So they met. Eventually. After so many years. Years of ordinary life on the surface but deep inside full of hope, expectations, silent dreams and guilt that they ever existed. Years when above all they both pretended that nothing ever happened and they were just friends. Indeed, nothing ever happened, when looking at matters in a pragmatic manner. They held hands once, went out together a couple of times. That was all. Never even kissed and never had sex. All those myriads of other encounters and meetings were always supported by strong rationale and explained, as if they felt compelled to justify themselves each time they met. As if meeting someone without a strong reason for doing so was a sin. Was it?
This time it was different – she called him first to tell she was back to the country for a couple of days. They joked – just like in good old days when nobody else could get the sense of humour they had in common. And then… she simply said “Let’s meet tomorrow, before I leave”. And he agreed. Just like that. No long explanation, why they needed to meet. No sophisticated arrangements regarding the place or time. Just a meeting at the station. Just half an hour. Just the two of them.
He spotted her at some distance as she was walking impatiently along the platform and felt his heart pound. Still so young, so energetic… she turned around and saw him. A wide smile shone on her face as she raced towards him, all her movements expressing pure, childish joy. The only thing she wanted was to bury herself in his arms, the arms of memories, the arms of past, the arms of a friend. Yet, she didn’t. He offered her a handshake.
– Good morning – he said in a just-a-little-too-excited, artificial tone trying to camouflage his real feelings. Or at least it seemed so.
– Good morning – she replied disappointed. No, it wasn’t something she expected. They had not seen each other for years. Yes, she missed him. Yes, she was almost certain he missed her, too. Is it the way you greet someone dear you missed for years? Her fists clenched automatically and she felt a wave of heat rising up to her head.
The conversation went on. They exchanged some news, who passed away and who was born. He asked about her children and told her about his deceased father’s last days. She apologised for not being there for him.
– How could you have been there if you hadn’t known? – he remarked rationally.
– I couldn’t, that’s true. Can you, please, promise to call me anytime, if something serious happens to you? – she said almost instantly, without thinking.
– Why? You can’t fix it at such distance – his insensitive comments drove her mad. Didn’t he understand? Or maybe he didn’t want to face the facts.
– But I want to know. I want to be there for you. If you had told me, I would have come here or I would have kept in touch with you on the phone… you were there for me when I needed. I want to be able to offer you the same – the uncontrolled stream of words burst out of her mouth again. His tiny round eyes went darker. He silenced. She paused, too. They looked at each other for a while, too anxious to say anything. The question, although not said out, was wandering somewhere between them.
– Why? – he decided to ask, although he was almost certain he knew the answer. Actually, he had known it for years. He swallowed loudly, blinking nervously at the same time.
– You’re not afraid of me anymore, are you? – her answer didn’t seem to have much in common with the question.
– Excuse me?!
– You used to be afraid of me. Today we met and you didn’t need a good reason for this. We are talking and you even dared to ask this uncomfortable “why” question. You’re not afraid of me anymore – she finished the diagnosis.
– If you say so… – he was more than surprised by this open talk.
– Yes, I’m saying so. I’ve noticed a change in your behaviour and I’m just making a comment on that… out of my scientific curiosity, you know – she explained, back to her old ways of justifying every word. He laughed nervously. In her mind, she started noticing the resemblance of her own utterance to the narration by her favourite comedy author she read passionately in teenage years (“But he smelled Yardley, you know, and I just imagined him in front of his mirror applying perfume onto his silly moustache”). The thought itself seemed awkward and peculiar.
– People change, you know – he started.
– But some things do not – she replied – You have always been very important in my life.
– What do you mean? – one could easily tell he spent a while working as a teacher. This inquisitive questioning. When she was younger, he used to ask “What do you want to tell me?” with this facial expression of a wise man who had known everything before you even opened your mouth. Naive as she was, this made her reveal all secrets she had with no fail. Even this time.
– I mean, I loved you once. And some things do not change.
Silence. She almost started counting to ten… but then he spoke.
– You loved me? – she couldn’t decide which word was actually emphasized, he seemed to stress them all, test out the credibility of each and every of them.
– Don’t pretend you weren’t aware! – she attacked him verbally – You must have known. Things do not disappear when you don’t talk about them. Be a man and face the facts!
– OK, so you loved me – he confirmed – and now?
– I still love you – she admitted – but differently.
– Differently? – he echoed.
– Yes, you said people change and you’re pretty much right. So, in line with this, I loved you once and now, as I have changed, I love you differently – the whole theory seemed convincing to her. He didn’t seem to understand it though.
– And how do you love me now? – he rephrased the question. Yes, he must have not understood even a single word of hers.
– Dif-ferent-ly – she repeated and laughed aloud at the silly conversation they were having. Then she started searching through her navy blue leather bag – Let me show you something – she said, taking out an old black and white photo of a man – Look at him.
He did as instructed. A face very much like his own, although much younger, stared at him from the photo – Who’s this? – he asked quietly.
– My father. He was just 4 years older than you. He died when I was 5 – she explained – I guess you’ve noticed you two are similar to each other?
– That’s… I don’t know what to say – he was genuinely astonished. She never showed him that photo before.
– Then don’t say anything yet. Just listen – she seemed truly decisive and determined to share her story with him. He let her speak.
– I wasn’t aware of this but I’ve been looking for him all my life. I found a piece of him in you, that’s why I fell in love with you, but it got all mixed up with romantic affection. I was just so young then. And now I… I…
– … grew up? – he suggested.
– Yes, I grew up and I grew mature. So I still love you but now I know why I do. The romantic affection has gone and I’m more than happy that it has. Nevertheless, you are still here – she pointed to her heart – as someone very important, a part of my life which I don’t want to forget.
He looked down.