I call him just as I finish running, chest still heaving, breath still short. He picks up after three rings, and I inhale deeply. “Hi.”
“Hey, babe. You on the way home yet?”
“Yeah, I’m about to head back. I think. I only did fifteen minutes today, and I feel like I should try harder, but I’m so tired and I didn’t eat dinner yet and”
“Slow down.” His voice is calm, smooth, the one I’ve come to recognize when I’m overreacting to something. “You’re being too hard on yourself again, okay? Just come home.”
“Okay. Okay. Thanks.” I hang up and shove my phone back in my pocket. It chimes with a text, and I know it’s him, repeating what he just said to make sure it sticks. I text back a thumbs up, then stop to catch my breath for a minute.
When I’m walking down the hill that separates the park from our apartment building, my shoe slips, and I almost trip. I catch myself and giggle awkwardly, as if trying to show an imaginary audience that I’m fine. Good thing he wasn’t there to see that, I tell myself, right?
At the bottom of the hill, I recall us, in California last summer for our anniversary trip, deciding to go on a hike that neither of us bothered to research first. We’re in a new state, hoping to be wild, free, spontaneous — and taking this trail down to the beach will get us there right in time for sunset. So we say fuck it, I take his hand, and we make our way down the cliff.
Halfway down, the footpath is barely wide enough for both of my shoes. It’s sandy and sloped, with nothing to hold onto besides the stones to my right that jut out randomly. I do my best not to look down, but I have to watch my feet, and I can’t help but see what waits for me if I fall: a shallow ravine in between two smooth walls of stone. The drop wouldn’t kill me, but there’d be no getting back up without a helicopter or a rope.
He’s just ahead, testing the footholds to make sure they’re stable, glancing back and offering me encouraging words now and then: “It’s not so bad, see, you can do it!” I follow him crouched down, clinging to the rocks, one foot carefully in front of the other. Don’t look down, don’t think, don’t look, don’t look…
The path narrows, wrapping around a boulder. My shoes lose traction, and my foot slips down the slope. I squeal and cling to a stone barely large enough to get a grip on. He turns back. “Are you okay?”
“No, no, I’m stuck, I can’t—” I take a peek downward and my leg shakes.
“Calm down.” He reaches for me, grabs my hand. “Just move your left foot forward, right up here, see? Right here, come on, just—”
“I can’t, I’m slipping—”
“Yes you can, it’s right in front of you! You just have to lift your foot. Your body knows what to do, it won’t let you fall, I promise.”
“No, no—” my voice comes out whiny, like a toddler whose mom just told her she can’t get a candy bar at the store, and the part of me that’s still self-aware cringes. But the rest of my brain is consumed with the sheer helplessness of this moment, the impossibility of being saved, how my grip is loosening by the second. My head spins, and my vision blurs. “I can’t do it.” My voice breaks. “I’m sorry.”
He sighs and leans toward me; balancing himself against the rocks, he lifts me by the shoulders and pulls me up to safety. I cling to him so tight I’m probably cutting off his circulation, and he sits me on a rock and strokes my hair gently. “Just breathe, you’re okay, you’re okay, see? I won’t let anything happen to you.”
On the beach, the last rays of sunlight peek out from behind the clouds. Our hands are caked with mud and sand, so we bend down to wash them in the ocean. I’m sweating, and my hair is frizzy, I’m sure. The tide moves in toward us, lapping at my feet. I giggle. “My shoes are going to get wet now.”
His body jerks upright, and he glares at me. “So what? You can’t handle that?”
“What do you mean?” I look away from him on instinct, willing my face not to crumple. It bothers him when I cry. “I was just making an observation—”
“Yeah, you were finding another thing to complain about, like always.” I glance at his face; his brow is furrowed in a way I’ve only seen when a math problem is really pissing him off. “You’re always the victim, aren’t you? Always the helpless little girl I need to take care of, being pushed around by the world and the tides and the barely-ten-foot drops. You act like you don’t know what you signed up for.”
Tears roll down my cheeks. Shit. “You’re mad at me for getting scared? How the hell would I have known it was going to be that hard!”
“You never know, do you? You never expect a thing in the world to be hard for you. I’m sick of saving you from everything. I’m your boyfriend, not your father.”
I bite my lip, cover my face with my hands, anything to keep from sobbing. Then I kick my shoes off, throw them toward the shore, and wade into the freezing water, spitting, “Fuck you,” back at him.
I glance back up the hill, the slope of the sidewalk mysterious and menacing in the dim light. I turn away, looking straight ahead toward our place, where living room lights shine through apartment windows. No need to revisit such ugly memories. It was a long time ago.
At home, he opens the front door as I’m taking out my key. “I saw you walking up,” he says. “You want some dinner? You must be hungry from your run. I was going to order us Thai food while you shower.”
I smile. “That sounds great. You take such good care of me.”
Cold water in the shower rattles against my face and stings my skin; I don’t bother waiting for it to warm up. I hear his voice from the next room, Pad Thai with tofu, the stream of smothered vocals spilling into my ears between droplets. I remember when I admitted that I hated ordering on the phone. It makes me anxious. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll do it.”
At the time, I protested: “Come on, shouldn’t I face my fears?” He was sitting at the kitchen table then, and I was perched on his thigh, his arm around my waist.
He insisted that it was his job to make things easier. “Everyone brings their strengths to a relationship, right? Why not just let me do this for you?” He kissed my cheek, ran a hand through my hair. My body melted into his chest, and I let his strength hold me up. I pause for a moment now, recalling the feeling of protection and smiling vacantly at the shower curtain.
I finish scrubbing off the sweat of the run and fix my hair in the mirror. When I come into the kitchen, he sets his phone down and fixes his gaze on me. “You wasting water again?”
I giggle and roll my eyes as I sit across from him. “You know it.” When he doesn’t smile, I lean forward and brush a strand of hair back from his face. “What time’s the food getting here?”
“I don’t know. They said half an hour. So about half the length of your showers.” He leans against the back of his chair, moving out of my reach, and picks his phone up again.
“I mean, that’s not possible–” I cut myself off. “Never mind. I know you’re just kidding.”
He stares down at the screen, face blank for a moment. “It’s just funny how I’m the one ordering your food while you’re wasting our money in there. We have a water bill, you know?” He shakes his head. “Actually, I don’t expect you to understand.”
There’s a knock at the door. Must be the delivery driver. I stand up to answer it. The man hands me the food and disappears down the endless hallway outside our apartment, into the murky night.