“Come on!” Her voice was on the edge of shouting. I could see a touch of anger building in her eyes as she stared at me. Exasperation was written all over her brow. “Really? Come on!” This time the statement was heavy with her frustration.
“You can’t be serious?” Again her insistence pushed me backwards as if she had placed her hands on my shoulders and shoved me.
I tried to speak but all that was coming out of me was a broken string of stuttering. My eyelids were weighed down with an unexpected sense of shame but somehow I managed to look at her as the words fought with my tongue to be free.
“I … I … what I mean is … I’m not sure what I want to do. I … I feel a bit lost, I guess…” I trailed off without really knowing what I was trying to say. My eyes fell from her face and found a focus spot just in front of my feet. I knew, without even looking at her, what she was going to say. I could feel the disappointment shining from eyes that were like searchlights across my body. I was totally exposed but there was nothing she could find. Her sigh was loud.
“I don’t understand what’s wrong with you,” she started to speak rapidly, “what you need is … I really don’t even know what to say to you right now. All I know is that you need something!” She paused and looked at me. I could still feel her eyes scanning my face and, like a magnet, she forced me to raise my own gaze to meet hers.
Immediately our eyes joined I felt sadder than before because I was now carrying her disappointment alongside my own. I knew that I would agree with anything that she said next because it was going to be the truth. I wanted to be different – if only to make her happy again. What I couldn’t quite decide in that moment was whether her sadness was with me or for me.
“What you really need,” she spoke quickly following a pull on her rollup, “what you’ve got to get in your life, is some oomph.”
Anger coursed through me but I knew it was the truth. How dare she know me so well and I hadn’t begun to tell her anything about myself.
I flushed as I stared at her. She sat across the table from me and waited for my reaction. The cigarette was loosely held between her fingers, I watched as she brought it to her beautiful lips and pulled on it. The swirls of smoke leaving her mouth were mesmerising. My mind relaxed.
Then she stubbed out the rollup in the ashtray that she had brought out onto the terrace with us.
Shifting my focus I looked out across the garden wall and followed an imaginary line all the way to the invisible sea that I could hear. I knew I’d have to speak soon.
“Um, well … I think you’re probably right,” I admitted. My voice was quiet as I accepted her assessment of my weak existence. “But I do do some things with fervour,” I countered my first statement with the hope of convincing us both. “I do! Really.” I stole a sideways glance at her. I was desperate to persuade her that I was not boring or useless.
Surely, I thought, there is something exciting in my life that I can tell her about. The more I tried to think of something, the more deflated I felt. My heart developed a pain because I knew I didn’t have an answer for her and that she would lose patience with that quickly. My opportunity for salvage was rapidly disappearing.
But she was right. I did need some oomph. How was I going to change it so that she would like me more? I needed to take this chance.
Standing up I took a few steps away from the table towards the balustrades. I noticed the peeling paint and made a mental note to talk about it later. Feeling physically drained I leant on the rail. My back was towards her and I was still not convinced that I had anything to offer her – or myself. I felt bad. It showed. My face dropped but she could not see it. Where could I go from here? I leaned forwards and took a deep breath.
While still searching for the right words to say, she got up and walked to stand near me.
I straightened up. She touched my arm.
“See,” she started gently, “I know you agree with me.” This time her eyes did not unravel me but there was serious intent behind her look. Encouraged, I opened my mouth to speak but no words or sounds came out.
“What are you going to do about it?” She prompted, her voice was still soft, as she caressed my arm.
“Give me a chance!” I exploded shaking her hand off my arm. I surprised us both. I was starting to get annoyed with her. I didn’t want to but I also didn’t want to be told what or when to do anything.
Right then I experienced, for the first – but not the last time – a balance of perfect hatred and love for her. I was dumbfounded by her arrogance and my fear of us both. I wanted to be as strong as her and yet in that moment I hated her for my own desires.
Two days later I was still caught between love and hatred. This time it had nothing to do with her.
I had discovered fresh reasons to hate myself. This trip had created new grounds for self loathing. My mind briefly visited my family at home. They had no idea where I really was. I couldn’t tell them. With the drink in hand I sat at the table and waited quietly as she ordered my meal for me. I had no idea why she was doing it, I was perfectly capable of speaking for myself but, like some deflated balloon, I sat there and sipped the cool liquid away. Although I never liked ice in my drinks I had the desire to have a freezing, numbing feeling spread throughout my body like a sudden frost.
I was afraid of what I was feeling because the last time it was that intense I lost a complete week of conscious thought.
Snapping back to alertness I realised that the waitress was still standing by the table, I weakly smile up at her.
“Thank you,” I murmured to them both, and then the order disappeared into the kitchen. I continued to absentmindedly play with the cutlery, and suddenly I was tempted to … be strong.
Instead, I realigned the beautifully shaped pieces into perfect symmetrical order. Taking the napkin from the table I smile across at her and placed it on my shaking lap.
“Bread?” I offered with the basket in hand. She took some and broke it carelessly. Several pieces of the fresh crust flew across the immaculately ironed white table cloth but she took no notice. We mirrored each other as we tore chunks of the bread and dipped it into the herb infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The strong exciting combination of flavours made us lick our lips to catch the falling crumbs and we laughed together as we both reached for the last piece of bread. With raised eyebrows and smiles our fingers tingled with anticipation of what would happen later.
The buzz of the other diners reached our ears when we were lost in each other. I knew that I would have to leave soon, but I didn’t know how to say goodbye. She knew when I was leaving; she never made a secret about how she felt. I envied her. I wanted to keep believing that she would miss me. I had to believe that she wanted to see me again.
That’s what I wanted. I was not sure that I had managed to let her know that yet. I silently swallowed the last mouthful of bread that seemed to stick in my rapidly drying throat on the way down.
“Take this with you,” she whispered as she reached across the table and pressed the champagne cork into my hand. “Remember me, won’t you?”
Did she doubt me? I though she knew that she was already sewn into my heart for life, but when her fingers lingered across mine I sensed uncertainty.
With the other hand she attracted the attention of the waitress and requested the bill.
“I’ll get it,” she said as I reached for my cards.
“No, let me.” I insisted, “It’s the least I can do after all you’ve done for me whilst I’ve been here.”
“Don’t be silly,” she laughed. “I’m so glad you came. I waited for you, you know.” She paused and looked directly at me. Her eyes were changing colour again; they were going from blue to green. As they locked and held mine they pierced into me while they seemed to fill with water, but then she blinked quickly and raised her hand as if to brush a falling feather away from her cheek and everything was back to normal.
“Thank you,” I murmured, “you’ll probably never know how much this time with you means to me.”
Back in the car we drove along the coast wall and stopped to take pictures of the sun setting and local people relaxing on their boats along the jagged waterline.
Torn between what I wanted and what would happen, my sunset smiles were tinged with fresh lemon bitterness. Inside I was dying as I knew what I had to do. She had no idea of my sadness and I think she had started to trust me at last. In the car she sang along to our specially mixed CD, her feet placed on the dashboard, when she turned and smiled at me my heart melted all over again. It was just like the first time I knew she’d even liked me. I felt like a free flying balloon – that didn’t see the archer’s arrow approaching from the opposite direction. From my point of view it was perfect.
I couldn’t believe it then, I didn’t fully believe it now. But I believed enough to make my way there. Still, the question that furrowed my brow behind my redundant sunglasses was ‘What was I really going to do next?’
A business like exchange was taking place. I was part of it but I was so lost inside myself I didn’t notice the cold formality of it all. All I could hear was a level pitch of screaming – right there inside my head as I imagined myself slipping over a cliff, losing my grip; it was a perfect middle C – it had no end. I felt as if the previous five months were a dream. But that ache from my spine to my toes refuted those thoughts; it was too real. I silently wished I was sleeping and this was not happening. But we were both wide awake. We said goodbye amidst a crowd of people while the air conditioning whirled relaxation around everybody else.
“I know you’ll cry,” she said as she turned and started to walk away.
“No, I won’t.” I had shut down already so that wasn’t an option. But her voice made me waver. This was my parting gift to her, my strength. “We’ll be alright,” I added, “because we want to be.”
“I hope so,” were the last word we spoke as she left me standing there. I watched her back until she disappeared through the sliding airport doors into the heat and the everlasting sunshine.
I was numb.
I sat in the waiting area and allowed the loud chatter of fellow travellers to envelop me.
But still I could think of nothing else but her. We met too late.
This story is also available as a part of two anthologies: Life in the Cracks and Writers Unite!