This one is for kmp78 - thank you for your never ending kind words of support (and the proof read of a partially written idea!) 😘
I sit very still at the table, my only movement to twist the wedding band round and around my finger nervously. I had contemplated taking it off, putting it in my purse, and then had chastised myself for the thought. My wedding ring, much like my husband, was a part of my life now, fused into position from years of being against my skin. I couldn’t hide my ring – or my marriage. And I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t.
I push away the cup of coffee in front of me, the dark liquid now cold in its chipped, white café mug, and glance up at the clock on the wall. He was late. It was only fifteen minutes, but he was still late. The realisation that he couldn’t even be on time, even after all the phone calls, text messages, emails, begging me to agree to see him, was just further proof that I had done the right thing, all those years ago. I had made the right decision. So why did I have the familiar sinking sensation of disappointment, pulling on the bottom of my stomach?
The sound of the little bell above the door tinkled out from across the café, and I look up in time to see him walk through the door. He looks… the same. Time has literally changed not a single thing. His hair, his stubble, his flawless complexion. The dark, expensive Ray Bans hiding his eyes. The ridiculous trousers with the crotch down by his knees, big, dirty brown boots only half laced up. And he’s wearing the hoodie, that damn over sized Ralph Lauren Indian hoodie. I could still remember the feel of it on my skin, the only thing covering my nakedness as I watched him lounge on a hotel bed, beckoning me back towards him with one finger.
I drag my eyes away from his clothes in time to see him take off his sunglasses, his eyes scouring faces at the surrounding tables until they come to settle on me. There is a moment, a heartbeat of time, where our eyes meet and I am lost. The noise of conversation, the sound of the coffee machine whirring and buzzing behind the counter, the pain of rejection that I have been nursing for all this time; gone. In that moment, it is just us.
He smiles then, a slow smile of recognition as he tilts his head slightly to appraise me from the other side of the room. I blush - look down at my hands on the table to hide the colour in my cheeks - and stare straight at my wedding ring. My heart is thudding in my chest, and I quickly place my hands on my lap under the table, out of sight. I don’t know why I do it.
And then he is in front of me, pulling out the chair on the opposite side of the table, the scent of his aftershave washing over me and filling my nostrils, clouding my senses mercilessly. I watch him sit, leaning back in his seat, one arm draped casually over the chair beside him. He waits until I make eye contact with him again and then doesn’t let me look away, holding my gaze firmly with his own. I had forgotten the colour of his eyes, even though I see them in my dreams more often than I care to admit. Hazel brown, a hint of green in certain lights. I have forgotten how to speak.
His voice is deeper than I remember. I wonder if he is still smoking, and try to ignore the sudden craving in the back of my throat for a cigarette. I haven’t smoked in years.
“I can’t believe you came.” He adds when I don’t say anything.
“I said that I would.” I reply, sending up a silent thank you that my voice remains calm and smooth, even though I am trembling from head to toe.
I shift in my seat slightly, glance around the shop to find someone who could take our order. I need a reason to look away from him, smiling at a waitress as I catch her eye from where she stands a few tables away.
“Still so beautiful.” He says quietly from across the table.
I startle and look back to him with a frown, unsure whether I had heard him correctly. He is still watching me, a smile playing on his lips as he watches my reaction. The familiarity of the charge that jumps between us is almost unbearable.
“What can I get you?”
The arrival of the waitress breaks the moment, and as soon as he looks away from me I feel like I can breathe again. I pull air into my lungs while he places our order, fortifying myself, ignoring the fact that not only does he order for me, but he remembers the way I take my coffee. I already know I’m not going to drink it.
I am staring at the table, the wood scuffed and tarnished from millions of cups and plates being placed in front of customers. I try to find the right words to articulate what I want to say.
“Why am I here?” I don’t know if I am asking him, or myself.
“I wanted to see you.” A beat of silence, followed by “Would you look at me?”
I force my eyes back to his, fighting to keep my expression blank while my stomach churns incessantly. He searches my face, a little breath of air puffing out from between his lips.
“How long has it been?” he asks.
Three years, five months and about a week, I scream in my head. Every day as excruciating as the last.
“A long time.” I answer carefully. He nods.
“You cut your hair.”
I reach up with my right hand, tucking my hair behind my ear self consciously. I used to wear it long, blonde curls reaching halfway down my back. He liked my hair long; liked to run his fingers through it and wrap it round one hand, pulling on it while he kissed my neck. When he left, I had it cut into a bob just below my chin. An act of rebellion.
“It suits you. You look amazing.”
I move my hand back to my lap, clutch it with the other one tightly and hope that he doesn’t notice me shaking. He regards me for a moment, his tongue darting out to lick over his bottom lip, the way he always used to when he was concentrating. A nervous tic usually reserved for when he was carefully choosing his words.
“How are you?”
Such a simple question, and yet I hesitate over my answer, not sure what to say. There is so much I could tell him. So much time has passed since we saw each other, so many things have happened, but I realise that half of it I can’t say out loud; and half of it I don’t want to. “I’m good. Not much to report, really.”
He frowns, the small movement changing his whole face as he shakes his head at me. “Come on, you. I want know how you’ve been.”
“It’s a little late for that,” I bite out, regretting the words the instant they leave my mouth. I don’t want to be the bitter ex-girlfriend, the one that they all talk about on the tour bus, laughing as they roll their eyes. I compose myself, clear my throat. “Sorry. What about you, are you keeping well?”
We are interrupted as the waitress returns to our table, placing the coffee mugs in front of us and collecting my untouched cup of cold coffee. She asks if she can get anything else for us; he politely tells her that we are fine. As she leaves he picks up his spoon, stirring one packet of sugar into his coffee as he considers his own answer.
“I’m actually doing really well.”
I don’t know why this answer hits me like a blow to the stomach. He puts his spoon down and looks back up at me, sitting back in his seat again, the fingers of one hand rolling the empty sugar packet into a ball of paper.
“I spent some time in rehab, last year.”
My mouth drops open a little. “Really?”
“Don’t look so surprised!” he says, chuckling lightly as he throws the empty packet at my head, laughing harder as it bounces off of the end of my nose. I smile in spite of myself, and he stops laughing, watching my face. “God, I missed that.”
I feel my smile evaporate as I look down at my own drink, playing with the handle of the mug. A wall of tension settles back between us. “So… what brought about rehab?” I ask, moving past his comment. He looks a little wounded.
“Family intervention,” he shrugs. “I got into some trouble and… yeah. It was time, y’know? Time to face my demons.”
“Did it help?”
“I’ve been clean for a year. A year today, in fact.”
I feel a flush of pride sweep through me, followed by a sense of sadness that I hadn’t been enough to make him want to take that step.
“Wow. Congratulations - I’m really pleased for you.” I say, genuinely. And I am. I know it’s the best thing that he could have done, because I had tried for so long to convince him to go.
“I should have done it years ago.” He says, a hint of regret in his voice.
I know what he is saying. He should have gone when I had asked him to. When I had told him that I couldn’t stay in a strained relationship with an addict who spent most of his time on a different continent. When I had begged him to choose me, over his lifestyle. I nod my head, acknowledging the unspoken words between us.
“At least you made that step. Your family must be really pleased.”
He smiles a little, taking a sip of his coffee. “It took a long time for them to believe that I was serious, to trust that I could stay clean this time.”
“Well I’d say that a year was a pretty good starting block.” I pointed out. “And you know they will support you, no matter what.”
A sharp pang of homesickness pierced my chest as I thought about them. I missed his family. When he had walked out of my life, he had taken them with him, all connections severed instantly.
“I dunno about that – I burnt a lot of bridges before rehab. It’s been a tough year, trying to fix it all.”
I don’t know what to say. I want to feel sympathy for him, but the part of me still holding on to the anger and the betrayal cannot bring myself to feel sorry for him.
“Isn’t that part of the program? To make amends?” I ask.
He nods, looking at me closely. “That’s why I’m here.”
I smirk. “I thought you were in town for a show?”
He smiles, flicking his hand in the air as he leans forward, resting his elbows on the table. “It’s an acoustic show, I’m not playing. I just flew over with them so I could see you.”
I blink, blindsided by his comment, and he uses my stunned silence to continue.
“Out of everyone that I hurt along the way, you are the one who deserves the biggest apology. I was such a shit to you. The way I treated you was… unforgiveable.”
I try to swallow the lump that has appeared in my throat as I look at him, that earnest expression on his face drawing me back in the way it always did when he was saying sorry. I don’t want to hear this. It’s too late.
“It doesn’t matter now…” I say, shaking my head as I look away from him.
“Of course it matters,” he interrupts, ducking his head to catch my gaze again. “And you need to hear it. I am so sorry. The whole time I was in that god damn clinic I was planning this – I couldn’t wait to get on a plane and come and find you.”
I feel one eyebrow lift itself involuntarily at this statement. “And yet you did manage to wait. A whole year, in fact.” I point out, a sting in the words. If only he hadn’t waited.
I can see his pulse jumping in his neck, a little thud of movement in that sweet spot just under his jaw. A memory of curling up against him in bed, my head on his shoulder, my nose pressed up against the warm skin there. I suck in a breath as I try to push the image from my mind.
“My family weren’t the only ones who found it hard to trust me, when I came home. I found it hard to trust me, too. I didn’t want to come back here and throw some easy words around only to fall down and end up right back where I started. I knew that I meant it, I just… I wanted to make sure I could see it through, y’know? And when it got to a whole year sober… I wanted to celebrate that with you.”
I watch him for a moment and realise that he is holding his breath as he waits for me to respond. I look away again, unable to maintain the eye contact with him.
“Well… I appreciate your apology.” I say. But the damage is done, I think, biting my lip to stop the words forcing their way out.
The silence descends again, and I try to remember a time when conversation between us had been as easy as breathing. He lifts one hand, pointing to my drink in front of me. “Your coffee is going cold,” he smiles.
I reach out instinctively to pick up the cup, even though I have no intention of drinking it, and too late I realise that it is my left hand that has ventured out from under the table. In a flash his strong hand has wrapped around mine, pulling my arm towards him across the table as he stares down at the engagement and wedding rings. I try to pull my hand away from him but he tightens his grip, and my heart leaps into my throat at the feel of his skin on mine again.
“Not much to report huh?” he says, dragging his eyes back to my face. They are on fire, burning into mine with all the questions that I had wanted to avoid, and as he releases my hand I quickly place it back on my lap. Out of sight. “You’re married?!”
I feel ashamed, like I have been caught cheating; ironic, that I would be the one at this table feeling as though I had been dishonest or unfaithful. I manage to nod, once. His eyes close briefly against the sight of my confirmation. “Who is he?” he says quietly.
I lower my eyes back to the table, a slight shake of my head. I didn’t want to have this conversation with him.
“Who is he!” he snaps, the palm of his hand banging on the table between us.
I jump, startled. People around us look over at our table, look at him. To them he appears calm, as though that outburst hadn’t happened, but I know him. I see the slight flare of his nostrils, and the hand that had slapped onto the table now curled in a tight fist, the skin on his knuckles stretched taut and white.
“You don’t know him.” I answer.
“Does it matter?”
“If I was sat in front of you wearing a god damn wedding ring, wouldn’t you want to know?” he demanded.
“How long have you been married.” He repeated, undeterred.
I sigh, a small, defeated breath of air escaping me. “Almost a year.”
I wait for this to sink in, one heartbeat, two heartbeats, and watch as the anger on his face is replaced with a crestfallen expression that almost hurts to look at.
“So… when I came out of rehab…?”
“I wasn’t married then, no.”
He slowly slumps back in his chair, subconsciously putting that extra distance back between us as he rubs a hand over his face. “I left it too long.”
I can’t bear to look at him. He looks as though he is in pain, and for the first time in our twisted history I have to acknowledge that I am the one that has caused it. I suddenly ache to hold him, wrap my arms around him and soothe that pain away, like I always used to. My fingers twitch with the need to touch him. I sit on my hands.
“I still would have gotten married. Even if you had made this apology the same day you left rehab.” I say, willing myself to believe that this is the truth.
His tongue runs over his bottom lip again, his eyes locked on to mine. “Would you?”
And I know in that very second that the answer is no. I love my husband. He is a good man. He has never lied to me, hurt me, or walked away from me without so much as a backwards glance. But I look at this man across the table, this man who has done all of those things and more, and I know with certainty that if he had walked back in to my life a year ago things would be very different now. The force with which this realisation hits me is staggering, and I know I need to end this conversation quickly.
“I guess we’ll never know.” I say, my voice shaking, betraying the lie.
I lean over and pick up my hand bag from the chair beside me, standing up as I hook it over my shoulder. My legs wobble, as though they are not strong enough to carry me away from him.
“Don’t go.” He says simply, standing up from his own chair.
“I have to.” I say. Because I’m afraid if I don’t leave now I might never be able to, I think.
“Can I see you again?”
I shake my head, unable to deny him out loud. I move away from my seat, wondering how many steps it is from here to the door. “I really am glad that you are doing so well. I’m proud of you.” I say, hoping he doesn’t hear me choke back the sob trying to strangle the words in my throat.
He steps towards me then and I automatically take a step back. I cannot let him touch me, or this will all unravel. But he keeps coming, moving towards me faster than I can back away, and then those arms are wrapping around me, pulling me against his chest in a crushing embrace. My senses are overloaded – his warmth, his smell, the sound of his heart beating in his chest as one large hand palms the side of my head and pulls me against him. It is like two jigsaw pieces, the edges jagged and torn from years of trying to fit where they don’t belong, finally reunited. It is like coming home.
I squeeze my eyes closed as my arms drift to their rightful place, one around his waist, one across his back, my hand resting on the back of his neck. As my fingers touch the skin there I feel his arms tighten around me, his face dropping to the top of my head as he buries his nose in my hair and breathes in.
“This can’t be it.” He says against me. “I can’t lose you again.”
I pull back slightly, letting my arms drop down until I could put my hands on his arms, using the leverage to push away from him. He loosens his grip a little, but doesn’t let go. He is too close. I can feel his breath on my face as he looks at me, waiting for me to relent, to give in to him like I always would when he looked at me like that. My fingers tighten on the coarse, woollen fabric of his jumper, my favourite jumper, as I stare intently at the hollow in his throat just so that I don’t have to look him in the eye.
“I’m not yours to lose, anymore.”
My voice is barely a whisper, but I know that he heard me. I feel the muscles in his arms stiffen, the air grow thicker with the painful tension. I am saying goodbye, without saying the words. His arms drop away from me, and I am bereft as I take a step backwards, breaking our contact. Every fibre of my being is already crying out from the loss of him, again.
I force myself to look at him, knowing that this will be the last time I see his face and wanting to memorise every last detail, commit it to a locked box in my memory, so that when I am alone I can take it out and look over it fondly. He smiles at me, although his eyes are sad. I smile back, even as my own vision swims in front of me with the tears that are threatening to spill over.
I take another step back, and then turn away from him, wrapping my arms around my middle as I walk towards the door of the café. He doesn’t call after me, doesn’t run to catch up with me. He doesn’t beg me to change my mind or throw empty promises of love at me. As I step through the door and out on to the street, I realise that he has let me walk away, and everything inside me that makes me who I am breaks into a million little pieces.
I wonder how long it will take to put myself back together, this time.