Hold the line... slow burn.

Unrequited Ch. 04 - Perfect on Paper

So, things between Paul and I are good. For a while, they're even great. Things between us are good, until they just aren't anymore. We've been together for over a year, when we find ourselves having a difficult conversation. It's been coming for a while. We've both tried to ignore it. We've both really tried to make it work.

"We're just so perfect on paper." Paul sighs.

I sigh too. He's right. We should be perfect together and we damn nearly are, but we just seem to fall short.

"I'm sorry I can't give you what you want." He says, "I'm sorry I can't top you. I know it's something you need."

"I'm sorry I can't give you the intimacy you need from me."

I've tried and I've tried, but I just don't understand, or I just don't have the faculty a person needs to be emotionally intimate with another person. It's been his big bug-bear since the early days of our relationship and as time has gone on, it's become more and more of an issue for him. The same goes for me. I've tried to accept him as he is. I would hate for him ever to do something sexually that he doesn't want to do, but at the same time, what we do, just isn't enough for me. I miss type of sex that I'm used to. Maybe, I miss the violence. We've tried our best to keep it alive, but the spark has died and now that we've said the words, both of us know, there's no going back.

"Maybe," I say, "we'll be better as friends."

He nods sadly and wraps his arms around me. We hold each other for a long time and I'm not the only one with sad eyes, when he leaves.

Even though it wasn't perfect and even though, ultimately the relationship failed, I'll never be anything but grateful that I met him. I feel different now. I feel grounded. Part of me finally believes that a world does exist in which I could be in a relationship. The rest of me finally believes that I don't need a relationship to be happy.

Professionally, things could not be going better for me. My last exhibition was a raving success and I have a new one opening in a few weeks. I'm becoming a bit of a big deal in the art world, even if I do say so myself.

After years of nagging by my parents, I finally took control of my trust fund. Turns out, my grandfather left me a building. It's one of the first buildings he ever bought. He and I used to visit it together sometimes when I was a kid. He liked to go round to do handywork. I think he got a kick out of trying to teach me that it was good to be hands-on, even if you could afford to pay someone else to do it for you.

The building consists of eight apartments that are tenanted and a huge loft space, that I've had converted into an apartment for myself. It has a large studio, two bedrooms and a bathroom with a big open plan kitchen and living area. The ceilings are spectacularly high, and I've left the beams as they were, giving the place an industrial vibe. I've installed reclaimed wood flooring and floor-to-ceiling windows in a couple of the walls. The original face brick looks amazing with the rugs and old leather sofa's my mother brought over for me. The way the light lands in the space is unreal. It's beautiful.

I love it. I never fail to feel happy when I unlock the door and know that I'm home.

I had a bout of guilt about my excessive privilege when I first inherited the space. Sarah put me in my place, "Make a regular financial donation," she said, "you can afford it. Don't just do that though, do something more. Give something of yourself. Find a cause you care about and give it your time."

So, I did. I started volunteering at an LGBTQI youth centre downtown. I teach a walk-in art class there every Thursday afternoon. Every week, I'm shocked by how much I enjoy it. It's often the highlight of my week. It's scary how talented some of the kids are. In fact, I've been thinking that next year, I might offer to teach a class on Tuesdays, too.

It's been about six months since Paul and I broke up and it turns out, I was right, we are better as friends. We still see each other now and again and the tension between us has given way to an easy-going friendship. It's great. I still see Josh and Seth sometimes. They've settled down now, their debaucherous Dinner Club nights are behind them, and I see a lot of Tyler and Guy. A week never goes by without me seeing Sarah.

As for West, well, he's still West and I'm still me. We don't see each other as much as we used to. Paul didn't like it, and honestly, I can't say I blamed him. When I come to think of it, it's been a really, really long time since West and I hung out, just the two of us. These days, when we see each other, it's a group thing with a bunch of old friends, or it's a dinner party at their new house. Ash has developed a bit of a penchant for elaborate entertaining.

He still makes a big effort to see me, to include me in his life. He's still never missed one of my exhibitions. After the last one, he sent me a message that said:

Holy shit! Your work is at the stage now, where even I can tell that it's good. Mind blown.

I guess, because on some level, I'm always going to have my little problem with West, I couldn't help thinking, when I read his message, that it was the best compliment I'd ever received.

So, all in all, my life is good. I'm content.

Dare I say it?

I'm happy.

That all comes to a grinding halt one day in the spring. I check my phone and see I've got a voice note from West. He's sent me a few texts over the past several weeks, but I haven't got round to getting back to him yet. I do that these days. I no longer drop everything when my phone pings a message from him. I think it's a sign of progress.

As soon as I play the message, I hear something in his voice and my heart drops. I meet Sarah for coffee on her way to work and make her listen to the message with me.

"There's something wrong with West."

"Hmm." She says, trying not to commit either way. She seems to have adopted the approach over the past couple of years, that it's better not to allow me to talk about West very much. I can't say I blame her.

"I'm telling you; I think something's wrong."

"Andy, you don't have to go running every time West calls you. You just don't. You've been doing so well."

Part of me knows that she's right, but the rest of me thinks I'll be okay. "It will be fine. I'm ninety percent over West." I say, with a determined nod.

"Ninety percent, huh?"

"Yeah, and I think, when it comes to West, that's probably as good as it's ever going to get."

"Oh." She says, though I can't help thinking she looks a little disheartened.

West and I make plans to meet up in our usual place. I've resisted the urge to listen to his message repeatedly and I'm proud of myself. I feel sure, that that's a good sign. Still, as I walk to the restaurant, I offer a silent prayer:

Please let him have gone soft in the middle or, please let him be going bald.

I know it's a bit cruel, and I've never been in the slightest bit religious so I might as well be praying to Santa, but this is West we're talking about. I could use all the help I can get.

I try to ignore the little quiver up my spine when I get to the restaurant, but I can't ignore the way my heart flip-flops when I see him.


There's no sign of balding and absolutely no indication of his having gone soft in the middle. He looks sexier than ever. His body seems to have got better with age. How is that possible? It's thickened a little, he still works out a lot. He's gained a bit of muscle. He's even more solid than he used to be. He wears his clothes well. Success definitely suits him.

"Andyyy!" He exclaims. He's wearing sunglasses and he pulls them off when he sees me.

The second I see his eyes; I know I was right. There's something wrong with West. His eyes look different. His eyes are different. Though he's still the best-looking man I've ever seen, his eyes look older than his years.

He pulls me into a giant bear hug and just for a second, I let my body lean in against him. Just for a second, I don't fight it.

Shit, I think, as I pull away, I'm only eighty percent over West.

"You look terrible." I say.

"I guess, I look how I feel."

We take a seat and order drinks. He starts talking.

"It's over with Ash." Though I try my best to ignore it, my damned fool heart lurches and starts to pound.

It's just habit, I tell myself. Nothing to worry about. It's just habit.

I know that he and Ash have been having a hard time. That's been clear for a long time. I've lost count of how many rounds of IVF they've had.

"We just couldn't do it. We just couldn't make it work. It got to the point, where I couldn't remember why we got together in the first place. It got to the point, where there was nothing good left. She got to the point where I honestly don't think she gave a shit about me. All she wants is a baby. It's all she cares about. I don't think she's really seen me in years."

He takes a long, slow sip of his drink.

"We tried couples counselling for almost a year. For the last six months or so, I've been in individual therapy, too. The counsellor warned us at the outset that the most likely outcomes for therapy are either improving the relationship or uncovering the fact that it's over."

He laughs weakly at that. "I guess, she really knew her stuff. I think on some level, Ash and I both knew it was over within a matter of months. Maybe, we knew before we even started therapy. We kept seeing her though, she helped us sort through a lot. We've been separated for a couple of months now, living apart. We'll be signing the divorce papers in the next few of weeks."

"God, West, I'm sorry. I knew you guys were having a hard time, but I had no idea it had gotten to this."

He's quiet for a while. His eyes are so light, they almost look see-through.

"Where the hell have you been, Andy? I've needed you, man."

My heart lurches again. Despite everything, I feel awful. I should have been there for him, or, I should have had the balls to tell him I can't be there for him at all. I look at his face. His handsome face. It's open and honest. He doesn't try to hide how he's feeling. He never does. I'm still so connected to him, despite how hard I've tried not to be. When I look at him, I feel what he feels. I feel his pain, and it is intolerable to me. I can't stand to see him hurting. I can feel how much he needs someone. He needs his friend. He needs me.

"I'm here for you, West." I say quietly.

I mean it. I mean it from the bottom of my heart. It's not his fault that he's caused me so much pain. He'd probably be horrified if he knew. Absolutely appalled. I have to keep a grip on myself. That's all there is to it. I need to be here for him, and I need to keep a handle on my feelings.

It's that simple, really.

We hang out again the next week-end, and the next, and the one after that. I'm shocked by how easy it is to fall back into his life. We still have that easy comradery. We still just seem to get each other. The same stupid things still seem to send us into hysterical cackles. In many ways, it feels as though nothing has changed.

"I've changed though," I tell Tyler and Sarah, "I've changed for the better. I'm finally at the point where I want to be his friend more than I want to be his lover."

They both look at me strangely. Tyler nods supportively and Sarah, purses her lips, as if she's trying to stop herself from saying anything.

I meet West to celebrate a few days later. He and Ash signed the divorce papers today. I'm a bit worried about him, but when I see him, I can see he really does mean to celebrate, not commiserate. We go out for dinner and then to a bar. We go to another bar after that.

"To freedom." I say.

"To a life worth living." He replies with a broad smile.

I slow down early on. I don't come close to trying to match his drinks one-for-one. He is on top form. Absolutely blind. I haven't seen him like this in years.

I walk him home, with his arm slung over my shoulder, just like the old days. It feels so good having his arm around me, that I have no choice but to acknowledge, I'm less than fifty percent over West. It's not great, but it's not all that bad either. Not when you think how bad I used to have it for him. I'm still doing well. I'm fine. Fine.

"Andy did you hear about this one." He sings, a line from an old REM song he used to sing to me after nights out, at university.

"Oh, Jesus." I say, shaking my head. That does nothing to discourage him.

"Andy, are you goofing on Elvis? Dum, dum, dum, dum." He sings, even louder this time.

God, he's going to wake the whole street up.

"Shhh," I hiss, "keep it down."

He laughs his head off at me, eyes glistening as he looks at me defiantly, "Oh, man, I love you, Andy."

"Ugh." I groan, rolling my eyes.

"Any one of these years, you're going to say it back. You'll see. It's just a matter of time."

I get him up to the apartment he's renting, fishing his key out of his pocket, trying my best to let him in as quietly and quickly as possible.

"Do you want to crash here?" He asks, slurring slightly.

"Nah, it's ok, I'll head home." His new place is not all that far from mine.

"Suit yourself." He says, with an unsteady smile. "You're going home, aren't you? You're not going to Paul's?"

"I told you, Paul and I broke up."

"I'm glad you broke up with 'Perfect Paul'." His mouth twists a little as he says it and he uses both hands to make exaggerated quotation marks around Paul's name. I'm taken aback. I can't remember him saying a bad word about anyone in all the time I've known him.

"What's your problem with Paul?"

"No idea," he says, seeming to lose interest in the subject, but then adding, like an afterthought, "Ash said I was jealous. To be exact, Ash said, "You're just jealous, Dickhead."

He laughs uproariously at that. I laugh a little too, though I'm not entirely sure why. I'm almost completely sober, but I'm finding it a little hard to keep up with the conversation.

I help him to his room. He pulls his belt off and drops it to the floor with a loud clatter. I pull his shoes and socks off, before he flops back onto his bed. He has an idiotic drunken smile on his face. As much as I hate seeing him like this, I can't deny, there's a part of me that loves it. After all these years, drunk West is still the best. He just is.

He looks set to fall asleep, so I head for the door. As I do, he calls out after me.

"You think you're a gentleman, don't you, Andy?"

I look back at him quickly. Truthfully, I think no such thing. My behaviour has never warranted it.

"You're no gentleman though." He's slurring seriously now. "You're just hard to get."

What did he just say?

What the hell did he just say?

"What was that, West?" I whisper. He doesn't reply. He just breathes heavily through his mouth.

He's passed out cold.