If the Men in My Life Had Thoughts by Abbey Comey

I want to talk to Sloane, but I don’t want her to think that I’m asking her on a date, so I ask her to come with me to get my tetanus shot. I had my last one when I was nine, and I can I I still remember how my arm ached for days afterwards. At twenty, I’m overdue.
            Sloane has to pick me up because I don’t have a car. In that sense, it’s less of her coming with me and more of her taking me to the doctor’s office that I’ve been going to since I was a toddler. There’s a giraffe painted on the wall in the waiting room with a speech bubble coming out of its mouth reminding me to wash my hands. We play Tic-Tac-Toe with wooden blocks. There are carrots and rabbits instead of X’s and O’s. The first four games are mine, and then she lets me win.
            A nurse calls out “Ben.” His name is Wally. He’s known me my whole life. When Sloane follows me back, he asks if she’s my girlfriend. I’m worried he won’t let her come, and she’ll just have to sit in the waiting room flipping through picture books about puberty while the germophobic giraffe watches, so I say yes.
            The shot is quick. I turn away, but Sloane watches the needle press into my skin. I can feel it hitting my bloodstream—the poison that will render me invincible.
            The thing is that Sloane is in love with me. I know this because she wrote a poem about it in our college literary magazine, whose name is some edgy adjective-noun like Runaway Tricycle or Punctured Lung.
            She told me about it before it went into print. We got coffee. This was long before today, back when she was my best friend and before I worried that she would interpret all our one-on-one interactions as dates.
            The thing is that I’m just as in love with Sloane as she is with me. The problem is that they’re different kinds of love. That’s what’s so stupid about this whole thing. If we could only agree or at least meet in the middle, everything would be perfect. Our feelings match one another’s in magnitude. It’s register that poses an issue.
            The moment we sat down (her with a small chamomile tea and me with a coffee smoothie and one of the withered chicken salad sandwiches they kept in the case for weeks), I started rambling about theater department drama. She was such a good listener that thoughts just poured out of me. I told her how pissed I was at Kendall for insisting she direct the fall show even though she was a rising junior, how we shouldn’t even have been doing King Lear in the first place because we’d done it three years ago, and how I knew I deserved to play Lear, but I would get Edmund instead because Kendall hated me for no reason.
            I told Sloane all this between ravenous mouthfuls. These were the last moments of her being the person in the world I felt most comfortable around. I should’ve relished them. I should’ve known what was coming. In retrospect, it was painfully obvious. She loved chai lattes with two extra pumps of vanilla. The plain tea was an act of masochism, a punishment for what she was about to tell me.
            She let me finish my rant. She told me Kendall was a bully overcompensating for her low self-esteem, which was true, but something I would never say. That was the thing about Sloane (other than the thing about her being in love with me) she always spoke her mind and, when necessary, she spoke mine too. She was fiercely kind, but she didn’t tolerate bullshit. You’ve got to stop caring so much about what other people think of you, she would always tell me. But that wasn’t what she said to me on that day in the coffee shop.
            “You care so much. I think that’s why I’m in love with you.”
            That was it. That was her transition.
            I kept eating my sandwich because it seemed to be the only action my body could tolerate. I finished the whole thing, even though I wasn’t hungry anymore.
            She watched me chew for a while. “I’m not telling you this because I want something from you. I know you’re with Rachel. I know you two are happy. I know you’re gonna get married someday. It’s just how I feel, and I can’t help it. I wouldn’t have told you at all, but the lit mag is publishing a poem I wrote about you. I didn’t think it would get in, or, I don’t know, I just didn’t really think about it, and now they’re gonna print it, and I wanted you to hear it from me.”
            “Oh,” I said. Half a grape fell out of my mouth and onto the table. We both looked at it.
            I couldn’t stop thinking about how she’d said Rachel and I would get married. Part of me had known that I would marry Rachel from the day I met her, but we’d never talked about it. It’s the simple truth. There are six protons in a carbon atom, and Rachel is the love of my life. Maybe that certainty is why it’s so easy for me to love Sloane as a friend. The romantic sector of my life is closed and accounted for.
            I made a joke about how I thought she was a lesbian, which was true. She had short hair and an eyebrow piercing. At one point, she had a girlfriend. I thought it was a reasonable conclusion. She didn’t laugh. She explained that her feelings started at callbacks. She said she didn’t want to read the poem to me. It was too embarrassing.
            “I don’t use your name or anything, but people might be able to tell it’s you. I talk about Brutus. And your hairline.”
            Instinctively, I brushed my hair down to cover the bald spot that I’d inherited from my maternal grandfather.
            Sloane and I had met when I directed Julius Caesar and cast her as Brutus. I’d fallen in love with her, in a platonic sense, during her audition. I asked her to do something stately, thinking she’d outstretch her arms or kneel with a fist across her heart. Instead, she sang the entirety of “O Canada” in French.
            I thanked her for telling me. I told her I was flattered and immediately regretted it when I saw her wince. She reassured me that she didn’t want this to change anything about our friendship. I agreed before she finished the sentence. We went back to talking about Kendall. I was so determined to act normal that I bought another sandwich and ate it all. Meanwhile, she let her tea steep for so long that it turned opaque.
            She told me she’d give me a copy of the magazine, but she never did. I only knew that it came out because a friend sent me a picture of the page along with the message I wish someone would write something this lovely and creepy about me.

“Why would you tell him that I’m your girlfriend?”
            I’m having trouble concentrating because Sloane’s music is really loud, and she’s driving too fast, and I’m waiting for my arm to start hurting.
            “That nurse. You told him I was your girlfriend.”
            “I just wanted him to let you come with me.”
            “I wish you hadn’t done that.”
            “You know why.”
            I pause because I do know why. Of course I know why. What I don’t know is why I’d said it anyway. The whole point of this was to make her feel better, and I’ve already made her feel worse.
            “That’s actually why I wanted to talk to you,” I say.
            She cocks her head to the side, exposing a new freckle on her chin. I wonder if her skin grows speckled every year. This is the first summer I’ve known her.
            “I figured you didn’t just want company for your immunization, ” she said.
            “Do you wanna go somewhere?” I ask.
            “We could walk around the junkyard. Step on some rusty shrapnel now that you’re superhuman.”
            It’s a joke, but she starts driving in that direction anyway. I’m glad because the junkyard is decidedly unromantic. I’ve been there once when my brother wanted to look for parts for an art project. We went home with a hub cap, two broken headlight bulbs, and an Alaskan license plate.
            Sloane and I sit a foot apart on the hood of a Chrysler convertible that looks older than us both. It’s getting dark. The place is deserted. It’s such a relief to have no one else around. That’s the thing about a college campus: There are people everywhere. A friend of mine interrupted Sloane’s confession when he spotted me across the coffee shop. He invited me to a frat party seconds after Sloane told me that she’d had feelings for me since callbacks.
            I want to know if she has a moment too, like me with “O Canada,” but it seems like a selfish thing to ask.
            Sloane scrapes off a chip of blue paint with her fingernail and presses it onto my knee. It sticks there. Her skin is cold. She doesn’t look at me.
            “How’s your summer been?”
                        We haven’t seen each other since the coffee shop. She graduated, and I’ve been scared to reach out for her out of a sense that she belongs to a different world now, a world with a business casual dress code and twelve-dollar cocktails.
            “It’s been good. I’m shadowing a surgeon at Mount Sinai. I’m taking anatomy online.”
            I always feel weird talking to Sloane about being a doctor. She was the only person who didn’t praise me for going premed. You want to be an actor, Ben. Stop trying to please your parents. Stop chasing stability instead of joy.
            “How’s Rachel?”
            The question startles me. Before the poem, Rachel and Sloane were friends. They even hung out without me a few times, grabbing lunch or sitting together at my improv shows. After the poem, it was like they were dead to one another. There was no outward resentment, only silence. I mentioned it to Rachel, and she said she would read the poem when it came out, but we never talked about it. Sloane and I had never really talked about Rachel at all, even before I found out she was in love with me. I never thought the omission was strange until now, when I hear the name come out of her mouth.
            “She’s good. She’s with her family in the Outer Banks this week.”
            Rachel’s absence settles over the two of us like a web, equal parts sticky and smooth, deadly and hopeful.
            Sloane stays quiet for so long that I think maybe she didn’t hear me. It’s starting to rain. The sky is all lazy about it—a drop here, a drop there. One lands on her forehead. I watch it slither between her eyebrows and down the slope of her nose. I’m about to reach over to brush it away when she finally says something.
            “I don’t need you to reject me a second time.”
            I jerk backwards and play it off like I have an itch on the crown of my head.
            She’s right. I did come here to reject her a second time. The guilt injects itself into me like a flood of cold water. This isn’t about making her feel better. It’s about me. I’m not in love with Sloane, but the poem destabilized me. I need to open this door one more time so that I can shut it, hear the click of the knob, and throw the deadbolt myself. Friends can press their lips to the wood to talk through the crack. Friends can slip notes underneath. It’s safer that way.
            “I know the poem freaked you out, but I wrote it, and I told you about it, and it’s over. It’s done. We said we’d stay friends, so let’s be friends.”
            She stares at me. The acknowledgement that I’m a body beside her and not just a voice hanging in the air is such a relief. The complexity of her expression is dizzying: the hard line of her mouth; the tension in her jaw; the pink in her cheeks from the heat; the love (yes, love) in her eyes that I can feel her fighting to extinguish. I’ve hurt her, and here she is, still loving me.
            I know she’s about to kiss me. I want her to do it, not because I love her like that, but because I want her to have everything she wants. I want her to be happy, and she’s looking at me like this one simple act will cure her of all the anguish I never meant to cause her. I don’t think about Rachel, except to think about how I’m not going to think of her. If I had any doubt in my mind that Rachel was the love of my life, I would have turned away, but Rachel and I are going to get married. Making Sloane happy right now in this junkyard won’t change that. In the moment, it makes perfect sense.
            Sloane is my best friend, and I’m going to let her kiss me.
            It’s not what I expected. It’s calm. She’s played this scenario out in her head before. She puts one hand on the back of my neck, the other on my knee. She’s careful to avoid my left arm, even though it hasn’t started to hurt yet. Her mouth tastes like peanut butter. Her hair smells like oranges, which is funny because her hair is orange. I laugh, and she pulls away for a second. Her hands stay where they are, cradling me. I get a chance to take in her face again. She looks at peace.
            “Nothing,” I say.
            I’m smiling because she is. I let her kiss me until it starts to rain in earnest, and the wet soaks through our clothes. She shivers as we walk back to the car, but I’m not cold.
I’m invincible.

When Rachel comes back from the Outer Banks, she brings me a lifeguard sweatshirt and tells me it’s because I’ll be saving lives someday. I put it on, even though we’re sitting on her porch in ninety-degree heat. I know it’ll make her glad to see me wearing it. She scoots her rocking chair closer to mine, until I realize what she wants.
I scoop her into my lap and wrap my arms around her waist. Satisfied, she asks me about my week.
            “It was good. I got a tetanus shot. I saw Sloane.”
            She doesn’t say anything. She ties the strings of my sweatshirt in a bow, something we always do to each other in reference to our first date when I wore a sports coat and a bowtie to Applebee’s. She stares at my mouth. I kiss her. It’s the kind of kiss that can only be shared by people who know they’re going to spend their lives together. It’s indulgent and unhurried.
            She wipes lipstick off my lower lip with her thumb, then brushes the hair out of my eyes.
            “How was the shot?”
            “It was okay,” I tell her. “My arm hurts, though.”

Abby Comey is a writer, teacher, and grad student from Williamsburg, Virginia.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.