I fought the tremble in my hands, wringing my fingers together. With each word, I felt him slip further from me. I stared past him to the pond. The campus had darkened under the night sky. This was my life, and I hadn’t really thought seriously about what it might look like outside of our idle dreaming. He was calling me out on all the promises we’d made, and here I was reneging.
I loved Cameron, but being with him was like being in a dream, a fantasy where I could believe that everything was possible, that everything was going to be okay. But he didn’t know everything. He’d never understand the forces that weighed me down, the battles I fought away from the eyes of my friends here. He’d only known a life of privilege. Security, normalcy, a family that by most standards would be considered perfect. Certainly compared to mine.
I’d hinted about the situation with my mother, but I’d never shared the embarrassing details of how I’d grown up, or how her life had fallen into woeful disrepair since I left for school. What chance would I have with him if he knew who I really was?
“I want to be with you, Cam.” I prayed that could be enough.
“Then marry me. There’s never going to be anyone else for me. This is it.” The look of love in his eyes, the look I’d seen so many times before, left no doubt.
“Marriage?” I shook my head, pleading with him to relent on this dream that I couldn’t give him.
He winced. “You say the word like it makes you sick, Maya.”
“It is making me sick.” I half turned away, wrapping my arms around myself to chase away the chill of the night. He was pushing me so hard. Everything I was saying was disappointing him, hurting him. I hated it. I hated everything about this conversation. I wanted to go home and fall asleep in his arms and wake up as if we’d never had it.
The hurt in his eyes lanced through me. My heart fell.
“You’re telling me no, then.”
I shook my head, my heart breaking. I had no other choice, and I’d never be able to make him understand my reasons. “I can’t.”
“What was this week about?” His voice strained, laced with hurt frustration.
I shrugged, wishing we could forget all this, turn back time, and go back to the place where we were both happy simply being with each other, without this looming expectation that I’d never be able to live up to. “Us, being together, like it’s always been.”
“This is so much more than it’s ever been. You know that. What do I really mean to you? What does any of this mean if, when it comes right down to it, you don’t want to be with me?”
“You’re everything to me, Cameron.”
His hard laugh tore through me. “Apparently not.”
“Stop it.” My voice was watery. My guilt was giving way to despair, and I felt weak and powerless over where this was all going.
“What am I, then?”
“You’re my lover, my friend. I don’t know how I would have gotten through this year without you.” Being with Cameron had given me hope, something to look forward to every weekend before he left. Our all-consuming love held so much promise.
“So I’m a crutch? Someone you can rely on emotionally but don’t really want to commit to?”
I exhaled sharply at his words, my eyes burning with unshed tears. “No.”
“Then what? Explain it to me.”
“This is crazy. You’re being crazy, asking this of me. People don’t do this anymore.”
“I don’t give a s**t what people do.” He rubbed his forehead, breathing audibly through clenched teeth. “So this is it?”
My heart thudded against my chest. “What do you mean?”
“This is it, Maya. I can’t…” He shook his head, avoiding my gaze. “You have no idea what I’ve been through. All I’ve thought of is you and this moment. But if this is how you feel, we should stop wasting our time.”
I gasped, panic flooding me. “No.”
I reached for him but he stepped back, raising his hands as if in surrender.
“Let’s talk about this.” He was slipping away. I couldn’t lose him over this.
I could no sooner find the words to make him stay as I could stop the tears from falling free down my face.
“Cameron, wait. Please.”
I suppressed a sob as he turned and walked away without another word.
Five years later
MAYA. Over the hum of a room full of machines, papers shuffling and dozens of people typing away, I swore something in the air changed every afternoon around this time. The anticipation of freedom, of sixty minutes to call our own away from this place. It was 11:55 again, and I fidgeted anxiously with my purse, checking that I had everything for my sprint. Noon struck, and I made for the elevators. I used my oversized handbag to maneuver my way to the front of the pack. Every f*****g day was like this. They let us all out at the same time, like cattle.