There was a sunset, orange and red, with streaks like slashes of neon yellow energy. It was cutting off part of my vision and reducing it to a yellow-orange blur when I tried to sneak glances at Iker.
We were standing on the balcony above the restaurant where we’d danced before. The lights were still strung up and it still had a vaguely Christmas feel to it, but it wasn’t cold and the smiles from inside the restaurant weren’t the same. Someone snapped a photo of the two of us on our way over and I tried to shield my eyes, but the flash still blinded me and Iker gripped my hand even tighter until we were clear of the mob.
Iker stared down at the street below, as if remembering the chaos outside the restaurant only moments ago, and I followed his line of vision. The streetlights hung overhead, suspended in the darkness like great big eyes against the black backdrop, leering out at us with sleepy whispers turned sour.
There was a street sign and a car’s shadow crept down it as it waited impatiently for the light to change. The sun continued to drop and the shadow dropped with it until it was only a fine line at the bottom at the sign when the car sped off with a honk.
The sun dropped off completely a little later and then it wasn’t blocking my vision anymore and I felt a little lost without the constant annoyance. I stole another look at Iker and blinked, my vision spotted from the sudden change. It was a painted sky and then a reddish-gray like paints mixed, like hell seeping into our dream, and Iker was finally looking back at me. His smile was patient like maybe I’d been looking at him longer than I thought.
The streetlights below, on the street where a few people still milled around, began to light up. It was all so beautiful and there was something about the reflection of lights on the road that made it feel like a movie, that made me feel like I was on the outside, peering in. I was watching a scene of my life playing out like a happy memory montage with the blurred edges of the screen.
“God,” Iker breathed close to my ear and his arm was wrapping around me and I fell into his side without even realizing it. He murmured it again against my ear and it was the only word he could really use because there was some unnatural beauty about the place like a paint-streaked finger left the scattered beauty there. My connection to Iker’s statement was broken a moment later because it seemed such a blasphemous thought that beauty could be created by anything.
Beauty was beauty and in that moment, it was everything, and beauty could neither be created nor destroyed. Nothing in the world could ever convince me that this was Chance and that Iker wasn’t meant to breathe a word in my ear and pull me a little closer like I was an extension of his arm, an extension of his lips, his voice, his mind. Nothing could ever convince me that that finger-painted sky was never meant to exist, and I felt as though some hand reached down and picked up the universe and shook it around until Iker and I met, set it back down, and sat back content.
There was such beauty in that moment, in Iker’s small, muted laugh, in the flutter of his fingers up my arm and the way his eyes lit up when he smiled, smiled and pointed at something in the distance. It was all so intoxicating in the freest way possible. There was a hitch in my breath and then the wind wouldn’t quiet down and it was whistling in my ears and I couldn’t hear a word Iker was saying.
He was tapping the balcony with his fingers and smiled like even my momentary confusion was endearing, and I decided in that moment that even if I wasn’t entirely certain about loving Iker yet, I was heading down that path and— when it happened— it would be accompanied by a dizzying fall, a plunge into the unknown, some floor of glass shattering beneath my feet.
Suddenly the sky was darker and the clouds were like a blanket overhead, darker and darker and darker still until it ended like an abrupt drop off a mile-high cliff, but it lightened at the edge where the sun had dropped off, and it felt like it had dropped off the earth completely because the sky was gloomy and morose like a desolate desert stretching on for miles in every direction.
Iker reached down for my hand and we didn’t talk much at first and then the wind quieted down and Iker began to speak in a low voice. He talked about his family mostly, the club, his friends, the club again, his childhood, and finally a bit about me, speaking with a wry smile, a little shake in his hands; those were the bits of him that hit me the hardest.
“I liked you when we first met—” He stopped short, shrugged, ran his fingers along the balcony railing again. “Or, well, I didn’t really. Not at first, but then I don’t really like anyone right away, so it was all normal. And then I started to like you a lot more and that wasn’t normal.”
“You do too like a lot of people,” I said, thinking about the Iker I’d seen in magazines and on television and with his teammates, but not so much thinking about the Iker I’d come to know.
“No, I just smile at a lot of people,” he replied with a short exhalation of breath like a laugh caught in his throat.
I shrugged and his smile lessened a bit as if to prove he wasn’t just smiling to pretend for me and it made me blush, look down, and I felt a little ashamed that I could turn even something like that into something to completely lose my mind over.
“Anyway, I liked you.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned against the railing, taking them out a moment later to fiddle with a toothpick he’d picked up on his way in, restlessly threading it over his fingers like he couldn’t bear to stand still.
“Interesting,” he said shortly, pulling at the sleeves of his jacket. He was messy and nervous with his hair flying all over his face with each gust of wind. “You were interesting.”
“Not going to say I was different?” I teased. “I’m not like the other girls,” I droned on in the same tone of voice.
“No one is,” he said with a snort. “That’s why I like you, I guess. You don’t go out of your way to be someone you’re not. You don’t try to dress up your personality to make it more desirable. What you see may not be what you get, but at least you don’t get this wild display of adventure and color and just, you know, fucking hell. You’re sort of just you and I guess that’s something I like.”
I laughed because I didn’t have anything better to do, breathed on my hands to warm them up, and moved around because I was embarrassed and cold and he wasn’t nearly close enough. He smiled again, seemed to recognize that neither of us were very good at taking a compliment, and moved closer until his hands replaced mine trying to warm up my fingers.
“I like you because even now there’s something that just—” He cut off again with a shake of his head. “You’re the worst,” he finished, grinning from ear to ear with a smile in his eyes like I was making a difference. He still held my hands, moving his thumb in little circles on my palm, slowing the circles down and then speeding up to match the erratic beating of my heart.
“Love you too,” I replied sarcastically, reaching up to pinch his cheeks. His shoulders were tense and the tips of his ears were burning pink and he forced a laugh, winced, and I knew even he heard how fake it had been, but he made no comment.
There was a catch in his breath like he was about to say something risky and he turned away from me, looked down at the street like that was the object of his affection, and said, “I like you because little things you say disarm me.”
“That’s what I’m here for, Iker.”
He smiled gently and kept his eyes trained on the street below and I got the feeling he was thinking about things he couldn’t— or rather, wouldn’t— tell me. There was something pooling in his eyes like sorrow or guilt or disappointment, maybe all three. I had a feeling he was disappointed in himself for something, and he looked helpless, as though perhaps it couldn’t be helped. Or maybe it could and he’d just given up trying.
I found his hand and tapped at the new cast. It was less painful and allowing for more movement as he was returning to training the very next day. It was nice to see him back, nice to see how eyes lit up and how he insisted on breaking down the performance of individual players and goals he could have saved and goals he didn’t— and maybe a few that he did, but bragging wasn’t his forte.
“So how is this?”
“My hand?” He shrugged, pulled it back and wiggled his fingers around the cast. “Better. Should be back in a few weeks. You’ll see me in action.” He smiled, stared down at his hand, and the smile slowly faded. “Or, you know… not.”
“Why not?” I asked even though I knew. He just laughed like he knew I knew and there was no point going into it.
“Answers,” he said finally, “are normally more painful than living in the dark.”
“Well, I think we all deserve a chance to choose our pain, don’t you?” I lifted my head from staring down at the street to meet his gaze with a slightly combative one of my own; I wasn’t his to protect. I was his without admitting it, but I wasn’t an object he had to guard with his life and valor.
He laughed again, bitter this time, and his hand scraped against the railing with a reckless jab. “So you want, what, answers? Answers will only lead you to more questions and more answers and more pain and it’s an endless cycle and you’ll never be happy.”
I had something to say, but so did he, and his shoulders were slumped and defeated. I felt like I was so close to something and still so far away because sometimes there was just no reaching him and I finally understood what he meant about that wall.
“I can never make you happy,” he said finally and his voice was quiet on the air and the clouds were swallowing up the sky and I felt like something was swallowing me up too. There was despair gathering in my gut and I felt like launching some statement, some argument, at him— something, anything to make him understand that some levels of happiness were only reached when I met a person of a certain calibre and he was above and beyond and he made me— He just made me so happy and there was no changing that, and it destroyed me that he didn’t believe it, wouldn’t believe it.
“You already do,” I said, my voice pleading and urgent and quiet because he never wanted to make a big deal out of things. He ignored me entirely as though I wasn’t even part of the conversation, turned around to face the tables and, not for the first time that evening, I was relieved we were the only ones on the roof.
“You want answers to what.” It wasn’t a question, just a clarification, a lead-in, a warning. His voice was flat and emotionless, but there was something softer in his eyes.
I shrugged, tried to play it down like the two of us always did. “Just something about you that I don’t know. Isn’t that something worth telling?”
“Is there any bit of it that is?”
“I already told you that part,” Iker replied, looking up like he felt a little foolish. “That was when I met you.”
“Don’t give me that,” I muttered, but I was blushing and looking down and I was grateful the sun had gone down, made it harder to see how easily he could win me over.
“You asked for answers,” he said with the ghost of a smile. “That’s an answer if I ever gave one.”
I sighed and turned to rest my arms on the balcony, leaning and ignoring until Iker’s hand came to rest on my back.
“I feel like there’s something I should apologize for.” He sounded confused and honestly apologetic, and when I looked up with a hazy sort of smile, he just implored me to give an answer with his eyes rounded and curious.
“There isn’t,” I said, turning around, letting his hand slip off my back. I reached forward to tug at his fingers again and he tightened his grip around my hand. “I just feel like I know you, but I don’t really know you.” I chewed on my lip. “Does that make any sense?”
He shook his head. “No,” was his stubborn reply.
The strung-up lights were swaying delicately in the breeze and I focused on them until I could get my thoughts out, trying not to pay heed to the light pressure of his hand on mine, or the heavier pressure of his stare boring a hole in my forehead.
“I know who Iker is, but I don’t know what Iker is.” I glanced back to gauge his reaction and he was smiling amusedly, his eyelashes casting shadows down his cheekbones, the shadows lengthening and shortening and disappearing altogether as he blinked and turned this way and that.
“I don’t know what I am either, Lee; it really is impossible to tell.” I couldn’t tell if he was taking it seriously or not, so I smacked his arm lightly and made an impatient expression.
“I don’t know these concrete things about you. The first date sort of things. I just think there’s a level, like a relationship level, that we skipped entirely.”
Iker watched me for awhile, long enough for me to toss him a dirty look. He smiled again, looking down at his hands, and the whole situation didn’t seem funny to him, but he was amused. Amused, perhaps, because he was allowing himself to be split cleanly in half and I was amused that splitting brought him a smile. He went on smiling and staring, and then finally he rubbed at his eyes with the palms of his hands, let out a sigh, and suddenly he was marking my reality with something new:
“I grew up here. I talk to my parents every day. My brother annoys me constantly, but I love him more than anything in the world. When I can’t sleep, I sit in bed and think about football, and my mother tells me it’s because I never grew up, and I like to think that’s true.” There was a pause and then, “I don’t like change. It makes me uncomfortable, like someone is reaching in and messing with things they have no business messing with. I don’t like to rearrange my life for anyone or anything. I am the way that I am for a reason and I’m not going to—” He cut off again, reached up to rub at the back of his neck.
It was a long time before he spoke again; he stood and stared with his hand at the back of his neck with a half-confused, half-martyred expression like maybe that last bit was slowly changing.
Finally he said, “I’m not going to change for anything,” but his voice was much softer and he moved towards the balcony again, pulling me with him and throwing his arm around my shoulders. It was such a stark contrast to his words that I didn’t lean in right away.
“But sometimes change is for the better,” I said, my voice small and quiet against the wind.
“Well,” he replied like he didn’t believe me. He was quiet for a long time, resting his elbows on the balcony and staring down at his hands rather than the street. He fiddled with his cast for the longest time until I turned away with another sigh. It was more a sigh for time than any anger I felt towards him.
“What?” he asked, reaching for me, looking concerned.
“Nothing,” I said, and he looked annoyed. “Really. I mean it.” I grabbed his arm as he turned away. “I’m serious, I’m not upset about anything. Iker, come on.”
He continued to pull himself gently away from my grip and I let go, putting my hands up like it was out of my hands now— literally and figuratively. He tugged at the sleeves of his jacket and he was a few feet away, just standing there with his back turned, and I couldn’t understand what there was to be turning away about.
“You’re going to give up, you know,” Iker said finally. He turned back with the same frozen sad look like he’d been saving it up. “People don’t live in a dream forever and you’ll see that I just—” He was back to the hand behind his neck like, this is difficult to say. “I won’t make you happy.” He smiled, but he wasn’t happy at all.
I wanted to reach out and shake him, tell him, ‘You’re an absolute idiot. I’m stuck here.’ Instead, I stood there stupidly and stared, put my hands behind my back to conceal the shaking. He smoothed down his hair and offered up another smile, perhaps wishing that I would just smile back if only to lessen the tension.
“If you don’t make me happy, don’t you think I would just say something? If you didn’t make me happy, why would I still be here?”
“I don’t know,” he snapped, something breaking in his eyes as well as his voice. I took a step back and the look immediately cleared and horror replaced it. “I didn’t—” he cut off and his speech was so broken after that, so choppy, and, shortened and confused that I could hardly catch it without stumbling over my own thoughts.
“You didn’t…” I trailed off, expecting him to finish, but he just looked distracted, confused, and broken open in a way I hadn’t seen before.
“I don’t want you to be that person I wake up next to in the morning,” he started and I flinched inwardly. “I mean.” He stopped short and ran a hand over his forehead like he couldn’t collect his thoughts. “I don’t want you to look at me and say, ‘It’s over, isn’t it?’ And I never want to look back and answer, ‘It never started.’”
“So start something,” I answered softly, shrugging my shoulders like it didn’t really matter either way.
“Starting something means ending something.”
“Starting something is the exact opposite of ending something.”
“And I’m the exact opposite of what will be good for you in the long run.”
“And I should be the judge of that,” I snapped. “It’s not your responsibility to decide what will and will not hurt me, Iker; I take care of me. Not you, not anyone else. I’m not asking you to hurt me and I’m not asking you to ease any pain. I’m just asking you to stop making this decision for me. Don’t tell me you’re hurting me when I can’t feel a thing but how happy I am.”
“It’s my responsibility—”
“It’s not,” I said, and I could tell it cut into him like acid.
He was quiet for a long time after that and he drummed his fingers on the balcony like it was a normal day and we hadn’t just yelled at each other and he hadn’t just had that awful angry look in his eyes that made me take a step back. It wasn’t a step back out of fear; it was to avoid the anger, and the pain, and the reality he said we couldn’t avoid. We couldn’t live in our dream any longer and I wanted to stay there forever.
“Dance with me,” he said finally and I gave him the rudest look I could muster, not because I was actually angry, but because now really wasn’t the time to start dancing on the roof. “Please?” I moved away and he laughed quietly under his breath. “Please, Lee, come on. I’m sorry?”
“I’m not asking for an apology, Iker. There’s nothing really to apologize for. I just don’t—” I cut off, sighed, and took his hand. We started to dance and he nodded for me to continue talking. “I make my own decisions and if they hurt me, that’s my choice.”
“But I can’t let anything hurt you,” he replied, his breath a whisper at my ear. “Least of all me.”
“Stop acting like everything you do has such a big impact on me,” I grumbled and he tickled my side. “And stop that.”
He relaxed his hands and stepped away, sighed as he brought his hand up to rub at his forehead again. “I’m sorry, Lee. I wanted tonight to be nice. I didn’t mean to turn it into talking about me the whole time and talking about how I’m going to—”
I put my finger to his lips with a warning look and he stopped speaking. “If you say ‘hurt you’, I’ll hurt you. Just be happy about things, would you?” It was my turn to poke him in the side and he grimaced. “Iker—”
I cut off as he swung me around too quickly and I nearly lost my balance. He helped me stay up straight and smiled as I kicked my shoes off to the side where the tables stood. I straightened his tie and he reached back up to loosen it with a suspicious shake of his head like I must be trying to get into his pants even though I was doing the exact opposite.
“The thing I want to hear about…”
“Hm.” His hand tightened around me and his shoulders tensed.
“It’s not so much you telling me that matters.” He changed direction and wouldn’t look me in the eye. “I just wanted you to know that, I don’t know, you could tell me if you wanted to. You don’t have to keep things hidden.”
“Always have to keep things hidden,” he said as he spun me around.
He didn’t say anything else after that, but neither did I, so I didn’t blame him for the tense silence that followed. I didn’t blame him for stepping on my feet or for the nervous laugh I let escape or for the way the lights flickered when I tripped over the power cord. After that— the tripping, that is— he laughed and my laughter grew louder, and we were back to enjoying each other’s company just like that. The fact that he could make me forget my discomfort so quickly unsettled me more than any argument we could have.
I tripped again and he laughed, caught me, pulled me up. His hands were warm at my back and slipping over places my dress didn’t cover. He smiled again and there were crinkles near his eyes and as he pulled me up, he muttered something.
“What are you saying now?” I teased like I was sick of him talking.
“Nothing,” he said, but almost immediately after that, he stumbled over, “I love you—” And then he cut off, and just as quickly, added, “When you’re clumsy. You can’t possibly understand how beautiful you are when you’re tripping over yourself.”
His mouth was warm near my ear and his hands were slipping up my sides and all I could think about was tangled sheets and whispered confessions. I remembered the way he clung to me and those hidden bruises and marks on my neck and the way his fingers lingered there in the morning.
“Iker, stop,” I replied with a laugh, but my face was growing warm and I took a hand off his arm to fan at it. “Clumsy isn’t beautiful and it’s no reason to love a person… I mean, when they’re like that. It’s no reason to love a person, when they’re like that.”
I ran it all together to clarify and there was the panicked widening of his eyes. He looked down in an attempt to fix his mistake. “We all like different things, don’t we?”
The subtle change from love to like hit me in the chest like a ton of bricks and I smiled. “Yeah, I guess we do.”
It was a long time before we came back from dinner. We drove mostly in silence and I could tell he was still thinking about our conversation even though he smiled like everything was fine. I didn’t try to start another conversation in the car because the silence was more comfortable than any words would make it.
Finally, I reached to turn on the radio, but he stopped me, said, “Your place or mine?”
I didn’t answer right away, just turned to stare at the window because I knew if I looked at him, I would say, ‘Yours, most definitely yours.’ I watched the buildings pass, watched how they rose from the ground like giant twisting roses and touched the sky, and I thought about Iker and I and how we were dancing on the rooftop of a building just as high. I didn’t feel like we were anywhere close to touching the sky then though; I felt like we were groveling on the ground with dusty fingernails, searching for a way to compromise.
“Lee?” His voice was soft and wondering. His hand crept towards me and just as it brushed my back, he pulled it away. I almost felt like laughing. “Are we okay?”
“We’re always okay, Iker,” I breathed, not turning to face him. That was the sad part. We were always, always going to be okay in my mind.
He paused, cleared his throat, and I watched as he shifted from uncomfortable Iker to I’m getting in your pants Iker. “So your place or mine,” he asked again and his voice was much lower. He looked over at me with something darker than ever in his eyes and I felt something darken in my own.
“Yours,” I answered without a shred of guilt.
“I was hoping you’d say that.” He turned the car with a quick jerk of the wheel and I shook my head disapprovingly.
“Shut up. You knew I was going to say that. I don’t buy for a minute that you didn’t already know the outcome,” I said sourly.
Iker smiled, just the curve of his lips flicking upward for the briefest of moments and I found myself smiling with him. “Well.”
“Don’t fucking say well and then just cut off like that.” But we were getting too close to what he’d said on the roof, skimming the edge of actually discussing things, and I noticed the caution in Iker’s eyes.
“Cranky,” he shot back with a grin and suddenly the distance between the restaurant and his place was enormous and the car wasn’t moving fast enough and there wasn’t enough air in the car to keep my cheeks from burning pink.
And then we were back at his place and I was throwing the door shut behind us and Iker was groaning something against my neck, but I was too distracted to make it out, and his hands were tugging at my dress. Finally he tugged it all the way off and immediately started for the waistband of the tights I was wearing underneath. He had more trouble with those and finally I laughed and collapsed on the bed and tugged them off for him.
He didn’t laugh, and he didn’t smile, and there was that darkness in his eyes that made me falter— falter at first, and then dive in headfirst. He started for the bed too and pulled me towards him, gently pushing me back until I was lying down and he was staring down at me with the guarded expression in his eyes. He was more guarded than ever— more guarded, more closed off, and much tenser. Something about him was all gathered together like his entire body was on high alert, and I knew this wasn’t going to be like the other times.
I curled my hands into fists around the comforter and Iker’s eyes flicked down to watch them tighten. He swallowed and I averted my gaze until I felt his hand on my shoulder, pushing me back down, as I had half-risen to watch the change in his expression.
There was the sound of a belt buckle being undone and fabric hitting the floor and I shut my eyes instead of craning to look. His fingers trailed up my leg and my eyes fluttered open, watching as he discarded his shirt as well, letting it fall in a heap near his closet.
And then everything was happening so fast I hardly had time to savor the moment. He was spreading my thighs and moving to sit between them and kissing me until I was breathless enough to nearly pass out, breathless enough to feel dizzy and shaky and paling in comparison to anything and everything he was.
“Lee,” he mumbled against my lips, the word tumbling from his like he hardly even meant to spill it, “I—” He cut off again and reached around to unhook my bra, and his fingers weren’t working and he fumbled with the clasp frustratedly until he gave up and gestured to me. I unhooked it, threw it over my shoulder, and he was still visibly frustrated that nothing was moving fast enough.
And then things were moving fast enough and he was everywhere and the sheets were tangled again, stained and tangled, and the comforter was slipping farther and farther down the bed, but this time he didn’t kiss my hipbone when he slammed against it too roughly and his hand left an imprint there where he gripped me too tightly. A testament, perhaps, proving I was his, and not just his, but also his to take care of.
The comforter slipped off the bed entirely, the sheets were completely wrapped around my body, and Iker was pressing down on me and everything was good, but there was that guarded look in his eyes, so guarded that I couldn’t hope to ever break through. It wasn’t a vulnerable sort of guarded; it was a tense, militant guarded.
And then things weren’t fast anymore and there was a change in Iker, only for that split second when I curled into his side, clutching at my own side where it hurt and there was a flicker of something. He whispered my name again and I ignored him, just burying my face in his chest, but he didn’t bring his arms up around me, and I thought again about his walls and his distance and his inability to let anyone in.
“Don’t you see?” he said quietly, barely touching me as I rested my head on his chest. I was resting on him and he was shying away.
“How I break everything I touch,” was his hushed reply, and his hand came to rest on my hipbone, my neck, my arm, all the places where the bruises were beginning to appear. “How I make people believe I don’t care. How I use people. How I can’t— not ever— keep you forever.”
“I won’t ever see that,” I replied, removing his hand from where it had been, lightly brushing over the places he had claimed for himself on my body.
“Too much faith in me,” he murmured, dropping his gaze. “You have far too much faith in me.”
We sat there for awhile, quiet yet again. It was cold, but I had already moved away from Iker, thinking that was best. My feet were halfway under the sheets and half poking out, and I was shivering lightly head to toe. Finally, Iker reached down to grab the comforter and threw it back on the bed. He didn’t look at me and he didn’t put it around me like he had the other night.
I grabbed it myself, didn’t look over at him either, and settled under the comforter with the slightly-damp sheets tangled somewhere near my feet. I pressed my face into the pillow that smelled like Iker and felt like Iker, and tried to forget Iker. Shockingly, it didn’t work.
I was hurt and confused, but not from his behavior before, not because there was a trail of bruises up and down my body. I was hurt and confused because he expected me to be hurt and confused and because he’d said he loved me, but he made excuses and waited until I was sleeping. And I just— for the first time, I wondered if it was meant to be.
I wondered if maybe we just made each other the happiest we could possibly be in those brief moments. And in the other moments, perhaps, we were the best at making each other miserable. I didn’t quite believe that, but I tried to, I really tried to. Just in case he was going to let me down. Everyone has a little insurance policy of their own and lying to myself was mine.
“Iker,” I said finally, with no words planned out, “You’re worth every second.”
But he was pretending to sleep and his hand jerked a little, his head moved towards me like he was struggling to control himself, like he desperately wanted to respond, but wouldn’t let himself. That was enough for me. The struggle was enough for me.
Finally I played the game with him and shut my eyes and pretended to be sleeping when he whispered my name. He said it again and even lightly tapped my arm, but I didn’t feel like continuing anything—- at least not while I was that tired and especially not when there was the promise of hearing much more. Finally, he leaned close to my ear with the whispered confession once more:
“I love you,” he said. “I love you like you’re the last dream I’ll ever allow myself to have. I love you like there’s some part of me stuck in limbo. I love you like I’ll bring you down. I love you like you shouldn’t—” His voice broke. “—can’t love me back. And I love you—” He stopped again. “—because there isn’t another way, and if there were, I would choose this one every time.”
His hand left my side. He rolled over. And when I woke up in the morning, his place next to me was empty.