I met Juliet by accident. Perhaps I should have seen something in that. She could have met anybody that night; she wasn’t the kind of girl you could hold onto.
It was raining and I was standing outside the Star and Garter talking to my on/off boyfriend James when I noticed her, pacing slowly, talking intently into her phone. We walked around the pub car park, the two of us, with no sign of ending our conversations or going to find somewhere dry, crossing paths frequently as we circled until eventually we acknowledged each other. I raised my eyebrows and she rolled her eyes and it was clear that we were both phone hostages, or phone hostages with Stockholm syndrome: out there in the rain, at least partially, against our will.
Juliet finished her call before me but she didn’t go back inside, she leaned against the wall and lit a cigarette. I carried on talking to James, battling really; we were on the verge of another break up. It was obviously a private conversation but she stayed where she was, smoking calmly with her elfin hands, looking at me from time to time, unflinching, and the remarkable thing, the thing that was interesting, was that I didn’t mind.
“D’you want a fag?” she said when I finally put the phone down and I nodded and sat down next to her on the wet bench.
“I don’t think I want to go back in there.”
She shook her head.
“I ought to say bye really.”
“No more doing the right thing. Let’s go and get us a drink.”
I felt comfortable with her in a way that I hadn’t for a long time, and I couldn’t work out if it was because of the way she was, all open and natural like that, or if it was something else, something more significant. I was confused from the start.
Juliet took me back to her house. We sat at her kitchen table drinking vodka, talking about the conversations we’d just had. Juliet had ended a relationship with her boss at the pub, a man much older than her called Daniel. She made him sound ridiculous and I felt sorry for him but that didn’t stop me laughing. I told her I was warming up to do the same with James but it was complicated because I’d already broken up with him twice. He might take it to heart.
We were like a pair of little gods sitting there deciding people’s fate. We dramatised ourselves for each other, slagged off everyone else in the world, made jokes about the things that mattered to us most so the other would laugh. We stayed up in the kitchen until all the vodka was gone then went for a walk because Juliet was feeling drunk.
“I hate going to sleep drunk,” she said, “it’s such a waste.”
I stayed over that night. In the morning she made me toast and gave me a clean top and I went to uni. It was so easy between us. From that point on we were inseparable.
It was her that suggested going away together.
“You can annoy me by being anal about the arrangements and I can annoy you by never quite being ready on time. It’ll be excellent.”
I laughed at how excellent it would be. Of course I wanted to go away with Juliet. It was the best idea I’d ever heard.
Our knees touched occasionally as we sat in the travel agents, excitement jumping between us whenever we caught eyes. I loved the way she was so open and unreserved, didn’t put an act on for anyone. She talked to Jim, the travel agent, like he was her good friend, made a fool of herself saying the sort of jokes I always keep to myself because they’re not actually funny, and he loved it. We had a great time, the three of us, and by the end of the hour it was like he was coming too, he was so enthusiastic.
Jim booked us flights to Singapore with a night in a luxury hotel thrown in, then on to Bali for much less than we’d expected to spend. We went out for dinner to celebrate. Eating out was awkward for me since I didn’t eat wheat or sugar or dairy back then but Juliet was great about it. She sat patiently, while I squirmed my instructions to the surly waitress, didn’t make me feel like a terrible fusser. The next time we ate out together she ordered for me. She asked exactly what I wanted and, smilingly, made sure the waitress understood how important it was that the soup wasn’t made from a roux or that the tortilla chips weren’t coated with flour. Those times I’d sit back, having ordered lasagne and chips or steak pie, whatever unwholesome thing Juliet fancied. I’d sit back and watch, a great big feeling like love swelling in my chest.
A few nights before we were due to go away, we went for drinks. We ended up in this tacky club we both used to go to when we were first year students.
We sat on the floor by the pool table and talked about the boys we’d loved, the boys that had loved us, we pulled faces at each other and made up new phrases and nicknames and then, just before closing, I held her hand.
“I like you.” I said and she smiled, all innocent and said, “I like you too,” and I imagined all the people she had strung along accidentally in the history of her life.
“No, I mean I really like you, like, I like you.”
Her eyes widened and I was almost as surprised because I hadn’t been considering us as more than friends until then either. The words had just popped out, but as soon as they were I felt their truth. Because I wanted to be with her all the time, I mean all the time. I’d never felt the same way about anyone else, not even James, not quite. That perfect compatibility...
I don’t remember too much after that but we had more shots and ended up kissing outside the butchers, which we thought was hilarious, and then I went home with her like I had so many times before, only this time we kissed in her bed, pressed ourselves against each other before we fell asleep.
I woke up in just my pants, spooning Juliet as the sun came through the window. I was at the back, the man; the butch, and I was so scared of her waking up in case she regretted everything. I eased myself out of the bed and into my clothes as quietly as I could but then, just before I left, I realised that Juliet was awake too in that way that sometimes you just know for absolute certain. Her breathing was too slow and steady, the sort of breathing I used to do when I wanted my parents to think I was asleep when they were checking on me after a row.
I walked home, feeling terrible, thinking of her lying there awake but not saying anything and how different it had been every other time I had woken up in her bed. I smelled of booze and sweat, and I just wanted to get home and have a shower and a cup of tea and wait to hear what she thought.
At two o’clock, about eight hours later, Juliet rang.
“Hello,” I said in a voice that acknowledged everything and when she said hello back and it was like hearing her voice for the first time, there was something so new in it.
“D’you want to come over and talk or something?” she said, and I thought, No, because she sounded slightly amused like this definitely wasn’t something to be taken seriously, but, of course, I said, Yes.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say and I felt pathetic, like she had this power over me now but then she said bye in this stupid high-pitched voice that she always used to do and I thought, No, it’s okay, it’s Juliet.
She was sitting in the garden with sunglasses on when I arrived and she handed me a pair, smiling, said, “To make things easier.”
I put them on. “I don’t think I can do this out loud, have you got a pen and paper?”
Juliet looked delighted because she thought we were making such a game out of it but really I was just being honest.
“You start,” she grinned, passing me a notebook, and I said, “No you,” and she said “Okay,” and started writing.
I opened the book and read in her childish scribble. Did you mean what you said last night?
I looked at her sitting there excitedly in her sunglasses not seeming to be affected at all and I wrote, No, because I didn’t want anything to change more than it already had. I didn’t want to be included in her list of things to be ridiculed. I wrote: I just love you a lot. I got confused.
I passed it back, wincing, because not knowing what was going on in her head was so intense. She winced back at me like she understood but she looked infinitely comfortable and that was the moment that I started to feel ungainly around her. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps we shouldn’t go on this holiday.
She smiled when she read what I’d written, then grabbed my hand and said:
“I love you too. I’m so relieved!”
She gave me a big familiar hug and my stomach dropped but I was also ecstatic because I thought, at least we could carry on how we were.
She took her sunglasses off then, like this business is officially closed, said, “Can we go for a drive now?”
The next few days we didn’t see each other and then it was time to go to the airport. We were so desperate for things to get back to normal that we acted over the top with each other; there was an element of hysteria about us.
I felt sick almost as soon as I got on the plane while Juliet settled in for a massive nap.
“I am an excellent sleeper,” she announced, “it’s my main skill in life.”
I felt annoyed at how pleased she was with herself, how easy everything was for her. I sat at the back with the air hostesses being sick into a bag while the whole cabin slept. By the time we landed thirteen hours later I was pale and light headed. Juliet woke up and smiled at me, gleeful and oblivious as ever.
And it was so hot. Our faces were constantly misted up by the humidity and I felt like I needed to wash every second but Juliet loved it. Her cheeks got red and her hair got frizzy and she kept running off to look down side streets or at unimportant things on the pavement like dead rats or bits of paper.
“What’s the matter with you?” she said, as I dragged myself around, “we’re here!”
I desperately needed some food but there was nothing I could eat because of my intolerances and in the end Juliet snapped at me, “Can’t you just eat some wheat, this once?”
I hated that she was saying this to me now, when all along she’d been so understanding when no one else ever was and so I told her No, I couldn’t just eat some fucking wheat, it would make me fucking ill, and I said it in this whiny voice, like I was doing an impression of her, and it was over the top and I knew it but couldn’t stop myself.
She was silent after that, walked along looking disappointed. Finally, I ended up eating plain rice as we walked back to our luxury hotel, through the Indian market, past the other tall buildings.
Our room was amazing. It had a massive double bed and a giant TV and returning to it the atmosphere disappeared between us immediately. Juliet jumped on to the bed, which was strangely high so it would probably really hurt if you fell off it in the night, and bounced around on her bum like she was five years old and I climbed on and did the same. I found Pretty Woman on one of the channels and we both realised we knew most of the script, started shouting the bits we knew as loud as we could.
“WHO DO YOU KNOW THAT GOT A HAPPY ENDING?”
The air conditioning made my nose itch so we turned it off and threw the windows wide but it was like sitting in the way of the city’s hot breath. I suggested we go for a swim.
“Juliet? Do you want to go for a swim?” I repeated myself thinking she hadn’t heard me and she turned round and gave me the dirtiest look I’ve ever seen, said very slowly:
“No, I do not want to go for a fucking swim, a fucking swim will make me fucking sick,” then she burst out laughing and I laughed with her. I was the funniest, most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard of.
We bought Singapore slings from the bar in the middle of the pool, which was still tended even though we were the only people using it, and played kids games like shark. We swam between each other’s legs and did underwater somersaults while the moon shone down on us.
As we dried off by the pool, I wondered if we would sleep in the same bed, if anything would happen. I remembered her turning to kiss me, and wondered if she was thinking about the same thing but when we got upstairs she yawned and told me how tired she was. She climbed into the bed and when I’d put it off for as long as I could I got in too. I lay next to her feeling humiliated, terrified that I would reach out for her accidentally in my sleep.
The next day we flew to Bali where we got into a slow routine of napping and drinking and eating and swimming. She never ordered for me in restaurants anymore and I could see that she was embarassed by my attempts to explain through hand gestures what it was that I could and couldn’t eat.
She showed me what no sugar and no dairy was in the phrase book, but I was too self-conscious to try.
When we were out and ordering food, she started looking at me and I knew it was because she wanted me to say the sentences she had taught me, but I couldn’t do it. Seeing her looking at me like that made me feel like her ignorant narrow-minded husband. Maybe I had a flashback of myself spooning her, the man at the back, the butch, I don’t know, but I couldn’t do what she wanted. I carried on with my hand gestures, picking the bits that I couldn’t eat out with my fingers.
Juliet openly rolled her eyes at me by now, not unpleasantly, she smirked as she did it but I found her constant amusement annoying. What I had taken as her innate sense of freedom I started to think of as selfishness, and what she’d always seen as my funny little pecularities started to appear like an enormous and unshiftable fussiness.
My twentieth birthday came up towards the end of our trip. Juliet let me sleep in for once and when I woke up she took me out on our balcony where she’d laid out all the tropical fruits she could buy. There were salaks and watermelon, papaya, mango, pineapple. She’d picked jasmine and lotus flowers, sprinkled them around the table, made a garland for my head. I actually started crying, just for a second, because I was so touched. She poured me a margarita and I decided right then and there to stop resenting her and just get on with being her friend. I was ashamed of myself.
“And for your birthday treat,” she announced, “we’re going surfing!”
Predictably, Juliet was a natural surfer. She was getting up and to her feet while I floundered on my board, sliding off the nose as the wave picked me up or getting pushed off the back by the power of the water, churned up underneath. The guy teaching us thought Juliet was amazing, with her cute little body and her easy laugh. The two of them bantered while I choked on salt water, until finally, I gave up and got out.
Kuta beach was packed; local women giving tourists back massages, little boys selling fruit. The reef made the waves rear up identically every time and I watched the water, trying to make out which shape was Juliet as the sky filled up with orange.
Eventually, she ran out and I tried not to be annoyed, to remember my decision, when I saw that the surf guy was with her. He was small and skinny in a buff way, with longish dark hair. One of his eyes was blood shot near the pupil and his teeth were incredibly white.
“Asmara’s going to come for a drink with us later. Where shall we meet him?”
I shook my head, my mind blank.
“Nero is cool, you have seen it?" he said.
Juliet shook her head, excited about going somewhere new and I tried my best to act like I wasn’t disappointed.
Nero was on the beach and Asmara was already halfway through a beer when we got there. It was nearly dark and he smiled at us as we approached.
“You look very beautiful,” he said, looking mainly at Juliet and I felt like I was on a blind date where my partner had decided not to show up and the others were insisting I came along anyway.
Juliet kept trying to involve me but Asmara wasn’t so sensitive. He looked at Juliet while he spoke and I gave shorter and shorter answers until Juliet gave up bothering and just talked to him. I necked the last of my beer and went to the bar. Juliet followed me.
“You alright, Soph?” she said, looking concerned and I said, churlishly, “Yes, I’m having a lovely birthday. I love watching you being chatted up by an Indonesian teenager.”
She looked at me incredulously then and said, “Are you serious?”
And I had to say, “Yes,” because what else could I say after I’d already said the first thing.
“It’s not like this is your sweet sixteenth or something, Sophie, or our anniversary...” she was frowning, confused, like she wasn’t sure what I was. “And Asmara’s twenty six...”
“I’m going to go home, okay? I’m tired.”
“Okay,” she said, with a voice like a shrug and I flinched at her indifference.
Lying in bed, way too early on my birthday, I went over what we had said and tried to work out if I was being unreasonable or not. I hated the way she made me see myself, the way she seemed to glide through life while I dragged along like a rusty anchor.
I heard her come in hours later.
“Sophie?” she whispered, but I pretended to be asleep.
When I woke up, she was sitting on the end of her bed, sipping tea.
“Morning,” she said.
“Sorry about last night.”
“Oh, I...” I squinted at her, surprised that she was apologising.
“Let’s go out for some nice food today. I wanted to do it last night but...” she smiled at me cheekily and I could tell she wanted to make a joke out of the whole thing but I didn’t feel like it.
We walked to my favourite restaurant on the island: it served only raw ingredients. Here I could make whatever ridiculous hand gestures I wanted and the waitress would always turn up with something good I could eat. A fake moat surrounded the place with orange and black coy carp swimming around it. Every time we came here Juliet would put her finger on the top of the water, hoping that one of the carp would have a suck on it. Usually, I watched her do this, thinking how original she was, but this time I left her to it. I sat down, ordered us both a margarita.
When she came and sat down I felt like she was acting weird. I got this horrible feeling that she was going to say Asmara was coming too and started having imaginary conversations with her about why that was not okay.
“Mmmm...” She said, sipping her drink.
I raised my eyebrows in agreement.
“It smells so good here,” she leaned back in her chair.
I pressed my lips together, took another sip of my drink.
“I’m just tired. I didn’t sleep very well last night.”
“Hot, wasn’t it?”
“I’ve got loads of bites, I couldn’t stop itching... What time did you get in?”
“I don’t know. I was pretty drunk.”
“Did anything happen with Asmara?”
She paused and I imagined that she was trying to work out whether or not I could handle it, whatever she was about to say, and in that second I felt so silly, like I was this fawning teen that she had to go around with, that she had to humour. All of the promises I’d made to myself were undone when I said, in a slightly disgusted voice:
“I’m not in love with you, you know, Juliet.”
She actually blushed. I’d never seen her do that before.
“I don’t get you at all,” she said, shaking her head. “Not at all.” She took a big drink from her cocktail, straight from the glass, ignoring the straw, and I wondered if she was going to get the big guns out.
“I mean, why did you even come on holiday?”
“What a stupid thing to say. Just because I don’t act exactly the same way as you do you think I shouldn’t come on holiday? That is very very you, Juliet.”
“Yes, and you used to like me, Sophie.”
I didn’t say anything else. I was too shocked by the tension that had crept up and surrounded the two of us over the course of a few weeks. We ordered and ate in silence. We didn’t have dessert. Juliet paid the bill.
When we got back to our apartment, Asmara was waiting on the balcony. The way Juliet looked at him I could tell she hadn’t arranged it.
“I got you present,” he said, holding out some pale blue beads to Juliet. “Hey Sophie.”
I half smiled, routing around in my pocket for the key.
“Do you want to come for drink?” he said. “It is beautiful night.” He sounded like he was reading from a weak script but he looked very sweet standing there.
“It is a beautiful night, isn’t it, Sophie?” Juliet said, giving me another chance, “what do you reckon?”
“Too tired.” I said, “have fun.” I smiled at them weakly and went inside.
I lay on my bed wishing I could have just gone out for a drink with them but I could hardly bear to be around Juliet anymore because of how I acted. I definitely didn’t want to see Asmara falling for her too.
We stayed out of each other’s way for the last couple of days of the holiday. I lay in bed until she got fed up of waiting for me and went out, leaving me a note. And then on the last night, when I started packing, she told me her plan.
“I’ve got a job at Nero, Soph. I’m not going back with you tomorrow.”
“What?” I said. “But what about uni?”
“I’m going to defer. Or quit. I don't know. I don’t want to go back.”
“Is it because of Asmara?” I asked but she shook her head.
“Not really. I just want to stay here. I love it.”
“That’s great.” I said and I gave her a hug, hoping that I sounded more convincing to her than I did to myself. I’m so so sorry things have been weird, Juliet, I wanted to say to her but instead, I repeated myself: “This is so great.”
Asmara called round for Juliet and I was relieved when she didn’t ask me to go with her. My bags were packed by the door and I just wanted to go home.
In the morning Juliet woke me up with a cup of tea and a salak. She made a fuss over me, making sure I’d got everything I needed, checking I had enough money, my tickets, my passport.
We sat out on the balcony until it was time for me to walk to the bus.
“I wish you were coming back with me,” I said, staring out at the apartments across from us.
“No you don’t.” Juliet said but she smiled as she said it and I felt winded with regret.
“Take care,” she said to me as I walked back towards my old life, as she turned towards her new one.