"Growing apart doesn't change the fact that for a long time we grew side by side; our roots will always be tangled. I'm glad for that."
You look at him from across the room. He hasn’t noticed you. He’s drinking cheap beer and laughing at something that you couldn’t hear above the general buzz.
Your grip tightens on your wine glass, the pressure of your fingertip against the smooth surface grounding you. There is no point getting lost in painful memories, you remind yourself. But your mind is already there, seeing the room twenty years prior, back when he used to laugh at your jokes. When you were both just fumbling teenagers, bound by your unending love for all things science and geeky.
The growing knot in your stomach could just be nerves caused by the crowd of familiar strangers that surround you, but you know better. You’ve grown up since high school, you all have. It doesn’t matter anymore that Billie Jenkins used to bully you for your ‘Glitch in the Matrix’ T-shirt, or that one time you went home crying after Rick what’s-his-name cut into your hair with a pair of crafts scissors in maths. All of that is way behind you now and you suppose that is what you’re celebrating here. The social convention and expectation of forgiving all past wrongdoing and pretending it didn’t cause lasting scars.
It’s all a bunch of lies, of course. It’s fake-smiles and ‘how have you been’s and you hate it. You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the chance to see him. To see what came of him. He looks good. Happy.
The last time you spoke to him was over the phone, Christmas break, first year of college. He said he couldn’t make it home this time, that his deadlines were just too pressing to leave behind. He promised he would ring you soon, as soon as his exams finished, and you’ll catch up. Proper this time.
And you waited for his call. You waited a week, a month, you were still waiting when you went home for a week in Spring break. You didn’t join your new friends on a week-long trip to the beach because you were still hoping to bump into him around town.
Then, you learned to let go. Because friends, even best friends, grow apart.
Suddenly, he looks up. As if he could feel your eyes burning a hole into him, he turns his head and looks straight at you. Startled, your breath catches in your throat. You want to look away, to break this awkward connection but before you can, he smiles. A toothy grin that stretches across his face. You know that grin, you’d recognise it anywhere. And the reaction is involuntary, the upturn of the corners of your lips, the sparkle in your eye. For so many years, that grin meant mischief, fun times, friendship. Somehow it still does.
“Excuse me,” you see him mutter and he breaks out of the circle of people he was standing with. He crosses the room with long, confident strides. Before you could think of what to say to him, he is standing in front of you. “J woman, hi.”
Warmness explodes inside you, a flush spreading on your cheeks at the old nickname. Nobody’s called you that in ages.
“Hey, G man,” you greet him and his face lights up.
You’re hesitant at first. Careful around each other as you ask generic questions, almost afraid that the other one might run away any second. Graduating from university, jobs, houses, relationships; it’s all mentioned but then…
“God, Josie, I’m so sick of this fake bullshit. The same conversation I’ve had with at least five different people in this room tonight,” he bursts out, just after you ask about how his parents are. His raw honesty makes your heart tremble.
“I know,” you sigh with a smile.
“I’m sorry, but I just have to ask you…” he pauses, leans slightly toward you and you feel your cheeks heat up. “Have you seen the latest Star Wars film?” he whispers.
Laughter bursts out of you, loud and unexpected. You notice a few heads turn your way but you don’t care because he’s looking at you with that conspiratory tilt of the head. You step closer, a comfortable whisper-distance between the two of you.
“I loved it.”
“Yes!” he hisses, punching the air with a fist and then offering it to you for a fist bump. ”I mean, how could you not? It was the most perfect thing. Just the right amount of nostalgic atmosphere and brilliant use of modern technology… And the music,” he throws his head back in pleasure. You laugh again.
“I missed you.” It slips out before you have the chance to overthink it. It’s the truth. Simple. You shouldn’t feel guilty about voicing it but when his smile falters just a hint, your throat starts closing up.
His mouth falls open then closes, silently forming syllables that are unable to become words. His eyes are desperate, for you to…
You’ll never know, because he spins towards the voice like a lifeline, breaking gazes with you. Fuck. You made it weird.
“Come, come! We can’t have our Dynamic Duo missing from the pictures,” Ally, ‘the one that wants a picture of everything’ even after twenty years, motions for you to join the assembling group. You force a smile onto your face and will your feet not to drag as you cross the room. You can feel him following, just half a step behind.
The group huddles together, clasping the shoulders of people they used to hate back then, pulling old crushes into sides, pushing cheeks against the cheeks of those they barely knew. The two of you slide into the formation. Uncomfortable, but trying your best to fit in.
“Ready?” Ally shouts, balancing her phone on a selfie stick in the air to get each of you in the frame.
You feel his hand settle at your lower back. Gentle. A barely-there reminder of your friendship. Him saying what he couldn’t with words.
You turn your face to him at the last moment, your eyes meeting his, already waiting for you. And you smile. Because no matter the distance that might come between you two, your roots will always be here, in this school, amongst these people. Together.