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XANDER
 Posted: Mar 24 2018, 08:13 PM
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To be diagnosed with love was one thing, but to admit the disease itself was another burden entirely. At first Zelda determined to keep it to herself, finding the situation absurd and doomed and the kind of thing she should sort out on her own. Then she pivoted, deciding that a true practice of self-acceptance demanded that she present her feelings to the people that knew her, at the very least. Friendship is a continuous event, where we are repeatedly baptized in the waters of someone's favor and understanding; the water can be cold and discouraging, but the process remains necessary. Thus Zelda admitted, not just to herself, but to her friends, I'm in love with him. She felt crazy saying it. She kept thinking of Roisin, who had not spoken to her in over two years, and doubting her own feelings. But when she said it, I love him, it felt true. It felt like saying the sky was blue.

She did not consider telling Troy - at least not right away. She imagined that she would live with her diagnosis as long as she could stand, perhaps six months, and then confess in an inappropriate, melodramatic way. They would hike to the top of a mountain, and she would tell him there, and then she would make him walk down ahead of her so she could cry alone. She imagined these things vividly, lying in her bed at night. She brought herself near to tears painting the pictures. She practiced breaking her own heart, not because it would make the actual happening of it any easier, but because she enjoyed the false sense of preparation, the illusion that she had some control. She knew that whatever happened, it would not end up anything like climbing a mountain and crying on top of it. Preoccupying herself with the pain before it happened only made her unhappy. Zelda did not know how to stop.

She told the story of loving Troy over and over, watching the reactions of her listeners and taking silent notes. Some of her friends were bold enough to say what they really thought, to question whether she just wanted something she wasn't supposed to have, whether she wasn't deliberately setting herself up for trouble, for the thrill of it. Some contained themselves to wincing and half-hearted encouragement. There was one, however, who took her to task - for deception, for hiding, for insincerity. Mateo challenged her definition of love itself - was it love if she couldn't stand to be genuine? Could she truly desire intimacy while concealing something so important? She argued with Mateo passionately; she hated him. She was, however, the type of person that conceded her positions in the face of superior arguments. She valued her own judgment, certainly, but more than anything she valued uncompromising reason. Many people pretended to favor reason, but under the threat of self-inflicted pain, preferred foolishness. Zelda felt that pain was the cost of being an acolyte of reason. Mateo's accusations pained her, but, that did not mean he was wrong. She searched for an escape from his argument, but could fine none.

She would have to tell Troy she was in love with him.

*

She considered various methods: first, a letter. She drafted one. It exceeded two-thousand words. She declined to reveal that excess.

Barring a letter, she had to tell him in person. They agreed to see a movie. She planned how it would go: she would return his sweater and the book she borrowed, even though that would seem awkward, as one usually returns things at the end of a meeting, not the beginning. Then they would see the movie. It would be dark and quiet; the movie could distract her for a while. She would savor their last moments. Then, in the parking lot, she would tell him. She wrote out a seven sentence confession, and memorized it.

Troy texted her a few hours before the movie. He was too tired from work, he said. Rain check?

Zelda could not decide whether to be relieved or infuriated. 'Are you sure?' she asked him.

Yes, he was sure.

'All right.' She paused. This could give her more time to think, if she was determined to tell him in person. Zelda felt like she had been waiting for her own execution. She wanted to die. She added, 'There's something I need to talk to you about.'

'Lol. Should I be anxious?'

'No, I'm the one who's anxious.' She declined to elaborate further.

She called him, after he got home from work. She read her seven sentences off her note card. She had strong feelings, and she cared about him as more than a friend. She wasn't expecting him to say or do anything in response - she was just trying to be genuine. She was sorry for not acknowledging his feelings at the Christmas party, for ignoring them for her own convenience. She hoped they could still be friends. She said and she felt the weight of uncertainty leave her. She waited for the weight of pain.

Troy told her that she was brave, that he was grateful for her telling him, that of course they could still be friends. He rambled; he said he had feelings for her too. When she heard him say that, she did not know what to think or say. She recognized a threat to their truce. Instinctively, she snatched at his words, crushing them in her fist as if catching a mosquito: 'But you have a girlfriend. So, maybe if things change in the future.' He didn't answer. He asked her to come over the next day. She accepted.

She came over to his apartment, and he cooked dinner for her. Zelda was struck by how things felt exactly the same. She sat at the kitchen island, drinking whatever expensive scotch or tequila had emerge from the liquor cabinet. She asked about his work; they argued about some political piece they'd read the day before. In fact, the sameness made her suspicious, because things were not the same, could not possibly be the same - and yet, the conspiracy remained unbroken. They played darts on his balcony; she beat him.

Zelda felt she had increased her own mobility and power in confessing. She was ready to run, leap, build, break - whatever the future held. The sameness of things was stifling. That, and she realized she thought Troy should be afraid. Troy should be afraid of her, and of himself. He should be afraid of what they might do.

Troy was not afraid, and Zelda could not contain herself within their old mold; she was too selfish to be a true paragon of morality. She let him wrap his arms around her as she read the headlines of news articles off her phone; she let him kiss the top of her head without comment. Zelda had unleashed her burden upon him, and it was only fair to let him learn to shoulder it in his own way.

But he should be afraid. She could not shake it from her mind, but she had not the strength to consider what, if not fear, propelled him.

*

Madness - that was what pressed Troy forwards, Zelda learned. Love as madness - he came over to her house before they went to the bars downtown, and offered her ecstasy. 'A friend couldn't bring it on a plane,' he told her, by way of explanation, as if that sanctioned his offer in any way. In retrospect, it was an extremely obvious plot device, the kind that would have felt cliche to write. Only two weeks ago they had done acid, and she had danced around his apartment, turned off his sad music, and quoted lines from a monster character from a TV show. 'I'm going to tell on you,' he threatened, and he halfway did, calling his girlfriend while they were high and repeating her monster threats. Back then, Zelda had thought that he didn't know enough to tell on her properly, that she really was the monster. Troy reported that Maxine didn't sound too interested in saving him.

Now, here he was, with more drugs. First she said no, but a very watered-down sort of no, the kind of no that betrayed her doubts. When he asked again, fifteen minutes later, she said, 'Fine, but when I cry later, that's on you.' They went out.

Again, in retrospect, the madness was obvious. Like her, Troy had planned for his own self-destruction; he had acquired the means and set the wheels in motion. When they got to the bar, they took another hit and sipped on cheap beer; on the dance floor, he stood too close to her, and Zelda smiled, thinking, Of course he won't kiss me. But of course he kissed her, and told her that he was in love with her, and that he had been in love with her for a long time. Of course he had planned for it, had been on the trajectory for that confession as soon as he'd put those pills in his pocket. She kissed him back, and told him he was in luck, that she loved him too. The difference between them, she noted in the days that followed, was that she had come to him under the impression of preemptive rejection, and even then she'd confessed while sober. Troy had known the lay of the land before he'd told Zelda he loved her, and even then, he'd needed to obliterate his inhibitions.

That did not lessen the joy of the night for her. The simple pleasure of being kissed by someone who loved her was one Zelda had never really had; all the love that had come before had possessed some abortive quality - geographical separation, emotional superficiality - that preempted unadulterated physical affection. She gave herself over to the happy pounding of her heart, to the dark glow of the bar, to the overflowing affection she felt for all other people, including Troy. She knew without knowing that she was dancing on borrowed time, that the sun must rise and her euphoria would come to an end, but that the moment could still be hers forever, captured, embalmed like a snowglobe, something she could turn over in weeks and years to come, for solace.

When the bars closed, and they went home, Zelda decided to get the other most difficult thing over with; she chose to operate while she was still somewhat anesthetized. "You need to talk to your girlfriend," she told Troy. "You need to leave her, if you're in love with me."

He equivocated. He wrung his hands. He told her that he was in love with Maxine too. Zelda sympathized with his position. She felt she had been unfair to him, that she had limited his opportunities to be his best self. She pitied him. She pitied him because it was easier to be sorrier for Troy than to hate him for his cowardice. Hating him would mean that she kept falling in love with cowards.

Still, she told him, "You need to make a choice." He agreed with her, but Zelda realized that he had underestimated her. He had his miscalculated her tolerance for pain, and overestimated his own.

"If you don't choose me," she said, "It will be terrible, but I'll live."

"That's shitty for you."

"My whole life has been shitty. I'm good at this now."

Her words lay at the heart of her pity. The weakness of other people was at the center of their humanity. People struggled to be good in the face of temptation, frequently the temptation to avoid righteous pain. Monsters had different struggles. To die, to feel pain, was easy. What Zelda struggled to imagine was being happy.

The next day, she woke up and realized she had chewed her lips to a pulp. They swelled up to the size of her thumbs; she felt like a hideous fish. Troy kept apologizing. She kept telling him not to be sorry. This went on the entire day, as she soldiered through breakfast, coffee, lunch, pressing ice packs to her mouth. It did not occur to her until later that he felt responsible for her suffering. It was all fine and good for her to take responsibility for other people, but no one else was responsible for Zelda but Zelda. She couldn't imagine it any other way.

Soon, she thought, You will be responsible for much more than that. Her diagnosis had always included the distinct possibility - even the certainty - of death. She had been braced for it from the first moment of her own realization. Each day had brought her closer to acceptance of it, of emotional oblivion, of loneliness, of her own foolishness coming full circle. But at least she did not have to wait so long. Six months, she decided, was too long to wait to die.

"Next weekend," she said. "Next weekend you'll talk to her."

Yes. He would.

All of time narrowed to a single day. He would not choose her, and she would die. "Good." But again, there was elation in the certainty of oblivion, for disease had no surer cure than death.

--------------------
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