The bonfire’s dying, but we stay huddled around it like vertical rotisseries, roasting first our asses, then our faces. I tried to break up with Glenn about a week ago. Now he stands next to me, his hand cool in the back pocket of my jeans, as if he can absorb all my body heat through that one patch of contact. I lean into his shoulder, pretending to nibble at his armpit. He shocks, like my bite’s electric, and his hand slips out of my pocket. I tiptoe to kiss his jaw, but he keeps staring at the fire. Fires have this kind of hypnosis, like watching boiling water, you know? You look into the heart of it, and then everything else just fades away. You get tunnel vision.
There are different kinds of silences, you know. Sometimes it’s a comfortable silence, like when you’re on a long road trip, both staring out the window, neither wanting to say anything nor caring if the other does. And sometimes it’s an angry silence, with turned backs and an unspoken, nonverbal avoidance that pushes the other person away from you like a repelling magnet. There’s an awkward silence, where words hang in the air waiting to crystallize but never quite do, or the kind of silence where you’re waiting for the other person to notice you’re not talking, just waiting, trying to mentally will them to break through to you. Normally, you can tell which is which, and always, both people spend the silence wondering what words will break it.
Tonight’s one of those nights when everything seems fuzzy. I’m tired, stressed, busy, a little buzzed maybe, and I’m trying to get Glenn to talk. The others should be getting back from the hayride any minute now, and I know Glenn won’t talk about it, whatever it is, in front of them. I try all the usual moves, like joking around (“did you see the post on Facebook about racoons being trash pandas?&rdquo, blatant non sequiturs (“if I die before I pay off my student loans, does it transfer to someone else or does it just go away?&rdquo, even just saying, “baby, talk to me,” but he won’t clue me in as to what’s up. Finally, I just fall silent, thinking that I’m misreading the situation. Maybe this isn’t an expectant silence– maybe he just wants to be together. After all, he did want to go to this fall bonfire / party / gathering / thing to spend time with me away from college. Maybe we’re not on the same page as to which kind of silence this is.
The hayride tractor’s engine rumbles in the distance, and I can see its headlights pointed towards us.
I’m still asking that one question, how will the silence end?, trying to answer all possibilities at once, when it does.
“I can’t. I just– I can’t,” Glenn blurts, and I’m not prepared for that.
It’s so vague. He can’t what?
“Babe,” I say, tiptoeing around him with my words, “what can’t you?”
He doesn’t answer.
I lay my hand on his shoulder, and his arm muscles tense a little. Two possibilities jump into my head: either he doesn’t want me to touch him, or he’s doing that thing where he bulges his muscles to impress me.
“Do you want me to not touch you?”
He just shrugs a little, and I feel his skin moving under my hand. The tractor’s closer now, and I can hear voices laughing. Just voices, not words. There’s one voice, a loud laugh actually, that’s either Kelsey’s or Renee’s. I can’t tell the difference at this distance.
I search for words but, aware that I’m running out of time, settle for a lame question. “Are you going to talk to me about this, or . . . ?” My voice trails off.
Glenn just sighs, and I feel another shrug in his shoulders, but it doesn’t fully materialize.
A thought dawns. “Are you breaking up with me?”
He doesn’t answer, and his face moves into a strange expression I can’t identify. Anger? Resignation? Denial? I’ve got no clue.
The haywagon pulls up next to us, and Kelsey jumps out of the back. Bits of straw stick to her flannel shirt, her jeans, one even nestles in her hair. “Come on,” she says, beckoning me towards the picnic shelter with its light on. “David brought whiskey for the cider!”
I glance towards Glenn, then move over to the shelter. He starts to follow, but thinks a little bit and stops.
Mia hands me a glass of cider. “What’s got his boxers in a bunch?”
I sigh. “Glenn’s being weirdly distant. He won’t tell me what’s going on. He just said, “I can’t,” and went quiet again.”
Mia frowns. “He might be breaking up with you, hun.”
I nod. “I know. But I tried to break up with him last week, and he wanted to keep going. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Mia looks behind me. “If he was gonna break up with you, he wouldn’t be avoidance-stalking you now.”
I make a face. “What’s that mean?”
She gives me a knowing look. “He won’t talk to you, but he’s stayed close for a long time.”
I can’t help but smile. “I remember doing that before we started dating. At high school dances I’d stay close but never say a word to him.”
“So what do I do?”
She shrugs. “What do you want to do?”, she asks, and gets caught up in another conversation.
I’m on my third glass of spiked cider when I notice Glenn edging closer. He starts hanging on the fringes of my conversations, standing just outside the circle of speaking. Once, I think he’s about to say something, his mouth opens, he takes a breath, and then Kelsey starts talking about something that happened to her at brunch the other day. It’s like he deflates, and he slinks off to a little bit more of a distance.
I watch him for maybe half an hour, maybe more. You get tunnel vision, and even in a crowded room you can only care about one thing. I’ve always been a big talker, so I find it funny that the most interesting thing about this whole evening is the one thing– person–whatever– that’s not talking. In fact, it’s our purposeful not talking that makes things so confusing.
So when I’m not in a conversation for about five seconds and Glenn sneaks a little closer, I’m both intrigued and a little disappointed. I can’t help but like our little cat-and-mouse game. He eyes me like he wants to say something but doesn’t know what, and I don’t know whether I’m hoping that he’ll talk to me or not.
“Sorry about earlier,” he murmurs, low enough that Renee, laughing alone over her cider a few feet away, won’t hear. I wait for more of an explanation, but after a few minutes it becomes clear that none is forthcoming.
And, since I don’t know what I’m feeling, I just mutter, “don’t worry about it,” and turn away.
Now I’m the one avoidance-stalking him. As I go over to get another cup of cider, I know where he is. He’s leaning against the column, shrugging his jacket closer to himself, and I watch him out of the corner of my eye as he walks out of the light, towards his car.
I start to follow, but before I can reach him, I hear the telltale squeal of his engine and his tires crunching on gravel and I know I need to find my own way home.
And while Mia tries to count the people who are too drunk to drive themselves home so she can see if I can ride with her, I stare into the fire. You get tunnel vision, you know, and you forget that fire is nothing but a transition– a slow release of the tension when something becomes nothing.
Anna Ralls is an emerging writer living in Columbia, MO. She has been published in Contrary and is the recipient of the 2016 Thelma Hall Prize in Creative Writing. When not writing, she enjoys singing, acting, and hiking with her family. Her lifelong ambition is to pet all the dogs.
© 2016, Anna Ralls