"Why is it so impossible that you and I should be together?" he growls darkly, but there is a world of hurt underlining it. I can see it in the tension in his fists; the way his sweet voice has turned sharp; the hoarseness in the back of his throat. He is standing on the veranda of the holiday cottage that we spent weeks at as kids, back before his parents broke up. It is hard, seeing him there by the wicker chairs that we used to sit on as his father barbecued and our mothers gossiped. It is hard seeing his profile against the familiar evening landscape of the beach, a scene for countless photographs and adventures of our past. It all just reminds me that we are best friends, have always been best friends- and, too, that after today, I will probably lose him. He doesn't understand why I'm doing this and I don't blame him- I'm a bitch and I know it. I don't think there is anything I could say that would make him understand the truth: he thinks that I am saying he is everything that is wrong for me, but the reality is that I'm the one who is wrong for him. I'm the one who can't do this, who can't ask him to do this. I'm the one who doesn't deserve someone so inherently good to make such a big sacrifice, because, quite simply, I know that I'm incapable of deserving it. He is so kind and so wonderful- I'm neither of those things. I'm awkward, I'm abrasive, I'm scared of my own feelings; in all honesty, I'm just not brave enough to be vulnerable, not to the one person I have left in the world who could hurt me. I don't know how to tell him that, though. I don't know how to phrase it without him forgiving me, and I can't let him forgive me. I need him to be free of me and these ideas he has begun to entertain of true love forever, I need him to be able to leave and hate me for a while so that he can have all of the wonderful things he deserves out of life; I am sure that eventually, he will get over this, and we can be friends again without all of the angst. For now, at least, I'm done being so bloody selfish all the time- can't he see it?
I am trying to do the noble thing- I remind myself of that, looking into his hazel eyes as they narrow in my direction. I need him to see where his talent takes him, instead of following me to Cambridge and giving in to his father's stupid expectations for him to become a lawyer just because he doesn't want us to change. He can't give up the life he's meant to have for someone like me- I really just don't know how to be somebody's true love. I don't know how to make staying worth his while, because I don't know how to let someone into my heart like that, especially Henry, who is the only person to ever try to care about me. If I break his heart, and I would break his heart, I will be completely alone. He will have given up an Olympic dream for a short-lived teenage romance. We need to grow up and be apart; he needs to move to Edinburgh and see if he is good enough to swim for the big prizes. I know he can do it, as well as I know that being attached to me is anchoring him, slowing him down- he can't throw away this dream just to come to university with me. It would be a ridiculous and terrifying sacrifice.
He thinks that I don't love him- I can tell that, from the hopeless, heartbroken line of his mouth (that used to always be a smile, I can't believe I took away his smile). I'm not sure if it's true or not, that I don't love him- I love him as much as I am capable of, but I don't know if that can ever really be enough. Somehow I have managed to convince him, though: he thinks I've been messing around with him, that I meant it when I told him that 'us' was a fairy tale in his innocent head. Actually, the truth is that we've been best friends for thirteen years and though I am not surprised by the complications of romance, I don't want it. I'm scared of wanting it. Mostly, I don't want it because I can't let him throw away this opportunity on me, but I also don't know how to want it. I can't stay with him or lose my virginity to him, not when he's the only person alive who still knows that I am one; it would mean too much, tie me to him too much. It's not what's meant for him- for either of us, really. To be honest, I don't even know how I let myself start this thing; it happened because we were getting drunk and stupid together and messing around with all of these different people, just like always, and then one night he kissed me and I couldn't help it, it started meaning something for us to kiss each other. I look at him now, after all this has happened, and I still see the boy who has been there for my whole life, no complications, never failing to love me, and you know, I'm not sure if I regret changing everything (kissing Henry was so good, so right, even when I knew it was so terrifyingly wrong) but I do know I can't take any of it back.
"It's not impossible," I reply at last, trying not to be as gentle as I so desperately want to be. "It's just not right… Not right at all. You and me, Henry, together? I mean, really? Think about it- it's a train wreck waiting to happen. Can't you see? I will disappoint you and I will mess up like I always do and it'll change everything and I'm just not really feeling up for fighting-"
"-fighting what, Liv?" he spits out; his chin is in the air, trying to hold on to some bitter sense of dignity. My heart aches for him- but only aches, and I tell myself I can handle that. I tell myself it is just an ache. It's not that I don't believe what I said though; it is all too true. We would be a train wreck together. I would ruin him.
"Destiny," I reply slowly, softly. "We're not going to be happy together, okay? You're meant to be with someone who can love you as fiercely as you love them, with your big, Labrador's heart. That 'someone' just isn't me and, come on, Henry, we both know it. You're my best friend. You're the only person in the world who doesn't think I'm a heartless bitch but that doesn't mean it isn't a little bit true. I can't do this."
His face hardens, then crumples, then swiftly rearranges into a close approximation of indifference. Some twisted, masochistic part of me is proud of him for being so brave; brave enough to fight for me, when I can't do the same for him, and now, too, brave enough not to go to pieces like I thought he might.
"Fuck you, then," he mutters, and the light in his eyes extinguishes as he stares at me coldly. He has never looked at me like that before and through the strange, painful feeling of my bitch's heart crumbling I feel a sense of relief, of recognition.
I have succeeded- I know that much, as Henry walks away from me with hard lines set in his swimmer's shoulders. I know it, but that doesn't mean that now, with all pretences over, the hurt isn't seeping in. I steel myself for the worst, angry with myself for being such a child over losing my best friend, angry with myself for not being brave enough or smart enough for there to have been another way out of it. All I can think about is being seven years old and Henry hitting a boy for making fun of my baby fat; Henry at thirteen defending me against mean girls who hated me for being weird and finding their gossiping shallow; Henry standing by me at sixteen when those same mean girls invited him to their birthday parties and conveniently forgot to ask me. He had always, always been there, in the face of people who didn't understand me because I was so tomboyish and awkward and nerdy- people disliked me for being his best friend, too, for being so close to the confident, handsome swimmer. Girls saw it as an excuse to say a lot of things about me (about us) that weren't true, especially not then, before we started our A Levels and I started to socialise more and Henry and I started going to parties and drinking and kissing. All I can think as Henry gets in his car and drives away is that this is the first time I have been hurt and scared and unable to call him to comfort me. Now, I am scared that I may never be able to again.
A month later, Henry leaves on a plane to Scotland without a single word to me, and I leave the big, warm beach house of my summers to start again at Cambridge. The hardest part, really, is knowing that I have done this- that right now, it is my fault that I am totally friendless. It worries me because I have always been so dependent on him, because I am afraid that I will get to university and it will be like school all over again, except this time without a protector. It makes me wish I could have been braver, more like Henry- but what's done is done now, isn't it? I can't change the past, or take back what I have just done.
All I can do is hope that my life will be different in Cambridge, and pray that somehow, I will be different too.