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oh, there's a river (that winds on forever)

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The dust from Jeff’s arrival settles over the awkward reality of having arrived. He’s no longer part of some big gesture, whether that big gesture is flying from Colorado to D.C. or kissing Annie in plain view of everyone who also happens to live at her crappy apartment complex. Now, in a world where they aren’t just heartbeats and hands and lips and longing, it all feels fragile, like if they so much as look at each other wrong everything could come tumbling down. Even Annie seems to be searching around for something that might stabilize the situation, something to distract them both, but there’s nothing in the place except flimsy flat-pack furniture and a large green couch along the back wall.

Personally, Jeff would be perfectly okay if the ‘distraction’ was a few more minutes of making out. Everything was fine when they were kissing. This is the aftermath, where things are precariously balanced on a razor’s edge, but the kissing — the kissing was still the big gesture. It was, despite all reasonable assumptions to the contrary, so much safer.

Things don’t seem to be going in that direction, though, because Annie fixes herself into the role of a welcoming hostess rather than stepping back up to him and returning to that safe place where they’re together, where their lips meet and he can pull her closer — that safe place in which Jeff knows, from second to second, what he should be doing, because nothing makes more sense to him than kissing Annie Edison. Instead, she’s telling him where the bathroom is (through the short hall and on the right), asking if Jeff wants anything to drink (he’s fine), if he’d like to watch TV (“There’s no cable or anything, but my internet got hooked up yesterday, so I can let you sign in to your Netflix account.”) and inquiring about his trip (it was awful). It’s all small-talk things that seem right for welcoming a friend over to a new place, but don’t exactly fit with their particular situation.

There isn’t any small-talk protocol for suddenly arriving to kiss a friend sixteen hundred miles from the city you both lived in together, after six years of possibly mutual pining and a romantic farewell to put all those complicated feelings to bed. Ignoring the rom-com plot, there probably isn’t even any small-talk protocol for just appearing at someone’s new apartment, unannounced, while carrying a mostly empty travel bag and the weight of very little sleep. Apart from all the awkwardness, Jeff feels dead on his feet. If he can’t go back to kissing Annie, he just wants to have a seat on that ridiculously large green couch so he can rest for a bit. He tells Annie this, in lieu of answering her question about whether he’d rather watch something like Daredevil or a more lighthearted, background-noise type show.

“Oh!” She leaves the television on the Netflix menu and rushes over to the couch, gently scooping up the smallish cardboard box that had been sitting on it, and fluffing the sad, green cushions a little. That action launches a cloud of dust motes into the air, where they delicately glitter in the minimal light allowed by the room’s single small window. Jeff’s exhausted brain thinks it’s kinda pretty.

Annie coughs and looks at Jeff with an embarrassed almost-shrug. “Sorry. All the furniture came with the place and I haven’t really had time to clean.”

When he arrives at the couch and Annie’s still standing there, just a few inches from him, there’s a brief moment where Jeff can feel the balance of their situation starting to wobble again, like a spinning plate on a pole, or an unbalanced celestial body hurtling toward the sun.

“It’s fine,” he tells her. His voice is low and quiet, and even he doesn’t know if it’s because of exhaustion or because of something else. Fear. Lust. Euphoria. Love. All of the above. Jeff used to live a very simple life of mental reset buttons and never having to deal with things that made him feel anything other than smug and proud and happy. Things were stable — comfortable, if not very good: the bland suburban-house kind of living — and now, every time he’s close to her, he can feel the world tipping beneath him, threatening to push him into a great unknown. The elation of doing had propelled him into another world and abandoned him here, without a map or a compass or any idea of how to survive in unfamiliar lands. And however beautiful and enticing these unfamiliar lands are, Jeff still gets the sense that they are dangerous.

In this new and dangerous world, which is disguised as a seriously depressing apartment in Washington, D.C., Jeff clears his throat. His voice is still rough when he offhandedly jokes to Annie, “I probably already have some form of the plague from going through the Denver airport on no sleep and slightly hungover, so I think it’s a wash.”

He just wants to go back to that feeling from before. That feeling of doing something right, of taking a risk that paid off, of living out some grand victory — not in the sense that he’d won Annie or anything, but in the sense that he’d defeated himself, defeated that voice in the back of his head telling him he was going to die alone in a metaphorical desert of his own making. His victory over that, in particular, is still there (thank god, since he’s not sure having an existential crisis in front of Annie would do much to endear himself to her) but everything else fills him with a sense of nonspecific anxiety.

Jeff lets out a thankful groan when he finally sits down, and for the second time that morning Jeff feels all of his forty years — in a far less life-affirming way. In the way that makes him genuinely regret not doing stuff like taking last-minute flights out of Colorado to spontaneously kiss a woman in broad daylight back when he was in his twenties, because he’s sure that twenty-something Jeff Winger would not have insisted on having a rest before taking the world by storm with his girl on his arm. If he were that Jeff Winger, he would have dipped Annie back in an elegant, movie-style kiss, swept her out of her dingy flat-pack apartment, and treated her to a gourmet meal, dancing, and making love on the beach or something equally ridiculous and youthful. At forty, though, Jeff makes out with a woman for five minutes and then wants a nap. How embarrassing.

Then again, twenty-something Jeff Winger had never been in love, so he has that going for him. Young Jeff can suck it.

“I’m going to get you some water,” Annie says, and Jeff realizes he’s closed his eyes and mentally abandoned her in her own living room after completely disrupting her life out here in D.C. He feels bad about that — really bad, because he does want to try to be less selfish and he thinks he’s been making progress on that front — but mostly, he’s tired. Too tired to lift his eyelids and watch her walk into the adjacent kitchen. He can hear her, though. The apartment’s so tiny he can hear every step, hear her dig through cabinets for a glass, hear her soft ‘a-ha!’ when she finds one, and then the sound of the faucet running, her retracing her steps back to him, and setting the glass on the little table next to the couch.

“Sorry,” Jeff mutters, his eyes still closed and his words slurred by exhaustion. “I kinda showed up and collapsed on you here.”

Annie makes a forgiving humming sound, then, “Did you say you’re hungover?”

Slightly hungover, maybe. Mostly tired. With the addition of a headache — which, that water will probably help, so thank you.” He doesn’t reach for the water, though. His arms feel too heavy to move; the glass right near his elbow seems too far away.

“Sure,” says Annie. “You can put your feet up if you want, Jeff. Rest a little. I have some unpacking to do, but I’ll wake you up and we can go to a late lunch, okay?”

At that, Jeff opens his eyes. Annie is standing there in front of him, but she’s not looking at him — instead, she’s looking down at her phone. The screen casts a blue-light glow against her face, which has the usual features of Annie Edison In Thought: a slightly scrunched brow, the occasional squint, idly chewing on her bottom lip. Backed by the older model TV still paused on the Netflix menu, the plain gray walls of the apartment, and the cheap furniture, she’s a familiar sight in an unfamiliar setting. The reaction Jeff has to the image of her is strong, but indecipherable for someone with his admittedly shallow (but ever-deepening) grasp of emotional nuance. He thinks he recognizes some nostalgia inside the slurry of feelings that run through him, because he can remember Annie’s similar expression during late-night grading sessions and, before that, daily study sessions. He knows he recognizes a lot of fondness, because he’s come to connect that sense of affection to Annie at all times, largely without regard to context. Then there’s a strange undercurrent of illogical jealousy that makes Jeff feel like a true narcissist, and more than a little bit of fear that he can’t pinpoint the root of.

But Jeff is far too tired to mentally dissect his own feelings in full. He takes this opportunity to grab the glass of water and nearly drain it, then flips himself around so that his feet — boots on, since this couch isn’t exactly in pristine condition and Annie’s already said she’ll be cleaning it later — are at one end of the couch and his head is against the puffy-cushioned armrest at the other. He closes his eyes again, well aware of the inevitability of sleep but also aware that Annie won’t let him sleep so long that his jet lag would get worse, and briefly notes that it’s been a long time since he’s lain on a couch without his feet dangling off the other end.

He falls asleep immediately after that thought. He dreams that he’s spinning plates, ones that always seem to be in a constant wobble without actually crashing down. In the dream, he desperately wonders when he’ll be allowed to stop — if he’ll be allowed to stop, or if he’s just meant to spend the rest of his life on the brink of guaranteed disaster. In the dream, Jeff thinks, This was supposed to be the easy part , but in the back of his mind he recognizes that idea as ridiculous. Whatever made him believe that this would be easy?