The dim lights and faded mirror of the bathroom tormented Natalie’s mind. She chided herself for putting her blonde hair up, wearing scarlet rather than magenta lipstick and the short, dark blue jacket rather than her longer beige one. Did he approve?
Why did I wear these tonight?
For a second, a desperate and unfamiliar figure stared at her; a girl pretending to be a woman inside a grungy bathroom, a girl struggling to prove herself more valuable than the paper towels scattered about.
She strode out into the bar, wondering if satisfaction and resignation were the same feeling. Bright lights shone as people gathered their coats and finished their drinks. A dark-shirted girl hustled past with a tower of empty glasses.
Daniel waited by the exit of the bar, looking at something on his phone. Another girl? That didn’t matter, she didn’t care who he talked to anymore. She smiled a friendly smile as she approached him; not too friendly, she hoped.
“Shall we?” she asked.
“Sure.” He didn’t glance at her as he walked out to the terrace and into the humid summer air. She considered leaving, but he switched his phone for a cigarette after a few steps. “You need one?” he asked her with a smile.
“No, I don’t smoke anymore.” Her fingers twitched with suppressed desire.
“Hm. Good for you.” Smoke snaked from his mouth and drifted up to the amber lamps above. The aroma of it made Natalie’s shove her hands in her pockets. “So… it’s been awhile.”
“Yeah. I’m glad I came, Randy knows how to put on a show.”
“Yeah, Randy’s doing real well.”
“Did he tell you they got signed by Penta Records?”
“He mentioned that.” His eyes moved away from her, out to the street, empty and dark, lined with tall apartment buildings, pockmarked with signs of the few night owls.
“Well, they deserve it.” A glance through a murky window showed they weren’t the last to leave, yet.
“True.” A silence passed, punctuated by dancing smoke.
“So how are you doing?”
“I’m good. Randy told me to come tonight, so here I am. For old time’s sake.” Blue eyes held infectious yearning within.
“It’s quite a long trip for one gig.”
He shrugged. “Randy’s a friend. He’s worth the drive.”
“Did he tell you I was coming?”
“He didn’t tell me.” Thanks a lot, Randy.
“Well, he was my friend first.”
“Yeah. I mean, I don’t mean to say it’s bad to see you, it just… surprised me.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I’m not checking in whenever I come to town.”
She scoffed. “Well of course not. I just hope you didn’t come for me.”
He snorted. “Please. Get over yourself.” Natalie took her turn to stare out at the street, stung. “I’m sorry. That was harsh.”
“Remember our first night here?” he asked with a chuckle.
“I do.” Faded memories crept into mind: dim lights, rock music, too much alcohol and dancing.
“You were so drunk. I don’t think you were ever that drunk after.”
“Yeah… not my finest moment,” she said, grinning at a passing car. Laughter and friends and happiness sprang to mind.
No, a voice within her warned, not happy, care-free.
“I miss those times.” He seemed closer as she turned to face him; close enough to brush a strand, that forever defiant strand of his black hair back, then touch his cheek, his sharp jaw flecked with stubble, then maybe she could pull him close, or he would pull her close, and-
Her phone rang. “Sorry,” she murmured; it was her friend Jenny. “Shit.”
“She’s calling to ask if I’m with you.” He shook his head as he snorted. “Every time.”
“Yeah. I won’t be long.” Natalie stepped back and answered the call. “Hello?”
“Is he there?”
“Don’t give me that, you know who.”
“Ah, yeah, we’re at the pub. Just talking.”
“Right. What are you doing?”
“We’re just talking, it’s fine.”
“It’s not fine, you shouldn’t even look at him.”
“I’ll be fine. Look, I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Natalie ignored Jenny’s further objections. “Sorry about that.”
“Mm. How’s she doing?” His cigarette finished, his hands rested in the pockets of his jacket, the deep red one she loved, the one that swallowed her arms and draped to her knees.
“She’s fine. Busy with work and everything, but… we make time.”
“What’s she doing up so late?”
“There was some pop dude at the club…” he chuckled at the face she made. “Not my kind of scene.”
“I remember.” He stared at the past for a split second before adjusting his vision. “So Randy invited you?”
“Yeah. I had a date, but he bailed.”
“A date?” he asked, looking away.
“A friend. You don’t know him.”
“A friend, or a friend?”
“What does it matter?” she snapped.
He shrugged. “It doesn’t, I guess. Just didn’t expect you to move on so fast.”
She tossed her head back, rolling her eyes. “Daniel, he’s a friend from work. He had some… I don’t know, some stupid emergency with his dog.”
“Alright, alright, I get it.” She caught the slightest hint of a smirk on his face.
“And it’s been four months, Daniel…”
“Oh, I’m well aware. I’ve been enjoying them.” He crossed his arms over his chest, that chest she once laid her hands on with desire. She wondered if he had kept up with his fitness; his jacket clouded the finer parts of his form. She also wondered who else had placed their hands where she had.
The money wasted on her unused gym membership floated to mind.
“You’re staring, Natalie.”
“What? No, I wasn’t,” she retorted, stepping back.
“You were.” The grin on his face made her snort.
“Get over yourself. I wasn’t.”
He drew close and she breathed the deep, oaken scent she adored. “What are your plans after this?”
“I’m going home. And you?”
“Well, my friend said I could stay at his, but he’s not answering…” a hand slithered out to touch her forearm; her body burned.
“Where will you go if he doesn’t answer?” She drew her arm back and covered herself with it.
“I guess I’ll sleep in my car, or something.”
“Maybe you should this time.”
He stiffened. “Right.”
“I mean…” Natalie sighed. “You really have nowhere else to stay?”
“Well, I might have a different friend’s place.”
“A friend, or a friend?”
“Just some girl I’ve been talking to. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve stayed there.” A lightning bolt of jealousy struck her.
“Well, great. Looks like you don’t need me.”
“Oh, but I do. Come on. I’d rather stay with you,” he crooned.
Natalie shook her head. “I think you and I have different expectations when it comes to staying at my place.” She hoped her voice held more resolve than she had.
“Are you sure?” His voice became soft; the sweet nothings whispered to her so often infiltrated her mind. “It’ll be alright. For old time’s sake. Would one night be so bad?
Would it? Would one night be so bad? He would have to leave tomorrow to be home for work, so there would be no chance for them to try and fix things as they had multiple times since the breakup. It would be different this time, wouldn’t it?
Her mind’s eye caught wiry arms around her, rough hands tousling her hair, sweet and tender nothings whispering in her ear, familiarity enveloping her.
“No. I’m sorry. It… I can’t. It… it wouldn’t help either of us.” Her heart and mind screamed at each other much like her and Daniel during their final days.
“Can’t, or won’t?” His arm reached out for her, reassuring, but she brushed it away.
“Daniel, stop. I can’t love you like you want me to.” She stepped back and rested against the railing boxing them in.
“You can.” He grasped her shoulders. “Why don’t we try again? One more try.”
She shook off his hands. “Daniel, please. Don’t.”
“What is it, then? What about me is so damn terrible that you can’t love me?”
Nothing came to mind. He was attractive, smart, sensible — he had a mean streak of jealousy to be fair — he made her laugh and smile, he made her happy.
But that happiness was the same brand she got from anyone else — Jenny, her workmates, her family. It was fleeting, weightless; it left as soon as it came. Their love had been similar, like a match: burning quick and bright, and painful to the one who held on too long.
They would go from periods of icy coldness to desert heat, terrible indifference to breathtaking love, sometimes multiple times within a day; that temperature change wreaked havoc on her. Their love began and ended with a kiss, and no words, spoken or unspoken, could support it.
And Daniel, her poor Daniel. The pool of love they dived into became a violent sea, thrashing them about, the inexorable currents separating then reuniting them. They held their matchstick aloft, struggling to keep the sea from dousing it, passing it back and forth like a torch, trying to brighten the murky waves, but it was nigh impossible to see themselves, much less each other.
When they were together, she forgot the stormy seas and cloudy weather, but when he left, she lost herself; the happiness he brought he took back with him. She needed substance, stability; she needed a boat, not a fellow castaway, treading water with her. He needed a boat too, but this boat only fit one.
“I… there’s nothing, Daniel. You deserve better than me,” she told him, her voice breaking.
“And I deserve better than you.” Those words echoed in the open air, defiant eyes dueling earnest ones. “I don’t love you, not anymore. Leave me alone.”
In an instant, his disposition changed. “Whatever.” He stormed off the terrace, but stopped at the edge to light a cigarette. “You aren’t worth my love. You never were.” His ocean blue eyes froze over.
“Fuck you,” Natalie spat with breaking words as he fled. She turned away, a tear slipping past her grip. If she had won, it rang hollow. Her fingers shone white as she clutched the rail, her body trying to force her legs to run after him; to love him or beat him, she wasn’t sure.
Natalie stood there until the last person exited the bar and followed them off the terrace.
Critique is always appreciated. Recommends too. Thanks for reading.