But back then he was mostly content with being a boy.
It had been an awkward age, a little too old to be as lost as he was in books and movies, and too young – in his mind at least – for anything else. His friends chided him in his lack of interest in what they considered to be grown up things. He would watch from the side lines as they chased the girls and drank themselves insensible. But the boy just didn’t have the interest they had. His interest in girls was there, but – perhaps due to those very same books and movies – the boy’s interest was more romantically influenced than his peers seemed to be.
Perhaps he was more of a grown up than they realised.
Or perhaps they were less.
The boy was strong willed, though some would say argumentative, and he rarely rose to their remarks. He was known for his strength of character, perhaps absorbed from those books and movies he loved so much, and even though his friends insulted him, they had a poorly hidden respect for him too. His schooling had been the same. Teachers respected him and hated him in equal measure. They respected his studious nature but hated that he was probably a little smarter than they were. But that’s what happens when you always have your nose stuck in a book, and the books you chose were the right kind of book.
It had been a copy of Affective Neuroscience at the time, he had gotten to a chapter about pleasure and pain in the brain regulatory system when he saw her, and as smart as he was, he didn’t see this as an omen.
He raised his hand and waved at one of the men she had walked in with.
Leon had been his friend since the second year of high school and had attached himself to the studious boy one morning after his mid-year transfer. This often happened to the boy, people always thought that when he was reading, he could be interrupted, as if reading wasn’t doing anything of note. Unlike most Leon didn’t move on to better things once he realised what the boy was. In spite of his brash exterior, Leon was a good man.
Leon raised his hand in greeting and wound his way between the dancing crowd of people, and the more static crowd that had accumulated around the bar. When he was close enough to see the book the boy was reading, he grinned and mouthed the word “geek”, careful not to let the others see. Leon’s teasing was affectionate, and the last thing he would want is for others to see it as an acceptable way to treat the boy. The boy never knew it, but Leon would obsess over how to deal with him. He was something of an enigma to Leon, but he liked him regardless.
The group joined the boy, and the new girl slid into the seat opposite him.
It didn’t pass by the boy unnoticed that there were now three couples at the table, two established with he and the new girl making up the third. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Leon glance over to them. His gaze lingering just a little too long, and the boy understood.
They did this sometimes, always with the same disappointing results.
He felt the book slide from his hand.
The new girl opened it to where he had been reading. Scanned the page and offered it back to him. He took it and noticed a frown flutter across her brow and the side of her lower lip disappear between small even teeth. He took a moment to appraise her as he would a moment of film. She would have been a 60’s starlet. A fashionable mod girl with too short hair and cocky attitude. The boy liked her instantly, but when they started to talk the world transformed for him.
Her given name was Belle, and she was an art student who quoted some of the book he was reading back to him.
When he asked why an art student would be reading Affective Neuroscience, she side stepped the question, and the boy noted the deflection but moved on.
She had two sisters, and parents who were still happily married. The only substantial arguments she could remember were between the two sisters, both of whom were older, and the occasional disagreement about where to eat out.
The boy felt suddenly underdressed around the new girl. The feeling of sinking into the woodwork growing as she spoke. He didn’t think in terms of group affiliation, barely seeing himself as anything other than “the boy”, but he knew she was from a family very unlike his own, and she spoke of things he had only known from books. As they spoke a disquieting feeling rose in his stomach even as his heart grew. Fear gripped him, and as the strange feeling that engulfed him began to take shape his rational mind marvelled.
Outwardly there was no sign. He laughed and asked questions while she replied with an expressive face that always seemed in motion. The boy didn’t notice when the other four excused themselves from the group. He didn’t see the time tick by, or the room begin to empty. His world had shrunk down to two souls, and it continued to shrink as those two souls were drawn closer. It would not be long until those two became one under the pressure of the shrinking universe around them. These thoughts flooded him as they spoke, they did not present as fully formed, but hid as if afraid in his mind’s dark corners.
At some point he found himself out under the moonlight, the nightclub closed. Time was unreliable now, no doubt broken by the shrinking universe. The night had taken a lifetime, a movie with all the boring bits removed. The editing was choppy, but where artistry had abandoned him, pure emotion remained.
As they stood under the moonlight, he realised she was shorter than he had imagined her to be. He remembered that she had bought him a drink, the first one a woman had ever purchased for him, and when she had returned from the bar, she had deliberately sat closer to him. He remembered the electric sensation as her hip brushed him as she had sat, and her hand as it touched his shoulder as they spoke. Their words and motions blurred, he listened to her looks and watched her words until sound and vision became interchangeable. He no longer knew whether he had heard her speak at all and wondered idly whether he had just heard her thoughts, and she had heard his.
The boy did not know it then, but he loved her, he was in love with her, and she would never again leave him. Outwardly none of this showed to the passers-by who were making their own way home in the early hours. But he thought she understood, in fact he knew it.
She excused herself and it was only when she passed his book back to him that he realised he was not holding it. A bar mat was placed between the pages. He asked if he could walk her home, and smiling she said it was not far. The boy wanted to, he was desperate for more time, but she placed her palm against his chest and kissed his cheek. Call me, she said, and glanced at the book he held.
He opened the book and slipped the bar mat free. On it was a number.
When he looked up, she had already gone.
He searched for her but could not find her.
That night was far from over for the boy, he tried to sleep but couldn’t. His TV screen lit the room until the dawn took over, he listened to his mother rise and the day begin, and still sleep had evaded him. Through it all the bar mat was clutched in his hand and he thought of the home phone that was on its pedestal at the bottom of the stairs. Throughout the day he would move closer to the phone, then back away from it. It was a retreat, he knew, and as he picked over the lunch his mother had made for him the boy resolved to leave it a day before he called the number.
He did not want to frighten her by appearing too needy, even though he knew that he was.
One day, he decided, and his infamous strong will took over.
What remained of Sunday creaked by, dinner shuffling away until supper slouched into its place. He showered and dressed for bed, but again sleep evaded him until the early hours. He woke early for work, filled with energy and good spirits. Eight hours later he would call. He dressed and made his way to work. He would be calm when he asked her what she was doing later. He clocked in and began work. They could go to the cinema to see that movie she mentioned. He smiled at his work colleagues and they never suspected he did not see their faces. He realised now that she mentioned the film for that very reason. Dinnertime came and went and there was only four hours to go.
His manager called him. She was mixed Italian and English, and five years his junior. He liked her and was surprised that she looked angry when he entered her office. She told him it was unacceptable and that he needed to make sure it didn’t happen again. Confused he followed her advice to go down to the loading bay and sort it out. Whatever “it” was.
When he got there, he saw Leon leaning against the gate leading to the bay, a little behind him was his girlfriend. Just inside the loading bay security were eyeing them suspiciously, but the boy didn’t care.
Leon started to speak but his girlfriend quickly took over. She was Belle’s roommate, and she knew the whole story. Belle had spoken about the boy, she was happy, which is what was so confusing. She was happier than anyone had ever seen her, so no one thought anything when she left for the day and went for a walk. But as Sunday wore on the roommates wondered where she had gotten to, and as the sun begun to set, they worriedly begun calling around.
It occurred to them to call the boy, and it was when they considered contacting Leon to get his number that the phone rang.
Belle had checked into a local hotel, gone to a room. She had forced the window open and thrown herself out. Four storeys below she had hit the top of the multi-storey car park that adjoined the hotel. Her neck had broken on impact. Belle’s death was instantaneous.
The ground slapped the boy in the head as he fell, his legs turned to mist beneath him. Again, time slipped by him and he was at a cafe, his friends around him. He could not remember if he had excused himself from work, he realised he didn’t care.
He had lots of questions, but there were no answers.
No, there had not been a note.
No clues as to why, no.
She was happy, she really was.
Eventually the questions dried on his lips, there were more, but he knew all the answers. He heard himself speak, but the words were not coming from him, not his mind at least, he was not thinking of them. As he heard them, he knew they were right.
The boy remembered their future. He saw the house they shared, and he remembered the taste of her lips on his own. Their house had a study where she would paint while he pretended to read. She knew that he watched her, but she did not care. His library became a collection of unread books as his love of them transferred to his love of her.
The boy cried softly as he spoke.
The boy was confused by the sunset.
He was confused by the sunrise the next day.
It amazed him that the world continued to turn.
But turn it did.
He grew further from Leon and his girlfriend with each day. They stopped speaking and it was not long before the boy could not recall his old friends face. His work life degraded, and he was shifted from department to department until they finally let him go.
For a while, the boy lost his way. Wandering further from any path he recognised. He drank far too much, and things took an even darker turn, leaving him scars as a testament even when the memory of acquiring them was absent.
To everyone else the boy had become a man, but he did not recognise this in himself. It was years later when he found himself in the same nightclub. The name was different, and he did not realise until he sat and started to drink. He looked up and realised he was in exactly the same spot he had been sat that night.
It was not a memory but an act of time travel. He smelt her scent, strawberry, and heard her laugh. He saw how her bottom jaw protruded slightly, and how her how her short dark hair fell over her eyes even though she had clipped it short on the sides.
The detail was exquisite.
His heart raced and his eyes bled tears.
The boy died that day.
Around him the world turned oblivious to his turmoil, and this was a good thing. Slowly his life’s course drifted back again. He found new work and new friends. He was always distracted, always disconnected, but he could see people around him once more, and he realised he had not been able to do that for the longest time.
He begun to see a little grey in his hair when he met the woman who would be his wife, but on his wedding day he spared a moment for another woman. When his first child was born, he saw two children, both with different mothers, and many nights he saw another woman’s face in his dreams.
He never spoke of it. He held the memory close. It did not assume too much space, but it never went away. The man who was once that boy knew his life was a good one, but it was not the live he had dreamed of all those years ago.
The man remembered the future that should have been. He remembered the house he should have shared, and he remembered the taste of her lips and the strawberry smell of her skin. He remembered pretending to read as she painted, and the unread collection of books.
The dream still haunted him, and as much as he loved his wife and the children they had made together, a little part of him would always belong to another woman, and the guilt that he had not called her on that quiet Sunday would always weigh heavy on his heart.
As good as life got, as good as it would ever get, it was still not the life he should have lived.
He knew, because this life was not a love story.
posted by Alan Preece
on April, 27