The first time I saw Phil again was like a stab in the chest. It surprised me; I hadn’t expected to still feel the way I had about him months ago, but seeing him brought up the memories that had been covered by layers of distractions while I was away.
And the worst part about seeing him again was seeing him with someone else—happy.
It was a cold December day, and as I hurried down the street toward my favorite boutique, I caught a glimpse of him. He looked as great as ever, walking leisurely through the crowd downtown, hand-in-hand with a short and extremely thin girl, both of them bundled up against the winter chill.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to hide before he saw me. The moment his eyes met mine, his facial expression changed. He’d been smiling at something the girl with him was saying, but then the muscles in his face went taut for half a second. Then his face broke into a smile, and he waved at me.
I forced a smile and walked through the people toward the happy couple.
“Em, oh my gosh!” Phil said, and went to give me a hug, but then pulled back at the last minute and patted me awkwardly on the back in greeting. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Yeah, I just got back.”
He smelled like he did back when we were together. When I was the one holding his hand, curled up next to him on the couch while we watched scary movies, or eating roasted peanuts while window-shopping...
The girl looked expectantly from one of us to the other. She had the biggest, most innocent-looking eyes I’d ever seen. They made her look almost like a cartoon character.
“Umm, Shae, this is Emma,” Phil started hesitantly.
“Oh, you’re Emma,” Shae chirped as her face broke into a smile, nodding her head as if it were perfectly normal and welcomed to run into your boyfriend’s ex. “So nice to finally meet you.”
Phil nodded too, looking anywhere but at me. I knew this was going to get awkward fast, so I spoke up. “So you’re Phil’s girlfriend?”
Shae nodded, beaming. There was a lot of nodding going on here. “Two months this Friday.” She gave Phil an adoring look. She looked like a drooling puppy. Like two months was such a big accomplishment. Try two years.
“Awesome. Congratulations. Well, it was great to see you guys. I have to go.”
I started back across the street, but Phil stopped me. “Hey, Em.”
I turned around. He rubbed his jaw; he always did that when he was deep in thought or anxious. “We should catch up sometime.”
I glanced at Shae, who still had a dreamy smile on her face. She didn’t seem to mind that her boyfriend wanted to hang out with his ex.
I walked away feeling extremely confused. I realized after a minute that I was going the wrong way, but I wasn’t about to turn back. I trudged toward my car, colder by the minute. Shae was either very trusting or very naïve. My guess was the latter. I knew she had to be my age, but she looked like a starry-eyed schoolgirl to me. Since when did Phil have a thing for her type?
But then again, I didn’t understand myself either. I’d been the one who’d broken up with Phil in the first place. I’d gone to a university very far away while he stayed here. He hadn’t wanted me to leave; he told me I could go to a local college and be close to him while he worked. But my heart had been set on that university years before I even met Phil. I wasn’t going to change my mind. We could make long distance work, I was sure of it. But Phil wasn’t. He nagged at me our entire senior year, and, finally, we just stopped talking about it. We had a huge argument right before I left, and in the heat of the moment I told him that if he couldn’t make long distance work, it was over. We hadn’t spoken a word since, and I’d tried to let him drift out of my mind while I met new people and got adjusted to my new lifestyle in college. I hadn’t started dating anyone yet; it was too fresh. Phil and I had a lot going for us, and I wanted to be sure I was over him before getting into another relationship.
College was good; I had time to focus on myself. I didn’t even think about Phil that much. So why did I suddenly feel miserable? Why was I jealous of lil’ Shae-bae? I decided that was an appropriate name for her.
The next time I saw Phil wasn’t much better. But at least I’d been prepared this time. He walked into church with Shae-bae in tow, greeting people with a smile. I sat in the seat I’d always sat in, back in our high school days with my old friends Katie, Anna, and her boyfriend, Jacob, and realized too late that this had always been Phil’s row, too. I stood up.
“I’m going to sit somewhere else,” I told Anna.
“No!” Anna tugged at my arm. “Come on, you’re both mature adults. I’m sure you don’t want to live the rest of your life avoiding him.”
I sighed and sat. A minute later Phil and Shae plopped down beside us. “Hey, guys.”
Shae smiled at me. “Hi, Emma.” She had a bow in her hair and a white fluffy skirt that made her resemble a ballerina. Was she trying to look like 3-year old?
I pasted on a smile. “Hey. How long have you been going to this church?”
“Oh, just since Phil and I started dating. He brought me, and I really like it here.”
She patted Phil’s hand, and he smiled at me weakly.
“She really isn’t that bad,” Anna whispered to me when the couple turned away and started talking to someone else. “You should see her house. It’s huge. They have a—”
“How old is she?” I said. “She looks fifteen.”
“She’s a sophomore in college.” Anna nodded at my surprise. “Right? I was surprised too. She’s super smart. I think she turns eighteen soon.”
Needless to say, I had a hard time concentrating during the service. When it was over, I tried to slip away, but, once again, Phil stopped me.
“Hey, I just realized I don’t have your phone number.”
I saw Shae, Katie, and Anna laughing about something out of the corner of my eye. So all my friends loved her too. Great.
“My number hasn’t changed,” I said.
Phil gave me a look.
He shrugged. “I didn’t think I’d ever want to call you again.”
“Why would you want to call me? You have her now.” I nodded toward the little ball of fluff. Was Shae planning on auditioning for the Nutcracker? Her outfit may have made more sense then.
“I kinda want to catch up. I don’t know anything about your first semester.”
Phil’s collar was messed up, and I really wanted to fix it. But I didn’t. He wasn’t mine anymore. I thought about turning my back to him and leaving, but I couldn’t. I kind of wanted to hear how his life was going. I missed his quirky smile, his stupid jokes, and the way he used to look at me. A part of me still wanted his attention. I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but I pulled out my phone and dialed his number. His phone buzzed in his pocket. “There you go.”
“Thanks.” We stood looking at each other for a minute, and then he shook himself and turned away. “See you later.”
Four days later, I sat in my favorite coffee shop, fiddling with my phone, glancing at the door expectantly every five seconds. I sat in the same booth Phil and I had always chosen, where we’d talked about our hopes and dreams for the future, where we’d decided on our kids’ names and where we’d live after we got married. It all seemed like an eternity ago.
Phil finally burst through the door, bringing a cold gust of wind in with him. His beanie was pulled low over his ears, and he rubbed his hands together as he walked toward me. I quickly checked myself in the reflection of my phone screen and pulled a stray strand of brown hair back to where it belonged. Then I mentally scolded myself. There was no good explanation as to why I cared so much about his opinion on my looks. I was wearing my bulky knit sweater with a line of penguins marching across it. I’d always thought it was kind of childish, but Phil had told me many times how much he liked that sweater. I didn’t know why I cared so much about how I looked for him. It didn’t matter anymore.
He slid into the seat across from me, slipping out of his coat at the same time. My stomach quivered. He hadn’t changed a bit on the outside. The question was, who was he now on the inside?
“Sorry for being late,” he said, looking at the menu card on the table. “I had this thing…”
I waved him off. “I ordered for us. The usual.”
Phil gave me a strange look.
“Mint hot chocolate? With an extra shot of chocolate?”
“Oh.” He gave me a slight smile. “You know me well.”
Sure I do. We’ve been broken up for six months, not a decade, I wanted to say, but I just gave him a weak smile and shrugged.
“So how’ve you been?” Phil asked me after a sufficiently awkward silence.
“Good… I’ve been…” I trailed off when a guy with a loaded tray walked over with our drinks. We sat in silence while he placed the steaming cups in front of us.
I looked up, startled, and saw that the guy working here was my old classmate Robert. Just what I needed, someone to recognize us together.
“Hey,” I said, trying to sound enthused.
“How are y’all doing? I didn’t know you were still together.”
My eyes flickered to Phil, and I could tell he was wishing he’d never come.
We protested at the same time.
“It’s kind of a long story.”
“Oh, I see.” Robert chuckled nervously as he looked from Phil to me and started to back away slowly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother ya’ll.”
We watched him go, and I forced a laugh.
“Sorry,” Phil said. “I shouldn’t have invited you here. Too many people we know.”
“It doesn’t matter. So what? We can’t have a cup of hot chocolate together and catch up like old friends?”
Phil’s look sent nervous shivers down my spine. “We never really were friends.”
“Then why did you want to meet me?” I murmured, staring into my drink.
Phil took his beanie off and ran his fingers through his hair. It stuck out in different directions, and I almost had to smile. “I wanted to see you. See how you were doing.”
“I’ve been great,” I said, and took a sip from my cup. I winced. It was hot. I could feel my taste buds losing their sense of taste. Such a weird feeling.
“How is school? Do you have a job? Are you dating anyone? I literally know nothing that’s been going on with you.”
I took a breath. “School’s okay, classes are a lot easier than I expected. I’m still just taking the general electives though, so nothing in my field yet. I haven’t found a set job yet, but I’ve been helping out my History professor, so maybe she’ll hire me as her T.A. And no, I’m not really dating anyone.”
I sat back and studied his face. Was that relief I saw? A moment later it was gone, and he grinned at me wryly. “That’s all I get?”
“Why don’t you talk for a change?” I said and crossed my arms. “How are you and your little girlfriend doing?” It was hard to even say those words, but I wouldn’t let him see that.
Phil rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh. Good, I guess. I met her in my College Algebra class.” He nodded at my surprised look. “Yeah, I decided to take some classes this semester, see where it takes me.” He smiled and looked down. “She’s pretty cool… but… she’s not you.”
My head shot up. He was studying his cup.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. I don’t know why I said that. It’s just—everything’s so different without you, you know? Two years. That’s a long time, and sometimes it’s hard—“
“—to go on with life without you.” I finished.
“You think so too?” Phil finally met my gaze.
This time I looked away. I couldn’t pretend anymore. “I mean, it’s weird. I’m back in here, where we would come like every week and do homework. I walk down the street and see all the places we used to walk. Even at church, our row… It brings back a lot of memories.”
“There were a lot of good ones,” he said.
“There were.” I sighed. “What are we supposed to do?”
“You wanted to follow your dream. I get that. And yeah, I’ve got Shae. She’s great, but it’s taking some time to adjust. I don’t want to go on treating you like a stranger, Em. You were my best friend for a long time, and you know so much about me. You get me. I don’t want a person like that to become a stranger. I want to be friends.”
Friends. That word sounded like a curse.
“Yeah… sure. I mean, I agree; you knew me better than anyone, and someone like that is hard to come by.”
Phil nodded. “I know it won’t be easy, but I don’t like not knowing if you’re alive or dead. It would be nice to know, at least, what you’re up to.”
I sipped my chocolate again, not even tasting it. In my mind, I was trying to figure out if what he was saying was possible. It had always been easier to keep him in my far away memories, someone I might bring up every now and then, “my ex liked this song,” or “yeah, my ex did that too,” but I never planned on being friends, hanging out on breaks, texting each other about our day… what did friends even do? No, for me it had always been all or nothing. It was easier that way.
“You okay?” Phil asked.
“Yeah. It’s just… this friends thing might take some getting used to.”
“I know. I still think about… sometimes… like, what if you hadn’t gone away? We’d still be—“ He drifted off, and I was feeling worse and worse. I was hit full force by a feeling that I didn’t remember having in a long time. I missed him. I knew that either I needed to get out of here right now to clear my head, or I was going to do or say something very stupid. I reached out to touch his hand that lay idly beside his cup.
A cold gust of wind hit us as the door opened; a group of girls walked in, and it brought me back to my senses.
“I should go.”
“So soon?” Phil looked disappointed. He hadn’t even touched his hot chocolate.
“Yeah, I have somewhere I have to be.”
“Okay, then how about you come to my mom’s annual Christmas party next Tuesday? You always loved it, and she’d be so happy to see you.”
“It’s okay if you can’t make it,” he said. “But it would be a good time to practice being friends.”
I needed to go. I had to clear my head. Phil’s magnetic eyes were boring into me, and I couldn’t say no. “Okay. I’ll try.”