His therapist says it is okay to grieve, but it does no good to deny. He does not understand what that means. He is not denying, how could he? Every morning when he gets up he knows what is happening, there is no point in pretending he would not notice. So no, he is not.
But he does not think he can be blamed for not wanting to let go.
She looks exactly as in her profile, exactly as in one of their numerous Skype calls, shoulder-long dark hair, female curves, long legs folded beneath the table. She has her back turned towards him but he still recognizes her immediately. In the same moment he knows just how hard it will be.
He has never met her before in person, they know each other only from texts and calls that lasted through nights, but he still feels like he has known her for years. He knows she detests fish but loves mussels cooked in garlic and tomato sauce. She likes painting and gardening although she claims to be bad at both. She works as a high school teacher but dreams of opening a bakery. She is sparkling and funny, and a good listener, too, asking the right questions and placing the right silences.
She knows he works in IT, likes old cars and collects Scotch. She knows he loves traveling, diving and climbing. And that is not even a lie because he still does. Preferences like that do not change from one year to the other. That he does not actually do any of those activities anymore is a tiny but probably important detail he has neglected to mention.
The online world has one great advantage: everyone can be whatever they want to be, build a version of themselves they like, without being judged, without having to lie, not specifically at least if you do not count lying by leaving out certain truths.
But it does not go further than that. It does not matter what you make yourself online, you are still you in the real world. As he observes her from behind, watches her lifting the ceramic cup in front of her to her lips, he wonders what it is that he does not know about her. Does she need to have secrets?
Online dating was not something he did before. But as soon as he tried he was hooked. It is simply too easy. And it keeps him from being lonely. Lately he finds it hard to be with family and friends. People who know. Because in their eyes he can see himself, how he has been, and in their actions he can see himself, too, how he could have been. Being with them, he can never forget, it is always there, staring into his face. At first people who knew avoided talking about specific topics; sports, jobs, travels. After some time it all shifted back to normal, back to how it was before. Marriage, the new car, children... Only now they are talking mostly while he listens. He cannot say what is worse.
This is exactly why he enjoys passing time with people who do not know the whole truth. So what? He is well aware that he is not really what he pretends to be, online. Not anymore. And in fact, he will never be again, is moving away from this point at full-speed. Not having to think about it for a second or a few minutes of conversation… still feels amazing. There is no harm in that, right?
During the last months he has started to feel like all he does is observing life as it happens around him, to people around him. He experiences a disconnection to simple things like a regular work day, a full night of sleep, an afternoon out with friends. His life now seems to consist of endless hours in waiting rooms that feel more familiar than his own apartment, the timelessness of seemingly never ending agony before a drug starts working, the brief glimpses into normalcy when the complex balance of toxic substances that he swallows or injects on a more regular basis than taking up food are in equilibrium with the mechanisms of self-destruction of his body, before he gets thrown back into chaos and to the beginning of the vicious cycle of scans, tests and trial drugs.
So although he experiences social life separated by a screen as well, it is the closest thing to life he has. And with her it has been more than amazing, better than he ever dreamed it could be. The thought of being able to talk to her in the morning has brought him through many a sleepless night, spent screaming in pain or crouched over the toilet, puking his guts out. The image of her in front of his eyes has him grit his teeth and survive the grueling hours of physical therapy that can improve nothing, only make the decline less unbearable. Knowing she would be there for him has been the sole motivation to pick himself up from the floor, clean himself from puke, blood and tears and the hollow realization that this would be his life from now on, and start over. Again, and again, and again.
He looks at himself in the glass front of the cafe, her silhouette in the garden outside. She is still oblivious of him standing here and watching her. He grimaces at his own reflection in the glass, the skin spanning tight over sharp cheekbones. His features have once been delicate and pronounced, he supposes. Now he simply looks half starved. If he tilts his head just so, the light falls in a way that the dark shadows under his eyes turn into the black craters of a skull. He shivers and shifts his eyes away.
This is going to be so much harder than he thought.
He is not denying anything. How could he when it is obvious not only to him but to everyone meeting him that something is wrong. He looks down on his hand that is curled around the cane's handle. He does not dare to go anywhere without it, not anymore, too often has he ended up stranded somewhere and needed to call someone to pick him up.
So yes, all pretending ends at this point, with meeting in person. She is going to get to know the whole truth.
She is going to get to know him.
He has never met with someone from online. His online flirts have rarely ever lived through multiple chats, often enough the attraction he has felt has wavered and vanished at least after the first telephone calls or Skype conversation. With her it has been different, though. They have clicked from the first exchange of words and there has been something between them that has made them go on and on for weeks, months, discussions evolving into more heated action, until they knew it was not enough anymore. They simply had to meet. She has been the one suggesting it and he has given in to her after some hesitation. Only he knows he has sealed the end of this. Eventually he has to wake up in the life that he lives, as the person he actually is.
He has to let her go.
He watches her shake her hair back and knows that this is just a taste of how bad it is really going to be. He hopes she is at least of the kind that makes a quick end of it instead of offering endless, awkward excuses.
He takes a deep breath and exits onto the terrace. The only reason why he came in the first place was that she deserves a closure. And the only reason why he does not turn around and leaves now, saving them both from the inevitable, is the fact that he needs proof that she is actually real and that for a limited time he has had a relationships with someone who is not in a medical profession and primarily interested in images of his brain. And maybe, just maybe, he hopes that they can talk, at least for a small while, and that he can feel the warmth of her smile and maybe even the softness of her hands, just very, very briefly before everything falls to pieces.
As he makes his way along the tables towards her, he tries his best to hide the limp, like usual. His vision stays relatively clear, no jitter from left to right or blurring at the edges, in fact it is better than it has been in weeks, although he is moving. He starts to allow himself to hope that this day might be a good one, just when he needs it. And that thought sparks another, darker one. He cannot see why it has to be him to ruin this. Why not carry on with what has worked so well in the online world? Why not continue as his old self, as long as he can, and until he has figured out who his new self is going to be?
He can already hear what his therapist would have to say to this and he knows he is crossing several lines here… but this could be his day! Who knows how many chances like this will be offered to him in the future, maybe this is the last one. Isn’t he always told not to give in to the disease? Well, here he is, doing exactly what he is supposed to, for once.
He does not do plans anymore, something deeply worrisome for his therapist as well, apparently. "You know it's not fatal," the man frequently uses to say carefully, "You need to keep looking forward." He simply does not like looking forward because he is fucking afraid of what will be there. And he just does not get the point of making a plan and then having to correct it after weeks or months, and then again and again, until nothing is left of the original goal anymore.
As he advances her back, a few heads turning at the thump of the cane, he makes a plan for today, though. This is going to be an amazing one, maybe the last amazing day that is granted to him. And he is going to give everything to make it real.
When he is only a few steps away she turns around and her eyes lighten up as she sees him, a huge smile growing. It freezes the moment her gaze drops to the cane and his stomach twists.
A good day, he tells himself. Just this one day, he begs, as he carefully closes the distance between them, telling his legs to keep up the good pretense. Suddenly he knows that everything depends now on him.
She is going to stay only this night, her flight back is tomorrow at noon so that she can be at work on Monday. They are going to have a great time together, just like they have had online. They will sit and eat and then say goodbye again and she will not have to know the truth. She can go back to her friends and tell them about her online boyfriend, and the tragedy that is a long-distance relationship. They do not need to meet for another six months, and who knows what happens until then.
Six months are a lifetime, as he knows too well.
Yes, he feels terribly guilty for deceiving her. He always knew it was wrong. But he realizes that he has already gone too far to go back now. When he tells her the truth now she will know that he hid it on purpose, maybe even suspect that he did it to lurk her to come here. And even if she forgives him, she will be gone as soon as she learns what he has been trying to conceal.
But there is no need for that. There is no need for anyone to get hurt.
He does not look at her when he sits down, shooting a hand out behind himself to soften the fall, turning away from her a little to not let her see that he struggles with simple tasks like this.
"Hi," he says, finally lifting his head.
She is smiling again, apprehensively though, and hiding her confusion by wrapping her hands around the mug.
"Hi," she says and her features glow. "It's so good to see you."
"It is. You know, three dimensions suit you. You... look as beautiful as on my computer. Better even, if that’s possible."
She giggles and blushes a little. Adorable. "Well, thanks, I guess. You are not bad yourself." Her eyes dart away. "What's the deal with the... um..."
He lifts the canes' handle above the table.
"Uh yes. That. A sports injury?"
Glad she is offering him such an easy way out he nods. "Yeah... something like that..."
He stores the cane back under the table next to his right knee and holds his breath, waiting for the inevitable. Thunder striking him from the sky, his therapist calling to tell him he gives up on him, or her simply looking through the lie and starting to laugh.
Laughter is his best shot, probably. It is certainly better than her shrieking in horror.
"Oh," she says instead. "I'm sorry. Must be terrible not to be completely mobile, especially for a sports person like you."
He nods again and coughs, trying not to think about the stabbing truth in her words. "Huh... yeah. Have you ordered already?"
When he looks up at her smiling face, her cheeks still tinted red and her eyes sparkling, he knows he could never bring himself to make that look of happiness change into shock, and he knows he could never stand to see those eyes fill with sadness, like he has seen so many times. This is when he knows he has made the right decision. And so he leans back, and tries to relax his shoulders, the cane out of sight beyond the table and he vows not to get up again if not absolutely necessary.
Turns out, meeting her in person is not so different from meeting her online. Only better, because now he can see the fine strands of her hair falling into her face when she laughs, get a whiff of her perfume when she leans over the table and feel her breath on his cheek as she whispers into his ear. Time flies by and by early evening they are still sitting in the cafe, the air cooling down around them, and he catches himself staring at her and thinking that this might work. He starts dreaming of their next meeting, in a few months, maybe spending more time together. A vacation. Alas...
"Sorry? Say that again?"
"Already bored of me?" She teases.
He chuckles. "I could listen to you for days in a row without getting bored... In fact, I think I already have, at least once."
She grins. "I know I talk too much.”
He shakes his head. “You don’t. Keep talking forever, please. What were you going to say?”
She fixes him with her eyes. “I... uh... It's getting cold and I thought... Well, maybe we want to..." Her cheeks color pink.
He has never allowed himself to think ahead this far. In his mind they always left this place separated, in varying conditions of despair. "Y-yeah... I'd like that." He keeps sitting like he is rooted there, however.
She tilts her head. "It's a little strange, isn't it?" she says carefully, her hand lying between them on the table. "I mean... You and I... We have seen so much of each other, I mean not only visual... But... Also that, in fact. I feel like I have known you for such a long time but still we have never..."
He places his hand over hers, squeezing to hide the small tremor. Nerves or a result of his condition, he cannot say for sure now because it is the first time they have touched and his heart flutters against his ribcage as if about to escape. He looks up at her and realizes she has had the same thought, her eyes wide and her mouth forming a surprised O.
He waits until his breathing has evened out. "I think it's normal to be nervous. We'll take one step at a time, remember? This is just a test. We can go back to looking at each other’s half frozen Skype image when this does not work out."
He does not believe a thing he says. This is going to an end, he can see it clearly. It has been a dream and it is time to wake up.
"A test, yes," she repeats and finally a smile spreads on her face. She squeezes his hand that is still lying in hers and he thinks her fingers are trembling a little as well. "A test. I can do that.”
They sit and stare at each other, hands clasped, until she giggles and grins. “Shall we start testing with proceeding to the hotel?"
A great dream, though.
He does not want it to end.
He has not had sex since the diagnosis. In fact, not some time before that, even, when he was still okay mostly but already felt something lurking in the darkness. It had started with sudden tingles in his legs, or outbursts of tiredness befalling him, both of which just vanished after some hours or days and left him wondering if he had imagined the symptoms. He had refused going to the doctor, telling himself that he was just overworked.
Until he woke up one day, blind in his left eye.
Of course he knows it would be wise to end it now. He could say that he is tired and wants to go home. Alone. She would take the hint and be probably heartbroken for a while but she is not going to be too surprised for too long. There is no guarantee that people will actually connect in real life when they have only known each other from chats. They both considered that possibility. She is prepared for that.
She is not prepared for him.
But just the thought of being in the same room like her, alone with her, makes his throat go dry and his pulse shoot into the sky. He wants her so much, his whole body aching with the longing to hold her in his arms, his heart burning with the crushing thought of seeing her go now.
And so he nods and waits for her to get up and lead the way before detaching his protesting body from the chair. His legs scream at him to rest, the joints stiff and painful as he puts weight on them, his head pounds and as he straightens he realizes that he is a little dizzy. Usually by this time he would have taken at least a short nap and started thinking about calling it a night already.
He realizes that he does not want it to go on like this forever. Hiding inside his room, submitting to the moods of his body, just waiting for the next torture it will come up with. At least he does not want to miss out on what he thinks he can still do now. Plus, he does not feel so bad indeed, although it is hard to say how he feels since he is most of the time somewhere near terrible.
They leave the cafe, the cane reappears and he walks a little slower than before, relying on the wooden stick for balance but he is glad to find out that his legs do not fail him. This really seems to be a fantastic day, although he has been out and about for an unusual long time now. He will probably pay for that tomorrow. He always does, eventually.
But for now he follows after her and meets her at the curb, waiting at her side for a taxi to stop, leaning subtly on the cane while she talks. Her hotel is close by and so they arrive not much later, the lobby is small and deserted, and the elevator works fine.
He knows he is probably wrong but it very much feels like he hit the jackpot today.
--> Part II
--> Part II