He was not surprised or happy to see me. He looked weary, the skin thinning beneath his eyes and creasing on every corner. I told him, even in high school, that sunscreen wasn’t optional. He never listened, and now paid the price, looking as old and exhausted as he really was. That was partly my fault.
We met at Burger King. We were both overdressed. Our pride wouldn’t let us go otherwise. I slid into the booth opposite him and he winced, as if expecting a punch across the table. I smiled, big, bright, harmless. After Kyoto, I was a changed woman. I needed him to know that.
“How’s work?” he asked, as if we hadn’t seen each other since yesterday.
“Oh.” I waved my hands, dismissive, as if he wouldn’t get it. It really didn’t matter.
“Are you still doing --”
“Social media, yeah.” I had spent all day composing captions for Facebook photos of organic toaster strudel. I only managed three.
“Do you still hate --”
“Yeah, I do still hate it,” I said. I stopped myself, smiled. I didn’t interrupt people anymore. I asked questions and made polite conversation.
He ordered a salad, perhaps the one Burger King item that you shouldn’t eat with your hands, and he ate it with his hands. I’d forgotten about that one particular quirk. I wanted to say something, but decided not to. I was a changed woman, and didn’t judge others’ eating habits.
He placed a leaf of lettuce delicately into his mouth, as if it were a pill to be swallowed. I smiled.
He asked, “How was Japan?”
“It was amazing! Best two years of my life. It’s so clean there. Not a single piece of trash on the streets. And quiet too, where I was.”
“That’s cool.” He turned his attention fully to his fingers, little claws around a cherry tomato. The brief silence was expectant. He had asked his share of questions, now it’s my turn. We both knew what I wanted to really ask, but if I said it then, he would’ve gotten skittish, uncomfortable, dodgy. He would try to run away although he knew he couldn’t.
“How’s Forest Whitaker doing?” I asked.
“He’s alright. He wasn’t doing too good in the beginning, right after you left him. I think he got attached and wasn’t ready to let you go.”
I pouted, sticking my lower lip all the way out. “Aw. Poor baby.”
I used to do things just to prove to myself that I could. I adopted a retired racetrack greyhound just to convince myself that I could in fact take care of a dog. And I could -- in my care, Forest Whitaker fattened up, his elderly body experiencing adequate rest and nutrition for the first time in his life. Problem was, as soon as I finished proving to myself, I considered my task done. But the greyhound was still in my house, and I now wanted to prove that I could indeed move to a foreign country by myself and do it well. So it was my high school ex who got stuck with him.
But I was a different woman now, and I was ready to make amends.
“If he’s too much a bother, I can take him back,” I offered. “Now that I’m back in the states for good.”
“No, no. That’s way too much change. The poor guy’s gonna get confused.”
“Yeah, and honestly he hasn’t got that much long left to live anyway.”
He winced again. I shouldn’t have said that. The old me, she was crass and morbid, she said things that made people look away in embarrassment. No longer.
“You should at least let me come see him,” I said, getting closer to my real question.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. He’s kinda shy around strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger though.”
“You’ve been away so long, you might as well be.” His eyes focused behind me, the red-hot heat of their glare whooshing past my ear and to the Burger King wall behind me.
“Listen,” I said, putting my hands on the table, a peace offering, me showing how unarmed I was. “I’ve changed, okay? Kyoto, the city I lived in, it was really good for me. I learned a lot about myself, about people in general. I think you, you and Forest Whitaker, should give me a second chance.”
He closed his eyes, really the only way to make me disappear. But I was still there, waiting on an answer.
“It wouldn’t really be a second chance, though,” he reasoned, eyes still closed. “More like, mmm, a fifth chance.”
“Think about it this way: I’m a changed woman, right? Someone completely different from every version of me you’ve ever been with. So really, it’s like dating someone new.”
To prove my point, I stuck out my palm, as for a friendly handshake. “Hi, nice to meet you.”
His eyes were now open, staring blankly at my hand. He looked like a dog forced to hold himself back in order to get a treat.
“I mean, you’re single, right?” I asked, retracting my hand.
“Yeah.” Of course he was. His homely appearance concealed the treasure of a man within. Few women gave him the attention I was willing to shower down.
“So, why not then?”
“I’ve been working on myself. I’ve been doing a lot of inner reflection, healing a lot of inner wounds left by other people. I’m not sure I’m in the right place for a relationship right now.”
“I can help you heal! I told you, I did a lot of it myself out in Kyoto. And really, no one knows you like I do. No one can help you like I can.”
He looked me in the eyes, perhaps the first time all evening. His lower lip moved up and down, as if he were chewing, tasting, trying to swallow the idea of me all over again. His eyebrows curled up just a little bit, with fear. I knew his mind was already made up, but he wouldn’t give in that fast. I would have to coax the answer from him, the way a magician’s assistant yanks rope of tied-together ribbons from the performer’s mouth.
“I mean honestly,” I said, my voice now softer, “Why else did you come out here? You knew what would happen when I asked you to meet up. It’s the same thing that happens every time.”
He sighed, looked away from me, massaged his temples with two fingers.
“Well,” he said slowly, “If I say yes, again, how do I know you won’t up and leave the way you do every single time?”
I rolled my eyes with a smile. He could be so stupid. “I already told you! I’m a changed woman. I don’t do things like that anymore.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Hmmm.” He shook his head, defeated. “Okay.”
“Yay!” I put my hand on top of his and squeezed. He smiled, small, in spite of himself.
When we left Burger King, night had colored the surrounding buildings with her magical purples and blues and blacks, the street lamps pushing back with their fluorescence as hard as they could. I linked my elbow around his, a form of contact far superior to just holding hands, as it allows you to press your entire body into someone. I loved the way our warmths blended into one, even through the fancy jackets now reeking of fast food grease. It was so familiar, just walking like that, as if slipping into a pair of broken-in leather sandals gathering dust in one’s closet. Why did I ever leave him? I loved being around him, feeling it all the same as when we were seventeen.
I smiled, nestled my face against his shoulder. I knew I could get him back once more, and I proved this to myself.
The night was cool, wonderful, nostalgic. The stars were concealed with wispy, wimpy clouds, like cotton balls pulled apart and dipped in darkness.
“You know, you were the first girl I ever kissed,” he said. His voice was smooth now, a dove’s coo, none of the pain and friction from before.
“Wow. I marked my territory.”
“Something like that.”
“It’s something about having somebody else’s spit in your mouth.”
He laughed. “And you were always funny too. No one’s ever made me laugh quite as hard as you.”
His hand traveled from his pocket to touch my face. It was a sweet gesture, except his hands still smelled like salad dressing. I smiled.
“Well, I know you said you wanted to say hi to Forest Whitaker,” he said. “My apartment’s walking distance from here if you’re up for it.”
Each time around, I’ve noticed he gave in quicker. This time, he already wanted me back at his place the same night we reconciled.
“Of course,” I replied, “I’ve missed him.” I actually was quite tired, and didn’t feel like dealing with an overexcited dog. As far as I was concerned, the day’s mission was accomplished. But I didn’t want to just leave abruptly -- that’s what the old me would have done.
As we began our walk, the teeny clouds came together, formed one blanketed grey mass. The rain came sudden, cold and sharp on our necks.
“Oh no,” he grumbled, “I don’t have an umbrella.”
“We’ll be okay.”
“But we’ve both got such nice clothes on.”
“It’s just water. You wash them in water, right? Think of this as a celestial laundry.”
He chuckled and shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe my little brain could put together such words. He repeated the phrase with soft amusement, “celestial laundry.”
“Yep. Come on, I like splashing in the puddles.”
I walked on, stomping my shoes in the puddles now blooming on the sidewalk. The sound was soothing, the water coming up and immediately down around my feet. He hung back a few moments, watching me, waiting for a cue. Then, running a little to catch up, he jumped up, slamming both feet hard into the water, sending up a small tsunami. He galloped on like that, some frenzied water god angering the sidewalk’s tides. He kept turning around to look at my face, as if needing approval that he was doing it right.
And then, I remembered exactly why I kept breaking up with him. It was that look. It said how he perceived me, as some magical creature to cure his loneliness, bring meaning to his life, something he would be willing to bend over backwards to make happy. Like I held all the secrets to existence itself and were the only person who knew what she was really doing. It was the look of a first love, first held in the naive eyes of a high schooler who thought his girlfriend was different from every other girl, a look fueled by hormonal obsession and a never-before-scratched itch, an appetite that would accept any form of flesh as satisfactory. Except it wasn’t a seventeen year old looking at me, but a grown man. It made my stomach queasy.
Finally, we were standing outside his apartment door. I heard Forest Whitaker scratching against it, whining on the other side.
I waited while he fiddled with his keys. He wanted to prolong the moment, make it something meaningful, romantic. He looked up at me.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked. I was thinking about what Paris would be like this time of year.
I smiled at him. “Oh, nothing really.”