Melanie was a dull lump before she met me. A blur in the corner of the male eye. The kind of girl everyone forgets about, until they get a facial piercing.
She was nothing of note until I took her under my wing and educated her in the ways of persuasion. I told her it was okay to tell them what they wanted to hear, to feign interest in their bullshit hobbies as long you knew who you were when you came home that night.
Or indeed the next morning.
And she was a great student. She excelled underneath my careful teaching, blossoming from an also ran into a beacon of contagious energy, bursting with addictive conversation and ‘oh really, tell me more’ faces.
Because of me, she learnt to talk the khaki trousers off of any young man.
We met in halls on the first day of University. She was studying architecture. She wanted to make buildings.
‘What kinds of buildings,’ I asked.
‘All kinds Terri, all kinds. Buildings with curves and spikes and spirals and gargoyles and towers and windows and pillars and posts.’
I told her I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to write books.
‘What kind of books’ she asked,
‘All kinds Mel, all kinds. Books on heartbreak and despair and delight and mistakes and tension and ennui and betrayal and incest and blackmail and pirates and gold and and and…’ I trailed off, embarrassed at my own lack of cynicism. If I wanted to remain cool, I had to sound less sincere.
But she put her arm around me and told me it sounded great. Just great.
Melanie and I navigated the sticky awkwardness of University life together, and discovered who we were without the defined lines of parental boundaries.
And what did we loose together? Everything. What did we learn together? Everything. It was all tied up in a neat little box, filled to the brim with naivety and boob tubes and essays on post structuralism and too short fringes and blistered feet and heart crunching pain and nights spent passing a bottle back and forth on a park bench because neither of us had done it when we were meant to, when we were 13.
Our cup runneth over with memories, those faded vignettes no one else could touch.
Now she was married, now she sold buildings with balconies, and open plan kitchens and extensive basement cellars and Victorian revival décor and concertina doors and built in spice racks and now I wrote articles about ‘summer beauty regimes,’ and ‘breaking your own glass ceiling’ and ‘26 ways to wear a outdoor hat…. indoors.’
Now we reminded the other of how much we had changed, how the promises we made to ourselves as young adults had been compromised by the realism of adult life. We were not the world changers we thought we would be and when I looked at her, I saw crow’s feet and when she looked at me, she leant over and pulled out a single grey hair.
Damm Melanie, I had been saving that for someone I really loved.
We saw each other once a month and although we would shop, eat, or drink, the dynamics were not the same. It was awkward, slow, and filled with the lady doth protest too much moments of self-righteousness.
The path to true enlightenment had totally been the one we had taken, it was not an accident, and we had always meant to end up here.
Last year, when we went for afternoon tea, I spent the whole finger sandwich drenched bullshit meal drinking white wine and trying to get her to do the same.
Please Mel, just let me corrupt you for old times sake? Just one more time? please?
But she just kept asking what I thought of Dan, the work colleague she set me up with the previous week and so I told her he had a weak chin, wore too much aftershave and I had laughed at him for not knowing who Philip Roth was.
‘The problem with you Terri,’ she said, as she pointed a cucumber sandwich at my face, ‘is that you are a snob.’
‘No Mel,’ I replied. ‘I am not a snob; I just think some things have more cultural value then others,’ and I raised my glass of white wine and loudly declared. ‘Books over yachts!’
But Mel told me to shhhh and she folded her arms.
‘But you write features for women’s magazines? Where’s the cultural value in that?’ She said, raising an eyebrow.
‘Your right Mel. Sadly I have a talent for something I despise, but I guess it’s the same with you and real estate. We both sell lifestyles neither of us can afford nor believe in. In a way, we are both liars.’
And I held up my wine glass again, waiting for her to faux clink with me, but instead she told me she was pregnant.
‘Do you remember when you use to give out hand jobs at university parties like they were canapés, Mel? And how I would rub your hair afterwards as you rocked backwards and forwards in my arms, how I would tell you ‘No, you aren’t a slut, it’s just the patriarchal male trying to put a negative light on the idea of a women enjoying sex.’
Mel told me she didn’t remember.
As the bump grew, so did the unease, and a sense that the end was nearing. All our conversations were focused on the past.
Our new motto became ‘do you remember when?’
‘Mel, do you remember when you kissed Jason?’
‘Yes Terri, and do you remember when you slept with Fred?’
‘Yes Mel and do you remember when you failed your final year coursework?’
“Yes Terri, and do you remember when you edited that coursework for me, and replaced the word metaphysical with the word cunt?’
Oh, how I loved her disapproval the most, and boy did she disapprove of me now. I had backed out on our promise, a solemn vow made just before graduation that our children would play together. This bump was the line, and when her body expelled it, we would go our separate ways.
The last time I saw her she was eight months pregnant. She looked exhausted, her hands were like marshmallows, her cheeks were pale and her white t-shirt had a deep red stain on it. And yet, her eyes still lit up when she laughed, her frown was still the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and she was still the girl with the secret heart, which she wouldn’t share with just anyone.
We decided to go to an art gallery. Her tired body and my aching head had stilted our brunch, and our eggs had grown sad on their plates. I suggested an exhibition I didn’t really care about because it would be something to point at, to comment on, sometime we could both laugh at, and who knows, maybe something in it would make us fall in love again.
We walked around the white space and I laughed at the old woman who was giggling at an obscene painting, but she ignored me and said her ankles hurt. She kept looking at her watch. I told her how much I enjoyed walking around art galleries on my own, how I liked to pretend I was someone else, some kind of sexually elusive exchange student, maybe an intellect, maybe an idiot, who knew?
She said that sounded like a strange thing to do, and that she found these places depressing and felt sorry for the museum watchers, calling them the sad protectors of art.
I told her to try it. To imagine she were no longer a heavily pregnant real estate agent, but a radical architect seeking inspiration, the thing she had wanted to do most before circumstance took it away. I insisted, go on, just these two rooms, strike up a conversation with someone, indulge me, and see what happens. She laughed, and shook her head. I made a snide comment about how she used to be, you know, fun.
She relented, “and then we go?” she said. Fine, fine, I replied.
I watched her from my seat as she idly walked around, occasionally looking back at me for reassurance, something she never use to do. She never needed to know if she was doing it right.
I shrugged my shoulders at her, and she shot me a look of anger.
But the look belonged to a different time, aimed at me when I wanted to leave the party before she did, wasn’t so keen on the boy she liked, didn’t want to go to the pub with everyone else because I just wanted it to be the two of us again.
She took in a deep breath, readjusted her posture, and threw on a beaming smile, her self-consciousness melting away. She changed before me and, there! I saw my Melanie again, the one who could seduce a boy with a well timed glance, the one I encouraged to be someone else, someone I preferred.
She paused in front of a sculpture, her hands on her chin soaking in the angles, peering at the feet. She walked around, examining the wall-mounted explanation, two lovers entwined. She approached a dark haired man wearing a blue shirt, struck up a conversation by pointing at an interesting feature of the piece and then tilted her head back as she laughed at his response.
They spoke for a few minutes, gesticulating together, nodding in agreement, pointing at the other paintings in the room, and she seemed rapt, her element easy to find, and as they walked to another painting, she leaned closer and whispered something in his ear.
He pulled back abruptly, shot her a look of sad confusion and as he walked away, his head down, she watched his retreating back and then she began to shrink.
We left, her shoulders pulled down and her expression hard to gauge. She wouldn’t tell me what happened but she said felt unwell, she wanted to go home. Then she shook my hand, turned on her heel and she was gone.
Four months later she wrote me a letter. She told me she was worried about me, that maybe it was time I grew up.
‘You know Terri’ she said, ‘The only way to live in the past is to fall into a coma and awake with amnesia, having forgotten the last ten years of your life. But we have too much responsibility to do that.’