How long can one night be?
It felt like I was lying in my bed for ages. I wanted to get up, run, do something, but the darkness was heavy outside my window, and my heart felt heavier.
My heart, the one that kept beating, no matter how many times my breath hitched in my throat.
My heart, carrying its own heavy load, waiting.
Holding off was slowly killing me, but I had resolved not to call him again.
Hours had passed while my phone remained silent. A sinking sensation wrapped around me, dragging me down, deeper and deeper.
What had happened, exactly?
I had spent the first few hours rationalizing.
What if something happened to him? No. John would call me. Jamie is fine.
Maybe he forgot his phone at the pool and they are all out celebrating now. But he would send something from John’s phone, right?
Not if he’s still mad at me for not calling him before the race.
Maybe he needs time, and he will call when he’s ready. He’s stressed, and he’s exaggerating. It will be okay.
If only he called sooner.
I had messed up, yes, but it wasn’t like I had been out for drinks, having fun, and ignoring him. And it wasn’t like we hadn’t talked all day. I would explain myself. I would tell him the truth and ask him to forgive me. Simple as that.
Not that I hadn’t done that in my texts already. But texts were not the same.
I closed my eyes and imagined his disappointment when the time had come and I didn’t call, when I didn’t reply to his messages. I could see in my mind’s eye how upset he must have been, his deep breaths as he tried to focus on the impending race. I hoped he’d thought of all the times I wished him good luck in the past, of how much I loved him and believed in him. Or at least to forget everything about me and give his best to the race.
It didn’t matter, really. Nothing was as important as winning the race.
I knew he would do well. He was the best swimmer I had ever seen.
It will be alright. He’ll call back and it will be alright.
I tried to stick with this line of thought and get some sleep. Make this endless night go by faster.
But sleep wouldn’t come.
Where was he? The chances he’d lost his phone were…scarce. He’d seen my texts and was still so angry that he couldn’t even reply?
A single message was all I needed. ‘I’m fine, won the race, we’ll talk tomorrow.’ How hard was that?
It was the first time Jamie had done this. The first time he blatantly ignored me. The first time he didn’t want to talk to me.
Or rather, the second. The first one had been when he got the scholarship, but that had been different.
This wasn’t at all like him.
Maybe he’s preparing a surprise for me?
The week following the New Jersey race would be a slack one. Maybe he’d come to visit me, to celebrate with me.
I let hope nestle in my chest, its arrival gifting me with a few full breaths. Maybe he was flying to England right now. A smile curled the corners of my mouth, up and up, until I was biting my bottom lip in a smile full of expectation.
A moment later, reality crashed on me. Exactly when I was the most vulnerable. It always does that, waiting in the corner until we give way to the dreams, and then rushes to overtake us. With a single move, reality names the dream an illusion and takes it away, with a low, malicious snicker.
My smile vanished in a matter of seconds. Jamie wasn’t coming, and I was a fool to even think he would. He was in New Jersey, celebrating with his friends.
The waiting was killing me. I held in my tears, refusing to cry when I didn’t even know why. When I didn’t know what was happening.
He had left me hanging. He had left me in the dark, alone, with no power over anything.
I felt small. Insignificant. Alone.
When the first tears stained my pillow, sleep took pity on me.
I didn’t dream.
Mary’s voice woke me and I felt her hand gently nudging my side.
“Claire? Are you coming to the lecture? We need to go in fifteen minutes.”
The lecture? Did the world have the audacity to go on when my life was crumbling?
For the first time in my life, I didn’t care about the lecture. I didn’t care about anything at all, after checking my phone to find that nothing had changed since the previous night.
That was a living hell, I was sure of it.
I pushed all thoughts and emotions deep down and got out of bed. It would do me no good to stay in the dorm all day, and I had practicals that I couldn’t miss anyway.
I brushed my teeth mechanically for a good five minutes and washed my face with freezing water until the bones in my hands ached from the cold.
Numb – I needed to be numb. Retreat to that place deep inside me where I was safe. A peal of cruel laughter left my lips.
This place, and all the bloody safe places inside me had been opened for him.
There was no safehouse, no hidden crypt. I had given everything and I had nowhere to go now.
I started crying again and immediately rinsed the tears away.
Get yourself together. Don’t think.
I left the bathroom and got dressed. Mary looked at me with a frown, but didn’t ask any questions. I loved her for it. No prying. She would patiently wait until I was ready to talk. Which meant never, in this case.
We walked to campus and headed towards the auditorium. I vaguely registered that it was an interesting lecture, one of those that would fill my head with questions and ideas on any other day. Not today.
Today, I took notes like an automaton. I breathed like an automaton. When the lecture finished, I talked to others like an automaton.
It was like living in virtual reality. I was at Oxford, going on with my day, responding to the stimuli around me as if they were real, but I had this feeling that everything was only a projection on a wall, and real-life would look like the earth had been destroyed by meteors. Or a collision with another planet.
Or maybe that was just my world.
I went on with my day as if nothing had changed, as if I could breathe as easily as the next student in the practical.
I nodded mechanically and I even smiled once or twice when everyone was laughing, because I felt like I had to.
I checked my phone every minute. It felt like a punch in the gut. When I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, I turned it off, only to panic and turn it on five minutes later.
Not that I had missed anything.
I thought of texting Jamie again, but what else was there left to say? How many times can one apologize before those three words sound cheap?
I wrote ‘I love you’ at least ten times, only to erase the message a moment later. Didn’t he know that I loved him? What difference would a text make?
After our practical, I followed Mary to the library. I sat down with a heavy textbook and ended up reading the same line twenty times.
It was then that my phone vibrated against the wooden desk.
My heart jumped to my throat, and my knees trembled as I tried to stand up.
It was him, and he was smiling in the picture on my screen and I just wanted to fall back on my chair and start crying.
I didn’t. I swallowed hard, instead, and ran outside. Fat raindrops hit my face, but I hardly noticed them. I wore my earphones, and slid a finger across the screen.
“Hi,” I said, walking away from the entrance and leaning against the exterior wall, trying to shelter myself from the rain as well as I could. The light post was only four feet away, but my face was covered in shadows.
“Hi, Claire.” Jamie tried for a smile, but ended up taking a deep breath instead.
My heart was beating so fast I thought it would break through my chest. A ridiculous thought from an aspiring doctor, and yet there it was.
“How did it go?” I asked. “The race,” I clarified, as if it wasn’t obvious.
“Second. I finished second.”
Second. Shit. Is this the reason he didn’t call?
His face was a mask, his voice colourless. I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry? It sounded stupid. Don’t worry?
I nodded twice, before I mumbled, “Congratulations.” He didn’t seem to hear it. I cleared my throat and tried again, louder this time. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” he said, dismissively.
And then, silence. A long, heavy silence that stretched and stretched until I couldn’t take it anymore. It was stealing my breath.
“Did you celebrate last night?”
Jamie looked sideways, then back at me. “Aye, we went for drinks wi’ the team.”
“Nice.” I tried to smile. “Did you have fun?”
He closed his eyes and set his jaw. I saw his throat bobbing as he swallowed and waited for his answer, but his mouth opened only to close again.
“Are you alone?” I blurted. It was obvious that we couldn’t keep this conversation going for long, and I didn’t want to start talking about what really mattered if other people were in his room.
“Aye. John is out.”
I tried to smile, and let out a sigh before starting explaining myself. “Jamie, I am so, so, so sorry I didn’t manage to call you yesterday. I know you needed me to call and you’re angry at me, and you’re right… But I was in the middle of a tutorial and time went by, and –” I stopped abruptly and squeezed my eyes tight. “I am sorry.”
Jamie nodded but didn’t say a word. I couldn’t recognize the look in his eyes.
“Talk to me, please. Talk to me, Jamie, we will figure it out,” I pleaded in a quivering voice.
“Yes?” I bit my lip hard, trying to keep the tears inside.
“I didna call ye yesterday and all day today, because I needed time to think.”
The wall behind me was rough underneath my fingertips as I pushed harder against it, wishing for the pain to ground me. To prepare me, somehow, for what was coming. I knew it. I knew him. I could see right through him. The way he talked, how he looked at me… I recognized that look now – the pain and regret, the determination. Tears blurred my vision before he could go on.
“This isna working, Claire,” Jamie said, and I felt a thousand daggers sinking into my heart. I felt them hovering around me all day, biding their time. A whimper left my mouth before I could stop it, and I pushed my lips together in reflex. I looked at Jamie, at the bloody screen, and tried to keep my raging emotions under control.
“What –” I started in a broken voice, and I summoned all my courage to go on. I wouldn’t stop this conversation before it had even started because I was crying. I pushed my fingernails into the wall, willing it to support me. “What do you mean?” When Jamie only shook his head, I continued. “Since when is it not working?” I huffed a laugh, challenging him. “I forgot to text you once, and that’s it? I’m not good enough for you?”
That rilled him up. “Did I ever say ye’re not good enough for me, Claire?” he demanded. “Dinna put words in my mouth!” He then murmured something under his breath, lowering his eyes.
“So what is this? You don’t call, don’t text, don’t even tell me that you need time to think and I’m here waiting for you to deign to inform me that things aren’t working out because the idea stuck in your head?”
“It’s not in my head! It’s in my life! This – what we have… It’s not what it once was, and –”
“And you want to end it?” I couldn’t believe I was uttering those words. This had to be a nightmare.
“Aye.” It could have been a whisper of the wind. It could have been a raindrop falling into the river. It could have been the rustling of leaves. But it was his voice, and the sound choked me. A small word I had heard him say thousands of times. The same word, ending it all.
I bit my lip until I tasted blood. I scraped my palm against the wall, and saw the hand holding my phone shaking.
Why are you giving up on us? Why aren’t you patient? Why are you tearing my heart out?
I couldn’t ask that. I wouldn’t. So I just whispered again, “Why?”
“I love ye, Claire,” he said, and I noticed for the first time that he was crying, too.
Hearing his words broke all the walls I’d tried to build to keep my despair aside. “This makes no fucking sense,” I sobbed.
“I ken, I ken,” he repeated. “I love ye, mo nighean donn, mo ghraidh, my Sassenach. I love ye so much and I wish you were here or I was there, but you’re not and I’m not and I canna go on like this.” He said it all with breath, and then this face paled, as if a chunk of life was torn out of his chest.
“No, no, no.” I shook my head violently, wet curls flying and sticking on my face. “We will make it work, we said we would, remember?”
He needed to remember. He just needed to know that we would be together no matter what, and then he would change his mind.
“I canna. I miss you, and this is not what I thought it would be. Seeing you once every three months? What kind of relationship is that?”
“Our relationship!” I all but screamed. “It’s our relationship and we’ll work on it. This is just the beginning and I am overwhelmed a bit by the workload here, but I will get the hang of it. I know I should have called before the race –”
“Claire!” he interrupted me. “This is not about the race. I mean, it is, but it’s not only that. Ye’re not here when I need to cuddle in bed with you after a hard day. Ye’re not here when I want to go out and dance and feel your body against mine. Ye’re not here when good things happen, when bad things happen, when nothing happens… Ye’re not here.”
“Of course I’m not there! I’m right here, doing my best to be a part of your life! And you knew that, Jamie Fraser! You knew I wouldn’t be there!”
“Your best…” he trailed off before finishing the thought. I was ready for another attack, when he said, “I hadna thought it would be so difficult.”
I repeated his words, mocking him.
“Yes Claire! I thought ye’d be with me until your term started, but no! God forbid! Ye had to volunteer and go to Zambia! And then –”
“You said you were okay with me going to Zambia!” I interrupted him, indignant. I felt my cheeks flaming in anger now.
“I said I didna like it! But ye didna step back! Ye said that ye really wanted to go and really, what choice did I have in the matter?”
I snorted, refusing to talk to him. I couldn’t believe that he was holding my trip to Zambia against me. What else was there that he had never talked about?
“Well, I’m not in Zambia right now.”
“Aye, and what good does it do to us? Ye have internet access and we still hardly talk. D’ye think that thirty minutes per day is enough to keep a relationship going? Because it isn’t!”
I took a long breath through my mouth, blinking at him. I couldn’t believe my ears. “We limit the time of the video calls because of your training,” I spat.
“And your practicals, your tutorials…” He shook his head and his red curls fell into his eyes. It had become one of my habits to run my fingers over his forehead and push them aside, but I knew that even if he was in front of me right now that would be the last thing I would do. Smack him on the forehead, maybe. “Ye didn’t come for my race, as we had agreed. Do ye ken how long it is since we had sex?” Jamie asked, bringing me back to our conversation.
I felt my eyebrows curving in an impossible arch. “What? So this – this is about sex?”
“No. Not only sex, but sex is important, too.”
“Our schedule is fucked up!” I declared.
“I ken!” he shot back. “This doesna change the facts though, does it?”
It didn’t. “We can do better,” I said, more calmly now. My breaths were short and fast, and I stopped for a moment, trying to collect myself. “I miss you, too.” Jamie didn’t reply. “I thought I was there for you, I thought what we had was enough.”
I slid down the wall, sitting on the wet pavement. I was soaked by this point and I didn’t care.
“I thought it would be enough. I wanted it to be.” Jamie’s voice was soft, as if he murmured something in my ear as we lay together in bed. “But I want to live, Claire, not to be constantly suspended between two continents. I want to live here, now. And I wanted to share now with you, even though I couldn’t share here. But I can’t even have that.”
Because I hadn’t sent a bloody good-luck-text. “I don’t know what else I can do. I can’t promise that I won’t mess up again, but I can promise that I will try not to. And I’ll be there in a few weeks. We will spend a whole month together.”
“Sassenach,” Jamie rasped, pained. “Stop. Don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what? Love you?” I asked, with an incredulous laugh. “I don’t remember how life was before I loved you.”
Jamie rubbed a hand on his face. His eyes were red and puffed when he looked at me. “It pains me, Claire. It pains me to wake up and know you’re not in my arms, it pains me to count the days until I see ye again. I canna do it anymore.”
I had no breath to speak. Tears kept rolling down my face, and Jamie’s ragged breaths sounded closer through my earphones than the rain pattering on the pavement I sat on. I felt him closer than all the world around me and I wanted to reach out and grasp that feeling, afraid I would never have it again.
“So that’s it?” I croaked, and licked my lips, tasting the salt.
It couldn’t be it. We couldn’t end like this.
“I am sorry. I love you. I will always love you. But maybe this is for the best. For both of us, ye ken.” A sigh, and he continued. “I will focus on my life here, and you on yer studies…”
The words sounded unreal in my mind. I couldn’t reply. I couldn’t agree or oppose the notion, not that it mattered.
Love isn’t a cage. It’s not working that way. Love is like the wind, aiding us in staying airborne, lifting us higher.
My finger trembled as I ended the call. I felt the sky drop closer, crushing me. A flash of lightning tore up the darkness in the distance and I closed my eyes, wishing Jamie would be there to hold me in his arms.
But there would be no more Jamie. No one would hold me to keep me safe. No one would brush away the hair from my face. No one would kiss away the tears.
I held my breath in an attempt to verify that my heart was still beating.
It did. My treacherous heart went on with hollow, empty beats against my ribs.
My head hit the wall, and I stayed there, sobbing under the rain until Mary found me.