Milo stopped at floor 13 to catch his breath. This was the point where that bubbling storm usually zoomed into overdrive in his throat, trembling with photographs of Jess decked out in dog slobber and mud, singing with her midnight Carla Bruni voice until he feared his own mouth would open to release a chorus of butterflies.
He stopped again at floor 20. Usually his surfing muscles would take him all the way to Jess’s place without any stops, but today he found himself heaving, bracing his hands against his iron legs so the world would stop spinning in a sweaty whirlpool as it seemed to want to do to him right now.
Milo reached into his satchel and pulled out the small velvet box. Was it cliché? Jess hated roses and chocolates… well, it was too late now. He’d already made it 2/3 of the way up, and he wasn’t sure he could ever get down again if he didn’t see her.
Thirtieth floor. Let’s rock this. Or whatever.
Before Milo could ring the dusty bell, the door swept open. Jess was in the halfway stages of her mandolin-day makeup, meaning one eye already had gold eyeshadow and rhinestones while the other, unadorned, looked like it had been scraped dry of tears.
“Hey.” Milo shot her his best smile, the one she’d said was like a Renaissance cherub’s. “You look beautiful.”
“You always say that.” Jess didn’t step back to let him in. “I knew you were going to say that. I’ve known for hours that you were coming here.”
Milo’s heart dropped. Had one of the chatty ladies at Macy’s tipped her off about his plans for this afternoon (and eternity thereafter?)
Jess scratched underneath her plain eye. “Listen, Milo, this is going to be as hard for me – no, harder – look, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Milo moved to caress her arm.
She caught her breath and pulled her towel around herself protectively, as if afraid of his (very tightly under-control) animal instincts.
His arm fell to his side. “It’s going to be okay. I’m sure of it. You can tell me anything – you’re pregnant with tabby kittens, you bought stock in VCR technology, you murdered that landlord… whatever it is, I’m on your side.” Too bad he couldn’t actually be by her side.
From her deep brown eyes, an ice laser seemed to be trained on his chest, ready to strike at the slightest wrong move. Tears raged in her trembling coral lips, yet her eyes stayed desert-dry.”Okay,” Jess sighed finally. “Here goes. I have decided to end our relationship.”
The butterflies in his throat were chewing his vocal cords. “What?” he managed to croak.
“Completely and immediately,” Jess qualified. “I will not see you, you may not call me – I’m going to change my number on Monday, and maybe even find a new roommate -”
“Gosh, are you sure that’s what you really want, Jess? I kinda thought we were happy together.” How had he failed to realize that he wasn’t satisfying some vital emotional need of hers? He’d really thought it was going well…
“I’m changing my address,” Jess continued, “so don’t even try to send me a letter. Not even a makeup gift set or anything. And if you put a song about me on the radio again…”
“I thought you liked ‘My Mona Lisa.’ No one knows it’s about you except us…” Milo’s hand gripped the box inside his satchel. Finally, like a slingshot, his hand swept it out of hiding. With a flourish, he whipped off the tourmaline ribbon, allowing it to pop open and reveal the treasure inside.
Jess’s hands went to her face. “Oh, no, no, no… you shouldn’t have… Milo, I’ve needed to tell you this for fourteen years now… ”
“What? Angel, if you aren’t going to confirm my right to joy in life at least tell me what is this terrible secret that’s causing you to hurt yourself and me like this all of a sudden on a perfectly good Friday.”
“Okay. Listen.” The gold eyeshadow was now finger-painted in slashes down her cheek, rhinestones sinking toward her chin. “We can never be together because you aren’t real.”
Milo didn’t know what to say to that one. Maybe she needed to see a psychologist…?
“It’s true,” she insisted. “I made you up. I know it because I still have the journal. Here, I found it…” She grabbed a ragged lavender book from the pile of knickknacks by the doorframe. “Read this.”
Following the direction of her sparkling quartz fingernail, he begin to decipher the black ink scrawl: Milo is a sixteen-year-old popular boy who secretly likes to design dresses for his little sister’s dolls. Favorite ice cream: passionfruit sorbet. He loves me because I am the only woman alive who can satisfy his sexual and intellectual desires and he writes songs about me that they play on the radio.
Hands shaking, he steeled himself to meet those dark eyes. “How did you know all this? Are you serious?” He glanced back down at the date of the diary entry: his birthday fourteen years ago exactly. “You created me?”
Jess took in a shaky breath. “I was lonely, okay? You know what it’s like – well, maybe you don’t – being thirteen, never getting invited to parties, getting called pizza-face in the hallway, getting stink bombs thrown at you during your Beethoven solo… I needed something to look forward to. I had no idea I was really going to create a person, with needs and feelings and… I’m sorry.”
“Hey, I’m glad it played out the way it did. Wow, I’m literally alive because of your love. Don’t you think that says something about us?” Unable to hold back, he caught her clasped hands in his.
She melted into him, quick as the last glacier. “Yes,” she moaned. “Yes, it says something about us for sure. It says that I need to graduate from teenager to grown-up, focus on work, and maybe one day have a real career. It says that I’ve been holding myself back all of this time for a dream, for the illusion of some perfect happy ending that would just appear without any exceptional talent or hard work on my part. It says – ”
Her eyes suddenly burning with cold mirth, she pushed herself roughly out of his arms. “Look, you’re not real, okay? I can’t really hurt your feelings. I’m just hurting my own feelings.” She sniffled. Stepped back toward the door. “If I just start ignoring you, this will all go away. No more pain for you. No more disappointment for me.” She backed behind the door, which drifted slowly toward shut, just a sliver of her pale face visible.
Milo motioned for her to wait. “Please, take this.” He knelt on the grimy floor, holding up the velvet box like a sacred offering. “So you can remember your dreams. So I can honor my part in them faithfully.”
The door slammed closed. That last glimpse of her ebony eye ringed with gold echoed in his mind’s eye. He couldn’t blink her away.
As he started down the stairs, trying to think of something to do with the rest of the weekend to distract himself, it became hard to distinguish what was physically there from what was in his imagination. He could have sworn he saw a glimmer of fairy dust disappearing behind the banister between floor 18 and 17. Around floor 10, in the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of a unicorn prancing matter-of-factly among the regular traffic.
He wasn’t real. How sad. Such a virtuoso, such a magical woman had gone crazy, and he had failed to revive her sanity. Too bad none of his therapist friends would be available before Tuesday…
Around the third floor from the street, Milo nearly tripped down the stairs. Or – he lost his footing, somehow. More precisely, his feet ceased to be, ceased to channel the gravity of his body onto the steps. He felt he was floating from the knees up on nothing. He opened his mouth to say “What the…” but nothing came out, so he tried to close his mouth, but he couldn’t feel his lips and there was no jaw to move. Breeze swam through, around, over him, unheeding his form, not moving through his lungs, yet the terror of suffocation didn’t grasp his throat – it was as if he didn’t need air. No, it was as if he was air.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Milo chastened aloud. “She needs you now more than ever. You’re much too strong to be cracking up like this.”
After a refreshing wave of Gatorade to the forehead, Milo slid down the next three flights of rusty banister, enjoying the grating of chipped paint against the fraying seat of his Levi’s. When he reached street level, he took in a sweet breath of municipal flowerbeds and road rage, stepped on every crack in the sidewalk, and mounted his trusty bicycle. He didn’t know where he was going exactly, but when it came to saving Jess’s life he always managed to find a foolproof plan.
When he came back hours later to search for the ring box he’d apparently dropped before taking off, it would be gone, disappeared without a trace.
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