“Sitting on a bench at the edge of the water, lights snaking out across the banks like the delicate bones of a lover’s spine. Couples are everywhere — fingers interlaced, heads bent towards each other, smiles silly and shy — infesting the place.
“No, there’s no annoyance this time, now you can’t call it up. Instead what you feel is an ache marrow-deep, a pain in the stomach, an unhappiness that makes you slump into yourself as you sit on the bench, because you sit there alone.
“The air is sharp and particularly beneficial to the pairs of people who lean into each other until their coats are indistinguishable. But there is a thickness to it. The feeling that there’s an invisible glass wall, a cold atom-thick barrier, a boundary between your life and others’. Like a child, longing and loving, waiting your turn to grow up, you lean into the wind and press your face into that window.
“Your nose will leave no mark. No one notices.
“Three days later, she meets him. Or perhaps he meets her, it is immaterial. When she thinks of him speaking, she realizes that he is all of these things: a) unassumingly intelligent, b) unaffectedly hilarious, c) unintrusively kind, and d) undoubtedly devoted. She uncovers them like presents, buried under layers of conversations. When she thinks of him, a warm glow ignites in her. It eases the pain in her stomach.
“It is his mind that she loves first, but he has such kind eyes. A smile she wants to trace with a thumb. Palm on his cheek that he can lean into. Hair that she likes to think is deliberately unruly before she combs through it with fingers. She wonders if she would ask permission first. She imagines him aloof, her curling her hands into fists at her side with the fingernails biting into the palms as he expostulates with her about art, science, history.
“She believes he is a few inches taller than her. Good. She can turn up her face to his. She likes that image. At night she plays certain very particular songs, willing herself into sleep, feeling lighter than air.
“Sometimes it’s hard. She feels this glass wall grow thinner and thinner, the press of people and reality abrading it away. He begins to fade, until his absence is far more real than his presence. Seeing other couples meandering along, no longer is she reminded of their arms intertwined, faces animated in conversation and each other’s companionship. She simply sees — well, other couples.
“Eventually he becomes a pale shadow. Fingers slipping from her waist if they were ever there; an echo of his laugh from another room; his ghostly presence at her back. She knows that if she turns, he will not be there.
“So she doesn’t turn. She tries harder.
“So she comes to sit on this bench, wires trailing from her ears and certain very particular songs playing, aching for the glass wall. Of course, by now, she is not quite certain whether the wall is hers or whether she only sees it.
“And gradually, she lets the scene change. The pool of lamplight illuminating lucky couples now widens to include her. When she takes a breath, she can taste the stirring of anticipation.
“She has her eyes closed and the earphones in, so she doesn’t see or hear him. He walks distractedly, a few inches taller than her, hair a little disarranged, thinking of other things entirely.
“And by the time she opens her eyes, he has already passed her, heading towards the opposite bank with the lights like the points on a lover’s spine.”