I mean, it was just a kiss. It’s not like I screwed anyone, is it? But I kissed Laurie, and somehow that’s worse than screwing my way through the whole fucking Playboy mansion, because they’d be forget-me-tomorrow strangers. Laurie isn’t a stranger, and I didn’t kiss her out of anything as basic and easily explained away as stupid, vacuous lust. But I didn’t kiss her to restore her dignity either or because she was fragile and she needed me to make her feel better. I’m not that noble. I kissed her because she looked fucking ethereal under the street lamp with snowflakes clinging to her hair. I kissed her because I’d lied about not seeing her on that bus and I felt like a dick, and I kissed her because the need to know how her soft, vulnerable mouth would feel against mine floored me like a goddamn express train. And now I do know, and I wish I didn’t, because you can’t un-remember something as spectacular as that.
‘Let’s be kind to each other about this,’ I said to her afterwards. ‘It shouldn’t have happened and it doesn’t have to mean anything.’
Of all of the things I’ve ever said, that ranks up there amongst the most crass. But what else was I supposed to say? That I felt as if she’d just kissed fucking stardust into my mouth; that of course I saw her on that bus after all?
I knock back the contents of my glass and refill it. It’s no good. I need to speak to Laurie.
I knew I couldn’t avoid Jack for ever. God knows I’d like to, but this is my complicated, messed-up life, and I’ve just come in from a late shift to find him sitting at my kitchen table in the dark.
‘Where’s Sarah?’ I say, dispensing with any form of greeting because I’m knackered and I’ve lost the art of talking to him about inconsequential things.
‘In bed.’ He’s nursing a tumbler – water or vodka, I’m not sure.
‘Shouldn’t you be too?’ I glance up at the kitchen clock. Three in the morning isn’t a healthy time to be drinking alone.
I don’t quite believe him. This is only the third time I’ve seen him since that afternoon we … I don’t even like to repeat in my own head what we did – and it’s the first time I’ve been alone with him since then, by both of our choices, I think. He scrubs his hand over the stubble on his jawline, backwards and forwards again, a nervous tick. If I had stubble, I’d probably do the same.
I pour myself a glass of water. ‘I’m going to call it a night.’
He reaches for my wrist as I pass him. ‘Please, Laurie. I need to talk to you.’
I want to tell him that it won’t help, but the bleak look in his eyes softens my resolve, so I sit down wearily at the table, taking in his tired face and his rumpled T-shirt.
‘Is that what you were doing? Waiting up for me?’
He doesn’t do me the disservice of lying.
‘I feel like the world’s biggest shit, Lu. I don’t know how to get past it.’
I cup my hands round my glass. I don’t know how to help him. What am I supposed to say, that it gets easier? So trite, and not even especially true. Why is he doing this, anyway? Because he thinks I’m the more practised liar and wants some tips? I’ve turned our conversation from that day over and over in my head. Jack doesn’t remember me from the bus stop. He has no recollection of me before Sarah introduced us to each other. It’s crushing, because I’ve spent months and years being defined by that moment, and yet it’s freeing too, because it’s as if he’s rubber-stamped the fact that I need to let it go now. And that’s what I’m trying my hardest to do.
‘It was a really awful mistake, Jack,’ I whisper, staring at my hands. ‘More my fault than yours, if it helps.’
‘Fuck that,’ he says, sharp, loud enough for me to cast a warning look towards the doorway. ‘Don’t you dare do that to yourself. I’m the one who’s been unfaithful here.’
‘Sarah’s my best friend,’ I say pointedly. ‘She’s like a sister to me. However unfaithful you feel, trust me, I’m up there with you on the feeling lousy scale.’ I swallow a mouthful of water. ‘There isn’t a pecking order for guilt here. We were both wrong.’
He falls quiet and takes a sip of his drink. From the smell wafting my way, I’m guessing it isn’t water.
‘Do you know what I hate most of all about what happened, Laurie?’
I don’t want him to tell me, because if it’s the same thing that I hate about it, then we’re both only going to feel worse for acknowledging it.
‘I hate that I can’t forget it,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t supposed to mean anything. Was it?’ I’m glad he doesn’t raise his eyes from his drink as he speaks, hollow, too emotional. ‘Did it … did it mean anything to you?’
His quiet, explosive question hangs there, and I swallow hard. For a while I can’t look at him, because he’ll see the truth all over my face. I know what I have to do. I’ve lied to Sarah for two years straight now. Lying to Jack shouldn’t be as difficult. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Excruciatingly so.
‘Look,’ I say, finally meeting his troubled, beautiful eyes full on. ‘I was upset and horribly low, and you were kind and lovely, because that’s who you are. We’re friends, aren’t we?’ I break off to swallow the painful tears in my throat, and he nods, his hand pressed against his mouth as I speak. ‘We’re really, really good friends, we had too much to drink, and it was Christmas, and we stupidly blurred the lines between friendship and something else. But we stopped and we both knew it was awful, and it’s done now and it can’t be undone. What good can come of letting it rip Sarah apart too? You’re sorry, God knows I’m more sorry than I’ve ever been about anything in my life, and it’ll never, ever happen again. I don’t think of you in that way and I’m damn sure you don’t harbour secret fantasies about me, either. If we tell Sarah, it’ll only be to salve our guilt. And do you think that’s a good enough reason?’
He’s been shaking his head slowly all the time I’ve been talking, his hand still over his mouth as if he feels nauseous.
‘Nowhere near good enough.’
I nod. ‘Just go to bed, Jack. Go to bed, go to sleep, and when we get up in the morning, we’re both going to get on with the rest of our lives without ever mentioning this again. Not to Sarah and not to each other.’ I take a breath. ‘Not even to a goldfish.’
He looks away from me, pushing his hand through his already messed-up hair. I’ve been flailing around so much in my own guilt that I haven’t really stopped to wonder how Jack was handling it. Not all that well, so it seems, and I almost resent him for needing me to teach him how to carry the burden of his guilt.
I sit at the table for a long time after he’s gone. I make a coffee and let it go cold as I look out of the dark kitchen window over the rooftops of Delancey Street. I think of Sarah and Jack asleep down the hall, and of my parents back at home, and my brother and Anna, his new wife, tucked up in the smart new house they bought after their wedding in the springtime.
Two, and two, and two, and me. Maybe I’ll buy myself a goldfish.
‘It’s gone by too fast.’
We’re slouched next to each other on the sofa, Sarah and me, feet up on the scratched coffee table and wine glasses in our hands. We’re all packed up and ready to go, almost prepared to hand our Delancey Street bolthole over to its next lucky inhabitants.
‘Five years,’ I sigh. ‘You’re right. I don’t know where it’s gone.’
Sarah takes a massive gulp of wine and frowns. ‘I don’t want to leave this place. I wish we could stay for ever.’
We sit in silence and gaze around the living room, the scene of our student parties, our drunken nights, our traded secrets, our late-night laughter. We both know that we can’t stay; this phase of our lives is at an end. Sarah has bagged a new, glitzier job at a start-up cable TV station over on the opposite side of the city and commuting from here to there just isn’t possible. I’ve taken this as my cue for a shake-up too. I can’t afford to keep this place on on my own, and I’m going nowhere fast career-wise. The hotel is transient, the publishing trade resistant. I’m heading home to see my family for a few weeks, and then onwards to Thailand for a while. I know. How fabulous does that sound? I’m daunted by the idea of going alone, but spurred on by my dad’s renewed zeal for getting out there and grabbing life by the balls. My mother was deeply unimpressed when he used that very phrase; they gifted me and Daryl some money at Christmas. It’s not something they’d usually do, but they said Dad’s heart attack has given them a fresh perspective. They cried, so we did, and we both agreed to do something a bit special with the gift. Daryl and Anna are going to buy their marital bed for the new house, and I’m going to spend mine grabbing life by the balls in Thailand. I wish I could pack Sarah in my suitcase; I don’t have a clue how to do life without her next to me. At least I’ll have some respite from the malingering guilt.