3.33

The last time I saw her, we were on the front steps of their house, trying not to make a mistake.

It was almost midnight, and still the question hung between us, heavy in the air.

Are you ready?

*

The first time I saw her: In the cafeteria, in the middle of a crowded lunch time. That was where we first met. We’d shared a small table and ate lunch alone, together.

Afterwards, I’d asked for her name; she gave me her number instead.

*

We weren’t exactly friends; more like, two people who kept bumping into each other all the time — in the hallways, by the communal fountains near the elevators, or, a couple of times, at the fire exit, while bearing cigarettes. I’d smiled sheepishly at her that time, guiltily eyeing the unlit stick in my hand.

“We’re not supposed to be here,” I said, backing away, hand back on the knob.

“But we are.”

“I saw nothing,” I said. “Carry on, I’ll be–”

“You never called.”

“Excuse me?” I felt a chill wrap around my neck. Certainly she hadn’t recognized…?

“I gave you my number, and you never called.”

“I asked for your name,” I said.

She shrugged, lighting her cigarette. “I would have told you over the phone.” And then, leaning in with an open lighter: “Stay then. What’s your name?”

*

And so from two people who kept bumping into each other in places, we became those two people who broke rules in non-smoking areas like fire exits on a regular basis. The first few times were truly unplanned, but on the fifth day I actually tried to trace her: She sat in a terminal at the other wing, and took her break at exactly 4 in the afternoon.

“Are you stalking me?” she asked that afternoon at the fire exit. We were sitting on the concrete stairs, about one foot apart. I’d been so careful not to touch her; I didn’t really know why.

“The first four times, no.”

“And this, the fifth?”

For the first time, I felt like laughing in her company, and after a while she joined in. She made such beautiful sound while at it.

After that, we found ourselves laughing a lot, and often, even over things that weren’t exactly funny. Just the sound, I thought to myself. The sound and the feeling–that sensation of air filling up your lungs then coming out in bursts, one, two, all.

*

Once, halfway through a cigarette she burst out crying, and when I asked why, she dug into a pocket and pulled out a ring.

“You’re getting married?”

“Boys are so stupid,” she said, wiping frantically at her eye. “So, so stupid.”

“You’re supposed to be happy.”

She looked at me like I’d just slapped her, like she was about to say something like, You’re supposed to know better.

Instead, she said: “Yeah, I suppose I should be.”

Needless to say, I spent the next few days smoking alone, wondering about what I’d said, and about what I hadn’t.

*

On the third day, I finally called. “Where have you been?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Thinking.”

“About what?”

I heard her sigh on the other end — this thoroughly painful, beautiful sound. “This is not a good time.”

We hung up. I spent a couple of minutes more hanging on to the phone, clutching it close to my chest. Not a good time indeed — for conversation, for falling in love.

For anything.

*

The last time I saw her, we were on the front steps of their house, trying not to make a mistake.

“Time is it?”

I glanced at my wristwatch, a nervous habit that finally had some valid use. “Nearly midnight.”

“Ah.”

I inched closer as a cold wind swept past us. “You haven’t answered my question.”

She shrugged, rubbing her knees through her jeans. As her hand moved, I noticed she’d already worn her ring, as the light from a streetlamp bounced off it.

I looked at her, trying to make out her face in the dark. “I said: Are you ready?

She looked back at me like she were considering something, before moving closer and closing the gap–so quick that I had no time to recoil.

She kissed me, touching my face with an open hand, the cold of her ring resting lightly on my cheek. And though her mouth was warm, right then I just knew.

That night was all there was.

*

That night: We kissed against her closed door until we were breathless.

*

That night: I waited for the light in her room to go out before walking to the curb. It was three in the morning when  I managed to hail a cab.

That night: I got in, and never looked back. #

kate

is sometimes mistaken for a panda.

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