In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse

- T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

She is seated on a wooden bench, staring deeply into the placid surface of the lake as though it holds the answer to her riddle. If the answer she seeks is to be found there, then it involves only her, because her reflection is fully visible on the otherwise empty and opaque surface of the water.

I have intruded upon a moment of vulnerability, a retreat of deepest contemplation.

It seems that the sun is rising from the water, dripping liquid fire on the wrinkling surface of glass, burning brilliantly through the mists rising from the lake. The early morning light paints the smooth recesses of her face with gold, drapes monochrome rainbows in her dark hair. The very air surrounding her is alive, full of the warm smell of the water and the buzz of morning chatter in the woods behind her. But all of that would have been commonplace without her contribution, the spirit she lends to the lacking atmosphere, thick enough to taste yet impossible to decipher.

At this moment, this fraction of my life, she appears more beautiful to me than she ever has before.

I can't help myself. I stare long and hard, just breathing, praying that somehow this moment will last forever. Whether to tease me or to grant my unspoken request, the passage of time around me seems to have slowed to nothing, so that the seconds crawl. Either way, I am not complaining. Love is patience, patience is looking, looking can be torture, and I am in agony.

I could have filled books with descriptions.

And then she turns and sees me. A smile finds purchase on her lips and she beckons me to approach. Inviting me to come sit beside her.

Me? A mortal sit in the presence of a goddess?

I blink once, smile sloppily, and take my first step towards her, acutely aware of the fact that the moisture in my mouth has evaporated completely. It only took that instant when her eyes met mine.

Crossing the short stretch of grass to the riverbank seems to take an eternity. I am floating, not walking, emerging from the irregular line of the forest and descending the gradual hill towards the solitary bench on the shore and the princess seated upon it. Then, awkwardly, I am seating myself beside her, rearranging my smile into a more casual grin.

"Hey," I say simply, blandly. My mind's autopilot vocabulary is not very large and apparently set to "Caveman Mode." But what else can I say? Conversations like this are only rosy and romantic in movies and novels. The script of life is composed of ums and apologies.

"Hey, yourself," she replies genially. "What'cha up to?"

"I was going to ask you that."

"Too bad – I asked you first." She rests her head on her knuckles, her elbow on the wrought–iron arm of the bench, waiting for an answer.

I shrug simply, ambiguously. "Nothing. I was just wandering." True, although I had been hoping to run into her. Maybe I'd done a little searching. Just a little. I hadn't combed the forest or anything. I hadn't looked under any rocks.

"Coincidence." She smiles teasingly. Her eyes contain a provocative secret. "I was wondering."

The pun makes me smile too. "About what?" Have my palms been sweating this whole time? Suddenly, they are soaked.

Her cheeks are tinged pink, glowing in the sunrise. She casts her beautiful green eyes away from mine, as though I have stumbled upon her secret treasure. "Nothing really," she responds coyly, as though she expects me to believe that is really the case. "Nothing important."

"No, no – try me," I insist, shifting in my seat, edging closer to her. "What's on your mind? Something good?"

She brushes dark bangs from her forehead, freeing those eyes that should never be hidden, shrugging by way of nervous deflection. "Nothing – like I said." Her tone is shy, sweet and precious. It thrills my heart, twists my stomach into a knot. Pink has not left her cheeks. Her eyes sparkle in the sun. They are one and the same.

"It's nothing," she insists.

I decide to tease her, so I roll my eyes. "Liar."

She smacks my arm playfully. "Smack" is too strong a word for the contact, of course. Her fingertips barely graze my forearm, yet her touch still manages to send a jolt through my entire body.

"Stop it!" She pouts in mock indignation, and I love it.

Feigning innocence: "What?"

It is her turn to arch an eyebrow. Skepticism leaks into her eyes, the kind that makes her irises twinkle playfully in the light. "You know." Like it is the most obvious thing in the world.

Clueless but amused, I query, "I do?"

She laughs once, musically, and gazes back out across the lake, seemingly lost in thought. I know she won't answer my question. She wants me to figure it out on my own. The "games" women are famous for playing are perhaps better described as tests, or mind teasers. There is no winning – only degrees of success.

I study the side of her face, her profile warm and rosy against the sky - that delicate nose and the partially open lips. Suddenly, I realize her eyes have returned to mine. She has caught me looking. I look down at my hands reflexively – entirely too late, but I can't honestly say I regret being discovered. I can feel her watching me now and take a deep breath to calm my heart.

Finally, she breaks the silence.

"Who am I?"

Now there's a question. Maybe not the most romantic thing to ask when the sexual tension has reached somewhere around 200kPa. But it is decidedly the undefeated heavyweight champion, lurking in the philosophic corner of the ring. Man has been seeking a definitive answer since the dawn of time, but continues to find himself down on the mat, putting his jaw back in place time and again. Coming from her lips, however, it was more than just conversation or empty dialectic babble. It was a sincere kind of question, the type that rocks you back on your heels and peels back a tiny corner of the costume layer a person wears, to reveal something of the vulnerable flesh beneath the surface.

We're all pretenders after all. But we try all our lives not to be.

I struggle to find words. There are plenty I would like to say, volumes of flowery speech that I have composed in daydreams and rehearsed when no one else is around. Yet, somehow, all those words are utterly inaccessible to me now – now that I actually have need of them. None seem situationally appropriate anyway.

"Uh, well..." Great. Oogh the Caveman is still working for Geico, apparently. First things first, fire the head of advertising, then continue.

I look deep into those eyes once more – hurricane swirls of liquid greens, turquoises, blues – wishing I could just spit out the words, wishing more that I could just sit and stare. Never touch, just look and stare and ache for an eternity.

That's who she is: someone spectacular, someone lovely and unique, and - ultimately - someone here, sitting with me, wanting my opinion of her personality. Yet defining her by contrast seems too cheap, too inadequate. She is who she is, entirely unaffected by environment. In fact, the environment and I together glean our colors behind her, picking up the leftovers and trailing in her wake, like the moon trying to keep up with the sun. Every aspect of her awes us, and I want to tell her that definitively. Each time I've planned this conversation in my head, I've always say the right things, the words have flowed of their own accord, and I've had the heart of a lion.

She looks back out over the lake as I struggle to find my words. The sun is reflected blindingly on its surface. "I guess why I ask is... I'm trying to determine what kind of person I am. This may sound strange, but honestly I... I feel like I have no ties to this place. I've got nothing holding me here. And if that's really the case..."

As she turns her head back to face me, she is giving me that smile – the one that never fails to send a thrill through me. I call it my smile, though in reality I have no claim to the artistic rights. It has reached her eyes, rendering them in pensive shades, accented by a wistful sort of amusement – knowing, expectant, but somehow... desperate.

"Maybe I'm just being stupid, but I... I just feel the need to move on. If there's nothing really here for me. I don't want to waste my time, you know?" When she speaks this time, her voice is more akin to a soft breeze than a speaking tone. It is a bare whisper, buzzing in my brain. "How do you feel about me?"

Another question with no easy answer. Contextually, this one is loaded.

My heart is still racing, thudding against my ribs in tribal panic. The dimension of our conversation has taken on new depths, an intensity I would never have expected. There is incredible weight on my shoulders suddenly, a burden I had not carried with me when I'd set out to find her. What she is implying is that my affection may be the only thing keeping her here, home and safe. It sounds so selfish – even to me, the permanent ruler of the Kingdom of Self–Servitude – yet somehow I understand the pain she is trying to express. Somehow, I understand that inexplicable need, the desire to soar – to throw off restraint and fly.

No cage could ever contain her.

But now the dilemma.

I do care about her. As a matter of fact, I have been obsessed with her since the day we met. So does that make me the selfish one in this instance simply for wanting her to stay? Would that make me manipulative or controlling to express my affection now, merely in order to convince her to stay? Or in that instance, would I be enough for her? What does she want to hear?

This is a lose/lose situation. If she leaves, I lose her – possibly forever. If she stays, even because of me, I still lose her. Her heart would forever be longing for more. I can only offer myself. I have nothing else to give.

I can feel the smile hardening on my face, introduced to the kiln of reality. It doesn't matter how perfectly crafted the vase is if it cannot endure the furnace without cracking.

The smile is fading from her face too. I think she can see through me. To her, my eyes – my entire face – are probably windows to the debate raging within.

"I'm really sorry," she says abruptly, looking down at her hands. Her eyes have grown overcast and murky, muddy with unwanted knowledge. "I didn't mean to drop this one you. I don't know what I was thinking."

I swallow hard, wishing she could just read my mind. I am trying so earnestly to spit out a mixed stream of emotion, juxtaposed compassion and concern vying for superiority. But don't they usually come hand–in–hand? Can't they be one and the same?

Besides, are my frequent acts of affection not enough proof of my feelings for her? Actions speak louder than words, after all, and a picture is worth a thousand of them. I would have thought that part of everything was most obvious. But then again, maybe she just wants to hear me say it. I would have wanted to hear it said.

She blows out a deep breath, then looks deeply into my eyes. The final question, the last twist of the knife: "Do you love me?"

I clench my jaw helplessly.

Can I be honest with her? I desperately want to just scream the combusting emotions in my heart, and expel them, like a dragon breathing fire. I want to remove all doubt and throw caution to the wind. But I need to do this – for her. I need to think not only of my own needs. She needs me to let her go. This decision is greater than me, greater than my lovesick imagination and fantasy future. It has nothing to do with nobility or selflessness. This is simply about her.

Resolve cools my head, but does nothing for the churning in my guts. I need some other medication for that, something like confidence or some other motion–sickness drug. I close my eyes, forcing myself the breathe.

Be free.

"I… don't. No." The lie is physically painful to speak, boiling my guts. This is why Leviathan breathed out his passion instead of swallowing it.

But the deed is done. In only three words, no less. Brevity is poison.

Her smile has been long gone by now, and when I open my eyes again, her face is smooth and atypically emotionless, like a doll's. There are no lines of perpetual joy at the corners of her eyes, no sparkle in her eyes. The endless has ended. Her countenance bears no evidence of ever having smiled, and perhaps she never will again, legitimately. She casts her gaze to the ground, defeated. Something that looks suspiciously like a tear is glittering in the corner of her left eye.

Silence. Time passing. Ticking.

Sighing heavily, she slowly gets to her feet. All of a sudden, her body language is indicative of incredible exhaustion, as though she'd just gotten off of a double overnight shift. I can see through the expression of forced ease she is trying to maintain. I can see down to her core.

What have I done?

"Thank you for being honest," she says softly, but refuses to meet my gaze. She doesn't sound remotely grateful. "I should go."

And with nothing left to say, she turns to leave.

The simple good–bye awakens a fervent desire to rectify the situation. Doubt drives needles, hundreds of cc's of adrenaline, directly into my chest. I am on my feet immediately, taking breathless steps to follow her.

"Wait!" I call frantically, my insides crumbling, melting, whimpering. This is the way the world ends, after all.

There is a moment where she hesitates, one foot in front of the other, looking down at the ground strewn with yellow pine needles. Standing barely ten feet behind her, I can see the grief trembling in her shoulders, 2.8 aftershocks from the massive 9.5. For a moment, I expect her to turn around, to run back to me. But her name is not Dependence. Instead, she takes a deep, stabilizing breath and walks away. She passes beneath the trees, gradually disappearing down the trail.

Powerless, I stand, watching her go. I have no words, and there is no feeling in my chest. She is going, fading, gone, and I look down at my hands, feeling lost and miserable inside. Regret sours my tongue, churns my stomach, but there is one solace, and it is that in which I take refuge.

Be free, I think as my vision becomes hazy. The sounds of the world all around me are dissolving, bleeding into one dissonant chord. It is the tune of the death of innocence, embodied in the forgetful snows which fall to cover the stirring lilies of memory and desire. Yet, for her, it will remain springtime. It can only always be springtime beneath the steps of Persephone herself.

I sit down on the ground, hard, because my knees will no longer function. Be free, I think at her once more, and pray that she understands. And at the same time, I pray that I can understand the reasoning of my own heart, and that perhaps someday, I will even forgive it for its weakness.

I laugh. All around me is wide open space, beauty, and wonder. And yet here is sit, testing the bars of the cage I've constructed for myself. Kill the beast, I imagine them saying, these tormenters of my own imagining, clustered around and poking me through the bars. After all, it is not for lack of bravery that I've been imprisoned. It's for the savagery, the lack of tact. This place is to keep me in, to keep others out – to ensure safety for all.

I think of her, limping away. It was unavoidable. There could only be one solution.

Be free.