I saw him from across a crowded room, five years after I came to America. I had never seen him wearing clothes like that before, or drinking champagne before, or surrounded by so many rich and beautiful people. When we had last spoken, he had just been our Stephen. Now he was STEPHEN COLLEY, with his name spelled out in lights and appearing a foot high on cinema screens and, no doubt, whispered longingly by girls across the country.
I made my excuses to the people I was talking to and walked over to him. Just as I approached, I momentarily had the silliest fear that he wouldn’t recognise me, but of course he did. When I was right in front of him and we were talking, what surprised me was how little he had changed. He had the same strong jaw, the same soft eyes, the same thick fair hair. He asked what I had been doing lately and enquired after father and Topaz and Rose. For some reason I got the strangest lump in my throat, and suddenly felt wildly frustrated that we were making polite conversation when all I wanted to do was throw my arms around him.
I took him out onto the balcony. It was late, and the city was lit by car headlights and the bright gold squares of windows.
‘I read your story in The New Yorker,’ he said.
I looked up in surprise. I had had a short story published in the magazine some months before. I had sent the pages to father and Rose. Rose had written back saying she ‘liked the part with the dog’, and I had no idea if father had read it at all.
Stephen smiled at me. ‘I enjoyed it very much.’
‘Did you really?’ I asked him.
Stephen suddenly looked shy. Perhaps he was worried that I was going to quiz him on it. ‘It made me miss home,’ he said.
Later I wondered if when he said ‘home’ what he really meant was ‘you’.
I asked him about his work and he told me about the film he was making. Now that we were out on the balcony alone he seemed more relaxed. His smile came easily. Goodness, he was handsome. It looked like he had grown taller since I had last seen him. I wanted to be closer to him, so much closer.
There was a time I thought I would love Simon Cotton forever. And I had loved him for many years, but it never did me any good. He got settled in England, and I came to America and threw myself into my work. Over time I went from thinking of him every moment, to every hour, to every day, until it was only once in a while. I have a romantic notion that your first love stays with you forever, even if you don’t love them forever.
Did Stephen still love me, or did he detest me for breaking his heart? Would he think that I only liked him now because he was a famous movie star? Did I only like him now because he was a famous movie star? The idea was repellent to me, but I forced myself to examine it. So many memories had flooded back when I saw him. The plagiarised poems he used to give me, the way he would practically bow his head in deference to me, the time we blushed together in the kitchen. The time we kissed in the wood.
I’d thought about my kiss with Simon so much that I’d almost forgotten it was Stephen who was my first kiss. And then I wondered who the last person Stephen had kissed was. Perhaps it had been with some glamorous film star while cameras surrounded them. Or worse, perhaps he had a steady girlfriend or fiancée.
It was my Stephen I wanted. Not the new, film star Stephen who walked red carpets and drank champagne. Looking into his eyes, hearing him speak, I could see that he was still there.
‘Let’s get a car,’ I said, suddenly bold. ‘Take me to your home.’
We left the party and stepped out onto the street. A number of gleaming black taxis were parked on the road, and Stephen opened the door of one of them so I could climb in. He gave the driver his address and the car took us away. In the dark of the backseat, I took his hand.
Stephen’s flat was in a quiet but fashionable part of town. When he led me in, he looked somewhat embarrassed by his own obvious prosperity. We settled on the couch. I knew he would want to pour me a drink and put on a record, but I needed him now. I didn’t want to hesitate in case everything dissolved and this impossible night was lost forever. I leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth. His lips parted willingly for me. I could feel the heat from his skin, and I moved closer, placing a hand on his thigh.
I drew back, and reached for the straps of my long ivory dress, starting to take it off. Stephen knelt before me and carefully took off my shoes, placing them under the couch. Then I stood to let my dress fall to the floor, and stepped out of it. Stephen began kissing my thighs.
‘Let’s go to bed,’ I said.
Stephen looked absolutely mesmerised. ‘Yes Miss Cassandra,’ he said.
So many times in our youth I had been embarrassed by the title, and so many times I had told him to stop. But now I found I didn’t mind at all.