Erin plays the part of the heroine. Cast for her soft lips and full body, she throws herself into relationships with gusto. She has mastered the laugh where she pulls back her lips, bares her teeth, and squints like she’s sharing an intimate joke. Roland casts opposite her, chosen for his bravado. He’s been practicing for this role his whole life, from plastic sword fights with his brothers, who rolled him onto his back and pinned his shoulders to the ground—tip of the sword on the Adam’s apple.
In the opening scene, Erin enters Roland’s apartment carrying an overnight bag disguised as a tote. Roland puts a comedy routine on the TV. He watches out of the sides of his eyes for a laugh to rise up from Erin’s chest. Head tosses backward. Shoulders shake.
Just before a punchline, Erin rests her fingertips on Roland’s back, feels the tautness of his muscles, and when the moment comes, releases a giggle that sends her whole body rocking backward onto a cushion. She isn’t sure whether it’s the three glasses of wine she’s had, or the feeling of delight in her chest—Roland’s hand on her knee, a gentle squeeze.
Erin has always been attuned to tight muscles, micro movements, quick shifts in mood, like the tensing of her father’s jaw or the clenching of a fist. She has perfected the art of a disarming smile. Erin has been on the lookout for love since she left home at seventeen. She has been practicing for this role since she was a girl and discovered the difference between dialogue—I love you—and stage action—a door kicked open, doorknob punching a wall.
On their first date, Erin caught the gleam of desire in Roland’s eyes, opened her purse, and found a mint. Roland has been waiting for a repeat of what followed ever since. A grip on the back of his head, lips pressed against his.
At the sound of Erin’s laugh, Roland turns onto his back and exposes the soft front of his neck. Erin remembers something her parents once said about becoming one of those women—wasting time with those men, interested in one thing only. Erin isn’t sure how to trust her judgement, but she knows she’s remarkable at perfecting a role. The scene is set, Erin will stay over, and leave in the early morning. Erin is a little sorry for the look of desire, and maybe affection, on Roland’s slender face, she’ll be sorry months later when he calls to ask after her dogs, when he texts her over the new year, and later on her birthday, but not sorry enough to break character, which would make her feel silly and small for having to explain her own lack of certainty over whether she’s still performing. She asks for another glass of wine, is relieved at his relief. Body arcing toward his. Roland is contemplating what the kind of man Erin could love would do next. These days, he barely speaks to his brothers, and wouldn’t know what sort of advice to ask if he did. Days before, he bought an extra bottle of wine to keep in case Erin asked, and wrote a note confessing how often he thinks of her. He imagines an entire life with her, buying those little mint trays for her at the grocery. He replays in his mind the giggle that makes her sound like a girl and tucks her arm into his side. He imagines how her expression will look when she unfolds the small note he scrawled in pen the evening before, when her eyes will rest upon the words, falling for you. Then he’ll remember his brothers, their plastic swords tipping toward him. He gets up for the extra bottle. At the last minute, he’ll conceal the note in the trashcan underneath a couple of paper napkins and a wine cork. Fold, tuck.
Lauren Woods is a Washington, DC-based writer, with fiction and CNF in The Antioch Review, Fiction Southeast, The Forge, Wasafiri, Hobart, Lit Hub, The Writer, and other journals. She tweets @Ladiwoods1.