gardenia

I dreamed of you, last night. We were standing in the garden over the river, with the round wall that we sat on all those years ago, eating from lunchboxes. I could smell gardenias, knew bumblebees would be lurching about, drunk on the scent, and you were beside me, and we looked out.

The houses are huge, in this part of the city. Sprawling like oak roots over the banks, they stretch out like cats in the sun, all the way to the meadows, where the grass runs parched and gorse bushes reign. Did we go there as children? I can’t remember. I don’t think we did, I think we only went down to the river, with school, and school is how we would have been there together, that was the link that fused us.

I wonder, in the way that I have lately, in the loosened moments between asleep and awake, why that bond was ever enough to hurt me when it was cut. We were not friends in any context other than classrooms, strangers who smiled in the street, guilelessly when we were five-six-seven, bashfully when we were nine-ten-eleven, and then not at all, or mocking, or ashamed, I never could tell: your glasses frames hid your face too well.

Anyway, this is a dream and we are standing together, in the curve of stone above the river in the city where we grew up in classrooms together, and I say, ‘Why?’

I don’t know if it is before or after this that you begin to cry, but you do, and perhaps I am a better person in my dreams than I ever have been in flesh, walking silent behind you when others shouted, hiding in taciturn terror, telling myself I was justified in my hypocrisy. I must be better, because I put my arms around you, first round your back, then your head, because you are warm and crying and I want you to stop, I do not want you to hurt.

So we stand there, in the curve of the cusp of the city and the care of years falls away, the gardenia-smell is strong and you are alive and I am glad you are, and gladder still that so am I, heart a-thrum with a beat that I would never have learned without everything that came before. And I feel a tremendous sense of grace.

When I wake, I understand that I have forgiven you.

birth pains

Lillie and I walk home from school together. In the past six months she has undergone a staggered transformation: she has grown breasts, her hair is highlighted with careful swathes of gold. Every so often she will press a hand to her stomach at break-time, face pulled taut in exaggerated discomfort. “Oh, it’s that time of the month!” And the others of our group will cluck in knowledgeable sympathy, proffering tampons like batons.

I have yet to experience any time of the month. Time as it is has taken on a strange quality for me. At school it seems to stretch out immeasurably, like the elongated earholes of women in African tribes. I look at the clock, it is five minutes to three; I look back to my workbook, write about the metaphors in Romeo and Juliet, breathe deeply and slowly through Emily and Blaise’s whispering, the way that midwives on TV tell mothers to breathe through birth pains; look at the clock again. One minute has passed. It is only once I am safely out of the front gates, away from the crowds, from Lillie, from all lingering remnants of the day, that time regains its normal speed and I feel like am moving through air instead of treacle.

Today it is raining, so we are huddled together under Lillie’s starry umbrella. She gets most of the room, as the umbrella is hers and her hair frizzes in moisture, but I don’t much mind; I like to feel the droplets on my face, passing down through the corners of my eyes and continuing their journey warm, like tears.

Lillie says, “You ought to be friendlier to people.”

She has always said things like this throughout the trajectory of our friendship; her instincts veer towards what needs improving, in herself, in an outfit, in me. Lately, though, these comments have started to hold a more anxious weight. She has begun to realise that I, like the red on her lips or the colour in her hair, am an extension of her reputation. Though she never says that I am bringing it down, she doesn’t need to.

Every day it is more than implied.

I chew my lip, a bad habit that I have picked up over the past year, in the same way that Lillie has taken up painting her face, and say, “If they don’t like me now, I have no interest in being friends with them.”

There is a beat in which I watch my feet stamp the ground in their sensible black loafers. Tides of water spray out from around their tread. Lillie draws a breath, and I expect it to precede agreement; reassurance of my validity, of the others’ bad behaviour, followed perhaps by a mitigating “but”, which I have the option to ignore.

This doesn’t come.

Instead, she says, “You can’t have that attitude.” She says it regretfully, chidingly, as you would to a wayward child. I tear a strip of skin from my lip with my front teeth, taste blood, swallow it. Say nothing. I know that she will read this as agreement.

We walk on in silence and I watch the puddles form on the tarmac, cradling water as grey and hard as the stone lodged in my stomach.