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He fiddled with his tie, running his palms across the green silk and playing with the knot, examining the size and shape in the dark parts of a painting at the far end of the room. He then began to work on the buttons of his blazer, unbuttoning and re-buttoning each one before pulling at the cuffs, glancing over his shoulder as though expecting to see something other than bare wall. It was an empty part of the office building. Why the caller had wanted to meet here, he had no idea. He walked to the window, resting his forehead against the pane and looking down into the street.
Maybe Nancy was pulling his leg. Maybe she needed him out of the office to talk about some surprise they were cooking up for him. He bristled. He had a meeting in forty minutes with the president of the Beijing branch, and he had wanted to go over his notes one last--
His attention snapped away from the tiny dolls from the street almost immediately. He recognized the voice, the face, the blue bow in her hair that hadn't changed since he had last seen her. When had he last seen her?
"What are you doing here?"
She looked at him. She did her best to hide what felt like bewilderment at the small mustache that ran across his once-boyish face, at the hardened blackness in his eyes, at the crispness of his suit and how it smelled of Armani. She didn't answer his question.
"Your hair isn't even red anymore."
"It was never red," he said after a nonplussed pause. He clipped off each of his words as though he had practiced them, spoke as though they had a time limit with no extra wiggle room for emotions. He walked back to the center of the room, fiddled once again with his buttons, and, as though deciding that she deserved more information, said, "it's auburn."
"Say whatever you like." She crossed her arms, raising her chin in a small act of defiance and sniffing. "Believe whatever you want. But it was red once."
"Why are you even here?"
He actually laughed a bit, a novelty for someone of his salary, a chuckle coming through his closed lips like a prisoner, long used to his never-ending detainment, who had just seen the light of day. "I did see John," he said, more to himself than her. "I should have known."
"So you know why I'm here."
He raised an eyebrow. "No." He hadn't drawn out the 'o' as he would have when they were younger, he didn't stick his tongue in his cheek to suppress the wry grin that did not even pass over his face as a shadow of what was once there.
"But you must." There was a twisted smile tugging at her lips, but it became more of a grimace as she looked at the starched businessman she once knew. "You must know, because if you should have known that seeing John would trigger my appearance in this office, then ... you must know." Her mouth gaped in a loss for the right words. "About yourself. About ... about everything."
"Has anyone died?"
She blinked, her arms limp by her sides. She blinked again, then squinted at him. He shifted backwards, meeting the small table that no one could find a place for in their cubicle. And he couldn't put it in his office. It didn't match his other desk and chairs.
"Yes," she said. "Someone has." But before he could open his mouth, she took a step forward and let her neck flush with anticipated fury. "You have." She remembered promises whispered to each other as the credits of The Breakfast Club rolled by on the small screen in his basement. "Remember what you would do on Fridays?"
He looked away, staring at the wall as though it had personally insulted him as he forced himself to forget about the image of his former Friday nights.
"No," he told the wall.
"You'd pick me up in that van. The one with the fairy on the side. You and Belle and the boys. You'd drive it around like it had wings and at the end of the night we'd climb on top of Cinema Six and watch the sunrise. You showed me how to use a beer bottle as a telescope, remember that? And around 3a.m. we'd stand in the middle of the highway, cursing everything and throwing rocks at the guardrail? You don'--"
"We were just a bunch of lost boys!"
It was the first time he had raised his voice in four years and thirty-five days. Had he looked at his watch, he also would have known that it was the first time in four years, thirty-five days, seven hours and twenty-two minutes. That was the last time he had seen her. The last time he had said her name.
"No," she said. "No, you're not."
"I am!" There was an odd constriction in his throat he vaguely recognized that made it harder for him to speak.
"I--" He stopped, inhaling deeply through his nose and clenching and unclenching his fists in the most civilized way possible. "I'm ashamed that I yelled at you. I shouldn't have, I wish I didn't. I hope you'd forgive me, it's just that I have a meeting with Beijing in--"
"I don't care about Beijing," she said, almost as stiffly as he, "and I don't care about the yelling,"
A vein in his temple twitched. "I care about Beijing." He spoke through clenched teeth.
"I don't have the slightest idea why, either," she said with a light shrug, "because I'm pretty sure no one in Beijing gives a damn about you."
"Listen up." His kept up his crisp tone, but now it was peppered with anger that he couldn't seem to shake. "I don't know who you think you are, I don't know what four years has done to you. But I do know that I make more in a year that you will probably make in your whole sorry little lifetime, so you better watch your mouth."
"Oh, I'm sure that my three room apartment filled with second-rate paintings, most of which are done by me, is nothing but a speck of dust compared to toilet in this office building. But you're wrong on everything else." He clears his throat in preparation to speak, but she continued. "I'll make more in my lifetime than you'll ever dream of." She studied his face, sorting through the features one by one as if making absolutely sure that the shadows somehow resembled the one person who promised her he'd never grow up. The one person who brought her to the conclusion that growing up was useless in the first place."No, no, not money. I suppose that's the only thing you think you can make anymore, don't you?"
He narrowed his eyes, drumming his fingers against his leg as he felt the agitation rising again. She was beating against a locked door that he had almost forgotten about. She was here for no reason, she was here to disrupt everything, ruin everything, make him acknowledge how things were before while Beijing sat on his clean desk, waiting.
"Fine," he said. "Fine. Let's say I do remember ... then."
This didn't seem to be the right thing to say to placate her. He wondered if there was anything he could have said. "That's it?" Her jaw quivered in something he recognized as desperation. Wait for me, Peter. Don't jump, Peter, it's dangerous. Your parents love you, Peter. Don't leave me, Peter. Where are you going, wait, please, don't do this to yourself, you're ruining yourself, you're ruining everything, what did you teach me, don't be a hypocrite, don't leave me, Peter, Peter, Peter, please--
She was the girl who made him both love and hate his name.
"What do you want, then." Forget. Straighten your tie. Pull at the collar, don't sweat. You don't remember. It's not personal, it's business. He cleared his throat. "I don't care, it's over. What do you want me to do."
She broke. "I want you to at least realize that you are exactly what you hated when you were a teenager! You are what you swore you wouldn't become!" She exhaled, looking away towards the ground. When she spoke again, her voice was low. "You wanted to fly planes, Peter." Her blue eyes flickered to his brown ones. "You wanted to save lives."
"I remember." He smoothed his tie again, clearing his throat as he focused on the dark painting he had been examining his reflection in earlier. Now it was obscured by her. He stared at it anyway, losing sight of the painting as he tried to make out the shapes that recreated the room. He clenched his fists and raised his chin. "But things have changed."
"Things don't -- you don't -- You're the one who told me to never grow up! You! Doesn't anything matter to you anymore?"
"Of course things matter! My job matters, I have a girlfriend--"
"So you're a suit with a doll! You fit all the stereotypes! You're a perfect little portrait of the so-called American dream that you fought so hard to redefine for yourself. You're a nothing, you're a hypocrite, you betrayed all of us, you betrayed--"
"For the love of God, Wendy!"
Her name rang in the room for have a moment before she narrowed her eyes. "Don't pretend you ever loved God," she said. She didn't let on that her name on his lips made her heart drop out. "You blamed God for everything. You said he deserved all the blame he got."
"I was foolish."
"You are foolish! I told you to grow up because to grow is to love ... I didn't tell you to shut yourself in a concrete box and become a man satisfied with the mediocre and obsessed with money."
"I came here because I thought John was wrong. I thought I was coming to prove John wrong. 'Not Peter,' I said, 'never Peter.' But look at you. He's completely right. Now you're far more lost than you were at seventeen."
"Wendy." He took sudden refuge in her name. "Wendy..."
"Remember what you thought of God?" She plowed through her own name as if he had said nothing, but her fists clenched and her chest tightened, hardening her jaw in a way he would have noticed had he taken his eyes off the floor. "Do you?"
"You said that above all else, God was responsible for taking away the souls of children and making them adults. That if God existed, his major sin was that he stole away all the joy of a like once they passed into adulthood.
The images of their senior year summer flashed through the room.
A van, filled past capacity, buffeted by wind as it buzzed down the highway twenty miles above the speed limit. A toy store, broken into at three am and redecorated as if it was a palace among clouds. Jumping off large rocks into coves filled with semi-naked college girls, lounging underneath the only tree in Alice County, reading Huck Finn out loud and smiling at all the accents and irony.
"I loved you, you know." He paused, as if the information needed a respectful amount of time to sink in. "Of course, I didn't think it was love. I loved football. I loved planes."
"You loved old movies," she said, her voice quiet.
He smirked, his cheeks crinkling, and he looked out the small window back to the city streets and the large, inhuman building that helped box them in. "I did, didn't I?" His eyes gained the sentimentality of a battle-scarred World War Two hero thinking of his childhood as someone below struggled to remount his bike. "Black and white ones were my favorite, but--"
"But you'll always love The Breakfast Club," she finished for him. "I know." His smile remained as he turned back to her, and he shook his right hand as though ridding it of water. She didn't notice. Or at least, she didn't seem to. "I loved you too," she said.
"I know," he said. "At least, I hoped so." He exhaled, and another small chuckle burst through. "I'm sorry, Wendy."
"No, it's not." He sighed. "Things seemed so easy. This success was so much more readily available than ... than everything else. It's easier to be a lost teenager than a lost man."
"You're more lost now than you would have been."
"I know," he said. "I know."
All was silent save the soft buzz of a fly. "You can still learn to fly, you know."
And for just a moment, glancing wistfully out the window at the cyclists, Peter forgot Beijing.