I saw it coming. Spreading. Inescapable like the plague. I should’ve known it would’ve been the biology major. They aim for the root of things.
“So are you two-“ his finger twirls between us like twisting spaghetti “a thing?”
“Jesus,” I say, half to myself, half to Marko, who is sitting beside me as straight as a pin with a pained expression on his face.
“Sort of,” Marko finishes for me. I can feel the weight of both men’s eyes, but I am nose-deep in my book with the same life-preserving zeal one would have had in the 1300s over an infection-preventing face mask.
“Ah,” he replies. I cannot see him purse his lips but I can hear it in the air. That, and the way he stifles a small, uncomfortable cough in his throat. It is the same sound someone makes when bumping their shin. It is the oh shit, I didn’t see that there grunt.
Silence settles. Out of the corner of my eye I watch him take two sheepish steps back, then fully turn and dart across the room.
Marko stares at me, “oh come on.” I know what he’s asking me to come on about, but my gaze remains nailed to a word on the page. Not that it’s important, but the word is “destroy.”
“Call it a thing, just call it a thing,” I relent, throwing my hands up involuntarily. The book snaps shut between my thighs and I lose my page.
“You’re the one who decided this,” he edges with caution. I can tell I’m the bad guy already. But he’s right. I did decide this. I could say we decided it together but it’s pretty clear that I said it and he went along with it. “Ambiguity,” he’d shifted uncomfortably in his seat, “you want… Ambiguity.” The word on his tongue sounded new and ugly, like a toddler trying on a curse word for size the first time. Undefined, ambiguous, open- all new and dangerous words in Marko’s relationship-lingo repertoire he’d beforehand not known existed- and surely, had he learned them before, never would have thought they would eventually apply to him.
“So we’re…” he’s playing complete-the-sentence with me.
“A thing. Or, fuck-“ I sigh irritably, “call it anything, I don’t care. Your romantic interest, your fuckbuddy, your-“
“You know I wouldn-“
“I know, I know, I know,” I repeat absentmindedly, rifling through the pages of my book. The New Man, the phenomenon was called. Marko was a New Man. Sensitive, willing, yielding. Destroy, destroy, destroy- I don’t see the word anywhere. Was it a Freudian slip? Memory manipulation? Oh, there it is.
I catch the page number (79) and snap the book closed. I know I’m being rude. I’d blame my social anxiety but I’m also just a rude person. There is still heat in my cheeks from the biology major’s intrusion and I’m sure it’s making my keratosis pilaris inflamed. That’s my skin condition.
“You’ve gotta give me some direction here,” he pleads. His eyes are fat and brown and glimmering. I rub my eyes with a knuckle and he leans back in his chair and waits.
“I know,” I say finally, adjusting my glasses and looking up at him. His back is stiff. What anxious people, these New Men. We stare at each other, his eyes pouring into me, mine receiving passively. I think he thinks I can read him. I can’t. But I nod and blink my eyes slowly, which means sure, okay, yes.
“Well then, do you want to dance?” We’re at a salsa thing- but the lessons apparently don’t start until next week. This was something called a “salsa social,” where the other inept people- including ourselves- who thought there would be salsa lessons showed up and realized their mistake as we’d realized ours and as a to-hell-with-it took to the floor, awkwardly side-shuffling with their less-than-enthusiastic partners.
I don’t say yes because I don’t mean yes. I just stand up. Which means we’re already here, so.
As though electrified, Marko’s whole body, which had been jerky all evening, shifts into place. He is poised. Ready. Both my hands fall into his. “Just follow,” he murmurs, beginning to step. It takes a minute, but I learn. We sweep across the floor. I watch his eyes flinch and flutter, rescinding control of his faculties to blind muscle memory. Oh, I didn’t mention that I’m the beginner- not him. He’s pretty hot shit on the floor. He swoops, he catches, he twists- we glide. I feel the heat in my cheeks subside.
“Just anything but your girlfriend,” I say quietly as I spin beneath his arm.
“Anything but my girlfriend,” he repeats.
God, he makes it sound like a goddamn curse word.