“How are you doing?”
The playlist playing on the jukebox at Brody’s is full of upbeat dance tunes, and the mood in the pub is celebratory. I’m doing my best to drum up some smiles and fake some enthusiasm at Dylan’s farewell party, but it’s clear Kara isn’t buying it.
Dylan has spent the entire time circulating and talking to everyone, laughing loudly and listening to people tell their own travelling stories. Aside from greeting me when I first walked through the door and looking over at me occasionally, he’s barely spent any time with me at all.
Maybe he’s dreading saying goodbye as much as I am, or maybe he just hasn’t gotten around to having a drink with me tonight. Whatever his reasons are for practically ignoring me, I know Dylan would be disappointed if I left before the night was over. Even if waiting for a minute of his time before Austin drives him to the airport feels like waiting for the end of the world, I can’t walk out the door yet.
“I’m fine,” I say.
The giant knot of barbed wire sitting in my gut says otherwise, and so does the grief sitting there, waiting for the right time to make itself known, but now isn’t the time. Especially with my brother in the room.
Kara rolls her eyes. “Sure you are.”
I don’t bother contradicting her. In the end, I don’t even need to distract my friend from her line of questioning because Austin starts dancing to one of the eighties tracks playing on the jukebox and Kara can’t seem to tear her eyes away from him.
“I should be asking if you’re okay.”
Kara whips her head around to look at me. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Why do you think?” I look pointedly at my brother.
“What, you mean Austin?” Kara’s laugh sounds forced. “I don’t know why you’d think his dating someone would bother me. I’m dating Gary and I’m happy. You know, I’m actually thinking he could be the man to tame me. I’m really happy with him”
“Sure you are.”
I smile to soften the sarcastic words I’ve just repeated back to my friend, but Kara looks fired up anyway. “I don’t know why you don’t like Gary. He’s everything you’d normally look for in a guy. I found my own version of your list.”
“Yeah, well, maybe the list isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Besides, you’re the one who told me my list sucked.”
And yes, I also don’t like Gary. Not that I’ve ever come right out and said that in so many words. I didn’t need to. When Kara asked me straight out what I thought of the guy, I was as tactful as I could be about the smarmy guy who seems…a little off in my opinion. Turns out, Kara saw through my bullshit and hasn’t really forgiven me for not seeing all of Gary’s “good points.”
It’s always a difficult position to be in, not liking a friend’s boyfriend. For the first time, I realise how my friends might have felt when I dated those guys who ticked all the boxes on my list but didn’t really make me happy.
“Well, I may have been wrong about your list,” Kara returns.
I shake my head. “Now you tell me.”
“I’m beginning to see the validity of knowing what you want and going for it.”
“Are you sure what you want isn’t Austin?”
The slightly stricken look on Kara’s face is masked so quickly that I might have thought I’d imagined it if I didn’t know my friend better.
“Claire, I know you had some stupid idea about me ending up with Austin, but seriously, it’s never going to happen.”
“Aw, Kara, you can’t mean that.” Kara turns around to glare at Austin, who’s just appeared at our table. “We would have been awesome together.”
“We would have been a disaster.”
He grins as he takes the seat next to Kara, pulling on her ponytail gently. “Nah, you don’t really believe that.”
“Please don’t tell me what I do and don’t believe, Austin.”
Austin holds up his hands in surrender. “Okay. We would have been a disaster, just like you said.”
Instead of being placated, Kara just looks infuriated. “I don’t even know why we’re talking about this.”
“Agreed. I’ve asked you out enough times and been rejected to not come back for more. Lucky for me, one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. If you’d actually agreed to go out with me, I wouldn’t be dating a movie star right now.”
I stare at Kara. I had no idea Austin had asked out my best friend and been rejected. Why did Kara say no?
And why did she look so cut up and grief-stricken over the mention of Austin’s new girlfriend if she really wasn’t into Austin?
Kara refuses to look at me, instead keeping her eyes glued to some point over Austin’s shoulder. “I’m happy for you, Austin.”
Perhaps her words are meant to be a peace offering, but they sound so full of pain and despair, I hurt for my friend.
“Good,” Austin says softly. “Maybe now that romance is completely out of the equation, we can be friends.”
A small noise is ripped from Kara’s throat, one that sounds suspiciously like a whimper. “Friends, yes, that sounds good.”
Austin chuckles, tugging softly on Kara’s long ponytail again before letting his hand trail down her back, causing Kara to shiver.
I watch my brother stand up, turning his attention from Kara to me.
“You doing okay?” he asks.
“Of course. You and Kara keep asking me that, but I’m fine. Absolutely fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because he’s leaving, Claire, and I know how attached you were to him before you two started…got together.”
I want to deny having any attachment to Dylan before I started hitting the sheets with him, but I’ve deluded myself and tried to fool everyone around me since I was sixteen and Dylan turned me down for a date. The only person I ever succeeded in convincing was myself. Unfortunately, all illusions that Dylan is nothing more than a pain in my butt are now gone.
And now I am never going to be able to convince myself he means nothing to me.
“You should get out of here. It can’t be easy watching him say goodbye to everyone, preparing to leave.”
“But I haven’t said goodbye to him yet.”
Austin nods. “Then maybe it’s time you do that.”
Say goodbye and then let go is what Austin really means. Move on.
My brother gives me one last look full of sympathy before walking away, unaware I’ll never be able to move on. My breath stutters at the thought no one can possibly compete with Dylan once he’s gone. No one can possibly come close to making me feel the things I’ve felt with him. How can they when he’s the only man I’ve ever wanted? The only man I’ve ever really loved?
“Oh God,” I whisper, looking over at the man I’ve been crazy about since I was sixteen.
I can’t work out if I’m going to hyperventilate or have a heart attack first. While Dylan remains standing there, laughing with Mike and Sam, my whole world explodes and crumbles around her.
“What’s wrong?” Kara asks, moving closer. “You’re awfully pale all of a sudden.”
“I’m in love with him.”
The pitying look Kara gives me is excruciating. Of course, Kara tried to tell me this before, but I didn’t listen.
Even when I thought I’d stopped deluding myself, I’d still wrapped myself in a layer of self-deception.
“Please don’t say, I told you so.”
“I’m not going to say it. Instead, I’m going to get you a drink.”
“I don’t need one. I think I need to go home.”
I didn’t want to leave before the night was over, but Dylan will forgive me. And if he doesn’t…well, it won’t change anything, will it?
“I’ll get you a shot of something fierce. You’ll drink it, say goodbye and then I’ll drive you home.”
Not having any energy left to argue, I merely nod. “Thanks.”
Tori and Danni didn’t come tonight, and Kara didn’t bring her new boyfriend with her, which means that as soon as I say goodbye to Dylan I can just leave.
And then I suppose I’ll count down the number of hours he has left in the country.
I hunch over from the pain that thought causes me. The sooner I’m out of here, the better.
I look up to see Kara standing there over me, a shot glass in hand. My friend hands me the glass. “Drink.”
“What is it?”
“Something strong enough to get you through the next few minutes. And when we get home, I’ll pour you something else.”
My hand shakes slightly as I lift the glass to my lips and then throw back the shot. Whiskey. I cough after swallowing.
“Now, turn those nerves into steel and tell him goodbye.”
It’s easier said than done, but it needs to be done.
Visualising the whiskey turning my nerves to steel, I walk up to the only man I’ve ever loved and tap him on the shoulder.
He spins around, a tight smile on his face as his gaze settles on me. “Hey.”
“Hey. I’m going to go. Kara’s going to take me home.”
Surprise flickers across his features, followed by a frown. “You’re leaving?”
“I know technically this shindig will go until you leave for the airport, but I…I’m tired.”
Considering how much sex we had last night compared to sleep, he probably is, too. But he’ll fly to New Zealand tonight, and then he’ll have a few days to settle in and relax before he actually starts working.
His frown deepens and he addresses the guys. “Can you excuse me a sec?” He puts his arm around me and we walk a few feet away, nodding at everyone who speaks to him, but not engaging them in conversation.
When we come to a stop, he faces me. “I thought you might want to come to the airport with me.”
Hurt flashes in his gaze. “Why not?”
Because I love him. Because I don’t want to watch him walk away and go for however long he decides to stay gone for.
Because it’s going to break me to think about what I’m giving up.
The only thing that stops me from begging him to stay is knowing that if he stays he won’t be happy with me. He wants the freedom to travel and explore. Giving me the white picket fence and family I’ve always dreamed of would equate to miserable stagnation for Dylan.
How unfair is that? He’s the one person I’ve fallen in love with after years and years of dating, and the one person too different to make a relationship work with.
“I can’t watch you go, Dylan. I can’t.”
He must hear the anguish in my voice because his arms wrap around me tightly and he whispers in my ear. “I wish you were coming, but I understand.” He pulls away and I look up at him. “You being there might make it impossible to get on the plane.”
“See, then it’s better for both of us if I’m not there.”
He nods. “Let me just get something and then I’ll walk you out.”
I signal to Kara that I’m ready to go, and once Dylan returns from wherever he disappeared to, the three of us walk out of the pub together in silence.
“Well, I’ll leave you two kids to say your goodbyes.” Kara steps forward and hugs Dylan, giving him a kiss on the cheek. “Have a safe trip and enjoy every moment.”
“Get on Facebook so I can live vicariously through you, okay?” Kara says, walking backwards towards my car. “Post lots of photos.”
With Kara gone, the tension thickens. My heart is racing and I feel cold and shaky. The jacket I brought is still in Kara’s car and now I wish I was wearing it, so I could pull it around me. Instead, I wrap my arms around myself. Now that the time is finally here to say goodbye, I want to go back inside the warm bar and put it off for as long as I can.
Which won’t be long. I look at my watch. Four and a half hours until he flies out of the country.
“I got you something,” Dylan says, pulling an envelope out of his pocket.
“It should be me getting you something – a going away present.”
My tears are ridiculously close to the surface and I’m aware that the longer I stand here with him, the harder it will be not to let them fall. My voice is croaky and sounds like it hasn’t been used for some time as I work to keep my emotions under control just a little bit longer.
“You did get me something. You got me that travel pillow and Neat ‘N Tidy travel packs. I swear I’ve got way more in my case than I thought I would.”
I force a smile. “That’s great.”
He reaches his hand out, trying to pass me the envelope. “Anyway, I got you this. Please take it.”
Nervous and curious as to what he’s giving me, I take the envelope and slowly open it. Inside is a red gift card from one of the local travel agencies in the area. When I turn it over and see how much he’s put on there for me, I nearly fall over.
He moves towards me. “I want you to use this. It should be enough to buy you a return ticket to any place in the world.”
“It’s too much, Dylan.”
“I knew you didn’t want to spend money on travelling, especially when you plan on putting all your cash on a house. And of course there’s probably only enough for a ticket for one person, but…” He runs a hand through his hair, looking more awkward and nervous than I’ve ever seen him look before. “Come visit me, Claire. Either when you need me and you just want to talk, or…for any reason at all. I just need to know that I’m going to see you again soon.”
My voice cracks over his name, and then he’s there, right in front of me, wrapping his large, solid arms around me and holding me like he doesn’t want to let me go. I blink rapidly, willing – begging – my tears not to fall. I want to stop time – to hold on to this moment forever and never let him go – but he needs to get back to his farewell party.
His adventure is just beginning. This trip is something he’s been excited about his entire life.
“You need to get back inside,” I say, trying to pull away and tearing my heart in two in the process.
“These past four months, I-” he starts.
“Yeah,” I say quickly, stopping him from saying anything more. “They’ve been really good.”
The past four months have been the most wonderful months of my life. He’s shown me how to live, how to laugh and have fun. And I’ve realised I don’t need a man who fits all the criteria of my list to fall in love with him. I just need Dylan.
Now I must pick up the pieces of my life and carry on without the only man I want a future with.
“I shouldn’t keep Kara waiting any longer.”
I should say goodbye, but the word feels too final. We never talked about what would happen after he left. I don’t know if he’ll call, or if I’ll hear news about him through Austin. We’re done now – this casual thing is over between us – so there is nothing to stop him from hooking up with women overseas.
“I’ll be seeing you.” He motions to the card in my hand and I nod.
He holds my gaze for a long moment, until my heart feels like it might explode just from looking into his eyes. Then he turns and starts walking back to the bar.
I force myself to stand there, memorising the lines and angles of his body. Then he stops with his hand on the door of the bar before turning and running back to me.
He grabs me and kisses me. His kiss is frantic at first, as if he’s trying to memorise my taste, before his lips eventually soften and he finally lets me go.
“I’m going to miss you more than anyone,” he whispers.
“I’ll miss you, too.” I love you.
This time, I’m the one who walks away. The tears I’ve held at bay slide down my face as I get into Kara’s car. I shut the door behind me and wave to Dylan as he stays standing there.
“That looked intense,” Kara whispers as she pulls out of the pub’s carpark.
“It felt intense.”
As soon as we’re on the road, Kara reaches out and takes my hand, squeezing it. I squeeze back, grateful for my friend’s support.
“When we get back to yours, we’re both having a drink.”
If Kara’s feelings for Austin are anything like mine for Dylan, we’re both going to drink ourselves stupid tonight.