My friend Peju comes and goes. I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing, but she does. I suppose when you get to a certain age, it feels like no one sticks around fully anymore. All your friends drift in and out depending on what else is going on in their lives.
Sometimes work gets busy, other times it’s family and events. Or people just don’t feel like talking and they take time off from other people. For Peju, it is usually a relationship and when I haven’t heard from her in a while, I remind myself not to be worried, and I give her space until she is ready to get back in contact.
If it drags on long enough, eventually I run into her and her new boyfriend at the movie theatre or the supermarket. We go through the awkward first introduction of former close friends and inside, I feel something close to jealousy, perhaps. Maybe it is the feeling that you when get you realise that life moves on without you. Or more accurately, it is the feeling you get when you realise that parts of the world work better without you in them.
This happens every time, that is, until the relationship ends and she returns with a story, or until it normalises and she integrates it into her regular life. We never discuss the relationship awkwardness because to acknowledge it would mean it has to be dealt with in some way. And it isn’t the type of thing you tell other people because they are likely to say something like, “Maybe you like her.”
But it isn’t that. Really. I mean, there is nothing wrong with her. We just never got to that point. She’s smart, mostly funny, and not prone to the types of dark moods that haunt me. Physically, she is a little above average height. Curvy in the right places with a flat stomach and legs that look like she can run, which she does on occasion, quietly without bragging about it or sounding like she works hard to stay fit. She wears thick glasses, the type that are like gazing through a glass of water, and when she takes them off, you see that she is cross-eyed.
Staring at her refracted eyes swimming behind the glasses you could go a long time without noticing it. Until she pinches her nose and removes her glasses to rub her eyes then you see one eye looking at you while the other one remains fixed on some space off to your left. Like a dent or a small scratch on an otherwise spotless car, it serves to humanise her. When she catches me staring, she says, “What? What are you smiling at?”
This time, she’s been gone longer than all the times before. And I had come to terms with not seeing her again until she swung by to drop off a wedding invitation. When she returned without one, I said nothing about it, asking no personal questions. We exchanged email talking about everything else and catching up, easing out the kinks and warming the friendship back up until the time apart was a wisp in my imagination. Surely she hadn’t been gone that long.
Finally we met for dinner on a wet Wednesday after work–the only time convenient for both of us–at an empty second floor restaurant. Sitting by the window, I watched people scurry outside, heads bent from the light rain.
We ordered with the waiter hovering over us and after he left, she clasped her hands together.
“So what have you been up to?”
I shrugged. “Same old. Mostly work.”
“Are you seeing anyone now?” She asked.
“No,” I said, “are you?”
She turned both palms up. “Umm..” and let it hang there as the waiter returned with drinks.
She took a sip and leaned back in her chair. Together we stared out of the window.
After some time had passed, without looking at me, she said:
“I dated this guy for seven months. I met him at my co-worker’s birthday. He was her cousin. We talked a little, the conversation flowed, and when he asked for my number, I gave it to him, no games.”
She stirred her drink with the straw, poking at the ice cubes and clinking them against the wall of the glass. I said nothing, glanced around the empty restaurant, tapped my fingers in a steady rhythm on the table and played with the napkin.
“He called me the next day and then everyday after that. We would see each other a few times a week. Do something simple like go to the movies or wander around the mall. It was really laidback. He invited me to a concert in their church and I went. Even met his family at his father’s sixtieth birthday. Very nice people.
If I hadn’t seen him in a while, I mean like four or five days, he would message me and make a joke like, “When are we seeing? Send me a picture before I forget what you look like.” I would send him a selfie. Nothing weird, just my face, and he would say, “Why are you looking tired” or “Do one without the glasses.” Then we would talk and make plans to hang out.
I don’t want to say ‘He was the one’ or anything sappy like that, but things were going well, and I felt he was someone that I could take seriously.
About three weeks ago, Saturday afternoon, I called him that I was in the area. What was he up to? He said nothing, he was home cleaning up. So I went over.
When I got there, he was in his room. There were two cardboard boxes open in the centre of the room with old books in them. University textbooks, notebooks, novels. He was sorting through them, he would pick one up, flip through it, chuckle to himself and toss it in a pile on the floor. His laptop was on his bed playing music. I dropped my bag by the door, stepped through the rubble and sat on the bed.
We were talking as he worked. I would go through the laptop, select a song, if a book from the boxes caught my eye, I would pick it up. I found two novels that way and he put them by my bag at the entrance. Like that, the day trailed on. Tinny music from the speakers, ceiling fan whirring. He finished with one box, dragged it out, came back and started on the second one.
He was kneeling in the middle of this, holding a textbook for a course that he had taken and telling me about an incident between him and the professor. I sat up to listen and noticed a pink cover jutting out from under some books. I leaned forward and pulled out an album. When he saw the album in my hand, his story stuck in his throat. His voice croaked and died but he didn’t move to stop me. Tension came out of nowhere and enveloped the room. Even the music on the laptop changed and became ominous.
I knew that what I was holding in my hand was important. Maybe the key to why things had been going the way they were with us. Too smoothly. Still he didn’t say anything, his mouth hung open, crouched on one knee, textbook in hand. So I opened it.
It was like the final scene of a thriller where the wife finds the mementos of his victims that the serial killer has been saving. Maybe he has been storing strands of hair, or a necklace or other keepsakes. The album creaked open, and all these photographs fell out of it. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. Dozens of pictures of cross-eyed girls, faces looking left and right spilled out. It was like a history of his life from child to adult told through images of girls of increasing age. Not one single one with normal eyes, all of them looking this way and that way. There were no pictures of me. I don’t know if that would have been better or worse.
The random thing that popped in my head at the time was that, it is statistically impossible for one person to know this many cross-eyed women.
I looked at him. And this was the time in the movie where there is the decisive silence, and the killer says something stupid like, ‘No, no, don’t worry. That was before I met you.’ He actually opened his mouth and said that to me.”
She took a long drink and looked at me waiting for me to say something.
I shook my head. “So, what did you do?”
“What do you think I did? I left. I would have called it ‘storming out’ but I had to tiptoe through the books on the floor to pick up my bag, put on my shoes and then leave. He didn’t say anything the whole time. Not that he could have said anything. Everyone knows what happens next. The police comes to take the killer away, as they lead him into the police car, he turns around and makes eye contact with his wife as if to say, ‘I thought you understood me.’
He called me a few times after, but I haven’t talked to him since.”
The waiter brought the food. My plate had six identical jumbo shrimps. I pushed them around going over the whole thing in my head. I said, “I’m sure you did the right thing.”