The Last Days of Summer
Caitlyn met him as he stepped off the bus. Her first thought was, He looks different than I remembered. And then she noticed; His hair. He's had it cut. It doesn't suit him.
She tucked this away in her arsenal of conversations to have, if things became awkward between them. Though, she wouldn't tell him it didn't suit him.
Angelo said, "Hey."
Caitlyn said, "Hi."
"How are you?" he asked.
"Good. It's a beautiful today, isn't it? How are you?"
"I could use a stretch out. It was a long trip."
They looked at one another, seized by the common dread that they wouldn't say anything, that there would be nothing to say. Caitlyn had forgotten about the hair.
If Angelo knew her better, he'd know that her voice was just a little too loud when she spoke. She said very quickly; "Let's go for a walk."
"Good idea. It's too nice a day to go to the shops."
"Yes. Too nice a day. That's it," agreed Caitlyn, relieved.
She walked fast, faster than she usually did. They passed through the sprawl of the shopping centre. Crossed over the one square of green, dwarfed and made small by the apartments and office blocks, all jostling for space.
As they walked, Caitlyn said, very seriously, like it was a grave and guilty pronouncement, "To be honest, I don't really like shopping."
He nodded easily. "Neither do I. It's too conventional, isn't it?"
"Yes," she said. "Too conventional."
Caitlyn thought she might take Angelo to the waterfall. It seemed like the kind of place you might take someone to. But at the last minute, she veered in a different direction to take the long way round. She needed to walk. She wasn't ready, not yet, to stay still.
To her relief, they fell into conversation. It was light, easy, and completely mindless.
He asked, "Do you have a favourite animal?"
"Hedgehogs," she said. She continued, rambling a little; "We had a family of them once that visited. We put out hedgehog food for them. Or cat food. That was it. They started eating Sinbad's foot. Climbed completely into the dish and used to leave droppings in there. There was Sonic and Sonia and Spiky and, and…" Caitlyn couldn't recall. She felt angry with herself. "-And once, I picked one up. It was all spiny, but it didn't hurt. But it curled up into a ball and trembled, so in the end I felt bad and put it down."
She thought about saying, I understood how it felt. That's why although I wanted to hold it a bit longer, I let it go.
But she didn't.
"I also like giraffes and elephants. They have the sweetest baby elephant over at Whipsnade zoo. Oh, and cows! I really like cows."
"Cows!" he said, laughing. "That's unusual." He said it like it was a good thing to be unusual.
Caitlyn continued with a note of pride in her voice; "I know most people don't think so but I think they're really cute… only," she faltered, "I feel bad sometimes because I like steaks too. Sometimes I think I should be a vegetarian. Only, I like meat too much…"
It was one of Caitlyn's bad habits to go off on these tangents, her brow furrowed, speaking with a low tension as though confessing to a terrible secret. She could be so suddenly serious that it made people feel awkward. They didn't know what to say.
But Angelo found it funny. He burst out laughing. He said, "That's not a bad thing. It just means you like cows so much you don't mind if they're in a field or a burger!
For the first time, not out of nerves, Caitlyn smiled at him sincerely.
They'd reached the waterfall. The light fell, gentle and honey comb, through the stencils of the leaves and became rippling puddles on the ground. The day was unexpectedly warm for one of the last days of summer. The leaves were just starting to turn a little bit yellow.
"You see that cave there-?" Caitlyn told Angelo the story of the old man who'd lived in the cave by the waterfall. Every time she came here as a child, like clockwork, her father would tell this story. Now Caitlyn told it, her voice picking up the easy rhythm of the storyteller, blending with the sounds and currents of the river.
As she came to the end, her voice lulled, like the gentle trickle of the stream.
She turned on her heel to him, girlish and excited. She burst out, "The spring!"
He said, "What?"
"When I was little, I found a spring near in the forest near here. I've never seen it since. We should go on a quest and find it!"
They joked and laughed and decided it was a noble quest. Picking their direction, they set out. The forest enfolded them in its arms. The sunlight was twinkling stars caught between the leaves in the canopy. As they walked, something blossomed in Caitlyn's chest. Some days, like this, Caitlyn felt like a part of nature. The silent mystery of the trees welcomed her with open boughs. Her heart opened, warm and secret, like a silver egg. It felt like falling in love.
"I hate the city," she said, but it was to herself.
"So do I," said Angelo. "Sometimes I want to escape from society and live like a wild man."
But Angelo's voice fell discordant against the music of the woods. The feeling escaped from Caitlyn, slipped from her hand like a falling leaf. It always did, eventually. Caitlyn carried on walking. She looked straight ahead.
To walk meant that she didn't have to look at Angelo's face. All this time, she had marched forward, only glancing up once or twice. It seemed unfair that to talk, you had to look at someone's face. Face their eyes, and know they were looking at back at you. Face their expressions of confusion when you said something stupid, the little furrow between their eyebrows when you lost your place. Face faces that were always assuming, expecting, pronouncing. And judging. Always, always judging.
Caitlyn walked with her blinders on. When they spoke now, her part of the conversation was delivered loudly and firmly—whenever she felt insecure, she raised her voice to cover over that insecurity. She made rash pronouncements about generalised subjects and backed up her opinions by articles she'd read once upon a time and only half remembered. She'd read it, ergo, it was true.
She said, "It takes women longer than men to get ready in the morning."
He disagreed gently, "I think either side says tha—"
Cutting him off; "Yes, but if you think about it, men don't wear earrings. They don't wear nail varnish. They don't wear tights or make up. Their hair is generally longer and takes longer to brush and sometimes they want to straighten or curl it—" She spoke loudly because she was angry. But it wasn't at him. Why did women have to do these things? Why did she? Expectation! It was all expectation. She hated it.
But, half-way though, she realised how loudly she was speaking. She lowered her voice apologetically. She said, "Lately all the girls I know want to be colour coordinated. Every time I see Tammy, from my class, she's wearing a different colour. Just the other day she was wearing a purple dress; purple shoes; purple bracelets; purple earrings. She even had purple nails. And a purple pen! And I said, Gosh Tammy, you're feeling very purple today aren't you?"
Angelo laughed. Caitlyn felt stiff, embarrassed and grateful. She didn't deserve it. Angelo wasn't like her; he didn't smile or laugh because he was nervous, or because he didn't have anything to say, was terrified of conversation drying up like an old spring. He laughed when he was amused; smiled because he was happy. He was everything she wanted to be but wasn't; honest.
They'd reached the Kingsmead. For some time, Caitlyn hadn't been watching where she was going. Now, they stood out in the full sun by the playing fields. The warm weather had drawn the neighbourhood out of its hiding places. A group of boys were playing a ball game that seemed to involve constantly piling on top of one another.
"What is it they're playing?" Caitlyn asked. "Rubgy?"
"Football, I think," said Angelo.
"But they keep jumping on one another, like they're trying to play human jenga. I thought you didn't touch the other players in football?"
"Well," said Angelo, "maybe they just enjoy that bit."
He caught her eye, and they broke into laughter. For an instant something familiar grabbed Caitlyn; that she was an observer behind a glass panel, looking out at the world and the people in it. But this time, Angelo was standing her side.
Ever since she had met Angelo some weeks before, a feeling had been building in Caitlyn. The need to confess something, anything.
She said, "Let's sit down for a while."
They sat on the grass and talked. Mostly, Caitlyn looked at the ground. She looked at Angelo too, sometimes.
They talked about what they done over the summer. Angelo was saying, "I spent most of it playing my guitar out on the porch. It got lonely, though."
She looked up at him sharply. Calmly, he looked back at her, like he hadn't said anything ground-breaking, like he wasn't breaking apart all the rules Caitlyn lived by.
She thought; Lonely! He's lonely. This man, he's…
She wanted to say; So was I! This summer, I was lonely. My whole life, I…
But she didn't.
Angelo talked about his guitar, which led to Steven, his classmate, who also played. It wound its way to his classmates, who took the same acting class he did.
"Do you like them?" she asked.
"Yes. But sometimes, I feel detached from them. Like we don't have much in common."
He talked about feeling detached as easily as when he'd talked about his guitar!
"They spend most of their time down in the Union, and I don't really like crowds. It's just the way I am. Except when I'm on stage. Hundreds of people watching me, no problem. I like being watched. I just don't like being a part of things. Perhaps because I'm playing a role."
"You could go to the pub in character?" Caitlyn suggested. This amused her. She thought of Angelo in the Student's Union dressed as a swashbuckling pirate, complete with eye patch and wooden leg.
But for once, Angelo was quite serious. He said, "I'm an actor. But in real life, I can't act."
They spoke about Angelo's ex-girlfriend who he'd mentioned the last time she saw him. He said, "I just didn't feel anything for her. And I really did try."
Caitlyn remembered something she'd heard once. Never talk about your exes on a date. But was this really a date? Not really. Just two friends, meeting? No, because it wasn't quite just that. There was some promise, hanging in the air between them. An expectation. Only Caitlyn couldn't quite figure out what it was. She'd been shutting it out for some time, but it was growing. The air was becoming heavy, cloying. It made the loose hairs at the back of her head stick slick to her neck. She rapped her foot on the ground, restless.
She thought; What is it he's expecting of me? What am I expecting of him?
And then he turned on her, like she knew he would, "So, how about your relationships?"
"My… relationships?" She decided, for a moment, she'd pretend she hadn't understood him. The silence between them was dead and stifling. She couldn't stand it. She couldn't do it. She said, speaking very slowly, "I, uh, don't really have them."
He seemed genuinely surprised. Caitlyn used that surprise to go barrelling in. If she was going to explain, she must do it quickly, before he had the chance to decide she was strange.
She said, "I just think I'm really picky with guys, that's all. My whole life, I've only ever liked one boy."
Angelo, poor confused Angelo, who fell in love with every girl he met said, "Just one?"
Caitlyn had never told this to anybody. Not ever. When she spoke, her voice was a ship on a gusty day. It pitched forward, breathlessly. The sails went slack and she stopped, abruptly. And then the sails filled—and she was off again. It was all she could do to keep hold of the boom.
"He was my best friend when I was at school. I liked him for years. I mean, I'm over him now. But it took a long time. When I met him I was just in year seven and I had a crush on him. But… we fell out. We fell out over something really stupid- a pen! He took it and I knew it was mine. I took it and demonstrated and said, It is mine! You can see where I chewed it. These are my teeth marks! It was…" her voice slowed, grew slack, "dumb. We made up a year later and I started to like him again, but he didn't like me. And then I found out he'd liked me when I hadn't liked him. Then he said he had mixed feelings. I got to year eleven and the whole thing just became boring. Just being friends with him became hard. When we left school we said goodbye, and never saw one another again."
Caitlyn became very quiet. She said heavily, "And now, it's been so long I can barely remember what it's like to be in love."
Angelo said, "But I don't think we ever completely forget about those people."
He'd completely misunderstood, but it was okay. Caitlyn didn't expect to be understood all the time.
He said, more to himself than her, "I see. So you have to know the person well."
Caitlyn's whole existence, summed up into a single assumption. But that was okay too. People never truly understood one another, not completely. They generalised and made assumptions, and occasionally they got it right. If it was easier for Angelo to understand her that way, let him.
There were so many things she wanted to say, but cowardice- and convention, which can be the same thing- got in the way.
She wanted to say; I feel empty. I feel like my heart's frozen over. I'm afraid I'll never love anyone again.
She wanted to say; I've never been attracted to anyone, not even Joseph. That was part of the trouble. I loved him, but I didn't even want to kiss him. I just wanted to be with him. In society's eyes, is that even really love?
She wanted to say; Don't expect anything from me. I can't give you what you want. All I can do is sit here and talk to you.
All she could do, like any good storyteller, was tell him a story. She had reached the level in the writing that- she hoped- she could convey a message in her stories. So she said to him, "Last week, a boy wanted to kiss me." That was the hook, encouraging the reader to go on. "It was a friend of a friend. Joshua." Exposition; uninteresting but not necessary. "I met him at the SU and we spent hours talking about our favourite books. Everyone said later that they knew he liked me, but hey! I just thought we were talking about books. I suppose that means," -looking straight at Angelo- "that I'm dense when it comes to these things. I'm not used to it, so it takes me by surprise. Afterwards we went home to Bob's house and the boys made up the sofa for me. When everyone else had gone upstairs he sat down close to me. And he said, 'I'm sorry Caitlyn, but all night I've just wanted to kiss you.' I couldn't believe it! I completely panicked. And yet, I quite calmly turned him down. I was freaking out, and yet I said politely, 'No, I'm sorry but I'm not interested.' I astounded myself. I was completely, enviably calm…"
But Angelo hadn't understood. He looked puzzled, more puzzled than she'd ever seen him. He said, "But didn't you want to kiss him, just to see what it was like?"
Caitlyn said, "I'd only just met him!"
Angelo protested, "We've only just met, really."
Caitlyn didn't even know what that was supposed to mean. At any rate, it was besides the point! What was she supposed to say to something like that?
Instead, she said nothing. They shouldn't have sat down. She'd known they shouldn't have sat down. They could have kept on walking, the entire time. She was a good walker. She could have walked for hours without needing to sit down.
"We should loop back and search the other side of the woods for it," she said, finally.
"The spring!" she said, a little shrilly. "We're looking for the spring!"
They left the Kingsmead. They said little. Angelo made jokes or comments from time to time, seemingly at ease, but Caitlyn didn't trust herself to speak. She was concentrating on her long strides. She was feeling terribly fragile. Some days, when she hadn't slept well, the slightest bit of wind made her cold, the palest sunshine made her hot. The wind blew through her, through the cracks in her personality, the gaping holes of her flaws. It tore away her pride, her achievements, her confidence, ripped them away like flimsy scraps of silk. Underneath she was a trembling creature of goose flesh, naked and vulnerable.
She had stopped dead. Angelo hadn't noticed. He was leaning across the wide part of the river.
"Hey Caitlyn! Is this it?" he said.
Caitlyn came forward slowly. They were in the heart of the forest. The shade had been thrown over them like a shroud. This was a place that permeated the senses with a rich dampness, like peat. Climbers snaked the trees and the bank of the river was a bed for moss and lichen. The spring was a burble of water, bubbling unimpressively.
Caitlyn and Angelo stood side by side on the bank for a long time. At last she expelled a little sigh, and said, "It's never ever as good as you remember it, is it?"