Day Four (Tuesday)
“I’ve had this urge lately to get away, as far as possible. Just like a magnet pulling me outward, or no, a magnet inside of me repelling from where I am, or no, that doesn’t make any sense. Whatever. You know what I mean. Everyone’s always complaining about how busy they are, but sometimes I just want to grab them and remind them that it’s their choice and that we don’t need to engage in this brinksmanship of busy or whatever. And then I think maybe I’m just not keeping myself busy enough, maybe I’m just lazy, and I’m not doing enough for the world, for my community and all that. I’ve got a lot of guilt obviously, but you know that that’s nothing new. But yeah, everyone and everything is just so pretentious there, and I don’t know. Things aren’t really as bad as I’m making them sound though. Things are okay.”
Vanessa punctuated her rant with a sip of pink chai. We were at our favorite teahouse in Indianapolis. Well, the only teahouse in Indianapolis, as far as we knew. The scent of the vital mixings of spices made it feel years ago. The place was almost empty: a trio of whispering women with shopping bags, an old man playing chess on a clunky laptop, a couple of staff, and us. Vanessa put her cup on the table, her elbow next to the cup, and her chin in her hand, and she looked at me. She loved eye contact. She always had. I took a sip of pink chai.
“Well, you’re pretty pretentious, so …” I trailed off. She smiled. Mouth closed, crinkling eyes.
“How’s school for you?” she asked.
We both took another sip of tea.
“Nose ring?” I observed.
It was a stud, dark blue. Almost black, but I knew it wasn’t black, because Vanessa had vowed never to wear black again during our junior year, after her uncle’s funeral.
“What about for teching shows?” I’d asked from her bedroom floor as she piled black clothing into a bin to bring to Goodwill. “Or future funerals, where you might offend people by not wearing black?”
“I have some blue shirts that are so dark no one can tell they’re not black,” she said. “And I’ll get some dresses like that too.”
“But then why — ”
“It’s symbolic,” she said. I didn’t understand then, but I could tell that it was important to her and that she meant it. She had the same ineffable resolution as the day she sat down next to me at lunch and declared she wouldn’t be eating meat any more. Vanessa was fickle as hell, but she kept her promises to herself. The woman sipping her pink chai across from me was different than my high school friend, but some things I was sure hadn’t changed.
“You like?” she said. I nodded.
“They’re glad it’s not a tattoo. Mild exasperation from my mom, but my dad thinks it looks good.”
“Totally classic Steven.”
“It feels kind of clichéd though, you know?” I said. “Your best friend goes off to college and then when you see her again she’s gotten some new piercing.” Vanessa creased her eyebrows.
“I guess, but that’s not really what this situation is, is it? It’s not like you’re seeing me for the first time since we graduated. Last Christmas, yeah? And at the start of summer?”
“I guess, but you know.” I spun my now empty teacup in slow, wobbly circles.
“Yeah, I just don’t think it quite fits your narrative,” Vanessa said. “Why didn’t we spend more time together last winter, Chris? Or this summer?”
The question threw me. I stopped spinning the teacup and looked up. Her eyes were curious, not accusatory, maybe a bit sad, but matter-of-fact.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to keep in touch, I guess. I hardly see or hear from Leila or Ashwath or Dani or anybody anymore either. And we were both out of town for most of the summer, right? And — ”
“Yeah, but when we were both in Indy. I saw you one time last winter and one time this summer. And that’s like fine, you know, for your general high school friends. Like, like Dani, for example, right? I shoot her a text whenever I’m in town, and sometimes we’re able to get together and sometimes not, and that’s fine, and it’s good to see her and catch up and whatever, but we’re not hanging out all the time. And that’s like a good level of keeping in touch for most people. But for you and me? How is that possible that that’s where you and me are at? We spent almost every single day together, including weekends and school breaks, for eight years. Even now, you just referred to me as your best friend. And we like, get together for tea twice a year. Does that seem like a good level to you? How does that happen?”
Our eyes were still on each other. She didn’t seem angry, even though she was speaking at an incredible rate, just puzzled, and hopeful that I had an answer.
“Yeah. I mean no, it doesn’t make sense. Like, I definitely wish I saw more of you. And I’m going to infer that you’d like that too, but obviously we haven’t made that happen, and I don’t necessarily know what we should do differently. Call each other more when we’re at school? Or make more time to hang out when we’re home? Maybe we should do these things. Probably. But we’re not going to get back to us from two years ago. We live across the country from each other now, and that sucks, but that’s like life and growing up right? Not to get too philosophical. Maybe it’s just one of those things where we have to let go. I’ve been trying to get more comfortable with letting go ever since I saw Frozen” — Vanessa laughed — “and maybe that’s just the situation. We have these new lives now, college lives, and we can tell each other all about the things that happen to us at school, and it can be wonderful, but it’s never going to be the same. Maybe we’ll both be living in the same city after graduation, but god it feels dangerous to even think that far ahead, and we’d be different people by then anyway, with a different relationship between us. It could be great, but it won’t be the same. It’s infuriating, but I think things just change.”
We looked at each other in silence for a moment. Vanessa smiled, with teeth this time.
“I’m the pretentious one?” she asked, and we both started laughing. Vanessa poured us more chai. “That was like some me-level ranting.”
“Yeah,” I said as we both sipped our tea and our giggles subsided.
“But have we really changed?” Vanessa asked. “I mean obviously we’re both really different from who we were a couple of years ago, and the relationship between us is obviously in a different place, but, like, the essence of us, as a pair of human beings? Like, you are somebody I will always love, Chris.” She looked at me with intensity.
“Yeah,” I said. Not sure how to follow that, I took another sip of chai.
“No no no.” Vanessa grabbed my teacup. “You are not going to Han Solo me right now, Chris.” I laughed.
“That’s not really the same — ”
“Whatever.” She drank the rest of my tea and grinned at me. “But seriously, I’m going to love you until I die, and there’s not many other people I can for sure say that about. My parents, my sister, maybe J.K. Rowling.” She raised her eyebrows.
“Okay, yes,” I said. “I’m going to love you forever too, of course. And I promise I’m not just saying that because I’m under the duress of this weird conversation. But that doesn’t change the fact that things change.” I grabbed my teacup back and refilled it with what was left of the chai. Vanessa sipped from her own cup thoughtfully.
“That last thing you said was kind of ironic,” she said.
“I know,” I said. We were both quiet for a while. Talking about love is always awkward, I’m pretty sure, no matter what the circumstacnes. Someone came and took our tea away.
“You ever wondered if we should’ve been a couple?” Vanessa asked. “No, never mind, that’s a stupid question, of course you have. Of course we both have. How could we not.” I shrugged.
“Wouldn’t have made a difference,” I said. “Things would probably be worse between us now, if anything.”
“Yeah,” she said, resting her arms on the table, her head on her arms. “Chris, is there a difference between romantic and non-romantic love?”
“I’m probably not the right person to ask.”
“No, probably not.” Vanessa sighed. Her curly dark hair was a Koosh ball on the table. I twirled a strand of it between my fingers.
“Do you want to …” I began to ask, but trailed off. She lifted her head and looked up at me.
“Build a snowperson? Wow, that’s almost another Frozen reference.” Vanessa didn’t laugh this time. Instead, she sat up and gave an uncomfortable frown.
“Oh god Chris, I don’t think I have time right now. I’m supposed to meet Dora at four, so I should probably get going.”
“I know. After all that. I’m the worst.” Vanessa was gathering her things now, putting on her coat.
“Tomorrow? Or this weekend?” I hadn’t wanted to see her. I said all those things about our changed friendship. But now I wanted desperately to do the thing we had always done, to revive the tradition. I don’t know why.
“I’m supposed to go shopping with my mom tomorrow, and I have homework, but maybe this weekend? If there’s still any snow left?”
“Yeah, sure. Just keep me updated.” I put on a meager smile. I stood up and gave Vanessa a hug. She grabbed my elbows.
“Hey,” she said sternly. “For real, I love you. And we’re going to be better about us.”
“Yeah,” I said, doubting the second thing even though I knew the depth of the truth of the first. “Don’t keep Dora waiting.” Dora was our high school drama teacher and the sweetest woman in the world.
We hugged again and Vanessa left. The door jingled as it closed slowly behind her, and cold air drifted in.