The week evaporated, though Joe and Claire tried to hold onto the time like a balloon falling away to the wind. As with their early dialogues, they fell into an easy rhythm through time and space, seeing one another each day while Joe remained in England.
Some of the nights were structured and planned; Joe making reservations for dinner with a museum or movie to follow. On other afternoons (where Claire availed unused holiday time, with Audrey apparently more than happy to assist with the children), their time was spent in coffee shops and bookstores. They passed the hours with endless talk on everything and nothing. It was as though she cast a spell over him; Joe relinquishing reticence when it came to details about his life. Aspirations. Disappointments. Fears. Dreams.
Save for one.
For her part, Claire seemed imbued with the same magic, opening further from that first night in the car. Joe sensed little hesitation, and his ambivalence toward his inside information aside, he knew he’d have a better idea than most if she was holding back—even if that direct connection had been lost since his arrival.
When he’d had a moment to ponder the displaced dreams, it seemed a blessing on several fronts. He didn’t know how he would have handled it if she still came to him during this time together, nor would he have been at ease. Not that he’d ever been remotely comfortable, even before confirmation that she was a living, breathing human being. To see through her eyes now would have been too much to process, too much to reconcile. Nevertheless, even with the cosmic connection broken, he was certain he would sense if she wasn’t feeling relaxed or safe. He wouldn’t have asked to continue seeing her if he had.
As the week progressed they covered a lifetime of subjects both light and meaningful, yet there remained a select few neither spoke of, lest these become real and risk breaking the strands beginning to interweave between them. What would happen Saturday morning, when Joe was scheduled to board his flight home? What came next?
And what was this, exactly? Was it merely a week for the ages, a romantic tryst? Bittersweet days removed from time and practicality that both would call from memory in moments of solitude years later? Where the word London would become synonymous with an oasis in which feeling and heart prevailed, but never a place to be revisited, never a time to be recaptured?
Was this just one of those frozen moments in time, where circumstance created the ions between them as much as any actual chemistry or compatibility? Had the finite nature of their encounter thus been responsible for it? Though the evenings were late and the mornings early, propelled by an unwillingness to forfeit more minutes apart, the hours when Joe did sleep were better and deeper than in longer than he could recall. Yet these were the questions, in the liminal state between awareness and sleep, that plied at him.
He knew his answers. He could only hope she might feel the same. He also knew he ought to remain open to the idea she didn’t; he wouldn’t be the first man in history to mistake friendship, company, and the reluctance to needlessly harm a heart as signs of mutual affection.
As the end of the week drew near, those thoughts encroached the space they shared, dancing around like pockets of carbon monoxide that threatened to choke the air between them. The larger they loomed, the smaller their conversation became, each veering more frequently to the trivial or external. Careers and extended family and long lost history became smoke screens, as though to venture more substantive discourse was to risk confronting the reality of unasked questions, and of the time that had burned down to little more than embers.
For every sentence spoken aloud, dozens more passed wordlessly between their eyes, suggesting Claire shared these thoughts too. Joe could sense the difference between a soft gaze that simply soaked in the moment, and one that questioned, as though by dancing between the irises and peering keenly enough, the thoughts of the other might be revealed. In the earlier part of the week, the way she looked at him had consistently been the first. As the revolutions on the clock became numbered, he’d watched it become more often the last.
Doubt began whispering to him, replacing the hope she shared his desires with a dismay that she might have lost interest, or was too overwhelmed, or had simply not felt the same from the start. By Thursday evening Joe could feel the gates of vulnerability closing, pushed shut by sentinels of fear, and he knew he had to address it all before they clanged shut entirely.
They stood at the entrance to his hotel. They’d come from dinner in Soho with storybook-perfect food and ambiance, but where the air surrounding them became weighted with every passing minute. They’d held hands around the candlelight, yet both found it difficult to hold eye contact—gazes darting to the side, to this painting or that couple, talk drifting from one banality to another.
Outside the hotel doors he interlaced her small fingers with his once more. It was snowing again, the flakes adorning her hair like confetti and softly soaking it through, undoing the styling work from earlier in the day. He noticed as it became damp that her hair began to curl, looking as it had the very first time he’d seen her in the mirror.
Though she brushed at it self-consciously, he pulled her hand back into his. Despite the snow the air was mild, yet he still cupped her hands to his mouth, warming them again with breath. He longed to stand there forever—air being used as an excuse to hold onto her a moment more—rather than give voice to anything that might threaten the end of whatever this was.
“Claire—” he finally managed.
“—Why haven’t you kissed me?” she interrupted, pulling her hands away. “Do you not like me, Joe? Have I misunderstood what’s been happening this entire week? Did you hear something or see something you didn’t like?”
“Oh, Claire, no… No, that’s not it at—”
“—Because I’ve tried not to get my hopes up too much, I’ve tried not to read into things too much,” she said with increasing cadence, “but am I wrong that there’s something going on here, Joe? That there was the beginning of something at the gallery the other night, something that’s grown ever since?”
“Claire, no, no, you’re not—”
“This wasn’t easy for me, Joe. After David left, I looked at those babies and thought ‘there’s a betrayal here that extends beyond me,’ and I just sort of accepted that that would be life now—that they would be life now—and I put any notions of romance or heart away. Locked it away, Joe, and fell just short of throwing away the key.” Her words were coming in a torrent, nearly colliding with one another.
“Claire—” he reached for her again but she twisted her shoulders away, bundling her hands to her chest. Her hair was soaked now. His stomach was pulled as tight as it had ever been.
“And then you show up and you drop your billfold and I tap your shoulder and you turn and even though you had just vomited you smile like I was the most incredible sight you’d ever seen and something inside of me just sort of… let go, Joe, something just melted… and you give me this beautiful week of presence and kindness and surprises and—it’s just been easy, Joe, it’s been light, after years of heaviness and hurt…” She paused, as though giving the words a chance to absorb. “And it’s all been beautiful, it’s all been wonderful, and I wonder where you came from and why I get to be a part of your world for a week. But then the end of every night comes and my stomach goes in knots and my heart flies into my throat, and you just say ‘Goodnight, Claire.’ And I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know what to do.”
He reached forward, gently placing his hands on her shoulders. This time she didn’t turn away, nor did he speak just yet, sensing she needed a moment more.
“Do you not like me, Joe?” Tears ringed the edges of her eyes. “Did you sweep me off my feet just to watch me fall? Because I can’t fall again, Joe. Not like that.”
He moved his hands to the sides of her face, her hair weaving through his fingers. “That’s not it at all, Claire.”
“Then what is it?” she burst, eyes darting back and forth between his.
“It’s that I’m hopeless, Claire. I don’t know exactly what any of this is, and I don’t know what magic it was that brought me here to you and gave us this beautiful week. I do know that it’s only been a week, but I also know how I feel. And I know I’ve been careless with other hearts in the past—enough to know what that means, and what that looks like. Enough to know I dare not be careless with yours.” He paused, eyes searching hers, seeing that she expected him to drop the heart she had just begun allowing him to hold.
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