Before We Were Almost Lovers
by A.K. Benninghofen
We showed each other pictures of our kids. The girl is my favorite, you said, I can’t help it. It’s true.
Before we were almost lovers we talked about where we were from. We found the six degrees that separated us and longed to shrink that number to none.
Before we were almost lovers I felt you watching me. Or maybe it was your friend. Or maybe I imagined it or wished it. Or willed it. I thought too much about what I would wear when I was going to see you, you were going to see me. Before we were almost lovers we laughed a lot. Didn’t we? I think we did. It seems like we laughed a lot. We drank too much before we were almost lovers. We wanted to impair our judgment.
Before we were almost lovers I dreamt you faxed me a fortune. From a cookie. I don’t know what it said, I only know that the arrival of this tiny strip of paper made me feel so … well … fortunate.
Before we were almost lovers your dimples begged me to dip my pinky in. I counted your freckles. I imagined lifting your arm above your head, kissing the underside of your bicep like the smooth belly of a fish. Before we were almost lovers you said, I promise I will not have sex with you. It is the sexiest thing I have ever heard.
Before we were almost lovers I flipped through glossy lifestyle magazines collecting pictures of things that might make me happier, make me better, smarter, prettier. You were not in any of them. There were no images of you for me to cut out.
Before we were almost lovers we almost talked about God. Almost. We talked about a chapel made of sea glass, we talked about gospel music, we talked about smoking pot and first kisses and ice hockey and poetry and past lives and body piercings. We did not talk about politics. Organic gardening. Marriage. We did not talk about God.
Before we were almost lovers we played at being a couple. You got me a drink, found me a chair. Someone said be careful. You said people should be discreet. Before we were almost lovers I told you I wanted to be led. You could not take my hand but you pulled me along just the same. You touched my fingers and I fell in after you like a dog.
Before we were almost lovers words like ache and yearn and desire were left scrawled on pages of my teenage diaries with hearts drawn in the margins, shut in with a flimsy metal lock, the tiny key tied around the neck of some stuffed animal gone long ago to Goodwill.
Before we were almost lovers we took pictures of each other with someone else’s camera. Look. Smile. Stay.
Before we were almost lovers I listened to your band. I hoped you’d be terrible because that would surely put an end to the whole almost thing. But you were a songbird. A rock star.
Before we were almost lovers I liked your shirt. You liked my voice. Casual compliments were our currency. I thought we would live in subtle innuendo. Set up camp there and leave the rest to our dreams. We would never see each other again, we would wonder from afar if we were having the same impure thoughts.
Before we were almost lovers I was trained in contentment. Electricity is overrated, I told myself before we were almost lovers. But my shadow self followed me around whispering, Is this all there is?
Before we were almost lovers I did not dwell in possibility. I did not feel the waistband of my cut-off jeans grazing my hips when I walked. I did not confuse lust for a miracle. I did not know I was bored. I did not think about what it would be like after, before we were almost lovers.
Before we were almost lovers my shower massager played the roles of nameless, faceless people. A shoe salesman. A bag boy. A woman. My husband played those roles, too, though he didn’t know it.
Before we were almost lovers every song on the radio was not about me. None of the songs on the radio were about me anymore. I was getting old before we were almost lovers. No one knew it but me.
Before we were almost lovers you thought it would be fast and furious and over before we could think too much about it. But I knew it would be tender. Slow and tender, and so much more painful.
Before we were almost lovers I practiced saying no. Continually moving the line not to be crossed, inching it away and reeling it back again. Before we were almost lovers I did not think almost would count. Horseshoes and hand grenades, and this. This counts.
Before we were almost lovers I knew you would say I’m sorry. I knew you’d have to say it. It’s part of the script and cannot be left out. I hoped to hell you wouldn’t. Hoped you’d leave it to be understood. I hoped you wouldn’t say it, but I knew you would. I knew you’d say it even though you wouldn’t mean it. You wouldn’t mean it, I knew, because you wouldn’t be. We would not be.
A.K. Benninghofen grew up in Indianola, Mississippi, and lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband and children. She was a fiction contributor at the 2011 Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has enjoyed residencies at Wildacres Retreat, The Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities and The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts & Sciences. Her work has appeared in Evergreen Review, Connotation Press, Necessary Fiction (where this story originally appeared) and Monkeybicycle. Currently, she is working on her first book, a collection of linked short stories about a fictional town in the Mississippi Delta.