“You should do what you want to do, Rudi.”
“What do you mean?” he asked dully.
I stared at him for a while; willed him to understand that I don’t have an option; that he doesn’t have an option. Because while I love him; and he loves me, we love Lucy more.
“I don’t want to marry you.”
Rudi finally lifted his head and looked at me. His eyes were wide, disbelieving. But, I had a new found clarity from that day when Rudi gave himself up for a murder he didn’t commit. I realized I could always read him as well as Lucy could. But, I had wilfully closed my eyes and refused to.
He opened his mouth as if about to speak and closed it again without saying a word. I could see his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he gulped. He was trying to swallow the lump in his throat, I know that now. Just like I know that under all those layers of guilt, he’s actually relieved. And grateful.
I nodded to him. “It’s ok,” I said and moved forward to hug him, “It’s ok, I understand.” I whispered into his hair.
I could just feel the wetness from his tears on my shoulder as he clutched me tight and cried. I could just make out his lips mouthing “I’m sorry” over and over again. A lump settled in my throat at the thought of letting go of all those plans I had made for my future. But, I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to spoil the moment by crying and feeling scared. I wanted to be strong, for Rudi, for Lucy, in return for all those times when they were strong for me.
After a long moment, we let go of each other and Rudi dried his eyes.
“I’ll be visiting Lucy tomorrow,” I said, “You can join me if you want.”
Rudi raised bloodshot eyes to me and shook his head decisively.
I sighed, “I understand,” I waited for him to look at me again, “I hope one day, we can visit her together,” I said.
A ghost of a smile flitted across his face and I sighed again.
“I’ve got to go now,” I stood up and smiled at my ex-fiancé, “I believe this is yours?” I held out his mother’s old ring. He made no move to take it from me. I waited a moment before I made to just place it in front of him.
“Keep it,” he finally spoke up, “I won’t give it to..” his voice cracked, “..to anyone else.”
With a sigh, I dropped the ring into my pocket and turned away.
“Dee! I…” I turned back to the guy who was once my fiancé and always my friend, “Thank you…” his eyes were full of tears threatening to fall, his lips were stretched with the effort it took to smile, but, in every line of his face, I could see the gratitude that he meant to convey in those two little words.
And when I walked out of that door that day, into a future that was nowhere as decided as it was less than a week ago, I carried away with me two things- a new found sense of clarity and the memory of that gratitude.
“You should do what you want to do, Lucy.”
“What do you mean?” she asked dully.
I got up from the uncomfortable visitors’ seat at the prison, moved around so that I was as close as I could possibly get to her and went down on one knee.
“Marry me, Lu-Lu-Lucy?” I tilted my head in what I thought would be a charming manner, but, even that couldn’t disguise the desperation evident in my voice.
Lucy gave me a startled look and shot up from her chair. Prison guards surrounding the area took a step forward; for me, time seemed to have come to a standstill as I awaited her answer.
“Are you out of your mind, Rudi?” and that snapped me out of it.
“Wh,,what?” I looked at her, confusion, hurt and a myriad of other feelings waging a war in my chest.
“I said, are you out of your mind?” Lucy repeated, her eyes boring into me. “For heavens’ sake, get back to your chair!”
I got up in daze and sat back down. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t. I thought…she said no…doesn’t she love me anymore? What did I do? Did I do something wrong? Doesn’t she…
“Don’t you love me anymore?” I heard myself asking.
“I do! I do love you!” tears were pooling in her eyes, rolling down her cheeks. None of this was making any sense to me. With a visible effort, Lucy brought herself back under control.
“Rudi, listen to me,” she put her hands towards me, “I love you. I do and I probably always will. But, I…I killed a person, Rudi! When I was in love with you and when I loved Dee, I still killed a person! I can’t…I don’t…don’t deserve this. I can’t handle this…”
“Lucy, I don’t care!” I whispered furiously, “I don’t care that you killed someone. I still love you and it makes no difference to me!”
“Then, it should!” she snapped, “You should care! I do, Rudi. It’s been two years and I’m yet to sleep a night without dreaming about it. I care because whether I meant to or not, I did take a life and I had no right to do that!”
I opened my mouth to argue with her, reassure her, but she continued before I could get a word out.
“Rudi, don’t try to reassure me about this. What I did was beyond despicable and I deserve to feel the guilt for it. I deserve to live with that guilt. And I deserve to work through that guilt at my own pace and on my own terms. You putting a ring on my finger or declaring your love for me won’t make this magically ok. I need to take my time and I need to do my thing. And you need to get away from me.”
“I…I can wait. I will wait for you,” I asserted.
“No, Rudi, I can see the toll I’m taking on you. In fact, I’ve always taken a toll on you, haven’t I?” she smiled, a sad, bittersweet smile, “How much longer will you feel guilty for me, Rudi?” her eyes searched mine with the same honesty as they always did and suddenly, I couldn’t meet her eyes anymore.
In that moment of looking down at my clenched fists clutching at a ring, it felt like a curtain had been lifted in my mind. All of sudden, so many things made sense to me and I could relish a new found sense of clarity. All of a sudden, the silence between us stopped being awkward and I felt like we were back in college, on that leaf-covered walkway, sitting across from each other stubbornly until one of us gives up and spills the secret.
And so, I spilled my secret, “I haven’t written in two years,” I whisper, “I couldn’t.”
“Then, maybe now it’s time to try again. Maybe, this time you can,” my best friend smiled at me from across the table, dressed in prison clothes, yet, looking for all the world more comfortable in her own skin than I was.
“I can’t visit you anymore, can I?”
“Rudi, I’ve always been honest with you. I’ll go back to my cell after you leave and bawl my eyes out. Because, you and Dee were the light at the end of my tunnel and I’ve succeeded in driving you both away. But, in spite of that, it’s the right thing to do. We’ve had each other’s backs for so long. Now, it’s time for us to heal away from each other. It’s time to heal from each other. I love you, Rudi, but, no, you can’t visit me anymore.”
I sigh and swallow. I suppress that voice in my head which is questioning how a friendship so strong could be derailed so easily. I tell that voice, we haven’t derailed. We’re just taking a detour and one day, we’ll be back on track. One day, when we won’t mistake guilt for love; one day, when we can draw the line between friendship and love; one day, when our pieces are all put together and all our own, then, we’ll be back on track.
Until then, I put the ring back in my pocket and walk out of my best friend’s life.
“Thank you…” I hear on my way out and when I look back, I see Lucy’s eyes full of tears threatening to fall, her lips stretched with the effort it took to smile, but, in every line of her face, I see the gratitude that she meant to convey in those two little words.
And when I walked out of that door that day, into a future that is nowhere as decided as it was two years ago, I carried away with me two things- a new found sense of clarity and the memory of that gratitude.
It’s been 2 years since I heard from Dee. She didn’t agree to walk out of my life as easily as Rudi did. It took a year for me to convince her. That night I contemplated cutting my wrists on the sharp piece of rock jutting out of the wall of my cell.
It’s been 3 years since I talked to Rudi. The last I heard from him was when he proposed to me. Saying no to him was the hardest thing I’d ever done and it broke my heart into a million little pieces.
It’s been 5 years since I killed a person. Today, my sentence comes to an end. By tonight, I’ll be released into the free world again.
I’m scared out of my mind.
They tell me there are re-integration groups outside that’ll help me. They tell me that life for “ex-cons” is not as difficult as it used to be. They tell me a lot of things. But, all I can think about is when I walk out, there will be nobody there to meet me. I’ll walk out all alone. Because I am all alone. All I can think about is, today, I miss my friends more than I’d ever missed them. Today, I wish they were with me.
They aren’t though and I’m alone.
I’ve been clutching this little bag to me and staring at that open gate for more than 10 minutes now and the guard is warning me that if I don’t walk out, they might just put me in for another five years. I’m willing my legs to move. I really am. But, oh dear God! I want to curl up in that exact spot and cry and cry and cry.
“Are you Lucy?” a uniformed guard from outside the gate is peeping in and asking the question.
“I…” I swallow and clear my throat, “yes, I’m Lucy,” I reply softly.
“Well, what are you waiting here for? Your friends are outside asking for you!”
“M..my friends?” I clutch my bag even tighter and a ringing begins in my ears.
“Yes! Get a move on, then!”
I remember one night after dad died. I stood staring at Dee with my book clutched to my chest until she took my hand in hers and dragged me out. I remember the size and feel of her hand in mine, the exact of weight of it, the exact fit of her hand in mine and suddenly, I feel like she’s back in front me, grabbing my hand in hers and pulling me forward. My feet finally come unstuck and start moving. I’m walking again; I’m stepping over the gate, over the threshold; I’m out of there; I’m out of the prison and out in the world; and there…there are my friends- Dee, Rudi! Standing beside the car; waving to me!
The next moment, Dee is flying at me, her arms wide open, Rudi right behind her. I’m enveloped in her hug, in Rudi’s scent and in that moment, I’m so overwhelmed, my knees buckle, I’m bawling like a baby and as the ground comes up to meet me, my friends catch me and keep me upright. Like they have for most of my life.
I thanked every star in the sky that day for that moment of clarity, for that realization that no matter how much I push them away, they’ll always have my back, for that chance at a new beginning with old friends, to make my amends and give back what they’ve given me. For my friends, I thanked every star in the sky and every star in the whole wide universe.
And it still wasn’t enough.
Thank you for reading!