I could imagine being happy now.
I could sit in the sun with you and think it were bliss. Happiness – unfiltered, seen true and pure, and not through the lens of dreams unfulfilled, of bitterness and wandering thoughts. I could be in that moment, and take your hand in mine, and know every minute detail of what I was doing because I would be experiencing it as sharply and clearly as if I were in your head, at the same time, watching me.
You were the only one sitting outside, on the iced concrete steps of the hotel in Earls Court. I could only see a short wave of golden brown hair. Your head was turned down in concentration, but you looked up at the sound of my suitcase scraping the pavement. You smiled. I’d never seen so much teeth before. I beamed back at you. You said you were waiting for your tour group to leave and I silently thanked god. We sat together on the tour bus, talked for the whole day, and never left one another’s side. Everyone else swore at dinner that they thought we were old friends.
By the time we drove into Edinburgh we were requesting to room together. We spent the day exploring the city. We sat outside a pub on the Mile and got hopelessly drunk. We caught a taxi back to the hotel. We didn’t come down to breakfast that morning.
I drew a rough map of the road to the Highlands and thrust it under your nose. I said to you, ‘This is where we’re going to go tomorrow.’ The road wound directly into the heart of the Scottish mountains, through Inverness, up and out into the craggy knobs of grass and snow. Your eyes lit up at the thought, and we said we’d rent a car in the morning and do the drive, the whole thing, in one day. We’d be back in Edinburgh that night, if we play our cards right you said. The winter sun burned brighter that night, fuelled by our anticipation, as if it were struggling to stay in the sky while the inexorable push of night drove it down into its cavern home below the horizon.
It turned out to be a disaster. The car wouldn’t start and by the time we’d left the city the day was half gone. We made it as far as Glen Coe, but I couldn’t appreciate the beauty of the valley because we argued. I shouted at you, about the fact we would be driving back in the dark, and I knew I would end up driving. I didn’t speak to you until the last ten minutes of the drive, when I shook you awake and we argued until the sun came up. We didn’t talk all of the next day; I needed that. I went to the castle on the hill, swarming with tourists, and waited in a line for two hours to see the Scottish crown jewels. All the time I wished you were there and I knew, when I got back to the hotel, that I would say sorry and we’d make up. You were forgiving; I think you’d had as bad a day as I had. We made up. We kissed. We were happy then.
Holidays can only last so long; before we were ready we were home, and I vowed we would see each other again. I saved and saved for a year until I could get on a plane and see you. You told me you worked at Oxford, as a lecture assistant, so I decided to surprise you. I saw you coming out your office, so I sprinted across Exeter College’s quadrangle lawn to jump into your arms, but you brushed me off and told me off for stepping on the carefully manicured grass. I stood back, hesitant, and you checked yourself and asked for forgiveness. I let you kiss me but I knew I wouldn’t shake this feeling of unease for days.
We lay on your bed and listened to Joni Mitchell on vinyl. I teased you for that. You said you wore chunky Buddy Holly glasses for your eyesight, but I knew better. I knew you wore them for the way they made you look, just like how you listened to vinyl records so you could tell people that. You did like Joni Mitchell though.
I gave you an iPod full of her music that Christmas. You talked about giving me a cat – one we could share – but I said since I would be leaving soon I couldn’t bear to part with it. We were practically alone in the common room; nearly every student had gone away for the holidays. Snow blanketed the quad. It fell silently outside the window in manic bursts, sudden downpours of white powdery flakes. In the corner of the room a Christmas tree glistened, golden fairy lights blinking on, off, on, off. You hung a garland of mistletoe over the doorway and beckoned me over. I didn’t go straight away; I refused for two minutes, entranced by the falling snow. You said, rightly, that I could go and watch it anytime – You can go outside right now and stand in the bloody stuff! you said – but I insisted. Two minutes might have been nothing for me to wait, but I realise now it was an eternity for you.
I went back to Australia before the snow thawed. I’d run out of money and reason. You hung onto me at the bus depot, made me promise I’d call the minute I got home. I agreed a thousand times, but that was the last thing on my mind. I was thinking of my own bed. I was thinking of the sun. I missed being in a quiet city, where I could turn a corner on some street or side alley and find no one. I got no peace here. You started to talk about getting on the bus to London with me. Now I made you promise me you’d stay. I watched you get smaller and smaller from the top of the double decker, then took a long breath out. The unease I’d felt had miraculously lifted.
Safely ensconced in my familiar city, in the warmth of the summer months, and in the comfort of the endless suburbs curbed by the sun-dappled hills, I waited two weeks before I rang. You were angry; you demanded to know what had kept me. I countered by asking why you didn’t ring me, and I heard nothing down the line. I smiled smugly at that; I rarely found you speechless.
Then you said you had booked plane tickets to Adelaide. You would be here until the end of summer. It was my turn to be speechless. I reproached you for telling me that in an argument, then said that I couldn’t wait to see you. But I could wait; it felt like I’d only just said goodbye to you.
I came to the airport to pick you up. We hugged and kissed and I smiled because a few older people nearby were looking awkwardly at us – a small victory. But my happiness ended there. I kissed you because you wanted me to. I was secretly counting the days until you left.
I put you up in my bedroom and you frowned at me when I said I was going to sleep on the couch. You came into the living room and slipped in beside me. You didn’t ask why we weren’t sleeping together; you certainly didn’t ask if you could now. But I was tired and you’d had a long flight so I let it go. We made love, and afterwards I fell onto the floor to sleep.
I went to work in the morning, and let you be. It is a mark of your influence on me that I spent the whole day worrying what you would do when you woke up. I punched out at five thirty and raced home to find you still asleep on the couch, exactly where I’d left you. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I toured you around Adelaide for a whole week. I drove you everywhere, to every point of possible interest I could think of, if only to pummel you with information and anecdotes to keep us from talking about anything real. We sat on a park bench in Gumeracha and ate cheese sandwiches, and you tried to question me about sleeping on the couch. I asked if you wanted to climb the rocking horse and the notion struck you as so wonderful you forgot what you’d asked me.
I didn’t sleep much that week. Trying to figure out what had changed kept me up at night, but by the time the sun had come out of its horizon cave any tears I might have shed were dried up, and I smiled and embraced you like nothing were different. I slept with you in the bed for the last few nights. You’d never held me tighter as you did then, after having been apart for so long.
I guess I sunk back into your grip. It was easier to love you than hate you, because how could I when I didn’t know what you’d done? We went to the beach, and you pushed me off the jetty into the roiling sea, and I didn’t curse you like I would have done before. I just swam back to shore, and we kissed and made up, like it were old times.
And when you went back to Oxford, I drove you to the airport and I waved you off, and our summer of ice shattered.
We talked, almost every week, but you could tell my heart wasn’t in it. The row we should have had in person now had to be relegated to brief messages of hate, left unopened in my inbox. I’d leave them for days before replying in a short, tart tone. You told me not to call for a while. I was not surprised.
We let it go for a year. One whole year; I can’t believe it, even now. It wasn’t until my twenty-fifth birthday that you called me. You wished me happy birthday and I said thank you, and nobody mentioned the fact we hadn’t talked. Old habits die hard, it seemed, so much so that neither of us could reveal we’d been seeing different men for months now.
I sent you an email on your birthday. I composed my message out of Joni Mitchell lyrics. I thought it’d give you a laugh. The next day you angrily called me and asked how I could be so inconsiderate, and I had to admit I had no idea what you were talking about. Your boyfriend had read it; he’d asked who I was. I wanted to know about him; you wouldn’t tell me, so I furiously admitted I’d been seeing someone as well. Our cat – the one we’d never gotten – was now well and truly out of the bag. I was glad you were the one to hang up the phone.
I didn’t want to start thinking about you again. After my boyfriend broke up with me, I sent you an email to see how you were; you didn’t reply. I didn’t think anything of it until my seventh email went unanswered. So I picked up the phone, but somebody new lived at your old house. I had to live with a gut feeling that you were happy, wherever you were.
I worked hard. I bought a new house. I never met anyone else. And then you called me one summer, out of the blue, and asked how I was. I said I was well, and I couldn’t help but swell at the sound of your voice. We talked for ten minutes. You mentioned Scotland. I remembered the time we argued in the middle of Glen Coe and you laughed. I tried to remember what the mountains actually looked like; but I could only remember rowing with you. Then you said you’d been living with someone for years now. You were very happy. I could only congratulate you.
We hung up together.
I could imagine being happy, now. I could sit in the sun with you and think it were bliss. A perfect happiness. I wouldn’t worry. I wouldn’t have any need to.
I don’t miss you – or I can’t. I don’t regret you. Finally, now, I can see that I have been happy.
Callum McLean is an Adelaide-based writer. He has twice received commendation awards from the State Theatre Company of South Australia. His work has appeared in Empire Times, and broadcast on Coast FM earlier this year. He has just completed a BCA in Creative Writing at Flinders University, and is planning to complete his Honours in 2015.
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