I Can’t Believe You Love Me

As part of the Infinite Bard series, I’m happy to share this new story!

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Weather forecasts are just a guess.

We take all sorts of measurements—temperature, wind direction, air pressure, solar energy, and more—that we think will get us closer to understanding what is happening. Usually, that will get us close. Sometimes, it’s way off. Because there are things we miss. Things were don’t see. The biggest factor is how much there is. Pockets of air, shifting water, incoming radiation, and on and on. We look at the effects these things have, and try to guess what the future will be based on the past. But the true causes, the changes, happen out of our sight.

So we guess and hope for sun.

“I want you to know that I don’t believe in any of this.”

I’m not sure why I said that. It’s a jerky thing to do, deliberately antagonistic. But Janis just lets the words fly by. Maybe she’s heard them before. Or maybe she knows that I walked in here, of my own free will, and that matters more than what I said.

“You’re Derrick’s friend.” Her voice has traces of the south, a few regional accents mashed together. I’m in her living room, which is very ordinary. A dark blue sofa, a small glass coffee table, a few grey armchairs. Calming abstract paintings of flowing blues and yellows. The only thing that makes it distinct is a spice rack on the wall. Instead of spices, it holds vials and small bottles of liquids in an array of murky colors. None of them are labeled.

That’s it. There are no hex symbols, no ancient glyphs, nothing to make the room feel magic. Just bottles on a spice rack.

“Yes. Did he tell you about me?”

“A little.” She places a glass of water on the coffee table. I glance, to make sure there is no hint of colored liquid in it. She eases into one of the armchairs. “But I like to hear a person’s own thoughts.”

I want to describe my situation without sounding pathetic or douchey, and I know that feeling right there means I’m perhaps moving in a direction I shouldn’t be, but I’m here, so I talk.

“I have a girlfriend. A longtime one. We’ve talked about getting married before, but we haven’t moved forward. I mean, the world right now, right? Who can make long-term plans for anything?”

She smiles gently. “Do you want to get married?”

I worry that hesitating too long will look wrong. And that answering too quickly will look wrong.

“Yes,” I say.

“What is your girlfriend’s name?”

“Ashley.”

“Does she want to marry you?”

That’s the question, isn’t it? “She has before. I’m not sure about now. That’s why I’m here.”

“Here to buy something you don’t believe in.”

So my first words had at least been heard. “I don’t know why I said that.”

“I do. But it doesn’t matter.” She sits back, leaning into the upholstery. It crinkles. “People often come to me wanting love potions. As if that were just one thing. Do you know how many different things they mean when they ask for that one thing? Some want a friendship option, others an affection potion. There’s plenty who want a lust potion—one and done, you know what I’m saying?” She leans forward. “But here’s the tricky part. Some people don’t want a love potion at all. They want a personality modifier. They want to change the person so that they react the way they expect. So that the love language they speak is the one you want to hear. The person might already love them just fine. They just want to feel it differently. So do you know what you want?”

The words came out before I understood them. “I want to know.”

“What will it take to convince you?”

I think about that question. I keep thinking about it for a long time.

I see Ash looking at our wedding pictures. She is sitting by a window in the living room. The mixed sun and clouds outside and her stillness make her look like a portrait.

“Trip down memory lane?”

She looks up. She hadn’t known I was there. Her eyes look sad, but they usually look that way. It’s the heavy eyelids and the light-green color under the dark eyebrows.

“Just thinking,” she says.

“About what?”

She gestures at the album. In the picture she is looking at, we’re both holding a knife to cut the cake, and we’d been doing it clumsily, so we were laughing at ourselves. Her head is back, her mouth wide open. My eyes are closed in laughter. We’re completely unguarded. I remember that exact moment. I kissed her right after, and I smiled. 

“I can’t believe you love me,” I told her.

She smiled back. “I do,” she said.

Now, though, when she smiles at the picture, it is faint, winsome. “It was a really good day. It felt so … easy.”

I hear something in her voice. “Is it less easy now?”

“Of course it is. All the effort we put into planning the wedding was to make the day feel easy, and to heighten our feelings. You can’t have that every day, just like you can’t have Christmas every day.”

It’s a fair argument. So I change angles.

“Want to do it again?”

She raises an eyebrow.

“I mean, we’re not getting married again, of course. But we’re can throw an Us party, a whole big thing that will have that same feel.”

“But it won’t,” she says. “What would we even be celebrating?”

I worry too much about the question to have an answer. I can feel that the air around us has shifted, but I don’t know why.

I bring a short video to Janis, one I recorded with my laptop. Ashley hadn’t noticed the light indicating the camera was on, so all of her reactions are genuine. In the video, we are sitting on their brown couch, its suede shiny in spots

“I’ll be gone for two months,” I say.

“I know. It’s a great opportunity.”

“I’d miss you a lot.”

She pats my hand. “It’s okay. I’m sure I’ll find ways to pass my time.”

Janis pauses the video. She is sitting next to me, both of us leaning over the laptop sitting on the glass tabletop. “This is not what you wanted.”

“No. I wanted her to miss me more. I wanted her to be sad that she would be away from me.”

“Like this?”

She rewinds the video to Ashley patting my hand. On the last pat, she stops on my hand and grips it. That’s not what happened. But it’s happening now, in front of me. In the video, she looks directly in my eyes.

“I will be lost without you. It will feel like my heart is living outside of my body.”

“How’s that?” Janis says.

“No! She doesn’t talk like that. I don’t think anybody talks like that!”

“Let me try again.”

Rewind.

“I will miss you, too. But I know how important this is.”

“She’s still letting me go too easily. Wouldn’t she want me to stay? Or think of some way we could still be together?”

Janis’ sigh is audible. I don’t think she tried to conceal it. She rewinds again, without comment.

“I will miss you. I have to say, it won’t be easy for me. I don’t say it a lot, but I rely on your presence to keep my grounded. I’ll have to find a way to get by. Since it’s important to you, though, I will try to make it work, because I love you.”

We are both silent for a time. I can feel Janis growing impatient, waiting. She finally speaks.

“Something wrong with it?”

“It’s … not right.”

“Is that not what you want to hear?”

“No, the things she says—they’re the right things.”

“Does she need to emphasize some parts differently?” I think I hear a sneer in Janis’ voice when she says this.

“No, that’s not it.”

“Then what is it?”

My hands flail, as helpless as my mouth. “It’s that … the things she says. They’re not her.”

This time Janis does not bother to conceal anything. She rolls her eyes. She shakes her head.

“This is what you are paying me for,” she says. “Things that are not her.”

I go away for two months. I talk to Ashley a lot. I measure her voice, her enthusiasm. We use video calls, and usually she looks away from the camera, and sometimes she turns it off. I’m not sure why. I don’t ask, because I don’t see any good possible answer.

When I return, I visit Janis before I go home. It’s a cloudy day. It would work better if it were sunny, but I think that’s beyond Janis’ abilities.

“This is important,” I say. I’m more confident this time. I’ve been thinking about this for two months. “I think this could be a pivotal moment.”

She folds her arms, unimpressed. She wears a brightly colored shirt that looks nice but still not really magic. “What is it you think you want?”

I begin a discourse. I hadn’t sat down yet, so I pace a little as I talk. “A moment like this, it should have a mix of emotions. If I didn’t think about it, I’d just say, ‘I want her to be happy to see me.’” I chuckle at myself. “Can you believe how simplistic that would be?”

“You understand you are explaining my business, right?”

Some of my confidence goes away right there. Still, I know what I want. I push ahead.

“She should feel relief. It’s been hard to be apart, so she’ll be relieved to have that struggle gone. There is excitement. What will we do next? How will we touch each other? But there should also be a little nervousness. Can we pick right back up where we left off? Did anything change? Not a lot of nervousness, but a hint. That kind of second-date flutter, where you think things will go right, but you’re not entirely sure they will, so it puts you on edge.”

She points back to her living room spice rack. “You think there’s a bottle with that somewhere back there?”

“You mix.” He mimed pouring liquid from bottles, one in each hand. “Make the right blend. Isn’t that the whole thing you do?”

“I know what I do!”

I raise my hands. “I’m sorry. Look, I know, I over-explained. But it doesn’t have to be exactly that. It just has to be near that. I’m just, you know, giving you the vibe.”

“What is my starting point?”

“What?”

“The emotional starting point. When you drove here, you didn’t just appear here. You came from where you were, and you planned a route based on that. If I’m going to plan a route, I need to know the starting point. What is her emotional starting point?”

“I … I think she will be glad to see me.”

“You think?”

“I invited her to come with me. She didn’t come. She said she missed me when we talked, but did she mean it? I don’t know.”

Janis shakes her head. “You are no help.”

“Well, if I knew all this and was totally sure of everything, why would I need you?”

She walks toward her rack and pulls out a few bottles. “You know most people come to me once. Or at least, if they come again, it’s for a different person. You … I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Put something in my water, then. You could make it so I don’t come back.”

She snorts lightly. “Your money still spends.”

Most of what she gives me I put on my left shoulder—some on my skin, some on my shirt. It has to start working immediately. I open the door to our house. She’s not at the door, waiting.

“Ash? I’m home!” I yell.

“I’m in the living room,” she responds. She does not come running to me, which already sends a lot of thoughts running through my head. I drop my suitcase so I can walk in with free hands.

I walk into the living room. She’s on the couch.

“I’m home!” I say.

She looks up and smiles. “You made it! How was it?” She doesn’t stand up.

I walk toward her. She finally moves, standing, but not fully straight. Is she just trying to get this over with?

I lean down and catch her in a hug. Her face briefly touches my shoulder. I squeeze her lightly. She taps my shoulder blades, and her arms start to drop. Then they rise again. It becomes a full hug. She squeezes tight, and her head drops onto my shoulder.

“I missed you,” she says. “I really did.”

We stand and hug for a few moments. We kiss, and the kisses start to go beyond simple pecks.

I pull back, just a little. “We can take all the time we want. We have all night.”

Ashley becomes all smiles, adoring and bright. “Let’s spend it together.”

It’s perfect.

We sit for a while in the living room, just being together. At one point, she whispers in my ear. “Let’s have that party you were talking about a while back.”

How could it be so perfect?

We throw the party. We call it a Celebration of Love, which sounds incredibly corny, but Ashley buys into it and is enthusiastic about it. That makes it work.

The preparations go smoothly. Except? Maybe? At the end of the workday, when I have been gone for a while, it feels different. It seems like, sometimes, I have to go looking for her. Like she’s finding deeper and deeper recesses of the house to hide in. One day she’s back in the kitchen, even though she was neither cooking nor eating. Another day she’s in the spare bedroom, where there is a bed, and end table, a dresser, and nothing to do. Then another day she’s sitting on the back porch, and it’s cloudy and forty-five degrees outside. I see her, and her eyes widen a little, her nostrils flare, and she pulls back, a reaction I can’t describe. But then I step closer, and she softens, and she walks forward and hugs me, and everything is fine.

The party is held in a fire hall, with white brick walls and a trellis on the ceiling holding plastic vines. The tables and chairs are polished wood, the food sports an array of cream-based sauces, and the DJ plays just enough slow tunes to allow gentle nuzzling and kissing for those who do not want to have to vanish into an overlooked corner somewhere.

Ashley shines all night long. She wears black jeans with rolled cuffs and a black t-shirt under a ragged brown cable sweater cut off at the bottom. She kept her wedding ring on, but placed her engagement ring on a gold necklace that sways when she moves. And she doesn’t stop moving. She dances to every song, grabbing food and drink and taking it to the dance floor. I grab some dances with her, and other times she’s with her friends, sometimes in a line, sometimes in a circle, and they just laugh and laugh, I’m not sure at what, because it doesn’t seem like they have enough time between laughs to talk.

She doesn’t laugh like that with me. She smiles when she dances with me, she looks up at me, into my eyes, but she doesn’t smile as broad, and she doesn’t laugh. She seems content with me, but happy with her friends.

But our friends and family tell me they are having a wonderful time, and this was a great idea, and we’re a great couple, and we really are. We open the windows to let some night air in, to freshen up the hall. But it’s colder outside than I expected, so we close them before long. I try to do anything I can to make the night work, because I just want her to be happy.

Happy like she is with her friends.

I know how to work on that, and I will. I’ve long since abandoned the idea that I don’t need to intervene. I know how things will end if I just leave things alone, and if I do, alone is how I’ll be left.

But it will be all right. I know how to convince myself.

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