Short Story by Devina Heriyanto (The Jakarta Post, May 14, 2018)
It’s funny how things never change in this old town.
This is one of those places that somehow always manages to float outside of time, where people don’t seem to change: they are exactly as you remember them when you were 10 years old, cruising the streets on your bicycle with your friends.
Defying the general rule of schools, which always dramatically improve after you graduate, your alma mater also stays the same. The classrooms even look intact, preserved in time. You’re only slightly disappointed when you check the third desk on the left and do not find the scribbling you had carved onto the surface years ago, spelling the words “math sucks” (you still remember the sting on the back of your hand when the teacher discovered it, though).
A decade later, your friends, the ones you share years’ worth of memories with, seem to have never changed at all. There’s David, who has always worn glasses for as long as you could remember – uncanny, since you were born in the same hospital just days apart, and became friends as your mothers joined the same book club.
Oh God, don’t get started on the book club — you two used to jeer that they spent most of their time gossiping about the townspeople rather than discussing the books they were reading. There’s Anna, the high school prima donna, cheerleader and student body president, who continues to peak even after graduation. She came out just a few years ago as a lesbian, somehow providing closure and an ego boost for the guys she rejected throughout high school, which means almost every guy, classmate, senior, or junior that you know.
There’s the pair of best friends who were also desk mates, who belonged to the same club, wore matching clothes, and at some point, dated the same guy. You barely remember their names, you were always confused about who was who — not that they actually knew you anyway. It’s reassuring to see that after two decades they are still inseparable, in spite of the passing of time and growing distance, or exactly because of that.
All these years you have seen friendships fall apart, you understand too well that people change and so do relationships. But sometimes, only sometimes, the memories of who you used to be are enough to maintain ties between two people. When the present is not what you imagined it would be, any remnant of the past is more than welcome to stay.
Just like every cliché in a movie or TV series, across the ballroom, you spot her, the love of your life.
“Hey, you,” you finally have the courage to say, after chugging down your beer, of course. God bless alcohol, you think.
She looks at you, with those brown, doe-eyes. You remember how teary they can get in the middle of your monthly movie marathon — a ritual you had every third Saturday of the month.
“Care for a dance?”
“People are looking.”
Of course they are looking, no matter how hard they pretend not to. The nonchalant glances cannot hide years of curiosity some people carry since high school. They all know that you two were inseparable—until something happened. People are not aware of that, though. Somewhere along the years, people have settled upon the theory that you two tried to be more than friends and failed, which is actually the gist of what really happened.
Here’s the summary: On graduation night, both of you ditched your respective dates and you slept together. When you woke up, she was no longer there. You were devastated, wasting time conjuring conspiracies of what went wrong, too young and too stupid to reach out to her instead. She, the amazing human being that she was (still is), never brought that up and managed to act civil with you. Polite, but a tad shy of friendly.
You cursed yourself over the years for the silence, since all you ever wanted was to say the magic three words, get on one knee, and ask her to marry you. You kept that dream buried, waited for the five-year reunion, until suddenly you received an invitation from her and her college boyfriend. And after all these years, you still hold on to the smell of her perfume lingering in the air.
Back to the present.
“If the whole world was watching, I’d still dance with you,” you say.
She smiles, and there come the butterflies – fluttering not only in your stomach but your whole body too.
“I see you still have your way with words.”
“The only thing I lost is your heart.”
“Whoa, they are even better now.”
“Whoever said majoring in English lit was a waste?”
The laughter that follows is worth all the papers and years without a steady job. Majoring in English literature was not a mistake, after all, you decide.
“So, how are you?”
And she tells you. That’s what you love about her. She never gives you the generic I’m-alright answer. When you asked her what to eat, she never said “up to you” and then refused every option you offered. You can actually talk to her, even now. You feel stupid for wasting all these years looking her up, from one search engine to another, before deleting them all into digital oblivion. It has become a habit, and all the words you conjured up late at night when you feel lonely in the past year alone can fill a whole book, constructing a fictional world where the two of you are the main characters and live happily ever after.
In reality, you know almost nothing about the person standing in front of you right now. She used to be your best friend, a major crush, the love of your life, and all that, but now she is a single mom to a 7-year-old girl. They just moved back to town after the divorce. Oh, there isn’t any infidelity involved, it’s just that she and her ex-husband never seem to agree on the littlest things. Yes, everything is OK now. It’s hard, she says, but she’s settling in and her daughter seems happier now with a bigger home and their own backyard, a new bicycle and she can’t wait to start school.
Here’s the best part: of course she wants to catch up with you. How about next Sunday, 8 p.m. at the pub? She will meet you there, her sister can take care of the little girl.
All Sunday you check yourself in the mirror a total of 42 times. You plan your attire—a simple shirt and jeans. Nothing too formal, it’s only two friends catching up over beer. At 7:45 p.m. you leave for the bar. At 7:53 p.m. you arrive. It’s a small town, after all, with almost no traffic except for that time a tree fell on the main road.
At 7:54 p.m. she breaks your heart. Again. She seems to forget to mention her new boyfriend, who walks with his arm around her, while she casually waves to you before making introductions.
“Sorry, I cannot stay long, school starts tomorrow,” you say after a quick hug. It’s not a lie. You’re going to start your first day teaching at your old school, and she agrees it’s important not to be late or to in any way appear shitfaced because you have a hangover.
What she doesn’t know is you probably appear shitfaced anyway. Not from the hangover, but from the heartbreak.
You go home just when the clock strikes 9. You cannot sleep, haunted by the smell of her perfume.
The next morning, it gets worse. You pass an old fairground just outside of school that reminds you of how you used to play when you were children. It does not help that she’s there, too, with her little girl and the boyfriend, the poster family in a suburban paradise.
You stand there, out of the picture, wishing it were you standing there, laughing with her and the little girl.
You know it’s wrong that after all these years, you still cannot move on. But there is something about her, the eyes, the smile, the way she laughs… Well, maybe with her it’s not just something, it’s everything.
Before you notice, the classroom starts filling up. One by one, children sit behind their tiny desks after saying goodbye to their parents.
Then she shows up at the door, a little girl in her hand.
Then you see it. The face you fell in love with in the eighth grade, just when you began to grasp the concept of seeing female as more than a friend, before you even understood what love really meant. A face that breaks you, again and again, only to awaken hope every time you see it. So familiar, and yet still a wonder.
You get nervous when she walks into the room. The butterflies come alive when she stops in front of you.
“Hi,” the little girl says. And you know you’re in trouble.
You smile at the little girl and look up at her mother.
Maybe this time it will be easier. ***
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