Roman doesn’t see them, not at first. Walking out into the parking lot, his step is full of spring, despite the dreary drizzle of the late February chill, and for the first time in two bleak and endless weeks, he feels something like cautious hope. Things aren’t over, and his weapons are, if not formidable, not to be dismissed either. In every competition, once you set blade to ice, the odds are off, and anything is possible.
He clutches the blue parcel tightly, imagining scenarios in which to hand it over. No rants or accusations today. He’s going to be sweet and easy, remind his straying lover why there’s a reason to return. He’s not above using forgiveness as a means to an end; not for nothing is he friends with Jenny Steinkamp.
It comes as a tingle at the edge of his perception, warm and familiar, and he turns first with the instinctive thrill of welcome, before conscious thought can warn him.
They’re maybe fifteen feet away, foreheads close together, Vanessa’s head tilted back, the better to be kissed. Deniz is smiling slightly, and for a moment, the sight of them like that creates a vacuum in the space surrounding Roman; the lack of oxygen is real and immediate, leaving no room for any thought but a stunned, childish sort of protest: You can’t, that’s mine!
Towards ruin or redemption, Roman has always pursued the things he wanted absolutely; not because he believes that he deserves them, but because he believes first and foremost that to deny your heart, foolish or not, is to deny your nature, and he doesn’t hold with that.
He’s learned early on that being different means having to struggle, every day, for ordinary things, things others are given freely. He doesn’t seek out or enjoy conflict, but it hasn’t occurred to him in a long time to do anything other than face it straight on when it hits, giving as good as he gets.
Being by circumstance a fighter, he’s never been one to let go of a thing easily, even if to hang on meant retaliation and resentment. He doesn’t know where it comes from, this irrational, compulsive need to hold on, to degrade himself if need be, to prostrate himself and beg: Don’t leave me. Sometimes he wonders what it says about him that he seems so incapable of considering himself worthy unless he finds that worth reflected elsewhere.
Of all the things he’s ever wanted and pursued, though, he’s never known a need so uncompromising as with Deniz, nor so contradictory: tenderness and aggression skin to skin, absolute freedom merged so seamlessly with possession; a knowledge of each other that is as bone-deep as it is ruthless.
Driven by that same visceral connection, he cannot now help making a merciless catalogue of the very things that undo him: the way Vanessa melts against his boyfriend (his boyfriend, his mind notes wryly, even now he cannot think of him otherwise), the way Deniz holds onto her shoulder, leaning over her with such easy certainty of being welcome, a confidence that Roman recognises all too well. How do you do that, he wonders; how do you reapply the way you kiss someone, transfer it with such apparent ease to a different person? Did Deniz hold him like this, touch his hair differently? He thinks so, but he doesn’t know what it means, or which of them it makes more genuine.
Watching, he feels their touches ghosting across his own skin like phantom pains; that small rub cheek to cheek, that playful nip against the corner of her mouth. His skin seems not to know nor care that these kisses are no longer his. It claims them anyway, matter of fact and thoughtlessly possessive: That touch, that kiss, that tilt of your head belong to me. You cannot take that.
Roman doesn’t believe in letting go of a thing that you love. The Jenny Steinkamps of the world and he go by a different creed: Love, more so than other things, is fighting, and not the noble or romantic kind. Fighting for love is dirty, desperate and pathetic, and chances are you’ll come away broken. He feels broken now – no, more than that: shattered. Shards are weapons, though, and this, as well, he knows about himself: if he goes down, he’ll go down bleeding, and try his damnedest to cut them with the very shards they’ve made of him.
He’s still clutching the present, which has grown heavy and useless in his hands, dragging him down. He holds on anyway, because he doesn’t know how not to.