“Why are you so lonely, Brian?”

I chuckled, but Marci’s bright blue eyes were staring at me with intent and genuine concern. “I’m not lonely,” I said. “I’m with you.”

“No, not really. But maybe someday, if we’re both lucky.”

I never understood how Marci could say such sad things with so much hope. There was a spark of something radiant and unbreakable inside her, and I never got to find out what it was. The pain of that loss makes me feel dizzy and numb, like I’m not getting enough oxygen. The unshakable weight of it has been a shock. I miss her, but in a way that I never have before.

I have missed plenty of women. The first was Patti Hammond in the third grade. We “dated” for the last week of the fall, but then she never came back from the Winter Break. Her family had moved across town, and she was in a new school district. I complained for days that I missed having someone to hold my hand or pass notes to in class, but I gradually forgot. I formed a new crush a couple weeks later and any feelings of loss or sadness disappeared. It’s been about the same ever since: my first “real” girlfriend Tonya, her best friend Leah, Sara (the only cheerleader I ever dated), my friend Jarell’s sister Keisha, my on-again-off-again high school sweetheart Jing Li, and the string of women I’ve hooked up with through and after college. There’s a disappointment, a longing for the nice things about them, the horniness, but it always disappears eventually. Only a couple of relationships ever made it to six months, but there was rarely more than a month in between. I thought the ease of setting aside old relationships and picking up new ones was normal. And then there was Marci.

“Do you love me?”

We were walking hand in hand the bridge to the park in Riverside, the same one we had kissed beneath on our first date. “Of course,” I answered.

The tug on my hand let me know Marci had stopped walking. “Then why don’t you say it?” she asked.

“I’ve told you I love you before,” I protested, feeling a little self-conscious. “I’m sure I have.”

Marci shook her head. “You’ve written it. You’ve texted it. But you’ve never said that you love me.”

I knew she was right. I could never look into her eyes and say anything that wasn’t sincere. So while I had casually spoken those three fateful words to plenty of other girls before. I couldn’t summon the courage to say it to Marci, not without meaning it. I stared out at the river beneath us, always moving but never going anywhere. “Marci,” I began, “I want you to know—”

“Don’t,” she said quickly. “Don’t say anything. When you’re ready.”

Of course I had tried to call her when she disappeared after my interview, but she wouldn’t answer. I left multiple voicemails apologizing and explaining my side of things, but I still didn’t hear from her. I assumed that she just needed time to cool off. Another day passed without hearing from her. Texts and calls continued to go unanswered. On the third day, my voicemails became more urgent.  As much as I truly did feel sorry, I also felt angry. When she finally called me late that night, we both apologized, but as we finally discussed our feelings, things started to turn ugly. Resentment and hurt poured out, bringing past arguments along with them. We exploded. After an hour of yelling, we finally hung up, and I knew that things were over. I haven’t heard from her since. All that’s left are the echoes of our past conversations.

What about me?” I asked. My tone was indignant, though I was trying to keep my voice low so none of the other restaurant-goers would here.

“Things aren’t always about you, you know,” Marci retorted.

“Oh yeah, believe me, I know. In fact, I don’t know if anything we do is ever about me.”

“Are you kidding me with this?” Marci said, not caring how loud she was.

“I’m just telling you how it is.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “You’re such an asshole sometimes.” Angry tears were welling up in her eyes.

“Fine, then why don’t you just leave?”

“Leave?”

“No one’s forcing you to stay,” I said, trying hard to keep my voice calm and level. “Just leave.”

“Brian, I don’t want to go. Is that what you want?” I was staring out the window. People crossed by, all on their way from one place to another. “Brian?” Marci repeated.

“Of course I don’t want you to leave,” I spat.

“Then what’s going on?”

I made the mistake of looking back into her eyes. The words formed themselves, and I just let them out. “I’m afraid, I said, “that I won’t be good enough for you.”

Her eyes were shining. “I think that’s the most honest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

“It’s stupid,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“No. It’s okay. And honestly, I’m afraid too.”

“Of what?”

She was quiet a long time before finally answering, “Of how much you could hurt me.”

“I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I know,” she said, but there was hesitation in her voice. “I know you don’t want to, but you could. You could do it so easily without even trying.”

“Marci,” I said, my voice cracking, “I love you.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “And I love you,” she said. “And that’s exactly why it would be so easy.”

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