‘Okay, so you might take this the wrong way…but this is exactly how I always pictured you at thirty.’
I’m not quite sure how he wants me to take this.
‘Honestly, I never really pictured you at thirty.’
‘Well, I’m still twenty-six, thank you very much.’ His eyes dart around a bit and his voice drops to a murmur. ‘And I know you didn’t.’
He reaches for the bottle (the cheapest red, for old times’ sake) and pours himself another glass. I realise he’s trying to close the distance between us, the single piece of empty space in this voguish Italian spot he’d been recommended. But I’ve said the wrong thing. The distance will remain.
He’s handsome, more handsome than I remember. Not quite pretty, or beautiful, or breathtaking, but undeniably handsome. The blond curls that would inevitably flop over his eyes—causing him much distress and me much joy—have been eliminated by a smart, uneventful crewcut. His jaw is broader, coated in a short but conspicuous layer of dark brown stubble. I remember once making fun of the little cotton threads that would adorn his cheeks after a fortnight unshaven. It had made him strangely quiet; I could never figure out why. And I know you didn’t.
I sneeze, forgetting to cover my mouth. Failing to recall his opinion on this habit, I simply mumble an apology and laugh. He laughs too, politely enough not to give away any clues. He’s almost starting to make eye contact.
We go through the motions of conversation. He tells me cheerily that he’s now a quantitative analyst at a company called Upspan in London and that he’s back in Sydney for a Meeting with a Client. He neglects to shed light on what exactly a quantitative analyst at a company called Upspan in London does, but his eyes’ sudden fixation with my cutlery imparts his embarrassment. When we last spoke—when he left me—he had been starting a degree in comparative literature and anthropology; I know to downplay my shock.
‘Wow. So do you enjoy that?’
His countenance hardens and I remember there’s no amount of downplaying he can’t see through. The sternness is unfamiliar, startling. His furrowed brow subsumes his eyelids. The (still magnificent) cheekbones push through his clenched features with a violence once muted by soft cheeks and cherubic lips. But I’m being dishonest. It’s not unfamiliar. Often I’d recoiled under this unexpected severity, so out-of-place on such a sweet face. He had snapped at me once (‘Can I just finish my sentence? You’re being like my dad’) and, while he barely raised his voice, it brought me close to tears. After a moment he smiles.
‘I do! I mean…It’s not really something I see myself doing for long but I do enjoy it and I’m good at it and it sent me to London, so I really can’t complain.’
I suppose he’s opening up but his words can’t help sounding rehearsed, the same spiel he might give some great-aunt to whom he is still the eleven-year-old taking ballet lessons.
I tell him I’m teaching at the university. Still casual, of course, but very fulfilling. I tell him of the unit I’m tutoring (‘Greek Love and the Epic’) and of the honours student I’m ‘assistant supervising.’ As he sips his wine, his shoulders relax and his face softens to a smile. Almost as if he’s finally recognising me.
‘So, what’s the difference between assistant supervising and supervising?’
‘Hmm. I would say the key difference is that the assistant supervisor does eighty percent of the work for twenty percent of the pay.’
And he laughs. A proper laugh. ‘Well, anyway. That’s amazing. I’m proud of you.’ There’s a sadness to the lingering smile. ‘You did exactly what you said you would.’
His eyes do the frantic little dance they’re wont to do and he excuses himself to the bathroom (‘You remember me and my bladder’). He walks with the same unsure, epicene shuffle that had been so alluring, but now it seems wrong, stolen. The ephebic androgyny that this gait once served is no more, the lithe torso now rigid and masculine, the slinking shoulders thick, visible through his tidy blue button-up. I used to feel like he would float away if I dared divert my attention but now he is solid; he exists in the same plane that I do. I’m absently aware of how my hairline is starting to recede, how my belly has steadily expanded. What was my body like back then? I don’t recall ever noticing. I certainly felt bigger than him, despite our similar heights (‘just slightly above average’ or ‘just slightly below average’, he would say, depending on his mood). But back then most household pets probably felt bigger than him. I make to pour myself a second glass of wine but find that the bottle is empty.
He returns as our waitress arrives, a pale young woman carrying both plates of pasta along one arm, an assortment of cartoon tattoos on the other. He beams at her and with a pang I realise he’s shining. Like Apollo, but it was Adonis I’d worshipped. A voice in the ugly back part of my head counters that no, he is Adonis and when I worshipped him he was Hyacinthus. Ganymede. That the beautiful boy was only a boy. And I know you didn’t.
He seems in markedly higher spirits (‘You remember me and my pasta’) and orders another bottle, which we split in a similar ratio. We make shallow conversation of easy topics—visas, elections, the real difference between Sydney and London—but it becomes comfortable, more like old friends than ex-lovers.
I pay the bill while he waits outside. Our custom had been to split, but tonight I insist. Tonight, nothing is more essential than me paying this bill.
We’re in that leafy part of Surry Hills, with its clusters of slender terraces and its narrow streets, that would always make him sigh deeply. He’s leaning against the restaurant’s brick facade, one foot raised behind him in a pose just short of effortless. His eyes are unfocused and—while the tasteful orange light leaking from inside must be too dim to tell—seem helplessly sad.
‘Hey.’ I touch his shoulder. ‘What are you thinking?’
An odd expression comes over him as he notices me. Embarrassment. Fear, almost. It disappears, and he tilts his head at that familiar angle, slightly too steep.
‘I’m thinking,’ he forms a small grin, ‘that you’d better come and fuck me before this pasta digests.’
* * *
The way our bodies fit together is all different. His newly broad shoulders mean my arms must go under his as they wrap around his torso. His frame feels hard beneath mine, resistant. I try not to wonder if he’s noticed any change in my body. If the soft heft of my stomach is comforting or suffocating.
I kiss up his cheek, up the side of his forehead. I’m almost surprised his eyes are the same green, a subtle hazel green I would always forget and then notice with a start. His brows still extend inwards to the bridge of his nose, just shy of meeting. Excess hair still spreads beyond them in all directions. ‘Nooo,’ I had protested the first night I saw his face as closely as I’m seeing it now. ‘Don’t pluck it.’ I could tell myself it was cute. I could use it to reassure myself that he was a man. But now it isn’t his manhood I feel the need to reassure myself of.
I unbutton his shirt carefully, revealing a soft dusting of brown hair across the wide chest. His arms are rugged and sturdy, knots of muscle snaking across their surface. Can this possibly be his body? It strikes me that I’ve never been with a proper Man like this. He teased me once that I only dated girls and ‘twinks that are basically just girls with lower body fat percentages.’
He flips me over on the couch and I’m startled by the force, the action. His face travels slowly down my torso, looking up at me. As I feel his breath against my belly, I can’t help imagining that there is no warmth left to him, only heat.
‘Hey, just give me one second.’ I leap up towards the bathroom, where I chew one of the small blue tablets I’ve recently started keeping in my wallet.
He could beat me in a fight. It wouldn’t even be close.
When I return, he is undressed, waiting on the bed. Why do I keep thinking of this as something I have to push through?
We kiss again. When it comes to it, I slide inside far more easily than I was expecting.
I find myself focusing on anything but him. The clean grey Meriton studio he’s staying in (with its circular mirror and little blue couch) is nearly identical to the ones we’d book when we wanted to get away from his parents or from my housemates. It’s hardly changed at all. So what does that say about him?
After we’ve both finished and cleaned up, I realise there’s something wrong with his eyes.
‘Yeah, I’m sorry. I–It’s this room.’ He gives a little theatrical flourish. ‘You remember me and my allergies.’
I don’t remember any of these things.
But I choose to believe him. I don’t think I ever saw him cry. He would insist he did but I never saw it.
Against my better judgement, I’m compelled to mention how much he’s changed. Perhaps I want to see if he’s noticed too.
‘Hairy boy.’ I point at the sprawled legs and laugh with an affability I hope he buys. ‘When did that happen?’
‘Well, my legs were always hairy.’ He sits up a bit on the bed, shifts his weight onto his elbows. ‘I mean I used to have to shave them, right?’
‘Oh…I’m sorry. I didn’t know.’
He gives me one of those unreadable laughs. ‘Yeah, you did! But no, I wanted to. I liked doing it for you.’ When I don’t say anything he continues. ‘But I was hardly going to be the perfect little twink forever, was I? And I don’t want to be twenty-six still trying to look like a…a schoolgirl.’
His voice is pointedly level. He wants me to know that he’s thought this through and that he’s perfectly content with it. I’m not sure that he is. I think of his sad eyes outside the restaurant, his quiet voice before the food arrived. I know you didn’t. But how could I have? Why would I have?
We sit in silence for a while.
‘Well, I should probably head off. I have a class at eight.’
As I gather my things, he gazes at me. ‘You know you could stay, right?’
‘I know. I–I’m sorry.’
We hug goodbye, assure each other how lovely this was, how happy we are to see each other thriving.
I was hardly going to be the perfect little twink forever. But he might have been! If I hadn’t come tonight he just might have been.
Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.