Here’s a short story from the 2011 issue of Paper Nautilus by April Sopkin. She lives in Richmond, VA. Her fiction can be found in Makeout Creek and The Battered Suitcase.
How to Throw it All on the Table
The first time isn’t brave, rather ignorant. Maybe you’re twenty or maybe you’re sixteen, but it will probably happen to you somewhere in there. You dine together at some chain restaurant with pop music and a wait staff in suspenders. You share fries, saliva and later dessert. And it’s the smear of watery chocolate sauce on his upper lip that makes you do it. Say it. Say I love you.
It’s been coming for some time; meanwhile, coiling in your gut like something both sweet and acidic. It hurt. Your mother gave you club soda and crackers. You lounged around, sprawled on the TV room couch, then on your bedroom floor with “Wonderwall” on repeat.
He says it back—and the aforementioned ignorant-not-brave part: it never even occurred to you that he wouldn’t. Because you’re kids and you blurt stuff out. And you go Dutch, then park the car at some lakeshore “beachfront” that’s closed for the night. You’ve had sex before, but isn’t it nicer now that you’ve said something so huge that it has its own gravitational pull, drawing you in and together?
A whole decade later—one year at a time, mind you—the boy is a different boy, is a different boy, is a different boy. Lately, he’s a man met through mutual friends, as is the way adults often meet other adults to have sex with for a while. Now you eat at better places and don’t French kiss in public.
Six months is longer than a while, though. And there is no vague inkling of expiration. You might even ‘see’ yourself with him—‘see’ being that intuitive inner sight women come to acquire. You’re fully-grown, but you still sigh, quiet down and grow blissful when thinking of him. Novels go unread on the 6 train morning commute and you’re late everyplace, because you stroll.
Yes, the sweet acid is circling again.
But, you incessantly wonder, how do you throw it all on the table? It seems childish to blurt anything out anymore. To speak without considerable self-reflection, God forbid, you might suffer from spontaneous emoting! You must be casual and aloof, composed yet sincere—it must be broached like a thought only just had and not dwelled upon.
You wouldn’t want to appear to have obsessed.
You could say I love you between bites of bruschetta. Or at the movies in that split-moment before the previews but after the lights have dimmed. It could happen curbside at the airport. Or, when given a gift, say it as a sort-of thank you. Even better! Put it in the thank you card for said gift. No—don’t send him a thank you card, ever. His seven-year old nephew does that after Christmas.
This will happen: digression. It’s a confusing time. Let’s take it back a few steps.
First, you must forget you’ve ever before said I love you to other people. The past is past, as they insist, so don’t rely on what you used to know. Second, it’s probably best to remind yourself that this is supposed to be a good feeling. Third, never say it for the first time during sex—just, trust, you are not so talented a multitasker.
That he’ll respond in kind is not unlikely, but people can enjoy each other nowadays without ever intending to keep each other. You hesitate. You let many perfect moments pass, moments when there was a gap for stepping into, and maybe your mouth is even ajar. You’ve nearly said it so many times that now it sits halfway up your throat, lodged. Can he see the words stuck there? When he looks at you for longer than two seconds you can’t breathe right.
You are not cavalier, for the record.
In fact, you are an awkward fool.
Go back to the list! And cross it all out. There’s just this one thing to know: If there’s no reciprocation, it’s better to know that now, than to not know and be waiting for what won’t happen.
You throw it all on the table.
You throw it all on the table and perhaps the wine slops a bit from its glass. The music grows terrifyingly louder, and then pulls back like a low-muttering audience—phenomenon surely unique to only your own senses. Maybe his hands pause in reach for the bread basket. You throw it all on the table and probably make some kind of funny, defensive face, like, “What?”
With raised eyebrows.