The last time Ned saw Olive she was running past him with her headphones in, ponytail swaying. She was in blue running shorts and Ned’s Talking Heads t-shirt that she had borrowed the first night they had spent together. He had known then as he knew now that he was never getting that shirt. Ned watched her run away from him until her form disappeared from view but instead of continuing on his way to class, he just stood there; thumbs hooked onto the strap of his backpack, watching the sun fade behind the mountains in the distance. When it got cold, he turned and walked back to his dorm. He pushed open the door of his first floor room and threw his backpack down on the floor. Goddamn it. She was the last person he had wanted to see today. They had only broken up about three weeks ago, but it still felt like it was yesterday. The lingering ache in the back of his throat had yet to fade and his friends had stopped inviting him to their parties because all he did was get drunk and start fights with the upperclassmen. He put his hand on his chin and felt the now fading bruise that had once blared loud and purple just under the left side of his jaw. Olive hated it when he got into fights, but when they were together he was able to avoid most, if not all, kinds of confrontation. He’d been able to avoid them up until the end of their relationship, but by that point it hadn’t mattered.
Getting ready for bed that night he decided to go through a few of his desk drawers to see if there were any novels he had shoved away. He found Norwegian Wood, a novel by Haruki Murakami that Olive had given him for Christmas a few years back, tucked at the bottom of the drawer. As he pulled it out he noticed the corner of a photograph peeking out from between the pages. He walked over to his bed, flipping the books paged to shake the photograph loose. A moan got caught in his throat when he saw it. The photograph had been taken on a beautiful early fall evening, when he had taken Olive out for her birthday. They had gone with two of their closest friends and it was Abigail who had taken the photograph. She had taken it with one hand so the image was slightly lopsided. Ned remembered this because her other hand was around Gabe’s shoulder and it was right before they had toyed with the idea of dating. Olive was smiling wide in the photograph and he had an expression on that looked like happiness. It had been about a year, but it felt like lifetimes had passed since he had smiled like that for a photograph. He lay back on his bed and clutched the photo in his hand. Within minutes, he was asleep, the clock on his bedside table ticking away.
Ned was standing in the doorway of his dorm room. He was drunk and it was about two in the morning. Chris’s party had been OK, nothing out of the ordinary and yet for some reason standing there, on that specific night, something felt different. He felt … guilty. Guilty because he smelled like beer and Chanel #5. Guilty because Olive was curled up in his bed, holding on to his pillow, sleeping soundly. He had asked her to go with him, but she had said no. He should have known better than to ask her but he had asked anyway. She had been leaving the library for frequently and he had taken that as a sign that maybe she would start to go out with him again. He had missed dancing with her at parties and missed how they had made slow stupid still drunk love after they stumbled home just before dawn. But he didn’t even really care about that stuff; he just missed her.
Ned moved away from the doorway and took his pants off. He walked as quietly as he could over to the bed where Olive was and tried to get into it without waking her up. She shifted in her sleep as he sunk into the sheets and closed his eyes. Why couldn’t things just go back to how they used to be he thought shifting in position so that he was facing away from her. She’d had shorter hair and he hadn’t been so skinny. They had met randomly one night after a party. She had been drunk and was trying to sober up to finish a paper by taking a run around the campus. He had literally crashed right into her and they ended up talking all night and just as the sun was starting to rise they walked back to his dorm room and fell asleep tangled up together.
But that was then and this was now and nothing would ever be the same again. It couldn’t. They had spent so much time together that the glue that had once held them tightly close together was now dry and flaking off. He found it easier to be without her and felt a somber nostalgia for the time when it had been easier to be with her; not without her.
At 8:00 on the dot his alarm went off and he stretched and looked over to her side where she was curled up with her thumb in her mouth. He kissed her shoulder blade and whispered in her ear a soft good morning. She opened her eyes and stretched her arms out above her and rolled over to tuck herself under his outstretched arm. But the second she pressed her nose against his skin she recoiled. Ned she asked, looking up at him, what is that smell? He tried to think of something to say but couldn’t and just looked at her. Finally he said it didn’t mean anything OK? She pushed herself away from him and kicked the sheets off and got out of bed. Olive he said, sitting up and turning to face her. Olive really it was nothing. She winced at that and looked at Ned with unbearable hurt in her eyes. He just sat there and didn’t know what else to say so he said nothing and let the door slam shut behind her. He knew what he wanted to say but he knew she would not want to hear it. He blinked his eyes and tried not to cry but couldn’t help it and put his face between his hands and sobbed. His hands wet and his mouth salty he sat on his bed and thought. Had it been worth it? Sure being in the backseat of his car with the girl tucked under his arm had felt good. And sure he had felt fuller then he had in months. But by the next week he would be hungry again. And knowing that made the ache in his stomach all the more painful. All the pleasure he had found in that girl was nothing compared to all the pain that he was feeling now.
She returned a few hours later. Her hair pulled back into a ponytail and her glasses on. In her arms she carried a box that held all the things he’d given her. She put it down in front of him said she was sorry but that it was over. He nodded. She told him she was sorry. He nodded again. She told him it was over, for good. He nodded. He wondered if he would have a stiff neck from all the nodding he was doing. He wondered how much longer she was going to stand there and look at him like that. She finally left, closing the door behind her, careful not to slam it. She was always careful. She had never slammed doors before this and probably would not slam doors after this. That afternoon was just an exception. Ned was the exception.
The last time Ned saw Olive she was running past him with her headphones in, ponytail swaying. She was in blue running shorts and Ned’s Talking Heads t-shirt that she had borrowed the first night they had slept together. He had loved that shirt but had given it to her the morning after, because she looked cute in it. She had been late for class and on her way out the door kissed him on the cheek and told him to call her. He had. That one phone call had reverberated into hours of talking to her on the phone, then hours of talking to her in his room on his bed, then days in her room under the covers listening to her talk about the history behind the scars on her knees. He had fallen for her as easily as if he had been doing it his entire life. He could cry in front of her. He still didn’t think she ever really understood how important it was that he had shared that vulnerable action with her. As Ned watched her run until her form disappeared from view, he just stood there; thumbs hooked onto the strap of his backpack, watching the sun fade behind the mountains. Then he turned and walked back up the hill.