It hurt, but not enough to stop. It was a sharp stabbing at the curve of her pinky toe. She was pretty sure that it was a rock, or some sharp seed or something. One similar pain instance had been an earring fallen from her dresser and into her favorite pair of running shoes.
It was annoying and it hurt, but other things had hurt worse and as she heard in some science class long ago “objects in motion remain in motion,” so she kept going as she always had.
The asphalt had become a good friend of hers. It could go as far and as long as she could. It never rushed her. It did not care that she was wearing her old track t-shirt instead of her nice workout clothes. It was quiet, which she could not say about many people in her life at the moment. All the asphalt had to say was the occasional thwap thwap when it pushed back against her sneakers, and that was fine because she liked a little light conversation every now and then.
The run was not going to be enough to calm her today, though. She was not sure how long she had gone this time, as she had forgotten her watch flying out the door. However, when she returned, her roommate was in tears as the final scene of Dear John played on the TV. When she had left for the run, Channing Tatum was only meeting Amanda Seyfried and her roomie’s eyes were dry. So she’d run around two hours. Almost as good as a real timer.
“You’ve seen this over a hundred times,” She said to the back of the couch as she unlaced her shoes, allowing her poor pinky toe relief. Aw, so it was just a rock, how anticlimactic.
Sniffle, “I knoooooow, but it’s just so sad! How could she leave him?!”
Camellia Ramsey smiled at her sobbing roommate. Sometimes it was nice to come home and have things be relatively the same. Sweet Rachel would always be there doing homework and watching love stories. Camellia supposed everyone else’s life had not really changed much in the past few weeks. Just hers. She was the only one whose bed felt bigger and whose world felt much smaller.
She knew she was overreacting. It was just a breakup, and those happen. She knew that eventually it would be a small dot on her radar and she would be back to normal. But Michael had been exactly what she wanted and now her bronze-skinned, green-eyed god thought there was no time in his life for such a frivolous things as a girl with still a year left in her bachelor’s degree. Especially since he would begin a fancy real-person job in a different state in the coming months.
She understood. It happened to lots of couples this time of year and she had known it was a possibility. She could not stop him, and eventually that would be okay, maybe even good.
But right now it was awful. And as she peeled off her damp sports-bra, her irrational side kicked in with its whimpering and moaning, so she slipped into the shower before the tears started. As the bathroom began to steam, she thought back to the moment Michael had said it needed to be over. It was years ago, wasn’t it? Or was it just minutes?
Two weeks, one day, and a couple hours. Not that she knew exactly, or anything. She thought after a couple weeks maybe the details would start to blur, but they hadn’t. If anything, the scorching water rushing over her was making them clearer.
“Sorry, it’s a little cool,” he’s said, handing over the small gray mug he always grabbed for her.
“It’s alright,” though it wasn’t really. Camellia could barely stand for coffee to be lukewarm, but he seemed in a weird mood this morning. Not too unusual for the past couple weeks, but not the boy she was used to rising and very much shining in the mornings.
“Look- Cami. You know that I’ve been really busy a while…”
Her breath caught. Some instinctive part of her had read his tone and filled in the blanks within half a second. Now safe in her shower, she appreciated the irony of her brain moving so fast in that instant, when she’d been stuck almost a month trying to figure out what had changed. She laughed bitterly in the shower, but there in his kitchen she’d only held her mug close as her body temperature plummeted.
He’d started again, “I’m about to head out of town, and you know how I feel about long distance. We both knew we were always one of those short loves.” Then he’d taken a long sip of his cheap dark roast.
Oh, did we? She’d always been told that in those moments, your heart was supposed to stop. But either because of the previous cup of coffee, or because she’d hoped for anything else, hers had instead opted for nearly beating out of her chest. It was painful, but it at least kept her distracted while she hazily set her mug down and left straight to her car, with stupid store-brand aftertaste still on the back of her tongue.
“Skim milk and a sprinkle of sugar, steaming.” Rachel had the warm mug in Camellia’s hand before Camellia even had the towel fully wrapped around her. She accepted it, both grateful and a little embarrassed that her roomie had clearly caught on to the mood she was in.
“Thank you,” she mumbled, taking a long sip and letting the liquid burn her throat with a comforting familiarity.
“I was just brewing a few cups, thought you might need one!” Rachel plopped herself on Camellia’s wrinkled comforter, holding a mug with a much paler concoction in it. Camellia smiled when she noticed it.
The girls let the silence sit for a while. This was, in Camellia’s opinion, the best part of their relationship. Talking was nice, but never necessary for them.
“You can do cuter,” Rachel stated suddenly.
“Can I?” Camellia raised an eyebrow.
“Ha, well maybe not- he was pretty attractive,” Rachel got up to wrap her arms around her her friend tight, “but sometimes the good die young.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Camellia spun in her friend’s arms, “is this heartbreak going to kill me?”
“No, no! Your relationship! It was good, but now it’s done, and you’ll find a boy who wants to keep the sweet thing that is my best friend!” She squeezed and then untangled herself, “but let me know if you’re gonna try to Ophelia yourself in the bathtub.”
“Jesus, English majors.”
“It’s what we’re for!”
Although Camellia’s mother had been hounding her for years that coffee was the way to go, she herself had always been a tea girl until Michael came along.
They met by chance, his friend happened to be the president of her Environmental Club, and he was dragged to a club social. After spending more of the night shooting glances at each other than paying attention to the speech on algae’s place in world-saving, he’d asked her out to “a casual cup of joe.” How could she say no to a boy with a voice sweet as southern tea? That afternoon, instead of admitting she hated the bitter-bean mixture and would have preferred an herbal loose-leaf, she said to just order two of whatever he wanted.
Of course that first sip had nearly killed her.
She had discreetly examined her cup, wondering if this new man had perhaps poisoned her, and that was why the drink had tasted so foul. But no, apparently that is what plain iced coffee is supposed to taste like. She had brushed a few of her strawberry locks behind her ear and prayed that this Michel kid would be worth suffering through to the bottom of her cup. They stayed at that table for two more hours, and though she declined a second cup, she was glad she had choked down the first.
Now, looking across to Rachel over her cup at their kitchen table, she was amazed at how her taste buds had changed so drastically.
“So, bad day for the ol’ get-over-him plan?”
“You know what they say, only better with time and all that.”
“Yep, which was said by some older man who had never been a young girl with a broken heart.”
“Well, that’s awfully dramatic.”
Camellia shrugged, “You were cliché, I was dramatic. It was fitting.”
The two girls smiled at each other. There was never much to say with a problem that could not be fixed. Maybe a little sleep would ease away some of the hurt first.
Of course, graduate school applications did not have a section for low-GPA excuses, so Camellia’s light stayed on late into the night instead. Essays and research had to be dealt with no matter what. Her coffee pot had little more rest than she did, as she kept refilling it with the attempt to keep her eyes open. She thought for a moment, as she measured out each scoop: it was not quite the same therapeutic feeling that measuring out fresh teabags had given her, but the caffeine was much stronger, and the smell more enticing. She watched with glazed eyes as the percolator buurrbled to life. With the first mud-colored drops beginning to collect at the bottom of the glass, she was taken willingly into another aroma-filled memory.
They had taken his dog, Cashew, on a cool fall afternoon stroll. It had been chilly and he said they needed some java to warm them up afterwards. He hadn’t taken her hand during the entire walk. She remembered that the most clearly, and then the mental speech she had given herself that perhaps the second date was too soon for hand-holding and maybe she was getting ahead of herself.
He had showed her how old his coffeepot looked next to his roommate’s new French-press and then argued that coffee was not supposed to be so fancy- “it was meant to be drunk, not dressed up in chrome and shit!” This time she had been able to sneak in a spoonful of sugar while he was in the bathroom (a hint Rachel had given her), but the sip after that choice was even worse than the first. She supposed that perhaps Michael had been right to drink it black then. It had been three more walks with Cashew before he put an arm around her to “keep her from catching a chill.”
Two more pages added to her essay on the loss of natural resources and she was closing her eyes to a cup of hazelnut flavored, thinking of the time she had broken Michael’s precious coffeemaker. She did not often spend the night at his place, but a few months into him referring to her as “his girl,” meant her presence in the morning was not unusual to his roommates.
That particular morning, Camellia had woken up before him and this time instead of curling up to him and waiting, she had wanted to surprise him with a fresh pot of his favorite addiction. Half an hour later, he had sauntered into the kitchen to find his girlfriend partially drenched, attempting to clean up the puddle of almost-coffee that was quickly covering the counter.
“Apparently you’re supposed to put the grinds in before you press ‘go’?”
She stirred in her drop of milk as she remembered that he could not stop laughing long enough to be mad with her, and was more concerned about the hot water having hurt her, than about his dirty counter. Michael had given her one of his priceless grins and magical long kisses when she arrived the next day with a brand new brew-er in her arms.
Now Camellia stared at her desk, shaking her head and reaching again for the textbook across from her. She opened it but her eyes refused to settle on the words. The night was getting to her.
“Do you have to slurp?” Camellia had been trying to edit papers for a good hour and a half, but in the last few minutes Michael had been doing everything he could think of to distract her from it.
“Yep. The music of my people.” Siiiiiiip
She slammed down her red pen, “and what people is that?”
“Drinkers,” he answered, setting his mug down on the nightstand and slyly getting up from the bed, stalking to her desk chair, “thinkers,” he kissed her neck, “winkers.”
He spun her around and gave her a slow, cheesy wink. She melted at the sight of his grin and allowed him to pull her to the bed. It was much smaller than his, but she liked that it meant they had to snuggle closer. He pulled her onto his chest, and she could feel his heat wrapping around her.
“Tell me about the papers stressing you out.”
“It’s an essay on marriage rates for Sociology. It’s depressing.”
“It doesn’t look good for those of us who want to get married in the next ten years. At least the average says so.”
“You want to be married in the next ten years?”
Camellia paused. She had hit one of those subjects they say not to bring up with boyfriends for a long while. How to proceed?
“It was part of my casual plan.”
“Hm. I wasn’t thinking until like thirty-five-ish.”
“Well, like I said- casual plan.”
Michael rolled Camellia over so their noses were smushed against each other, her whole weight across his body, “I’m not worried.”
She smiled down at him, “You’re not?”
“Nope,” He began spreading kisses across her collarbone.
“Are you worried that I want a kid before I’m thirty?”
“I mean, I’m not even sure I want kids at all. But no, that doesn’t worry me either. It’s not like you’re measuring my ring finger when I’m sleeping.” He returned his lips to her skin.
“Oh.” Her stomach gave a confused flutter. Yes, this man she cared about was running his fingers along the waist of her jeans, but he had also hinted at a future much different than the one she dreamed of full of babies and farmers’ market trips. But that was okay. Or, it would be if he would just kept those kisses coming. Things change.
Well, I suppose they did. One of those short loves.
She found herself making the same sound and wondering why it sounded so annoying that night so many weeks ago. Tonight, it was the click of her keys that was driving her insane, so she printed what she had done and restarted with pen and notebook. Her mother always suggested that was how to write a good paper anyway. Her mother was right about quite a few things.
The first time he met her parents had started pretty well. Camellia’s dad had appeared so in love with Michael’s discussion on politics and his plans to continue in the PHD program, that Mr. Ramsey had apparently forgotten all about the age gap between this scholar and his own daughter. Mrs. Ramsey had made another of her huge spice-heavy dinners and was now slicing her berry-lovers’ angel cake for the four of them. No one had appetite left for a piece, but they all took a slice anyway. Camellia knew the copious amounts of food was probably due to nerves. Her mother always wanted to make her friends feel at home, and when Camellia had mentioned she’d be bringing Michael for the weekend, the older woman had decided to pull out all the stops.
“My baby’s in love, why can’t I make a few dishes without everyone getting their feathers ruffled?”
With the cake, Mrs. Ramsey placed three dark-filled mugs on the table before asking Camellia what kind of tea she wanted with her cake. The surprise on her mother’s face when Camellia had declined and asked for coffee as well was a good laugh for the table.
“She’s growing up and joining the obsession, hun!” Camellia’s father had chortled, finding all of his jokes a little funnier than anyone else did.
Mrs. Ramsey used whole milk, though, and Camellia knew that Michael must be trying to impress her parents when he said of course he would take some in his cup, and sure- some sugar too. It made her oddly happy to see him swallow what he would normally complain as a “messed with” cup, understanding the feeling.
It was normally her forth cup, which she was hitting now around two am, that she herself began to mess with perfection. She splashed some of Rachel’s flavored creamer in, not even registering whether it was the Very Vanilla or the Mocha Mint that frequented their fridge. She just needed to knock the edge off the bitter bite of her cheaper grinds. Her mother had sent a care package of expensive beans the week before, but Michael had taught her that such treats were meant for quiet moments, not nights of homework.
“You’d think that you would want to treat yourself if you were working so hard,” she had spoken softly, measuring spoonfuls into the filter with now-practiced hands.
“No no no, young grasshopper. The good stuff is for when the sun comes up and you get to take a moment of victory before hopping in the shower. Or after some really great sex.” He had murmured into her neck as he wrapped his arms around her waste. It was very distracting from her next task of chopping up eggs and celery for the salad sandwich she planned to take to class. Later that day he had surprised her with a to-go cup of “the good stuff” as she was coming out of an exam. He was normally busy in the lab this time of day, but had taken a break to make a java-run for “his love.” It was the first time he had called her that. She had nearly choked on the hot liquid, trying to keep her smile under control.
Perhaps six cups was too much. This was her four am thought, and her next one was that perhaps she should have just done the work on time instead of moping around the apartment. But she poured it. The pot had been sitting there too long, so she placed the mug in the microwave. This was something her father always did- make a big pot in the morning and just reheat it all day long. But Michael thought that was some form of blasphemy, declaring that coffee needed to be made fresh because the smell of it brewing was half the reason to be drinking it. It was one of the few arguments the two men had.
“When you have a wife and kids to worry about, you’ll take what little penny-pinching you can!”
“No way. I’ll always make a fresh pot.”
“So you don’t plan on sending your kids to college, then?”
“I think that’s a bit extreme for a few bags of coffee, Mr. Ramsey!”
The two men had stopped and stared at each other for a moment, neither really willing to give in. Camellia and her mother were staring from the table at the two men occupying the kitchen. The women had identically-arched eyebrows, for men fought about the strangest things. But then there was a chuckle, which grew to a full laugh, and the boys were done.
Camellia shrugged. She supposed it was better than politics or sports. Her parents had stopped for the day in her college town before making the rest of the trip to Charleston for their 30th anniversary, and she was hoping they would go ahead on their way. She had not been expecting them and was pretty sure her parents had not expected to see Michael in their daughter’s apartment so early in the morning.
“Are we having a breakfast party in here?” Rachel had chirped, coming around the corner of her bedroom. Camellia had thanked her lucky stars to see her roommate’s bed-hair bop down the hallway to join them; it anchored Camellia to watch her parents hug Rachel tightly as everyone sat down for a quick muffin and chat before going their separate directions for the day. It had shocked her later when Michael had complained about the intrusion.
“Rachel? or I thought you liked Mom and Dad?”
“No thank God she was there to talk to them so we didn’t have to as much. I like them fine. I guess my parents did that when I was an undergrad too, I just wasn’t ready for it.” Camellia had let the strange moment go, but something did not feel settled about it. He did not often remind her of how much younger she was then he. And she was close with her parents. Didn’t he know that?
The dawn was breaking and the young woman had finally finished all of her work. She knew she could probably fit in an hour of sleep before she had to get dressed and head out, but she knew that a run and one more cup would most likely have the same effect. Stepping over half her wardrobe to hunt down a clean pair of athletic shorts, she knew she should probably take a moment to clean up later that day. Finally spotting the favored bright green shorts hiding under her winter boots, she paused for a moment. Had she really not put those away yet? The last snow had been several weeks ago now.
It had been a late snow, and Rachel had wanted to go out and play in it. She had a new boyfriend of her own and thought it would be romantic to take a wintery walk and build a snowman. So Camellia had dragged Michael away from his work and demanded that he join them for some fun. He had only relented when she said to bring Cashew with him and that there would be hot chocolate to follow the snowy escapade.
When they’d dried off, Rachel was laughing by the stove as she attempted to melt chocolate for an old-fashioned recipe. The tall boy she had brought over was tickling her neck with his scruffy chin, and Camellia found herself smiling at them. It was time that Rachel found someone as young-hearted as herself.
“They’re so cute!” she had turned to whisper at her own partner, but Michael was looking at the table, seemingly lost in thought.
He looked up, “Hm?”
“Don’t you think they’re cute?”
“Sure. Think she’ll focus a bit and hurry up? I really have to get back to work.”
“They’re having fun, though. I can’t rush her just for cocoa!”
Michael stood, “I’ll just make a pot at home. I have to start back on my paper. See you, Cami.” He planted a short kiss across her worried lips, called Cashew to him and headed out the door without a backwards glance.
Camellia remembered the denial that had risen up in the back of her throat that evening. She left the shorts abandoned with the boots and returned to her kitchen. She was not hungry, just all of the sudden all too warm. She slid open the big window, careful not to knock any of Rachel’s little herb pots off the sill.
“You’ll be fine, dear. He was sweet, but he was all too busy for you.” Her mother had said.
“You’re too young anyway. You shouldn’t have been dating until your forties.” Her father had offered, laughing and thumbing her chin like when she was a child.
“You can do better, one who can actually cook!” Rachel had cooed.
But this morning her parents were many miles away and Rachel was still fast asleep. Camellia sighed, knowing that they might be right and they might be wrong but there was not much she could do about any of it right now.
She turned and got a clean mug out of the cupboard. Stopping her hand before she reached the mostly-empty bag of grinds, she paused for a moment. She slowly lowered her heels back to the floor, and was still. Then, she crossed to the pantry, collected her basket of teabags and sat on the cool tile floor. She picked a bag of each variety and held it up, slowly smelling the bouquet of nature floating off of them. Deciding the lemon-spiked chamomile would go best with her banana-bread breakfast, she stood up tall.
She would add honey, and she would be alright.
BREW (verb): 1. Make (tea or coffee) by mixing it with hot water. 2. Make (beer) by soaking, boiling, and fermentation. 3. (of an unwelcome event or situation) Begin to develop.
*Camellia's name sound familiar? You met her parents in Today I am Photophilous