“You look well,” I say, twisting an empty sugar sachet between my fingers. “Your hair, I mean. It suits you longer.”
“Thanks,” she says, cradling a coffee mug in her hands. With her elbows planted on the table, her arms form a shield as she sips. “So do you,” she adds.
Her eyes flick towards the phone resting on the table. She’s looked down at it every few minutes or so since she arrived. Maybe she’s expecting a call? Maybe she’s looking for a distraction or waiting for the time where she can tell me she needs to leave? Whenever her attention is drawn to the phone screen, I take the opportunity to look over her face, to absorb it. She seems different, despite it only being a few months since we last saw each other. Her hair is longer, but that’s not it. Her features aren’t how I remember them. They’re softer and she’s glowing. It’s because she looks happy, which should make me happy too. Which it does, but also it doesn’t.
I know how selfish that makes me sound.
Conversation hasn’t moved on from asking after our parents, or if work is busy. It’s as if we’ve unlearned our time together. I know her, but now it feels as though I’m not allowed to. Which is confusing because we spent so much time together, once. Sharing everything. We slept together, woke up together. I wonder if she ever thinks about that; if she’s thinking about it now. We’re sitting so close to one another, that if either of us wanted to, we could stretch out a hand and touch the other. Around us, the coffee shop is bustling, but I’m the only one who knows about the birthmark on the top of her leg, the only who’s traced a finger across it. Shouldn’t that count for something?
“I’ll get us another,” I say, standing up.
The chair legs scrape against the floor.
She goes to reply, maybe to tell me that she’s fine, or that she has to go, or that she doesn’t have time, but I’ve already taken a step away from the table. “I’m having another anyway,” I add. “You don’t have to drink it—” I shrug “—if you want to get off, that is.” I pause but she doesn’t answer.
Does she notice I said ‘want to’ instead of ‘need to’?
Joining the queue of customers at the counter, I glance back. From here, she looks lost sitting alone and I regret having left her. We don’t have long and I’m wasting time queuing with a line of strangers.
She turns slightly in her seat to look out of the window.
The moment I knew that I loved her, we were in a similar coffee shop, one run by an Art Gallery. She’d recently had her hair cut short into a tapered bob and the line from the nape of her neck to and her shoulders was perfect. It was as if it had been captured by the stroke of an artist’s pen. It took me somewhere else. In that moment, I wanted more than anything to lean forward and kiss her neck, to brush my lips against her skin. And I almost did, despite the people seated around us.
But I didn’t.
I told her about that moment, later, when I realised the relationship was going further than a handful of dates. She said I should have taken the opportunity.
A customer leaves the queue ahead of me and I shuffle forward.
Spotting the pastries and cakes on display, I realise I’m hungry. I’ve eaten very little today and the caffeine is putting me on edge. When I glance back over at her, she’s tapping into her phone; presumably letting someone know she won’t be much longer, or maybe she’s texting me to cancel her drink. I check my phone. Nothing. Maybe the reason she needs to leave is because she’s hungry? I decide to text, and ask if there’s anything she’d like to go with her drink.
But that’s not what I type.
I type: ‘I should’ve kissed your neck’.
Before I’ve fully registered what I’ve done, I’ve hit send, and the message has gone. A tick appears next to it. A heartbeat later, a second tick appears. She’s read it.
I shove my phone into my pocket and stare forward. The barista welcomes me from behind the counter, but his voice is muffled, as if it’s coming from another room. I flounder, staring up at the menu board blankly, my phone is a hot coal against my leg.
“Same again?” the barista asks, rescuing me from limbo.
“Er… yes, please.”
The coffee drips into the mugs in slow motion, in time to the throbbing at my temples. When the barista places the coffees on the tray, and begins pouring the milk into them, I want to ask him not to create a heart pattern on the top, in case it seems as though I’ve asked for it to be put there, but my mouth is too dry and I don’t really know how to ask without sounding like an idiot.
When I arrive back at our table, her phone is out of sight.
“I’m sorry. That was really stupid. I was… I mean, it was just a joke,” I blurt out as I slide into my seat. Sugar granules crunch beneath the tray.
Her gaze is fixed outside.
I sigh through my nose, “Look. I’m really, really sorry. I don’t want to…” I feel my shoulders slump.
She finger-combs her hair, gathers it into a ponytail and drapes it across one shoulder, leaving the other exposed.
She looks around at me.
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted you to do,” she says.