That boy you’re about to meet

by Aki Schilz

The one with the slow smile.

Don’t fall for it.

You’ll walk into the bar with K_ and he’ll be there, at the slot machine. Only you won’t see him at first, because he’ll be obscured by A_ (K_’s ex) who is standing in his knee-length camel coat with the fur trim, his face flushed and serious, hair tousled over a pale forehead, one arm leaning against the plastic flash of the slot machine’s side, and the fruits are lighting up and there’s the jingling sound of loose change over the general bar hum, and then A_ moves, and you see him.

You see his smile.

Nothing happens yet, though. It won’t until after the introductions (‘A_, this is M_. M_, A_.’), and the awkward handshakes, clammy and cold from the sides of cloudy pint glasses and condensation-beaded lemonade slim jims that later slip out of your hand and splash their fizzy, sticky contents down the front of your T-shirt, which you wish you hadn’t worn now but you can’t quite work out why. You think perhaps it makes you look too young. You’ve just turned 18, and you are aware of the bulk of your passport, which you are using as ID, in your jeans pocket, pushing against the front of your thigh, which tenses when you squeeze into a tattered booth next to A_  – M_ sits next to K_ and slings an arm around her shoulder in a way that doesn’t make you feel jealous, exactly, just odd – and you all four sip at your drinks (you are the only one not to be drinking alcohol), making idle but slightly too loud conversation about school and the summer holidays, which have just gone. Your hands are still brown from your two weeks in Spain on a girls’ holiday (your first), which you tell them about, your voice too bright and clanging, pitched just a little too high. You start to feel uncomfortable, are aware of him not looking at you with his quiet blue eyes that dance in the light falling from the cheap lamps hanging in the bar, casting shadows between the booths and the huddles of bar-goers. He is tapping his fingers lightly across the table (which you notice now is scarred with names and crudely scrawled love hearts), and he gets out a packet of cigarettes and stands to leave. There is a shuffling of bodies as A­_ joins him. You have to half stand to make space, and you and A_ are suddenly far too close and you think perhaps he winks at you. K_ raises her eyebrows at you, and you flick your hair and roll your eyes, then immediately regret this. You settle back in your seat, smooth your hair and your T-shirt. You wait for the boys to return, shyly but in companionable silence, filled by the conversation of the other sweaty, eager teens who are all here for interviews too. Some boys in blazers and neck-ties standing in a group nearby glance at K_; she pretends not to notice, and you shake your head in what you hope is a grown-up, dismissive gesture. The place smells vaguely of hops and sweat and urine. And cheap perfume. You hope it isn’t yours. The boys come back, and this time he smiles at you. In that slow way that you’ll get to know later. In that crooked, half-sincere, maddening way you’ll learn to love, later. And to hate.

It still doesn’t happen. It won’t even happen when you hear his voice properly for the first time, when all four of you step out into the cool air and the thick, close noise of the bar parts like a sea and suddenly each voice is clearer (and younger), and his rings like a glass struck with a spoon, sending strange vibrations across your skin. You think it’s just the cold, so you pull your jacket tightly around you, and make to step across the road.

And that’s when it happens.

As your foot leaves the curb, just before it hits the road, you are aware of him beside you. You are aware that his step is suddenly perfectly in sync with yours. And you are aware of his hand, in the small of your back, guiding you across the road. The whole world tunnels into this small space, at the base of your back, and your spine is straining to break out of its vertebrae, the curvature is all wrong and you want to wriggle out of it, click out of each bone and spread your arms wide and open your mouth wide and there is nothing, nothing except his hand on your back. You are vaguely aware of a taxi beeping, and K_ laughing. You reach the other side of the road, and he drops his arm casually. And your heart is beating wildly, like a bird flailing against a window it simply cannot see. All it sees is the sky, and all it wants is to fly into it, face first, smash the blue into pieces and fall, and fall, and fall.

That’s when it will happen. Just before you step over the road. And that will be it. So take my advice. Don’t fall for it. Don’t let him stretch out a hand to guide you across that road, and don’t listen when he pays you a compliment later, in the second bar, over your second lemonade. Or if you do listen, don’t let your guard down quite so quickly so that when he looks at you, as he will, he won’t know in that split-second with absolute clarity and certainty, that he’s got you. Don’t let him have you. And for goodness’ sake, later, when you are dancing so closely you feel dizzy, in the club after the second bar, and a woman spills the contents of her handbag on the floor, and he helps her, and there are a hundred silver bangles glinting like moon-slivers in the purple light, do not let him slip one of these bangles into your hand, and brush a kiss against your cheek. Because you will wear it even when you get your first boyfriend, the following year, and you will lie and say it was a gift from a friend. And you will continue to wear it and you will continue to lie about it until in the third or fourth year one side wears thin and you are too afraid to wear it, so you place it in a box you keep in your room, and whenever you so much as glance at the box, you remember his smile, and his hand on the small of your back, and even though now you don’t really speak and it hasn’t been the same for years, you still feel the heat rising into your cheeks and you feel a slow, burning sensation in the small of your back, where his hand was, once, and on your wrist, which he grabbed once, years later. And his eyes. But you mustn’t think of those. You mustn’t think of that. Because it won’t happen.

It won’t.

If you just don’t let him smile at you.

Or guide you across that goddamn road.

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