How far would you go for true love? When a simple crush in the social media age becomes so much more…
by: Aaron Horwath
After standing silently in the hallway for a few moments, he knocked again, this time with enough force to send an echo reverberating down the hallway. The echo died as it reached the elevator. He pressed his ear and a cupped hand against the grainy wood of the door in the hopes of catching even the slightest noise emanating from inside. He listened for a few moments, but his cupped hand only caught the sound of a radio creeping out from under the door across the hall and a cat’s hungry meow towards the emergency exit at the end of the corridor.
Stepping away from the door, he glanced at his watch. Emily should have been home by now, he thought. Her shift ended at seven. It would take her a few minutes to change out of her gaudy waitress uniform and say a few rushed goodbyes to her coworkers before beginning her twenty-five-minute walk home to her apartment building, arriving just in time to change into a pair of yoga pants and loose-fitting t-shirt to catch her favorite evening television show. Emily often ranted about people being late as a pet-peeve of hers, so he assumed she simply became ensnared in a long conversation with her boss or needed to cover for a colleague running late before closing out her shift.
He had planned to surprise her from inside her apartment, but he hadn’t thought ahead of time about how he might get in without a key. Though he had already tried to gain entry once before without luck, he tried again to force his way in, spreading his feet in as athletic a stance as he could manage and leaning a shoulder into the door. Turning the doorknob, he pressed the full force of his weight against the door’s old hinges, hoping the lock might pop open under the pressure. But the door didn’t budge and, not wanting to break the lock, he stepped back. He’d have to settle for surprising Emily by standing in the hallway.
He picked up a bouquet of lilies — Emily’s favorite — off the ground where he had leaned them upright against the plastered wall. He looked at the flowers, their petals draping eloquently, each a ballerina mid-routine, opening as wide as possible, and poised to catch the slightest ray of sunshine. The lilies would certainly get plenty of sun in their new home; he’d seen how sunlight flooded Emily’s modest studio through the large bay window that ran the full length of her living room. She had turned the long windowsill into an indoor garden lined with various potted plants and flowers, watering them each day as she danced and sang. He always made sure to comment on how beautiful and happy she looked with the sun glistening off her chocolate hair.
He impressed himself with his romantic gesture of bringing the lilies as a gift for Emily. He imagined her falling into his arms as she accepted the flowers, stretching on her tip-toes to wrap her arms around his neck. Then she would rush to place them into a glass vase and set them in the middle of the windowsill, the lily’s becoming her instant favorites because they reminded her of him.
Where could she be? Maybe she had gone out with Natalie after work? The two had just come back from a trip to Cancun, a weekend of sun, bikinis, and sugary cocktails. He didn’t like Natalie, though he would never tell Emily as much. He couldn’t help but be jealous of how much time Emily spent with her. The road trips together to Southern California on long weekends, the spring break vacations, the late nights out at clubs on Saturday nights. The nights out at clubs bothered him less than the other Natalie-activities only because it gave Emily an excuse to dress up a bit more than she normally did. In her full make-up, favorite tight-fitting black dress, and sparkling heels, she looked like a Hollywood starlet. He loved seeing her at the end of a long night, her shoes in hand, stumbling slightly and laughing with friends as they weaved their way home barefoot through the city, vibrant and carefree and vulnerable, and he always smiled right along with her.
While it was easy to appreciate Emily in a tight-fitting dress and full-makeup, he loved her beyond just her pretty face. He’d told her countless times that he liked her most when she was just lounging around the house in her sweatpants with her hair messily pulled back and her face make-up free. He especially loved it when Emily studied. The focus in her eyes, how she twirled her hair endlessly, the way she nibbled on the end of her pen. She was finishing her pre-law degree in hopes of a career as a civil rights attorney. Her family had come to the United States generations ago in hopes of a better life than the one they had in Cuba, and she often spoke with passion about her desire to help other families immigrate to the United States and help them achieve more than they could at home the way her family had.
At first, he had trouble balancing his hate for the idea of more immigrants getting into the country with his admiration for her pursuing a career dedicated to helping others. But his love for her ultimately won out. He figured a few more foreigners wouldn’t be too bad, and if that was the price to pay to be with Emily, he’d happily pay it.
The thought of Emily’s family reminded him of his own. His mother would be so proud of him. He couldn’t wait to see the surprise on his mother’s face when she saw he had managed to do so well for himself by landing a girl like Emily. She had brains and beauty! His mother often told him he was a good-looking boy. “A girl wants a real man! A little meat on ‘em! Not one of them Ken doll types!” She would say. But he knew that was just mom talk, knew himself not to be a looker, and he had always been hesitant around women, for, he thought, good reason.
Daydreams of bringing Emily home to his parents had danced around in his mind for years. He’d introduce her to his parents in their living room, both of them sunk deep into their lazy-boy chairs. “She’s a real looker!” His father would say through a raspy cough, holding a cigarette in one hand and a tall-boy in the other, his belly stretching the fasteners of his overalls to their absolute limit. His mother would usher him and Emily onto the family couch as she hurriedly brushed it clean of dog hair and food crumbs from dinner the previous night. As they sank deep into the couch’s worn leather, his mother would rush to the kitchen to prepare grilled cheeses (his favorite) for everyone while nagging him about his messy hair or to change into a cleaner shirt. While his mother banged around in the kitchen and yelled about him buying new clothes, his father would tell Emily she looked like some model from the 1960s neither of them had ever heard of and Emily would politely giggle, like she always did, thanking his father for the compliment.
After grilled-cheeses, they would find an excuse to sneak away and he would lead Emily down to his bedroom in the basement. He’d have prepared ahead of time, of course, his video games neatly put away under the television set at the end of his bed and the floor swept clean of soda cans and candy wrappers. He’d keep the door open as that was the house rule (even though there had never been an occasion for it to be enforced). He’d show Emily the models he was working on. She’d recognize the Millenium Falcon since she and Natalie had just gone and seen Star Wars at the theatre. Her eyes would light up, impressed by his work. He imagined he would play it cool, brushing off his vast video game collection that impressed his online friends and being careful not to go into too much detail about them. He wasn’t sure if she was into video games so he didn’t want to risk boring her. Since he knew so much about her already — for the last four years, he had basically been on every vacation with her, seen every play she had starred in at university, shared the views from every hike she had gone on — she would certainly want to experience one of his hobbies with him.
Would they have sex the first night at his house? He wasn’t sure. He’d have made the bed just in case. The twin bed didn’t provide much room for movement. How much room did sex require? From what he had observed online, it seemed like you needed a whole house to have sex properly. Thankfully, what his bed lacked in size, it made up for in sturdiness. He’d been sleeping in it his whole life and never had a problem besides the occasional squeak. Maybe they would wait until his parents fell asleep, then he could close the door for a bit more privacy without his parents taking notice.
The thought of laying down in bed with Emily sent butterflies to his stomach and he switched thoughts to avoid becoming aroused in the hallway. To distract himself, he leaned against her apartment door, opening his phone to check social media. She hadn’t posted on Facebook or Instagram since the end of her shift. He checked WhatsApp to see when she had last been online, their conversation made up of an endless series of texts he had sent her through the years without a response. Forums online had explained that modern women liked to play hard to get, and Emily was no different. Over the gunfire of a virtual battlefield, his friends had explained through their headsets that all women today were narcissists only interested in Chads — tall, athletic, douchey assholes — but he didn’t think Emily was like that. Between work and school and her friends, she was busy, and it didn’t feel right to blame her for that. In fact, he admired her busy schedule. He obsessed overhearing what she was up to, excitedly watching every post over and over again in his room, imagining that he was right there with her; standing backstage of her university productions, behind the camera taking pictures as she posed with a latte pressed to her lips, sitting next to her while she studied. He had been with her through it all, sharing in every moment of her life, no matter how personal or benign.
He remembered the first time she had consummated their relationship. It had been several years ago, just a few months after he started following her on Instagram. He had sent a series of fire-emojis in response to a picture Emily had shared of her as a bridesmaid. She responded with a kiss-emoji and “thank youuuu.” For a week he had sat in his bed late at night re-reading her message, imagining her thumbs as they thoughtfully typed away at her phone. With 34,000 followers, she couldn’t respond that way to just anyone. He figured she must have checked out his profile and, liking something about what she saw, had typed out a special message intended only for him.
The message wasn’t much, but it was all Emily needed to say to confirm that he was more to her than just an anonymous follower of her account. Against all odds, he had earned the love of a true beauty, and he would do anything not to lose her.
From then on, he tried to be the best man he could to Emily, truly investing in their relationship. He liked every picture she posted and left “Good morning!” and “Sleep well!” messages every day in her direct messages. He reacted to every image or video she uploaded to her story. He left comments on every one of her posts on every platform. He had even taken the time to figure out where she lived, which was surprisingly difficult information to get his hands on. Luckily, a year or so after Emily had sent the kissy-emoji, she posted a picture while at work with the name of the restaurant where she waitressed visible in the background. The next day, he had hopped on the first bus to the city. He could still remember sitting in the cafe across the street from Emily’s work waiting for her shift to end, catching a glimpse of her every once in a while through the cafe windows and between moving cars as she served customers outside under the restaurant’s awning. He had been in awe of being so close to the most important person in his life, separated by only a single city street, his knee bouncing as he switched his gaze between the restaurant’s entrance and his watch. Luckily, she had worked a late shift that night, making it easy for him to trail behind her in the dark and follow her home unnoticed. He’d watched from across the street as she entered her apartment building, appearing a few minutes later on the fifth floor, flicking on the living room light and flopping down on her couch. Even from across the street, the intimacy of knowing where she slept and the ability to visit her in secret anytime he wanted empowered him in a way he had never experienced.
It had taken more than a year for him to gather the courage to visit her again, this time to enjoy the fruits of his years of dedication to Emily by consummating the relationship they had built together.
In the hallway outside Emily’s apartment, he checked the time again. It was getting late. For a moment, he considered scrapping the entire surprise plan and sneaking out the back emergency exit. He had traveled on the bus for half a day and the idea of turning back now felt like a waste. Imagining again how excited Emily would be to finally meet him in real life, he didn’t want to disappoint her by giving up.
His concerns over Emily potentially not showing up were interrupted by the sound of the elevator’s pulley revving inside the elevator shaft, the carriage’s swift descent to the bottom floor filling the hallway with a melodic hum. He felt his hands begin to sweat, the lily’s shaking in his trembling hand. The elevator stopped, filling the hallway again with deafening silence, before revving again. As it passed each floor on its ascent, he could feel his forehead growing moist. He began walking towards the elevator, stopping with his nose just inches from the closed elevator doors. The humming growled through the hallway before letting out a cheerful ding.
The doors opened slowly, and inside stood Emily, wearing a brown coat, leggings, and casual shoes, her hair tied up just as he imagined. She raised her gaze from the screen of her phone, making eye contact with him, her eyes startled at finding someone standing outside so closely to the elevator doors blocking her exit.
He raised the flowers in front of him, extending the lily’s towards her chest, his voice trembling as he spoke.
“Hi Emily, I’m Brian.”
Aaron Horwath is an American expat having spent the last five years living in both Vietnam and The Netherlands. When he isn’t working at one of the world’s largest technology companies, he can be found nose-deep in the pages of Emerson, Kafka, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.