It’s funny how things never change in this old town.
This is one of those places which somehow always manage to float outside time, whose people seem to stay the way they were, exactly as you remember when you were ten years old, cruising the streets on top of your bicycle with your child gang. Defying the general rule of schools, which always dramatically improve after you graduate, your alma mater 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 found no ‘math sucks’ doodle you carved years ago.
Ten years after graduating, your friends, the ones you share years’ worth of memories with, seem to never change at all. There’s David, who has always wear glasses for as long as you could remember – uncanny since you were born in the same hospital just days apart, and became friends since your mothers joined the same book club. Oh god, don’t get started on the book club — you two used to jeer that they were talking more about drama and people in the town rather than that of the book. There’s Anna, the high school prima donna, cheerleader and student body president and whole nine yards, who continues to peak even after graduation. She came out just a few years ago as a lesbian, somehow providing a closure and ego boost for guys she rejected throughout high school, which means almost every guy, classmates, senior, or junior that you know.
There’s the pair of bestfriends who were deskmates, belonged to the same club, wore matching clothes, and at some point, dated the same guy. You barely remember their names, always confused about who was which — not that they actually knew you anyway. It’s reassuring to see that after two decades they are still inseparable, albeit time and distance, or exactly because of that. All these years you have seen friendships fall apart, you understand too well that people change and so does the relationship. But sometimes, only sometimes, the memories of who you used to be are enough to keep the 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. They all know that you two were inseparable until something happened. People don’t know what, though. Somewhere along the years, people have decided that you two tried to be more than friends and failed, which is probably the gist of what actually happened.
Here’s the summary: On graduation night, both of you ditched your respective date 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 is, never brought that up and managed to act civil with you. Friendly, but cold. You cursed yourself over the years for that, since all you ever wanted was to say the magic three words, get on one knee, and asked 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.
“I see you still have your way with words.”
“The only thing I lost is your heart.”
“Whoa, they are even better now.”
“Who says that English major is a waste?”
The laughter that follows is worth all the papers, and years without a steady job. Majoring in English is 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 fine,” 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 curse yourself for wasting all these years looking up her contact, typing up some words, and deleting them all into digital oblivion.
She is a single mom to a seven-year-old girl. They just moved back to the town after her divorce. Oh, no one cheats, it’s just that she and her husband never seem to agree on the littlest thing. Yes, everything is okay now. It’s hard, she says, but she’s settling in and her kid seems happier now with a bigger home with their own backyard and can’t wait to start school.
Here’s the best part: of course she wants to catch up with you. How about next Sunday, eight p.m. at the pub? She will meet you there, her sister can take care of the kid.
All Sunday you check yourself in the mirror 42 times. You plan your attire, just a simple shirt and jeans – nothing too formal, it’s only two friends having beer and catching up. At 7.45 you go to the bar. At 7.53 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 she breaks your heart. Again. She seems to forget to mention her new boyfriend, who gets his arms around her, while she casually waves to you and then introduces the boyfriend.
“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 that 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 struck nine, and cannot sleep, haunted by the smell of her perfume.
The next morning it gets worse. You pass an old fairground just outside the school, which reminds you of how you used to play when you were children. It does not help that she’s there, with the kid and the boyfriend, looking like a poster for a suburban paradise.
You stand there, out of the picture, wishing it were you standing there, laughing with her and the kid.
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, with the same doe eyes, the same smile as the girl you fell in love with years ago.
You know it’s wrong that you cannot move on. In the end, everything comes back to her.
Maybe this time it will be easier.
Disclaimer: If some part of this piece reminds you of Niall Horan’s This Town, it is because the story is inspired by the song.