Clara Wells has had a haircut since the last time Sam has seen her. She doesn’t expect him to notice, but he does. Clara Wells, Clara Wells, her name always comes out sing-song in his mind.
“Your hair is different,” he says as she shakes out of her coat. She makes a face and puts a hand up to her head.
“Oh, yeah, I’m not sure how I feel about it yet,” she says, though she is pleased he’s noticed.
In his memory, her hair falls in long, loose waves down her back, swishing one way and then another as she looks back, brushes it out of her face, and holds a hand out to where he stands behind her on the stone steps. Now it dusts the tops of her shoulders and curves inward to frame her face, making her look smaller, but somehow more fierce.
Clara can count on one hand the number of times she’s seen Sam in the past year and a half, though he appears often in her dreams. In these dreams, he looks much as he does now: tall, broad-shouldered, with long fingers and an easy smile that cuts through the sharp planes of his face. The dreams are never sexual, but she wakes with a yearning anyway, for the ghost of a touch on her cheek or a firm arm around her waist. These dreams embarrass and confuse her. Sometimes she tells Sam about them, but only of the vague, superfluous details: we were shopping for toasters, or, you were counting my spoons. She likes him to know that she’s been thinking about him, even if only subconsciously.
Sam doesn’t usually remember his dreams, which he tends to think is for the best.
The server deposits their drinks, and Clara nearly upsets a small decorative vase in the process of pulling her teapot closer. Sam catches it before it can fall to the floor, tipping its contents back into place and setting it out of harm’s way in the center of the table.
“Did I ever tell you about the dream I had where there were flowers growing out of my chest?” Clara asks, reaching out to test the plastic bouquet for life.
“No,” Sam says, taking a sip of his coffee.
Clara Wells talks with her hands so much that his mother had once refused to believe that she didn’t have any Italian heritage. He watches and listens as her slender hands cup an invisible flower in front of her chest, opening and closing her fingers as if each digit is a petal in bloom. She makes a twisting, scooping motion with her hands, which have now become trowels, then places her palms out in front of him on the table like an offering and moves her thumb across the pads of her upturned fingertips as if she’s scattering seeds. When her hands flutter to rest, he feels as though a performance has ended.
“What do you think it means?” Sam asks.
“No idea,” Clara shrugs.
“So how was Zurich?” she asks, busying herself with the teapot. “Did you and Sarah have a nice time?”
Clara only half-listens as Sam recounts his latest adventure with his latest girlfriend, marveling appropriately at the photos of mountain landscapes and historic cathedrals as he flips through them on his phone, though she’s already seen them on Instagram. Mercifully, he does not show her any of the pictures of them together, though she’s already seen those too.
“And how’s your new boy?” Sam asks, stowing his phone in his pocket. “Is he in love with you yet?”
Clara rolls her eyes, but smiles. “Probably,” she says. “I’m very charming, you know.”
Sam does know. Clara Wells is never alone for very long.
“Are you in love with him?” Sam ventures. Clara looks away, as if searching for a witness to his impudence, then looks back, narrowing her eyes into what might be a dare.
“What makes you think you can just ask me a question like that?”
Sam presses a hand to his heart as if applying pressure to a wound.
“Because I am your oldest and dearest friend,” he says, though he already has his answer. In all the years that they have known each other Clara Wells has been in love many times, or maybe just the once.
“All right then, friend,” Clara returns. “What about you? Is she the one?”
Clara hates the way her stomach begins to churn at the way Sam smiles into his coffee, so she focuses on her breathing, the way she’s practiced in her yoga classes. She counts the seconds of her inhale, holds it at the top of the breath, and slowly exhales to a silent count of eight. Clara likes yoga. She likes that while other people are chatting at the beginning of class she can curl up into a tiny ball and press her knees into her eye sockets until she sees galaxies. She likes the way her muscles burn as she holds the poses during class, how the fire distracts her from thoughts of anything other than her moving breath by which she marks the time. She likes the way time finally slows down in the darkness, as she lies in savasana with a towel over her eyes, how socially acceptable it is to embrace that darkness. She wishes she could close her eyes now.
“That’s sweet,” she hears herself say. “I’m really happy for you.”
And she is, he knows she is.
Sam has forgotten just how much being around Clara Wells unsettles him, how in everything she says he feels as though there might be a double meaning: truth in a joke, or a joke in truth. Most of the time he doesn’t know which is which, and it makes his head hurt.
Once, after a college formal after-party that had bled into the early morning, they snuck into the old campus bell tower to watch the sun come up over the sloping hill of the quad. They had both been quite drunk but were in the process of sobering up, passing a plastic bottle of water back and forth on their ascent. When he thinks of that night, it comes to him in snatches of swirling vision: Clara’s long hair swaying under the colored lights, the fabric of her skirt fluttering as she spun – or maybe he was the one spinning. He had thrown up just the once, in the bathroom of the venue, and continued to drink. And after the formal came someone’s apartment, red cups and loud music, and Clara’s hand finding his again in the heat and the crush of people, pulling him out into the cool spring night. It smelled wet, of dew, or maybe rain, though he couldn’t remember it raining. The stone steps of the bell tower were slick. He remembers very clearly the soles of Clara’s bare feet, darkened from having discarded her heels long before. And he remembers her hair, long and tangled, the way it swung as she turned around to watch him stumble and, laughing, offer him her hand.
“What were they teasing you about, right before we left?” She asked him once they reached the top. At the time, he remembered feeling grateful that she had not heard, had shrugged off the teasing of his so-called brothers and decided it wasn’t worth repeating. Which made it all the more shocking for him to hear the words bumble traitorously out of his own mouth.
“They were saying we’re gonna get married,” he admitted. Clara Wells had thrown her head back and laughed. He remembers how her throat looked, pale and exposed in the dawn, and how he had had the sudden thought that he could kiss it if he wanted to. Not that he would have. The thought came to him like thoughts of jumping did whenever he found himself in a high place, on rooftops or mountainsides – or bell towers, for that matter. He was vaguely aware of the fact that he would never dare do something so foolish, but physically, the possibility was there.
“But we are getting married,” Clara Wells had said, looking sideways at him with the laugh still on her lips and leaning backward onto her hands.
“We are?” He asked, stupidly.
“Oh sure,” she said. “I’ve always thought so.”
Clara had looked at him then and smiled. She did not think he would remember any of this in the morning, so she took his hand, squeezed it, and held it until the sun came up. When she woke up much later that morning with a bottle of Advil and a full glass of water beside her bed, she was surprised she could remember anything either. Sam had never forgotten.
Clara has been drinking her tea slowly, but Sam’s coffee cup has been empty for a while now. When his eyes dart to his watch for the second time, she decides to call it.
“I should probably get going,” she says. “I’ve gotta pick up some groceries if I want to eat tonight.”
Sam is both relieved and disappointed. He has been anxious about being the one to end the conversation, but now that she has done it, he wishes they might have stayed a little longer.
“Me too,” he says. “I told Sarah I’d call once I got settled.”
“Are you settled already, then?” Clara teases.
Sam shrugs. “Close enough,” he says.
They walk to the train together, and at the mouth of the subway entrance, she has to stand on her toes to put her arms around his neck. She debates kissing him on the cheek – isn’t that what grown-up friends do? – but decides against it. It would be too weird.
In the station, Sam goes uptown and Clara goes down. She is relieved to see her train already at the platform and rushes through the closing doors, glad to have avoided the awkwardness of waving to each other from opposite platforms, or worse, attempting to maintain conversation by shouting across the yawning gap of exposed tracks that spans the distance between them. She lets out the breath she has been acutely aware of holding, counting to eight as she exhales in an effort to settle her stomach, her heart.
Sam watches the train carrying Clara Wells pull away from the station. He looks for her in its windows but doesn’t know which car she has gotten into, and soon enough she’s gone again. He looks around at the station walls and blinks as if only just coming round to the reality that this is his life now. Clara Wells, Clara Wells. Her name is stuck in his head.