It’s raining when I leave my house, half an hour earlier than I need to, and of course it is. I catch myself thinking about how irritating it would be if it were sunny, the world making a mockery of my misery. This way, at least, it gives us an excuse to leave hurriedly, to get away from each other, to pull our hoods low over our foreheads so eye contact is minimal. I grumble to myself anyway as I turn back and exchange my jumper for a coat. I’m going to be late, I think, I should have left earlier.
Of course, I’m still twenty nine minutes earlier than I need to be, so I settle myself into a seat by the window of a little cafe with faded orange walls and mismatched furniture. A man around my age brings a cup of coffee over to me. When he sets it down the cup tilts just slightly. The coffee sloshes dangerously. I watch, helpless. Three drops land on the saucer and then trickle to rest on the bottom of the cup. The almost black liquid is still restless in the cup. I try to look into the eyes of the man who brought it over, desperate for him to recognise me. He doesn’t show any signs that we have ever met. I smile too brightly when I thank him, so sure that we went to primary school together. Outside the window a car passes too close to the pavement and I watch a great wave of dirty water rush up from the gutter to the pavement, over the jeans and boots of a woman pushing a pram. It’s impossible to know if she notices or not.
I find myself watching raindrops race down the window. I am routing for the one on the right; it’s smaller than the one on the left, but is taking an unpredictable path. I sit, enthralled for a moment. Then, to my horror, both raindrops meet in the middle, conjoining, forming only one large raindrop that eventually runs to the end of the pane and disappears. ‘How dare they?’ is my first thought, and then, very quickly afterwards, ‘God, I am pathetic’. I drink my coffee. Time moves as slowly as the practically motionless raindrop I have been staring at for the past five minutes.
She arrives right on time. Of course she does. I watch her slow down as she reaches the corner and then, upon seeing that I am not there, she leans against the brick wall and lights up a cigarette. Am I right in thinking she looked relieved when she found I wasn’t there? I squint, automatically analysing her body language. I know she hates to smoke in the rain, which means she’s nervous. The only time she smokes in the rain or in the morning or while walking is when she’s nervous. It’s difficult to know how this makes me feel, but I decide on a mixture of flattered and sad. Through the rain-splattered window I watch the tiny orange light on the end of her cigarette appear and disappear, move rhythmically up and down. ‘This is so creepy’, I think to myself. I leave a handful of coins on the table and begin to move towards the door. Halfway there I stop, turn back, and take the coins to the cashier. I dutifully collect my change. Why doesn’t he recognise me?
Back on the street and she’s still there, standing across the road, throwing the end of the cigarette to the floor and stamping on it. I’m aware of how slowly i’m moving over to her but my limbs themselves seem conscious of the fact that once she sees me I will not be able to escape. Just as this thought crosses my mind I watch her turn to look at me, her dark hair cascading perfectly from her hood. She looks so damn beautiful in her raincoat and I can feel my own hair sticking to my cheeks, my feet squelching in water-soaked shoes. She smiles at me and it takes so much effort not to turn and run, possibly screaming, back down the street.
“Hi,” she says, and for some reason now is the time that I forget the usual response to that. I’m mesmerised to the point of perplexity. She’s looking at me, thinking I’m angry or upset or something like that. Am I angry? Upset? Should I be? I’ve lost track of who is supposed to be more pissed off at the other, it all got so tiring after a while. But she’s looking at me now, timidly, as if it’s my turn. She’s biting her lip just slightly in the way that used to drive me crazy; a couple of months ago she would have been able to get away with anything just by giving me that look. Not now, though, and when she crosses her arms defensively over her chest and opens her mouth to speak I am bracing myself, ready for her.
“I’m dating Poppy,” she says, abruptly, boldly, staring me straight in the eyes, daring me to challenge her.
“Oh,” I say, flatly. “Right.” She sinks just slightly, disappointed that I don’t show any sign of anger or regret or jealousy. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it satisfies me.
“Your best friend Poppy,” she clarifies. I only know one Poppy.
“Ex-best friend,” I say, crossing my arms, mirroring her. She lets her arms fall to her sides, exasperated. It was a childish thing to say, I know.
The silence stretches between us. I can see the concrete slabs that make up the pavement growing before my eyes, pushing each other away so they have room to expand, carrying us far away from each other. She’s a stranger, I think. The first thing I noticed about her was her perfect hair, that’s the kind of thing you notice about a stranger. I look at her face and it’s beautiful, but that’s all I see. I try to remember the tiny quirks of her body, to catch hold of the sense that once we were intimately, securely entwined, but I’m too late, it’s lost.
The drum of the rain on my hood grows louder, harder, more urgent. She’s noticed, too. She takes a step towards me and automatically I feel my foot slide backwards half an inch. She stops, and there’s a flicker of hurt on her face. My stomach convulses; I didn’t mean to do that. I step towards her, and it’s stupid, like an awkward dance, and I’m suddenly reminded of the night we met, two summers ago at someone long forgotten’s party, dancing in the garden in the dark. And then it had started raining and people had begun to drift inside, then those who had withstood the drizzle ran for cover when it started pouring, until it was only us left, and we’d found each other. Later we had laughed about how cliche it all was. Secretly, I had always loved the idea that the rain was ours, a force of nature bringing us together. And now here we are, the rain pounding harder on my jacket as if to hurry us up.
She picks up a bag that had been leaning against the wall and hands it to me, casually. I take it from her and look inside: the t-shirt of mine she used to sleep in, a book i’d left at her house, all the mix CDs i’d ever made her. There’s more but I stop looking. I’m just going to dump it in a bin on the way home, anyway.
“Thanks,” I say, shortly. She’s tapping her fingers, jiggling her thigh, ever so slightly, and I know she wants to leave now. “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring any of your stuff,” I say, just to be polite.
“That’s cool,” she says. We look at each other, both knowing that over the past month or so she’d been careful not to leave anything at mine, to collect what she had left previously, preempting this little gathering. How sad it is that we can’t even tell each other what we’re really thinking anymore. I wonder if she’s still been wearing my t shirt to bed, if she wears it when she’s lying beside Poppy. It probably smells of her, now.
“Well,” I say.
“Well,” she responds.
We avoid eye contact. There’s a spider clinging to the wall just above her shoulder and I’m watching it, silently begging it not to jump onto her. ‘Trust me, little guy, I’ve got experience, and you don’t want to cling on to that shoulder’. She sighs heavily.
“I should get going,” she says. I nod, stiffly.
“Sure. So, see you round, I guess.”
“See you,” she smiles. I smile back.
We’re still standing there on the street corner, looking at each other, wondering if we should hug or shake hands or awkwardly wave or just turn our backs and leave. I’m the one to walk away. I nod, turn, shove my hand in my pocket, carrying the bag of tainted memories by my side, and walk away. I don’t look back, and I’m pleased.
A street away from home I throw the bag into someone’s recycling bin. The lid slams with a satisfying finality.