I remember the night I met you. I was working behind the bar — it was busy — and you handed me your phone number, folded up inside a twenty-dollar bill. It was the size of a quarter. I remember unfolding it at the register, frustrated, and finding your business card, lined with creases. You were an artist, that was the first thing I noticed.
I remember thinking it was funny; funny that you handed me the money as a stranger, an unremarkable face in a crowd, yet became so much more in just one moment. It’s interesting how we often don’t see people until they make us notice, give us reason to care.
I remember handing you back your change, 12 dollars, and the way you looked so nervous, the uncertain smile you gave before being swallowed, once more, into a wave of bodies. I remember the first text message, the relief in your words, the excitement radiating from my phone in the pressing darkness. I remember the night we met on the beach, the way your card declined at the bottle shop, how embarrassed you were and how little I cared — how unimportant money suddenly seemed.
I remember a lot more, too. The way you’d hold my hand as we turned a corner, the love in your eyes as you told me about your little brother, the first kiss, sitting in an alleyway, the way your shoulders seemed lighter in my company. Then I remember the way you left. The way you walked, tipsy on wine, into the evening rain, promising to see me again soon.
And then you were gone. No call, no text. Nothing. But there was that nagging feeling at my core, the one that told me I knew we’d bump into each other eventually.
It had to happen; after all, our town only has one post-office, one 7/11 and one ferry into the city. We frequent the same cafes, the same bars, the same beaches and, though we move in different social circles, the circles overlap at a number of key points. It was unavoidable, and to be honest, the inevitability has filled me with a dull, consistently throbbing anxiety for months.
I wanted to bump into you so that you knew I was OK, that the way you disappeared hadn’t sent me into a tailspin of binge-eating, reclusiveness and vodka-induced 80s karaoke nights for one. I became hyper-aware of everything: the time, the day of the week, the way that I looked, the faces of strangers passing by. You see, it had to be perfect. I had to be with a group of friends, sporting a light tan, drink in hand, laughing carelessly mid conversation, exuding a general aura of “I’m so preoccupied with my amazing life that I can barely remember your name.”
You’d then see me and say hello. I’d take a moment, feigning a lack of recognition, before grinning forgivingly and asking how you’d been. We’d exchange pleasantries, the way grown ups do, and then it’d be over for good. Of course, the whole charade would be a lie — but since when does that matter? Putting up fronts is what our generation does best. We like to create our own control. We like to not care.
In the end, it happened a little differently.
After a long string of perfect Summer days, it was raining. The same kind of dreary, stubborn rain as the last time I saw you. I was alone, without an umbrella, struggling with an arm of groceries while simultaneously attempting to navigate my phone from the dip of my shoulder up to my ear. I was dripping wet, my hair falling in thin strips across my forehead, and my nose was peeling from sunburn. My failed attempt at a tan.
You, on the other hand, were with a group of friends. You were dry — I’m not sure how — and looking good. You were looking really good. I’m not sure if I saw you first, or the other way around, but we saw each other, briefly as we passed. I slowed down, naively opening myself up to the possibility of a conversation. I said “Hi” — softly, too softly — as though my heart blurted it out as my head tried to reel it back in. Your mouth fell momentarily ajar, eyes darting to and from my face with all the nervousness I remembered. Then the moment passed, as moments always do. You were gone, you kept walking.
You’d promised to see me again, and you did.
After all the months of silence, simultaneously hoping to cross your path while dreading the very idea, it had happened, out of my control, just as it should be. It wasn’t in the way I’d hoped, but that was OK, because as the phone reached my ear and a dear friend’s laughing voice answered, I realized that I was fine. The pain I’d anticipated was real, but so much smaller than I’d imagined it. You were again just another face in just another crowd — as was I, to you. We’d shared a time together, as people so often do — and then it had ended, in a way things so often end.
We were finally, officially, strangers again — and what could possibly be more freeing?