I didn't think I'd run into Diane when I set out on my bicycle that evening. The sun was lazily drifting out of the sky, its long rays casting soft shadows among the trees in the park. A brisk wind blew, with pale green leaves dancing about in its wake. The ground was still damp from the shower the day before, and it crunched pleasantly as the wheels of my bike went over it.
Up ahead was one of the better parts of the route - a bridge that crossed over the park's central river. At this time of day, the sunset presided on the left-hand side of the bridge, and it offered a glorious panorama as it painted the park in warm hues of pink and gold.
I turned into the bridge, and my eyes were frozen in place as they gazed at the sky. Today's sunset was especially breathtaking - Van Gogh could not have framed it better. When I summoned the will to look away, I realized I was about to cycle headlong into a slender figure ahead of me.
I swerved, and swerved again to avoid going over the bridge. The end result was that the joggers on the bridge were treated to a collapse that could compete for clumsiness with a one-legged penguin.
As I lay dazed on the ground, trying to blink away the stars that dotted my vision, a pair of big green eyes floated into view.
I knew that voice. I hadn't heard it in ages.
Diane and I did the same degree at the same college, so we used to occasionally bump into each other during lessons or exams. She had always been the introverted type, not one to mingle with the masses too often. Being something of a wallflower myself, we never really got to know each other during those heady college days.
After I managed to pull myself into a reasonably upright position, I found out that she had recently moved into the area, and was discovering the park for the first time.
"Well, I've been in the neighbourhood a while - want to check out my route? It has some excellent views along the way, especially at this time."
Diane smiled at the offer. She had a strikingly pretty smile.
"Sure, I don't mind. How long is it from here?"
"Not too long. We can probably walk the rest of it in about twenty minutes."
"Perfect - let's get going then!"
We caught up on the leisurely stroll through the rest of the park. I told her about the software firm I was working for, and then found out that she had an identical position with one of our direct competitors. We couldn't help but chuckle at the irony.
"So we're at the end of the route - what do you think? Trés scenic, yes?"
"I'll admit, you have very good taste in background foliage. And hey, my place is not too far from here. It's really close to this cafe with the best hot chocolate EVER. Want to check it out?"
I could sense my jaw hanging open. I am drawn to hot chocolate like a mosquito to blood. This was going to be the start of a beautiful friendship - and maybe more.
The meetings with Diane became a weekly event. I would cycle up the bridge and then meet her there, before walking the rest of the way to the cafe with the amazing hot chocolate.
The more I met her, the more things I discovered we had in common. She loved a lot of the same movies and TV shows that I did, and was even into the same hobbies like Dungeons and Dragons, cooking and playing the flute. I found myself wondering why I hadn't gotten to know her better back in college - and vowing to correct that glaring mistake as fast as possible.
I don't recall when it was that I started to have feelings for her. But at some point, I started to yearn every week for those big green eyes, the tinkling laughter and that dazzling smile of hers. And the two of us were single - it was only the nearly crippling fear of rushing into things, and uncertainty as to whether she felt the same about me, that stopped me from moving on to first base.
I do, however, recall the day it all came tumbling down.
Diane had messaged me beforehand saying she wouldn't be coming that evening because she was meeting friends. I didn't think much of it as I cycled through the park, drenched in the haze of the late summer.
On my way back home, I decided on a whim to cycle past the cafe. When I approached though, I saw Diane just outside the cafe with a friend. Singular. And their lips were unmistakeably locked in a passionate embrace. As the soup of emotions came to a boil within me, I bolted from the scene before I could do anything violent.
My hands were trembling as I furiously rode home. The wheels on my bike screeched as I swerved wildly past startled passers-by. I couldn't think straight even as I stumbled blindly into my apartment, my things tossed carelessly on the couch.
I broke off all contact with Diane that day. I deleted whatever contacts of hers I had, blocked her on whatever social networks we were a part of. I avoided our usual haunts, and even changed my cycling day so that I wouldn't run into her.
The initial anger passed after a few days, but the sense of betrayal lingered for much longer. Anytime I did something that reminded me of her, a sharp pain would pierce my thoughts, and for a few minutes I would lose focus of the things going on around me. It was the first time anyone had left such a deep wound in my emotions, and I hoped it would be the last.
Diane messaged me a few times after that day. I didn't respond, and I think she got the hint. Either that or she stopped caring. I didn't want to dwell on which one it may have been.
A year passed, and after a relationship with another girl that nearly went somewhere significant before abruptly falling off a cliff, I was tired of it all. I realized that trying to be in a relationship for the sake of being in one was not worth the effort, and ultimately not satisfying. I didn't want to admit it, but I started missing Diane's company - I didn't have that many other friends with as many interests in common, so there still was a vaguely Diane-shaped hole in my heart.
It was plugged quite unexpectedly at a second-hand book sale.
I had just found a very engrossing mystery thriller, and was unconsciously drifting about the alleys within the stacks of books with my nose buried in its pages. As a result, I didn't notice the bag that had been placed directly in my path. I felt a fleeting sense of weightlessness before the ground gave me a hard, painful welcome.
My face was still plastered onto the pages of the book when I heard an exclamation somewhere above me.
"Oh, I'm so sorry! I really should be more careful where I put my...Ishmael?!"
I knew that voice.
I hadn't heard it in ages.
After the initial greetings, she popped the question I still didn't want to answer.
"What happened? It was like you just disappeared off the surface of the planet!"
"Well, I...I had some relationship issues to deal with. You could say I got into an anti-people phase - it's been a trying year."
She definitely detected the reluctance in my words. I hoped she didn't catch on to anything else.
"Yeah, I haven't been doing too well on the personal front either. Kapil and I are still seeing each other, but our parents are both very against the two of us. So we're just keeping a low profile and waiting for them to change their minds. But parents can be so stubborn."
I felt a small part of me die just then. I tried not to let it show.
"So, what did you think of the latest season of The Saga of Flame and Frost?"
That used to be one of the shows Diane and I loved watching. I stopped watching it back when it started reminding me of her.
"Um...to tell you the truth, I haven't watched it for a while now. I've... been busy."
Diane's jaw dropped slightly.
"WHAT? It was one of the best seasons yet! I just have to bring you up to speed on it! How about we do it over a cup of hot chocolate at the cafe?"
I had all but lost hope that this moment would arrive. Ever since my last relationship ended I had nothing but regret for my actions regarding Diane. And here I was, being given the opportunity to make amends for them.
I didn't hesitate this time.
"Sure, let's do it this evening, if you're free."
Diane smiled. It was still just as striking as it used to be.
I had been far too hasty in burning this bridge that fateful day. As I walked out of the bookstore, I silently vowed to throw away the matches this time around.