Chapter One: A phone call
“She’s the one that got away.”
A soft, melancholic voice reverberates through a nicely decorated office in the middle of a domestic apartment building. Like the fragile, young woman is wandering around in old memories. Like the ghost of that perfect person from the past appears once more and flares up a dreamy face. It makes the heart rush and one nanosecond later, it abruptly causes it to stop. Because the truth makes it brutally clear that the exact same time that whatever it is that’s got that smiling started, it fades away and gets replaced with heartache and a nagging, indescribable feeling of missing someone.
“Literally, actually,” the same voice suddenly elaborates. “Her name is Alex. She left the country when her father got offered some professor gig at some university in Belgium four years ago. He’s an arts teacher. A good one, apparently.”
The older man listening to the dreamy rambling softly smiles, maybe even unable to be noticed by anyone. Not that there’s anyone else to notice. It’s just the two of them. Sitting quietly. Talking about what seems to be important in life. He doesn’t stop her. As the matter of fact, he’s intrigued by whatever it is she’ll say next.
“I was so sure she was the love of my life. We did everything together: started kindergarten together, went to junior high together, worked toward graduation together, … By the time we found ourselves in love, we were both just like: ‘Oh, okay, that makes sense’. There was no drama, no fear of what we were going through, no doubt. She just smiled at me and it calmed my heart. I had just turned sixteen when we first kissed. She was my everything, you see. She had beautiful, dark, shinny hair. And her eyes were so deeply, hypnotically brown that, when you stared into them, you never expected to find a way out, until she blinked. A blink set you free. Once that happened, you were sorry it did. Don’t get me started about her body …”
A soft scoffing happens, like the memory itself makes sure the goosebumps get their work done immediately. The person sitting across the room is holding a notebook, but instead of writing things down, he just pats the classic pen against his oversized glasses and reveals a soft, enchanted smile.
“You’ve been coming to my practice for about two years now. How come you’ve never mentioned this before?” he calmly, neutrally asks in a husky voice.
“Because she called me yesterday. And I didn’t pick up. And I don’t know what that means.”
The man still holds on to his notebook and sighs in search for answers.
“As a therapist, I’d say we’d have to talk about it next week.”
He puts down his working tool and sits up straight, giving the impression the session is over, but then suddenly, his body freezes, in a twist to reveal a nagging judgement: “But as a man of my age, judging by the fact that you can’t even pronounce her name without flinching after four years, I’d say you clearly haven’t processed what happened.”
The blond woman, barely through her twenties, forces a smile – as painful as it is. He’s wrong. It’s been four years now. That part of her past should mean nothing to her anymore. But instead of picking up like grownups do, she deliberately missed the call and now that excruciating phase of constant wondering and curiosity just won’t go away.
An hour later she’s seated across her notoriously kind boyfriend. His name is Christopher. They’ve been an item for a year now. The boy has a charming appearance. Nice teeth, good body, curly blond hair and brown eyes. But that’s not what draws her to him. It’s his sincere smile and the meaningful opinions whenever they have a conversation. Even when they fight, he remains respectful to her. Few men carry that quality inside of them.
Her thoughts are not with him though. The coffee in front of her hasn’t been warm for a solid ten minutes anymore, yet the cup remains filled-up. There’s a conversation going on, but it’s one-sided. Christopher is talking to himself. His girlfriend is too occupied in her own mind, thinking about that phone call that never actually happened. Processing it. Obsessing over it. Picturing it in her mind. Hating it.
“Amy … Amy!”
The woman blinks before she realizes where she’s at exactly. Starbucks. They went to Starbucks for a coffee. Hoping that he won’t turn the overanalyzing part of his personality in overdrive, she fakes a dreamy smile and pats his hand.
“I’m just a bit tired,” she tells him before any question slips his mouth.
He takes that explanation without overthinking it. Sometimes it’s hard for her to accept that. She used to have tremendous fights over little, meaningless details with her ex. Vases and teddybears would fly across the room, awaiting their innocent deaths. That was fighting! At the time, she hated it. But once it was gone, she couldn’t stop missing it.
“I have to get back to work now. The costumers are probably waiting at the door already. Susan’s not here yet?”
Christopher squints his eyes to scan the area around their table. When he does that, it always strikes Amy how much of his Asian ancestors have hidden their nearly visible genes in his blood. That makes him even more mysteriously attractive, though. After getting up and simultaneously checking his watch, he shrugs apologetically. His lips peck hers quickly, in a hurry.
“I’m sorry, I have to go or I’ll be late.”
She pats him on the chest and assures him it’ll all be fine: “Susan’s always late, I have my phone to keep me company.”
After that, he makes his departure. Her freaky sometimes blue, sometimes green eyes observe the walk that eventually allows her boyfriend to disappear from her sight. That’s when it’s safe for her to finally start staring at the phone that started it all. How come she never once changed her number after the famous split of 2011? Somehow, she had always hoped this day would come. The day when Alex would finally call back. Now here it is and she’s terrified of the consequences. Curious fingers linger over the smartphone’s apps, like the brain that controls them is not making up its choice. Those damn phones can do so much nowadays. They have caller ID. Area codes. Country codes. And Amy happens to know the country code of Belgium. It’s 0032. It’s has a population of ten million, but it can only be one person.
“Hey Wolfe girl. There you are. Have I kept you waiting?” an unnaturally, overly happy voice suddenly interrupts the intensive inner conversation going on inside Amy’s head.
She turns around and faces one of her dearest friends and coworker, Susan Doyle. The girl passes the common pleasantries and goes straight for the cookie placed in front of Amy’s cup of coffee.
“You always do, Sue. And that was my lunch.”
Her friend demonstrates a disapproving frown and runs some fingers through her extremely short hair as the last crumbles of a chocolate cookie disappear inside of her mouth.
“That’s not lunch. It has no vitamins, no nutritional value. You should be thankful that I ate it for you.”
An amused Amy bites her lower lip: “Not exactly how I would describe the way I’m feeling about that, right now.”
Before there’s time for ongoing teasing, she’s dragged on her feet by the overly active twenty six year old and guided to a cosy little restaurant two blocks away from her beloved Starbucks.
Once the two ladies are seated, a nagging – yes, that same nagging – feeling of conflicted emotions rises up inside the calmer one of them.
“What’s wrong?” Susan asks attentively.
“Why should there be anything wrong?”
The clever response is not being received well: “You’ve had that menu in your hand for about ten minutes and I bet you can’t name one thing that’s on it.”
Amy’s eyes shoot to sneak a peek, but her friend’s hands are quicker to obtain the piece of plasticized paper. The dark blonde is not giving up that easy, though, so she squints her eyes, just like her boyfriend would do, and opens her mouth: “Bacon sandwich.”
There’s enough noise in the room to soften Susan’s scoffing. Her eyes roll down the menu and before throwing it back in her friend’s direction, she shrugs in an unsupportive way.
“That’s on every menu card around here. But fine, since that’s the thing you’ve set your mind on, I’ll order you a bacon sandwich.”
She then puts her index finger up in the air, extremely determined to catch a waiter’s attention, but soon enough, Amy stops her.
“No, wait. I hate bacon.”
The vindictive smile of the dark skinned woman seated across her reflects victory, but Amy decides not to get affected by it. Instead, she tries to make a lunch decision – that’s hard enough as it gets.
Susan takes a look around the place. There are couples having romantic lunches, old people wasting lost hours by observing the generations that came from them, children who should probably be at school at this hour and loners enjoying a boring lunch. The waiters are anxiously trying to get the work done, sweat is putting a shiny layer on their foreheads. She remembers those high school days when she used to be a waitress. It was terrible.
By the time her head turns back toward her colleague, those eyes still seem to struggle with making a choice.
“Are you kidding me? You always order a Caesar salad.”
She bends over and her expression demonstrates the agonizing level of hunger that’s about to divulge her.
“Order the Caesar salad!”
Amy throws her hands indulgently up in the air and therefor drops the menu: “Okay.”
A nearby waiter takes their order and returns quickly with their sodas. Another ten minutes later, the food arrives. One tuna salad. One Caesar salad.
“Now tell me,” Susan says as she swallows a piece of tomato, “what’s on your mind? Is it Christopher? Has he finally been a dick, like all men?”
It makes her good friend laugh. Susan has quite an interesting view on men. Probably since she always picks out the horrible ones. The cheaters, the liars, the married ones, … There is a whole other world of decent men she has yet to discover.
“Okay, listen. You know that story about how the father of one of my exes got me into Sanford, right?”
Susan drops her fork in a dramatically entertaining way and sighs out loud: “Not the story about how you went to Stanford again, is it? I’ve heard that one a million times before.”
Amy laughs amused but shakes her head soon enough to calm Susan down.
“No, Sue, seriously. That ex called me yesterday. I haven’t heard from Alex in four years.”
Resumed with feeding herself, Susan throws her a curious look: “And? What did he say?”
Amy bites her teeth and smirks: “I didn’t pick up. And he’s a she.”
The face of her dinner date does not move a muscle. It gets wiped clean with a napkin and that said napkin gets put down next to a half empty plate. Susan uses her tongue to free her teeth from a little piece of lettuce and subsequently frowns in a confused way.
“Say what now?”
Amy chuckles over the comical response and sighs. She never lied about her former experiences with girls, it just hadn’t come up in her past with this particular friend. She always mentioned her ex when the topic Stanford was being discussed, but because she felt the need to block out as many memories as possible about that time, the required information and details about the person she once loved so much were always suppressed.
“Her name was Alex. She was … Well, I thought she was the love of my life,” Amy explains while staring at her fingers, still holding on to the knife and fork. “We met in kindergarten and I think I loved her from the very first day.”
Susan’s appetite has disappeared. All there’s left inside the curved body is curiosity that could jump outside of her in the form of a hungry tiger. She needs to know everything about this.
“She left me – dumped me pretty much – a couple of months I was going to Stanford. Her father got offered a teacher position in Belgium, where he met her mother met many year ago, and she left with him. Disappeared like a thief in the night. One last perfect night together and when I woke up the next morning, she was out of the country. Deleted her social media and all.”
The person across the table has her green eyes pointed at her with an intense compassion. A soft sigh reverberates.
“That’s fucked up.”
Amy nods, hurting a bit inside due to that memory.
“Anyway. She called me and now I can’t stop thinking about why she called me. I’ve been mad a her ever since she got on that plane and refused to tell me the truth in advance. All I got were postcards, with no returning address. Just her name and an X underneath a shallow text describing her life there.”
“Why didn’t you pick up? It was the perfect time to ask.”
Amy has thought about that same thing a million times since the last phone ring died last night. She has hated herself for not picking up, just to be proud as hell a second later.
“She broke my heart, Sue. The second I would’ve picked up that phone and heard her voice, it would’ve broken again.”
Susan’s head is being supported by her hand by now, like she’s listening to a novelist reading his own work out loud: “That sounds dramatic. But I like dramatic stories.”
Amy sits up in her chair and pushes back a larger part of her blond hair. Her fingers nervously tap the table a few times before she dares to speak what’s on her mind.
“Do you know what’s funny. Christopher and I were just at Starbucks and he saw that there was something going on, like you did.”
“It’s not that difficult to read it off your face, girl. You look like you’ve killed your own dog by accident. That makes it unquestionably not funny. Work on your sense of humor, girl.”
Some objecting hand gestures stop the woman from talking more.
“The thing is – he saw it and he didn’t even ask about it. Given, I told him rather rapidly that I was fine, but come on, not even a stupid try. There’s no conflict with him and that’s so, so easy. It’s so welcoming and perfect and …”
“Boring?” Susan adds convinced about her choice of words.
She gets slapped against the elbow.
“No. Or yes. I don’t know. All I know is that I immediately thought about Alex. And you see, Alex does this to me. She has always done this to me. She sneaks up in my head and builds, like, a little nest inside of it.”
Her hands gather some of the napkins and papers spread across the table to rebuild an actual interpretation of a nest. Susan carefully watches.
“And then she waits until that exact perfect moment, when Christopher does something that used to be different with her and bam!”
Amy’s flat hand destroys the improvised nest with a firm slap, which makes the cutlery and plates bounce blatantly and scares Susan more than actually intended. Some waiters look their way, but Amy quickly apologizes for the noise.
“She pops up like it’s nothing. She imprints the memory of herself in my consciousness and stays there for the rest of the day. And while Christopher has done absolutely nothing wrong, she makes me believe he did. That bitch.”
Shaken up about the crazy vibe Amy’s sending out, Susan puts her hand on top of her friend’s: “You know she doesn’t actually do that, right? It’s your own mind that creates that vision of her.”
Amy throws her hands in front of her face and growls annoyed.
“God. I knew this would happen. He just drives me crazy by acting so indifferent sometimes. Like he’s not even interested in what’s going on inside of my head at the exact time I need him the most. And when I’m simply struggling with making a random decision about whether I should take the green paint or the blue paint, he nearly drags me to a therapist.”
“That’s a male thing. You should stick with girls if you want everything to be overanalyzed and have elaborate conversations about your periods.”
“Point is,” Amy raises her voice in an attempt to actually prove her point, “Alex was completely different. She knew me inside out. And I knew her, at least that’s what I thought. I knew that no matter what, she’d always make me laugh hardest. You know, the embarrassing, snoring kind. And I knew every twirl in her shinny hair, every freckle on her caramel skin, every spark in her beautiful eyes. She was gorgeous, breathtakingly gorgeous.”
Susan whistles softly and bites her lower lip: “Divine kind?”
Her friend picks up the soda and sighs like she’s sixteen and in love again.
“You have no idea.”
But then Amy gets sucked back to the moment with Christopher earlier on. It’s suddenly crystal clear why exactly she thought about Alex so intensively right after he didn’t say a thing to comfort her.
“She was the most beautiful when she was angry. Angry with me, actually, because she’d look straight into my eyes and the pureness of her rage, of her unchallenged fury, would bare her soul open for me to read. And that’s when I saw the simplicity of who she was exactly. The second we kissed, I knew it’d be like living a fairytale romance during a war. She is terrible, untamable, reckless, unpredictable, … But I always knew that at the end of the road, the bliss was worth the pain. I think I miss that.”
Susan, always ready to skip to the interesting subtext, throws in a question: “She’d get angry a lot?”
Memories find their long lost place back into Amy’s mind as she plays around with the soda in front of her.
“Not a lot. But when she did – man, she could burst like a volcano, you know? She’d get irrational and hysterical and crazy all at once. Sometimes she’d throw stuff at me or wipe an entire table clean in one sweep. Alex is nothing if not passionate. Even a fight had to be like going to war with her. Not the Cold War. World War Two or something.”
Surprisingly, that makes her smile. She misses those intense clashes. They were part of their relationship, it made it feel so very real.
“Did she ever hurt you during one of these fights?”
Amy points her eyes, colored a darker green than blue in this dark room, in Susan’s direction and shakes her head very convincingly: “Oh, God no. Never. That’s the one thing she’d never do, I guess. She’d break her favorite mirror or rip the head off her most beloved teddybear, but whenever she threw something my way, she made damn sure she’d miss.”
An amused grin accepts the explanation while she wanders of to a reality where Christopher gets totally forgotten.
“So, basically, you’re telling me that you rather have a psychotic girlfriend that torpedoes dangerous objects to your head instead of a perfect boyfriend?”
The two of them chuckle, and that allows the opportunity to not answer the question honestly. A short silence takes place where Amy shuts her green eyes to rationalize her feelings.
“We were young, we were foolish, we were overly emotional about a lot of things. Especially Alex. It runs in the family, though. Ochoa speciality.”
As a waiter cleans the table and throws that seemingly troubled blonde sitting in front of him a doubtful look, Susan nods. Love drama is her speciality. A boyfriend usually last a month, but man, does she have books to write about the stuff happening behind the scenes. After a couple of seconds, her eyes flare up to Amy, though. Like she just put the pieces of the puzzle together.
“Wait? Alex Ochoa? As in the Victoria Secret model?”
Amy nervously chuckles and has a drink. That’s when her previously strict exterior softens up, and her faint smile carries a spark of pride.
“Yeah, she might have been a model too.”
After a long day, filled with brutally honest lunches and a shitload of work, Amy decides to head home. The apartment where she lives is located at the East part of town. Christopher’s been renting it for years and briefly after they started dating, she received a key from her ever too kind boyfriend. Technically, she’s not officially a resident, but the lack of discussing boundaries has made her one. The room is decorated with pictures of them. Happy, smiling, looking into each other’s eyes. Amy sighs over the memories they bring along, the precious moments they’ve shared thus far. But nothing feels right or normal today. Not even the air in the apartment. Her fingers push the play button of the smartphone she put in the speakers a moment before, and a mild upbeat song starts playing. She needs to relax for a second. What better to do than cooking with wine? Maybe she’ll even add some of it to the food. She jumps into the sweatpants that hang over a chair around the dinner table and light-footedly makes her way over to the kitchen in search for possible ingredients. Cookies. She’s determined to bake some cookies. Her hips start wiggling to the sound of her favorite playlist. It’s fast enough to keep dancing, yet not too fast to get her exhausted. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs and chocolate chips. Check. Some bowl get filled with the edible goods, yet Amy can’t refrain from running up and down the speaker a couple of times to turn up the volume. It’s an old playlist she’s listening to. There a songs that originate from her teenage phase. Songs she used to dance her ass off to. Secretly, she still does.
The place is overcome with loud music vibes and a hard bass when she vividly starts dancing around the place.
The memory of Alex’s missed call keeps haunting the blond beauty and this isn’t helping. It takes her back to a time where careers weren’t even real yet, just a perfect future illusion. Dancing and having fun was important. Going out and getting drunk without being caught was amazing. How she would like to feel amazing again. The color of the chocolate faintly remind her of Alex’s caramel skin and for a second, she wonders if that’s racist. Then she gets caught into the music again. The song currently playing has been one of the many favorites she and her high school love shared. They’d put on their smoothest socks, pull up their pants and dance around the polished wooden floor at Alex’s house for hours. It was so much fun being around her. Exhausting as well, but that was okay. Because being with Alex was like flirting with a version of danger itself. It was like she was a roaring fire, and the only way to get to her was by getting burned. And guess what? Amy didn’t care. She never did. Not once. The burning part was addictive. Like the fighting she told Susan about earlier. It was terrible and loud and hurtful, but so worth it. It was just a thing they did, you see. Fighting in an expressive way did it for them.
Just like the dancing.
Amy throws her hands up in the air the second her dough is perfected and starts jumping up and down the couches in the nearby living room. She hasn’t felt this ridiculously young in ages and it’s liberating. Her voice screams the lyrics until it transcends the actual music while wiggling her butt sensationally to the rhythm. There’s nothing more beautiful than the joyous, carefree smile that lights up her entire face. One hand holds back the blonde, long locks of hair that dare to intrude her visibility and in her mind, Alex appears in front of her. For the first time in years, it doesn’t depress her. Not even a split second. She surprisingly jumps back in her past like nothing has happened. Nothing bad enough to destroy the perfect memory of her ex-girlfriend.
Out of nowhere, without any indication, the blustery music stops. All there’s left is silence and a confused Amy quickly turns around, positioned on top of the soft pillows of the couch. Her heart stops beating for a second. She finds a flabbergasted Christopher staring at her. He too, has finished work. He didn’t, however, expect to find his girlfriend hysterically singing and dancing on top of his furniture.
“You scared me to death,” Amy laughs, silently feeling guilty about the trip down memory lane she just experienced.
But Christopher smirks and watches her crawl off the couch in a hurry.
“You did too, with that dancing,” he points out.
She hesitantly smiles and runs some fingers through her hair, hoping it’ll look less wild than she imagines. He takes out his jacket and bends over to kiss her gently on the lips.
“What’s gotten into you? Baking cookies and dancing around the house like a kid, I’ve never seen you do anything like that before.”
But Amy finds a way to slide back into her alleged role as a decent girlfriend and shrugs: “The things I do when you’re not at home …”
She mysteriously winks and playfully pokes his shoulder. He seems rather unimpressed though. The blond woman wonders if he didn’t even consider, for a second, to jump on the couch with her. Just to dance off the stress from work and momentarily forget how much of a grown-up they are supposed to be. Something tells her he didn’t. Christopher’s just not that guy. Raised by a far descendant of a traditional Asian family, the core values of his strict ancestors tradition still linger in the roots of his behavior. He’s forty kinds of sweet and patient to the point that it annoys Amy about how long it takes before he picks a fight, but he’s also preserved and cautious. Not once will he take a risk at doing something thoughtless and that’s just as impressive as it is safe. But it’s also boring. And Amy forgot, along the way, how much she dislikes boring.
“How was work?” he asks interested.
His girlfriend shrugs once more: “Nothing special. It was busy. But I was a bit distracted, to be honest.”
He walks into the kitchen to discover the ravage of Amy’s momentarily act of spontaneity and sighs in a way to calm himself down.
“I’ll clean it up later,” she quickly promises after following his footsteps.
Her upper body leans into the doorway, where she remains staring at him. The young man reaches for a bottle of beer in the refrigerator. He offers her one as well, but she declines. The cap gets lifted off the glass and after taking a big draught of the cold beverage, he smiles.
“What were you distracted by?” he finally asks.
Amy’s surprised he even picks up on it. Normally, he avoids the serious things and questions the trivial details. Maybe she should tell him the truth. After all, she hasn’t done anything wrong. It’s just Alex, calling her. That used to be the most normal thing in the world.
“I got a phone call from an ex,” she informs him, slightly cutting off the edges of the story.
But something suddenly tells her not to mention the part about her freaking out about it.
“It – um – surprised me, that’s all.”
He remains annoyingly calm after hearing the words. All he does is poke the dough a few times with his index finger. She pushes him aside in a well-intended way and divides the mass over a buttered-up tray that’s about to disappear into the preheated oven.
Christopher has another sip and subsequently coughs.
“Did you pick up?” he wonders out loud.
Is this guy actually interested or just jealous? Amy can’t tell. She shakes her head, but refrains from looking at him: “No. I didn’t.”
Somehow, a fight will come from this. She feels it in her bones. These things always lead to massive fights.
But Christopher nods contently and smirks: “Good. That’s good.”
He walks over to her to kiss her left cheek and then walks away to sit down and watch the news, leaving this straightforward and emotional conversation before it even happened. Amy’s eyes stare at his indifference before she frowns, not sure if she should feel relieved or offended.
Well, that’s a way of solving things …