I ascended the stairs, enjoying the strange sensation of physical recollection. The higher I climbed, the more I remembered, the memories shimmering, blossoming in color and clarity like a photograph being developed. It was nice, in a sad sort of way. I knew people who said the time they spent in high school were the best years of their lives. I had enjoyed high school, sure, but it was just a part of life to get through before the next thing. I didn’t think there was anything particularly life-changing about it.
I had reached the doorway, and stopped within the threshold. She was cleaning the white board, erasing the day’s lecture. It looked like they had been studying Hemingway. She had always known how to make anything interesting. At least for me.
I decided to not say anything, and leaned against the doorframe, watching her. She turned away from me, gazing out of the window for a moment before completing her turn to her desk. Her head was bowed, her hands experienced and quick as she placed a few things into her bag.
When she finally looked up, and saw me standing there casually, she jumped. I thought she would put a hand to her mouth, or her chest, like people usually do when they’re startled. But she simply stood there, her hands at her sides, staring at me. I straightened, but didn’t speak. We just stood there, looking at each other.
Finally, she said,
I nodded, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. I walked into the room, skirting around the desk and toward one of the student chairs. I almost sat down out of habit, but stopped myself just in time. I pirouetted, trying to make it seem as though I meant to walk that way all along.
“I didn’t know if you would recognize me,” I said, turning back to face her. I thought I caught the glisten of tears in her eyes, but she looked away toward the window again.
“I’m surprised I did,” she said softly, keeping her face turned away from me.
Suddenly, I wasn’t sure why I had come. I thought it would mean something, like we could have some sort of reconciliation. Now I didn’t know. Perhaps I was doing this for all the wrong reasons.
“It’s, uh, it’s been a long time,” I said, thinking that maybe saying something would ease the tension. It didn’t.
She turned back to me and gave me the kind of look I used to love, that I used to love causing. I almost laughed, but I figured that might make it worse. She sighed, placed one hand on her forehead and the other on the desk, leaning into it. I recognized that gesture as well, and I was filled with a familiar guilt.
“I assume you’re here for something.”
“I was hoping we could……..I wanted to……………..would it help if I said I missed you?”
She made an exasperated sound and sat down heavily, and I followed suit by sitting down on one of the student desks.
“I think it’s a little late for that, Aspen.”
“It’s never too late for a second chance,” I said, hoping the sentimentality would appeal to her literature-riddled heart. She gave me that look again, and this time I didn’t feel like laughing.
Instead, her gaze reminded me of the last time we were together. No matter what her expression, her eyes were always clear and focused, and when she looked, she saw. I had felt that gaze on me many times, although its character varied. Sometimes exasperation, when I fucked around too many times, sometimes confrontation, when she knew I was smarter than that. A few rare times – the times I cherished – longing.
But more often than not, it was this look, the one laden with disappointment and laced with disdain. The one that said she knew who I really was, and couldn’t figure out why I hid it from everyone else.
I used to love that look. It used to make me feel real. Now I just felt remorse.
“I just think we should talk about how we left it.”
She spoke almost before I had finished.
“You mean the way you left it.”
I shrugged, but she was right. I was the one that had left.
Sitting perched on that desktop, the memories bloomed around me. The whisper of her long hair against my arm as she looked over my shoulder at my homework. The brush of our fingers when I handed in an assignment. The way her gaze lingered.
But she was the one who stayed away, who stood her ground, who rejected me in my earnest naivete. She was the sensible one, the grown up, the one whose life would have been ruined by my desperate yearning. Only now I was afraid she had loved me more than I had loved her.
And looking at her sitting at the desk, brushing the hair from her forehead, I realized she was still so young. When you’re seventeen, thirty-two seems ancient, but I realized now she was still under forty. She likely had a half a life ahead of her.
I sighed, and stood. It wasn’t fair of me to come here again. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have a history, not really. We wrote one for each other, and it would be better to erase it.
She looked up at me, and I realized I didn’t have anything else to say. I’m sorry? For what? For being in love? As ridiculous as it sounded, we didn’t actually have anything to be sorry for.
We stared at one another for a few seconds, and when neither of us broke the silence, I turned to leave. I paused in the doorway, for a fraction of a second, half expecting and half hoping she would call me back, say my name, ask me to stay.
But she didn’t, and I stepped out of the doorway and back down the long hall.