Ross nodded soberly, pressing his lips together, raising one eyebrow just perceptively in surprise at being shot down; he had taken on faith that I was interested in becoming involved; he had no idea I was looking for something much larger. He had no idea the long path I had taken to get to this point, the struggle just to get to the starting block of the visibility race. Rebuffed, he reverted to his reserved nature. An old acquaintance stopped by our booth to shake his hand and catch up. I sipped my coffee, now cold and bitter, just to hide my face.
The merry spell was broken, the magic lost, earlier infatuation sliding back through numbness into leaden disappointment. God, he could certainly turn the charm on and off when he wanted to. Why did this hurt so much? It hurt because he was so good, he made you want to be with him, be like him, be liked by him, but, see, you could not reach out and actually touch him. This is what he does best, most likely, rounding up a brigade of mousy girls to burn off their longing through hard labor, like princesses spinning straw to gold for the cause. They’re easy to catch and there’s always a goodly supply of them.
The check came and Ross paid. “Did you drive?” he asked, sticking his wallet back in his pants pocket.
“No, but . . .”
“I’ll take you home then, it’s getting late.”
“Really, that’s okay, I can take the bus—it’s safe,” I countered hastily. “It’s not that late; I don’t want to put you out.” I looked at him helplessly. “Thanks for dinner.” My one desire was to get away, take my finger out of the candle-flame.
“No, no . . .” he took a deep breath, holding it a second, shuffling, shifting in the booth, rocking slightly forward and back while exhaling. He looked tired, eager to give it a rest but unpracticed at taking no for an answer, unused to simply leaving the chick at the curb or calling a cab; when he leaned forward the light accentuated the circles under his eyes. “It’s no problem.”
What a different walk back to the church. I had approached that church earlier this evening with brilliant expectations. Ross had met those expectations. Walking up to campus with him, my dreams—tended so carefully over the years—were finally blooming, wantonly wide open. On our way to Greenwood, Ross at one point, still buzzed with energy from his talk, had leaned over toward me and looking at me closely said, “I see your head’s back to normal.”
“Oh yes,” I joked. “All clear.”
Now we retreated, retracing our steps back to the parking lot, the streets dry and offering no reflected beauty, just the accumulated litter of the day. It wasn’t going to happen here; it wasn’t going to happen tonight. A slight awkwardness rose between us; not willing to give what the other wanted, we’d run out of things to say. But the voice inside my head was going full blast, calling me every name in the book. I was paying for my conceit in assuming I could through sheer force of will mold Ross into the person I wanted him to be without any input from the man himself. Putty in my hands—just like the blind Bishop, just like Michael.
Ross unlocked the car door for me. The passenger side of the front seat was full of notebooks and papers. “Just throw that stuff in the back,” he said. He smiled slightly in apology for his lackluster manners and put his hand on my shoulder for a second, relenting a little toward me as if his disappointment was his own fault for expecting too much.
Because Ross had seemed deliberate, almost Quakerish in his manner throughout the evening, it was a shock when we got in and I was immediately thrown back against the seat as he jerked the car in reverse and then forward and sped out of the church lot. I turned frantically toward him for an explanation, grabbling for the seat belt jammed into the slit at the back of my seat, obviously seldom used, but his eyes were intent on the road. I wanted to ask, ‘Is there a curfew I’m not aware of?’ but I didn’t know him well enough for that level of sarcasm. I was spent by my emotional rollercoaster ride and, along with disappointment and exhaustion, visions of a head-on collision were giving me a stabbing pain between the eyes. Following my directions we managed to arrive safely, screeching to a halt in front of our house just as I snapped the still twisted and far too tight belt into place. I freed myself and tore a scrap from the corner of one of his newspapers. “Here’s my number,” I said, writing it down. “Call me when you open the office, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Ross took the piece of paper and put it in his shirt pocket. “Thanks. Okay . . .
so . . .” He turned and looked out his window and then back at me. “I’ll just wait till you get inside. Not sure what’s going on over there.” He jerked his head toward the opposite side of the street. “You have to be careful these days.” I spun around, head throbbing, but saw that it was only Adam, sitting in his car waiting for Meredith. I didn’t try to explain. We shook hands, feeling a little sheepish at the gesture, and I went up the steps and inside the house. I stuck my head out the door again and watched Ross speed off into the night . . .
Inside the overdue bills lay spread out still unpaid on the dining room table, waiting for Jean’s share, but she was out of town till Friday. I could hear Karen laughing with yet another man in the kitchen—there’d be one more stranger sleeping in the house tonight. And, of course, Adam ergo Meredith. Fed up with everything and everybody, I avoided human contact and tiptoed up to my room, closing the door quietly behind me. Picking up the Boston Interview article on Ross off my bed, I sat down, holding the paper to my chest; I sat frozen in this position for some time.