Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Full Circle – Write a story or a poem which both begins and ends with the line: ‘Do you remember the first time?’
by Eleanor Updegraff
Do you remember the first time? I do. It was a house party at my place, the first the boys and I ever held. I hung out in the kitchen with the Irish lads – Jon had endless friends and they were funny and loud – and then at some point, in the press of bodies in that narrow space, I turned my head and there was you. Memory is a funny thing, and I’m interested in moments, how much of them we notice as they happen. That night, probably little, but it’s become a fixed point over the years, a star in my often cloudy sky. Now, I can look back at that noisy kitchen and say, yes, that was the first time.
Sara was there. Of course she was. You wouldn’t have come without her. That was how I was introduced to you, together, and that was the way it would stay for the next two years. It was Sara, actually, whom I spoke to most that evening. Sara of the pale Irish beauty, flame-haired, candle-thin. Sara who was bright and witty and generous, who talked to me for hours without once making me feel dull. We stood in the kitchen, propped on the counter, drinking cheap white wine from inappropriate glasses. The girls from downstairs brought a bottle of absinthe, and, in the living room, people were dancing.
I don’t remember what we talked about now, and after that night I didn’t see Sara often. She lives these days back in Dublin, you’ve told me, with two young kids and a husband who isn’t you. You are philosophical about it, but we all have our griefs, the people we keep locked tight in our hearts. Sara, I think, is one of yours. Just like you were for the longest time one of mine.
For seven years, in another country, I would take you out sometimes and examine you. Hold you up to what light I had to hand, one of the few reminders of that strange, enchanted time. It ended, of course, with me leaving. Because this, I have come to learn, is how our story works. Climbing into the back of a taxi, tiptoeing out of a dawn-grey room. I’m stuck in the part of the character who leaves, but it’s a role I’m increasingly reluctant to fill.
In my mind you were clearest in the summer I left London, summer of endless sunsets and sticky, beer-soaked haze. Long evenings on the Southbank, Jon’s laugh loud in the darkness, and you, always you, my focus grown sharper with hindsight. There was my birthday party in a Turkish restaurant where I was helped up to dance on my chair, afternoons drinking Pimm’s beside the river, the football cup final when our street became a dance floor. You would surface periodically in our living room, on your way out with the boys, and, while I was always glad to see you, I was constantly aware of Sara. This, I think now, is how I kept you safe for so long. We danced close but we never touched. I associated you purely with joy.
Until last year, in December, when I decided to be brave. And that evening, in a bar off Green Park, when you saw me come in before I saw you. I was running late and flustered from the Tube, shaking rain off my umbrella, and I had no idea then what was about to happen, how I was about to feel. Another of those moments before life buckles, before everything we think we know is given a thorough shaking. This moment I remember with total clarity: the rain, the buses, the marble top of the bar. You were waiting at a table and you kissed my cheeks in the French style, and the years between us peeled away when you gave me that flash of a smile.
We talked a lot that evening, and on the nights that followed. Not many, but enough to know that we couldn’t take this lightly. That night in Green Park you were kind and you were generous; you took the time to listen, asked me the right questions. We laughed too loudly, drank wine from big glasses, talked about people we used to know and how our lives look now. There’d been a seven-year gap and you were all but a stranger, but it was, somehow, just a continuation.
I used to remember you in that long, hot summer, but now it is winter to which I tie you in my mind. Soft lights of windows on rain-kissed streets, shivering darkness, your nose warm on mine. Red roofs in the morning drizzle, my wind-worn fingers tracing the old break in your collarbone. I keep you wrapped up now with December, the turning of the year. A time that is tired yet full of hope, both ending and beginning.
I left early, the last time, because this is how it works. And sometimes I wonder if this is how it will be for us always, if you will be there for me in these strange in-betweens. Summer of confusion, winter of grief, and you somehow the anchor, the person who helps me heal. When people tell stories they have a habit of making them linear, but perhaps, like the seasons, they ought instead to be cyclical. Tales with neither end nor beginning, stories like ours, which simply exist.
Late at night, on the phone, you tell me this isn’t goodbye, and though I sob and complain at the platitude, I know you are speaking the truth. This, I know, is not the end, because I will return to you. It’s been a long winter, this one, and another will surely follow. But the trees outside are turning yet. And winter will become spring.
One day, I know, I’ll step in from the rain, into a bar off Green Park or a narrow kitchen pressed with bodies. I will be running late and flustered, shaking the night off my umbrella, and when I raise my head to look around there will be, quite suddenly, you. Steady eyes, flash of a smile. Your way of making me seen. I don’t know how many years will have passed then, but I know that I will go to you. And you will look at me and kiss my cheeks in the French style, and I will smile and say, ‘Do you remember the first time?’
Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-in-green-sweater-sitting-beside-man-in-orange-crew-neck-shirt-4783544/