It was in that pub, appropriately old and charismatic, that they decided to meet, meet and rekindle a friendship that had long ago been extinguished by the complication and tribulation of growing to adult from child. For years he’d held an image of her in his head: eighteen, dirty-blonde hair tangled in the sea breeze, a simple smile against the backdrop of summer sand, a swirl of love and lust.
He’d held onto this perfect version of her for so long that the twenty-five years between memory and present seemed inconsequential. To think she had remained a pristine object of juvenile attraction was ridiculous, as he saw in himself almost no resemblance to the teenager he had been. He no longer chased an idealistic boyhood dream, but instead settled into the comfort of events expected. He’d made his career accidentally, falling from one unplanned, unwanted success to another, until he had reached a position too deeply buried in the expectations of those around him to ever pull himself free.
He arrived early, emotions flaring in his stomach, nervous in a way he hadn’t known since first held-hands, first tongue-kisses, and first pseudo-romance. His work had instilled in him an almost necessary fearlessness, but this was no corporate merger or board meeting or greedy executive to be manipulated. For once, he did not have the upper hand. For once, he would be on the defensive.
He ordered a beer.
Stealing furtive glances at the door did not help calm his mind. He agonized over what he’d say, how he’d sound, how his hair looked. Their fates had slipped apart long ago, each taking a path completely unlike the other, each eventually finding happiness in a world where those hushed promises, whispers in the backseat of an old truck, were nothing but fragments of another forgotten reality.
As the halfs lurched into hours, his nervousness dissolved into disappointment. The bottom of his glass felt like the bottom of his heart, nearly empty, the fizz of excitement all but spent and released into the nothingness of the night. He checked to make sure he hadn’t come to the wrong place or come on the wrong day. He checked for missed calls or an overlooked text. He checked to make sure he hadn’t missed her sitting at the bar nursing a glass of chardonnay, waiting on him like he was waiting on her.
He ordered another beer.
For weeks he’d known this was a bad idea, a stupid flailing grasp to reclaim some part of his youth in the same way some men buy sports cars or divorce a perfectly amazing woman to marry an amazingly imperfect one. But he’d agreed and she’d agreed and he’d convinced himself a shared drink and a few hours wouldn’t tear open the wound he’d spent decades stitching back together.
The abandonment reared, hissing forked tongue insults of I-told-you-so. Loneliness, a pit viper hidden behind blue eyes, sunk its teeth into his heart, replacing the pumping red of life with corroded copper acid. He had lived with so much regret over her that it seemed fitting to leave with a little bit more.
As he swung his jacket around his shoulders and downed the rest of his orange painkiller, he turned to pay his tab. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw something: forty-three, dirty-blonde streaked with subtle grey, a simple smile against the backdrop of barren bar, a swirl of longing and lament.