A short story from 2014 that I’m still working on (read: that’s in a drawer now). It’s a total Jennifer Egan rip-off. I was trying to mimic her way of bringing characters into focus, then letting them slip again. An experiment.
She said he smelled like roses and he laughed. Honeysuckle, maybe: the hedges surrounding the small bench in front of the old university were teeming with it, flowers ragingly in bloom. But saying to a boy that he smelled like flowers was weird no matter what, and it filled him with apprehension. She always made him feel that way. He was learning things about love that he couldn’t have named: how the people that seem to make your life the most exciting, are also the people who are hardest to live with. But maybe it was him, too: he thought she was worldly because she had a pair of turquoise leather boots she’d bought second-hand, in a shop he’d never have noticed.
Almost two decades from now, after the hard muscles of his current, ex-line back body had dissolved into a layer of fat and the ideals in his head had been eaten up by persistent little moths of cynicism, they would meet again. By sheer coincidence they met on another bench: this time, a bench in a park getting ready for evening. He was killing time he had too much of, she had just popped in from work to see the sun set. Their meeting would bring back to him the boy he once was; a surprise, like the forgotten fiver you find in an old coat pocket.
How he’d seen himself as the sturdy, unshakable one, the one for whom the world was made out of grass and grit, and she the quirky art student who pulled away the curtain and revealed the wonders of the city to him. A drum beat made up by the pitter-patter of a thousand cats’ feet on walls and ridges; a giant born silently in a corner, out of trash cans. And how about that one time they were high and could have sworn the roof of her attic room swung open and above them was a blue dome they could float up and disappear into, and they each felt like the only thing cementing them to reality was the touch of the other person’s hand, and they had both agreed to stay put.
It made him wonder, all those years later, what had happened. There, in the park, she stood up the instant she recognised him, so she could look down on him in wonder. Her cheeks had gotten eerily plump, like a milkmaid’s – later she would tell him she lived in the country with her family – and she looked down on him and said, out of nowhere:
“I thought you were dead.”
And he was reminded of the other time he’d held her hand for ages – but that time it had felt like it weighed a ton, like it would pull them deep into the ground – when they had walked out of the clinic and the whole world seemed to have been turned upside down and scraped out like her uterus. They fought in an overcast street where the walls held the dust like a secret. The storm broke and she said: “Let’s end this”, and he wanted to say “No”, but what came out was “Okay.”
Maybe he was dead. At least the boy was dead, he had died just a second ago, and the man that was left on the bench in the park wondered with a sudden sense of freedom if, now that she turned out to be so sturdy, he could make himself into the creator of his own wonders.
But all this would all take place years and years from the present moment, and he was unaware of it – luckily – and more or less content, for now, to sit on the bench in front of the university, with his girl with the turquoise leather boots on, and she said he smelled like roses, and he laughed.