It was Christmas Eve but it didn't matter, I didn't celebrate Christmas anyways. New York was uncommonly cold this year, and even though I'd already arrived half an hour ago, my fingers were still too stiff from the icy temperature, repeatedly trying out the weird sensation of strumming the strings on my worn out guitar, before pausing and rubbing them together, in an attempt to warm them up.
Perched on the wooden stool, I could oversee the entire shop front of the backstreet cafe I had called home for two years now: on this festive day that was supposed to be spent with family, there were only an odd few number of customers dotting the tables, all ironically sitting by themselves. I did choose to move to this metropolitan to cover up my loneliness with the abundance of everybody else's, I guess. I glanced at the bar behind me; the clock read four in the afternoon despite the darkening sky outside and it seemed that no barista had the heart to make sure I was working just yet. My fingers distractedly tapped on the no longer glossy surface of my guitar, my eyes drifting to the bright billboards and Christmas lights out of the shop window. The contrasting light was almost mocking the dark atmosphere of the room, and I couldn't help but be offended by the small white banner, reminding me of my joke of a "singing career", which was launched with a concept unlike those obnoxiously colourful graphics staring back at me right now. I sighed and forced my sight away from the blindingly bright lights outside, propping my guitar upright and willing my fingers to find the simple chords to the opening of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, putting myself to work.
A few inappropriately solemn festive songs later, the doorbell chimed at the arrival of a new customer. Two, to be exact, my lips involuntarily curling upwards at the sight of a familiar wobbly child with green eyes and chubby cheeks, the lyrics dying in my throat as my fingertips carelessly continued to dance across the strings. You didn't look as enthusiastic, or well fed as your small doppelganger did, I observed as you flashed me a tiny smile in acknowledgement, old fashioned glasses half falling off the bridge of your nose. "Hello Levi," my hand reached down to ruffle his tuft of soft blonde hair as he hobbled to the base of my stool, his bubbly giggles instantly brightening the dim room, just like the you I used to know always did. "Merry Christmas Uncle Troye!" He handed over a messily wrapped, suspiciously Nutella-jar-shaped item as I glanced over at the booth where you've settled into, nodding a silent thank you as I beamed at the child, whose eyes conveyed nothing but genuine fondness for me, and my heart lurched at the sparkling emerald orbs that resembled yours so much. I playfully shooed him away with a candy cane as a more upbeat Christmas tune came to my lips.
I still haven't recovered from the shock when you first stepped into the coffee shop that day in March, me almost falling out of my stool and dropping my precious instrument out of shock as we locked eyes over the small distance. Here you were in the flesh, almost 30 years old, married with a kid, looking so tired and stressed that you had "financial issues" written all over your face; so familiar yet so foreign to me. It was too surreal for me to process, the very same optimistic, youthful and cheerful Tyler who I graduated with, currently sitting across me with a black coffee cupped in your hands, filling me in with all the details of your life I've missed ever since we've last seen each other a decade ago, before leaving with an invitation to your late husband's funeral. As I slumped in the leather seat of the booth with an empty cup before me, I was beyond dumbfounded. Whilst I wasted my years drifting around, trying to find my direction in life, you'd already had a heck of a journey, albeit a rocky one. I laughed bitterly as I stood up and cleared the table away, the thought of you getting married and having kids, moving on from all the childish promises we had made of travelling the world and getting an apartment in San Francisco together, was almost too much to bear.
The next time you visited the conversation revolved around me instead. You were still as sweet and sensitive as I remembered, my foolish plans of making a name in Los Angeles and being a singer never once passing your lips as I briefly skimmed over the timeline of when I had left Los Angeles and settled on the East Coast instead. Nonetheless, your now calloused fingers drawing supposedly soothing circles in the back of my hands in natural habit did not help but fuel the guilt in the pit of my stomach, that maybe things would have played out differently between us if I hadn't left our little town in order to chase some futile dream. I wondered to what extent I could blame you for moving on from our good times together, when initially I was the one who had walked away.
You didn't seemed too bothered though, even prying on the pathetic album that I'd produced some years ago, smiling politely as you closed your eyes and pressed the earphones against your ears, attempting to drown yourself in the little world of my music and tuning out the unforgiving city around us. I bit my lip, thinking better of telling the story behind that song, which was ironically inspired by the mindless hours we spent together sitting on the hood of your car, me pressing those bulky headphones against your ear as I bombarded you with what I thought was my world, that had been oh-so-important to me to lead to the loss of my best friend.
It was an extremely selfish thought, especially when I should've been consoling a reunited high school friend who was recently windowed, but a tiny part of me couldn't help but think this was the heavens above giving me a second chance. Truth be told, the specks of blue and green in your eyes still lit up my universe, and your now softer cackles, worn down from your life experiences, did not fail to clutch at my ribcage as they did with my teenage heart before. As I watched the sugar cube being dunked into your plain coffee, it was like watching myself drown. I realised I really, really missed you all this time along, even though I was the one to shut you out for the past decade.
I thought I was in love with him before, but it was you all along, wasn't it? The same mud coloured hair, the familiar emerald eyes that crinkled in laughter and were deep enough to drown in; subconsciously, I had never intended to leave you behind. The memory of my estranged "lover" mocked my every move as I kept my eyes trained on the real thing in the flesh, your eyes twinkling genuinely for the first time ever since our reunion as you mused over my lack of focus.
As you waved at me across the road upon your departure, my mind went to a far away place, one of my most close-to-heart original songs spilling out of my lips distractedly. Suddenly I wasn't a lost, almost middle aged man singing in a backstreet cafe anymore. I saw a seaside hut, a living room, a mantlepiece. I saw you, and me, remaining as carefree as I remembered whilst we raced across a sandy beach. There was a beautiful pair of children, our children. I could almost hear their names ringing in my dreams. It was all so clear, so close that I could almost reach out and grasp it, except that it wasn't real. In another universe, maybe, however no matter how close two parallel lines ran, they would just never meet.
When I finally met Levi, I knew right away that everything was irreversible. You saw the world in him, and it wasn't hard to see why. The boy was a cookie cutter version of his father, and even me, an almost-stranger who had only seen the man in question once, in a black frame surrounded by white roses, could instantly pick out the resemblance. Levi was the only thing left of him, of this apparent love of your life, and the adoration in your eyes had told me enough. You could never love someone as much as you miss them, and the hole in your heart might never get patched up, even if Levi tried. Some twisted part in me commanded my hatred towards the little creature who served as a constant reminder of your dead husband, but it was virtually impossible since as soon as he giggled, I was convinced that he would grow up to be another angel just like his dad. How could I muster hate towards an innocent child, especially when every single little move he made constantly led my thoughts back to you?
I was knocked out of my trance by the unmistakable scent of cinnamon, and Levi's small palm tugging at the hem of my shirt, him insistently requesting me to sing Let It Go with barely articulate vocabulary. I wouldn't expect any otherwise from a Disney lover's son, so I smiled and did as I was told.
Most of the other customers had left by now, the last one just stepping out of the door as my eyes followed the old lady outside. It was snowing. The little boy noticed too, hopping to the window immediately as he squealed with glee. You laughed, the sound warming my entire being more than any mulled drink could ever do. However it was also at this particular moment when the shop owner brought out a slice of her Yule log cake, sympathy etched on her features as she watched the exhilarated child climb onto the leather seat in attempt to see the white fluff better. It was out of character of the usually harsh woman, but I imagine no one could turn a cold heart towards a widow and his small child spending their first Christmas as a broken family. You looked conflicted, tempted by the delicious food before you and obliged to pay courtesy, but Levi was not to be contained, demanding to be brought outside to see the snow. Christmas magic must be somewhat real, because the dense woman for once had caught on and diligently ushered the boy outside, pushing the inviting food towards you in the process. You dug into the cake without mercy as soon as the two of them were out of the door. I laughed involuntarily.
"What?" You glared at me in feeble attempt, the spiteful snap coming out muffled as you stuffed your face with the chocolate goodness. I only laughed even harder, this time the corner of my eyes crinkling and my head tipped back as if it were the most natural response. I hadn't been this happy in a long time, and I could tell that you hadn't too as my laughter was joined by your "hyena cackle" as I had dubbed years earlier. My eyes were still shut but I saw galaxies and stars. In you I saw my entire world. However I found even better things to look at as my gaze met yours, the moment strangely intimate as the room was void of anyone and anything, except for the overwhelmingly domestic warm atmosphere and inviting scents of spices and chocolate. I wasn't one to celebrate Christmas, but your happiness had converted me.
You briefly glanced out of the window to watch your son dance in the snow, bursting our delicate bubble. Everything came crashing down for me. Whatever I was desperately holding onto for that millisecond, it was never to be found again and I was back to being lost for eternity. Your turquoise eyes travelled back to my line of vision but it wasn't the same anymore, because suddenly I saw with much more clarity than I had before. The unspoken words, the regret; the same scenarios of what we were, what we could've become and what we would never be playing in sync before us as the solemnity filled the room. There was a smile, but it never reached your eyes; it was apologetic and heartfelt, like everything else coming from you were, however the pang of guilt hadn't reduced by a single notch as I blamed myself for being a coward, for not preserving the magic between us whilst it was still alive, for keeping the words I should've said to myself.
So this song was for you, and for me; in order for me to get the as close as I could to forgiving myself. Please don't be startled, although nothing really startles you anymore; I beg you to sit in silence and pretend this was just another cheesy festive tune as you listen to the words pouring out from the pit of my heart. My fingers strummed the chords confidently, compensating for the bravery that I never possessed. This was my way of saying I love you, and I never intended for you to respond in any other way, other than merely politely cheering and boasting over my songwriting abilities in faux childishness. Just for tonight, just for this one song; let's pretend that me, singing to you a song that held so much weight, both of us watching your son endearingly as the snow fell silently on Christmas Eve; was not at all a weirdly twisted picture. Because when tomorrow morning comes, when we inevitably wake up on Christmas Day, we won't be on the same bed, in the beach hut that appeared so frequently in my dreams, just like the ring on your finger will always be someone else's, and I'm not sure I would be okay with that.
In all honesty, I couldn't bring myself to believe that I would ever be okay, but as long as you and Levi were having a merry Christmas, I'm sure I could live.