It’s been fifty years since he left me.
My face now wrinkles and I have plenty of frown lines. When people pass me on the street, they no longer offer me a friendly greeting. Instead, they walk past me, laughing at an inside joke I’m not allowed to know. Some smile at me as I walk past them, trying their best not to stare at my wooden cane. I smile back, but my teeth are rotten from the lack of care I’ve shown them since he left me.
I had been pretty once. Twenty-five, freshly graduated with a political science degree, and the entire world ahead of me. My parents had been proud. They had rewarded my hard work with a car, although I hadn’t yet passed my driving test. Johnny, my boyfriend of five years from a family poorer than my own, had been bitter at my success. He left me that same evening, but I didn’t care. I was freer than I had ever been.
Two weeks later, I met Robbie Bright. He was a few years older than me, looked like a lawyer in his black suit, and I was in love. He had dark brown hair and a smile so white it hurt, but it was his eyes that caught my fancy. His left eye was a sparkling green, while the right was brown. Heterochromia, he called it. He told me later, in his flat, that his eyes made him feel insecure, flawed. I told him they were beautiful. He responded by leaving.
Robbie and I had started talking on that bitter day in June. I had my warmest multicoloured scarf wrapped around my neck. There was a cup of coffee in my hands and my curls were frizzy from the wind. Robbie had stopped me and asked if he could take a picture. He was a young photographer who wanted to capture the beauty of everyday life, and he’d chosen me as his subject.
We’d gone to a nearby park. He had taken photographs of me. He appreciated me, even with my face bare and my clothes baggy. I had never considered myself beautiful before, but Robbie and his camera made me feel like a masterpiece.
I became his full-time model after that. Robbie joked that I was his muse, and I laughed, while my cheeks flushed. My degree no longer mattered. I didn’t need political science when I had Robbie. We started dating soon after. He taught me to love the parts of myself that I hated, and I knew I would be content as long as I had Robbie beside me.
We were together for a year before he left me. My parents had been warning me for weeks, claiming Robbie was too perfect, that he had secrets to hide. My mother said he was already married, while my father claimed he was depressed. I’d brushed off their worries. I loved Robbie and I could tell from the way he stared at me, as if he was the luckiest man in the world, that he loved me in return.
One night, I had headed straight to the kitchen after visiting my parents. Robbie was there, warming up leftover shepherd’s pie. I kissed his cheek, and he turned to look at me. His face was pale, and he was biting his lip. It was with a heavy feeling in my gut that I sat down on a nearby kitchen chair. I crossed my arms and asked him what was wrong.
“I have to go,” he said.
“You’re breaking up with me,” I said.
“I have to,” Robbie continued. His eyes flitted above my head as if someone had a target on his chest. “I can’t do this anymore, Mia.”
I couldn’t look at him. This strange man, who had changed me for the better, was going to leave me just like that.
“You can keep the house,” he added, as I remained silent.
“Robbie, are you okay?” I asked. “You won’t do anything reckless, will you?”
“I won’t,” Robbie responded, putting the plate of shepherd’s pie in front of me. It smelt incredible and made my stomach turn. “But I have to say goodbye.”
“Don’t leave,” I said, stabbing my fork into the mash. “Robbie, please. We can talk about this. We’ll get you a therapist!”
“I can’t,” Robbie told me, rubbing my back. It was a gesture I’d often associated with comfort, but now it made me uneasy. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry, Mia.”
I waited until he left the room to cover my plate. There was no way I could eat it, not with my stomach churning. After making sure Robbie was upstairs, I let my tears drop. I cried and cried until I couldn’t anymore and fell asleep at the kitchen table. When I awoke, both Robbie and my razor were gone.
Fifty years later, and the memories of Robbie still haunt me. Every time I close my eyes, all I see is his face, his gelled hair, his blinding teeth. I grabbed my cane. I needed to escape, and I knew a walk would force my mind to stop. I looped my trusty scarf around my neck. The weather had been getting cooler, and I didn’t want to catch a cold.
I walked past the school and the church until I found myself in the park where Robbie had taken those photographs of me. There were fewer trees, and a kid’s playground in the middle, but the flowers were still blooming. When I arrived, there were two kids on the swings, and their laughs were piercing but joyful. I closed my eyes, sat on a nearby bench, and imagined Robbie beside me.
When I opened my eyes, a young girl was shaking my shoulder. She looked pale, as if she thought I was dead, and the relief on her face when I breathed was palpable. She smiled at me and then walked away. I watched her leave, surprised someone had taken time out of their day to check on me.
As I watched, she walked past a tall man half-hidden in shadow. He wore a black suit, had the biggest smile on his face I’d ever seen, and was looking right at me. From where I sat, I couldn’t see his eyes, but he looked so much like my Robbie that my heart ached. But it couldn’t be him, I thought. Even if it were, Robbie would be in his eighties now. This man was barely older than twenty-seven.
I sat on the bench as the sky turned black, watching people enter and exit the park. I stayed seated for a few hours. Everyone left, apart from the strange man, who was watching me from where he hid in the shadows. His smile widened as the last person left, and he headed towards me. I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck. I’d have to return home soon. There was a cup of coffee calling my name.
“Mia? Mia Johnson? Is that you?”
“Robbie?” I knew that voice as well as my own.
“It is you!” he exclaimed, tone warm and sweet and exactly the same. He pulled me into a hug. “I’ve missed you.”
My heart thudded. It must be some kind of trick, I thought, a mean ploy by my friends. Except, I didn’t have many friends now, and none of them knew about Robbie.
I found my voice again as I looked up at him. “How did you recognise me?”
He sat down on the bench next to me and grabbed the ends of my scarf, playing with the tassels.
“You were wearing this the day we met,” he said.
He was right. It was the same scarf I’d had since I was thirteen, the scarf I could never give up. I’d kept it because it reminded me of him. I unwrapped my scarf and placed it in his hands.
“You took my razor,” I said at last. “I thought you were dead.”
His fingers stopped pulling at the threads of my scarf, and he stared at me. His eyes were more beautiful than I remembered them.
“It’ll sound bizarre,” he said.
“Please,” I needed to know.
“I was dead,” Robbie said, looking at the flowers. “But I woke up in a white room an hour later.”
“Is that what happens when you die?” I asked. “A white room?”
“It’s what happened to me,” Robbie replied. “It was like a prison, Mia. There were no doors or windows. I thought I was going insane.”
His breathing quickened, and I reached out to grab his hand. He gripped my hand tight, and his rapid breaths slowed as he met my eyes.
“Nothing happened for years,” Robbie continued. There was a quiver in his voice that had never been there before. “I was alone and forgetting everything about my life. All I knew was that I missed you. Then, one day, a door appeared. I walked through it and found myself here.”
“You’ve been waiting here?” I asked. “What for?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Robbie said, pressing a soft kiss to my hand. “That door led me to you.”
I closed my eyes. “It sounds ridiculous.”
“It’s true,” Robbie replied. “I’d never lie to you, Mia.”
I wanted to walk away from him, but my hip was hurting, and I couldn’t reach my cane without making a fuss.
“I don’t understand,” I admitted. “Why now? I only just stopped mourning you. Why can’t you leave me alone?”
“If that’s what you want, I’ll go,” Robbie promised. “I’ll leave. You’ll never have to see me again. But is that what you want, Mia?”
I stared at him. I had aged while he had stayed the same. Young and impressionable and entirely the man I loved.
“I don’t know,” I said.
He wrapped the scarf around my neck and pressed a kiss to my cheek. “Well, I was hoping that I could take some more photographs, if my model would let me.”
“I’m not as pretty as I was,” I said.
“Mia,” he said with a smile that reminded me of the first day we met. “You’re the most beautiful person I know.”
He took my hand, and we walked back to my house. It was a quiet journey, my cane making the only sound. People stared at us, but I didn’t mind. Let them stare, I thought.
It wasn’t until later that night when Robbie asked to take a picture of me that the shock wore off. Robbie was with me. Robbie wasn’t dead. Robbie was very much alive.
I studied his face. He seemed so happy, and I couldn’t stop myself from grinning. His smile was so infectious that I forgot all about my rotten teeth and wrinkled skin. He snapped several photos of me and told me I was gorgeous. He made me feel like I was the person I had been at twenty-five. Young, excited, beautiful.
With every flash, I felt younger. I glanced in the mirror and watched as my grey curls turned red, and my wrinkles disappeared. My hip stopped aching, and I wanted to dance. Robbie took one last snap and then joined me in the reflection.
I stared at the picture we made. We were as we were when we first met. I wore the same scarf around my neck, and he wore the same black suit. I felt like crying, but it was okay, because Robbie was beside me. I thought about thanking God for the second chance, but I wasn’t religious. Instead, I muttered a thank you into the air, which made Robbie laugh that golden laugh I hadn’t heard in so long.
For the first time in fifty years, I was in love again.