She says we should go out because it’s my last night and warm outside. There’s an underground bar by the park where we used to hang around as kids, between the house where I had a very bad kiss on the back of a ratty red couch and the stretch of road where she fell off her bike and called me screaming because she thought she had a concussion, but she promises it’s not gonna be as depressing as it sounds and I believe her.
I pretend not to see them when I do, blame it on the wine or the dark or the fact that I haven’t seen their faces in almost six years; but I have, and I do, and soon they’re the ones approaching me.
I’m suddenly hyper-aware of the fact that I’m wearing a bright yellow coat, big glasses and no makeup -which, retrospectively, might not have been my greatest idea, not tonight. I feel small, insignificant. Ugly. Sixteen.
There’s only one person I would have wanted to see and I know he’s not here, which should ease my tension a little but doesn’t -because if this is how I react to them, how am I ever gonna survive that?
I say stupid things, make myself even smaller.
They ask about work and I downplay it to the point where it sounds like I’m just hanging around doing nothing, which couldn’t be farther from the truth but makes me mad because why, why would I do that, what’s the point in pretending?
I’ve spent the last four years pretending for a living, but the last two getting closer to the truth and the last six months being so unabashedly honest I could hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth sometimes. And for tonight, none of that matters.
For tonight, I can only smile and nod and try my best to conceal the fact that I’m jumping out of my skin. The smell of smoke in the air is making me nauseous, and the mulled wine they’re cooking in the corner won’t be ready for another thirty fucking minutes, and the jazz music coming from the other room is slowly fading which means the concert is almost over. Applause roars over our heads and a new stream of people walk in, all in various stages of inebriation and probably, definitely, intoxication.
I don’t belong, not with my big glasses and bright yellow coat and all the guilt and remorse and fear of not fitting in, still after all this time. I don’t belong, but for tonight I can pretend.
I pretend I don’t remember the things they used to call me, all the different ways they had of making it hurt. I pretend I don’t have a home and people who love me somewhere thousands of miles away. I let my gaze linger a minute too long on the tall guy with the long hair whose name I desperately wish I could remember, and let myself wish for the kind of life I never wanted.
I could still live down the road, come down to the bar for a smoke and a chat, gossip about the one who’s become a model and the one who left for Australia and the one who can’t be named. I could still run into their mothers at the Thursday market and spend balmy summer nights by the water and the castle, laughing at nothing and crying at everything.
I’d still be in school, probably, and I wouldn’t know what it feels like to break and heal and be reborn the way I did in the last four years. She sounds sweet, this different me. I wish I could envy her.
Maybe I do, for only a moment -if only because the room is dark and the smell is intoxicating and it’s always, always easier to pretend we could have been different.
She asks if I want to get out of there, and I say we should wait for the mulled wine at least. She gives me a look, and we walk out hand in hand minutes later. My flight home is in less than ten hours. I’m done pretending.