When my smalltalk words ran out, there was a silent pause in which we just stood there and looked at each other in the dim lights. It was my turn to talk, but I wasn't saying anything. It was then that Helen began to realize this was a different kind of conversation than we had ever had before. Her curiosity moved from light and playful to something more serious. She was reading my mind, and I knew it. I had to give her my thoughts before she just took them from me.
It was time for me to be courageous, even though the many opportunities for courage with Helen were long gone. This courage was about something different, though, like I was catching up on growing up. I was about to get the failure I needed, but had so skillfully avoided for so many years.
Since I didn't know how to be cool, courageous, smooth or even mildly attractive, not on purpose anyway, I mimicked what I believed to be those things. Images of other guys who were most certainly those things entered my mind, but not in an accessible way. These thoughts were stock caricatures of those guys. As I spoke, it must have sounded like I was doing impressions of Saturday morning cartoon.
"You know, Helen, I've been doing some thinking about us," I said with a confidence so obviously false it hurt. I played with a stringy piece of bark I had peeled off of a stick. It was something I could look at when it was too hard to look at Helen.
"Uh huh,"Helen replied as her folded arms tightened and posture shifted into defense. It was too late. She had already read my mind. The game was already over. Too bad I didn't know it.
"Yeah, you know, about us...about our future," faking a confident nod, "you know." I said having completely run out of vocabulary. I really didn't need to say anything more. I'd finally played my hand even though the game had been done for more than a year. Helen looked back at me as if to say, "Oh, you're still playing? You still think there's a chance? You poor, poor, thing. Bless your heart." But she gathered herself together quickly. She knew I was vulnerable, but she also knew there was no way this was going to work.
I'd just placed Helen in an impossible situation. I'd thrown my heart at her and she caught it, but didn't want to keep it. Reject me too hard and I am crushed and the friendship is in jeopardy. Fail to reject me and she falsely gives me hope and then her integrity is in jeopardy. Helen would never let her integrity go for so little, but she would not just let the friendship go for little either. She needed to thread a needle while balancing on a bowling ball and standing in a hurricane.
And somehow she pulled it off. We sat there talking as the fire died out and the mercury light flickered out. Helen was amazing. She let me down so gently, so kindly, so lovingly. With the skill of seasoned politician and the empathy of a gifted therapist, Helen gave me heart back to me uninjured. She was my friend. We talked some more, laughed a little, hugged, an went to our respective cabins.
I slept just fine that night, having accomplished what I needed to accomplish.