Franny’s midwinter found her in an unexpected groove of productivity. As the sun rose a few minutes earlier each day, so did she. She found it easy to spend an hour or so writing before turning her attention to the day’s demands: preparing two class seminars per week, grading papers, helping students who turned to her for mentoring or advice.
In the late afternoon, before the light faded completely, she’d walk to the grocery store or indulge in a stroll around the town, nodding and waving at an increasing number of familiar faces. Many days, the familiarity comforted her. Sometimes, it created a small pit in her stomach, a hard smooth knot of fear that the comfort would disappear, or that it was only an illusion to begin with.
Time with Leo followed a similar rhythm: setting up routines of dinner together, taking longer walks on weekends, alternating with inexplicable conflicts and times apart.
One Saturday, Leo arrived at Franny’s apartment nearly two hours after he’d claimed to be on his way. She’d spent those two hours alternating between irritation, anger, relief at having more time on her own, and fear that something terrible had happened. As usual, Leo’s explanation was about helping someone in need. He’d been waylaid by an old acquaintance, in this case someone who needed a dead car battery jumpstarted.
Franny sputtered with frustration that she could not even be mad at him for helping out. “But you could have called.”
“My phone battery was dead,” he answered.
“I thought you were dead.” Tears sprang to her eyes. “You don’t understand, Leo. What you do, it affects me.”
“I know,” he said, averting his gaze. “I know.”
“I don’t think you know. I mean, I didn’t even know. I didn’t know until now. You affect me, and I’m not one hundred percent sure I like that, Leo. I came here to be, you know, my own person. I want to be my own person. I love my life now, my writing, my teaching. I am not sure I can do this, this relationship thing again.”
“I know,” Leo said, making eye contact now.
“How can you know?” Franny went on, mixing crying with talking and trying to catch her breath. “You don’t know me better than I know myself, Leo. And I don’t know myself very well at all.”
“I know, Franny. I do.”
“Maybe we should take a break.” Why am I saying this? Franny wondered. What is this, this terrible thing coming out of my mouth? “Maybe we are moving too fast.”
Leo took her arms in his hands. “Franny. Take a breath. A deep breath. Then listen.”
She breathed. “Okay,” she stammered. She breathed again.
“Franny, I’m not at all used to having someone, anyone, who really cares where I am and what I’m doing. I’m not used to having someone who is waiting for me. But I can tell you one thing: I like it. I like it a lot. And Franny?”
In an instant, Franny spun a hundred possible options for Leo’s next words: I’m sorry. We should take a break. I like you. I’m hungry. Let’s eat. “What?” she said.
“I love you,” Leo said, in the softest, strongest voice she’d ever heard.