Afternoon greeted me softly in Evan Llewellyn's bed, but the empty room, stiff neck and pounding headache were not so gentle. His heavy curtains blocked out most of the daylight, but not reality. My face felt as bruised and puffy as it looked when I finally staggered into the bathroom along the corridor to prod at it in grimaced disgust. Once again, I stared across at his wardrobe doors, propped up by his pillows, listening to the sound of my own breathing as everything from the night before slotted into the right kind of order. The wrong kind of order entirely.
The grumble in my gut had an inevitable tang of regret about it and I was queasy. Sometimes you just need to swear. Everything had slip-slid out of control; my eyes stung as I forced my fingers over them, pushing down hard on my eyeballs to stop everything from flowing out. The only thing I wasn't was surprised that he'd given up waiting for me to return to the land of the living. We were finished. My suspicion was that the rest of the flat was empty. From staying over the number of times that I had done, I knew that his flatmates were more often out of the house than in. I hoped at least, that going slow would give me the excuse to test his resolve – that maybe he'd come back and seeing me would make his decision waver and crumble. In the pit of my gurgling stomach though, I knew that everything was irredeemably decided. He was right – we were horrendous for each other, and I'd known that much from the start. That was why I'd gone to such lengths to avoid him, and probably the reason the pull between the two of us was so strong in the first place. Destructive things tend to sparkle for me brightest of all.
Leaving was the only option. As I smoothed back his duvet, I conned myself into thinking that respecting his decision was the best course of action. My pride wouldn't let me consider begging him for some kind of reconciliation, even as I found my missing trainer where I'd kicked it off under the bed. What would we do? Talk about feelings and swap blatant lies of 'never again', pretend that neither of us were hard-wired for the chase when letting go was so, so difficult to do? Word the truth that somehow everything else – everyone else had reached a level of insignificance in comparison? That nothing else mattered, and everything was forgivable because days without him had become somehow incomprehensible? That would just be asking for heartbreak, and it was a lie. Of course it was a lie. The only thing between us had been chemistry, hormones and too much tension. Unhealthy, obsessive, addictive amounts.
Autopilot took over as soon as I left his flat, numbness rolling in as my feet stumbled their way home, dragging me along with them. At least I'd not had my door keys on me to steal. The biggest loss from my wallet was my library card, which I knew would cost me far too much to replace. I'd had maybe fifteen quid in notes and a handful of change, as well as my debit card. Worries flicked easily over to having to call my bank, having to report the mugging to the police, rather than what I was going to do in my study breaks without the vainest man on the planet reciting word meanings at me in Japanese, munching through Sesame Snaps with his calf touching mine under the table, or what I was going to do with all of those perfectly neat lines of kanji he wrote at the top of my notes, refusing to tell me what they meant – handing me his dictionary with an evil smirk and declaring I could figure it out myself if I really wanted to, knowing full well I'd fail.
When I hammered on the door of my flat, and George finally let me in, I let him fuss over my fat lip, just the way Evan had done. Ice, antiseptic and a couple of asprin. Ben was in the background, messy haired and partially clothed, but I ignored that.
"Tell him you're in love with him Thom-Thom?"
My jaw rippled slightly, lungs clenching, throat searing. "Get bent George."
From the doorway, Ben scoffed – triumphant, irritatingly pleased with himself.
"Hurts, doesn't it? Just deserts. How d'they taste?"
The only reason I didn't put my fist through his face was because George's reactions were faster than mine and he had my shoulders, forcing me to back down before I was even fully to my feet. And Ben fucking Granger just carried on laughing.
We didn't try to talk it through. He didn't call and neither did I. The both of us subtly changed lunch venues, frequented different parts of the library and when he came to dance classes, he stayed at the opposite end of the room so consistently that we could have been magnets with the same polarity. I've never known how difficult, and yet how easy it could be to disappear from someone's life when they're busy pulling the same tricks of avoidance as you. Every dodged gaze turns your insides more brittle. We managed it with practiced efficiency. I'm sure both of us had done the same to someone or other at more than one point along the line, but this felt different. Evan wasn't outraged the way Ben had been; he hadn't turned into some ranting, vindictive, vengeful, bunny-boiler of a thing to dodge, because Evan was pretending just as hard as I was that nothing at all had ever happened. Guilt and shame for how it had all played out bubbled close every time I thought I saw him, and every time I turned away to stare at the poster for a club, a street sign, a shop window, just because I thought I'd seen him coming past.
He still made my heart speed up, my mouth go dry, my sentences forget where they were going and my body spring to prickled, tingling life at just the thought of his breath shuddering hot and damp against my skin. It was worse than it had been. I'd see him laughing with friends, see him linger fingers through his hair and watch him catch my eye by mistake, and something in my chest would ache because I'd recognise the dull edge in his eyes and the tight-lipped gulp, and I'd know it wasn't really fun. I'd see the way he'd try to change the topic, but seem to struggle to get his mind back in the fray, and I'd see the way he'd force his smile to brighten and hear him laugh a little louder, even though the sound echoed out dryly to my ears.
Christmas parties came before the term broke up, and undergrad exams before them. I'd see him looking strained and stressed at the supermarket, ready to break down or just plain hit me from the look on his face, when he turned down along the aisle of pasta products and saw me standing choosing tinned tomatoes. I very nearly changed the place I shop, but it wouldn't have done any good. The town's too small; he's everywhere I go, or twenty paces away, so it seems.
And now I'm at the station, packing off for Christmas with my folks on the early morning train home. I see Gloucester on the departures board, and instantly my thoughts are on him, even though that isn't really Wales at all. A sudden, gagging fear hits me - that when he gets off whatever train he ends up catching that old best friend of his who wants him far too pretty – far too perfect - will be there to greet him with open arms and a confession of realised love. A confession I don't have the balls to make. And I would never have a way of finding out, but the thought of it makes me feel so ill I can barely read my platform information.
My bag is barely full. I couldn't concentrate on what to bring. George ended up rolling his eyes and threatening to help, but I warded him off, only dying slightly at the sight of the box of flavoured, just-in-case rubbers he stashed inside my wash bag – a Christmas present, because he thinks I could do with someone to get me off between the Christmas turkey and the Boxing Day trifle. I barely flinched, because staying numb is safer. Isn't it?
Now I'm on the platform searching for my carriage, trailing behind a dreadlocked hippie that reminds me only of crack-pot vegetarianism and Evan's lentil soup. On the train I sling my bag in the overhead rack and settle down – nothing left to do but look at the people on the platform through the window and wait for the engines to start. I open out the tray table, slip my phone out of my trouser pocket. There's a knot in my throat that thickens horribly, though I refuse to admit why it's there at all. When I come back up for New Years he'll be nothing but an experience I once had – a relationship that could have been – a notch. George will pin one of the photos I took to the wall in the kitchen and we'll attack him with sticky darts, just like all the other pictures of all the other people we never should have poked our collective cocks into.
I'll teach my tutorials, I'll go to my dance classes and I'll bitch to George about all the other gay men in this city being worthless sluts. We'll drink too much red wine, and Gavin will tell us we might as well be married. George will hate his job a little more, and I will shag him to make up for it. And he will bring me sandwiches when I ask for them, but he won't make my pulse race, and he won't make me hate him. He won't make my stomach ache and my knees weak, and my blood boil just watching him. The thought of someone else with him would never make me too jealous to breathe.
The engine rumbles into life and I unlock my phone, pulse throbbing in my ears. My thumb selects my contact list and I watch the names scroll down. Mouth dry, my vision dims a little as I press call, so I close my eyes and lean my forehead against the vibrating glass. The rings trill on and on, until they finally, finally stop, opening up to static silence that makes my voice forget to work.
I take a breath and force my words out, all pride swallowed and rejected.
"Evan, don't hang up." I open my eyes and straighten up in my seat. Across the aisle, the guy with dreadlocks in biting into a bacon roll and I realise I was wrong, again. "Please..?"
The sound that meets my ear is uncomfortable – lying somewhere between annoyance and relief.
"You were supposed to call three weeks ago, you arrogant prick."
Maybe everything will fall apart, but who's to tell, unless we try. January – I'll see him then. Two weeks – it's not so long, but by then the turkey will be well and truly cold. The games will have stopped, and maybe things will fit together better that they did the first time round. Or maybe we'll hate each other just as vibrantly as we do right now. There's just no telling with Evan Llewellyn; I don't know him well enough to guess, but I really think I want to.