All I know is I’ve gotta be
Where my heart says I oughta be
It often makes no sense
In fact I never understand these things I feel
I love you, goodbye
I love you, goodbye
Don’t Change Your Plans, Ben Folds Five
New York City, 17th October 2015
It is nearly 1am and I’m nursing a beer in the dive bar next to my hotel. I stare at one of the half-dozen TV screens in front of me with unseeing eyes. My skin feels tight and tender, as if the knotty ache in my chest is pulling everything in towards it. There’s something cathartic about the pain; I’ve guarded my heart so carefully for such a long time that I’ve almost forgotten how it feels to be vulnerable in this way.
Like a slow puncture, this night has set in motion a process I won’t really understand till much later. Some taps aren’t easily turned off again, and after years of half-cocked handbrake-love – diluted to the point where it tastes only of watery, anodyne caution – this first trickle of unfiltered emotion will build steadily into a gushing flood. Before I know it’s coming it’ll be up round my neck, and I’ll close my eyes in joyful surrender as it washes over me.
I’m not thinking about the future though – not at 1am, as I sip from the pint glass in front of me. I’m thinking about the past, mainly, and the life I could have had – the person I might have been – if things had worked out differently. I’m thinking about decisions and consequences; love and loss.
I’m thinking about the soft sting of her lips on mine, and the sense of finality contained within our kiss.
But we’ll get to that.
“It’s good to see you,” I say.
And I mean it. It’s always good to see her. There’s something magnetic about the way her mouth quirks at the corners; it drags mine up too, whatever else is going on in my head or heart at the time. Blinking a bit – there are some moments for which preparation is basically redundant – I wave towards the bar, but she shrugs me off.
“Nah, finish your pint and let’s get out of here. I want food.”
It’s a relief to be moving. I fidget at the best of times, so when I’m this nervous the last thing I want is to sit still with all three dimensions of her just inches away from me. It’s disconcerting to be presented with a living, breathing version of someone you’ve turned into a set of still images – like seeing a character from a favourite novel step off the page and appear in front of you.
Because it’s always fiction, right? The way we remember people we once loved. Maybe not at first, when they fill us up like the smell of fresh-cut grass, heavy and rich – when a thousand small and unrelated events bring them crashing to the forefront of our consciousness every single day – but we’re fools if we think that unfiltered reality endures.
It becomes a story – one we write from increasingly imperfect memory – and like all good stories it grows broader and less precise with every telling, till it’s little more than a myth. It changes as we change. We preserve and romanticise the bits that are important to us, and in doing so – in pumping them full of colour – we allow nostalgia to soften and blur the clear, sharp lines that person once had.
So what happens when those lines are not just restored, but given extra definition and weight by the emotional resonance attached to the myth? Well, in this case you pick up your coat, you link arms, and you head out into the night.
We walk for far longer than I’d intended. The tugging wind picks up around our feet, then whips at our coats and hair each time we reach a cross street or are forced to step out from the shelter of 5th Avenue’s commercial skyscrapers. As we turn onto 59th I have a sudden flashback to the first time we stood here, but it is not the moment to allow the past a foothold, and I shake off the mental image before it can really crystallise.
I’d expected initial conversation to be stilted, but in fact it’s the opposite, and I know then that she’s as conscious of the occasion as I am. Our words cross over and chase each other; there is an enthusiasm in our voices and gestures that – while not forced – feels calibrated to serve a specific, mutual purpose. For this brief period we are exaggerated versions of ourselves – or perhaps of the people we used to be.
Eventually we find the restaurant – really a small wine bar on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen – and everything slows down. We shift from a manic, animated chatter into something more measured. It’s more intimate too, and that’s definitely a product of cadence rather than content. We don’t talk about the past and we don’t really talk about the future either. Instead we reach for half-forgotten private jokes and swap carefully-curated stories from our day-to-day lives. We skim like stones across water we both know is deeper than it looks.
It’s customary in these situations to pretend that you’re unaware of time – that you don’t notice how late it gets. Bullshit. My eyes flick up to the clock on the wall every five minutes, because I know that the time I have left with her is draining away. Food comes and goes, along with another round of drinks. The bar starts to thin out, and our waiter hovers somewhere over my left shoulder, then moves around us with thinly-veiled impatience. In London he’d just ask us to leave. So we do.
As I pay the bill she murmurs something into her sleeve and I dissolve into helpless, hiccupping laughter. She beams at the waiter, who shuffles uncomfortably and snatches the metal tray from my hand. I feel a surge of pure, concentrated love for this woman next to me, and for the years we gave each other. Value isn’t tied to longevity: not everything that endures is worthwhile, and by the same token we often find immeasurable beauty in relationships that die before we’ve even begun to understand what they mean to us.
It’s colder outside the restaurant, and the walk back to Columbus Circle is almost jarringly short. We drag our feet as the subway entrance draws near. Its steps contain an inevitability that we are suddenly unwilling to confront. On the platform, our voices once again become artificially bright and loud.
“You need this train, right?”
“Right. And you’re…”
“…over there, yes. I should probably…”
Then she’s in my arms and we’re kissing – of course we’re kissing – because how else are we going to tell each other what this dinner, this evening, has meant? We’re in New York City, freezing our butts off on a subway platform; and sure, ten years have slipped away from us, but somehow this moment couldn’t be more right, more perfect.
How can you do justice to a kiss like that? The mechanics are irrelevant. I could tell you that her lips tasted of red wine and sour cherries. That her hair was soft and lusciously thick under my fingers. I could describe the way her hand rested on my cheek, and how it made me think of the first time she kissed me, whirling round in the chaos of Thanksgiving at JFK. I won’t though. I can’t – not really. Some things are private, I guess.
In the long, silent seconds that follow, her hand finds its way under my coat; when I shiver she curls up against my body and laughs into my shoulder.
“I thought you didn’t feel the cold,” she says. I open my mouth to reply, but she reaches up to kiss me again, and just as it ceases to matter I realise she’s teasing me in a way that manages to be both fresh and achingly familiar.
I break off as the train approaches. This isn’t a fairytale. She has an exam in the morning, and even if she didn’t we’ve reached the outer limits of where this night can safely go. Sometimes you have to dig your heels in, even as the slope starts to crumble away beneath you.
There’s a wave – small and awkward, as if my hand is reluctant to comply with the decision made on its behalf – and then I bolt for the stairs, not daring to glance behind me in case my heart shatters all over again.
I turn back only after I reach the main concourse. People jostle past me – it may be late, but this is New York – so I step to one side and try to collect myself. I can hear the train rattling uptown above me, which means that she’s gone, and as soon as the realisation hits me I just stand there and exhale…for what feels like forever.
Nursing my beer, I think about all the things we said to each other – and all the things we didn’t. All the things I wish I’d said.
I’m so glad I met you.
I shouldn’t have lied.
I’m sorry I hurt you.
I love you. Goodbye.