Between Friends

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Story || Cameron Colwell

…Is it the wine, or has he always been so good-looking? Sneaking surreptitious glances across the blackwood beer-bottle watermarked table I watch Tom, his silver rings glinting on pale fingers as he tries out chopsticks. It takes him a few gos but eventually he has a piece of teriyaki chicken lifted up before him. I know I’m deep into one thing or other; that’s the only way I can make sense of the envy I feel as he drops it into his mouth.

Steady, Will. In the end he’s just one of thousands of arty boys with a pair of Doc Martens and a passable jawline. But I keep catching my attention drifting away from the good-humoured dinner conversation about Snapchat and Tumblr followers and how nice this particular Japanese restaurant is with its red lantern-lights and iPad menus and view of out street. It’s a cool, navy-coloured evening, a little bit of drizzle out there. The light boxes of the poster stores, vintage outfitters, and happy herb supplier’s cast a smeary double of the suburban street.

Settle. We are here to have fun. Let the past visit only in casual intimacy and in-jokes.

Sometime around the time we’re talking about payment Tom looks back, and something slips. “I think I need to get cash out.” He says, ignoring offers of payment for the group’s Prodigal Son.

“There’s an ATM just up the street,” I say. “I can walk you to it. If you’d like.”

There’s a smile. “Sure.” Shared glances. A single eye-roll I’ll pretend I didn’t see.

Our hands bump, while we’re on our way out.

Rain is like spittle blown onto my face. Definitely the kind of street I wish I was looking at rather than walking through.

“God, I haven’t been here in ages.” Tom says.

“Miss it?”

He shrugs, squinches up his face, runs a hand through his overgrown hair. New gestures for a new look. It’s hard to explain how he’s changed. It’s like he’s grown into himself, but stayed the same size. “Kinda. But then I have to miss everything. Up to and including Dad’s drinking habit, having to sneak around the back for smokes, keeping it quiet after eleven p.m.” Tom says.

Oh. That hurts a little.

“Right.” I say. Not for the first time, I suspect my eighteen months have been shorter than his eighteen months.

We come into the convenience store hosting the ATM. The synthesis of the buzz of the refrigerators and the silver lighting makes me wonder if he’s remembering like I am; the late-night trips to the petrol station up the road from his house, buying Crunchies and cookie dough as preludes to hazy nights spent in his bedroom watching classic films till dawn. He hums merrily to himself while he takes out two pink notes from the machine.

What’s this wanting? What do I expect? Is he, too, feeling that burning urge near the base of his throat? There’s one photo I keep of him in one of those sepia mornings, bleary-eyed in one of his baggy t-shirts and tracksuit pants. The space between that moment and this one is quickly slipping to nothing.

“Still smoke?” I ask, once we’re out the slide door.

“No.” Tom says. “Unless you’re offering.”

“Yeah.” I say. “Come on, sit here.”

We sit by the sill of the store window, while I pinch Winfield Blues from my pocket, offering it to him first. “When’d you quit?” I ask.

“Ah…A while ago.” He says. “You have to stop, too, now.”

“Why’s that?”

“Cos I got you into them.”

I give him a laugh. Is it narcissistic to want to be the affector rather than affected?

The cigarette hits, while we’re talking: I become unstuck in time and now the glow of a streetlight is the dawn into a cramped bedroom’s window, the acidity of wine in my mouth is morning breath made cute by post-coital haze, I am in an age where the thing that I want is the thing that I have. We have to reclaim it; we have to go back. While our cigarettes are burned to nubs I search for something to say that has the right balance between polite mundaneness and forced quirkiness. Nothing comes that’d be natural. So: Words are out, then.

Set on not thinking about it, I lift my hand up and put it on his, almost disappointed when there’s no sparks flying at contact. This is it. I’ve made a first step, sent out the missive: Take me, I’m yours. He stares at the hand, then into my eye.

“You know,” Tom says, with that new, god-awful chummy smile of his “I really like that we managed to be friends. After everything.” ‘Everything’ is apt- for me, at least.

I pull my hand away, saying nothing. No moment is long enough, no cigarette, no kiss, no relationship. Doesn’t he remember? Why I might’ve picked that one place? The Japanese restaurant, this very street, another cool blue night, aeons ago, yet present, both of our breaths becoming thinner as our hands clasped one another, in what turned out to be both of our first unselfconscious performances of the gesture? I read somewhere bodies in the void of space will come together after a while; it was something like that.

I realise I’ve been staring, looking for something long gone, and stare ahead.

The evening deepens. Streetlights glare. Tom continues to smile, having forgotten.