They sat in Starbucks, facing each other in awkward silence. She, staring out the glass walls, looking out at the city traffic below, but not really seeing anything. Her body was here, but her mind refused to accept it. This was not happening. He was not sitting opposite her, so calmly, after three months apart, after The Phone Call.
The phone call had not happened. She did not, in frustration and despair, tearfully demand to know what the hell was going on. He didn't slam the phone down and say he was done with this. With all of this, with her.
The last three months hadn't happened. He hadn't blown into her life like a whirlwind, out of nowhere, shaking up everything she had worked for and believed in. He didn't make her think, and challenge her more than anyone had before. He didn't bowl over her parents and friends in exactly the same way he swept her off her feet. He didn't make her feel like a princess, like the Most Important Girl in the World. And she didn't fall in love with him.
And he didn't leave, one week later, before making her his girlfriend, with the promise that he would be back. He didn't speak of glittering hopes for the future, of moonlight dancing and jazz bands and riverside walks, of Sunday mornings skipping to the market, of waking up in the same bed together. And she didn't believe him.
There was no wrench thrown into their blissfully domestic plans - she wasn't offered a scholarship to study abroad for a year, followed by a bond to work for three years after. He didn't get a job offer in only one of the most prestigious investment banks in only one of the most expensive cities to live in in the world. They didn't naively believe that their love could make it through four years apart, after one week together.
There were no daily good morning calls as she woke up to start another day of work, as he stole moments in the middle of his work to hear her sleepy voice. There were no alternating days of Skype calls, no minimum of two handwritten letters every week. He didn't mail her packages of goodies, treats, and CDs of artists only he would know she loved.
And all of that didn't just come to a sudden end, one day, when he announced they should take a break. He didn't need to focus on his final exams, important ones, which would determine his career trajactory and mean all the difference in the size of future paychecks. She didn't have a camp to assist with anyway. They didn't agree that a week without communication would be healthy and necessary.
And when the stipulated 'black out' period had run its course, she didn't miss him and she didn't need to hear his voice right away. He didn't respond to her e-mails in what seemed to her an almost flippant manner, and she didn't begin to wonder if she wanted this much more than he did.
Over the three months, she didn't hear rumours about the kind of person he was - from girls who had gotten their hearts broken, and from guys who had cared about girls who had gotten their hearts broken. She didn't confront him, and he didn't acknowledge that for the most part, it was true, but it was none of their damn business, and the past was the past. She didn't agree and drop the matter.
Three agonizing days didn't pass after the week they hadn't talked. She didn't wonder why he didn't seem to be as excited to talk as before. And one month ago, he didn't call her, casually, maybe even half-heartedly, to her dismay, and she didn't react in emotional hysteria to his seeming apathy.
He didn't snap and say that he had changed his mind, that this wasn't working out anymore. He didn't hang up abruptly on her, saying that it wasn't that he couldn't do this anymore, but he didn't want to. He didn't accuse her of being immature, and incapable of handling a relationship.
She didn't feel smaller than she ever had before.
And she didn't cry. For the rest of the night. For the rest of the week.
No, all of that had not happened. How could so much happen in three months? How could so much change? It couldn't be possible.
And yet, it was possible. It had happened. He was still coming back, since he had already bought his ticket, he said. And he still wanted to see her. So here they were. Where it all began, three months ago. She wrapped her hands around her cup of Americano, black. It felt warm. This was real. She was actually here.
He was sitting opposite her, looking at her with the same eyes she fell in love with, in another café in the same mall, three months ago. As he looked at her in that way she almost felt like she could forget how much the past three months had hurt. He didn't mean to hurt her, she believed. Deep down, he was a Good Person.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked, interrupting her thoughts.
"Nothing," she replied defensively, as if shielding her thoughts could shield her emotions from the power he wielded over her - the power she allowed him to wield over her.
His eyes narrowed, and in that instant, she felt scrutinized, and judged. Surely it couldn't be possible that the same person who could make you feel like you could do anything could also make you feel so small. But it was. He didn't have to say anything, but she could sense what he was thinking.
Get over it already. Welcome to the real world. We don't always get what we want. Please don't be a drama queen, just like the last ex. Or geez, like all the others. There's more important things to focus on in the real world. Like the 8k monthly paycheck I will be making, or the parties and the women that will come with it. Let's end this classily, so I can get back to my important meetings to attend, stocks to trade, and designer clothes to wear. Please don't spill your emotional garbage all over my tidy life. God, what a mess.
His posture conveyed a message of cool, collected calm. The epitome of professional detachment, no doubt the result of numerous interviews and assessment centres that came hand in hand with his chosen profession. But the voice that came out was frustrated and whiny, almost like a child's, "What do you expect from me?"
She opened her mouth, and a dozen things rushed to mind. Tell me the past three months didn't happen. Say how much you wanted to see me again. Wrap me in the hug I've waited three months for. And whisk me off to the dreamland we've always talked about.
But that would be delusional.
So how about an apology, for starters. For invading my life, and then wrecking it apart. For giving me wings to dream and then ripping them off. For promising things you could never have fulfilled. For placing all the blame on how things have come to this on me. For being an asshole. You can tell your story, she thought. You can make me sound irrational, emotional, and a mess. But the way I could tell it, you will always be the jerk.
She knew all those things were true. But she also knew that he was able to do all those things because she had given him the liberty to do so. That was the risk she had been willing to take - and that was the risk she was now going to take responsibility for. She knew it was no use categorising people into Good People or jerks, because people can often, and surprisingly, be both.
She understood that despite popular thinking that one charted her own destiny, timing and circumstances played a huge role in one's fate. She knew that all of these were true, and she knew that two seemingly opposite things could actually be interrelated and interdependent on each other. She knew this, she realised in a flash of insight - because he had showed her that. He was God and he was the devil. He was her elixir and he was her kyptonite.
She clamped her mouth shut. "Nothing," she said.
She didn't expect anything of him. She couldn't. No, she had taken the risk, she had realised its outcome, learnt its lessons, and now it was up to her to plan her next move. It was her choice, as it had always been, and it was still her choice. No more of this, she told herself. It was time to move on.
She drove him back in her beat-up old car. Stop here, he said, as she drove past a dark road. She braked. The engine's rumble faded off. It was quiet, and dark. His cologne, his scent hung heavy in the air. His hand reached for hers, and she shuddered at his gentle touch. It felt like forever since she had been touched that way.
"I've been wanting to hold you and kiss you for the past three months too, you know," he whispered. "And I still want to."
But you dumped me, her mind screamed.
He leaned in and nuzzled his face against her hair. And he pressed his lips against hers. She pulled away, with every last ounce of courage she had.
"Good night," she said.
Before he kissed her, he had murmured, "You smell the same."
And she thought, How could I be the same? You changed me. Yes, you broke my heart. But you also made me stronger.
Yes, in the real world, charm, schmooze and convincing words may get you what you want.
It may give you the upper hand, make you feel powerful, and make you hard to say 'No' to.
But not always. Not tonight.
Welcome to the real world, indeed.