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He owned his stride, a strut, all attitude and self-assurance that marginalized his limp. The crookedness of his nose and the twist of an upper incisor added to a rugged charm that clung to him like a subtle cologne. And his hair, a loose, curly head of it, could never be tamed by any oil.

Imperfections, unique gambits that tugged my heartstrings hard enough I fell into that deep, immutable abyss that is love. A madness claiming me with its tantalizing assertiveness. It happened over time, that fall. A stumble so slow I did not even realize I had tripped, could not envision that his arms would be as hard and unforgiving as the concrete of the sidewalk where we’d first met.

And that seems too harsh for him. He had not meant for his body to cause me those first days of lust, nor his manner, his morals, those amusing discussions and even more enjoyable frolics we shared to transform that lust into its emotive cousin. I felt like a man trapped, unable to see beyond the desire for something that had never been mine and never would be.

It took time to heal from my foolhardiness. Time away from his ever-present grin and those daring eyes always giving me the attention I craved. I eased into a new pattern, fresh habits replacing the ones I had allowed him to invade.

Steps outside my comfort zone became larger, more like leaps into places I’d never considered until a world cut off from him was not unnatural. Unwanted, maybe, in the darkest hours when I’d lay awake imaging the way he had felt lying against my side, his head tucked upon my shoulder, his unruly hair tickling my cheek. An unwanted loneliness, though it became my norm.

I’d see him sometimes, around. The dead butterflies in my stomach would give sighs, their wings listless, but somehow coming alive for the briefest of moments. His grin never faltered, though the fakeness behind mine must have been evident to all those who saw it. I did not avoid him so much as pretend not to see him. And his charming self, never alone, would do the same most times. Or perhaps he truly did not see me. My presence in his life as fleeting and worthless as yesterday’s headline.

Life did not prepare me for the day he stopped in front of me, his grin gone, his hair frizzing in the humidity and his limp more pronounced than I’d ever seen it. I smiled on instinct, all the practice I’d had at hiding my pain coming easy now. He didn’t return the expression, his lips a thin, unfamiliar line.

He convinced me to join him for coffee in the cafe near the corner where the fans purred and the old air conditioning unit sat broken in the windowsill. There he bought me a drink, ordered my favorite without so much as a word or question my way. And then we sat. In a corner, at a high top, sipping infrequently at our cliched excuse to spend these quiet moments together.

I savored the time. Allowing myself to look him over with as much of an objective eye as possible. The creases on his face had sunk deeper, his color faded somewhat, like a whitewashed painting, stealing much of his excitement for life. I ached for him. For whatever had happened since I’d walked away. Yet I was polite, painfully careful in my responses. Murmuring psuedo-niceties. And with each of my replies, he became even more withdrawn, a disquiet settling over him.

He wanted to know, finally, if I was happy.

Now that was a question I hadn’t discussed, not with myself, not with anyone. Not for a long time. So I sat back in my chair, stared at the barista as she made another chocolate-flavored brew and gave his question the consideration it deserved. I knew he stared at me, in a way much different than how I gazed at the barista. Those dead butterflies sighed again within me, rising up like a breeze had blown through in an attempt to spark fresh life under their wings. I hushed them. Forcibly.

Then I turned to him. Met his gaze. And I told him, truthfully, that I wasn’t happy, but that I was giving my all to be so. Whether those were the words he wanted to hear, I didn’t know, but he nodded eventually, agreed, and said he, too, felt the same.

The conversation transformed then, our manners laxing, that old familiarity settling over us once more. His eyes twinkled as he talked, though a cloud of misgiving lingered in his brow. As our mugs grew cold and our smiles warm, a scent rose off of him in wafting layers. He bled want. He leaned upon his arms and listened attentively to my stories, drinking them in as if I were filling some part of him, preparing him for a unknown war.

As he swirled the dregs of his coffee, I asked him what had made him stop today. The butterflies kept bending their wings, their desire to flitter and flutter once more strengthening with each passing moment. He replaced the mug, heavy ceramic against wood. Looked at me with heat in his gaze.

Desire.

An answer that blew like a hurricane through my gut, sending those listless butterflies into a whirlwind dance. But I knew I couldn’t allow them to win this time. I had a new life, new habits, ones that had taken time and effort to cultivate from the darkness I had found myself in once I realized he could not be mine, not forever.

With deliberate motions, I slid off my stool and kissed him against his temple for all the world to see. His eyes widened and his hands reached, arms opening. I wondered if they would be soft to my fall this time. Wondered if they would feel as hard as concrete, same as last. The butterflies wanted me to find out.

But I didn’t.

As I stepped away and meandered through the tables of the cafe, I heard him gasp behind me, but it was not him I concentrated on—it was the sighing of the dying butterflies within me as they fell. The winds of want, of desire, were not strong enough to rouse them from their stupor as they flattened in death. Their wings did not shudder as they crumbled into a cold ash, no longer capable of bracing against the updrafts that had once lifted them to soaring heights.

They did not return. Not when I thought of him, my wistful memories losing their wistfulness. Not when I saw him, my smile real now as I no longer ignored his presence, the both of us nodding as we passed.

Not until the day I met another. Charming, he was not. Nor did he wear an arrogant cloak around his shoulders. He did not demand attention, nor seek it. Neither did he pass his attentions off like candy to those around him. His arms, they seemed soft, though careful, not ready to open to just anyone, but if they opened, they would be ready to catch who fell. All gentleness and kindness, a deep blue gaze, intelligent and patient, staring at me, waiting for my answer to a simple question.

The butterflies that burned to life within me roared as lions and soared as eagles. Rather than be constrained by past mistakes, they grew to sizes unprecedented, larger than life, ready to try again, bolstered by that past.

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