You look surprised to see me and maybe even a little embarrassed. Perhaps she hadn’t told you that I might be coming. Most of all you look older. I know that’s a stupid thing to say after nine years but it’s what strikes me the most; you’ve hastened your hair’s natural retreat by cropping it back and it’s fading to grey. You’re carrying more weight now. Not a tummy exactly but everything’s a little looser, I have to work at making out the line of your jaw. I suppose that if we’d seen each other more often – or at all – then the change wouldn’t be so marked. I can see how the increments would have accumulated over time, I just get to see all of them unfolded at once. It’s enough to send me to the toilets so that I can find a mirror, try to see what the impact of nine years has had on my own face. I can’t judge. I’m too used to seeing it every day and it’s been a long time since I was the person that you knew who peeked up and out from under a fringe. I think I used to hide behind it in the hope of being found. I don’t hide anymore and I’m not looking to be found.
When we talk it’s less awkward than I’d expected. There’s a moment as we meet when the slightest inclination of your head suggests that, maybe on auto-pilot, you’re thinking of greeting me with one of those cheek brushes that seems to have become the standard in our 30s. The older we get the less contact we seem to want. In our 20s it was all hugs and embraces. And, for me and you, the tango of course but it’s a long time since I did any dancing. I shift backwards slightly and offer my hand. Less contact. We touch and I remember the softness of your skin.
When you meet back up with someone after a long absence there’s only really two places the conversation can go. What are you up to now or do you remember when…? We start with the now and keep it light; you’re working up in Harrow, a tech start up that I didn’t catch the name of, and I’m dividing my time between travelling and freelancing, sometimes combining the two. Writing about jazz clubs ? You offer it with a tentative smile, a cautious prod at the thin ice covering the deep waters that are our former lives together. You were always good at that. Finding ways to get me to open up, unlocking the private chambers of my heart, leavening and lightening my seriousness without belittling it. You wouldn’t have let ‘private chambers’ pass without a gag either. I catch myself missing that. Missing the fun we had, even when it was innuendo and bad puns. Writing about jazz clubs. You know me too well. I haven’t really changed. And he nods, sadly, and says: no, no you haven’t.
We’re saved from our small talk by the arrival of the cake. Mike’s carrying it in, thirty five candles flickering and illuminating Sally’s name spelled out in icing. I knew that there’d been a similarly large celebration at her 30th but I’d been out of the country, it was the summer I spent in New Orleans. She’d never been one to pass up a party and this gathering had been billed as the warm up event for her 40th. It wasn’t clear if her and Mike were planning to do this every year but I already knew this’d be the last time I saw them. I didn’t know how I’d feel when I saw her again. Watching her about to blow out the candles, the flames dancing under her easy smile, I could see why it had happened. She’d been a pretty girl and now she was an attractive woman, lively and confident and larger-than-life. The size of her personality was still in inverse proportion to her dress size. I don’t know whether she’d ever told Mike but something about the way they are together, the way he still tracks her movements around the room, rests his hand lightly around her waist when they’re close, makes me think that she never did. Maybe she never thought it was a big deal. Better to hide the truth to stop people from getting hurt; it was just a drunken mistake.
I can clearly remember when you told me. That morning in the kitchen in the flat. Things hadn’t been great for a while but the connection between us held fast. A little frayed but it held. I don’t think either of us really knew how we were going to resurrect what we’d had at the beginning but if you’d asked us then I think we’d have said we wanted to. We were incandescent falling in love but didn’t know what to do when the boil settled to a simmer. Maybe we’d have found the right ways and the right moments to turn the heat back up if we’d had more time. I slept with Sally. Four words that took three seconds to say between two people and to break one heart. I slept with… You were half way through saying it again, tears forming in your eyes, but I didn’t hear it. I was shaking my head, trying to dislodge the words. You stepped towards me extending your arms, saying you were sorry over and over and over again, but for each step you took forwards I took one away until my back bumped against the front door. It was our last tango. I held onto my tears until I’d slipped out the door and fled to the street.
I wound up on Shepherd’s Bush Green sobbing on a bench until some homeless guy offered me a swig from his last Special Brew. Looking back there was something blackly funny about it I suppose. Perhaps I should have invited him to sit down, maybe we could have gotten drunk and duetted on some power ballads, howling incoherently at the early risers and late finishers making their way across the park. He looked a bit like Meatloaf and I had enough mascara smudged around my eyes that I could’ve passed as that witchy woman he sometimes sings with. Anything for love but we won’t do that. Instead I smile at him, decline the proffered can, and ask if he’s okay. We chat for a bit and I give him some change for a coffee or something. I’ve seen enough bad movies that I was half expecting him to turn out to be a philosophy lecturer down on his luck offering up wisdom for the lost, or an angel testing people to see if they’re worth saving, or a lonely multi millionaire in disguise, waiting for the right person to bestow his fortune on. The best he offers is “people aren’t reliable, you can’t trust them” before he shuffles off across the Green towards the Off License.
Sally leans forwards and chases the flickering flames across the cake with the most extravagant exhale she can muster. She gets them all bar two. Thirty three candles marked now by a smudge of black smoke slowly rising into the air and two that stubbornly still burn. I look up and you’re staring at me. I hold your gaze as Sally swoops on the final pair, snuffing them out with another quick puff of air. Each reduces to a glow, like an echo of the fire they once were, and are then extinguished.