by Sarah Evans
Russell arrived a little early, wanting to be there first, wanting to see her before she saw him.
He drank his coffee too quickly, feeling the caffeine humming through him, wondering why he was doing this and why the thought of seeing her could still – after all these years – fill him with joyful trepidation.
The time for their meeting came and went. The minutes by which she was late piled up one by one, mingling with the jitter of caffeine till he felt that he’d explode. She was always late. That hadn’t changed. Why the hell had he bothered being early? Ten more minutes, he thought, ten more minutes and he’d leave.
The door was opening, the old-fashioned bell tinkling; there was a blast of cold air, and a woman bursting through, her bright scarf flapping, her hands busy with plastic bags, eyes darting but not, it seemed, seeing.
Middle-aged now. They both were. But she was wearing well, still tight and lean and conveying, even in the briefest of glimpses, a sparking energy. His heart was beating fast and he lingered for an hour-long-second, wishing he could simply observe, that he had time to absorb the shock and to let his pulse settle.
Her eyes alighted on him and his legs pushed his body to standing. Her smile stretched broadly. ‘Russell!’ she said, her voice unchanged after twenty years.
He manoeuvred out from behind his table, his shin banging against a chair and setting him tripping. They met midway, then both hesitated, before ducking towards each other for a social embrace, heads bobbing side to side, kissing the air which was fragranced with her still familiar scent.
‘It’s good to see you,’ he said, momentarily dizzied by the brush of her silk-soft skin.
‘Good to see you too.’ She drew back, looking at him openly, appraising, and he wished his hair not so thin, his middle not quite so thick.
‘You haven’t changed,’ he said, and her laughter was bright and vivid as she said: ‘What nonsense! We’ve both changed.’ Her mouth stretched to a lop-sided smile. ‘Both older. Wiser.’ Then she laughed. ‘Perhaps.’
‘Do we need to be wiser?’
‘We weren’t back then.’
‘I don’t know…’ And that was it, he felt he didn’t know, anything, other than that it was good to see her and that he couldn’t remember, not precisely, why they had split up.
‘Coffee?’ he offered.
‘Let me. Same again?’ She gestured his foam-lined cappuccino cup, and he said yes, meaning no, but it was too complicated to think of something different or to insist that he could buy them.
He sat down, grateful for the firm support of the wooden chair, and for the opportunity to watch her as she queued, her hand pushing back her thick, auburn hair and her eyes twitching round, her feet tapping. Watching her was tiring. Was that why they hadn’t endured; he’d been worn out by her?
‘Here!’ she exclaimed in triumph as she presented him with an extra large cappuccino, the abundant creamy froth feeling indulgent set alongside her espresso.
‘How are you?’ she asked.
‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘I stuck with law. Was made a partner three years ago. I live in Hertfordshire. I’m mid-divorce.’ He reeled out the basic parameters of his life, wishing they were more interesting, aware that none of this answered her question.
‘And happy?’ she asked.
‘What does that mean?’
She laughed. ‘What indeed?’
He had known to define himself as happy once; he remembered the certainty, the waking up beside her and saying I love you and that feeling – I’ve never been so happy – and the need to express it in words; and her laughing and telling him that all that told her was that he had been miserable before. But wasn’t that reasonable? Happiness wasn’t an absolute, it was relative, it was more or less, it grew or died.
‘You?’ he asked. ‘What about you?’
‘I’m good. No longer a lawyer.’ She grimaced. ‘But then you know that, you tracked down my website. Doing my own thing. Sort of making it as an artist, which is to say I make enough from commercial stuff to get me by and still have time to experiment with what I really want to do.’
‘You found your way then?’
And now he was remembering this point of difference between them. It was never that he loved his job, never that he felt that it defined or fulfilled him. But there was satisfaction in knowing that he did it well, gratification in the way his pay-checks swelled year by year and in the ability to buy the house and car and lifestyle.
‘My way? I guess. I found a way to be. There are still compromises, but not as fundamental as the nine-to-five grind. I’m OK I guess.’
‘And married? Partnered?’
‘No.’ She looked at him very directly. ‘I’m not good at the relationship thing. But then you know that.’
‘Don’t you?’ And he was remembering the pointless arguments and her inability to find a middle way until the moment when she was staring down at the floor and her voice was low and serious: maybe I’m just not cut out for this.
‘And you’re happy?’ he asked.
‘I guess. I mean as happy as anyone. I’m not unhappy and that seems as much as it’s reasonable to hope for.’
Somehow his coffee had been drunk and inside he was buzzing up like a nest of wasps.
‘Why did we split up?’ he asked.
‘Why were we together?’
‘We loved each other.’ Anger surged, surely she remembered that?
She paused; her large green eyes stared ahead. It couldn’t be that difficult to remember. ‘It was very intense,’ she said. ‘All that wanting each other. It was very…consuming.’
‘And isn’t that love?’
‘Isn’t that just lust?’
‘It was more than that.’
‘It felt like more than that. But then it doesn’t it?’
Anger pulsed, along with resentment and regret, emotions all frothing up, refusing to settle, refusing to order themselves into any kind of logic.
‘It was more than that,’ he repeated very quietly.
‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘It didn’t last though.’
‘It could have done.’
‘If it could have done, it would have.’
‘You didn’t follow.’
‘You sodded off to the back of beyond. Finding yourself.’
‘You could have come too.’
‘I already knew who I was.’ The same grey-suited man who sat here now, who saw nothing wrong with nine-to-five routines and slowly making his way up a career ladder in a job he was good at, if not inspired by.
The question rested pointlessly between them. ‘Oh gosh,’ she said, raising her arm in a slightly exaggerated gesture, ‘is that the time?’
‘I expect so. Unless your watch is faulty.’
She looked at him then laughed. ‘I remember you making me laugh.’
…and Sunday mornings wrapped in sweat drenched sheets and the completeness of contentment, did she remember that too?
‘Why,’ she asked, ‘did you get in touch?’
‘I don’t know. Two old friends.’
‘Lovers. It was never really about friendship was it?’
‘Doesn’t lover imply friendship too?’
‘You must have had other lovers since,’ he blurted, angry and jealous. ‘Weren’t they friends?’
‘Yes. I must have.’ Again, that wide-eyed gaze, seeking answers in the distance. ‘And no, not really. I don’t really do friends,’ she said.
‘Can’t we be?’
‘Friends? I don’t think so. I mean do you? I mean really.’
Her laugh was deep and vivid. ‘It’s not that easy.’
‘It was back then.’
‘We were young then.’
‘We’re not exactly old.’
‘Too old. I really ought to go.’
Their eyes met, a lingering moment in which he failed to understand. Anything.
‘It was nice seeing you,’ she said and she leant in towards him, her lips against his cheek soft and warm.
Then she was gone. Just as she’d left him before.
Bio: Sarah Evans has had dozens of stories published in magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize, Momaya Press, Earlyworks Press, Tonto Press and Writers’ Forum. She lives in Welwyn Garden City with her husband.