WHAT IF?

There are some friends you just fuss over, aren’t there? Not in a negative or obsessive way, just those you know you clicked with instantly from when they were choosing their cake at breakfast time; friends who can teach you things, who will allow you to teach them too. He was one of these friends.

     And I’ve seen him maybe twice since I was fifteen. But we wrote letters often when we were younger and not in love with other people, and we never once admitted to loving one another, or even to being good friends. It was always simply, “When are you coming to Belgium again? I’d love to see you.” Or “Bring your sister over this summer, we’ll show you around our home and where we live.” Compliments on my French on his part, or his rapidly improving English on mine. Photographs of our gardens and houses and streets cut out small and sent overseas in posh envelopes, letters growing shorter as time grew with us because we got older and busier and had increasingly more reasons to love different people instead of each other.

     Eventually, after a few years of birthday cards and presents and endless smiley faces on the ends of sentences, his sister was the only one writing to me. We kept in touch though. He wrote online about his obsession with the Sean Penn film INTO THE WILD, which I had watched and dreamed about no less than ten times already over the last eighteen months. He’d quote not once but on two or three separate instances some apt and thoughtful song lyrics from the soundtrack by Eddie Vedder, formerly in the 80s band THE JAM, to which I finished the song off in response and marveled that he liked the same things as me despite us never sharing them together.

     This was before he was in love with her and I was in love with another boy, but the foundations were built soon as he asked me if I’d help him play THE ENTERTAINER on the piano in the hotel reception (which I did, at weary and shy fifteen, and to which he mentions being able to play to this day when it ever so subtly comes up in conversation). But still, we chatted once every six or seven or twelve months about our year, our studies, or friends and, for him, after we’d known each other nearly five years, his girlfriend. I never wanted to tell him I’d fallen completely in love with another boy because to me, it felt like a betrayal. It felt somehow unfair. She lived near him, but spoke Italian. Tall, leggy, blonde, confident. An uncanny double of me if I was Italian and skinnier and prettier with more confidence and colour, though I don’t think that was why he liked her, though he didn’t say either way. Didn’t brag, just mentioned when I asked about his holiday to Italy that he had no trouble with the language barrier because she spoke it perfectly. Of course she did. She probably wrote her own languages and taught them to her friends, too. And yet, despite my thoughts that I could be jealous if I chose to, could resent her for being with him in a way I never would be. In the end however I came away smiling not because he finally admitted to loving me, but because he had, after years of reading between the folds of his letters written in cursive, looped sentences, admitted to loving someone else. And that meant that finally, I could allow myself to do the same.

     And it didn’t even hurt. Not when I looked at his picture and saw how his tiny beard – if that’s what you’d call it – framed the jaw I’d stared at secretly as we’d sat in the pedal boat in our swim wear and sat twenty metres from the shore just because it was a holiday and we, and his sister, were already such beautiful friends with each other. Not when the guitar in the background matched mine almost to a tee, saw the ships stenciled to his wall like the ones I’d once drawn at the bed of on one of my letters to him. It didn’t hurt, not when I saw them together, not when I saw photos of them holding hands, hugging, kissing. Because it meant I could let him go, if not forever than just for now. I realised I wanted him to be happy, because I wanted the same for myself. I wanted to be glad and not be in love with him. Not that I had been, because until now I hadn’t been ready. And now, just when we were both ready, we had other people who loved us, and who we wanted to love back. No. I didn’t want to be in love with him. Not yet, anyway. Not quite yet.
    

And what gets me the most is that every thick suggestion and obvious admission of kinship or friendship or love, whether from me or him or the casual smiles from his sister as we climbed down the rapids in that German pool near the border, est-ce que tu aimes mon frère? I’d been indifferent, polite, guarded. Yes, I like your brother. He’s kind and friendly. When in my head I’d said Oui, j’adore ton frere. Il est sympa et joli et tout ce que je ne peux pas realiser.  Even though we sat at the breakfast table one morning, me in my pyjamas and him still clothed in his, his Dad very seriously claiming that his fifteen year old son isn’t yet interested in girls. When asked if I was respectively interested in boys I’d said no, not really. Only because I wasn’t ready, or something that I’m sure was believable as my apparent and doted over indecision about whether to take milk in my coffee or indeed vouch for Southern Fruit Tea instead.
    

     Not even when he didn’t come to the airport because he couldn’t fit in the car, and he gave me a kiss on the cheek and I awkwardly hooked my arm around his neck before hastily following his sister out the door, who’d taken a liking to my blue backpack and had hence decided to carry it for me. I’d cried in the car, briefly, because he was new and I was young and I didn’t know what it meant or what I wanted. His mum smiled, laughed kindly in the way that mothers do, and held my hand and promised it wouldn’t be the last time I’d see them. And it could have been true. I believed her because they waited until the tiny plane took off from Maastricht on its way to Amsterdam where I’d meet my connecting flight, waited on the steps and waved me off as if I was their child and in a way I felt like it. And I got home and wore the bracelet we’d bought together for weeks afterwards, despite suggestions from friends that the next step was marriage, babies, forevers spread over the chemistry lab like pages of a book not yet written. I didn’t tell my friends that all I wanted from him was for him to be here, so I could be his friend in person on not just on paper. All I wanted was for him to play his oboe and me to play my piano, in the same room, at the same time; for our colours to paint our forest as many times over as we repeatedly flicked the substances through the flame of a Bunsen burner. And they did, you know. Send me the photos from our trip a couple months later when his Grandad had them developed. Wrote me letters of thanks and sent me a key ring and a tiny blue ink pen that year for my birthday because they’d noticed I sometimes lost things and also how I’d been writing in my notebook a lot when I’d stayed there. Not even as I blushed under the oak tree when we visited his sister at summer camp when his friend told me that this boy here beside me liked me a lot, thought I was beautiful, wanted me to stay longer. Not a word, just a laugh when I understood not the swear word that was shot at his friend for revealing it (no denial at all) but because I perfectly understood its context. Not then, now, or ever. Just because I let him go, chose another boy.
    

But I’ll always wonderwhat if, but then again, what if I’d never met him? I’m sure I’d not have preferred that. But then again,what if……?

 

© Rebecca L. Allen 

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