Look at Me

She likes the way he looks at her.

That’s the first thing she notices when talking to people. How their eyes fix on her–or don’t. Most people look at her with a vague interest, maybe just wanting her to finish talking, some actually wanting to hear what she has to say.

But there are some people that can pierce her with their eyes. People that make her feel that if she’s not careful, all her little thoughts will be laid bare and opened for discussion, leaving her naked.

He didn’t look at her like that when she met him, or she didn’t notice if he did. He was the type she usually dismissed as nothing more than a casual acquaintance: his power was in the physical, in his ability to draw people’s eye to his walk, his face, his body. Any interesting personality traits were mostly augmenting his physicality. He could be a very comfortable person to be around, though, and she didn’t mind spending time around him, often searching to see if there was anything behind all that physical stuff—like a mind worth probing.

It was always a game for her, to see how much of a person she could absorb in the time she had around him. To see how much she could see and understand of his personality and motives and morals and ethics and thoughts… It was usually one-sided, but it was fun nonetheless.

She can’t pin down when things changed. Maybe it happened during some casual afternoon conversation that tripped from topic to topic easily enough to let her relax her guard. When she glanced over at him, he was looking at her. Seeing her, or trying to.

What it was that tipped him off to her state of relaxation, she’d never know. Tone of voice, change in laugh, fast flickering of eyes as a window to flitting thought?

There was nothing sexual in his gaze. She didn’t imagine some romantic plot was running through his head, that he’d suddenly decided she was attractive and desirable. She’d just become… interesting. It was like a switch had tripped for both of them. She reveled in his reciprocal interest and curiosity; he in attempting to break her façade of cool responses.

Now she walked into his living room and dropped down next to him on the couch, digging into his bowl of popcorn while he made protesting noises. Their friendship was warm and comfortable after just a few months of knowing one another. They could sit and talk for hours—straight through a night—and the loss of sleep would never be lamented, the temporary drop in work performance never mattered.

There was one small, teeny problem, though: that physicality of his? It had started becoming charming to her somewhere between the increase in attentiveness to one another and the present date. Again, nothing she could pin down to a date, time, or decision she’d made. She certainly wasn’t pursuing anything with him, though; he was dating someone else, and time and two painful experiences had taught her the dangers of falling for friends. The attraction was just sort of… there, humming quietly in the back of her brain, only quietly and internally acknowledged. She’d considered the possibilities of them dating, only to dismiss them as unlikely, despite the quality of their friendship. He wouldn’t see the leap her mind was making as logical, and she understood that their lifestyle differences might be too drastic.

But here she was, happily shoveling popcorn into her mouth when he oh-so-casually said, “Guess what? I asked Anna to marry me. She said ‘yes’.”

Popcorn shoveling stopped.

“Marry you?” For once she was glad of the shell that allowed her to filter her responses down to something that was an unremarkable shock, rightly induced by her long-time vaguely-attached friend suddenly acquiring a plan for immediate marriage.

He looked mock-offended. “What, you didn’t think she’d say yes? We’ve been together for a while, babe.”

“No, no, I know,” she mumbled, thinking a mile a minute. Theoretically. She knew he could get married–to another woman, her mind helpfully supplied–theoretically. Theory doesn’t involve actual marriage. It involves discussion of what his wedding would be like—a discussion she knew he hadn’t had with Anna. It involves discussions of marriage and children and life goals and thoughts on family.

It did not involve actual godamn marriage.

The feeling settling right now into her stomach as he prattled on about the marriage idea… this was one of those feelings that was just familiar enough to remind her of her previous one-sided romantic attachments to friends, but different enough to take her breath away, like a punch to the gut.

You can’t brace yourself against this, a tendril of thought informed her. Just feel it and get it over with.

She’d honestly spent time thinking about the extent of their differences and how helpful or debilitating those differences would be to a relationship… So pathetic.

She excused herself as early as was possible while being inconspicuous.

When she got home, she left the lights off and climbed into bed fully clothed, pulling the sheets and blankets up to her shoulder. She wanted to be as covered as possible. Sheltered.

She lie there, thinking a little about the implications, a little about how she needed to act, and a lot about absolutely nothing. Just feeling. Feeling the tightness in her stomach, the shortness of breath that left her feeling as though she were slowly suffocating, the frown that made her face hurt with muscles too-tight.

She waited for the scream, the sobs, the tears that would release the tightness, give her some space to breathe. They wouldn’t come.

They wouldn’t for several days later. It’s funny how pain can do that. How the anger and denial phases could be so quick as to slip by almost without notice. How the heavy hurt settled in her stomach and left her speechless. Jealousy was an afterthought, blame and anger were absurd, but rationalization and defensive disassociation were quiet and ran deep. Even when she finally could cry, there were no histrionics, no sobs, no violence. Silent tears filled her eyes, blurring her vision until she blinked them away, so that they slipped down her face.

She could bounce back from so many troubles and stresses and pains with just a good night of sleep and a hug, because she knew that life would even out again if she could just hold her balance. That was just hope.

This was a wound that, when probed now, even months later, had the power to make her face pull down in that painful frown and her stomach clench. The world had moved on and marriages had occurred and friendships had persisted and evolved to the differences, and she still hurt, low and deep and dark, where it took real work for most people to find. Most people hadn’t found it, in fact, and assumed her naïve on issues of the heart.

A little of her hope had died that night, and not just for the immediate loss of possibilities. She was a little afraid now of those people that could hold her with their eyes alone, and hesitated to reach out to them. She was a little less revealing and open in conversation. She had a few more thoughts she felt she needed to guard while she reconstructed herself.

But she was reconstructing.

She hadn’t regained her balance, but the pain no longer actively distracted her from work.

She couldn’t talk about it casually, but she could think about the widening separation between them without the silent tears always coming.

She couldn’t avoid making comparisons, but when men with those piercing, perceptive eyes looked at her, she could once again imagine getting into their minds and having fun, even if she didn’t follow through.

She knew that it was just a matter of time. Someone would come along and try to see past her shell and she’d find herself opening up again. She’d catch herself in a truly relaxed conversation, and she’d say to him:

“What do you see when you look at me?”