But there was a deeper question on her mind at that moment than scheming up ways to rekindle his old love. Was it the right time for this? In the moment, it didn’t seem to matter. They were just doing what they had always done. She didn’t notice any change in his usual phlegmatic self, despite the outpouring of some pretty upsetting personal history. He had described the events of his life as if they had happened to a friend of his, and not even a very close one.
Maybe she just still had difficulty reading him, after all this time. And of course she thought in passing that the question she was about to ask might open up some uncomfortable avenues among the already-twisted inroads they had made toward understanding one another. But the thing about an elephant in the room is that it is surprisingly easy to ignore – until someone mentions it.
“Why do Eric and Naomi keep telling me that you have a thing for me?” she asked. It was meant in the spirit of fun, and at no point was she expecting a real answer anyway. It had been a playful sort of evening, from the surreptitious self-pleasuring to the unveiling of the online vehicle they were both hitching their dreams to. Even the airing of sordid details from the past seemed to come more from a place of juicy gossip than living, breathing regret.
So when Monte just answered “Is that what they say?” and made a hurt-looking face, she didn’t know how to take it at first.
After enough time had passed that it became clear he wasn’t going to add on, she continued. “Just ever since you started helping me with the site. They’re like, ‘Oh, why would he team up with you for this, he must like you.’ They can’t imagine you’d have any other reason.”
“Do you think I like you?”
“I honestly can’t tell. You’re not the most heart-on-sleeve guy ever.”
“I don’t even know what I feel half the time,” he said, as if it had any application to the subject at hand. “And if I did, I wouldn’t trust those feelings anyway.”
That was when she felt it. The change was in the air long before it manifested itself in any sensory way. Calisto had never understood the expression “burst into tears” – as far as she could tell, it never happened. Tears would come unbidden, but they were always telegraphed well in advance. It was a slower process, more of a gradual release than a bursting. Purely physical reactions like throwing up or sneezing happened more spontaneously, yet nobody ever talked about “bursting into vomit”. People tended to give themselves over to emotion knowingly.
That was what she noticed Monte doing in the faint starlight. He must have realized what she was seeing, because he apologized before it even began. “Sorry, I’m crying a little.”
“It’s okay,” she said quietly.
“Goddammit,” he said. “Here it comes.” She looked away, for his sake more than for her own. No man, to her knowledge, enjoyed having a woman watching him cry. His breath was coming out all ragged and she knew he was shaking, without looking. She studied a streetlight, not thinking about anything else except for what she refused to acknowledge.
And then it was over. She felt the tremor pass as much as she heard it. They were both left wondering what the big deal was.
“Thanks for not being freaked out by my tears,” said Monte snuffling.
It wasn’t a question she would normally ask, but she could feel them connecting on a different level, as if openly weeping in front of someone was a shortcut to intimacy. “What was it about, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Oh, I’m just constantly holding back tears these days. Usually I’m better at it.” It was his standard non-answer, and she normally would’ve kept pressing, but the window of vulnerability seemed to have passed. So instead she decided to say something to make him feel like his behavior was normal.
“I do it all the time,” she said. “Everybody does, and the fact that we all pretend like we don’t only makes everybody feel like they’re crazy.”
“Okay, now you’re being freaked out,” Monte said.
“I’m not being freaked out, I’m being reassuring.”
“It was just a physical thing, it doesn’t need to be dissected.”
“All right then, forget it. All I’m saying is, it’s understandable.”
“No, I’m sorry. I appreciate what you’re doing, I’m just too much of an asshole to take it well,” Monte said after a quasi-thoughtful pause. “Or I’m just not used to it. Most people, they see you crying and everything becomes awkward. Except for my kids. Kids take everything in stride. My daughter saw me crying the other night, and she just said ‘Daddy, you’re crying.’ No hint of concern in the voice or anything, just matter-of-fact stating it. And it’s because she hasn’t been around long enough, she still assumes everything that happens is normal.”
“She doesn’t know that daddies aren’t supposed to cry,” Calisto said to herself.
“Yes! And maybe years later she’ll suddenly remember that and she’ll go, ‘Wow, I knew how fucked-up my dad was that long ago’. So yeah. Sorry for being such an asshole. I just don’t like crying in front of people. They’re always like, ‘Oh my god, are you okay?’”
Calisto recognized the exact situation he was referring to, and fighting the urge to laugh at the melodramatic face he was pulling as he did his impression of an over-concerned bystander. “It’s a human instinct,” she said. “People want to show they care.”
“Or they just want to seem like they care.”
“It’s the same thing,” Calisto said. “You appear to be sad, so I have to appear to take an interest. We’re all just following the same script. Look at you, what do you care if someone is sincere or not?”
“I care if you’re sincere,” Monte said.
“I care if you’re sincere,” Monte said.
His eyes were doing something funny as he said this, Calisto couldn’t tell whether it was on purpose, and she tried not to let it distract her. “You never answered my question.”
Her phone started buzzing so loud it seemed to wake them up, as if they’d forgotten other people exist in the world. Calisto read the text out loud.
“’Where RU guys?’” she said phonetically. “’We’re locked out.’ Dammit, they’re here.”
Monte laughed without looking at her. “You know what my son said to me the other day? We’re trying to potty-train him right now, so whenever he actually succeeds at it, we have to act like he just won the Super Bowl. We do the ‘Great job,’ high-five and everything. So the other day he walks in the room as I’m finishing up. He says, ‘You did it, Daddy! You’re a big boy!’”
“Wow, what a funny story,” Calisto said. “We need to go let them in.”
“Can’t they come up here?”
“We shouldn’t even be up here,” she said. “Come on, I’ll help you get up.” He was slumped over like he was nursing a chest wound and looked far too exhausted to get up on his own. Calisto hadn’t realized how long they had been on the ground until she heard the blood roaring in her own ears. The alcohol must have been part of it.
“You trust me?” he said to her outstretched hand. “I’m not going to read too much into this, am I?”
“Shut up,” she said, grabbing both of his hands and jerking upwards abruptly, annoyed. The man was a twig and popped to his feet so quickly that he stumbled forward a bit before getting his balance under him.
“Damn, you can really dead lift, girl,” he told her. “Now you sit down, let me try you.”
“Let go of my hands,” she said. “Let’s go.” She turned and walked and eventually he followed her.