, he still wanted to be with her even when her lip trembled.
They look at the decorated walls, the throw pillows, the Keurig-made coffee becoming colder in their mugs.
“Why am I here?” Ben asks.
“I’m seeing someone.”
He knew this, of course. He’d heard rumors. He’d seen the mirror, the painting, the pillows, the ponytail. But he could’ve lived the rest of his life without the confirmation.
The world seems to contract. In his head, all the corners in the room, the edge of the table, the edge of the wall, the edge of the tissue box, inch towards him and he is frozen, bound in his seat and forced to feel them all piercing him, all at once.
For the past few months, Ben had tried to orchestrate a reunion. He would drive ten extra miles to the Target, Starbucks, and 7-11 closest to her apartment and hope to see her there. He persuaded himself that if he could just run into her once, he could convince her to love him again.
This illusion shattered around him, so wholly and finally that Ben almost heard it. It hadn’t mattered. The extra miles, the extra time in these places, the extra money spent. Even if he had run into her, it wouldn’t have mattered.
She’s selfish, Ben thinks. If he couldn’t love her in the real world, she could at least allow him to love her in his imagined one. It was the decent thing to do.
“I feel like it’s wrong of me to be happy with him, because I know you’re not. Happy, I mean.”
“I want you to be happy, Virginia.” He swallows loudly. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Are you?”
She pauses. Every answer is the wrong one. “Yes, I am.”
“Are you okay?”
A guffaw. “Yeah, I’m great. Never better, actually.”
Virginia crosses her arms, uncrosses them, crosses them again. “Don’t do that, Ben. Don’t be like that. I was just trying to—”
“What?” Ben feels himself standing. “What exactly were you trying to do?”
“I just wanted to—”
“You ask me to come over here, out of nowhere, to ‘chat.’ You can’t do that, Gin. You know that. You know it’s never just ‘chatting’ with me.”
“I just needed to tell you—”
“Everything’s different.” Ben can feel his heart rate quickening. “You rearranged the furniture. You have wall décor. You made me coffee with a fucking Keurig!”
She stands to face him. “Ben—”
He puts his hand up. “Why did I have to know?” He yells. His voice is strained, it isn’t accustomed to being raised. He was the calm to Virginia’s storm.
The norm for Ben and Virginia, like the furniture in Virginia’s apartment, has been rearranged.
“Why did you need to tell me you were seeing someone? You knew it would hurt me. Is that what you wanted? To hurt me?”
“I wanted you to hear it from me first,” she says.
“I’m so fucking stupid, Gin. Do you want to know how stupid I am?”
“You’re not stupid.”
“I bought a ring.”
The quiet becomes solid around them again. Neither can move, their bodies like fallen leaves trapped in drying cement.
“A ring. For you. I bought one.”
“No you didn’t.”
Virginia sits on the sofa and rests her head in her hands. Her palms are sweaty and cold. When she breathes, she can almost taste salt. “Really?”
“Do you want to see it?”
She pauses, sighs, nods, shakes her head. “No,” she says.
Ben reaches into his pocket and feels the black box, familiar in his hand. He and this box know each other well. He’d been practicing the moment, the asking of the question, for a month before Virginia left him. The night of their breakup, he’d turned the box over and over in his hands until his fingertips felt fuzzy and his brain stopped screaming. He tried shoving the box into the corner of his closet and convincing himself to forget, but he found himself obsessively opening his closet doors and staring into the darkness until his eyes adjusted and he could see the familiar rectangle outline, slightly blacker than its surroundings.
He’d retrieved it from his closet and put it on his bedside table, telling himself that this was okay if he didn’t allow himself to open it and look at the ring. This was normal, he said over and over again. This was part of the healing process. He needed to hold on to something to feel close to her, and when he moved on, he could figure out what to do with the black box and with the ring inside.
But he didn’t move on, and even his bedside table was too far away. He needed her closer to him, and since that wasn’t an option, he needed the ring closer to him. He put the box in his pocket, the bulk of it wonderfully present against his thigh, reminding him with every step that it was real and she was real and they were real, even if they were over.
“I don’t want to see it, Ben.”
“Yes, you do.”
He pulls it out and almost instinctively lowers himself onto a knee. That’s how this was supposed to go. He was supposed to ask. She was supposed to say yes. They were supposed to be happy. They were supposed to be together.
Instead, Virginia is rigid. Her knees are locked. Neither of his knees are bent. He’s reminded of the night they broke up, after she’d said she still loved him but she was leaving. They’d stood and stared at one another for an incomprehensible length of time. “Goodbye” felt unfamiliar and misplaced in their mouths, a foreign food their tongues didn’t know how to taste.
He opens the box and holds it out to her. The ring is not extravagant, a simple round cut stone like she’d always wanted, but in this moment, it is everything. Ben and Virginia stare. Virginia cannot believe it exists, that it was meant to be hers, that it would have been hers if she hadn’t left him. Ben couldn’t believe it could even exist in the same room as Virginia; for so long it had been an unsatisfactory replacement for her presence that simultaneously seeing her and it in his field of vision was an impossible thing, like Clark Kent and Superman sipping coffee at the same table.
“Ben—” Virginia begins.
“Take it. I want you to have it. I bought it for you.”
“I don’t’ want it anymore.”
“Ben, I can’t take your ring.”
The words float like a canoe on the space between them. Virginia stands, her eyes flitting between his face and the ring and the floor. In his mind, Ben sees her come to him, a magnetic movement, he sees her wrap her arms around his neck like she always did. He sees himself smiling and shakily sliding the ring on her finger and kissing her fingertips, her face, her mouth. He sees them the way they should be.
He sees it so clearly, he’s stunned to find nothing but air when he lifts his hand to touch her face, which is masked behind her hands again. She’s crying. She’s muttering “no.”
“I had to ask.”
“No. You didn’t.”
“I’ll always love you.”
She shakes her head. “You won’t.”
She still doesn’t know, he thinks. After all this time, she still doesn’t know. Maybe if he’d been able to convince her, the ring would be on her finger now instead of making tiny dents in the folds of his palm.
Once again, “goodbye,” is not in their shared vocabulary. This time, it is Ben who leaves, although he’ll never remember how. He walks out of her apartment and into the elevator and into the night, weaves between people whose hearts are probably more whole than his, scrambles down the Subway station steps, and stands near the track. He can feel the stone in his fist. It feels heavy—a boulder instead of a diamond.
He raises the hand with the ring tucked inside up and over the track. He unfolds his fist one finger at a time, slowly, memorizing the way it feels to let go. The ring falls, unceremoniously, and clatters onto the rails, nothing but an unfulfilled purpose, a token of something intangible. Ben gets on the next train that comes. He doesn’t know where it’s going, but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t know where to go now that it’s over, so any train going in any direction that isn’t up the stairs, to her building, and up seventeen floors to her door will do.
Minutes after Ben leaves, a rat zig-zags among the rails and sniffs, seeking garbage to eat. He spots the ring, a diamond in the rough, and scurries to it. It’s unfamiliar to the rat, who is accustomed to wrappers and discarded food and condoms and garbage, but not abandoned rings. He nudges it with his paw, smells it, and finally attempts to take a bite. It is hard, inedible.