Sam didn’t look back. As I held Holly, I realised that everything I had grown to love was falling apart. Our friendships were being obliterated and we hadn’t the energy to look for the broken parts. It was hopeless; we were hopeless. I watched his figure shrink into the horizon, as Holly shook with each sob that left her body. She knew the extent of the damage she’d caused, as did I. We were sat there, watching everything disintegrate, our lives being turned into nought but memories etched in our brain as reminders of what we did. We both realised, in that instant, that we were alone. We’d always been alone; we just didn’t have the experience to accept it.
“You’re going to be okay,” I said, more to myself than to Holly. Her sobs were deafening. I felt her weight shift into me as her spirit disappeared.
Holly was no longer the excitable young woman I’d met all those months ago. She no longer found joy in everything, positivity in all the experiences she went through. It wasn’t the journey we’d been on that destroyed her. It wasn’t failing her education or being branded a criminal. It wasn’t the loss of Marcie or being torn away from her family. None of those things hurt, because they were all part of the path she was on. They didn’t affect her the way she expected because, in those instances, she still had Sam. It was losing him, losing that one piece that made her whole, losing the foundations to her existence that made her crumble to the ground. He was the biggest part of her and he had gone. He was the reason for the joyous, positive, optimistic Holly, and in that moment, as he walked away leaving us with nothing but the memory of his shrinking back, he took Holly with him.
I tried to get Holly to stand up. We needed to move; it wasn’t doing her any good to be sat on the concrete, wailing at a shadow. She put all her weight on me. I lifted her up, her legs like those of a fawn beneath her.
“Come on, we’ve got to go home,” I said. The tears had ruined her makeup and for the first time in my life, I saw Holly as less than perfect, as human. She’d always worn the I’m only human excuse but then was the only time I saw that. Before that moment, I saw her as invincible, a power beyond imagination. She’d survived things, she’d lived things I dared not know about and she still plastered a smile on her face every day and fell into the arms of her beloved. She wasn’t a damsel in distress, but she’d been through distress. In that moment, as I looked at the mascara-streaked face, into the eyes of a woman who had lost everything, I saw that she had the same genes as I. We were more similar than I’d ever given credit for. She wasn’t a glamorous woman who didn’t need anybody; she wasn’t heartless or made of steel; she wasn’t an idol or a woman to look up to. She was Holly and she was human.
There’s always going to be a moment in your life where you look at someone differently, you see them for who they are not who they or you want them to be. It’s going to change everything about you because it will feel like your life’s been a lie – or at least, your life with that particular person has been a lie. You see past the exterior they’ve built up for themselves and you see the vulnerability and insecurities. You knock down the lies and see the truth, and sometimes it will hurt but most of the time, you’ll be glad you did. It’s often the result of trauma, seeing someone the way they are for the first time. You see them react in ways you didn’t think they would. It’s like the trauma or event is stripping away the mask and the cloak they’ve put on themselves. It’s going to change your viewpoint, but sometimes, the scenery is more breath-taking.
I knew I had to get Holly to a place of safety, where she could full immerse herself in the events of the past twenty-four hours. She could understand why she did what she did and she could fully grieve her losses. My mind raced, trying to find the perfect location. Her house had things that would remind her of Sam and my house was too far away. The bar had alcohol and, at that moment, being intoxicated was the last thing she needed. Everywhere I could think of was haunted by memories of Sam, Marcie or Greg. Everywhere I thought of was nowhere she should be.
As she leant on me, I tried to get her to walk down the dull street, towards the centre of town. She was wobbling and sobbing, her wails waking up every owner of every house and flat along the way. I tried to make her walk without leaning on me, but she toppled over. It seemed she could only use her energy for crying or walking, not both.
“You’re going to have to work with me, here,” I said, stroking her auburn hair; it was a mess, tangled and knotted. I knew she’d look at herself in the mirror and think she was disgusting, vile. But, I didn’t. She wasn’t looking her best, but she looked human.
She shifted her weight. No longer was she clinging to my shoulder in a desperate attempt to stay vertical. Her hand was around my waist and she was just using me to steady herself. Now and then, her body fell a little; I’d catch her and straighten her up before we attempted the rest of our journey. I still had no idea where we were going. I didn’t want to lead her to a place that would just hurt her more. Despite everything, she meant more to me than that.
“I lost him,” she sobbed through sniffs, “It’s my fault. I lost him. I fucking lost him.” She kept repeating herself, getting louder and louder.
I think that’s the thing with loss: we feel it in our bones but we know that others don’t feel it too. That’s why we repeat ourselves when we’ve gone through the ordeal. We tell ourselves that we need to let everyone else understand how we’re feeling. But, by repeating our losses, we’re also telling ourselves that it’s true, it happened. Most of the time we’re in denial about our own feelings, so it’s no mystery as to why we often have to remind ourselves that something happened. If we all walked around completely naïve to everything we’d been through, we’d be nothing.
Part of me wanted to pick Holly up and give her a hug, to embrace her and let her pain seep into my pores. But I knew I couldn’t. She did something terrible, something I know she’d never be forgiven for by herself or Sam. It hurt that I had to be the one to pick up the pieces because I was feeling my own pain, but I knew that nobody else was going to. I couldn’t abandon Holly when she needed me the most. I wanted to tell her that I was angry, that I was hurt at how she’d treated Sam, that the world didn’t revolve around her and that she created her own problems. But, in that moment, she didn’t need that. She knew she’d messed up and all I could think about was getting her to a place of safety. She needed me.
“It’s okay,” I repeated, as Holly clung to a lamp-post and refused to move. It seemed that admitting she’d lost Sam had made her body shut down again.
“It’s never going to be okay,” she replied. Her words were moving slow, as if her brain and her mouth weren’t properly wired up. She was slurring, like she had just downed a bottle of vodka. “I fucked up and I can’t undo that. Fuck.”
The words resonated in my ears. It’s never going to be okay. Admitting defeat wasn’t what I had expected of Holly. But, I’d never expected Holly to lose Sam. There was so much emotion behind her words, so much truth.
It was getting late and I knew that Holly wasn’t going to make the journey easy. Fishing in my pocket, I pulled out my phone and dialled the only person I could think would make this all easier for me and for Holly. When he answered the phone, I couldn’t speak. I’d lost my ability to function because he still held my heart so tightly in his hands. He questioned the greeting, as if me calling him was a surprise, a shock to him.
I whispered fuck before replying, “I’m sorry, Luke. I need your help. Holly needs your help. Can you come and get us?”
By letting him know that I needed him, I felt like he’d won. I was giving up any power I’d taken; I was letting myself into his life again and I didn’t need that.
He accepted my request, asking me where we were and telling me he’d be there in approximately half an hour. I settled down next to Holly. She was holding the bottom of the lamp-post now, sobbing into its roots. My seat next to her was inviting, exactly where I felt comfortable. We were both suffering loss; the only difference was that I was ten steps ahead of her on my journey.
The minutes ticked by and neither of us said anything. Holly spent the thirty minutes sobbing, occasionally sniffling and I spent the thirty minutes wondering what was going to happen when Luke pulled up. There was so much I wanted to say to him, so much in my head that I wanted to let out onto him. I wanted him to feel my grief; I wanted his bones to ache the way mine did. I wanted his head to spin at the very thought of me as if I was intoxicating to him. I wanted him to complain of withdrawal symptoms: a headache, nausea all at the absence of me. I knew it wouldn’t happen; he moved on, I stayed in the same abandoned cage.
It’s strange how a feeling comes flooding back to you when you hear a certain sound or smell something nostalgic; it’s as if the whole event, the whole experience you managed to muscle your way through is tied up in that sense. You only survive because you tie up other events with other senses: new friends with new perfume, new loves with new songs. But, that song comes on the radio months or years down the line and you’re back in the same spot, looking at your life and questioning how you managed to survive at all. A tear pricks your eye because you know you’re never going to get back what you lost and part of you perhaps doesn’t want to, part of you perhaps doesn’t even miss what you can’t get back. A lot of the time it’s just the memory of how different life is; that’s what you crave or miss when you hear something or smell something: the way your life was in that moment.
I remembered his car. Even the sound of it accelerating down the street reminded me of everything I wanted to forget: of the nights we’d drive around and the days he’d take me out. All I could imagine was the memories of lying on the backseat, naked and sweaty, being held in his arms and feeling safe.
He got out and walked towards us. I tried to avoid eye contact for as long as possible. He knelt down next to me and I could see his smirk out of the corner of my eye. It was the smile that made me fall for him.
“D’you wanna get her into my car?” he asked. The smile grew bigger as I turned to face him. I couldn’t help myself; my heart stopped at the sight of his blue eyes, a window into his damaged soul. I’d looked into them at my worst and when I was the happiest I could ever be. Luke’s eyes held a lot of who I was.
I put my arm under Holly’s and attempted to lift her. She wasn’t overweight, but her exhaustion and reluctance to move had made her gain a few pounds in the last few minutes. Luke copied me and managed to get her to her feet. She wouldn’t look at either of us, but allowed us to direct her to the car. We permitted her to slip onto the backseat; letting her sprawl out if she wanted or assume the foetal position if she felt that would help her cry. I sat in the front seat.
“Where’ve you been, V?” he asked, his words soft and comforting. His voice was like a warm night-time drink; I needed it to feel calm, but it had its consequences.
“I’ve been living with Holly.”
“And Sam?” Luke asked. I knew I shouldn’t tell him the story, I shouldn’t tell him what had happened since he left. He didn’t need that. I didn’t need that. By telling him, it would feel as if he should’ve been there, but he wasn’t and he shouldn’t have been.
“Yeah, and Sam,” I replied. It wasn’t a lie.
“So, why’s Holly all… teary?”
It was none of his business: “it’s nothing that I can’t fix.”
We drove back to his home. He lived in a skyline studio apartment in a rundown corner of the city. The beauty of the apartment contrasted with the grimness of the surroundings in a way that made me feel safe and at home. Luke put Holly in his bed, a place I’d grown fond of over the months. I envied her being between the sheets that once held me in the early hours of the morning.
The whole apartment was just how I remembered it: the décor minimal and clean. I often told myself it was because he was so fashion-forward, so eccentric in his interior design. The truth was he was too poor to let himself buy anything else.
“I bet it feels weird being back here,” he said as he handed me a cup of tea. For me, tea was the comfort drink, the thing you’re given when you’re getting bad news or you’re crying into the arms of a friend.
“A little,” I lied. It felt completely right, as if this was where I was supposed to be. I felt that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but on that sofa in that room. I wanted to stay there indefinitely. I wanted to mould myself into a piece of furniture and live there, because it just felt so natural and perfect.
“You know, I’m sorry about what I did, V,” he said, breaking the short silence we shared. With us, silence was something that was easy, even when we were together. Neither of us were ever big talkers; neither of us wanted to ruin the moment by saying something inappropriate. Often the silence would last hours, the only conversation being physical.
“I know,” I nodded. The truth was I didn’t know he was sorry. I’d seen nothing to show me of his self-disappointment. He’d never tried to get in contact with me to apologise or at least try and make up some excuse. He let me go and, in my eyes, that shows that he just didn’t care.
“I’m really sorry. If I could go back and change it, I would.”
“But you can’t, Luke. You did what you did and you can’t change it.”
“Would you want me to, if I could?”
“Of course I would. If you didn’t do what you did, we’d still be together. I’d still be able to let myself love you.”
I saw the hurt in his eyes. It was like he’d been placed back in that bed with Marcie. He had lost everything and he realised what it was like to really feel the pain of loss.
“You know I’ll always love you, right?” The words meant nothing. With the lack of action, it was just noise. There was no proof of his love.
“I don’t believe you ever did.” I wanted him to feel something, to feel the wave of loss creep over him as he understands that we’re disconnected now. The thread that once tied us together had unravelled, come unstitched because we were growing apart, because I let him in and I pushed him out, because I only knew the side of him that let me love him and I couldn’t face the darker parts of him, the parts he’d shown me. I wanted him to fall.
“How can you say that?” he whispered back, “how can you say I never loved you? I gave you everything, V. I protected you and worshipped you. If it wasn’t for me, you’d be dead by now.”
“But Marcie may still be alive.”
It hurt me to say it. All this time, I’d just blamed him for cheating on me, for using his power and his good-looks to bed another woman. I’d never accepted that perhaps he was the reason for Marcie’s death. Perhaps if she’d sought company and companionship in somebody else, she’d be alive. She would’ve lived through the night, she would’ve seen the sunrise the next day. In my head, I’d always blamed him or at least questioned the idea. But saying it out loud had made everything clearer. I fully believed that he was responsible and that hurt more than believing he never loved me.
The pain painted across his face, he stood up and walked out of the living room towards the bathroom. I didn’t ever find out what he did in there, but when he returned, forty minutes later, his eyes were red but his voice was as gruff and crisp as it ever was. He asked me to leave but I protested, telling him that I couldn’t leave Holly. He promised me he’d look after her until he could find her somewhere to go, somewhere that had no memories of anybody, somewhere new.
It was in that moment that I realised we were all disintegrating. There was no longer a group of friends I could call my own. There were no longer friendships in this town between any of us. We were scattered around the country, like leaves in the wind. We had grown so close to one another that now, there was nothing left for us to do but part as strangers. I’d look into the eyes of everyone I passed, wondering if they knew any of the people in the group, wondering if they had heard about Luke’s long-lost love or Holly’s breakdown. I would search for them in every café, in every bar, until I realised that they weren’t going to be found. They’d locked themselves up, thrown away the key and told nobody where they were. We were all in different corners, starting new lives and barely remembering our old one.