Rafael lingered beneath a burned-out street lamp across the street from the party. His feet had brought him this far, but would neither allow him to move on, nor carry him back to a lonely apartment.
Partygoers spilled out of the bungalow. They overflowed the porch onto the front yard, corralled by an unpainted picket fence. They drank from plastic cups, and shouted over the pulse of music no one listened to.
It was the same house, the same birthday bash, where he’d met Leila last year.
Sable hair and a tight, sunny dress captured his attention. A megawatt smile blistered his heart.
They both liked Sondheim. They both read history for fun. They knew the same local bands. It was amazing they hadn’t met before, but neither went out much anymore. Her boyfriend preferred to stay in. So did Rafael’s girlfriend. They both were here alone.
The subject extinguished her smile. A line from Into the Woods rekindled it.
The din of the party chased them outside, to an isolated corner of the yard where they talked until, boyfriend and girlfriend forgotten, their heads drew close. Their lips met.
“I want to see you again,” he said.
She laughed. “It was only a kiss.”
“And this is only another.”
The second kiss led to a third, which led to more. They met in secret for weeks until the cold morning when they realized they could not lie anymore. He broke up with his, she broke up with hers, and they moved into an apartment half a mile from the place where they’d met.
The thought shattered his reverie.
He should go to the party. People expected him. But he dreaded the inevitable question:
“How are you doing?”
They would emphasize the last word, furrow their brows in a show of sympathy. And he would have to say, “I’m fine,” so that they could go on enjoying the party.
If he didn’t go, it would only postpone the questioning until Monday. It would be easier in the dark.
He inhaled deep into his gut. Squared his shoulders. Get over there. Get a drink. Talk to people you don’t know. You’ll be fine.
He was about to step off the curb when the approaching tock-tock of high heels on the concrete sidewalk chased him back into the shadows. Halfway down the block, a couple, arm in arm, headed for the party. The woman spotted him. Slowed. Tugged on her partner’s arm.
“Let’s cross here.”
In the street, one of her heels caught in the brick pavement and she stumbled. Her man steadied her. They stood frozen for a moment, their gazes locked. He lowered his head. Their lips met.
Rafael’s breath liquefied in his lungs. He steadied himself against the dead lamp post and closed his eyes.
It was only a kiss.
He had told Leila that, last month, in response to her teary confession. It didn’t have to mean anything. They could work it out.
“We can’t.” Blue eyes shimmered, rimmed in red. “I’m sorry. He wants me back, Rafael. I have to give him another chance. I — ”
“Don’t say it.”
“I still love him.”
He had felt as though the floor crumbled away beneath his feet. Sometimes, he still felt like his next step would be onto open air.
He wasn’t ready for this. To go to that party, to be among couples, happy or not. He couldn’t. But he couldn’t go back home, either. He drew a deep breath.
He would wait a little while longer.