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She found that tears were dropping onto her wrists. She could hear Lai breathing beneath the sound of air moving through her own lips, which she tried to press together to keep her crying inside. The light from the monitor at the corner of her vision expanded as everything blurred. Every few moments she tried holding her breath, but after just a few seconds she felt that her chest would burst, and so she’d inhale and so another few tears would drip down her face.
The good thing about Lai was that he let her cry. She’d been afraid that he would try to touch her, hug her, say something to the effect of telling her she shouldn’t cry. She wished the glow from the computer were a solid thing—she could hold onto it while she shook. Lately her dreams had been populated by different iterations of Lai, walking toward her, walking away from her, always a haze surrounding him so she couldn’t clearly see his face but knew, even without seeing, that it was him. Most often, they stood a few yards apart, and although the haze obscured his mouth, she knew he was speaking to her. She couldn’t hear him. The dream went on for hours. She could never wake herself.
He let her cry. This was a favor. The tears slowed. He was still swiveled towards her.
“Should I leave?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want me to?”
“I don’t know,” he said. She felt her throat begin to contract again, and her face grew hot. “I don’t think so.”
The space between them felt too small all of a sudden. Earlier her body had itched to be closer, to merge herself with him, to pretend that she didn’t know and that everything was the same as before he’d told her. Now she wanted to be away. Even the other side of the house felt too close. “I can leave,” she said. She stood up and teetered forward, her hand brushing his shoulder as she tried to balance herself.
Lai started to move to catch her. “No, Maria.”
“It’s fine.” She began to cry again. “I’m sorry.” She kept saying it in her head. She couldn’t tell when she had said it aloud and when she hadn’t. “I’ll just go,” she said.
“Stop, Maria.” He steered her back into the chair. “Don’t do this. Just sit down.”
“I know.” He sighed. He pushed his own chair a few paces backwards. “Why do you always have to do this?”
Maria sniffled. Her eyelashes had clumped together, so she blinked at him. “What?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
She didn’t know. She shook her head. His words sounded like they were coming through mist.
“We’ve talked about this.”
She shook her head again. The inertia felt good. She wanted to keep shaking her head forever, but a headache was pulsing up her neck. Lai sighed.
“Please say something,” Maria said.
“What do you want?”
“I asked you.”
“I want to hear what you have to say.”
She wiped at her cheeks, but it was no use. New tears got caught in her sleeve. “Don’t make me leave,” she said.
She felt the air move sharply around him as he looked at her. “What do you mean?” he said. “I wasn’t going to ask you to leave.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Maria.” He hooked his feet around the legs of his chair, his torso tilting forward. “Is that what you’ve been thinking about?”
“What?” Maria looked up and rubbed her nose. “What’s wrong?” Her sleeve came away shiny with mucus.
His mouth was soft, turned down in a flattened O. Maria wasn’t sure what had softened it. She felt her legs go rigid beneath her. His face was open with what she would only later recognize as disbelief. His hands spread wide against his knees, palms pressing so hard into his corduroy pants that she thought they must’ve been striped by the time he moved to touch his face as he said, “Even after all this time, you don’t know.” Fingers grooved the skin of his cheeks. “How could you not know?” His voice yielded as a pinky slid against the edge of his bottom lip.
He continued to stare at her. He was like the person Maria had once been, who she hadn’t been even for some years before she met Lai, who she saw reflected in the way his shoulders thrust forward even as the rest of his body strained away from her, chest collapsing, stomach caving inward, a hunched person drinking alone at a party, frightened, disdainful, glazed over with stubbornness, unable to see anything but what came through her own eyes. She realized she hadn’t done what he’d wanted from her, but she’d also never fully known what he wanted—although she doubted if Lai would’ve known had it been him—and now he’d seen all the corners of what she didn’t know. She sniffed. She sandpapered her sleeve across her nose once more. The mucus from before rubbed a wet trail into her face, sticky, and she wiped it away with her fingers, touching them together to feel the viscosity before brushing it onto her pants, the scraping against the fabric almost as loud as the dread that filled her, knowing that Lai was waiting for her to speak.
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