They hadn’t seen each other in over a year.
She was 29 now, with her doctorate under her belt. He was in his early thirties (he would never disclose how early), and they were both still trying to figure out life as best they could. It was something they’d both come to terms with, as they got more experience. Sleeping with the right and wrong people, finding new relationships and watching them break down as quickly as they’d begun. Nothing was ever that permanent. Nothing grew or stayed solid for long. Life was more sure than the previous time they’d been together, when things felt empty, confusing and uncertain. But that was fine.
She lived in a tiny city apartment. She had come back from studying, to a place that felt more like home than the inter-state place she had taken her suitcase of belonging and dreams to. It wasn’t much, but it worked for her. There was a kitchen, a balcony where she grew herbs, hardwood floor space to do yoga on, and space for her writing desk. On nights she would open her balcony doors, only slightly ajar, where her solar fairy lights glowed, to hear the sounds of people living their lives. Laughing, singing, smoking, breathing, crying. She was close to pubs, but being above it meant you could escape as easily as follow. She would drink wine, cook her food, read, watch tv. The place was lonely, but she refused to feel it. She would admire her degrees, framed on the wall behind the couch — bachelors, honours, grad dip, masters, doctorate — symbolising she had spent almost 15 years of her life dedicated to thinking and writing and talking about ideas. She was proud of them all now, even though at the time she complained and they made her mental health collapse.
There was a building cat, a bright white, glitzy collared thing, that certainly had a name of tinkle bell, trixie, sugar-plum, that would meow at her door every other night. She would cuddle it, give it a treat and send it on it’s way. She would sleep with men and women in her bed, only occasionally. Her time, in between working her job, which gave her the sense she was still a failed writer, was spent thinking and reading and writing notes in her journal. Thinking about what could become her great work about life and everything else.
They had decided to see a movie, the cheap Monday, which the city cinema still did. It was reminiscent of times well spent in their past lives. And when the movie finished, she asked him back to have some pasta, with homemade pesto, and to show him her new place. They had caught up for an awkward coffee before, with conflicting lunch schedules and interruptions equalling a fifteen minute window — “How are you?” “I am good!” “Long time no see!” “Yes, got to go now!” — and they’d decided another, night time catch up would be better. The occasional email or message buzzed on their phones, but they ignored for the most part.
They had both changed. Not in the sense that their personalities or what had connected them had gone. But they were different. He noticed how her shoulders were held back to emphasise her newly found confidence. She was radiating herself, where once she hid from people. She stared people in the face, instead of looking over their shoulder as they talked. She also watched him, seeing the coolness in his gestures that suggested he’d settled in himself more than before. They had both been so involved. And then to not be, had been hard. Then it was like they forgotten they’d been that close. And here it was again, right in front of them.
He ate and appreciated the pasta. His love for the food group, as it was a food group, and being cooked a meal had not changed. He sipped his beer slowly, and watched her eat mouthfuls of spirals. He liked how she had changed. But still felt that glow of her old self in there. Cheeky, flirty, funny. She had never seen anything positive in herself, even though he’d thought the world of her. Now, she seemed to know it and understand it. It was on her face. Maybe age brought her the idea that it was possible to write about life and create art without being a self-torturing genius who only knew pain to write about it. He had read her short stories that had been published. It was always a torturous experience for him also. Any story with a male character had his traits. Expressions of longing or sex scenes may have fragments of him too. Or others. He didn’t want to assume or take credit. But he could recognise himself in her words and beautiful images. She had been affected by him and their intense relationship formed her impression of men, and her characters thereafter.
He asked casually what she was working on, and she said there wasn’t much time for it with her new job. He had often wondered if he could write the next novel. Would she be a character? Would the women in his life morph into a complex, manic explosion of outpour and confusion? No, he didn’t think he could. And if he did, she wouldn’t be there. It’d be too obvious. He would describe her completely, instead of how she describe him, in presence or echo. Was that how she thought of him, perhaps? Had he affected her so much that the very idea of man was somehow him? To her anyway. Again, that was way too full of himself. She had other men.
She had, indeed, been in two serious and several non serious relationships since she had departed. They were experiments, as she liked to think. Having not had a normal relationships before these, she felt like she had to experience and experiment before she could truly understand if this kind of thing was for her. They were men, despite her flirtation and sexual encounters with women. One was from uni. The other was a friend of a friend. They were both artsy. They were both excellent fucks. And they both hurt her in typical and predictable ways. One cheated, after a few short months of being in her pocket all the time. The other, more dedicated to himself and the content he could potentially produce “by understanding himself alone”, aka without her, left her with a bitter taste. From that, with dissertation edits and submission, she slept from person to person, without much consequence.
They had shaped her, he saw that now, but they also informed how he saw her. He had not been alone either, but somehow, at this stage in his early thirties, he’d found himself single, and okay with it. He’d been someone to hold down long term things, attract people, enjoy being with them and connecting with them, but when this last relationship fell to pieces for a number of reasons, it was time to breathe for a while. And when you are in your early thirties, and it’s not until his mid-thirties that the life plan needed to kick in, that you are can feel comfortable doing such things. Of course people were pushing him to date, play the field, understand where and what the field even was, but he didn’t want to. He lived with some housemates, old friends, and he worked at a good job. And even though he knew his attitude could quickly become coasting until something came along, there was not the same sense of urgency he felt when the clock ticked down to the dreaded date of thirty.
He could even see that hint of thirty slightly lined her face. She was dancing on the edge, with a few weeks to go. And despite the relaxed posture and smiles, there was a small glow in her eye that indicated that she hadn’t yet got quite to where she thought she’d be at almost thirty. She had been speaking of being forty in fifteen years almost immediately after she turned twenty five. But all of that disappeared. She worked, travelled, lived and grew beyond comfortable within herself, despite the world constantly being on edge. And when she found her way back to home, with a small amount of money to tie her over, there was a sense of humble victory, not defeat at returning to her city of birth. She had come to terms with a lot of pain and that meant she could feel herself growing and looking, rather than hiding and running. And she hoped, that beyond the small, book-case lined, apartment, she could show she was a successful person.
He pulled the book of collected short stories she featured in off her shelf and thumbed it. He said that he always read that one with fondness, simply because the events they were based on he could hardly remember now. As she cleaned up after dinner she smiled. The story had been about a New Years Eve they’d spent together, until 6am, in which she embarrassingly told him she had feelings for him, and drunkenly he told her that he fighting not to kiss her. It took her at least three years to understand and process those events and it seem rational to her that she should make a story out of it. It was a night, a single night, and it wasn’t as if it was the most important night of their friendship either. But it had been incredibly special to her. And when she sat down to write about it, everything that had ever seemed important to her lay in those delicate moments of conversation at their favourite pub, in the courtyard at uni glowing yellow under the lights, or lying on the office floor in fatigue and ache from the emotional strain and hours lapsing. And she’d sent it off and it was accepted. She hoped he’d read it and remembered. Famously he never remembered much of that night, where as she’d remember all the details. Even how he looked at her, bright-eyed and slightly tipsy, uttering the word fighting. It had come to define in her moments of clarity. That this is what people want to know about, human relationships. But also what she wanted in her life, that intensity.
She laughed as he put it down and browsed through all her other books. The eclectic nature kept him occupied for a while. By the time she’d finished the dishes, she brought over her wine, his beer, to the lounge. They listened to some music he’d picked out for them to listen to. One that was doused in memories of their time together. She had lots of songs like that, by his bands. Music that would come on shuffle during a train trip that would make her eyes prick with sadness and longing. They drank on the couch, chatting about times that they wished they could change. They slowly began to bear their souls to each other. Like they used to. Time past, she could rely on him to hear whatever she would say without judgement or laughter. Same would be for him, she being open minded, calm and empathetic. And they drank another bottle and glass, and talked about the future instead of the past.