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They haven't seen each other in two years. The creeping wry smiles on their faces aren’t to do with the anecdotes he is telling, or her face when she drops her spoon on the floor. They sneak looks at each other over menus, remarking silently how each crevice of a face they once knew so well has changed incalculably. They discuss the mundanity of their graduate jobs over teppanyaki bowls, and each order a beer to smooth over the cracks of new unfamiliarity. The cumulative time these two once spent together is either a best friendship or a relationship, and yet it has never been either. She never crawled into bed with him as a girlfriend would; she had never not worn makeup around him.
For three years, he wondered what she would look like with her clothes off, and she debated over the size of his penis, something he always claimed was above average size. There had been moments, yes, like the seething fury she once felt at herself when she realised the level of her attachment. She took it out on him at Christmas dinner. She was tired, and took off her heels, shouting to him about being selfish, about wasting her time. Unimportant things that disguised deeper feelings that she had been unable to admit to herself. He had other close female friends. It wasn’t that —he was openly affectionate with those where the question of romantic affection was off the cards. He replied with ‘love you' and ‘you look beautiful’ with those whom he had never entertained the thought of love. But he had never hugged her so tight as you would those you hold dearest — relationship or friendship. There was a glass wall between them that had stopped those knowing smiles becoming hands that crept towards each other on park benches. And that glass wall also stopped them from grabbing the hand of someone you would call your best friend. They existed in a purgatory of tension, sexual or otherwise.
She noted he wasn’t as good looking as he was when they had been in university. Girls would fall at his feet, and his problem was always that he didn’t want anything to do with them after the fact. When the chase was over, they became boring, or stuck up, lost their spark of attraction. It was something the two of them would often mull over whilst drinking bitter tea. He discarded women. That was his thing, and he would discard her eventually.
"Do you want pudding?" She knew he would decline, and she had just said it to be polite. Not stepping on each other's toes and trying to preserve the utmost politeness had been another factor during lunch. The waitress must have thought they were on a date until they asked to split the bill. He had been eating food from her plate. He was always quite rude in restaurants. She considered coffee, something she had been trying to get into as she thought it would make her look older. She waited impatiently for the day that her face would shed its puppy-like roundness and her cheekbones would come through. If she even had any. He had stopped drinking so much coffee, and maybe that was what had contributed to the loss of his youthful glow, he worried.
As he waited for the bill, he thought how strange it was that they had spent the whole lunch talking about their respective lives, how their mutual friends were doing and how weird it was not to have seen each other for so long, in such a bright and breezy tone. He was alarmed at how different one girl could seem in the space of just two years. He had always thought she was pretty, she had this strange cocky cuteness about her, but her looks were never her strong suit. She had cast off the dark brunette and settled for a lighter gold, something that suited her far better. She also had a boyfriend now, and he felt a pang of sadness that he didn’t know this man, as he had always hoped she would have come to him first before anyone else’s opinions on a prospective partner. That was what they did. Whine about how unsuitable everyone else was but ignore each other.
She stood up before he did, realising that she had put on the trousers that made her bum look such a way that warranted compliments from strangers on the street. Her latest catch was a group of men on top of a scaffold. Still got it. She gave him a few turns as she rose as if to look for the bathroom. He never did stare at her, she thought. As she decided she did, in fact, need the bathroom, he felt more and more that what he had been missing was the thing that had walked off into the ladies. She lost contact pretty quickly after university and moved abroad for a new job, and they never talked about why she had fled so rapidly. He was pretty sure of her romantic loneliness during university, and how she was never even vaguely interested in the male offerings of their friendship group. Whilst he spent three years picking and choosing the girls he wanted to casually date — ‘the fuck and chuck,’ they used to call it — she never felt the physical or sexual confidence he so vehemently appropriated. With loud shirts and perfectly dried hair, he would engage his eyes with theirs, and the girls would cluster around him like piglets.
As they strolled through their streets, around restaurants and pubs they used to meet for drinks during the holidays, they fell into step with one another and immediately he felt more comfortable in her presence. Free from the social clutches of lunch and the claustrophobic restaurant, he felt his shoulders relax and his body decided what to say before his mind could stop him.
"So, how would you rate our first official date?"
Apprehensively, she fell back into their old habit of laughing about being in love with one another. "Food was great, the company less so. I think I’ll just go on Tinder," smiling with her teeth.
"I agree. Whoever thought we’d be a good match for one another is off their rocker."
Rolling her eyes, she sighed at him, looking forward into the traffic as they crossed the road to the park. As if they had switched to automatic, they sat on the nearest bench and faced each other.
"No, but seriously, it’s really good to see you. Let’s not do that again."
They sat in silence for a while, both thinking of how they got into this situation, and he wondered if he should start a conversation about her student loan.
"I always thought we would happen, at some point or another. But you never even once tried to kiss me."
He paused and tried to concentrate on a point somewhere between her eyebrow and her freckle, not quite meeting her eye. His whole body had suddenly been placed onto a very fast-moving train.
"I never thought you wanted me to."
"Why did you ask me to lunch?" Indignance was rising in her chest, the unfairness of life and inconvenient timing rearing their heads.
"Because I missed you! I wanted to see how you were doing!"
He wanted to grab her, lay her down on the bench and shout in her face. They had both grown up, and yet all he wanted to do was scream at her like a child.
"You always did have perfect timing."
In her mind's eye, every drink, every pub, every cup of tea, every walk flipped before her like a deck of cards. Every time he had joked about her being the mother of his children. Every time he had kissed her on the cheek. Every time one of his friends had made a joke about them getting together — or his best friend calling him drunk at 3 AM paranoid that his ex-girlfriend (her) would end up with him. Never getting too close, and never straying too far, for three years. They denied what was so clear to their friends, and it seemed criminal that nobody had told them what was so obvious to everyone else. It was a desire that wasn’t easily put out by a one night stand and a kiss on the cheek, sex that would satiate their curiosity for one another, and a vow to never mention again. It was a slow, cool love, a love that would burn on a blue gas stove even when the kitchen light had been switched off.
But he watched her leave, in those jeans he always slipped a glance at when he was sure she wasn’t looking. She walked away from him for an inordinate amount of time, her figure minimising against the burning red of the sun, and away from the cool light of the vanishing day.