Part 2 of Love, Late
Claire has been in love with her childhood friend Noah since she knew what love was. When they started sleeping together, she thought it was the first step to everything she’d ever wanted. Noah ripped that illusion apart with a few well-chosen words, and she fled their friendship – and the city – to avoid the aftermath. Years later, as her relationship with another man grows serious, has Noah finally seen what he gave up?
Jenny managed to get her up off the couch by demanding that she make dinner for the two of them, if she was going to be leaving for London for god knows how long.
It sounded harsh, but Jenny knew what she was doing. The second Claire was in the kitchen, all of her sadness was, not erased, not anything that helpful, but it was softened. There was no room for anything but focus when she was cooking, the quick rhythm of chopping and the slow methodical reducing of the stock overwriting the jerky pounding of her heart.
By the time she was done, Jenny had managed to get her boyfriend Sam over there. The first thing he did was enfold Claire in an enormous hug, almost seven foot of man wrapping around her like an enormous teddy bear.
“Tell your brother,” he said as he pulled back. “He’d straighten Noah right out.”
“Yeah, on the floor.” That wasn’t what Claire wanted.
Sam gave an unabashed shrug that seemed to say he had no problem with that outcome.
The three of them had a nice dinner, with Jenny and Sam taking care of the conversation and being effusively complimentary about the food. Claire appreciated the effort, but she felt like her smile was paper-thin. When they retired to their bedroom, she laid back down on the couch and let herself think about Noah.
She remembered when they’d first met. She’d been a skinny little kid, hair like copper wire and freckles that seemed to sprout faster than she could apply sunscreen. He’d been a new face in elementary school, a lanky dark presence that she’d instantly thought was shy, and needed a friend.
Later, she realized that he was just a quiet kind of confident, even at that age having nothing to prove to anybody. But by then she was already attached to him, finding at last a boy that her brother couldn’t scare off. He’d helped her up trees and pushed her out of them, and she’d loved every minute of it.
She didn’t know when it had changed. Maybe when he’d eaten her cooking, even in the first year of high school when half her stuff came out burnt. Maybe when he’d taken her to prom when her jerk of an ex broke up with her. It had crept up on her, slow and easy as summer, until one day she’d just known. She loved him.
She’d been loving him for most of her life.
Rolling over, she buried her face in the back of the couch and finally let herself cry.
The next morning, she faced the new day dry-eyed. Jenny had obviously been busy spreading the news, because Claire’s friends dropped by in a steady stream, all coincidentally in the neighborhood.
Lori, whose own relationship was in a constant state of breakup-makeup, arrived already in tears. “I always knew he was no good,” she told Claire bitterly, patting her shoulder. “They’re all the same. They just want to get in and get out and get over you.“
She only stayed for a few minutes, leaving as soon as Len called with what sounded like an apology.
Jason, a better friend than an ex, dropped onto the couch next to her and grinned at her.
“Have you ever heard the old saying?” he said with a suggestive waggle of his eyebrows. “Nothing gets you over somebody like getting under somebody.”
Claire shoved him. “Oh, nice. Great to know that you’re here for me in my time of need.”
“Here for you, there for you, on top of you… honey, I’m all over it. Just put me where you want me.”
Claire laughed, and she could see by the relief in Jason’s smile that that was what he’d been aiming for.
“That’s more like it,” he said. “You know what they say—smile, and the world smiles with you. Cry, and I’ll go punch that loser in the nose.”
“Nobody says that,” Claire pointed out, still smiling. “Nobody has ever said that in the history of time. You’re the first.”
“Every saying has to start somewhere, and I think this one might catch on. I’m not the only one who wants to punch that dirtbag.”
“He’s not a dirtbag,” she said.
“Oh, honey. You’re in denial.”
“He’s not a dirtbag!” Claire said with more force. “It’s not like he treated me badly, he just… doesn’t want to be with me.” It sounded so trivial when she put it like that, but that was the truth, wasn’t it? He didn’t want her. And God, it hurt.
Jason looked patently unconvinced. “Uh huh. I’ve seen what not wanting looks like, and that’s not it. That jerkwad has been acting like you were the next best thing for just about forever. Hell, I practically had to ask him for your hand before he’d let me date you, and that was before you got breasts.”
When his eyes dropped meaningfully below her chin, Claire crossed her arms over her chest. “Give it up, you perv.”
“Can’t blame a guy for trying, right?”
Claire really couldn’t. Jason had no sense of timing—she’d seen him hit on a woman at a funeral. The sad part was that it had worked.
“Just… do me a favor?” he said.
“Sure. Anything that doesn’t involve nudity.”
“I know you’ll be going to London in what, three months?”
“Two.” She’d called that morning to see if it could be moved up, and the administrative manager of the school had been able to squeeze her in a month early. She’d have to spend the first month staying with three other girls in a two bedroom apartment.
“Two. Christ. Have you even packed?”
“Not a thing.”
Jason shook his head. “Okay, I know what we’re doing after this then. It’s going to be crazy when you’re in London—bright lights, big city—”
“That’s New York.”
He continued on without so much as a flicker, “—and after what he-who-shall-not-be-named did, maybe that’ll be good for you. So here’s the favor. Get out. Go to some clubs. Meet some guys. Hell, meet some girls, and if you do I want video. Just promise me you won’t spend the whole two years studying and cooking and thinking about him.”
That made her shift a little guiltily. Was Jason psychic? That had been pretty much her exact plan. From the look on his face, he knew it.
“…okay,” Claire said reluctantly. “I’ll go out. Promise.” She guessed that meant she should go ahead and pack more that just the super casual slacks she’d been planning on.
The first week went by in a storm of nerves. A hundred times, Claire picked up the phone to call Noah, and a hundred times she put it down. When she’d last seen him—hell, call it what it was, when he threw her out—he’d said that they would just go back to being friends. Long before they’d started sleeping together, she’d called her friend Noah every day. And every day she’d wished that he was more.
She didn’t call.
Neither did he, even when the news spread about her trip. Somehow, that made it more real. If Noah had meant what he said, if he really wanted to still be her friend, he would have called when he heard the news. He’d helped her prepare the application, after all, had stayed up long nights tasting the food she’d prepared for the video component. Since he hadn’t, it meant that she was getting the infamous Noah Fowler brushoff.
Claire had seen it in action before, aching a little inside when a gorgeous woman would plaster herself to Noah’s side and wind up leaving with him. But then, after a night or a week or month, it’d be over. And she’d see those same pretty faces crumple under the weight of Noah’s flat cold stare. He looked at them like they were nothing, and it made them feel like nothing.
She didn’t think she could survive it.
Instead, Claire threw herself into her packing and into spending as much time with her friends as she could manage. She had to quit her job, but her boss, Mitch, took her resignation from the diner with good grace and a huge hug.
“Come back anytime, your job’ll be waiting. But you be careful out there, y’hear?” he told her. “Pretty girl like you needs to watch yourself in the big city.”
“Mitch! I spent holidays with my father in LA for years, I think I can handle it.”
“Yeah, but that’s in America, right? God knows what they get up to in England.” For a moment, Mitch’s eyes gleamed as he pictured it.
Claire suspected that whatever he was imagining was more interesting than whatever she’d get up to.
It felt like time was starting to blur as her departure date got nearer. There seemed to be innumerable details to deal with, none of which she’d thought of and all of which needed to be handled immediately. She had to communicate with the girls she’d be staying with, help Jenny find a new roommate, and fend off her brother’s increasingly suspicious questions.
Luckily, her mother was her accomplice, shooing him away. “Stop badgering your sister, Alex,” she ordered him half-a-dozen times. “If she wants to talk to you, she’ll talk to you.”
And Alex would subside, not that Claire blamed him. She would have done the same thing. She looked at her mother across the kitchen table, seeing the much-loved face smiling back at her conspiratorially, and for the first time felt the length of time she’d be away stretch away in front of her like forever.
“I’ll write,” she blurted out. “And call. And you have to let Alex show you how to use Skype.”
Her mother shook her head. “I know you will, sweetie. And nobody needs to show me how to use Skype. How do you think I keep in touch with your aunts?”
Honestly, Claire had just assumed it was some kind of terrifying mind meld. Her mother and her two sisters were like the three witches of Macbeth when they got together; incomprehensible and not to be crossed.
That night, Claire settled back on the couch and realized that it had been almost two months since that night with Noah, probably the longest they’d ever gone without speaking. It wasn’t getting better, but it was getting easier. It was like learning how to live with a hole inside her, feeling round the edges of it until she knew it by heart.
“Remember our promise, okay? Have some fun!” Jason told her the day before she left. “And call me!”
“I will,” Claire said, and for the first time it didn’t sound like a lie.
The next day, she was standing at the boarding gate, her cheeks still wet from her mother’s kiss and her ribs still aching from her brother’s last hug. A voice came over the loudspeaker, and people began filing through.
Against her will, her heart was beating unsteadily in her chest. She couldn’t prevent her eyes from scanning the crowd, hoping against reason for Noah’s tall dark figure to appear. A thousand movies told her it would happen, that he would appear and sweep her up into his arms and… then what? What the hell would she do, not get on the plane? She had to get on the plane.
But it was a choice she didn’t have to make. The people filed by, and new people joined the crowd, but none of them were Noah. A few minutes later, Claire hoisted her bag over her should and stepped into the boarding tunnel. She didn’t look back back.