"When I was younger, I used to wish I was Cinderella," she tells him as she takes a long sip of her caramel latte. She always gets the same drink. He has it waiting for her whenever she walks into the little coffee shop, always seventeen minutes after three o'clock. It gets delivered to the table at fifteen past to ensure that it's still steaming when she goes to take her first sip. "Like, I really, truly believed I could grow up to be Cinderella and I would meet this amazing prince who wouldn't care that I came from this dirt-poor family with a wicked mother and a father who was never around a sister who always seemed to be the favorite."
He listens and nods slowly, comprehending what she's saying. His whole life, he's known her – since they were in diapers. The story isn't anything new. At least, the part about her family life isn't. From his childhood, he can still draw upon memories of that scary woman that she'd called her mother. Most of her time was spent at his house, avoiding the Monster Mommy.
"How do you know Cinderella lives happily ever after, though?" he asks. He himself drinks green tea – he'd burnt himself out on coffee and honestly, it wasn't all that healthy for him anyway. Green tea felt safer and made him feel better about the tons of French fries he devoured nearly daily. "Maybe the prince takes her home and he turns her into his own servant and has affairs."
Idly, she blinks at him, as if trying to gauge whether or not he's serious. They both know he is. Shaking her head lightly, she sets her paper cup down, crosses her legs and leans forward, prepared to explain, at great length, why the prince did not take his new bride home and use her as a cleaning lady.
"Cinderella is a fairy tale," she explains in flippant manner, with a "Duh" tone of voice. "Inevitably, they all end up happy. That's what makes them a fairy tale, after all. Fairy tales have to be happily ever after. Everyone knows that. Therefore, Cinderella had to have a happy ending."
One of his brows arches up into his moppy hair, hanging into his eyes. Skepticism is written on his face and slowly, he shakes his head and a small smile grows on his face.
"What a silly, preposterous idea," he remarks and she tips her head curiously. "Disney romanticized the Cinderella tale you know and idolize. The original tale, Ashenputtel, is gruesome. The ugly step sisters cut off heels and toes in order to try to fit the slipper and there is no bippity boppity boo. The prince, in fact, rides off with one of the step-sisters before the birds, who helped Cinderella, not a godmother, point out the blood to the prince and make him turn back. You are under the delusional idea of what Disney has done to these stories."
After his spiel, she merely picks up her paper cup and takes another sip. For a moment, they remain in silence. She's the dreamer and he's the realist who always finds a way to poke into her dreams and run them to the ground.
"Fine then. I always wanted to be like Disney's Cinderella," she clarifies, somewhat haughtily. "The point is, I wanted to be one of those Disney characters who grows up and overcomes everything else. My prince charming can swoop in any minute now and take me away from the retched little world."
Now it's his turn to smile at her, the sad, sad smile of a delusional dreamer. Again, shaking his head, he takes another sip of his green tea and watches her for a moment.
"Dreaming like that is unhealthy for you. It only gets you up on these pedestals that can never be reached and honestly, that worries me. You romanticize love into something it can never be. There won't be fireworks and flowers and sparkles in the air. I wish you could realize that your dreams can't be reality. It's impossible for them to."
Years of friendship had allowed this conversation to take place. From diapers to braces to bad hair cuts to experimental make up and bad hair dye to fashion faux pas to the "mature and responsible" college students they were today had carried years of friendship. A few bumps and fights along the way had done nothing to deter their close relationship and it was for these reasons that he could speak to her this way without her throwing her latte over him, chick flick drama style.
Instead, she shrugs.
"How do you know this?" she challenges. "You've never been in love."
"Except that I have."
"…you've not! You'd have told me!"
Now his smirk turns wicked, momentarily, the left side hiking up and briefly showing off his dimple, before returning to a serene smile, like that of a lazy cat. Eyes wide, she remains staring at him, looking shell-shocked. This, of course, is a shock, as they've shared every moment, from elementary first kisses to first dates to first broken hearts. It was to his house that she went from her first major break up and slept in his bed while he crashed on the lumpy couch. His first broken hear involved much moping and coffee, but never has she imagined him in love.
"Was it Heather?" she asks. Heather was the one who sent him to the funk, she remembers, and for a moment, she feels a shadow of her junior year self and the anger that had filled her.
"Of course not."
Confusion masks her face and her brows furrow. There was Lindsay, but that was for five days in the fourth grade. Emily was a not-thing-that-he'd-thought-a-thing in fifth grade. He didn't have a serious girlfriend until Jodie of sophomore year, but they only lasted three months and he didn't seem too torn up. Then there was Heather of junior year and in senior year he and Emory tried something but didn't pass a month.
"Well. Who? And why didn't you ever tell me?"
Still smiling that "I-Know-You-Don't-Hahahahahaha" smile, he shrugs lightly and cocks a brow. "You want to know?"
"Duh, I do. Tell me! Oh my god, why haven't you ever told me?!"
A dramatic pause follows and he knows she's using it to mess with her. Tension has actually riveted her to this moment and she feels like leaning in, finding the fast forward button and speeding him through this static silence. And of course, she's right, because he's quite taken in by the way she hungrily waits for this bit of information, as if him having a secret is such a nonsensical, impossible idea.
Admittedly, he likes this, and the silence that it gives her. Ahhh, blissful silence. Smirk smirk smirk.
Brows knitting together, she snorts. "Whatever. Now c'mon. Tell me."
He laughs. "No really. You. When I was like… it was in high school. I think I was a junior? Maybe it was part of senior year, too. I was pretty convinced I loved you."
"Like, when we'd share the bed?"
A shrug. "Yeah, I guess. That's kind of how I knew."
Wide eyes stare at him and her lips part in shock. This is just ludicrous. Her own best friend, the cliché boy-next-door-best-friend in love with her? That, she knows, is impossible. Because he is one of those arty boys who lives in the cafés with his coffee and green tea, attending poetry readings with his button-covered messenger bag, flipping his prettier-than-hers hair out of his eyes and snapping instead of clapping. He is the boy who never fails to correct her when she's wrong and always makes a fuss about her pop culture obsession and her always painted nails, the designer jeans she sometimes buys and her "obscene" and "bulky" bags. They are polar opposites held together by bonds and years and crazy monkey glue.
"We shared a bed and you knew you loved me?" Her voice comes out incredulous.
"It's not like we spooned or were naked. We always had our backs to each other."
"Yeah but… dude! This is like… crazy! And you never told me?"
"Of course not. It wasn't right. You were always dating someone and we were just friends, you know? Besides, you didn't date boys like me. You went for Ethan Long, the blonde boys with body builds and IQs smaller than your own."
She should be offended, but she's not. In fact, she's just too dumbstruck to be. This situation is too impossible!
"…so how did you know?"
Nonchalantly, he shrugs, and she wonders how he can be so casual about this all. The word "meh" is just dripping from him, she can feel, oozing in waves and rolling at her, but it's not mellowing her and seems to have the opposite effect. She feels like jumping up and down and burning off this sudden buzz of energy.
"It was after Heather and before Emory. Talking to you about Heather, I felt comfortable and eventually I wasn't all that torn up anymore. I mean, I was really delusional about Heather and had all these ideas that we were going to be something perfect and we weren't and you were there and you made me feel better. And when you weren't around, I felt crazy and bored and antsy but when you came around, everything was appeased and all. And at night, I could still smell your shampoo. That weird citrus-y stuff you used back then."
She listens intently, enthralled and fascinated by his explanation, feeling the hint of a blush on her cheeks. They've never spoken like this about each other and she's never imagined him this way and she's not sure if she should feel guilty for this. And he remains so calm it kind of bugs her. How was it possible for him to love her and her not even know? Was she so unperceptive as he always played her off to be?
"But you like smart girls. With facial piercing and tattoo dreams who read your angsty poetry and listen to that mellow music that you can't even dance to."
He laughs again. A guffaw, a belly laugh and shakes his head, grinning at her. She's confused.
"There's an exception to every rule and you, baby doll, were my exception. And now the phase is done and over, I know I'd never have dated you long. You're high maintenance and friendship is enough with you."
Quite uncertain as to why, she feels something in her stomach plummet and her face fully flush scarlet. This time she does feel offended and mocked and why wouldn't they have worked well with each other? Indignant, she eyes him, before speaking.
"Why? Why would we have never dated long?"
This time, it's his turn to wear the confusion and tip his head at her. He didn't expect this question because he is very much not her type. Spiked hair makes him cringe and jeans from the mall drive him to protest. Animal consumption is barbaric and athlete's foot is the reason he never tried sports. His reading level is well above hers, and towers against theirs, so what is it about him that makes her curious to their could-have-happened- stability?
Sighing impatiently, he realizes she's honestly waiting for an answer.
"I told you. Because when it comes to relationships, we clash. Half the time you pretend to understand what I'm ranting about and you ask me for my opinion of your appearance when I always shrug and reply 'Uh-huh', knowing I'll never change. You're the dreamer to my realist and you get offended when I bring you down to earth. My music puts you to sleep and you complain about things that don't matter."
"…do you want me to still be in love with you?"
They stare at each other and a slow grin forms on his face as he, yet again, shakes his head slowly, both answering the question and clearing his head. She's being serious, he knows, and he feels the urge to reach across the table and pull her into a hug. How silly, his best friend, and her need to feel loved.
"I love you. Of course. Like that, though? No. Not for a long time, either. We see each other frequently and I know, it just wouldn't have been right. You weren't good enough for me, and I wasn't good enough for you. Our desires are for different things and you're too precious to me for me to hurt. Understand?"
Admittedly, she's not sure if she does. A numb feeling sets over her and she works to comprehend this. He used to love her but he doesn't any more because she's not good enough for him, but she's good enough to be his best friend? It feels like rejection. A whole year of rejection is slumped on her in one moment and it feels like ooof! and she's uncertain as how to take it. In one swift moment, she relives the period of time, and suddenly, there are memories.
He carried her books around for her. (She thought he was just being chivalrous and experimenting.)
There were the times he willingly went shopping with her. (She'd assumed he was tired of listening to her beg.)
A couple times, he did her calculus homework, when she just couldn't figure it out. (She was having a rough time! She'd assumed he was trying to lighten her load!)
The bed sharing. Him cooking breakfast. Her favorite gummy snacks. Silly favors. Listening to her favorite music. All the time he watched her and smiled. He had smelled her hair a lot.
How did this all go unnoticed?!
"So. You don't love me any longer?"
A light voiced reply. "No, hun. I don't. Not like that."
A nod. "I see. Well, you know what I think?"
A weary "Hmm?"
He expects her thought to be something silly and frivolous, she knows, but she's feeling light headed. An epiphany has just occurred and it's on the tip of her tongue, waiting, waiting. She kind of feels excited.
"I think… love is confusing. It's like calculus. Like a five year old trying to attempt calculus. You don't know the variables. You don't know what the hell you're doing. And you don't know any of the possible outcomes."
A laughing smile is on his face. "I understand calculus well."