things we lost to the fire*
On the night I agreed to see her again, there was only one caveat: No photos.
“You’d look interesting on my Instagram,” I said. “Though I’m sure it’d raise a lot of eyebrows.”
“Mine included,” she replied. We dated in a time before Instagram and social networks and digital cameras; after her, I’ve already bought and worn three.
“You don’t believe in Instagram, of course,” I said. A somewhat trained photographer, she scoffed at everything easy. “Still a snob after all these years.”
She laughed. It sounded different, and it was not exactly the one I missed. “You’re the one who wanted no photographs.”
I eyed the camera that sat on the table — hers, a bulky Nikon she probably used for work. It was a busy Wednesday night in a mall I no longer visited.
“Relax. No one needs to find out you’ve finally capitulated, after all these years.” Capitulated was a good word for it, actually; it’s been close to seven years since I last saw her. Close to six since I met the girl after. “I won’t tell.”
I sat there wondering what brought me here; nostalgia, perhaps? I happened to be in town without my girlfriend. It seemed like a good night to tie up loose ends.
“My friends would never approve,” I said.
“Where’s your wife?”
“Home,” I said without blinking. The question sounded awkward but expected. “Probably trying to get through her reading list. It’s about this high.” I gestured over the table, miming an imaginary book pile with an open palm hovering about a foot off the surface. “Where’s your boyfriend?”
“Working,” she shrugged, reaching for the unopened pack of cigarettes on the table. “You’ve quit, I heard.” She tugged at its seams with expert ease and for a moment I saw her as she was back in our college flat, propped against the headboard, an open textbook in her lap and a cigarette in one hand.
I watched her quietly as she lit it. “Five years,” I said.
“Good for you.” She blew smoke to the side, casual and easy. I looked at her and wondered why she was taking this better than I thought she would. “Though you look like you could use a stick or two.”
I smiled. She still read me well, and this unnerved me gently. “I actually do,” I admitted. She laughed lightly as she tossed the pack over; she was starting to sound the way she always has.
“Remember that time you burned through one of your Philo readings?”
“Good thing you had a duplicate,” I just said. With a shaky hand I tried slipping a cigarette out — this used to be so familiar, and now it wasn’t. And then, “You ever miss uni?”
That gave her pause. It felt like the first time I won a point for the night. “Sometimes,” she said, drawing the word out like she’d studied it carefully. “Do you?”
“Sometimes,” I said in kind. “If only because it was an interesting time.”
“That it was.”
We sat there quietly, trying not to look at each other’s ashes as they fell off the edges of our cigarettes; that used to be an old habit, and one that once allowed me to study the curve her lips made around the filter. I’d be having none of that now.
“Why are you here?” she asked finally.
“Same question I’d have for you.”
“I’ve been wanting to see you for the past six years,” she said. “You honestly can’t be asking that.” And then, “I’ve missed you.”
“You’re not supposed to say that.”
She reached the end of her cigarette at that, so she crushed it against the ashtray between us. “I didn’t say I missed *us.* It’s just—well.”
“Love suits you,” she said, looking at me so softly that my heart broke like it did, the first night I said no to seeing her. We were on the phone, and I was at home with my new girlfriend eavesdropping on the conversation, right in my arms. I’d never forget how she sounded — her voice broke as she pleaded. That time it gave me a strange satisfaction to hear myself saying no, finally.
“I wanted to see you before you got married,” I said finally. It was the truth, plain and bare.
“And how do I look?”
For the first time that night I beheld her, finally letting my eyes stay for a moment longer than I would have thought safe, listening closely for that familiar beat in my chest.
“Love suits you,” I just said in kind. “You’re going to make a wonderful wife.”
When we parted that night, she shook my hand before turning around. “Thanks for coming to meet me,” she said, like this were a professional deal.
“Likewise,” I just said. I did not wait for her to disappear around the proverbial curve before turning around to leave, myself.#
* title is from bastille.
Thank you, friend. For writing this for me. You know who you are. You made me happy despite this crappy long Monday.