George was at the beach the night his mother died. Drunk. It was a cinematic night; surf roaring against a vast, inky blue sky that whispered of purple around the stars. George and his five best friends ran into the sea in their underwear, not feeling the cold because of the alcohol. Sea spray leapt up George’s body, splashing back down like watery percussion. His ears were still ringing after exiting the club.
Two women sat on the shore. The first, Charlie, was George’s best friend. They both knew she was the smarter of the two – it was only because of this that she could truly know him. It was also the reason, she’d decided, that she knew better than to date him. The other woman was Andie, the girl that George was ‘seeing’. She didn’t really know anybody else there except him. Andie was going on about how stupid it was that she felt abandoned right now, and that she was neither drunk enough nor wearing nice enough underwear to run into the ocean on an autumn night with six boys. Every one of her sentences trailed off with “I don’t know”. Charlie was only half listening. The women watched the men, braving the ocean like idiots, as the cool wind cast itself over them.
“So how did you and George become friends?” Andie asked, turning to face Charlie, a hint of jealousy behind the question mark.
The way they both told it, they became best friends by accident. Charlie was at the pub after university on a weeknight with a group of friends from class. She rolled her eyes when she saw George enter. They had never been friends but shared a number of mutuals within the law cohort. He walked over, leaning back on his heels, the way he always did – with confidence and direction, but also with a breeze like he knew he’d get wherever he was meant to be in time anyway. He pulled up a chair to the edge of his booth and immediately put both his arms around the back of the chairs of Charlie’s two best friends, Temperance and Maria. The two girls barely noticed, they were used to it.
As the night wore on into inane conversation about assignments and gossip about their peers, interspersed with a few moments of clarity about a predicted federal government leadership spill and a spirited criticism by Temperance of Notting Hill, Charlie decided that she hated George. She hated that he wore a thick silver ring around his forefinger, a leather band on his wrist, and was scarcely without a stupid pair of aviators that he regrettably seemed to be able to pull off. She hated the way he ran his hand across the stubble on his chin, feigning thought when he was really just waiting to re-enter the conversation. She knew he possessed a typical kind of male narcissism – he never particularly worried about getting along with people. They were usually either enamoured by his confidence or put off by his arrogance, the latter the more popular option for more discerning women like herself, she thought. She hated that he knew how charming he was, that he was flirting with everybody at the table except her, and she hated that it got to her. She was already so tired of trying to be wanted.
Gradually, everybody else in the booth peeled off to other events or to go home. Will and Monty, who were dating, decided to have an early night and continue their pantomime of an old married couple. Temperance grew tired and left yawning and tipsy about an hour later. And finally, Maria, somewhat of a sexual recidivist, gave into simpering texts to come over from the guy that refused to be exclusive with her but that she was unfortunately in love with. George scooted over from his chair to the opposite side of the booth to Charlie. She realised that they were alone.
Then the strangest thing happened – they talked for six hours, until the bar closed. They took turns buying glasses of the house white from the bar and wincing over each cheap sip. Every time one of them went to the bathroom or George answered his phone, Charlie wondered who would make a move to leave first, and was this it, who would break the evening. It was like a precious object she could hold and look down at outside of her body, existing outside her life.
“I’ve always found women more interesting,” George said as if it were an obvious fact. Whilst superficially she agreed, Charlie was sceptical of when men like George made statements like this, like it made them feel like less of a misogynist.
So she asked, “Why?”
“I don’t know. I think they have deeper internal lives or whatever.”
“Maybe men just don’t pathologize them as much. Like, they don’t think about what they’re thinking in the same way, they haven’t learned to. But it’s all still going on up there.”
“That’s probably true. Maybe it’s not that then…I reckon I want to be able to love like a woman does…you’re so much better at caring about people, at least openly. And I need to get better at apologising. I’m not very good at not thinking about myself. I guess…if or when I want a relationship, I want to have one like women do.”
“No you don’t.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little insulting the extent to which you’re not taking advantage of being a man who actually wants a relationship?”
“Yeah but that’s the thing, I don’t even know if I want one.”
“You could probably have any girl in our year.”
“Maybe I already have”. He winked. She rolled her eyes. She playfully picked up her wine glass and sat back in the booth. “So you think it’s that easy? Being a man?,” he wouldn’t let up. She laughed at the question.
“In relationships, I mean.”
“Especially in relationships.”
The pub was virtually empty except for two bartenders behind the counter. The amber light above George’s head highlighted the golden flecks of chestnut in his greasy brown hair as he ran his hands through it. The green in his eyes looked like a trick of the light. Charlie took a deep breath.
“How to have a relationship like a man? Don’t sacrifice any part of yourself. Come as you fucking are. Because who you are is enough. You, as you are, can achieve things. You can be admired. You can be loved. You don’t have to change the way you act or dress or talk or laugh or how you rest your face. You can talk about your niche interests and interrupt to give your opinion and not wash your face and wear bad shoes and wear bandanas unironically and kiss sloppily in the back of the taxi and that will be marvellous for her, because she just gets to be with you. She gets to love you, not the portrait of the person you are trying to be, painted by whoever told her she couldn’t bring all of herself into the room. How to have a relationship like a woman? Wait outside the door. Wait your whole life for a man to fucking let you in.”
If Charlie had never said that, they probably would’ve gone home that night, kissed sloppily in the back of the taxi, tripped over George’s loafers as they stumbled into bed and had the kind of sex Charlie worried she couldn’t have with someone who really loved her. Sweat and saliva dripping between your bodies with no apology. Breath hot against your skin, hands grabbing and squeezing and seizing, the other person just there to be touched. Feeling the soft weight of their body against yours, pressing your face into the very pores of theirs, into the part that proves you’re someone else, someone new, in the dark. Nothing but the fan whirling the summer air through the room, its persistent hum beneath your moans, its face turning to you and cooling the beads of sweat on your back with every rotation, makes it real.
Instead, George blinked, took another sip of wine and took Charlie’s hand.
“I heard about Dev. I’m sorry. You really are so much better than him.”
When they left because the bar was closing, they stumbled into a goodbye hug. George rubbed Charlie’s back as they embraced. When their bodies parties he kept his hand on her waist for just a second longer than it needed to be there. And in that extra second, where she felt him hold her, she still had her right arm extended behind his neck and withdrew it slower than she needed to. Skinny as he was, she felt a bone in his shoulder, squeezed, and let go. In that moment, the flirtation forgot itself and gave way to something else. Something deeper.
Over the years, they had studied for exams together, counselled on each other’s flings, applied for and gotten rejected from the same jobs. While Charlie found her feet, George only seemed to lose awareness of where his were taking him. Two years later, Charlie was now working in management consulting in a top firm in the city. George was adrift, on the beach.
“It feels like I’m at the bus stop. Like, I’ve finally found it. But I haven’t got on a bus yet. I haven’t decided where I’m going yet.”
“Why don’t you just see where it takes you?”. This was Charlie’s reply every time George repeated this particular metaphor he was all too proud of every few months on her couch, with a few tweaks as to where he was in relation to the bus and so on.
“I don’t know. I’m waiting.”
George woke up the next morning. Alone, hungover and heavy like the night sky. Andie had absconded as the night crept towards sunrise. He had missed a call from his brother, Nathan, who never called. He knew something bad had happened.
After calling Nathan back, he wasted the first few hours of grief napping, watching NBA replays and eating stale cereal. Then he called the one person he could face. All the distance between her and him was collapsed by their voices on the phone. Then she was at his door. Awash with an undeserving feeling, George swept Charlie into his arms like wind pulling on an umbrella, but she folded in and let herself be held by the storm going on within him.
Charlie realised she loved George that day. Maybe it had been this way ever since he took her hand, since he had looked at her like an answer to a question and called it friendship.
Charlie had never been in love. She’d always thought falling in love was like a rising ocean, like a wave crashing into you, like being carried away on the tide. But now she felt that maybe it was the sea after the storm. Its calmness, its vastness. Ripples of easy laughter, a gentle caress like seafoam on sand or moonlight on the water. Always out there, and one day you’re just in it.
It wasn’t an uncontrollable force. Love wasn’t a destination – a hill to climb, a height to fall from. She finally knew what it meant for a person to be a place, the feeling of love like the ground beneath it. Somewhere quiet and warm. It had always been there, just waiting to be known. She never even had to try.
Yes, it was like a lighthouse on the lonely sea that had been on all night after a long, cold voyage through the dark – she saw it clearly now. And that’s what she was to him, through his grief, and nothing truly changed between them except perhaps the way she held his hand, which he squeezed at the funeral as if to say, I love you too.