I don't like the title, but I couldn't come up with anything else...so...it sucks. :D The title, not the story. Also, I don't plan to add on another chapter because This is as far as I imagined these characters, and I really don't think of them in any other setting.
It’s the kind of night that requires more than beer, so Ryan mixes up a gin and tonic. The clink of ice in the glass is a lonely sound in the apartment. He wanders into the “living room”, the one that’s anything but alive, turns on the TV; it hisses a stream of static as he slouches into the shabby brown couch. Meditatively, he sips at the tonic, content to drink himself thoroughly into the ground and dig to find rock bottom. It is, after all, a Friday night. And there he sits, alone, tired of the apartment but left with nowhere to go.
In the middle of Ryan’s second gin and tonic, mixed with too much tonic and not nearly enough gin, the doorbell buzzes. The alcohol lights a slow burn in his throat, but he crosses the floor steadily enough and opens the door with a deft twist of his wrist. Kaitlin stands there in the hallway, dripping on the horrid green carpet. Water trickles from her seaweed-tangled hair, streaking trails across her translucent skin, sliding down her ankles to pool in her shoes. She shifts, and they squelch, beads of water oozing from the seams.
Belatedly, he realizes that the tiny tremors shake-shake-shaking her body are shivers.
Ryan steps aside, holding the door wide. Kaitlin walks under his arm. Her footsteps darken the carpet. Inside, trapped in the familiar shroud of sagging brown furniture, she appears to be a fragile mermaid, caught in some fisherman’s net and dragged ashore. Chlorine streaks in her dirty blonde hair cast a greenish tint on her skin.
“Can I use your shower?”
Her lips are blue, the shade of a deep bruise. Ryan leads her down the narrow, single file hall and into the tiny bathroom.
“The knobs go like this,” he demonstrates, turning them back and forth. “If someone else is using theirs, it might go hot and cold for a while…”
Kaitlin attempts a smile, but it gets stuck over her teeth, looking more like a grimace.
Quickly, Ryan retreats from the now sacred space of tile, closing the door softly in his wake. He doesn’t actually leave the hallway until he hears the sputtering start of the water; then, he leans against the flimsy wood, resting his forehead against it, breathing. With one fast move, he tips the glass up and knocks the rest of the gin and tonic back. As it stings, he moves into the cramped bedroom, rifling through the chest of drawers to find something suitable. He pictures Kaitlin’s height in his mind; unfortunately, Ryan hasn’t ever been good at measurements. So, in desperation, he picks the smallest sweats and holey t-shirt he can find.
The shower is still going when he emerges. Ryan cracks the door and slips the clothes in, resting them on the grimy tile. Thoughtfully, he places two towels in the bathroom as well. Weariness hits him all at once, and he slides to the ground, contained in the small space between the walls. The bones of his spine contour to the door; his eyes wander from the cracks in the ceiling to the scuff marks on the unevenly boarded floor. The sound of water running almost lulls him to sleep. Unbidden, a solitary tear finds its way down his face, aiming for his shirt. For the last time, he swears, Ryan pulls his phone out and checks. No texts. No messages. No missed calls. Nothing.
The door begins to give way under his weight, so he scrambles to his feet. Kaitlin stares back in the general direction of his face, wearing the grey sweatpants and red “Go Tigers!” t-shirt from his high school days. Ryan backs down the hall, toward the kitchen. She follows along, hair still dripping onto her shoulders.
“Care for a gin and tonic?” he asks, already on his way to mixing one. It seems only polite, only cordial that he offer to share his misery, his suffering.
Kaitlin curls onto the brown loveseat, tucking her feet in to keep them warm. He can feel her eyes on his back. When he turns, carrying the glasses, she combs her fingers quickly through her damp hair, tugging it into some semblance of order.
“Thanks,” she says, meeting his gaze firmly now. Ryan can hear every unspoken apology she refuses to say, and he chooses not to go there, not now. Kaitlin is already in the depths of her cup, drinking fast. Her hand remains steady as she lifts it to him again.
“Rough night?” Ryan finally ventures, back in the kitchen to mix up another gin and tonic. With slight regret, hazed by his inability to truly care, he notes that all the tonic has managed to end up in Kaitlin’s cup. He finishes up his duties as bartender by tipping half a cup of gin into her glass, and pouring a straight bit for himself.
“A little, yeah.”
Ryan settles into the ratty armchair, watches her sip from the corner of his eye. At the same time, they check their phones. No texts. No messages. No missed calls. Nothing. He smiles at their similarity. It feels strange, a crooked, rusty movement that leaves his teeth exposed. She realizes it too, and begins to laugh. It bounces off the walls, then turns into a hitch that almost turns into a sob. It’s there, though, hiding in her eyes, just beyond the expression on her face.
“I just wish He’dcall me back. But He never does.”
Kaitlin pulls a hand through her hair again, tugging it, letting it slide over her arm.
“She needs me less than I need Her.”
Maybe it’s the gin, maybe the tonic. Maybe it’s the mermaid in his living room, tail-less and hopeless, staring at him with ocean eyes. Maybe it’s the fact that She hasn’t called in days. Ryan can’t tell.
“I hate this,” he says, and it’s the truth. It’s surprising, really, the way he can admit it to his living room walls – to Kaitlin – but not to Her.
“I hate it, too.” Her voice seeps into his ear, sinking into his bones. What a pair. Startled, he begins to laugh. It’s a foreign sound, but once he starts, he can’t stop. Kaitlin stares, clearly wondering about the permanence of his sanity. But then she can’t help but see the irony, the unhappy parallel between their unhappy lives. She starts to laugh, and they are both so caught up, so breathless with the discovery, that they begin to cry, too; laughing and crying, one melting into the other until their chests ache and their lungs burn and their hearts crack and heal in different places, leaving a jagged mess.
Ryan wipes his face with his grimy t-shirt, offers a dingy tissue from his pocket. Kaitlin blows her nose noisily, then grins through her red eyes.
“Bathroom,” she says. He watches her wind her way to the tiny room. Minutes later, the faucet squeals, turned on high blast. When she comes back, there are two bottles of water on the coffee table; Ryan flips through the channels, lifting a watery smile from the couch. The two curl together, holding each other up, plugging their own endless dams with warm skin and camaraderie, if not a strange sort of love.
Kaitlin takes a sip of her water, washing the taste of gin from her gums and teeth, the places it usually lingers. The TV settles on SNL after Ryan adjusts the antenna, gives it a smack for good luck, and cusses until the screen flares to life. Through the night, they laugh again, a little (alotalotalot) more, cry (from laughing, from remembering), and finally fall asleep (Kaitlin does, at least). Ryan watches her for a long, immeasurable time. Her green-blonde hair trickles over his shoulder, and she’s a mermaid again, lost in the waves. She can’t be saved, not quite. She has to want it. Ryan thinks she does.
He’s still watching her when he slips after her into slumber. Ryan dreams of the ocean, wind whipping his hair, screaming in his face. He’s standing on a cliff, stretched wide like the wings of a bird, ready for the plunge. There’s a hand in his, but when he turns to look, it’s not Her. It’s Kaitlin. Together, they face the rocks. She’s smiling wider than he’s ever seen. And then they are both tipping over the edge, falling, falling, falling.
Ryan wakes with a start. It’s morning. The sun beams through the tiny windows, bathing the brown room in gold. It’s almost beautiful. On the table, his phone buzzes obnoxiously, dancing impatiently on the glass. With careful fingers, he lifts it. It’s Her. Kaitlin stirs sleepily; her head nudges his chest, then her palm grazes his calf. A strange feeling engulfs him. Ryan deliberates in the space of a heartbeat. The ring is shrill, annoying. The one he’s been waiting for. Kaitlin shifts again on the couch, and this time, her seaweed eyes open, fluttering like a camera shutter.
Without a doubt, Ryan silences the buzzer and pulls a still sleepy Kaitlin upright.
“Waffles?” he whispers persuasively into her ear, letting her hair tickle his nose.
“Gimme five minutes,” she mumbles. It’s barely coherent, but she stumbles into the bathroom anyway, shutting the door. It takes two tries, but she makes it. By the time she exits, sleepy still and wearing last night’s clothes, Ryan is dressed in marginally acceptable jeans, and a less than attractive t-shirt. Together, they clean up the glasses and empty gin bottles, lock the door on the way out. They are almost to the street when Kaitlin shyly slips her hand inside his, asking permission with sea glass eyes.
“What is this?” he asks. She understands. He means the torrential feeling gushing in her chest, the overwhelming urge to stay close, connected. The feeling that allows her suddenly hypersensitive skin to experience the pulse in his wrist, the lifeline running through his palm, every patch of roughness on his fingers. The feeling that doesn’t feel exactly like Love, but something that could turn into it, over time. It’s just love now, nothing special, nothing important. The important thing is that he feels it too. Quietly, in his mind, Ryan wonders if she’ll get a call from Him, if she’ll answer, what she’ll say. Even now, he feels the urge to redial Her number and apologize, beg for forgiveness. What kind of Love is that?
Kaitlin swings their arms, and they bump between their legs, ping-ponging back and forth. It feels like life. Neither of them has ever felt so alive, so real. So free. And they walk down the street, starstruck and sideswiped by what wells over in their less-than-broken, less-than-whole hearts. Ryan leans in close, debating silently. Kaitlin can feel it; she turns her head, half a smile playing over her lips. At the last possible second, his mouth grazes the corner of hers, moves to her cheek. It’s gentle, careful. Trying not to break the fragile web holding them together. He doesn’t.
He doesn’t call back. Neither does She. And life goes on.