Norah was angry. She tore through the parking lot barely missing the annoying churchgoers who, every Sunday, unjustly clogged the shortcut from University Avenue to her apartment. She glared at them with her brow hopelessly furrowed. She hated everyone at that moment.
How did it happen? How did she find herself in this situation again?
He was leaving. The date snuck up on her. He would only be here seven more days. Her mind was cluttered with feelings she couldn’t quantify. She was sad. She felt regret. She would miss him but there was something more to it. She felt stuck in the strangeness of their relationship. For days she thought about what she wanted to say to him. Maybe she would write him a letter. Something sentimental and beautiful. Something that would show him what he had been to her. But she couldn’t find the words. She didn’t know how to structure the sentiments.
And she was angry with herself. How did she get here again? Falling for someone who wasn’t going to around for long? Unwilling to succumb to the sweetness of pure, justifiable grief her mind created aggression instead. Yelling at the man who was blocking the path she irrationally claimed sovereignty over was easier than facing the facts. She had fallen for him and he was going.
An easily sentimental romantic, Norah usually expressed her feelings freely, even if it was behind the armor of the written word. She had done it many times before. A special birthday note, a love letter…..a story. But this was different. How do you tell someone you’re not really supposed to have feelings for what they mean to you? She could write, “I love you,” on a little note card, seal it up and let him read it when he was away from her. But that seemed…….inappropriate somehow. Just to tell him the truth was a little bit wrong. It was not a permissible gesture. She wondered what he would think of such a declaration.
Was she really in love with him? Was it ridiculous to think so?
Norah couldn’t imagine another word for what she felt. She cared for him. She wanted him to be happy. She liked the way she felt when she was with him. She was incredibly attracted to him. She craved his company and his affection. She admired his character and integrity. She wished for him more than he expected for himself. She wanted him.
She liked the way he teased her and how they bickered mockingly. She didn’t have to hide herself from him and she accepted him, just as he was. They had shared values, even as they broke away from them. He was kind and intelligent. Thoughtful and confident. Hot and nerdy. He was a man, Norah had thought on occasion. She didn’t know exactly what that meant to her except that he wasn’t unfinished, untested. He wasn’t playing with life.
And there was something below the surface, too. Something she had not excavated. Something she only saw hints of but couldn’t define or understand.
She wanted to be a better person after knowing him. Or at least she was motivated to change some of her habits. She didn’t want to be better for him, or for his approval. She wanted to be better for herself but there was something about the way he presented his suggestions that was different. He was never demanding, judgmental or condescending. He was just honest without motive. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe Norah was ready to make changes and he happened to be the person there, prodding her on. Or maybe there was an integrity and true affection behind his reasoning that no one else had given her before. In just a few months he had impacted her life.
Norah pulled into her parking lot, stamped up the steps and flung the door open. She was like a tired three-year-old who won’t admit she needs a nap. She stood in her living room and took a deep breath, trying to relax her face. Her brow refused to unfurl.
“I hope he doesn’t come back,” she said out loud then laughed at herself. “Liar.”
She sat down on the crappy sofa of her crappy apartment. She leaned back and put her feet on the coffee table. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “How did it happen?” she said out loud. Norah tried to piece together how she had come to have this strange little relationship in her life.
She was having a good time dancing at the Moon the night she first saw him. She went to sit on the back bench. Did she put her hand out so he would help her up? She sat next to him and he asked her what language Cedric was singing. “French.” Maybe they talked more than that. When she saw him there again, her interest was piqued. If she had written him as a character in a novel, he would not have been any different. The salt and pepper hair, the glasses, the way he dressed, his stature. The way he spoke and presented himself.
She attempted to make conversation a few times but he was reserved and she couldn’t tell if her company was welcomed. He was a doctoral student. She asked him how long he might be in Lafayette. Probably three years. Weeks went by and she began to look for him as soon as she got to the Moon and was happy when she did see him, even if it meant she would only look at him from across the room. Finally, they were talking about travel one night and she mentioned her Jerusalem misadventure. “I wrote a long story about it,” she said. “I can give you the link if you want to read it.” He didn’t have a phone on him so she suggested he go to the bar and get a napkin and a pen.
Norah smiled as she remembered him standing patiently at the bar, waiting to ask someone. He walked back with the napkin and she wrote her number with the link to her story. “Let me know what you think about it,” she said. And he did. They started chatting. He was cute and funny. But when he realized that she was flirting with him he asked to meet her for a drink. She thought it was a date. She had been so excited.
Norah had just survived a first date with an older guy from Baton Rouge but she didn’t feel a spark with him. Ethan was what she wanted.
But that first night at the bar he fumbled around until finally telling her that he was unavailable. Norah’s shoulders slumped. She was so disappointed. They drank a lot of wine and she was surprised by his ability to hold his alcohol. She offered to show him the Gay Fireman, a Lafayette tradition and he put his arm around her as they walked down the street.
“I just want to be loved by someone,” he said after explaining his situation.
He walked her home and she let him into her apartment thinking his attachment precluded inappropriate behavior. So, she was surprised when he looked at her and said, “You’re not even going to kiss me?”
“I can’t kiss you. I like you too much,” she protested. She kicked him out after holding him in a long, tender hug. “In my country, it’s rude to kick someone out,” he said.
“We’re not in your country,” she told him pushing him out the door.
The combination of her attraction to him and the disappointment of not being able to pursue him motivated her to accept the Baton Rouge Guy’s invitation for a visit. It was a pleasant but ultimately disappointing encounter. By the time Norah was driving home Saturday morning, she knew it wouldn’t work with him.
And then she got a message from Ethan. He wanted to see her. He needed to see her, he said.
Norah had shared a story she had written with Ethan titled, Mr. Moon. It was a writing challenge by an author she followed. It fictionalized her fantasy of meeting her ideal man.
Ethan joined her for a walk in the park just hours after she had left Baton Rouge Guy. She consciously assumed an appropriately distant demeanor. He called her out on it. “Why are you pulling away from me?” he asked. The question caught her off guard and she didn’t know how to answer. “It’s dangerous,” Norah remembered saying.
He asked her if she had ever met her Mr. Moon. “I thought I did,” she said.
“What happened?” he asked.
“It didn’t work out,” she answered looking away from him.
Of course, he was the Mr. Moon she thought she had discovered.
He wanted to see her that night. Norah told him she had plans. He could join her but she wasn’t going to change her plans. She tried to stand her ground but he persisted and wore her down. He said he felt bad after their conversation and needed to spend time with her to feel better about it. Norah didn’t understand what he meant but when it came to her heart, Norah was weak. Once she had a crush, it was hard for her to let go.
She agreed. She told him to get wine. The Bouza Tannat she discovered from a specialty store down the street.
What happened that first night? Norah remembered singular moments. The way he looked at her and how she had smiled back at him. They talked for a long time, drinking the Bouza. He told her more about what he had left behind. He talked about his family and his home. The distance between them became smaller as the night wore on and the wine diminished.
“How do you know when you’re falling in love with someone?” he asked her.
“I guess you just know,” she said.
How did he end up with his hand running through her hair? How did he end up with his head in her lap as she gingerly touched his tightly curled hair? How did they end up holding hands? He was flirtatious and playful. And innocuous gestures built upon themselves as they became increasingly familiar.
There have been a few genuinely romantic moments in Norah’s life that she will never forget. The time her husband managed to throw her a surprise 30th birthday party. The time Bashir was waiting for her on a bench by the tennis courts when she rounded the corner of the walking path. The time Aaron showed up at her door on New Year’s Day, a pizza in hand.
Ethan put his forehead against hers. She could picture him in her mind as she remembered the moment. His arms, the feel of his hand as he took hers. The look of his beautiful lips as she peered at them. The feel of his cheek as she put her hand on his face. “Do you want to kiss me?” he whispered.
Surely there have been kisses both imagined and real that have been more passionate, more immediate, even more honest. But there is nothing anyone could say to Norah that could convince her that the first kiss she had with Ethan was not the sweetest, most tenderly stolen moment in the course of history. It was like a magic bubble had shrouded them and for that one moment, there was nothing more true in the world than the desire, the need that one set of lips had to touch the other. They stole that moment like thieves gingerly extracting a precious and necessary object from an unjust set of restrictive rules.
As Norah remembered it she thought, Nothing can take that moment away from me.
But the bubble had burst and their shared morality and his intense regret took some of the magic away. They became friends. They tried to be friends. He walked with her. He came over for meals. They watched tv in her bed. As she got to know him, Norah’s crush found no discouragement. She would find herself lying next to him, her desire never wavering. It was torture. They ran errands together and talked every day. He washed her dishes as she cleaned one day and she took him to buy goldfish. They had fun together.
She wasn’t blind or stupid. She could see that he was fooling himself, believing that he was being faithful while he tickled her and held her close. She knew she was playing with fire. But she didn’t care. Not enough to stop.
That Bouza night would not be the last. They made cookies one night, one of the best batches from Norah’s secret recipe she had ever made and they had kissed again and he had responded with regret, again the next day.
She had taken him to see Avery Island. They took photographs and visited the big Buddha. She enjoyed being there with him more than she had enjoyed any man’s company in a very long time. It had been a beautiful day. One she would gladly repeat every day of her life if she could. But his thoughts had been elsewhere, she discovered later.
This dance of friendship, intimacy, pulling away, attempts by Norah to stop seeing him only to welcome him back with little reluctance, continued……..they negotiated around the weird, undefined bond they had crafted. They ping-ponged between surrendering to their mutual attraction, maintaining the friendship they both needed and trying to uphold the shared morality they had abandoned.
As May approached, Ethan wanted to see and do as much as he could. They made a Lafayette bucket list. He wanted to experience a real Cajun family and crawfish boil. Norah’s somewhat dysfunctional family was having a bit of a reunion. She decided to invite him. She wondered if it had been a wise choice, given how unpredictable her siblings could be, but he was all for it. He said he could handle it.
The night before they drove over, Norah’s brother, Paul was going to stay at her apartment. She invited Ethan to come over so they could get to know each other. He arrived long before Paul and they started drinking wine. He had acquired some pot and Norah laughed as she watched him try to make a cigarette, resorting to youtube for instruction. After Paul arrived, they took one of his cigarettes and swapped out the contents. Norah had never tried it before. Ethan had offered but she was afraid of being alone with him and getting high for the first time. This time Paul was there. She would be safe from the potential loss of her inhibitions.
She and Ethan started making cookies as the three of them smoked the cigarette. Norah began to feel a bit silly as she instructed Ethan to add the flour. They made their first batch and they were perfect. Feeling the effects, she looked over at Ethan sitting on her sofa. Paul was outside on the steps smoking a real cigarette. She sat next to Ethan and said, “I was right. Don’t ever let me smoke with you alone.” She got back up and went into the kitchen. Peering into her bedroom she remembered that she had clean clothes strewn all over the bed. I better put them away while I’m still conscious, she thought.
As she was hanging up a shirt, Ethan walked into the room with a cookie in his hand. He reached out, offering her a bite. As she got closer to him, he put the oven-fresh cookie in his mouth. She took the bait and put her mouth on the bit of cookie hanging out of his, brushing his lips. He put his arms around her and they kissed. He moved his hands to her skirt. She moved it away and stepped back and returned to the clothes on her bed.
They were all watching Seinfeld when Paul said he was tired and went to bed. Norah and Ethan sat sprawled out on her sofa, their knees touching. Ethan had planned to crash there so they could all leave in the morning. She got a pillow and sheet for him and helped him get comfortable. He pulled her to him and they lay together under the sheet, kissing and holding each other. They moved to her car and allowed things to become more intense, stopping short of actual sex. They were both high and had put away a couple of bottles of wine between the three of them. He asked her what she wanted. She could only tell him what she had always wanted. She wanted him. He was leaving soon and they might not ever see each other again. It was a flimsy justification for what they wanted to do. He asked her if it could be their secret. Norah said yes. But they stopped there and returned to the apartment and went to bed.
Norah fell asleep feeling very strange.
The trip ensued and Ethan got to meet Norah’s son and then the rest of her family. He went to the hole-in-wall gas station where they bought the crawfish. He helped with the boil and was given a tour of the family’s house and grounds. When they were eating crawfish, poured hot onto a long table with newspaper laid down, the only way crawfish should ever be eaten, he stood next to her, his body touching hers. At times, Norah looked over at him and smiled, trying not to let her feelings for him show. It was weird but nice seeing him there in her childhood home.
When they drove home, Norah remembered how far they had gone the night before. She suspected that he was feeling regret. She anticipated a “we shouldn’t have done that” conversation and she wasn’t sure she could take it. She looked out of the window as Paul drove home, Ethan next to her in the back seat. She found herself tearing up at the thought that he might again reject the affection they had shared.
But the next day, just as Paul was leaving, he messaged her and asked her if she remembered what they had done and said that night. Of course she did. He wanted to be with her, he said. She still wanted to be with him too.
He came to her that afternoon. They were both nervous as they finally gave in to the tension and desire that had been between them for months. It was like the encounter Newland and Ellen were never allowed in The Age of Innocence. Lying in her bed, he asked her, “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” she said as she put her hands on his face, kissing him and allowing her body to relax under his.
And she did keep it a secret. Even from Carol. No one knew but the two of them. A telling testament to what they were and could not be. She couldn’t tell anyone what happened between them for the same reasons she couldn’t find a way to tell him what her heart felt when it was time to say goodbye.
And now he was going. He would return to the things he had run from. To make decisions, to face choices. Maybe there would be reconciliation, surrender or compromise. Maybe there would be destruction and change. No matter what, he was going to face something difficult. He didn’t like the doctoral program here and he wasn’t sure he would come back. It seemed likely to Norah that he would not. He often said that coming to Lafayette had been a mistake.
Maybe she really did wish that he wouldn’t come back. It was a selfish wish, really. She didn’t want to face the reality of having him back and still unavailable. After what they had been to each other Norah wasn’t sure she was capable of being friends with a committed man who she had been in love with. The idea that he might come back, free and available to her was just as frightening.
They had danced around the tension of trying not to be too much to each other. What would it be like if they could be together, openly and honestly. She didn’t allow herself to fantasize about being with him again. It was an idea too heavy with possibility and the risk of disappointment. She dared not hope for it.
Norah got up and walked around her apartment. She had calmed down. She wasn’t angry anymore.
She sat down at her computer, trying to find the words to say good-bye.
“Wish me good things,” he often requested.
“I always do,” was her reply every time.
She thought about what she really did wish for him and she began to write. Maybe that’s what she would give him. A list of wishes.
She would offer him her love, her affection, her admiration, infused in little words on paper and give it to him to do with what he would, along with the piece of her heart he already had.
She wouldn’t forget him. He had been too much to her for that. No, this one wasn’t going to go into that folder in her heart full of flighty attempts, five-minute crushes and disappointing dates. Ethan would always be special to her even if she might struggle to fit what she had done, the rule she had broken, into the narrative of who she wanted to be.
And if he did come back……free and perhaps closer to happiness, and if he still wanted her, maybe they could start over. Maybe they could go back to the bar again, this time on a real date and when they walked out with their arms around each other, they could go back to the Gay Fireman and tell him thank you.
Norah returned to her favorite wine store and bought a bottle of Bouza Tannat. She wrote “N & E” on the label and tucked it away on her bookshelf. Just in case.