When I saw him again he was looking at cereal bars. Seventeen years since the last time, and I knew this because that was the New Year of 1997. I didn’t talk to him till four in the morning because I’d spent most of the night in Sophie’s kitchen pouring glasses of wine for other people. I was in some of the photographs on the wall, chubby and childhooded. A good conversation starter.
‘How long have you two known each other?’
‘Oh, forever. Y’know,’ I laughed, ‘my day one girl, Soph is.’
‘You must have a lot of stories.’
I did, though I couldn’t remember any. People smiled and asked about other things: How was Christmas? Any resolutions? No, no one is, are they?
At four I went into the garden to get some fresh air, and there was a hand on my shoulder.
It had been three years at Cambridge for him, Oxford for me, plus another spent sunburning around Southeast Asia, and yet – it still felt like it used to.
‘God. Didn’t expect to see you here.’
‘Really?’ He sat down and I did the same. ‘I knew you’d be here, actually. Out of everyone.’
Somewhere inside the house something smashed. There was an eruption of laughter.
‘How are you?’
‘Good.’ He laughed again and glanced at his lap.
It was very cold and I sunk further into my coat. Looking at him made me remember not only the scrunched smiles and the jokes and the talking into the night, but also the heavy-tongued nervousness. He put a salty feeling in my heart for two years and that’s not something that slips away easily.
‘Jesus, Audrey.’ He stopped smiling. ‘It’s been so fucking long, I don’t even know. What have you been up to? How was Oxford?’
‘How was Cambridge? A first? Where have you been?’
‘How are the others?’
‘Have you seen any of them?’
‘Only Soph. Dave, here and there.’
‘Max is in New York.’
There was a pause.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t even hug you,’ I said, getting up, and he met me halfway. There was a time when I recognised all of his jumpers, but this one was new. My head was still just up to his chest. I could feel the pressure of his arms and I wondered why we only ever touched like this when drunk. We’d spent years sitting next to each other on trains, but it was only in the midst of a night-time crowd that we leant, with alcohol on our breath. Doesn’t mean anything. Never meant anything, I know.
He went to move away but I held on and I could smell his soap.
‘It’s okay, I’m not in love with you anymore,’ I said. I knew he smiled at that, though I couldn’t see because he was holding me so close that the particles of his jumper stuck to my lips.
‘I know,’ he said, chuckling.
‘It’s just the past, that’s all. I’m just in love with the past and all that. Do you remember all that?’
‘Of course I remember all that.’
I heard people stumbling out into the garden, a conversation pulled from the warmth into the chill. Stretched.
‘What are you going to do now?’
‘I don’t know. I’m sleeping here, so–’
‘I meant in life, actually.’ I poked him and felt kind of young again. It didn’t matter that we were too busy giggling to think about the future. I realised afterwards that he never answered, and so standing in Sainsbury’s seventeen years later, I didn’t really know him at all. His shirt was pale blue, untucked, and he was holding a Nature Valley box. I counted the moments, knowing that the longer the words congealed in my mouth, the more I wouldn’t be able to say them. Hey. What the hell have you been up to? It’s been a while.
I was sixteen when we locked eyes on a good friend’s balcony. I used to think the eye contact was telling – of what? We’re all guilty of assuming other people to be simpler than ourselves. Sometimes I thought it was clear that he felt it back, but other times perhaps I was just hopeful and swelling too much at the seams of my heart. That’s a clichéd way of putting it, I know, but it fits the bill. I was drowning, inside out. It doesn’t matter now, because it’s been twenty-three years. Time has a way of sorting stuff out.
He slotted the box back onto the shelf. I wanted to touch his shoulder and be wrapped up in a frantic embrace and ask about his thoughts and clutch at the threads of his life that had slipped out from between my fingers over the years, but it occurred to me then that it wasn’t the same him. It wasn’t the same, but then again, it kind of was – and the nape of his neck looked as it always did.
Seventeen years since we’d last said goodbye, brushing against each other – hands, shoulders, lips – as the sun pushed its way up that New Year’s morning. Mum used to say, ‘You don’t always get everything in life.’ I thought: here is everything. Here is everything that I didn’t get.
FLO WARD is a writer from London. She is also the founding editor of Inky Magazine, aimed at young writers. She was a Wicked Young Writers Award finalist in 2014, and has had her short fiction featured in a variety of international online and print publications.
She can be found on Twitter @florencemolly97