Fancy-Free by Rebecca Clingman
She kissed him on the side of his wrist, in the little hollow made by the bone by the thumb. It was her favorite spot to kiss, and until tonight it had cost her dearly every time she did it. But here in the dark, it was a useless trinket she felt safe taking freely, now that she was running away. He murmured in contentment. Only in sleep did he betray any sign of comfort at her touch. So, she did it again, now feeling generous, before gingerly moving his arm up and off over her shoulder. This was the first taste of freedom.
He stirred. She lifted her torso off the bed, twisting away from the lithe body beside her, willing the mattress not to squeak. She could imagine a different scenario, a different plan. In a parallel universe, the mattress would squeak, and he would wake up. She would tell him to go back to sleep, but he would refuse, pressing her (at last!) for what was wrong. The lamp would go on. He would persuade her to stay, and she would be glad of it—and if he didn’t, which realistically is what would happen, she’d be offended. But still, even then, she wouldn’t leave right away. Fuming silently in the dark, she would have to formulate another escape plan--like this one. She’d end up here sooner or later. So. Besides, in another parallel universe she could be already long gone, away and across the highway, just the way she’d come.
In the dark, savoring the suspense of the here-and-now, she smiled. Then, halfway off the bed, she realized she didn’t know where her purse was, nor her phone. In fact, she realized with a start, her phone was plugged into his charger on the wall. No way would she be able to fumble silently in the dark to retrieve it. Could she live without her phone? Because no way would she contact him again to get it. No point in an escape like that. But she’d need her phone, so she felt around along the headboard as quietly as she could until her fingers brushed a cord. They walked up along it, until they gripped the head of the charger and pushed against the tension of her thumb at the base of the phone. One… two… three! She tugged it free, and it lit up. This was the second taste of freedom.
He stirred again, groping in the dark to find her. A deadweight arm flopped over her lap. Oh no. Would his dreaming mind know that it was her lap and not her supine waist that he was feeling? And therefore know that she was sitting up? In daylight, usually it was her snatching at his waist and hands, just trying to claim a bit of his body. And if it was him sneaking off in the middle of the night, she’d know it was his lap she was feeling, right away, and she would know he was leaving. Luckily, he didn’t know her quite like that. He stayed asleep.
Phone in hand, she was ready to go. It was time. She affectionately pressed her free palm on to the back of his arm, and caressed it, lightly at first, and then more firmly. Then she wrapped her fingers under his wrist and held them there, waiting to let his body get used to the sensation without waking up. He was used to the feel of her hand, even if he wouldn’t have said as much. Sometimes, when she took his hand, he seemed not to notice hers was even there, and he’d shake it off like an irritated dog when it suddenly became too much. Now, she slowly—but firmly, firmly—must keep her movements natural—lifted his wrist off her thighs and replaced it on the pillow by his head, as she stood up off the bed. Seamless.
Somehow the next few moments of held breath--and finding her purse strap on the chair, and turning the bedroom doorknob silently, and opening the door, and turning the knob again, and closing the door, and walking toe-heel like a ballerina to the exterior door, and doing the same thing with that knob—it all whooshed by as her heart raced. You thief! She told herself gleefully, as she finally faced the night air. No feeling as good as fleeing. She couldn’t wait never to see him again. This was the third taste of freedom. She’d been waiting for this the whole time, she told herself. Waiting in the shadows to pull the rug out from under him. Although, to be fair, she hadn’t decided to do it until she woke up in the middle of this night.
But she knew, from a study she’d read, that men take longer to process heartbreak. She’d had hers already; she’d been having it almost the entire time she’d known him, whereas until now he’d felt just fine. And sure, several hours from now, when he woke up with her gone, he’d shrug the whole thing off, and he’d feel ok. Until, she thought, walking quickly down the cold sidewalk in her bare feet, around a month from now. According to the study, that’s when heartbreak hits men like an 18-wheeler. She’d be long gone by then. Still living no more than 15 minutes away from him, she’d be long gone, footloose and fancy-free. Maybe by then she’d even be plotting her next escape from a new man, now she knew how good it felt.
Five weeks later, she still hadn’t heard from him. She’d ghosted on a ghost, it seemed. Almost without realizing she was doing it, she began to divert her daily walking route to skirt his neighborhood. She was temping fate to put him in her path. When it didn’t, she decided to meet it halfway.
One afternoon, she felt brave enough to actually pass by his house. She wore sunglasses and a new sunhat so that if he was on his porch, as he often was, she could see without being seen. After 15 minutes of walking from her place—Will he? Won’t he? Will he? Won’t he?--she approached the house, walking on the far-side sidewalk. She slipped earbuds into her ears, but no music. Her steps were careful, like he was an animal that she risked startling away.
A plan formulated itself. If he was there on the porch, she wanted to see his face before he saw her. She’d absorb that view, stretching the moment as long as possible. Then she would in some way reveal herself—take off the hat or the glasses, and look up. Nonchalantly, of course, like it was all a big coincidence. Then, she’d have just a split-second to enjoy the sight of his surprise. She’d come to see evidence of the heartbreak that had surely hit him by now. But she knew that if she wanted it, she’d have to steal it, and it would be fleeting. A moment would be all she’d get at best. Too bad she probably wouldn’t be able to take a photo.
Fate was now on her side: as she drew closer to the house, there was indeed a figure on the porch, unmistakably his. That was the body she’d fled. But then, in her peripheral vision, she saw him stand up before she could really get a good look at him, and she panicked. Did he really know her gait as well as that? How? When had he really watched her walk? How did he know? She had missed her chance, just like that. If there was heartbreak to see on his face, she’d completely missed it.
“HEY!” he shouted from across the street. She jumped like a rabbit. He had the nerve to smile. “HEY, LOOK, IT’S OK. I’M NOT—YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE EMBARRASSED OR WHATEVER. LIKE, HEY—WHY DON’T YOU CROSS THE STREET?” No forgiving him for this. Later she’d build herself back up, but for now, truly, he had ruined everything. She tipped the brim of her hat down lower, turned and walked away as quickly as she could without running. She didn’t hear him say anything else. You can’t escape the same person twice.