“Who did you leave with last night?”
Vince had barely opened his eyes before Tim was already talking to him. He groaned in response, throwing his arms over his face. Wasn’t the point of sleeping to not feel tired?
Tim nudged him. “Come on,” he said, “I get if you don’t want to hang out, but you didn’t have to leave with someone you just met.”
A pause. “Are you really that good at meeting women? I kind of had you painted as hopeless.”
Hopeless fit the bill pretty well. Until you thought about the dance, the hand-holding…. He groaned again, for different reasons.
His roommate tapped his leg again, and he finally gave in and sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “It’s not like that,” he said. “She’s a friend. Just a coincidence.”
“I didn’t even know you had friends. It wouldn’t hurt to tell me stuff, every once in a while.”
Vince staggered out of bed and into some clothes. “She’s… new.”
Tim caught on. “The one you’ve been seeing at night?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Come on, don’t play dumb. You’ve been happier lately.”
He knew that. Even after all the confusion and questions, he felt different, but hand holding or not, he still didn’t know what it was that Lenore really wanted. “It’s all new. I didn’t know what to say about it.”
“It’s good, either way. She’s beautiful.”
His face grew hot. “It’s not like that.”
Tim, who had an annoyingly good ability to read his cues, just smiled.
When Vince saw Lenore that night, she had one hand behind her back and a runaway grin on her lips. “Guess what I brought you?”
He knew what that sparkle in her eye meant by now. “Trouble?”
She produced a half-full bottle of tequila, setting it down on the table beside him. Trouble.
“Lenore, I’m nineteen.”
“And I’m twenty,” she said, sitting down beside him. “Doesn’t mean I can’t have fun.”
He was pretty sure that was exactly what that meant, but when she unscrewed the cap and the strange alcoholic-tinged flavor of the drink reached him, curiosity beat his better senses. “Alright,” he relented.
Lenore poured out two tiny shot glasses of the yellowish drink, and he drank it before he could talk himself out of it. The bitterness and the burning hit him stronger than he expected and had him coughing a little as it went down. “That’s awful.”
“You’re supposed to make it into a cocktail,” she said, drinking hers without complaint. “It was the best thing I could get my hands on.”
She refilled them again and drank again. A shadow passed her face, and he realized that they weren’t just drinking for fun.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her, scooting his chair closer and holding his cup without drinking it.
Another drink. This time she grimaced at the taste, setting the glass down. “It’s nothing. Family stuff.” Her eyes didn’t quite meet his.
He reached out and took her hand into his and into his lap. It was already a comfortable movement. Like it was just right. His thumb traced circles on hers.
“Are you just going to start doing this all the time?” she said.
“I’ll stop if you want me to.”
She didn’t say anything, just watched the patterns he drew on her.
Something in him ached. This was how he could be there for her. But it just didn’t feel like enough. If he hadn’t sussed it out, she would’ve kept her mood shadowed all night. What could he really do when she wouldn’t tell him anything?
He’s a lightweight. Vince knew that at his first college party that he didn’t even remember how he got to. Two gross beers and he felt it enough to know to stop. That wasn’t a surprise. He paced himself as much as he could, but Lenore continued to drink whatever he didn’t and he didn’t like where that was going.
Lenore could hold herself together a lot better than he could. When he started sagging in his seat, she barely seemed affected at all. Still, she made up for it by drinking more and more until she was at least a little tipsy.
Holding hands had escalated into a half cuddle as the drink hit her and she rested her head on his shoulder. Their hands were still locked together, the only solid thing in reach when the heavy unsteadiness of the tequila made sitting upright a chore.
“Why do you like me so much?” she said suddenly, breaking the silence.
Vince laid his cheek down against her hair. “I dunno.” It wasn’t something he had stopped to think about. He just knew that he did.
“Come on,” she urged, squeezing his hand. “I wanna know.”
“You just feel right to me,” he whispered. “I don’t have to pretend to be anything else. You just feel so alive and I guess when I’m with you I feel it too.”
Lenore turned her head into his shirt, hiding her face. “But would you even still like me if you really knew me?”
“It’s not the mystery that makes you so alive to me.”
She lifted her eyes to meet his. “I really like you too.”
He reached out and brushed away the hair that had fallen down over her eyes. “Then why won’t you let me know who you are?”
“I don’t want to disappoint you,” she said. “I can’t match what you think of me.”
“I don’t know what to think of you. I want to know. I want to know you. Whoever that is.”
Lenore stood up suddenly, face flushed in a way that he assumed wasn’t just from the alcohol. “We should… we should clean up this stuff.”
They had managed to drink through what was left in the tequila bottle. Vince felt a twinge of guilt at the sight of it— he shouldn’t have just let her get drunk. It hadn’t felt like his place to stop her when he saw what mood she was in, but now he felt shitty for letting her do it. He could keep his distance and respect the pace she wanted to go at and still be a good friend.
“Lenore—“ he said, reaching out to touch her arm.
She lost her grip on the bottle, and it slipped right between her fingers and shattered against the ground. “Shit,” she said, bending over to pick up the shards.
This time he pulled her back a little more firmly. “Wait— you’re too drunk. You’ll cut yourself.”
“I’m not leaving it for someone else to clean up.”
He nodded. “Yeah, okay. Just let me. I’m a little less drunk.”
Vince proceeded immediately to cut himself on the glass as he tried to pick up the shards. Lenore tried and failed to stifle a giggle, hiding her grin behind her hand. “How’s that working out for you?”
“Don’t start,” he muttered, pressing the finger into a fist to stop the bleeding. It was harder to get his hands to cooperate than he expected.
Lenore knelt down beside him and helped him put the rest of the glass into the two glasses they had been drinking out of. Naturally, she didn’t cut herself once. At least she looked happier now with an amused spark in her eyes and a curve to her lips.
Together, they gathered up the rest of the shards into their drinking glasses. Just as they staggered back to their feet, the sound of footsteps reached them. “Who’s breaking stuff over here?” a familiar voice called out.
Vince’s eyes widened and his heart jumped in his chest. Cleaning up some glass while drunk was very different than pretending to not be drunk at all in front of Elizabeth. Lenore didn’t look worried at all, but after the tequila that wasn’t as comforting.
She grabbed his hand with a wide smile and they took off into the library. Footsteps rushed after them, though neither of them dared to look back. Her hand was warm and tight in his, and he felt a ridiculous smile reach his lips. Somehow this was so like her that it was hard to be anything less than genuinely happy.
Lenore took him in a zigzag through the stacks. Through section after section, up a staircase, around carts. She eventually led him to a tiny space between the sidewalls of two shelves, a place that you couldn’t see from the end of the aisle. The only way Elizabeth would find them there was if she walked down the exact aisle they had.
There was enough room for them to make a little space between them. Lenore had something else in mind, wrapping her arms around her neck and pressing her lips to his neck as she caught her breath. She pressed him against the grainy wood of the shelf like she was afraid he would slip away otherwise.
The feeling of her breath gliding across his skin coupled with her lips touching his pulse sent an electric shiver down his spine. Everything about it felt thrust into high definition. Her hands, her lips, the taste of cinnamon and vanilla on his tongue, her oversized sweatshirt in his hands. It made not moving or not making a sound all too easy.
A flashlight beam cut down the aisle on their left, lingered, then cut down the aisle on their right. And then, the relief nearly enough to make him sigh out loud, Elizabeth moved on, her footsteps taking the light getting farther and farther away. Lenore didn’t release him right away, but he wasn’t at all inclined to make her let him go. He was too busy imagining a time where the little moments like this wouldn’t feel stolen and unearned.
She pulled back slowly. “Is she gone?”
It took him a moment to remember how to speak. “I think so.”
Her hand gently took his and turned it over to where he had cut himself on the glass. Between the adrenaline of running from Elizabeth and the dull pressure of the alcohol in his head, he had completely forgotten about it. It was a tiny cut, but for whatever reason, Lenore seemed lost looking at it.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have come tonight and gotten you tangled up in my… issues.”
Vince, after a pause, clasped her hand within his own. “Lenore… I want you to come to me when you have problems. I want to be a safe place for you to go to. I want you to be happy.”
She looked into his face like he was crazy, and maybe he was. But he’d spent night after night with this woman. The question of who she was kept him up at night. Maybe it was silly infatuation, but he wanted to be something to her.
“I really don’t understand you sometimes, you know,” she whispered, but she couldn’t hide the little curve to her lips.
He thumbed the back of her hand thoughtfully. “I thought you enjoyed the mystery?”
“What’s the point of a mystery when no one tries to figure it out?”
Her gaze meeting his turned intense and bright, and he felt his face grow warm. “Do you want me to figure you out?” he asked.
Lenore hesitated. Whatever she expected him to say, that wasn’t it. She withdrew his hand from his. “I…” Uncertainty bled from her expression.
Suddenly terrified that the answer was “no”, he retreated. “You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to.”
She reached back out and took his hands in hers. “I want this to work, Vince. I’m just being…”
“Overly cautious,” she said, taking his uninjured hand and interlocking her fingers into his own.
He kissed her knuckles softly. It didn’t make him want to kiss her on the mouth any less. “It’s alright,” he said, “just don’t leave me out in the dark forever.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that.” Her eyes sparkled, and it felt so startlingly close to a promise that he felt his eyes mist a little.
Her sleeve rode down a little, and he got a glimpse at a flash of color and the flat image of a feather. A ridiculous laugh rose up from his chest. Vince had known her for weeks, and he was just finding out now that she had tattoos.
Lenore noticed what he had seen and flushed. Embarrassed was a new look. Her face went splotchy red and a small nervous smile played on her lips. “I was going to tell you about that…”
Vince reached for her sleeve without thinking and froze. “Can I?”
She nodded, and he pulled down both of her sleeves to see her tattoos. It was a strangely revenant action— revealing more of the mystery.
The tattoo was more than feathers. It was dice and coffee and birds and flowers and books and words that curled around her arms, all interspersed by black, white, and gray feathers. Even with what little he knew of her, the colorful ink screamed of who she was.
His fingertips traced the images up her arms. There was this dreadful, scared thought that this would be his only chance to see them, and it wasn’t like he could be sure that it was a wrong instinct. Her skin grew warmer and warmer the longer he touched it. She even shivered when he reached the place that the tattoos disappeared under her sweater at the crook of her elbow.
He looked up at her and resisted the urge to suck in a breath. Her face was red, but it was different than when she was embarrassed. She had a faraway look in her eyes like she was in the middle of making a decision.
Lenore reached up and traced the faint line of scratchy stubble that had grown on his face during the day. Vince suddenly had trouble remembering to breathe. His arms wrapped around her waist, and she scooted closer until their noses were almost touching. Her eyes closed.
Vince could’ve kissed her then. He wanted to, he wanted to know what it was like, he wanted to stop playing this game of dancing around it. But he thought of the nights he spent wondering after her and the way that she kept him at a distance. He couldn’t live like that.
So he stopped her. He put his hands on her shoulders and gently held her there. “I can’t.”
There was confusion in her eyes when she opened them. “What do you mean?”
“Lenore… I want to fall in love with you. And I can’t do that with this…” He gestured vaguely. “This distance. And kissing you just doesn’t feel right if tomorrow I have to wonder whether or not you’re going to acknowledge that it happened.”
She looked a little stunned, like she hadn’t realized what the lack of communication looked like. “I’m sorry.”
He pulled her into a hug. Had he really hugged her before? Had she always felt this right in his arms? “Please don’t apologize. I’m not saying you did anything wrong.”
“What about tomorrow?” she mumbled into his shirt. “Can we do it tomorrow night?”
“Are you going to be ready tomorrow?” Vince had no idea what he had said or done to reach this place with her. Maybe the change didn’t have much of anything to do with him at all.
Lenore poked him in the back. “I’m ready now,” she said, “but we’re a little tipsy, and if it’ll make you feel better if we gave it a day, I’ll do it tomorrow.”
It sounded like a promise again. Promises were the one thing he had trouble throwing himself into again. He had always been good at keeping them, but that wasn’t a trait he saw all that often in others. Looking at Lenore, though, he really had no other choice but to try.
“Tomorrow, then,” he said, kissing her forehead.
They waited a while longer to let Elizabeth give up the search before they returned to their table. Lenore started to yawn as they made the trek, and he realized that all the excitement had left him a little tired too. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw her tired.
“Maybe we should just call it a night,” she said, dragging her drawstring bag lethargically up onto her shoulder.
“Tell me you’re not driving home like that.”
She quirked a brow at him. “And what do you want me to do?”
His nerves twisted in his gut. “Spend the night here,” he said, “I’ve done it before— Elizabeth doesn’t care.”
Lenore tugged at her sleeves. “You won’t let me kiss you, but you want me to sleep with you?”
Blood rushed to his ears. “You don’t have to— I just—“
She set down her bag. “I’ll stay.”
Vince couldn’t stop the relieved smile from breaking out. Any other night she would’ve shrugged off the worried tone in his voice and gone home anyway. But things had changed.
“Thank you,” he said, falling back into his seat. “I would’ve worried if—“
Lenore climbed onto his lap, straddling his thighs as she faced him. His words died in his throat. She crossed her hands behind his head and looked down at him, dark hair cascading down one side of her head. The light of the lamp was behind her, framing her in a halo of orange light. He bit the inside of his cheek. Hard.
“You’re gorgeous,” he breathed.
He reached up to run his fingers through her hair, but she grabbed his hand before he could, pinning it down against her waist. “Ah, ah, ah,” she murmured, “if I can’t kiss you, you can’t touch me.”
Vince felt like he had to kiss her. Like he would die if he didn’t. But he stopped himself. Something between a groan and a moan slipped from his lips as she shifted her weight purposefully on top of him. “…okay. That’s fair.”
She pulled his head against her neck, her arms wrapped around his head. He slowly reached up to hold her without protest. After all of the big mystery and the big personality, she was so much lighter and smaller than he would’ve thought. Something about that realization sent a bolt of giddy happiness through him.
He had trouble falling asleep. Even as her breath became even and quiet, and the night stretched on, all he could think about was how much he didn’t want the night to end.
Lenore wasn’t there when he awoke, which didn’t surprise him. The game wouldn’t end in a night.
But she wasn’t there that night. Or the next.
Vince went there every day. She wasn’t at the table, or in the break room, or somewhere in the stacks. There was nothing left of her.
He regretted pushing her. He regretted not kissing her. He regretted believing her.
The almost-promises suddenly seemed so threadbare. Like spiderwebs that you could destroy with the swipe of a hand. The solid, hopeful foundation that they had been building was yanked away, and all Vince could do was fall.