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Dream of Defeat
I reached under the bench to stick my now flavorless gum up against the bottom of the wood. I made sure I did it quickly and that no one was looking.
I came from the right of the Juice Bar, but he was going to come from the left. I kept my eyes focused on the left-hand side where 79th meets Madison, waiting for a tall blonde figure to appear from around the corner.
I shoveled a spoonful of chocolate frozen yogurt in my mouth, the best in the city- hoping to finish before he arrived. I make eating look less attractive than nose picking. I finished it off and tossed it in the trashcan inside the Juice Bar. The smell of papayas, ice cream, and grass reached my nostrils as the deafening noise of the blender echoed in my ears. I returned to the bench. I didn’t want to look like I was waiting for him, so I reached in my pocket and pulled out my iPhone. I tried to shift into a less awkward position and scroll through my Instagram feed, but I couldn’t keep my eyes from returning to the same spot every three to five seconds. A middle-aged man in a Red Sox sweatshirt sat down next to me.
“Someone’s sitting there, sir,” I said.
“I don’t see anyone,” he replied grumpily.
“Yeah, well there will be someone sitting there. Do you mind moving to the other bench?” He got up and walked away. “Thank you.”
I was completely neurotic, which surprisingly enough was unusual for me. It’s easy to just deny, deny, deny, and then just hope for the best, but last night seemed to have a significant impact on my entire self. I finally had hope, and fear, and the willingness to take a risk. Kyle came over to my apartment the night before reeking of cigarettes.
“I thought you quit,” I said upon opening the door.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t,” he replied, brushing past me. He dropped his red letterman jacket on the ground next to a fern and headed straight for the leather couch in my living room. Intrigued, I closed the door and sat across from him on the coffee table.
“How’s it going?”
“It’s terrible,” he said. “I’m acting like a crazy person and she says she doesn’t want to see me until I’ve figured my s*** out.”
He sighed. “At this point, I’m extremely confused, and I’m doing it to myself. I just keep going back and forth in my head about what I want and I can’t seem to make up my freaking mind.” He laid back on the couch as if it were a therapy session.
“Do you want to break up with her?” I asked, leaning forward slightly and hoping to conceal my desperation with a casual tone.
“I don’t know! Help me!”
“I can’t make that decision for you.” I wished that I could.
“Pros and cons. Go,” he said, pointing at me.
“Um, she’s rich?”
“But she’s got weird ears.”
“No she doesn’t!” he protested, and sat up.
“Whatever, let’s just have a Cayley-free evening. I’ll order some Wok N’ Roll and we can watch Breaking Bad. Sound good?” I asked.
While we waited for the food to come, Kyle cleaned out my fridge, throwing away several expired milk cartons and packages of turkey bologna. He got started on alphabetizing my DVD collection, but was interrupted by the deliveryman’s arrival.
I didn’t even get so far as to type in my Netflix password before Kyle’s ADD demanded that we look through my iPhoto. I handed him my laptop and he scrolled through my endless photo albums. He opened up “Winter Formal Senior Year Bitchess!”. Kyle had insisted that I Photoshop every picture of him to decrease his pupil size. He stopped at a picture of the two of us with a kid from the Student Activities Committee throwing gang-signs in front of a water fountain.
We had been best friends since sophomore year of high school when he bummed a cigarette off of me, and for years I never believed it could ever be anything more. It was never in the cards. But something was different that night. A psychic change occurred. He looked me in the eye and I saw more of him than I had ever seen before. My perpetual awkwardness felt like it was melting off of me. Because of him, I wasn’t so wrapped up in my own head and for the moment stopped noticing all the things that I wanted to change about myself. I attributed this to our reminiscing and my low cut tank top. We were no longer twenty-four year olds with jobs and electric bills; we were kids again with immature senses of humor and the urge to fall on each other when we laughed. This is the closest I ever got to time travel. I was convinced that I could do it all over now. I hadn’t lost him forever just yet.
My mother always adored Kyle because he tolerated her cooking better than anyone. My father thought he was insubordinate and a terrible influence. He had over-medicated parents so he spent a great deal of time at my house. Mom thought he was my boyfriend when I first introduced them, which created some temporary awkwardness. I’m sure the thought never even crossed his mind. He had a very specific taste in girls, yet the supply of these women seemed endless. The whole time I’ve known him, Kyle has always had a girlfriend in some form, and I had one hippy boyfriend in college who smelled like a sandy diaper. I seemed to be unappealing to all normal smelling men.
Our fights would always end with one of us leaving the other a teary, apologetic voicemail, and he used to tell me that I could be a serial killer and he’d still be my friend. I returned the feeling but told him not to test the theory. My therapist used to describe our relationship as “codependent”. Apparently, it’s not normal to experience separation anxiety over winter break. She explained his attachment to me was because I emotionally fulfilled everything a girlfriend could without the commitment and responsibility of a real relationship. According to her, I was equally attached to him because he validated me and improved my self-esteem, not to mention I emotionally punish myself by falling in love with someone who will never be more than a friend. I laughed and decided to stop seeing her.
We’ve been there for each other through everything. Kyle went through a drug phase senior year of high school. To get him all fresh and healthy for college, I helped him kick the cocaine habit with orange Tic-Tacs and extra nicotine. I was there the whole time even when forced to be at the other end of his drastic mood swings and uncontrollable anger. I’ve seen Kyle laugh, and I’ve seen him cry; I’ve seen him punch a hole in NYU dry wall, and I’ve seen him extend sympathy and compassion to the most unlikely individuals.
In high school, our peers were confused by our friendship. It seemed bizarre that Kyle and Hannah would ever get along- we were completely different people. He was a smug, half-Irish atheist who chain smoked in the school parking lot and picked fights with teachers over the dress code and the P.E. credit requirement. And while all this was happening, I was plagiarizing and getting excited over Harry Potter Weekend on ABC Family. Quite simply, he was an extrovert, and I was an introvert. Over the years, there have been endless speculations, judgments, questions, and concerns.
We spent almost every day together for eight years straight, but we had been emotionally growing apart recently. Kyle’s eyes stopped bugging out of their sockets and his energy level stabilized. He was slowly becoming more and more normal every day. This was the guy who swore that Alice from The Breakfast Club was wrong when she said, “When you grow up, your heart dies,” because she hadn’t met Kyle McKernan yet. Cayley drained him though. She was gradually tearing apart his soul. He started to fall asleep during Batman, began to wear ties, and he got a freaking landline! He drank wine from a glass, forgot the words to The Real Slim Shady, and stopped stealing Internet from his neighbor. He was dull, he was ethical, and he bored me almost as much as my dad’s friends from Harvard Business School.
The night before he started dating Cayley, he and I met up at the 77th street entrance to the park. I brought the Red Bull and he brought the cigarettes. We walked down the paved hill and turned right at the first fork. There was a playground alongside the path. I recognized it instantly as the one my parents used to take me to when I was a child- the giant fountain, the swings, the monkey bars and the slides all looked the same.
“Let’s go in there,” I said.
“It looks dirty.”
“Come on.” I handed him the two packs of Red Bull and gracelessly crawled over the black metal gate. He reluctantly followed, though with a little more agility. We sat in the little house thing on top of the slides- I have no idea what it’s called- and he smoked while I pounded almost all of the energy drinks.
“Here’s a picture of the girl I’m gonna ask out tomorrow,” he said, handing me his phone. I looked down at the picture and nearly cried when I saw how pretty that chick was.
“Her face is very symmetrical,” I mumbled.
“Her name’s Cayley. She’s the CFO’s daughter from the company I started working for.”
“Wow.” I handed back the phone. “Do you even know her?”
“Yeah, she’s amazing. We talked for hours yesterday at work. She was stopping by to give her dad lunch, and we just clicked, you know?”
If I had any idea that this girl would be the one to change the Kyle I knew and loved into a tortured and anxious man, I would have stopped it when I had the chance. Instead I told him I was happy for him; I told him that I wished him the best of luck and that she’d be an idiot to refuse him. If I had felt pain in that moment, it was nothing compared to the next year of my life.
But last night, I was euphoric. He had recovered completely from all that she’s done to him. The best part of the evening, though, was when he pulled me into his lap and kissed my forehead. He told me he would be forever grateful for everything I’ve given him.
And the next day I was waiting, determined, to say my piece. I tucked my hands under my thighs and prayed one last time that I would be okay. I couldn’t even believe how much I was sweating. Pit stains. Hot.
“Hannah,” he said. I turned my head to the left and saw Kyle approaching me in his red jacket, texting rapidly. He sat down next to me and finished his text before slipping his phone into his pocket. “Hey!” He pulled me into a tight hug as if he hadn’t seen me in months.
“What’s up with you? Why are you so smiley this morning?” I asked, really hoping that I somehow fit into his answer.
“I went home last night and did a lot of thinking.” I was barely listening. I loved the way he used such emphatic hand gestures when he talked. There was always passion behind everything he said. I really hoped I wasn’t drooling. “I just feel really good about the decision I’ve made and I can’t thank you enough for last night. I think I really needed that time to just take a little space, because when I came back to it, I felt so much more confident.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“Here, check this out.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small black box. My mind exploded. I thanked God over and over as my hands trembled and my whole body grew hot. I had been waiting forever for this moment- eight years- and now that it was finally happening, I had no idea how to feel. My heart rate felt impossibly high. I realized I had been holding my breath, but refused to exhale. That moment felt like it would never end and that I would be trapped in this magnificent discomfort for the rest of my life. He opened his mouth to speak.
“I know right? It’s totally crazy! But I feel like I’m ready for it. I mean I’ve never loved anyone like this before.”
He was overflowing with excitement. I had honestly never seen him like this in all the years I’d known him. It was as if he had finally let go of whatever had been holding him back from the happiness he always craved and deserved.
“She’s meeting me here in a few minutes, but I wanted to tell you first. I’m so fucking nervous I feel like I’m gonna puke.” I didn’t respond. I was beyond embarrassed. “Well, what do you think?” He asked.
“Don’t do it.”
“Please, do not do this,” I begged. I felt my eyes begin to sting and I knew that tears were not far behind. I bit my lip and looked away from him.
“Are you going to give me any kind of explanation?”
“Because I won’t be able to handle it.” He stared at me quizzically. I swallowed and prepared myself to say everything I had been avoiding for so long. “You have no idea how painful it has been to watch you be with countless other girls while I had to be the supportive friend who is supposed to be happy for you. Of course, I had no problem playing that role because I care about you and I wanted to be a part of your life, but I don’t think I can do this anymore. I’m emotionally abusing myself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re my best friend, so that makes this totally awkward, but I’ve been in love with you since high school. “ I tightened every muscle in my body and braced myself for his reply, but it didn’t come. He pursed his lips and stared down in his lap. “Say something,” I demanded.
“I just- I don’t know what to say.”
I would have rather had him punch me in the stomach. It would have had a less painful effect.
“Oh,” I whispered.
“S***.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. “I was not expecting this. I feel like such an asshole, but Cayley is going to be here any second, do you think we could finish talking later or-“
I remembered a day when I was ten years old I had a crush on Drew Petkevich. I was with my friend, Celine, at the tennis club we belonged to in the Hamptons. We were swimming in the pool. Drew and his friends were playing Sharks and Minnows in the deep end. I confessed my feelings about Drew to Celine, who then took it upon herself to tell him. I was mortified. I hid in the ladies locker room for an hour and a half. Eventually, I asked a woman if I could borrow her phone and I called my mom to come pick me up. I crawled out the bathroom window and met her in the parking lot. I told her everything that had happened. She said, “Just for today, don’t even think about it. Let’s go see a movie and have a fun day together. Tomorrow you can worry about it. “ By the next day though, I was much less distraught. My mother may not have gone to college, but she was still a smart woman.
“Hannah?” He looked apologetic. Before he had a chance to say anything, though, a cab pulled up and Cayley stepped out in her six-inch heels and black skinny jeans. I was exhausted from hating her, and I felt too broken to even bother anymore. Kyle stood up and turned his attention to his beautiful wife-to-be.
“Hey babe,” she said and kissed him, holding his sides. I was nauseous and close to crying hysterically. I had to leave before I made a fool of myself in front of Madison Avenue and the happy couple.
“I’ll catch you later. Have fun,” I said. And in that moment, I meant it.