We are young
Heartache to heartache, we stand
No promises, no demands
Love is a battlefield
- Love Is A Battlefield / Pat Benatar
My jacket is loose, the sleeves annoyances that brush my wrists; normally, I'd grit my teeth and ignore them, but tonight I lose patience and push them up to mid-arm. I have scars on my forearm from the time I fell through a broken window - running after you when we were both younger, unthinking. You, my best friend.
Your father told us before we went out not to get ourselves into trouble. I knew that the truth was, in fact, the opposite: trouble was already in you, and I wasn't about to let it overwhelm your better instincts. A painfully earnest seven-year-old ran after you, to remind you not to be an idiot, and fell through a window in that derelict house down the street. A different child, sobbing quietly and covered in blood, was pulled to her feet and dragged home by you.
Even so, that different child stayed your friend, watched you struggle through the discovery of girls; watched you suddenly shoot up, your behaviour odd and erratic; heard your voice change, start to sound like someone else's. That different child found herself amazed she could still somehow see you in this strange new man - in the crooked, awkward half-smile that stayed the same as it had been when you were five and the way you still extended your hand whenever she fell. Your unscarred, innocent hand.
The newly revealed scars remain on the pale, otherwise smooth flesh of my arms. Tonight, I don't bother to hide them - perhaps if I show you all the things that are uncomfortable, less than perfect, you'll run away, leave me in peace. Stop this.
Your eyes move briefly to take them in, then are back on my own. That familiar half-smile lopes its graceless way across your face, and suddenly I'm breathless - and angry with myself for being that way. "Guess I'm a trend-setter," you say.
I realise with another flash of annoyance that your sleeves are also rolled to half-mast, that they started the night that way; I don't want to have things in common with you, don't want you to think you understand me.
You waltzed through life joyfully oblivious, unscarred and unafraid; like that first night, I fell through all the windows you missed. I'm not that seven-year-old who made a promise to your father; I'm someone who has seen too much and done too little, someone who doesn't need, doesn't deserve... well, I can't say it. If I do, I'll end up admitting what I want most in this world.
I look down at my food, steeling myself to take a bite; it looks delicious, but if words lodge in my throat, then a meal certainly will.
You frown at my silence, and sudden seriousness washes over your face. Once again, the abrupt change surprises me; I'd forgotten you could be like that, breezy then intense, frightening in the easy way you toy with others' emotions. The worst thing is that you don't even realise you're doing it.
"We're friends, right?" you ask, and now I'm frowning, too.
I nod, anticipatory.
I nod again, suddenly afraid.
You swallow, looking down at your food as if it will give you the answers you seek. "Look... there's this lass."
I watch you, my throat dry. She's probably beautiful; probably shallow; probably a much better person than I'll ever be, the sort of person you can imagine bringing home to your parents. "Right," I manage eventually, to fill the silence, ready to paste a smile onto my face.
"She's... she's like nothing I've ever seen."
"I'm sure." I smile - it's small, false, only there to reassure you, and I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking is.
Somewhere along the way, that different child realised abruptly that she'd grown into a woman; a woman who wanted a graceless half-smile, a voice that's now become familiar, and a gorgeous, naïve fool who picked her up from under that window and apologised profusely.
You. I want you.
I wish with all my heart I didn't. You're too good for me, too innocent. I shy away from myself in the mirror, can't meet my own eye because I'm scared of what I'll find.
I've watched women walk through your door, watched your successes and failures with a smile and a few guiding words, but I'm not sure I can listen to this.
"For a start, she's beautiful." You're still looking at your plate, rather than through me with that dreamy expression you usually acquire whenever a female is involved in your life.
"Why does that not surprise me?" I try, with a small, rusty half-laugh, then, "Prettier than me?"
It's a joke. I know I will never be special, never be the kind of face and body that stops traffic, makes a man weep. Everyone is prettier than me. Yet you give me that heartbreaking-half-smile again, briefly meeting my eye and then replying, "Not exactly. She's smart, she's funny... every cliché in the book." You sigh, darting a frustrated glance to the ceiling, and add, "She's also the stupidest person I've ever met."
I emit a surprised bark of laughter, shaking my head. "Oh, I'm sure you charmed her with that one."
You grin properly now, looking me in the eye. "Oh, I hope so. I hope so." You look out of the window, watching the people and the cars pass by. "And besides, it's not an insult."
"She doesn't seem to realise what I'm telling you. She thinks she's ugly, thinks she's... She thinks I'd never, that I've never..." You trail off, looking glumly at your plate.
"What does she look like?" I ask, morbidly curious and eager to distract you from your sudden melancholy.
You look up, smile again. "Amazing lips."
I touch my mouth, angry jealousy welling up horribly quickly in the pit of my stomach - my lips are one of the only things you've complimented me on. My best feature, I've always thought since. "Better than mine?" I ask, pretending to be playful.
"Not exactly," is, once again, the quiet reply, and then you say, "Serious eyes. Hips to reaffirm your belief in a divine God." A wry twist of your lips, and I fight my envy, trying to smile for you. The façade is beginning to crack.
Seconds tick by.
You play with the stem of your wineglass, swallow. You finish:
"Scarred arms she's too self-conscious about."
The silence changes.
Your eyes are on mine, now, dark, steady and impossible to look away from. My stomach has dropped with the shock; I feel suddenly light-headed, and I'm left searching desperately for words. At last, I ask unsteadily, "And this girl - how long have you cared for... for her?"
"Loved her?" you correct me, pretending not to have noticed. "Years," you reply, without pause, as if this is something you're absolutely certain of.
This is a dream. This is a nightmare. This is terrifyingly real.
Are you sure you want this?
There are scars on my arms, my hands. My face is sleepless and hollowed, and there are things that flicker behind my eyes when I think you're not looking. Memories, or promises; endless promises.
This will end badly. We both know it. I never asked for this; you never asked for this; and perhaps there's some strange deity with a sick sense of humour, rolling a dice and grinning at this odd outcome.
I've fought long enough and hard enough against this; if you want it, it's there for the taking. Chase me and I'll stop running.
Are you sure you want this?
I have too many memories, too may reasons not to do this. "Damaged goods" is a cliché, but it's popular for a reason, and I suppose it applies here.
You're naïve, a hopeful fool. It's beautiful to see, if depressing.
I nervously turn my glass in my hand, the scars across my knuckles changing shape as the skin stretches. My childhood friend puts his hand over mine, stopping the movement, and looks at me with the eyes of a terrified man.
"Please," you say, your voice rough.
This was not a date; this was a dinner with my best friend in the world - simple, platonic. The one man who had never judged me, and the one man I could never imagine doing this.
Yet you are, and I'm staring at our hands. You suddenly lift your hand from mine, turning it over. Offering it to me; offering to pull me from the ground again.
I look away, move my hand, and I see your disappointment - but it's only to grab my bag, fumble for my purse, leave my half of the payment on the table.
Understanding dawns in your eyes, and you grab your wallet, do the same; then you meet my eye, waiting. I stand - you do, too - and then I'm taking your hand, running out into the rain of an Oxford night, uncaring of the unfinished food and the angry waiters.
You're naive, unscarred, all the things I can't have, all the things that can't love someone like me.
Yet suddenly you're kissing me, strong and sure - your hands ghost over my arms, my scars, and I feel you smile; suddenly I'm breaking away to hail a black cab, and it halts, the sign lit in an offer of shelter from the endless English rain.
You climb in before me, dropping onto a seat with a sigh, and, one more time, offer me your hand.
One more time, I take it.