You try your best to hide in the crowded room; it’s nearly impossible. You clocked her the minute she came through the door. You had hoped to see her, yet now she is here you find yourself making polite excuses to leave.
‘It’s not that late! You can’t leave yet! I’ve just bought you a pint.’
‘Ok.’ You begrudgingly accept the drink, ‘But after this, I’m outta here.’
Your friends haven’t spotted her yet. Why would they? You sip your pint and wait patiently for her to notice you, willing it to be soon, simultaneously feeling queasy at the thought of her coming over. You lower your gaze and try to focus on the conversation taking place at your table, but you can feel her presence. Every move she makes jolts through you. Her shape takes hold of your peripheral vision − it’s trained on her, you know where she is without moving an inch. She nears. You squeeze your eyes together momentarily and when you open them again, you lean in close to your friend sitting on the opposite side of the table in an attempt to concentrate on his story. The few details you absorb are dull. Something is alight inside of you and you can’t quite shake it off.
You can’t resist. You turn your head a fraction and she is back in view. Now standing at the end of the bar, she leans on her elbow, running her free hand through her hair which hangs in her face. The clock on the wall is deafening as the voices around your table dissolve into nothing. You wonder who it is that she is talking to and how they know each other. Does she live close by, is that why she is here so often? You wonder if she has seen you, if she would even recognise you. You only realise that you’ve been staring at her for far too long, consumed by unanswered questions, when she raises an eyebrow, looking directly at you, and nods.
‘Are you listening?’ His question snaps you back into the here and now.
‘Yes. Sorry, yes. You’ve told her you won’t see her again until she ends things with the guy at work.’
That seems to satisfy him. He doesn’t really care if you hear him or not, he just needs to say it out loud. To convince himself.
‘I think that’s for the best, mate.’
You raise your glass and clink it against the edge of his. His voice dissolves away into the background as he runs through the story again for the benefit of the others who have just returned from the bar. The indistinguishable roar of people’s fragmented conversations, which they shout to compete with the music, engulfs you.
The windows are completely steamed up as the growing number of bodies tightly pack themselves into the space. You’ve lost sight of her and it all feels too overwhelming. It will be easy for you to slip out without saying your goodbyes. You unhook your denim jacket from the back of your seat and tuck it through the straps of your rucksack. The gang are too engrossed in the latest gossip, peering into a phone screen, to notice you get up. You signal to a friend, talking closely with a man you’ve never seen before, that you are leaving, and she waves before turning back to him, brushing his nose with hers. You’ll send a text to the others from the bus stop to save them worrying.
Hands in pockets, you weave through the crowd. A couple locked in an embrace are separated as you squeeze between them, fighting your way to the door. Your intrusion releases the woman from the vice like grip of the man, who tuts at you before pulling her back in. The exit is in sight and you feel your chest loosen for the first time since she walked through that very door.
It’s not the right time. Better left alone. You raise your hand out of your pocket and as you reach to push the door, a hand closes around your wrist.
‘I just wanted to give you this.’
She stands to the side of the door holding out a folded scrap of paper between her fingers. She loosens her grip on your wrist but doesn’t let go. You are paralysed. She must have seen you heading out. She was watching you. She remembered. Without thinking, you reach out and grab what she is offering, but once it is in your possession, you’re not sure what to do with it. You make a tight fist around it and lower your arm.
She tilts her head and raises an eyebrow just as she did at the bar. You become increasingly aware that you still haven’t responded, other than to snatch whatever this piece of paper is that now burns a hole through your palm.
‘Ok. I was just heading off. Thanks.’
What you are thanking her for, you have no idea, but the heat which rises from your balled fist, up your arm and around your body is too much to bear. She nods at you and disappears into the sea of sweaty faces. You need air.
Out on the street, the orange streetlamps illuminate the dark violet sky. The cold air burns your nostrils as you breathe in for the first time since your wrist was held captive. You steady yourself against the gate of the pub garden, pulling your jacket on, fist still balled. Walking up the narrow mews to the main road, you pass no one and her voice plays on a loop in your mind. The bus approaches the stop at the same time that you do, and the driver waits as you politely jog the last few paces. It is only when you are seated that you can think about what is in your hand. You uncurl your fingers and look down at the now extremely crumpled, folded scrap in your hand. A secret, unknown to anyone on the bus, anyone anywhere for that matter, except you and her. The piece of paper is folded twice, and you hesitate as you get to the final fold. Its edges part easily, and you see a phone number. You are about to close it back up again when you notice something written at the bottom:
For if you ever become less complicated.
You read the words three times, just to make sure it says what you think it says. It does.
Hands trembling, you fold the note twice, then three times and again once more, before pushing the tiny square deep into your jacket breast pocket. You look around you. Nothing has changed. The other passengers are completely unaware of the change inside of you. The man slumped over the back seats continues to snore. The women drunkenly imagining their perfect man − chopping the head from one celebrity and pasting it onto the arms and torso of another − continue to cackle away just ahead. A wave of heat rushes over you and you stand up involuntarily and press the bell four times. Your feet carry you to the door of the bus and out onto the pavement where the cold air stings your clammy skin. You will walk from here; the bus will get you home too quickly. You need time to think.
Leaves swirl on the ground in all directions. Abandoned cans clatter along the otherwise silent streets.
You wonder where the night has taken the others. You think of your friend’s nose rubbing against the nose of the unknown man and wonder what she’d think of all this. She would wake up tomorrow, in the bed of a stranger and think nothing of it. ‘It’s no big deal! It’s what single people do!’ she would say nonchalantly, you’d heard this speech a thousand times. At university, you’d taken her at her word and tried what you had witnessed boys attempt and succeed at. You’d kissed her, in the kitchen at a house party.
‘What are you doing!?’
‘You said it’s what single people do!’
‘Yes! Boys and girls!’
Her lack of tact caught the attention of a group of boys, who cheered and asked for a replay.
A metallic sound follows you and before too long, you realise it’s scraping along in time to your step. You lift your foot to discover a bottle top punched into the sole of your shoe. It’s bright blue. You dislodge it from your sole and turn it around in your hand. It reminds you of the bright blue badge you had pinned to the pocket of this jacket a long time ago. It was this exact bright blue but rather than the beer logo stamped in the middle, there was a small cloud, raindrops of blue glitter falling diagonally from it. You continue to walk, still turning the bottle top in your hand. You wonder where the badge has got to. You remember unpinning it from your pocket, but where did it go after that? Lost, just like it’s original owner. You didn’t buy the badge. It was a gift, pinned onto the strap of your vest as you stood in the middle of the shop trying to look as if her actions were no big deal. Abigail was her name. You knew it before she ever noticed you. You’d normally just order online but you were passing the bookshop on your way home and so you decided to go in and grab them to save on the delivery charge. There were three books on your list: you found them, flicked through a few others, then made your way to the till. You set your books on the counter and didn’t take much notice of the person who was serving you until they asked for your loyalty card. Taking no notice of you, she scribbled an A across one of the small circles and scoffed that the stamp had gone missing without looking up.
Printed on your receipt: Today you were served by Abigail.
Your enthusiasm for in person shopping heightened after your first trip. There were many reasons to pop by; besides, you passed it every day on your way home. You browsed, you bought gifts for friends, birthday cards for colleagues, key rings to sit in the back of a drawer somewhere.
‘You’re keeping us in business! Do you want a job?’
Abigail couldn’t not notice you anymore. She saw your loyalty card once, sometimes twice a week following your initial visit, and with each stamp came a little more familiarity. This time though, you could think of no reason to be there. You wandered back and forth and settled on a copy of a book you already owned; the paperback had a slightly different cover to the one on your bookshelf. Behind you the queue mounted, and you felt sure that Abigail would rush serving you to curb the masses. When it came to your turn, you absentmindedly fished a badge out of the jar on the counter and placed it on top of your book. Transaction complete, Abigail passed you the book and as she did, the badge slid off and disappeared down through a tube of wrapping paper.
She came out from behind the counter, eyes fixed on the stack of tubes standing upright in the box.
‘This may take a while.’
She began lifting and shaking the tubes one by one and, despite your protestations, she was adamant that ‘poor customer service was not an option, not for their best customer.’ She looked up then and winked at you.
‘Are you going to just stand there?’
The queue, which had doubled in size and halved in patience, was eventually saved by the other shop assistant, whose looks of concern were shrugged off by Abigail, who was surrounded by mess. Each empty tube that came out of the box, made you both more hysterical.
‘It’s vanished. This is ridiculous!’ You pulled the last tube from the box and she peered into it.
‘It’s gone. It’s a mystery!’
Abigail did not return to her side of the counter as you collected and restored the tubes to the box. Instead, she stood staring at you.
‘Well, I’m afraid I can’t let you leave without one.’ She unpinned a small bright blue badge from her waistcoat and, as she did, the raindrops falling from the little grey cloud glistened.
‘No. You don’t have to do that.’
She took a step forward and fixed the small blue badge to the strap of your vest, knuckles grazing your shoulder as she wrestled with the clasp. A wave of heat flushed through you then, comparable only to the sensation that had you jumping off the bus just now. Bottle top still in hand, you pause at the edge of the curb and wonder how long it will be until the sun comes up. Could you just keep walking? Supposing you did, then what? The great proclamation expected from a situation such as yours feels at best, like an unnecessary fuss. Once shared could you ever really take it back? You know you don’t want to, not this time, but you’d let that nagging doubt creep back in one too many times. You remember how you felt in the kitchen of that house party. You had never talked about it, but she never crashed at yours again after that night. You’d wished you could take it back then.
From the badge day onwards, you were inseparable. You no longer needed an excuse to visit the shop. She’d sneak you into the stock room on her lunch break. The two of you would sit on the floor, surrounded by towers of books, sharing her homemade cheese and pickle sandwiches. You’d wait outside the shop at closing time, just to walk her to the station. You greedily devoured every anecdote, every story that she trusted you with in the way that only those first hazy weeks of getting to know someone new allows for. The thought of her dragged you through the day. At the station one day, after your early evening ritual − a cup of tea, the longer route from the shop to the station, a hug goodbye − she leaned in to kiss you and you pulled away.
‘I thought you were into me.’ The look on her face chipped a piece from your heart.
You said nothing, so she continued.
‘I thought this is what this had all been about. God, am I deluded?’
‘No. It’s just…’
‘Just what? Is this some kind of game?’
‘No, I am into you but…’ Those six words replayed in your head for months, the precursor to your undoing.
You look down at your palm, where the bottle top sits and let it fall to the floor. A neat ring of tiny blood spots appears in its place. It bounces off the curb and rolls into the gutter. When it meets the grate of the drain, you think you see it pause a moment, contemplate its fate, before hurtling down into the deep, but you can’t be sure.
The streetlights reflect in your road sign as you round the corner. There are no lights on in any of the houses. Your knees ache to rest, to get inside, but the sight of your front door makes you slow your pace. You could send her a message when you got in, call her even. She might still be out, still leaning against the bar.
‘Is it too late to call?’ You’d say when she answered the phone. You’d talk for hours. Just like you did the night you met, the only other time you’d been in her presence. A friend introduced you at the opening of his exhibition. Before long, he had given up trying to talk to either of you and had left you to it. Each plastic cup of wine drew you nearer to each other, under the pretence that the music was too loud. People tried to interject but failed. You made small attempts to humour other people; acquaintances, friends even, but at the first opportunity, your conversation resumed. She’d suggested a cocktail bar just down the street. You slipped off without a word to anyone. She ordered two whiskey cocktails at the bar and you went and sat in a dimly lit booth by the window to wait for her. You had forgotten what this felt like. When you’d told her that you didn’t like tequila, she raised an eyebrow, just as she had this evening at the bar, and shouted over to the barman for two Margaritas.
‘I’ll change your mind.’
She didn’t look at you when she said it, but you couldn’t take your eyes off of her.
You left when the polite requests to finish up became a little more authoritative. On the way out of the door, she reached for your hand, but you pulled it away.
‘Come home with me.’ She reached out for your hand again on the street, but you stuffed it in your pocket.
‘There is nothing I would love to do more than come home with you.’ You couldn’t look at her because you knew what was coming.
‘I really would. You are everything that I want but…’
You try to picture a different ending. One where she takes your hand and leads you to her place. You’d wake up to find her looking at you, the same way she did this evening as she handed you the note. The look that makes you feel alive. You wish you had stayed; you could have. You wonder how long she stayed after you left, if anyone saw her meet you at the door. You wish that you had opened her note the moment it was in your grip. Better still, you could have waited until you had got outside. This idea was more romantic: you could have charged back in, pushing through the crowds, searching, until finally you caught sight of her.
Only when she had noticed you standing there, staring from across the room, would you walk over to her, expressionless, and without any words exchanged you would kiss her. You smile to yourself, knowing you would never be that brave.
You can stall no longer; you’re home.
Your keys get caught, hooked through a hole in your bag lining. You smile, thankful for the extra second or two outside while you release them. The front door swings open and you catch it just before it smashes against the wall. You creep down the hall and into the bathroom. You shed your clothes and leave them where they fall on the green speckled lino – all but the jacket, you retrieve that from the pile. The edge of the bath is cold against your bare skin, still disproportionately hot, given the temperature outside. You reach two fingers into the breast pocket. When the tip of your finger connects with the paper, your chest tightens, and you feel her grip around your wrist. You tilt the uncurled paper into the moonlight so you can make out the words. You trace the words over and over with your little finger. Before the flattened scrap of paper is slotted between two bank cards in your wallet, you hold the paper against your lips and close your eyes, just for a second.
Toothpaste runs down your chin as you stare at yourself in the mirror, unable to break your own gaze. The person looking back at you pleads with you to be brave.
The towel wipes your mouth, then your eyes, before covering your entire face as you stifle a desperate whimper. You replace the towel on the hook and leave the bathroom, stepping over your discarded clothes. In the bedroom, you hang your bag on the chair tucked neatly into the desk and walk over to the bed. Lifting the covers as gently as possible, praying that you don’t disturb faint breaths coming from the bundle of blankets, you slide in.
You stare into the corner of the room. The blind doesn’t fit the window properly and as the wind blows, the glow from a streetlight flickers across the table. Empty wine bottle, ashtray, half eaten packet of crisps. Your eyes haven’t fully adjusted to the lack of light, the rest of the room is black. It doesn’t matter, you know it so well. You mark out where everything sits without moving your head; burnt orange beanbag to the left of the table, cactus collection running the length of the bookcase, record player.
How can this be so hard?
It is what you want.
Tears blur your already limited vision, but you cannot let another night pass. Another night staring into your future as it slips away. As you turn to face him you know that you have to do it, not just for you but for him too.
‘Are you awake?’
‘I need to tell you something.’
As soon as these last words tumble out, it’s too late. It’s done and you can’t take it back. You can’t take it back, but you can’t seem to bring that ‘something’ out from where it is stuck in your throat. He’s waiting, silently. You can’t make out his face, but you just know what it looks like: the face when you spoke a little too enthusiastically about Carrie Brownstein earlier that evening. The face when you can’t stay over because you have too much work on. The face when you made a new friend called Alice at work. The work that you are spending more and more time at recently, picking up shifts of people you’ve never mentioned before.
You resort to the only way you know how to talk about your feelings. You go to the desk without a word, tear off the bottom of an empty envelope, and scribble it down with a pen which has a pig sitting on top of it − you called him Pete.
As he rustles around for his glasses and uncurls the edge of the paper, you can’t look at him. It’s done.
‘Right. Ok. I thought so.’
He sighs and puts his glasses back on the shelf. He doesn’t argue; he doesn’t even look at you. His head stays fixed forward, staring into the darkness.
As you cry, he pulls you in. You feel his tears mix with your own as they slide down your forehead and the world simultaneously opens up and shuts down.
You cry with relief. You cry because you’re starting over. You cry because you’re stepping into the unknown, but mostly you cry for the loss of the unconditional love you have grown accustomed to. The love that will be replaced by what, exactly? You’re not even sure what it is. It isn’t anything. It’s just a feeling.
You cry because you’re breaking someone else’s heart. And your own.
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