"Sorry, about that." He rubs the back of his neck.
"You owe me an explanation."
"There's really nothing to explain."
"Oh, I have a list. Friends from New York City who all flew out to come to a house party? Honestly, who is this Gregor and why are people flocking to him like it's a fucking pilgrimage?" You don't expect it to come out quite as aggressively as it does.
He laughs. "What are you doing crashing someone's party?"
"No. I'm asking the questions. Hispanic heritage museum?"
He groans. "Can I have a cig before the interrogation please?" He glances longingly at the patio. "Do you mind?"
You didn't know he smoked. You don't let your surprise show as you trail behind him to the garden. He grabs the lighter and packet off the outdoor table and takes a drag so deep your lungs smoulder along with the end of his cigarette.
When did you start smoking? you don't ask. Too invasive. Too much like you know him, or worse, like you used to be friends.
"I went to visit Foy, in Los Angeles after I quit the design job I was telling you about." He takes another drag. "The product designer one. No, sorry, junior product designer." He makes a wry face. "Long time coming really. I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do my first week there. Ever experience that? It's a mind-fuck. I mean, this is what you went to school for, and you're competing with all these amazing portfolios, and you don't even want to be there. Anyway, I quit, and then I'm in L.A—that's when all this started," he gestures to his cigarette, "it's disgusting, but," he shrugs, "I was losing my mind there for a bit. Waking up and not having a purpose, like a stable 9–5, it's scary. And Foy and my dad... Anyway, I'm getting the hang of it now, finally. I did some freelancing once I got to New York for this company, UniDes. And then, Claes—I don't know if I've mentioned him, the art dealer who... Yeah, anyway, he invited me to a showing at his gallery. That's where I met Ricky and Erin, and the quiet girl, Miya."
"They're not really fans are they?" you ask when he takes another long drag.
"I'm getting to that."
"So it's a joke?" Of course. "Why would you do that? Why would you say something like that?"
"Wait, no. Maybe I exaggerated a little, but they really didn't believe it was you."
"Why would they? They've never seen me before. Erin certainly didn't seem like she liked me either, and Ricky—" you can hear yourself losing it, "with that whole 'Hispanic museum' schtick. Do you think I'd enjoy that? That, what, I'd feel flattered?" He used you like he was trying out a punchline to his inside joke on an outsider, all the while blushing like he couldn't believe you were gobbling it up.
"No. Wait. Sorry...I-I," his eyes fly shut like he's in agony, "I'm not doing this right."
"Doing what? What's this?"
"I haven't seen you in a year—" he breaks off, calming himself. When he starts again, it's slow, enunciated. "When I saw you standing there like that... I just... Would you have preferred me not to walk over to you?" He's asking something else with his eyes; something much larger, stealing all the air from your lungs. Then he says, "Carmen Amaya." Two words that pull the hurt and anger from under you leaving your heart levitating. "The reason Erin probably doesn't like you. The Hispanic heritage museum. I dragged them there and made them miss a really important auction."
"What does that have to do with me?"
He laughs, humourlessly, extinguishing his cig on the ashtray. "She's the most famous flamenco dancer."
"Yeah, I know."
"You mention her like every other sentence, and maybe... Maybe if we ever met like this again, we could have something to talk about other than," he looks anguished, "you know, you almost dying from molly I gave you." He swallows. "And they know. Of course, they know who you are."
"You went to a Carmen Amaya exhibition? In New York?" you ask.
"And you dragged your alt friends and made them miss an important auction. Friend that you had known for how long?" But you're smiling and he's fighting back laughter as he says, "A month give or take."
Something settles between you. Some unsaid thing too vast and fragile to acknowledge. And you did it because you knew she's my idol, you don't say.
"I bought a Blu-Ray DVD on her life as a souvenir and everything."
"Skipped the I-heart-N.Y.C tees and went straight to the Carmen Amaya merch. I'm impressed."
"Don't pretend like you wouldn't scoff and never speak to me if you saw me in one of those."
"Can't have that," he says, and then, much quieter, "How've you been?"
"I'm not with ballet anymore."
"I haven't seen Matilda in months."
"Do you miss it?" You're not sure what he's asking; the ballet, Matilda, or a time in your life when you were oblivious to how he died.
"A lot." You swallow, clearing your throat. "I have other projects in the works though. I went back to Spain for a short while, danced some Spanish folk dance, but it looks like I might be doing something more contemporary in the future."
"Are you staying?"
"It's not really up to me." He nods as if he understands but he doesn't. Not really. It's there, written all over his face. His hestitation. He opens his mouth, closes it.
"It would suck if you had a flight booked and weren't telling me." His words feel like bricks the way they sink. "Feels like something you would do, and it makes me want to do something foolish in return, like admit I've really missed you and if you're leaving you should tell me now." He doesn't say it like one, but there's something in his rueful smile that makes it sound a lot like a confession, and you think, of course, only someone like him would confess and leave it hanging like bait for the awkwardness.
He's so much braver than you. He is because there's no way your pride would've survived the ensuing silence—your silence.
"I haven't booked a flight yet." You don't know why you phrase it like that, or what it means, but you like the look of his blossoming smile. For once you can actually admit it without trying to cover it with something snarky about his immaturity. You like him. You like him despite everything. He opens his mouth, "There's this—" but is drowned out by the ringing from your pocket.
"Fuck, the alarm." You take one look at him realising he has no idea what's going on. "It's...it's stupid. Short version: time's up and I need to let Tara know," guilty you add, "if we don't leave she'll miss her flight."
"It's okay, I wasn't planning on staying much longer anyway. Do you have a ride? I could drop you off if you'd like."
"You're driving? Are you sure you're sober enough for that? What about your friends?"
"Yes. And don't worry about them, they'll be safe."
"Honestly..." you start, not wanting to feel indebted to him, simultaneously struggling with the newfound realisation of liking him liking him. He's looking at you expectantly. Hopefully. "If it's not too big of an inconvenience," you say, caving.
"It's not. Go find Tara. I'll meet you out front."
For the briefest moment, however ridiculous the impulse, you think of grabbing Tara and bolting out the backdoor as soon as you're out of his sight. A part of you is screaming: you're not actually entertaining the idea of there being anything between you two, are you? He's dead. You died along with him on that field in Oxfordshire.
How do you explain it then?
Nothing happened. It was just a bad trip.
Your hand is shaking as you place it on Tara's shoulder. You lean over and whisper something that never makes it to your ears. She follows you, talking animatedly, but you barely register her, pressed up against you in the crammed hallway as you make your way outside.
What's come over you?
You're at a crossroads. The realisation happens slowly and then all at once as you catch sight of him, seated on the bonnet of his black Volvo.
"Is that him?" Tara asks and you nod but deep inside you're thinking: this is the moment. This is the moment you choose between forgoing everything your grandmother taught you, to instead carve your own path with a boy—not dead, not emitting shadows and noises—but this boy right here, who despite himself can't hide his happiness at seeing you. Who indulges Tara's thousand-miles-an-hour gushing about the guy at the party and doesn't so much come close to vexed when she asks, "mind if I put on something?" and turns the volume to the highest setting.
You know it in your heart of hearts you could come to love him. This boy. As he is now. That if you try hard enough, you could become functional enough for him, for the both of you. Leaning back in the passenger seat, feeling his gaze on you as he waits out one red light after the other, you'll tell yourself the shadows aren't real. And when they fight you for their truth, pulling you into the sounds of the car crash that killed him, you'll close your eyes and try your goddamn hardest to convince yourself of the fact.
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