‘Lisa! Tall Macchiato for Lisa?!’
Standing at the coffee shop bar Lisa didn’t hear her name called by the barista. Her morning routine was the same day in day out; 7:45 bus to Piccadilly, tall Macchiato to go, a side of fruit toast and a final short walk to the office. It was boring but it was safe, comforting. Lisa liked comforting. Right now comforting wasn’t what Lisa was getting.
The red balloon drifted past the window, a stark crimson reminder of the gap in her heartbeat, a barely perceptible crack in the steady rhythm of her life but there none the less. Her breath caught as she reached for the counter to steady herself against the memories that flooded her, the world going silent with only the rush of blood ringing in her ears. She could normally keep the memories at bay but that innocuous red balloon breached the dam.
Time heals all. I always find that an odd expression. For me time only ever makes things more painful. The sting of rejection or betrayal remains with me. I hold onto grudges and pain like a comfort blanket made of thorns. It’s an unfortunate habit and one I have, so far in my 34 years, been unable to break.
I fell in love when I was 16 with a boy I thought would become my soul mate. He wasn’t your archetypal leading man, tall, dark and handsome, he had a mass of freckles on his arms and legs but only a few on his face and such a warm smile, he could make friends with anyone and my heart melted for him. He made me laugh so loud people would stare at us. We used to have our own little code that outsiders couldn’t fathom. We became best friends. He is the reason I love rugby and he is the reason I will never truly be happy.
We spent ten years drifting in and out of confessed love, never being quite in the same place at the right time but always being best friends, never wanting to be away from one another. There were times when he wanted to be with me but I was afraid of my feelings and then there were times when I knew that I wanted him but he was with someone else. But I always believed there is one person for everyone and he was mine, I was convinced.
I remember the first time we ever met. It was a bizarre meeting. We had gone swimming with some friends; they were new friends for me now that I was in the sixth form and hanging with the, ever so slightly, cooler kids. I remember being so happy and chilled that I guess the old adage came true, you look your most attractive when you’re relaxed and not looking for love. We spent hours in the deep end diving for rubber balls and jumping off the boards. It always makes me smile to think that on first seeing me he asked his friend ‘who’s the mermaid in the blue costume?’ I’ve never been described as a mermaid in my life. I was a slightly tubby teenager and wasn’t the greatest swimmer. He didn’t seem to care though. We became that awkward girlfriend and boyfriend that your first one always is. After six weeks and my first sloppy kiss – he broke my heart. And not for the last time either. You see the thing about Neil is he is a serial cheater. I say is and not was as he is still up to his old tricks now. This proved to be the first of many times he would stray from me and/or whoever he happened to be with at the time. A lot of firsts happened that year, my first boyfriend, my first kiss, my first heart break and his first taste of illicit pleasure.
I used to think that if I stayed nearby and became his shoulder to lean on that he would see what was before him and mend his ways. It’s such a stupid fairy-tale to wish for, fairy tales aren’t real; that’s why they’re called fairy-tales. But you don’t challenge the reality of what you dream for when you dream for it, it’s just all about what you want and I wanted him and a happily ever after.
Happily ever after. That’s another odd expression. Does anyone ever get one? I used to think so but after that day I’m not so sure anymore. That day started out like any other but ended in tears.
After years of silent heartache he called me that day and told me he had to talk to me. He needed me for something. My throat closed up a little. Dare I guess what he might need me for? I hadn’t really seen him for a few months as he had been working in London. He was a salesman and had been living the big life in the big smoke as his friends had been in stasis in the sticks.
I went to meet him in the same place we always met, next to the post box in the town square. It was like a portal to our own little world. Once we were together again it would be like old times surely, laughing and joshing and generally being daft. No-one could touch us when we were together, through the dry tears and the persistent pain in my chest I could smile, knowing that he could take away all that hurt with one hug.
My chest almost burst when I saw him. He always looked better looking each year; he was ageing well, very well indeed. He hugged me so hard I almost let myself think he wouldn’t want to let go. This was it for definite this time. His time away had made his heart grow fonder as they say and I was going to be the recipient of the love I could see behind his eyes. He looked at me and I held my breath.
‘I’m getting married!’
I was still holding my breath.
‘I need your expert girl’s eye to help me pick out the ring.’
Still I couldn’t seem to catch my breath.
‘Lis? Are you ok? Did you hear me right … I’m in love and I’m going to ask her to marry me!’
I remember vividly a small child running past with a red balloon shrieking with laughter and not a single care beyond him and his red balloon as I watched him in envy. There he was, about six years old, in his own little world where he could be anything he imagined. Maybe he was an astronaut and his red balloon was taking him up, up as far as the atmosphere could reach and then beyond into the great space filled with stars and wondrous worlds. Maybe he was a clown and he and his red balloon were performing a funny routine inside a giant striped big top with hundreds of laughing faces looking on. Or maybe he was just a little boy enjoying seeing the bright colour of that perfectly round red balloon amidst the grey stone of the pavement and buildings around him.
I looked back to Neil and plastered a huge grin on my face, I had become an expert at hiding the real me at times like this. My reality was almost more than I could bear and I wished more than anything that I could be six years old with a red balloon of my very own.
To me it was the most strained congratulation I had ever heard but to him he heard nothing, not really. He never really did with me other than what he wanted to hear. I hugged him again with a slight desperation. I didn’t want him to see the redness on my cheeks showing the effort I was putting in not to scream ‘NO!’ He picked me up and swung me round and I genuinely felt sick. Sick at the thought that everything I had dreamed of would never come true, it had never been true no matter how hard I had wished for it. My true love was not in fact my true love, he was someone else’s.
My soul mate was gone.
In that instance he vanished in the classic puff of smoke and all I could do was smile and try my hardest to be genuinely happy for my best friend.
In the time that has passed since that day I have come to realise that although my love for Neil will always feel like the strongest love I have ever felt and no man will ever live up to what I imagined him to be, he was in fact just a lothario with no thought for anyone but himself. If anything I feel even more lost now than when he left me behind. I know that my feelings were effectively nothing but smoke and mirrors but I cannot allow myself to shed them completely. I continue on in life with a feeling that I missed out on the most important part of my life. Never fully allowing myself to trust or love anyone else.
Family and friends always say to me ‘one day Lisa, one day it’ll be you walking down the aisle’ or something equally as nauseating. I know they’re trying to give me hope but it just stings me with bitter regret. I have always been envious of couples, wondering just how they managed to find their one and keep them when I couldn’t. Maybe I’m completely wrong and my one is still out there? My best friend gets married in 2 days to a man who is absolutely in love with her but I can’t imagine feeling that way about anyone anymore. What does ‘true love’ actually feel like…who knows?
One blink and the earth started turning again, voices chittering around the tables like sparrows, the barista shouts for ‘Lisa!’ Collecting her coffee she turns back to the window but the man with the red balloon is now out of sight around the corner.
Rebecca Bates April 2013