Chapter Eight


For the briefest of moments I think I’m going to faint. As my mind goes into freefall, I try telling myself I’ve made a mistake. It’s not him; it’s a trick of the light. I mean, there must be a million people who have eyes with similar grey flecks around the iris, right?


But there’s no mistaking that voice. It’s the same voice I heard that day in the gallery. It was that voice that made me turn round and fall in love at first sight.

‘Oh wow, Lucy, is that really you?’

It was also that voice that dumped me over the telephone.

‘Hello, Nathaniel.’

I was aiming for cool, calm and collected, but it comes out a bit wooden and schoolteacher-ish. Still, they’re words at least. Spoken out loud. Which is better than being utterly speechless with shock, which is how I’m really feeling.

Actually, I take that back. I’m not sure I can feel anything. It’s as if my whole body’s suddenly gone numb and I’ve got this weird floaty feeling, like the time I had my tonsils out and the anaesthetist told me to start counting backwards.

‘It is you! I thought for a moment I was seeing things.’ His face is breaking into a smile, creasing up the corners of his eyes.

Those are new, I can’t help thinking to myself. He didn’t use to have creases before. And his hair – it’s so much shorter, and it’s started to recede at the temples.

‘I was, like, No way, it’s impossible!’

I can hear him speaking, see him gesticulating, but it’s as if we’re separated by an invisible barrier, a sort of impenetrable shield between us, and instead I’m staring at this grey-suited figure in front of me with a certain detached disbelief.

He looks different. Older. Gone are the thrift-store suede jacket and the long, messy blond hair, and his teenage puppy fat has disappeared to reveal razor-sharp cheekbones and a much squarer jawline. But it’s still Nathaniel. Still Nate.

As the thought fires across my brain, my heart gives a little leap. I quickly squash it back down. No, you don’t, I tell myself firmly. Don’t you go getting any ideas.

‘Sorry, I haven’t let you get a word in, have I?’ he laughs, putting down his mail and scraping his fingers through his hair. ‘So tell me, how are you? What’s going on? What are doing here?’

I suddenly realise that despite the expensive designer suit and air of the successful businessman, he’s nervous. Well, it must be a shock for him too, walking in from work and seeing me standing in his hallway after ten years. Like a ghost from his past.

‘I brought your artwork,’ I manage.

‘My what?’ Confused, he glances distractedly to the crates stacked neatly in the corner, not seeming to register.

‘The Gustav collection,’ I continue, keeping my voice steady. God, it’s so bizarre. It’s like a robot has taken over my body and I’m standing here stiffly, talking in some weird automated voice about art, when instead the real Lucy is flinging her arms up in the air and shrieking, Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, on a loop.

For a moment he seems to stare in total bewilderment at the paintings. Then suddenly his brow unfurrows and he turns to me in a sort of ‘eureka’ moment. ‘You work at the gallery,’ he says quietly, and I can see everything starting to fall into place.

‘Yes, I just transferred from a showroom in London.’ I nod, still doing my R2-D2 impersonation. ‘I’m the senior coordinator.’

Well, it sounded impressive first time around on the doorman.

‘You are?’ Nathaniel looks slightly dazed.

‘It’s a really good job,’ I add quickly, suddenly feeling the urge to justify myself. ‘I organise exhibitions, work closely with new artists, deal with clients . . .’

‘But what happened to your own painting? I thought—’

‘Oh, that’s a long time ago,’ I say dismissively, cutting him off and looking down to study my feet, which have suddenly become really interesting. ‘Anyway, what about you?’ I ask, changing the subject. ‘What are you doing these days?’

What are you doing these days? Oh my God, Lucy, what kind of lame question is that? You sound as if you’re hanging over the garden fence, passing the time with your next-door neighbour. Not talking to your first love, whom you haven’t seen for ten years but have never stopped thinking about.

OK, I did not just think that.

‘Oh, you know, this and that,’ he says, his mouth twitching. His eyes flash with amusement as they search out mine and I feel something stir deep inside me. Like ice cubes when they start to melt. Shifting, splintering, thawing.

‘Well, this and that must be pretty successful,’ I reply, gesturing around me at the penthouse.

‘Oh, this.’ He shrugs modestly. ‘It’s just a rental.’

‘Oh, really?’ I say, trying to sound nonchalant, as if renting huge fuck-off penthouses in Manhattan is something I do quite regularly myself. When I’m not busy renting a room in a tiny shoebox downtown, of course.

Inside, though, I can’t help feeling a stab of insecurity. God, he’s obviously some major high-flyer, while I’m still broke at the end of each month.

‘I’ve been living in LA, but now I’m moving here for work,’ he adds in explanation.

‘Don’t tell me, you’re in the movie business,’ I say with a rush of excitement, before feeling my cheeks redden. ‘I saw the magazines.’ I motion vaguely towards the living room.

‘TV.’ He looks almost apologetic. ‘I’m a producer.’

‘Gosh, that’s great.’ I try to sound convincing, though I haven’t a clue if that’s great or not. Still, it sounds impressive. Everyone always wants to work in TV, don’t they? Well, apart from me. Art’s only ever been my thing.

‘Yeah, it’s pretty cool . . .’ He nods, then trails off.

There’s an awkward pause and for a moment we just stand there in the hallway, looking at each other. I can feel the space between us thick with questions and emotions.

‘Wow, sorry, I just realised, I haven’t even offered you a drink or anything,’ he starts apologising and rubbing his temples.

‘Oh, don’t worry,’ I say hastily.

‘I’m afraid I don’t have much in, apart from some Evian.’

And that funny quinoa stuff, I think, remembering the packet in the fridge.

‘Look, why don’t we go out and get a drink?’ he suggests all of a sudden. ‘Catch up properly?’

I’m taken aback. Go for a drink? Me and Nate?

‘Oh, er . . .’ Flustered, I start trying to stall. ‘I’m not sure . . .’

‘There’s a great little place on the corner,’ he continues eagerly. ‘Come on, how about it?’

He’s looking at me expectantly, a big smile on his face, and out of the blue I feel a snap of indignation. My God, I can’t believe it. He thinks I’m just going to trot off to a bar with him for a cosy chit-chat. After what happened? I should tell him to sod off.

I should, but of course I’m not going to.

‘Let me just grab my bag.’

I’ve imagined this moment a million, trillion times: bumping into him again. What I’d say, how I’d look, exactly what it would be like. I’d look fabulous, of course. I’d be wearing my thin jeans. I’d be having a good hair day (well, I don’t really have good hair days. I have at-least-it’s-not-frizzy and phew-my-fringe-hasn’t-kinked-yet days). Oh, and I’d have some amazing man on my arm.

Not that I believe you need a guy to make you feel good about yourself, but come on, enough of the feminist principles. You bump into the love of your life who married someone else, trust me, you don’t want to be single and wearing your frumpy work clothes, or a pair of flip-flops that make your legs look completely dumpy.

Sitting on a barstool, I rub my legs self-consciously. Ugh, they feel all bristly. Which is when I remember that I forgot to shave them.

‘I mean, what are the odds?’

Tugging down my skirt, I look across the bar at Nathaniel. Shirtsleeves rolled up, he’s sitting opposite me, shaking his head in disbelief.

We’re in a little French bistro on the corner of his street drinking red wine. I don’t usually drink red wine. I don’t actually like it. It makes my tongue feel all funny, like when I eat rhubarb. But I did that thing you do when you’re a bit nervous and you say you’ll have what they’re having, so Nathaniel ordered a bottle.

Which took about twenty minutes, as he wanted to taste everything on the menu first, swirling each one round the glass and sniffing it. He obviously knows a lot about wine, unlike me. I don’t know the first thing.

‘It is a bit of a coincidence.’ I nod, taking a large gulp of wine.

I feel absurdly nervous. As if I’m on a first date.

Quickly I scrub that thought.

‘Just a bit.’ He nods, rolling his eyes. ‘It’s incredible. I’ve always wondered if I’d ever see you again.’

‘You have?’ My voice comes out in a squeak.

‘Well, yeah,’ he says, looking down at his wine glass self-consciously.

My chest tightens and my stomach does this funny swooping thing. He’s thought about me. During all this time he’s thought about me. I feel a surge of validation. All this time I always wondered. Always hoped.

‘Did you ever think about me?’ He raises his eyes and gives me a long, searching look.

My stomach does a loop-the-loop again.

‘Sometimes.’ I shrug, trying to sound casual.

OK, so that’s a fib, but I’m not going to admit the truth now, am I? That I can’t stop thinking about him.

‘Really?’ He looks pleased. ‘I thought you might have forgotten all about me.’

‘Trust me, I tried.’ I manage a half-smile and he blushes.

‘Yeah, I didn’t behave very well at the end, did I?’

‘Oh, I don’t know.’ I take another gulp of wine, relishing the feeling of it weaving its way down into my stomach, soothing my jittery nerves. ‘We were so young, and long-distance relationships never work out, do they? It was just one of those things. Inevitable, really. And breaking up with someone is never easy.’

Er, hello. Since when did I develop this super-mature attitude?

‘I was a jerk, let’s face it.’ He flashes me a rueful smile.

‘OK, you were a jerk.’ I nod in agreement.

He laughs, his face crinkling up, and despite myself I can’t help but laugh too. It’s strange, but after all this time, all the years, all the wondering, the old hurt seems to melt away and it’s just me and Nate sitting at the bar, like two old friends having a drink. Maybe it’s true that time is a great healer.

Or maybe it’s just the red wine.  

‘So . . .’ he says.

I watch him fingering the stem of his wine glass, as if he’s thinking hard about something. Then I notice. He’s not wearing a wedding ring. It shoots out at me, like an arrow. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I vaguely remember Magda mentioning it, but I didn’t pay much attention – she was talking about a stranger. At least, I thought she was talking about a stranger.

I stare at his empty finger. Maybe he’s taken if off and forgotten to put it back on. Or he could have lost it. Or maybe he’s one of those guys who doesn’t wear one, like my dad, who told Mum when they got married that he’d never worn jewellery and he wasn’t going to start now. I think he even said the word ‘poof’, but the less said about that, the better.

Even as I’m thinking all these things, buried deep, down inside me a burst of hope is exploding in my chest like a firework.

‘Tell me . . .’

I snap back to see him looking at me.

‘ . . . how long have you been in New York?’

The conversation seems to have moved away from dangerous ground and back to pleasantries. I feel a beat of relief.

‘Not long, just a few weeks.’ I take a sip of wine.

Don’t let him see you looking at his wedding finger, pipes up a voice inside my head. Startled, I quickly avert my eyes.

‘Wow, so you’re new in town like me.’ He smiles. ‘What do you think so far?’

‘I love it.’ I smile, holding out my glass as he gives me a top-up.

It’s very important I don’t ask him about being married. I have to appear unconcerned. Like I’m not curious at all. Like I haven’t even thought about it in years.

‘Yeah, it’s an amazing city. I visit a lot for work, but I’ve never lived here before.’

‘Oh, really?’

Or tried to Google his wife to see what she looks like.

‘Yeah, so I’m kinda excited to explore, get a real feel for it, instead of just being a tourist.’

And found nothing. Not even one lousy photo. I mean, you think she’d at least be on Facebook.

‘So, how’s married life?’

It’s like an Exocet missile. Fired without warning from out of my mouth, it shoots straight at him and crash-lands on the bar. For a moment I have the weird sensation of being completely disconnected, an observer, an innocent bystander.

Then it hits me.

Oh my God, I did not just say that. I did not just say that.

Fuck. Fuck. FUCK.

There’s a pause as Nathaniel takes a sip of his wine. It’s like the moment between the crash and the impact. That stunned split second as you brace yourself for the inevitable.

Putting down his glass, he meets my eyes.

Please don’t say it’s wonderful. I cross my fingers under the bar. I mean, you can say it’s good, and you’re happy and all that, and I’ll be pleased, really I will, but please don’t go on and on about how wonderful it is, how wonderful she is.

‘We’re getting divorced.’

Now it’s his turn to launch a missile. Boom. Just like that.

I look at him incredulously. I was prepared for a dozen different answers, but not this one. Never this one.

‘Gosh, I’m sorry to hear that,’ I say quickly, scrambling for something appropriate to say, but inside I’m reeling with shock. And something else. A secret tremor of joy that comes like the aftershock following an earthquake.

‘Thanks.’ He smiles ruefully. ‘It’s for the best. Beth and I should never have gotten married in the first place.’

My face doesn’t flicker. I try to appear not really interested, but every cell in my body is like a finely tuned receptor.

‘I met Beth when she was a freshman at college and the complete opposite of me – she was loud, confident, the life and soul of every party . . .We used to argue like crazy.’

As he tells me this information, I try to imagine it. Nate? Arguing like crazy? But I can’t. He’s always so mild-mannered, so laid-back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose his temper.

‘We were only married a year and she moved out. Looking back, we should have called it a day then, I suppose.’

‘Why didn’t you?’ I blurt, then catching myself, quickly add, ‘I mean, if you weren’t getting along.’

‘I don’t know. I suppose I didn’t want to let anyone down. We had this great big wedding . . .’ His voice trails off awkwardly.

‘I know. You were in the New York Times.’

‘You saw it?’ He looks surprised and embarrassed.

As do I for admitting I’ve seen it.

‘My sister, Kate, did. She lives here, you know. She showed it to me.’

The truth is, she tore it out and posted it to me, her reasoning being it was best that I knew all the facts. Secretly I knew she was hoping that by seeing his wedding picture I would finally stop mooning over him, move on, forget all about him. And it worked. Sort of.

‘It looked like a good wedding.’ I smile brightly and drain my glass.

I swear I have just turned into Miss Maturity. Look at me! All cool and calm and not even the teeniest bit jealous or upset. It’s amazing. I feel noble. Magnanimous.

A little bit drunk, I suddenly realise.

‘It was a big wedding.’ He nods. ‘We had three hundred guests at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.’

‘Wow,’ I murmur, not because of the size of his guest list, but because I can’t believe I’m sitting here, talking about Nate’s wedding, with Nate. It’s just so bizarre.

‘Trust me, I don’t think I even knew who half of them were. Still don’t,’ he continues, shaking his head. Picking up his wine, he looks at me thoughtfully. ‘Anyway, enough about me. What about you? Who’s the lucky guy?’

I feel my cheeks redden and for a brief moment I think about making one up, then decide to come clean. We never did play games, Nate and me, no point starting now. ‘There isn’t one,’ I say, averting my eyes and looking down at my empty glass.

‘What?’ Now he’s the one to look incredulous. ‘Why not?’

Because I never got over you, because no one ever came close, because you were the One, whispers a little voice inside me.

Instead I just shrug my shoulders. ‘I guess I’m still waiting for the right person.’

All the wine on an empty stomach is making me feeling light-headed and the bar has started to sway slowly. Lifting my eyes, I meet his.

‘Smart.’ He nods, looking reflective. ‘I should’ve done the same.’

There’s a pause as we look at each other. Neither of us speaks. Is it just me or is something happening here? Is something going to happen here?

Somewhere in my body a tiny pulse starts beating.

‘Have you ever been back to Venice?’

My chest tightens and I feel my breath catch inside my throat. ‘No, never,’ I manage, trying to keep my voice steady. ‘What about you?’

His eyes have never left mine.

‘A million times,’ he replies quietly.

My heart skips a beat. So I didn’t imagine it. I feel a rush of emotion and for a split second it’s like I’m suspended on the verge of something, wondering what he’s going to say next, where this is going.

‘I married the wrong woman, Lucy.’

His voice is low, but it’s clear and composed. I feel myself reeling. Oh my God, I can’t believe it . . . I can’t believe it . . . Hearing his startling confession, I feel shocked, astonished, stunned and yet . . .

And yet there’s something else . . . deep down inside . . . an overwhelming feeling of calm, inevitability, destiny.

‘I made the biggest mistake of my life when I lost you and I’ve never stopped regretting it. I’ve thought about you for years. Wondered where you are, what you’re doing, if I’d ever see you again. Sometimes I even used to imagine seeing you again, bumping into you in the street . . .’

I’m listening to him talking, but it could be me speaking. It could be my voice saying these same things. Because this is exactly what I’ve been doing all these years. It’s like he’s reading from my diary, talking about my life, and yet it’s been his life too. All this time we’ve been leading parallel lives and we never knew it.

‘It was crazy. I even went to see a therapist about it once.’

I snap back. ‘A therapist?’

‘Well, I was in LA.’ He looks sheepish. ‘I was depressed about work, but I just spent the whole time talking about you.’

Tiny darts of joy are pricking my skin, making me tingle all over. I never dared to imagine he would be thinking about me. I assumed that he never gave me a second thought, that I was long forgotten. Yet while I was in London thinking about him, there he was in LA thinking about me.

‘Look, I know this sounds stupid, but . . .’ His voice trails off. He hesitates, then looks back up at me, his eyes searching out mine. ‘Do you believe in soulmates?’

Our eyes lock. My heart hammers in my chest. I feel dizzy. I’ve drunk too much wine. It’s all too much. Everything is fuzzy. Yet in that moment there’s a flash of something so clear, so definite, so absolutely certain that I have no doubts.

‘Yes,’ I whisper. ‘Yes, I do, Nate.’

And then it happens.

Leaning towards me, he reaches for my hand, and interlacing his fingers through mine, he pulls me towards him, slowly, gently. Closing my eyes, I sink into him. It’s like nothing’s changed. He feels the same, he smells the same, and as his lips brush against mine, it’s as if the years simply melt away and we’re right back on that gondola in Venice . . .

He kisses just the same too.

You're the One That I Don't Want