I noticed the perfume at first.
Something familiar that I couldn’t quite place. A pang for something lost.
Even though I held the hands of my son and daughter on either side and my wife walked the dog a pace behind, I felt suddenly and painfully alone.
My eyes scanned for the source of the scent as my heart rate sped up. I took deeper breaths as my body readied itself to flee.
A woman stepped out of an open car door. She had her back towards us, her long, curly hair hid her face. She began to turn.
The scent and movement were pattern matched together, as my higher brain functions finally solved the puzzle. It was way behind what my animal brain already knew.
It was her.
No surprise that I wanted to run.
Keep going, I told myself as I squeezed my kids hands tighter. Don’t look.
She completed her turn as we drew alongside and her eyes focused on my face: they were the same violet shade, topped with the same heavy lids. She was my first love, and the first to break my heart.
That fleeting look was enough to hollow me out. Remembrance burst inside my shell, the explosion as destructive now as it had been then. On the street with my family, in broad daylight, I remembered being inside her, twitching with my final spasms, our bodies stuck together with sweat.
“We can’t do this any more,” she whispered into my ear.
I lifted my head from her shoulder and stared at her violet eyes. “What?”
“I don’t love you.”
I thought that I was safe, I thought our bond was shared, something real. I thought that I was loved. I hid my face between her breasts and couldn’t stop the tears. My shrivelled penis slipped out along with a dribble of ejaculate.
After she had gone, and I lay in my bed with the smell of her perfume underlaid by the smell of our sex, I came to the realisation, way too late, that I had been used.
I had been there for her, a friendly face, a caring smile, a willing ear. She had used me as a foil against the bastard who had mistreated and betrayed her. Back then, I had gathered what little courage I had and professed my desire and growing feelings for her. She took my attention and tenderness and used it to dissolve the hard callouses of her hurt that she’d been unable to slough off in any other way. All that we had, all that we’d been and all that we’d done together was nothing more than a way for her to work through her pain and trauma.
Everything had been a lie and I felt nothing but pain and shame.
I had assumed she had loved me but she’d never said as much. I had assumed she felt the same way I did. Her feelings for me were only in my head and were reflections of my own. Now I knew, deep down, what I had always known: that it was all too good to be true. Why else would my first reaction be tears? I had convinced myself that I had finally found what I had always wanted, always needed. Is it any wonder that I should think that it was real? It wasn’t a matter of belief to me, it was a matter of certainty.
But now, with my certainty shattered, I had no option but to doubt everything.
Had our time together been anything more than a transaction? She had given me a girlfriend, a sense of worth, sex and happiness, and in return she had received what it felt like to be loved and treated with decency. Was it always going to end after she had healed enough that she no longer needed me? What was so unsatisfactory about my love that was so easy to cast aside when she was done with it? How could I compete with her ex who was taller than me, better looking than me, treated her worse than me, and who probably had a bigger dick? As far as she was concerned I had nothing more to give, and she had given what she thought I wanted in return.
The following morning the phone rang and my heart leapt to think that it might be her. I couldn’t leave it ringing with the possibility that I might never talk to her again.
“Hello?” I hated how utterly small and needy I felt.
“I’m sorry,” she said. No preamble, no hello-its-me. “That was a shitty thing to do.”
My heart raced, my smile a mile wide. Maybe it had all been a terrible mistake. Maybe she had realised that she was better off with me, not him. That I was the one that could give her what she really needed. “You’re sorry?” I wanted to tell her I forgave her.
“I felt so guilty. But I couldn’t talk to you. I called him.”
My heart stopped. My face froze. We can’t do this any more.
“He asked me to come round.”
“Did you go?” Please tell me no.
I could hear her breathing. “Yeah.” I don’t love you.
That manipulative bastard would do anything. “He did?”
“Yeah. We talked and talked. I’d never have been there without you.”
She had never loved me. It was always him. I wanted to tell her to please hang up and stop talking to me. But my mouth kept talking, “Are you okay?”
I don’t think she heard me. “Do you think it was a mistake? He was so there. I think it might have been too soon.”
Did she really have no idea just how deep her words stabbed me? How they made me bleed?
What if lightning could strike twice? What if I kept giving her the part of me that had attracted her in the first place? Perhaps she would give me what I wanted in return. Maybe she would call back in the future, heartbroken, and realise she had been wrong, apologise, and ask me to come round.
And I would go. Without a second thought.
“It must have felt right to you,” I said.
Was that a swallow? A sigh of relief? “I don’t know why you’re so nice to me,” she said.
Because I love you. “Well, because you deserve it.”
I heard a male voice ask something in the background. She must have turned away from the mouthpiece as I heard her say a muffled and quiet “Nobody.” Then her voice was back at full volume. “Gotta go. Thanks, um, bye then.”
Those were the last words she said to me.
I didn’t know how to process the fact that she had gone from my bed straight into his. I couldn’t cope being in the flat by myself with that knowledge and with those feelings. I had to get out, go for a walk, do something. Once I was on the move I realised that it didn’t help. I continued to go over and over in my head all our conversations, each intimate look and touch, as I tried to understand what was fake and what might have been real. What could I have done differently that might have led to a different outcome?
I walked and took turns at random. I found myself on a street that I’d never been to before. Trees lined the road, the houses were set back behind well kept gardens.
I stepped over a tree root poking up through the pavement and looked up a gravel driveway.
Standing there was a fox. Its head was turned towards me, its nose twitched. I’d never been this close to a fox before. Its large triangular ears and brown eyes were both aimed at me. Its bushy tail was held out behind it.
Without haste, seeing me as no threat, the fox turned and crossed the driveway and disappeared into a hedge.
I walked home thinking of the hidden things. Of the things we never see when we navigate our rutted circles, day-in and day-out, unaware that our habits and routines never allow us to see or meet something new and unpredictable. That this chance meeting with an urban fox, brought about by my inability to cope with a broken heart, would never have happened if I’d never met her. It made me think of the currents of belief and artifice that circulate in our heads, of the masks we wear, and the narratives we invent for ourselves, that we re-tell ourselves over and over until we can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is memory. We can’t tell the difference between what is love and what is pity, what is desire and what is a sense of duty.
I was a self-deluded idiot. I had been all used up and now I was alone again.
But foxes live among us, for the most part hidden and unseen. Sometimes things that might never happen continue to happen, regardless. Later, at home, I cried myself to sleep as I knew I would. I cried those tears full in the knowledge that no matter what, my love had been real.
Real to me.
That had to be better than the loneliness and desperate desire for connection that had preceded it.
Had to be.
And here I was, in the now, staring into her eyes, if only for a fraction of a moment.
Her face showed no recognition and her eyes slid off my face and across the street, searching for something else. She found it, and smiled. Her smile had not dimmed in the slightest. The old me, he might have been tempted to reach out. To turn her face towards his so that the full force of her love might shine upon him, that her eyes might look into his and mend the cracked heart that she had created, refill it with all the love that he felt that he deserved from her.
But that was fantasy. Nothing more than a dream of a hurt and lonely past.
That smile was not for me now, and it had never been for the old me. Her love would never have been able to fill his heart no matter how much he wished for it because she never had any love for him to begin with.
My heart broke again, along the same fault line. The pain was old, but felt just as deeply. I knew it was all in my head, a fabrication mixed with remembered feelings. I knew, had long known, that I didn’t want or need her brand of transactional, surface affection.
As the hurt subsided, I was glad. The emotional scar tissue had been washed away, and a heavy regret that I had thought was long gone was finally let go.
I squeezed the small hands in mine, breathed out, turned to find my wife smiling at me.
There was so much accreted love and affection in her blue eyes. They were full of the history of our relationship: packed with sharing and care and adversity. They were full of the kind of feeling that can only be built, layer upon layer, bit by bit, over time.
I remembered when we met, and how I knew that I had found the connection that I had craved. As we built our mutual affection together, there was never any doubt that our relationship was real, or that my feelings were reciprocated.
I smiled back, and poured as much feeling into our eye contact as I could.
I held nothing back, and with that shadow on my heart gone, it felt better than ever.