I was leaving my boyfriend’s house when I felt his hand snake around my arm. I smiled, thinking that he was about to show me an unexpected moment of affection. We’d been together for almost three years at this point, on and off, and since we’d had a blow-out argument at my twenty-first birthday party, a couple of weeks prior, things had been better. It was feeling like a slow recovery, building the foundations for us to settle into adult, post-university stability.
His house looked out onto a suburban park, a neat rectangle of grass lined with brush-like evergreen trees. The sun was scraping the top of their branches, a cool early-summer dusk chilling the skin of my bare arms and legs. We’d spent the afternoon lounging in his garden, the heat too stifling during the day to do anything. A few of our friends were with us, sipping at cheap cans of fruity cider, dotted around the garden: one of my closest friends from home, Daisy, was lying on a beanbag with her boyfriend, who we all fondly referred to as Bear; my best friend, Jack, who’d at some point picked up the nickname Butty, was sat upright on a dining chair, which seemed incredibly out of place next to a dilapidated shed; my boyfriend, Robbie, was sat on an upturned coat on the grass. I’d taken the high ground, and chosen to balance atop the crumbling wall that followed the steps down from the back door. One of Robbie’s housemates was leant out of his bedroom window, smoking a cigarette. Later, we’d go to the park and play a bodged version of cricket, enjoying the evening breeze as the sun dipped.
My foot was out of the door when he grabbed me, and I turned, my smile slipping as I caught sight of his expression.
“I need to talk to you,” he said, stepping out of the door behind me. He pulled the door closed; it made an empty popping sound, as though he’d put it on the latch. I assumed this wouldn’t take long.
“What about?” I asked. He shifted uncomfortably.
“We – I think we should break up. You said yourself that if I didn’t change we’d have to end it. And I don’t think I can change. I need to focus on myself right now, you said it yourself, and you’re right.”
“What?” I composed myself, pulling my shoulders back. Being five-foot-two doesn’t give me a lot of natural gravitas, and I felt it necessary to draw myself up as tall as I could. “Where’s this coming from?”
I didn’t really have to ask. Robbie had suffered from depression for the duration of our relationship, and it had been one of the major reasons we’d struggled as a couple so much. I’d helped as much as I could, but more often than not me trying was a cause of agitation for him – it made him feel useless, like he wasn’t good enough for me. I just wanted to help, and for the first year or so I genuinely think I did. He changed a lot, after our first year of university. He’d been quiet and controlling to begin with, but honest about his insecurities and I’d done my best to understand. By our third year he’d wanted space, ignored me often, and would use his issues as excuses.
“Do you not remember saying you weren’t happy? I agree. I’m not happy either. And I don’t think we can make each other happy. I love you, but you make me depressed.”
I stepped back, wounded. “We should talk about this,” I said, moving further from the door. From my new vantage point I could see Butty’s green car parked on the road, and he waved at me before pointing exaggeratedly to his watch. In my shock I’d forgotten that he was waiting for me, and I told Robbie to “Hold on!” as I ran down the short driveway and across the road.
Our university offered a placement year, wherein students had the opportunity to undertake a year of real-world work. I’d chosen to forego this, wanting to finish my degree and move on to my Master’s; Butty, however, was much more practical and a lot less academic than I was, and he was spending the year working and living in Cardiff at a sound design studio. Every weekend, without fail, he came to stay with me – despite the three-and-a-half-hour drive – and we’d share my bed and stay up late every night, sitting cross-legged on the duvet, playing chess and Uno, talking and watching films.
“You coming or what?” He asked, leaning out of the window. Despite myself, I smiled, but I shook my head.
“Long story. Kind of. I think I’m getting dumped. Here,” I rustled around in my pocket, and pulled out my keys. “Help yourself to whatever’s in the fridge. There’s a mouse living in my cupboard, so maybe don’t eat anything from there. I’ll see you back at the house.”
His eyes, already squinty, narrowed further. He darted a mean look behind me, towards where Robbie was stood. “Are you okay?”
I shrugged. “No.”
“You want me to come and get you in a bit?”
“I’ll be fine.” I pressed my keys into his hand, and he gave me a small squeeze.
“Call me if you need me. I’ll wait up for you.”
I stepped back, and watched as the lights trailed away around the corner. Sighing, I turned back to Robbie, who was scrolling on his phone. He looked up as I walked over, and I sat on the slight ledge that lined the drive.
“You should have gone with him. There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Please, just come and sit with me. I’m not going to say we should be together. I just need to talk it out.”
He sat beside me, pulling his spidery legs into his chest. He mumbled, lips downward, avoiding eye contact. “You make me want to kill myself. I don’t want to be unhappy, and I don’t want you to be unhappy. I know I’m not right for you. I’m – I’m so numb. How can I love someone when I can’t feel anything at all?”
My eyes burned with tears, and they began their slow descent down my face. I had no response for that, and I wished Butty hadn’t driven away; I wanted nothing more than to get in the car with him. But I couldn’t, and we spoke at length about nothing, him repeating that same horrifying sentence over and over in its varying forms: “You make me want to die.”
At one point he punched the ground, fist scraping into the gravel. He waved it in my face, tears streaming from his own eyes, too, as he yelled: “I can’t feel it! I don’t feel anything,” before he’d broken down into sobs. I had to hold him, then, rubbing soothing circles into his heaving back.
Eventually, he pushed me away, and scrambled to his feet. “Get away from me,” he spat.
“I’m sorry,” I said, wiping at my eyes with the back of my hand. “I thought I was helping.”
“You are, and if you don’t go now, we won’t break up, and this will keep happening, over and over.” Then, he grabbed me by the shoulders and kissed me. I could taste the salt from his tears, and his lips felt cold and rubbery. I shuddered, and in the cloak of the late summer’s evening, I pushed him away and I ran.
My lungs were heaving by the time I arrived home. I could see my bedroom light on through the thin curtains, and with shaking fingers I rang Butty. I saw his silhouette stand, black against the yellow of the bulb behind him; he ran a hand through his hair, then moved swiftly across the room. I took a breath, my throat closing against the unspent tears, and fell into his arms as soon as he opened the door.
He picked me up gently, cupping my back and under my knees as though I was a bride. He kicked a jaunty leg back to shut the door, and I laughed, which brought forth a fresh set of tears. “Hey, it’s okay,” he mumbled into my hair.
He held me on my bed for hours. I don’t remember much, save from the feeling that the body holding me was the wrong one. It didn’t fit quite the same, and I rolled away from him eventually, sobs wracking my body. He kept a hand on me, even then, rubbing my back and scratching light patterns against the cloth of my t-shirt, then drawing his hand up my neck to my scalp, continuing his soothing patterns there.
The next morning I awoke to Butty’s arm slung over me, him snoring softly. I gently pried his arm from my side and crept downstairs to make us both breakfast. I’d become enamoured with fried mushrooms and beans on toast throughout this year, and I made us both a large plate, despite my lack of appetite. He ended up eating them both, and then encouraged me to get in the shower.
Butty called in sick for the next few days, choosing to stay with me. Every day he’d plan something small for us to do, like playing frisbee or going for a walk. At night, he’d hold me close, soothing me until the tears stopped and I fell asleep.
The summer came soon after, and I packed up my suitcase and headed home. I felt like a new person as time wore on – I was more interested in my surroundings, in the people around me. I bought a disposable camera and captured the flowers, my friends’ smiling faces, the sunshine. My home was in the countryside, and the photographs I took reflected that: lazy summer afternoons spent lounging on hay bales, bound in black wrapping by the riverside; my friends, with jumpers wrapped around their waists, marching through tall grasses and sipping at sun-warmed cider.
One night, my friend Meg leant over to me. We were in a circle of tents, pitched by a man-made waterfall in a spot we called The Weir. Her dangling crystal necklaces jangled against her chest as she nodded her head towards Butty. He still came to visit every weekend, and slotted into my group of friends seamlessly.
“Would you ever?” She began to ask, giggling.
I raised my eyebrows. “With Butty?”
“Yeah! I think you’d make a perfect couple. He loves you, you know.”
“He may love me, but he’s not in love with me.”
“That’s not what you told me last Christmas.”
I groaned. Butty had stumbled up to me, the Christmas before, drunk on alcopops and vodka, and waved his phone at me. On it he’d written a barely-legible note, which told me that he had feelings for me. I’d been with Robbie, then, and told him that even if I hadn’t been, I didn’t want to ruin our friendship like that.
We’d drifted apart for a couple of months after that, purely because I didn’t want to lead him on. By February he’d assured me that his feelings were gone, and we’d become inseparable once more. Neither of us had brought the subject up since, and I felt secure in the knowledge that it was a fleeting idea, rather than a sore, unrelenting case of unrequited love.
“No, I wouldn’t,” I said to Meg. “I think it would be weird. Don’t you?”
Later that night, as I clambered into Butty’s tent with him, Meg shot me a look. I rolled my eyes, and zipped the door shut.
The months rolled past, and my heartbreak in May faded as July came to an end. By the start of August my sadness had mellowed – I’d think of Robbie, sometimes, but never for long. I was happy being single, and I didn’t think anything could change that.
My days began to blend into one. I worked at a clothes shop during the day, in a small shopping centre where most of my friends worked in various stores and cafes, too. After we’d all finished we’d run home to get changed, and go for drinks or long hikes across the fields until we found somewhere new to explore. On my days off Butty would visit, and we’d stay up late, lying on my bed together in the dark, looking out of my bedroom window at the stars. The drive from Cardiff to my home wasn’t as far as university had been, so his visits became more frequent, and he’d take days off to extend his weekends. On the days when I was working, he’d sit with my family, or hang out with my friends until I was free. Sometimes, he’d meet me after work with a pasty or cake from the bakery on the high street, and we’d eat in companionable silence as we walked back home.
We spent a lot of time with three of my friends in particular: Meg, Charlotte, and Daisy. One day, Butty painted my nails for me, just before we left to walk to Daisy’s house. Her parents owned a large farmhouse, with low ceilings and the sort of dim lighting that provides cosy ambience, so we frequented her living room and often cooked in her kitchen as a group.
Earlier that day, Meg, Butty, and I had wandered into town. It was small, and was composed of mostly charity shops; we searched through the racks in each of them until we triumphantly pulled out a vintage, knitted jumper. Sighing, Butty tried it on.
Something in me switched. Stood before me, pulling a rumpled maroon jumper over his tousled brown hair was a young, attractive boy, where before I’d seen… Butty. Just Butty. The fluorescent lighting hit his cheekbones as he pulled the jumper down, and his full lips pulled into a smile. I wanted to kiss them.
I shook the thought away, and wrung my hands together. Meg screeched. “Butty, that looks so good on you! You have to buy it.”
He wore the jumper that evening, and I looked over at him as Daisy reclined in her chair, stretching her long arms out behind her. He’d always been fairly quiet – content to sit and enjoy the company of others while they cracked jokes and garnered attention – and he was leant back with a soft smile on his face. He looked handsome, and I was surprised to find that my insides started to squirm when he turned to smile at me.
As we walked home that night, under the soft light of the street lamps and the distant moon, I felt his fingertips nudging at my palm. We walked in silence, hand in hand, the only sound the rhythmic fall of our footsteps.
The light seemed too harsh as we got ready for bed, changing shamelessly in front of one another as we had done for years. We spoke quietly, exchanging nonchalant small talk about toothpaste and my ancient, holey t-shirt.
I turned the light off, but left my curtains wide as had become our routine. He lay on his back, close to the window, and I leant on my side so that we could talk. Idly, his fingers began to trace patterns on my upturned wrist.
“How have you been feeling about Robbie?” He asked, his face disconcertingly close to mine. I frowned.
“I haven’t been feeling anything, not really. I’m starting to notice habits I developed when I was with him that I want gone, but other than that, I’ve moved on a lot more than I thought I would have. Not to be cringe, but I think you’ve helped me a lot.”
I could see the corner of his mouth twitch as my eyes adjusted to the dark. “Habits? Like what?”
“Insecurities, more than anything. Feeling the need to apologise when it’s unnecessary. Trying to make the right decision for everyone else, without considering what I want, for fear of getting yelled at.”
“He’s a dick,” he said. I nodded.
“Thank you for being here for me. You’re my – I’m closer to you than anyone else.”
“I feel the same. To be honest, I think…. I think I feel more than that. And I don’t want to make this weird again, not at all, but – I want to kiss you.”
“I want to kiss you too,” I whispered, his mouth a hairsbreadth away from mine. I could feel the heat of his breath on my lips, could almost feel them brushing against my own. I paused. “Are you sure? I don’t want to lose what we have.”
“We won’t be losing anything,” he murmured, his lips barely touching mine. I could feel their delicate movement as he spoke. “You’re my best friend. That’s never going to change.”
He kissed me, then, and the stars outside dimmed as my heart swelled, as though their light had been propelled inside of me. His body felt distinctively right as he pressed up against me, and I felt safe as his chest moved softly with each breath, brushing against my body, the weight of his arms holding me close.
It’s been two years, now, and we’ve just moved into a little flat together. We’re still best friends, and we love each other, but we’re in love now, too. Every night, I fall asleep against his chest, and I feel his heartbeat and the steady swell and fall of his breath. Our flat is new, but it already feels like home.