It had been almost half a year before he saw her again, sitting in the shade of a deep blue patio umbrella outside the cafe they used to visit together, absorbed in the book before her.
Her expression was serene and the gentle breeze caused a flutter in her hazel brown hair that flowed out from under the beanie she wore on her head; her long cream skirt swirled about her crossed legs.
The book must have been interesting– she barely looked up when he sat down in the chair opposite her, dragging the chair back noisily to alert her to his presence. Then he waited, his drink in hand, for her to look up and see him.
After what seemed like a hundred heartbeats, she slowly looked up from the page she was engrossed in and their eyes met.
Cool grey into warm brown; in the reflection of her eyes, he seemed to see a shine in his own that he had not seen for so long. For a very brief moment, no one spoke; it seemed as if the silence between them was so precious and so fragile that speech could break it irreversibly.
“Oh!” She said at long last, her tone rather neutral for greeting someone that was once so dear to her.
She had spoken first, and she would always be the first to do things, be it the one to initiate their going out together or their breakup, she had always been the one to say things first.
“So…”he began, his voice unsure and wavering, “So…how have you been?”
The normality of the question struck him: he had wanted to see her so badly for the past few months since they broke up, there were so many things that he wanted to tell her, so many things he wanted to ask her, and yet when he finally saw her, the first question that left his lips was so incredibly…lame.
It seemed, to his general relief that she did not seem to find the question lame as he did, but pondered it at great length, as if he had asked her a very difficult question that required deep thought.
At last, she spoke.
“Well, you know, the usual. Exams, taking care of my brother, reading some of the books I like. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
He nodded and sipped on his drink slowly, meditatively, savoring her words and her voice in his mind as he ran through what she had just said. She on the other hand, stared calmly past his head, as though there was something that was so interesting that she could not tear her eyes away from it.
The silence slowly turned awkward, and the ice coffee that he had turned from sipping into gulping for the sake of doing something was now chilling his stomach. Then she returned her gaze to him.
“So, how have you been?” she finally asked.
Missing you, his head screamed. Thinking about you in all of my waking moments and dreaming of you in my sleep. And wondering over and over again how we ended that way.
The voices in his head tuned out as he looked up from his coffee to reply, “The usual too. Nothing particularly interesting.”
She nodded too, and for the tiniest fraction of a moment he thought he saw something that flickered across her face that could have been relief, but he blinked, and her expressionless mask was back in place.
“I haven’t been seeing you around here much, ” he decided to probe, “do you still come here for coffee often?”
At his question, she smiled. It didn’t seem to be a happy smile, and there was something remotely sad about the way that the smile did not quite reach her eyes.
“Oh no,” she said softly, “Today is the first time…in a very long time. I was…rather busy.”
Her words brought a uncomfortable lump to his throat as the word “busy” rang resoundingly in his ahead, setting off several alarm bells. Who was she busy with? What was she busy with? Had she found…someone else?
“Have you found someone?” he blurted before he could stop himself.
She looked up in mild surprise at the undisguised anxiety in his voice before slipping back into her calm self. “Nope, not really.” she answered.
He almost breathed a sigh of relief as his heart rate slowly returned to normal.
She had returned to her book and for a while, he sat there peacefully, watching her as she read. He realized then that she seemed to have lost some weight, and that she looked paler than before. Had their break up affected her as much as it affected him? If so, why then did she initiate it?
“You have lost quite some weight,” he ventured to ask, “have you been sleeping and eating well?”
She looked up instantly, like his words had alarmed her. There seemed to be a trace of uncertainty in her eyes…and something else that he could not quite put a finger on.
“No,” she chuckled, for some reason he did not know, “I couldn’t sleep or eat well for a while.”
At her words, his heart started to pump painfully fast again, and blood seemed to roar in his ears as his ribs expanded and contracted painfully with each strained breath he took.
“W-why did you break up with me then?”he could not help but blurt once more.
She barely flinched at the accusatory tone in his voice; it was as though she had somehow anticipated the question.
“I didn’t see any future for us…”she returned steadily, holding his gaze with her warm brown eyes, “I didn’t know where our relationship would be heading.”
At her words, he felt the dam of his anger flood break, and before he knew it, he had stood up in such a fast movement that he had knocked over his chair.
“Didn’t know where we were heading?!? Oh the brilliancy of it all!” he mocked, his voice laced with venom and hurt as he continued to lash out at the impassive figure before him, “Couldn’t see our future together so you broke up with me? Why didn’t I think of that?”
He breathed hard through his nose, his chest rising and falling as he drew in deep lungfuls of breath. When he had calmed down a little, he looked at her. She was still staring at him as if he had not just caused a commotion with his shouting, even though he felt there was much more under her facade of eerie calm.
“Do you know how much p-pain I was in? Do you even know what you have done to me? I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t listen to the songs we had listened to because it would hurt, so much. I turned whenever I heard my name called, hoping against hope that it was you…but it was not. It never was. How could you have been able to let go so easily when it nearly broke me to let go?” Only at the very end did his voice break.
For a while, there was silence, punctuated by the chirping of the nearby sparrows foraging for food.
He looked up at her, and saw that her brown eyes shone too brightly, and the surface seemed to ripple as she looked at him intently. She’s crying, he thought, his heart twisting again, I made her cry.
But the tears didn’t fall. She seemed to have been a changed person since they were last together, and she seemed to have mastered the arts of not letting her tears fall.
“I am sorry,” she whispered, her voice rough with restrained emotions. “I really am.”
“Can’t we get back together?” he asked, his voice almost bordering on desperation, “Is there no chance at all? I miss you, come back to me.”
At his words she turned away from him, her gaze sweeping till they rest on the sparrows by the sidewalk. The pair of birds chirruped happily as they pecked at the small piece of bread lying on the ground.
“We can’t…” her voice seemed to tremble a little. “I can’t…we can’t. I am sorry.”
His heart shattered a bit more, both at her tremulous voice and at her answering negative.
“D-don’t you love me anymore?” he asked uncertainly, almost begging for her to hold onto him.
She turned to look at him, her face pale and her eyes still shining.
“I did…” she affirmed in past tense, “But no, I don’t love you anymore.”
With that, she stood up hastily and left, leaving her book behind with him and his weakly drumming heart.
He didn’t see how her tears fall unbidden the moment she turned to walk away from him, he didn’t hear her apologize to him over and over again under her breath as her figure shrank in the distance. He was too entrapped in his own pain.
He slowly reached for her book and turned to its cover page.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, the cover read.