Don't - Belinda McCauley

She didn’t tell me when it could’ve mattered. She didn’t tell me when it would’ve made a difference. She didn’t say it, and I didn’t say it, and that should be the end of it.

But it isn’t.

She tells me when we’re older, on the cusp of thirty-five, sitting on the couch in my lonely hotel room, drinking too much wine and remembering.

Tabitha tucks a strand of curly black hair behind her ear. The green polish on her nails is chipped. She takes a sip of the red—not the cheapest bottle at the grocery store, but pretty damn close. I refill my glass, even though there’s still plenty.

Tabby and I hardly have these moments now. Our high school years were filled with laughter and sleepovers, movie marathons and boozy prom nights. But life separated us afterwards. She left to live with her uptight Mormon father and his new family in Utah; I chose an east coast liberal arts school. Now she’s sixteen years and three kids into a disappointing marriage while I’m constantly on the move, following national Broadway tours and rigging up their lights.

Tabby unfurls her legs, stretching across the empty couch distance toward me. Her feet are bare, the polish on her toes faded. My own feet are in black socks, planted firmly on the worn hotel carpet.

Other afternoons like this, I’ve missed her, missed this closeness. I’ve had other friends since Tabby, some of the best I could’ve asked for to get me through wild college days. But not one has been like her.

My eyes trace the wavy pastels of the contrived art hanging on the wall behind her. Maybe it’s supposed to be a mountain, or a lake, or a bear. Maybe it doesn’t know what it is.

I don’t know how to talk to Tabby now. In high school, we had everything in common: overbearing immigrant mothers who jabbed at the fat around our hips, distant white fathers, Sunday school classes we ditched when they told us to keep ourselves pure for our future husbands. Secrets we kept for each other, secrets I’ve kept even all these years later.

But now, we only see our parents during the holidays as we struggle to remember the words of Christmas hymns. We abandoned church and Sunday school as soon as our parents couldn’t stop us. We are the same, but not. She hangs laundry; I hang lights.

She must sense the awkward quiet, too. Maybe that’s why she risks years of this delicate friendship and tells me.

“I loved you, you know.”

I’ve had too much wine. It’s soaked into the folds of my brain and tinged everything scarlet. The color of lust, longing.

That’s the only explanation for what I’ve misheard.

Tabby laughs and presses her lips back to the rim of her glass. “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve always told you you’re gorgeous.”

She has, it’s true. I assumed it was to counteract my mother’s words, her sniping comments that buried themselves like bullets in my gut. The ones that still ache in my belly when I have to shop for a new pair of black jeans ‘cause I’ve worn through the thighs of another pair.

I’ve always been sure that Tabby only meant the words as a kindness, but certainly not a sincere one. Best friends are meant to tell each other pretty lies if it’ll ease the pain.

“Cali? You good?”

She’s the only one who still calls me that: Cali. The name reeks of adolescence like a sweaty locker room. Only my mother called me Calista. Everyone else calls me Cal.

I snap back to her, back to the moment. I tip my glass, taking a long sip. “If we’re gonna talk about high school, I’m gonna need a lot more wine.”

She laughs again, the sound of church bells. “Looks like I’m spending the night!”

I smile as I pour out the last of this bottle. I have two more stashed in the kitchen.

I don’t say, I loved you, too.

Because, really, what’s the point in doing that? It doesn’t matter who I loved at sixteen, when I was desperate for acceptance and comfort. I’ve loved others since, more than I’ve bothered keeping count of. She has, too, and she’s been at Spencer’s side for the last, what, seventeen years?

No, it doesn’t matter who we loved before.

She must not do this often, split a bottle of wine and relax, because Tabby giggles like a schoolgirl and doesn’t let the topic go.

“God, we must have been in eleventh grade? I was just, like, obsessed with you.”

Eleventh grade. The year I spent fucking Bryce in his car until his girlfriend caught us. If I’d known that I had a shot with Tabby that same year, I would’ve left Bryce to fuck himself in his backseat.

“Wasn’t that the year you were pining after Frankie?”

Tabby shakes her head too quickly. “Frankie was actually the one I talked to about you.”

“No way. Frankie couldn’t keep secrets for shit.”

“He kept mine.”

I smirk and roll my eyes. I get up without a word to retrieve the next two bottles of wine. I hear Tabby adjust herself on the couch behind me, causing the well-worn springs to groan.

Of course I loved Tabby. I still love her, but maybe not in the same way. In high school, I loved her, but I shoved that shit down because I didn’t have a shot and maybe because some part of me still believed that some two thousand year old guy wouldn’t want me to love another girl. She was unobtainable and taboo then, but now…

Isn’t she still unobtainable?

I set the bottles down on the coffee table next to the empty. Tabby works the corkscrew to open the next one, and her wedding ring—a simple golden band that complements her bronze skin—glimmers faintly in the sunlight from the window. I don’t know what happened to the engagement ring Spencer bought her when she was eighteen and he was twenty, about to be deployed to the Middle East. Maybe she pawned it during one of their fights? Maybe it doesn’t fit her finger after the lingering weight of bearing three children?

I don’t ask. I don’t take its absence as a sign from the universe. She uncorks the next bottle and fills our glasses.

New bottle, new topic. I ask about Amy, her oldest. I don’t see her much, on account of all the traveling I do, but she calls me when she needs advice, and I’ve never forgotten to send her a birthday card. A crisp fifty dollar bill every March third.

She frowns around another sip. “Amy is now the same age we were back then.”

“Sixteen. God, I hope she’s not like us.”

“She is,” Tabby tells me, “but in all the right ways. Always has her nose in a book. I swear, she reads like three a week. The librarians all know her by name.”

“And Spencer is being overprotective when it comes to boys?”

She waves her hand at my words; this is a given. “She’s his baby. But I managed to sit her down, show her how to put a condom on a banana, all that. God knows that would’ve helped in high school.”

“Yeah, instead of just ‘keep your knees together, Jesus loves you.’”

“I wouldn’t have had that scare senior year if I’d been with you,” Tabby says.

Does she really have to keep circling back?

“Our parents just would’ve disowned us.” The last time I saw my mother, she still referred to Madison as my friend despite seeing her for three Christmases and then asked me why I couldn’t just settle down with a nice boy. I grinned and made some crude remark about really loving my neighbor.

Tabby smiles at me, the expression dripping with the easiness of the wine. “Would’ve been worth it.”

When she nudges my knee with her bare foot, her metallic blue toenails poke into my leggings, and I know she won’t be letting this go easily.

It’s summer. Utah is hot this time of year, dry and hot. She drove forty minutes to get to my hotel even after I offered to just go to her place, see the kids. See Spencer. I was relieved when she asked to come here instead, where I have the AC set low and don’t have to resist the urge to clap my hands over my ears when Thomas, her eight-year-old, demonstrates what he thinks a pterodactyl might sound like.

Her feet are bare, her legs are bare, her shoulders are bare. I don’t nudge her back. I don’t let my fingers linger. I don’t brush my thumb over the dark hairs on her shin, letting them prick the pads of my fingers like needles.

“Guess we’ll never know,” I mumble.

“I just thought you’d shoot me down. Not in a mean way, cuz you’re not mean like that, but it would’ve changed things. A lot.”

I don’t say, I wouldn’t have shot you down. I don’t say, I would’ve thrown my arms around you and kissed you. I don’t say, it would’ve changed things and it would’ve been amazing.

I shrug. “I was still working things out anyway. I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

This isn’t the response she wanted. “It would’ve been nice if you’d said yes.”

I don’t agree. I don’t wish that had been the reality. I don’t squeeze her hand.

Before I can find the right reply, she scoffs. “It wouldn’t have worked anyway, since we both left right after. I couldn’t have gone to school with you.”

I don’t say, we could’ve gone together. I don’t say, I would’ve stayed for you. I don’t say, we would’ve made it work.

“Yeah, you would’ve hated Amherst,” I say. “Lemme tell you, I went to school with some pretentious-as-fuck douche bags.

“I know, you told me all about them. At least, at first.” Her glass is empty again, just like that, then full as she tips over the bottle. “You never told me much after the first year.”

“You were married,” I tell her without thinking it through. “I didn’t wanna bother you with my single woes. You didn’t need my shit on your mind.”

“I would’ve welcomed the break! Especially when Spence was gone.”

His deployment lasted a year and a half. He missed Amy being born. I mean, I did too, but it’s not like she’s my kid. That was when I didn’t talk to Tabby much. She downed prenatal vitamins as I downed shots on weeknights.

God, our lives are different.

Her bare foot is still within reach, and almost unconsciously I wrap my hand around it press my thumb into the stiff muscles along the bottom. She flexes, her arch becoming more defined under my touch.

“Sometimes I wish I’d gone to college.”

“You’re just fine for not,” I say. “You guys are doing great.”

I don’t say, no you don’t. I don’t say, you just wish you’d had more time with me. I don’t say, you just wish you hadn’t found Spencer.

“I wouldn’t have found Spence,” she whispers. “I wouldn’t be here now.”

“Does Amy wanna go to college?”

She nods between sips. “Locally, though. She adores Nathan and Thomas. She doesn’t wanna be too far from them.”

I don’t say, Amy called me a couple of months ago. I don’t say, she was crying on the other end, sobbing. I don’t say, she hears you and Spencer fight and she’s so, so scared.

“How we’ll pay for it is a whole ‘nother question,” Tabby continues. “At least she wants a state school.”

I don’t say, Amy knows how much you both make. I don’t say, Amy wouldn’t dream of making you worry about her. I don’t say, I don’t know how Amy became so much like me.

“She’s smart,” I say. “There’s a million scholarships out there. Hell, I could help her apply. I wouldn’t have gone to Amherst without all the scholarships.”

Tabby smiles, placing her hand on mine. I still mindlessly rub her foot. “You always were smart like that.”

Our eyes meet, maybe for too long. I can never tell with Tabby. Everything seems natural with her. Even if I can’t tell her everything, the things that cut more deeply than they should, the things I don’t want to face. The things I want to protect her from.

I never told her about the abortion I had junior year of college. It seemed wrong when she had a toddler.

I never told her Madison broke up with me because I’d cheated again.

I never told her that I cried for three days straight after my mom died, because despite everything, I loved her and didn’t know what to do without her.

I never told her that once I called Spencer and accused him of being a worthless, cheating, redneck dumbass after he left the military with no plans or prospects, even when she called me relieved that he’d gone back.

I never told her I was in love with her in high school.

But maybe I should’ve told her more.

Tabby shifts on the couch so that she’s leaning against me, her head resting on my chest. I have no choice but to put my arms around her to keep my glass steady.

“Do you believe in soulmates, Cali?”

I don’t say, soulmates are for suckers. I don’t say, yes, and you’re mine. I don’t say, yes, and Spencer isn’t yours.

“I’m not sure,” I say. “Seems kinda fucked up that there would only be one other person meant for you. What if they die in a freak accident and you never find them?” What if you don’t know it’s them until it’s too late? What if they choose someone else?

I know she hasn’t listened when she mumbles, “Do you think Spence is mine?”

I don’t say, no. I don’t say, hell no. I don’t say, fuck no.

“You work very hard on your relationship.”

“Yeah, but is that enough?”

“Shouldn’t love be enough?”

“But it isn’t,” Tabby tells me. “It never is.”

Finally, I sigh. “What do you want me to say?”

She tilts her head so she’s looking up at me. “You care about me, right?”

More than I should. More than anything. More than Spencer does.

“Of course.” I run my fingers through her curls absentmindedly.

“And you care if I’m happy?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think Spence does. Not all the time.”

I don’t say, you’re right. I don’t say, of course he doesn’t. I don’t say, then leave him.

I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t be the reason her marriage ends.

“Is it bad that I still care if he’s happy, even if he doesn’t care about me?”

I hug her closer. “You’ve always been selfless like that.”

She doesn’t seem to notice that I don’t answer her question. But I notice when she reaches up and wipes a tear from her cheek.

Oh shit. Shit, shit, shit.

“I think he’s cheating on me again, Cali,” she whispers, quiet as a breath.

I place my empty wine glass on the coffee table next to hers. I don’t say, once a cheater… I don’t say, I told you so. I don’t say, I am so sorry.

I just pull her closer. I press a kiss onto the top of her head. A friendly gesture, the sort of affection we showed each other all the time in high school. I keep my lips there, against her curls, smell her pomegranate shampoo, shut my eyes, and wish.

I should’ve said something all those years ago. She should’ve said something, done something. Everything could’ve been different, but it’s too late to speak up now. We’ve both made promises, kept secrets.

Finally, she pulls away, sits up, and turns to me. She reaches to wipe away the multiplying tears, but I beat her to it, whisking them away with my thumb.

My hand lingers there on the side of her face, drifting down to her neck, her collarbone, her shoulder. Her sleeve smooths out beneath my touch.

I try no to wish for more than this. I try so, so hard.

“I think I need to leave him,” she croaks.

I don’t say, about fucking time. I don’t say, what about the kids? I don’t say, I’ll help you find a place to stay.

I pull Tabby close, resting my forehead against hers. She cries and cries, and now I understand why we are here, why we are not in her home, because it’s not her home anymore. I understand why she sounded so stiff on the phone, why her fingernails are jagged and bloody. I can picture her now, hiding in her closet, anxious teeth picking away at her nails as she realizes what her husband has done, as she regrets that he is the one she vowed to cherish.

I suppose, in the end, I’m not the reason her marriage ends. Spencer has done that all on his own.

I don’t cry with her. I don’t refill our wine glasses. I don’t stop her when she leans into me again, pulling her legs into my lap and burying her face in the crook of my neck as she sobs, like this grief trapped inside of her has finally broken free.

Tabby is my best friend, and this is what best friends do. We tell each other pretty lies, and when there are no more lies to tell, we help each other face the truth, no matter how horrible it might be.

Tabby wraps her arms around me. She cries harder than I’ve ever seen her cry. She doesn’t say, I love you, Cali. She doesn’t say, thank you for being a better partner than Spence ever was, Cali. She doesn’t say, it should’ve been you, Cali, it was always you. Always.

She doesn’t say it and I don’t say it. We don’t need to.

In this moment, we understand each other perfectly.

Belinda McCauley lives in Los Angeles with her spouse and cat and recently received her MFA from Lindenwood University. Her work has previous been published in Barnhouse Literary Journal and the Dark River Review.

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