This Wretched Heart

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'Hold on to the thread, the currents will shift'

Oceans by Pearl Jam


He had been disappointed when she cancelled their second run. She was probably just being polite the first time, he cringed. He had practically hunted her down for God’s sake. He tried to put the whole thing out of his mind by focusing on his writing. She had text him two weeks later and explained that she had been extremely busy with various projects. He took this at face value and hoped that they could now resume where they left off. He couldn’t explain the curiosity he felt about this woman. He felt compelled and drawn to her and he wondered did she feel the same?

As the months passed and they became regular running partners their chats at the end became longer and more familiar. Her gentle quirks and traits were becoming decipherable by him. She rubbed her clavicle when she was uncomfortable with a conversation which, he had observed, was usually when he quizzed her about her relationship. At first simple questions about her husband seemed to startle as if she wondered why he was asking her but eventually he became part of their chats. .Maybe his curiosity was unusual but Peter was her husband so he wasn’t going to pretend he didn’t exist. He couldn’t even explain to his own conscience what he was trying to achieve by befriending her. He wasn’t intentionally flirting with her but something about her smile made him want to impress her. She was married he had to keep telling himself. It would go against his list of morals which albeit short and basic and contained the usual smatter of ‘thou shalt not kill’ rules, also meant that he would never before pursue a woman who was already taken. This wasn’t completely altruistic in nature but coated in an element of self-preservation, reinforced regularly by his Mother’s propensity for gossip about the never ending messes adultery created.

’I don’t know why she’s surprised ’she had directed the rhetorical to Sam and his father.

‘Of course he’s cheating on her!’

‘Now Maggie you know that’s not true of every man.’ His father had scolded ‘It’s not fair to generalise’

‘Well no sorry that’s not what I meant.’ She patted his hand ‘It’s that they got together that way.’

Sam was curious.

‘What do you mean Mum?’

‘Well Helen was the other woman initially and now she thinks Freddie is cheating on her with a younger version, which by the way, he is!’

She gazed mournfully at the Iranian rug adorning the floor.

‘Poor Helen. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that what goes around comes around.’

Sam realised that regardless of how he felt for a woman there would be no point upsetting everything for one night in bed. Anything else would mean that eventually he would be cheated on. Either way it wasn’t worth the grief or potential black eye. Although he was attracted to Lara he was satisfied to keep it platonic. He was happy just to basque in her company, as pathetic as that made him feel. But then she would walk towards him demurely, her delicate perfume reaching his nose, her smile lighting up the world and he would feel his resolve – dissolve. He would then asked himself was she truly happy with Peter? Why would she spend so much time with him? Her eyes however would twinkle when she spoke about him and stop his foolishness. He found it very disconcerting when she compared them to one another, something she did quite often.

‘Oh Peter is the same’ She would enthuse. ‘He hates it when girls dress like that too!’

She would say these things and at the same time he would sense a flirtation going on between them. Maybe he was reading into it too much and what he saw as flirting was just her being friendly. God forbid he become one of those guys who thought every friendly female wanted to jump their bones.

This particular day, was a sunny warm surprise following a long bout of grey. They were both sitting in a clearing they had found in the woods, the stillness disturbed only by the underlying hum of the food fair at the other end of the park. They had arrived for their jog earlier than usual. It was a bank holiday weekend but Peter was working so Lara had suggested they meet. He had nothing on that he couldn’t move around. He had been out the night before on a late one and was still slightly hung over. He was relieved in fact as they entered the park to be able to suggest that they forgo their usual routine and grab a bite instead. He was also glad of the opportunity to finally have a proper conversation with the conundrum that was Lara instead of snatched chats at the gate.

The smell of smoky barbecue and sizzling curries had helped his cause as she admitted sheepishly that she had skipped lunch that day being too lazy and tired to make it. They had wandered around the stalls, tempted by everything from Pretzel stands to aromatic tea tents where streams of rose and chocolate vapours, beckoned. Lara had literally pranced about like a child, eager to see everything and try all of the varying free samples on offer. Sampling some tea she had looked up at him suddenly with a smile that offered both gratitude for his suggestion and what he hoped, was happiness at experiencing it with her.

‘Peter would absolutely love this!’ She ran to grab him a bag of the tea mix.

They found a quiet spot away from the screaming children so that the hustle and clamour of a moment ago was now a pleasant soothing murmur. It brought him back to the kind of calm he used to feel as a child when his parents would have people over and he was allowed fall asleep on the couch to the sound of their conversations. He loved those evenings. His parents would put aside their usual routine of making themselves sit and have dinner at the table and he would instead be allowed grab a plate of various nibbles some of which his mother had prepared and others from the caterer they had hired in for the evening. He had used their strange behaviour those evenings to his advantage and would get away with sitting up way past his bedtime and watching highly unsuitable films. They would both mince their way over to him at infrequent periods throughout the evening and kiss him over zealously or scold him half-heartedly for being up so late before waddling back to their friends who were behaving less and less like the civilised adults who had entered the house earlier.

His memories were zapped away when Lara’s arm brushed his leg as she reached over to grab a cinnamon bun from the paper bag behind him. He tried not to stare at how beautiful she looked surrounded by the green hues of the enclosing trees. She reminded him of pictures of a fairy queen surrounded by magic creatures dancing and playing lutes. This must make him her fawn. He winced at the image.

She was sipping on her coffee; her legs were crossed in front of her. The black leggings she wore stopped at her calves revealing near-translucent, porcelain skin. He tried to fathom what she would look like with a tan. She had kicked off her runners and socks and he noticed that her red toe-nails didn’t match the black lacquer of her hands. There was a pretzel resting on her knee which she seemed self-conscious eating in front of him as she made tiny mouse-like inroads into the shiny morsels. He must have been staring because her expression altered from Zen-like to slightly uncomfortable. A red dot formed on her neck where her fingers dabbed. Quickly, he averted his gaze and snatched up the packet of home baked cookies he had insisted on buying her along with the buns and an assortment of savoury pretzels. He let her pay for the drinks because otherwise it felt like he thought they were on a date. When he looked back, her eyes were closed, the light casting pretty patterns on her face.

‘What are you most afraid of?’ He didn’t know what made him ask but all of a sudden he felt he had so little time to get to know her properly. He had all these questions that he gone through with her in his head. He had daydreamed how they would have big philosophical debates and how he would impress her with the original questions and his quirky way of asking them. As soon as he said it though he realised it sounded lame and straight off a movie set. Granted they had been meeting twice a week now for months and although they had chatted about lots of things, they had up until now kept it at banter level. This question was too personal and she would probably avoid it by saying something like ‘spiders’ or ‘mice’.

‘Avoiding things because I’m afraid of the consequences’ maybe not. Her eyes welled up. He knew what she meant. He felt that way too and couldn’t fail to see the irony that he was scared of delving any further. He nodded and gulped and she must have been glad that he didn’t pursue it because she quickly asked him the same question. In daydream land he would have answered with...

‘I’m most frightened of admitting how I really feel about you. I’m scared that I can’t seem to put a stop to seeing you even though I know you will never have me’.

Instead and also true,

‘I don’t want to keep drifting the way I am. I don’t want to end up being the forty year old who still lives with his parents!’

She giggled at his grin. Her tears stopped in their tracks and she took a big bite from her pretzel.

He had opened the gate it seemed because she suggested coffee following their next run together. They sat indoors this time because the chill was back in the air. They had the place to themselves except for a sullen looking teenage boy who had served them but now stood outside the door smoking cigarettes. She took ages to decide what she wanted, a quality which he had found completely irritating in other people but somehow seemed completely unpretentious in Lara... He had noted previously that every little thing Lara did was somehow momentous. She looked forward to and savoured a coffee the way someone might plan a holiday. It seemed that the wrong decision, even at beverage level, could alter the course of her life forever. So when she finally decided on a Chai latte, he felt that somehow everything was happening as it was supposed to. The way her fingers were wrapped around the mug and her tiny tongue was licking the foam was making his mind go places it shouldn’t.

‘Peter would never allow that.’

He jumped.

‘What’s that? ’

‘The boy smoking outside the premises.’ She nudged her head towards the door. ‘He makes the waiters all go out the back because he thinks it looks unprofessional.’

She must have thought he thought this was over the top because she hastily added

‘They have a covered and heated shelter of course!’

He smiled at her mistake.

‘I was just thinking that you’re Peter sounds like he has a good head on his shoulders’ He cringed inwardly at what sounded patronising. It wasn’t as if he could be accused of being ‘Mr. Sensible’.

He regretted his comment immediately. Shit shit shit this was exactly what he had been avoiding. He knew what would happen if he said that kind of thing. Lara herself blushed slightly looked uncertain but then smiled.

‘Do you know what? You two would get on really well’. The urge to stop his ears like a child and chant inanely, came over him.

‘You should come over for dinner some evening to meet him.’

Fuck fuck triple fuck that’s exactly what he had hoped to avoid. Although he knew that the probability of anything happening between them was slim to none existent, he had to admit that at the very back of his mind, lurked the tiniest hint of potential and expectation. His fantasies had evolved from purely sexual to more complex and realistic. The romping in the park had become the scene of a gentle kiss brought on, after Lara had a row with Peter now seeking comfort from her now good friend. The passionate embrace after a long jog heightened by the endorphins had evolved to a discussion about not hurting Peter. These were all longings that Sam could safely and comfortably imagine while the picture of this ‘Peter’ guy was safely tucked away at home or at work in the land that he did not belong to. Now though he knew these would have to stop. He knew himself and he would not feel right imagining kissing another guy’s bird especially if he had met the guy and worse, liked him. He couldn’t however come up with a valid excuse on the spot didn’t want to hurt her feelings or reveal his own. He had to agree to dinner at her house the following Friday.

‘Super. I’ll ask Peter to cook his famous Duck a L’orange.’

‘Great’, he thought. ‘Super-duper’.

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