Red Pepper Dare by Jasmina Kuenzli

“Your coworker seems to be upset about something. What do you do?”

It was a rainy day, and the two of us were sitting in the office, stewing in an awkward silence.

I don’t remember who was there with us. Just like I don’t remember if it was summer or fall. I think that it was raining outside the window, and it was late in the day.

We were the only people in the room.

And you were. So sad.

Down, like I get sometimes when I’m away at school, and I realize that I haven’t had a single conversation with another human being all day. Down like it hurts just to sit up in bed. Out of it like foggy and overcast, the entire world muffled and distant. 

Your gaze was glued to the dull gray of the desk, and you were tracing your hand back and forth across it. The room smelled like stale pizza, and I was bloated and anxious, watching you. Watching the desk. Your face so fallen.

I can’t remember what you said; it just radiated off of you. You were in despair. You were at the bottom of the swimming pool, looking towards the surface, your vision turning black at the edges. There were dark circles under your eyes, and your fingernails had made dents in your palms.

“I’d ask if they want to talk about it. And I’d try to see if I could help.”

“That’s a good answer.”

I think, “You don’t know any better.”

I think, “Don’t get involved.”

I think, “Always keep everyone at arm’s length. “

I think, “Hold all your cards close to your chest, and never let go. Not even for a second.”


I pulled the conversation out of you slow and thick, like taffy. Eventually, as your tone grew more clipped and your silence more dour, I let you languish.

But for all your static, fuzzy existence, I was nervous motion. My gaze darted to your face and down to my book again. I crossed my legs, then uncrossed them. I paced. I fidgeted.

I was stuck on listening to your breathing and your occasional sighs, the frantic tapping of your foot against the floor, trying to listen for a rhythm, trying to decipher a sign.

I needed you to look at me. I needed to see your eyes clear, and warm. I needed to bring you out of your head to come play.

But after what I’d said, I didn’t get to see inside your head anymore.

I never got to know why you were sad, why you were happy. I didn’t get to see the stories as they spun to life or listen to the song that was tapping out its own rhythm.

I missed you so much that day. I missed the way you always laughed at my jokes. I missed showing up to work early because I knew it would mean that I got to see you. I missed always having someone to sit next to and always having someone on my side, and most of all I missed how I could just look at you, and we understood each other. Like we’d always been on exactly the same wavelength.

It was so many things. The love that hadn’t gone away, and the sadness and rage and helplessness that you emitted like radiation poisoning.  It was too much stale pizza and the tedium of a long workday and reading the same book over and over…

Maybe if I’d been a better person, the kind of person who was emotionally mature and trusting, I would have just tried to talk it out.

If I wasn’t the kind of person who had frozen up on that date and said enough things to push you away because I thought it was safer than outright rejection, if I wasn’t the kind of person that wasn’t always waiting for the other shoe to drop and you to find someone better…

If I wasn’t the kind of person that had perimeter fences and proximity alarms and barbed wire, set to go into full lockdown at anything close to vulnerability, I might have asked you what was wrong. Done the right thing. Maybe it would have brought us closer, and I wouldn’t’ be writing this three years after the fact, wishing that I wasn’t.

Because here’s the thing:

You turned out not to be my soulmate.

And I haven’t spoken to you in three years.

But if you’re not my soulmate,

I still don’t think anyone else is.

–“What would you do?”

–“Tell him a joke.”

For all my claims of emotional unavailability, for all the ways I describe myself: emotionally stunted and touch-starved and damaged by too much bullying and too much heartbreak, the explanation is really much simpler than long-buried trauma and the demons I keep under my bed:

I wanted to make you laugh.

“Do you dare me?”

“What?” You turned toward me slowly. Your shoulders were made of lead. Your eyes were bloodshot and tired. When you looked at me, a spark appeared behind them, casting a little bit of the grey out of the blue. You blinked up at me, like a child lost at the bottom of a well.

 “Do you dare me to eat all that crushed red pepper?”

You were still a little irritated. Trying to figure out how to get me to shut up without being mean.

 You always thought the reason I chose the quick and easy way out was because I only thought shallowly, only saw things at the surface.

You were always wrong about me, but I loved you anyway.

“I’m gonna eat every packet of this crushed red pepper. It’s like a shot! Ready—”

“No—” You half-rose from your seat.

I can’t really remember what the pepper tasted like.

I remember a burn in the back of my throat, and tears on my cheeks.

Mostly I remember you—

The way your expression changed from irritation, your brows furrowed, your shoulders hunched…

To incredulity—

Your chest open, your eyes wide

As I hacked and coughed a little too dramatically to be authentic—

Tell him a joke

A smile finally cracked across your features, the light catching that bit of gold in the hair that peeked out from beneath your cap.

Your laugh, deep and surprised and bewildered, spilled out as I kept coughing, tears streaming.

I looked at you.

Watched you laugh.

Watched that smile rise, the sun coming up.

Watched the fog burn off in its glory.

It’s still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

And I felt it again—

As much as I tried to push it away,

Deny it, reason out of it

Shove it down until it was gone—

I love you. So much.

The moment was a burst soap bubble, rainbowed iridescence scattering and dissipating into the walls. Rendering the fluorescence glowing instead of harsh, magical instead of mundane.

And just as I was thinking it…

Those three words

I’m not allowed to say

That you don’t want to hear…

As we went back to work, back to our duties, assuming the role once again of just coworkers, just the day shift, just…


You dropped those three words.



At the end of the sentence.

Showing your hand before anyone’s called a bluff.

The same words I was thinking…

“I love you—”

And I just—


I fucked it up.

Would you ask him to talk about it?

Or would you do what you do best?

That pause lasted too long.

Our eyes met, and I could see the hope in yours.

But I think all you saw in mine was the anxiety. The fog.

Waiting for another shoe to drop.

 I’d been thrown into deep water with lead weights tied to my feet, and nothing to do but drown, not trusting that lifeline to save me.

“But not in a weird way…”

You continued, trying to scramble when we’d both already been tackled

The wind knocked out of us.

You kept tripping over your words.

Starting and restarting so many sentences.

Waiting for me to take your hand—

Walk across the room and kiss you—

Say it back.

And I saw only the cracks in the floor

The places the empty sky showed through,

The holes in the ship’s hull

Where the water had already started to rush  in.

And this happens every time

I always fall.

I always drown.

I know better.

Tell him a joke.

I pushed the door closed, and I felt you on the other side, your hand on the handle.

The disappointment curled your shoulders inward.

We stayed there.

On separate sides of the room.

Separate lives.

Never daring to look into each other’s eyes.

In case we revealed the truth once again.

And three years later, I still tell jokes.

Jasmina Kuenzli is an author of poetry, creative non-fiction, and fiction. When she isn’t writing, Jasmina can be found weightlifting, running, and holding impromptu dance parties in her car at traffic lights.  She hopes to one day land a back flip, get legally adopted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and be a contributor on Drunk History. She would like to thank Brenna and Sarah, who hear all these stories first, and Harry Styles, who is sunshine distilled in a human being. 

Twitter: @jasmina62442  

Instagram: @jasminawritespoetry and @jazztagrams