The more Olivia thought about it, the more obvious it became that Julian had been a crucial part of her younger years. They met in university, although with Olivia taking Media and Journalism, and Julian studying Pharmacology, they never shared a single class. Thinking back on it, Olivia couldn’t actually remember how they met. Julian had simply just… appeared in her life and never left.
She glanced down at Apricot, who was now sprawled out at her feet. Her chest rose and fell with each sleepy breath, and every so often her ears twitched adorably to flop over her face. Rolling her eyes, Olivia nudged Apricot’s belly with her toes. Oblivious, Apricot continued to snort softly.
Naturally, her thoughts turned back to Julian. Julian, actually, had been the one to convince her to get her first dog – back when Olivia was in her last year of university and thinking about buying a flat of her own. Really, Julian had been the cause of a lot of her decisions, simply because he had a way of making even the most absurd idea sound brilliant.
Except, of course, for one thing. Even as a young university student, he had been desperate for children; and that was the one thing he could never convince Olivia to have.
Hands shoved deep in his pockets, face buried under an enormous scarf, Julian wished he’d had the sense to bring gloves. It was barely October and already the ground was coated in a thick layer of white frost. Not to mention the pavements were lethal – he’d just spent the last five minutes trying not to land sprawled across the ice.
He was watching a couple now, holding hands as they carefully traipsed through the car park. The man, hardly any older than Darpan himself, carried a small bundle of blankets – and from the centre of the bundle, a round baby face was just visible through the fabric. Completely swaddled, the little one was oblivious to his parent’s plights.
Now, aged only twenty-one, the thought of children left a hollow, aching feeling in his chest. While most boys spend their childhood thinking of careers as astronauts or firefighters, Julian had grown up daydreaming about how he might start a family, how his future wife might look. There was only one problem – no matter how hard he tried, he’d never had a long term relationship. It seemed that everybody his age only wanted something casual; leaving Julian’s daydreams of a family to remain exactly that. Dreams.
The sound of his name made Julian jump, stomach doing an odd flip as he spun to face the owner of the voice. It was Olivia, skidding down the path that led from her campus building. Her long coat billowed out behind her, and as she slid to a stop beside him, her shoulder thumped against his.
He only quirked a brow, fighting back the urge to laugh. “Are you all right?”
“I nearly died, but yeah, I’ll be fine.” Olivia straightened out, dusting off her loose jeans before turning to him with a smile. She had cut her hair recently, into one of those pixie cuts with a short fringe and messy layers. Her angular face and dark eyes made the cut look good, he thought, and it brought a smile to his lips. “Molly and Lindsay will be here soon. I think, anyway,” Olivia continued.
Julian tried not to let the disappointment show on his face. “I was hoping we could walk home together,” he offered, chestnut brown eyes studying her, “we hardly ever get time to ourselves.”
Olivia rolled her eyes – a well meaning sort of look, especially considering she stood on her toes to plant a delicate kiss to the corner of his lips. “All right,” she relented without a fight, “just us two.”
“Good. Thanks.” No matter how many times they kissed in public, it never failed to turn Julian into a floundering mess. Olivia was such a discreet person, and he had never imagined she was the type to be caught kissing in public. Yet here they were.
She took his arm, too, clinging to him harder than necessary thanks to the ice and frost that covered the entire campus. Biting down on her lips, Olivia kept her careful gaze on the ground. “Molly won’t appreciate that we’ve abandoned her. Neither will Lindsay,” she said idly, putting one foot slowly in front of the other.
“I guess not,” Julian replied. He was having a better time with the ice than Olivia, but his mind was already wandering. He wasn’t thinking about the pavement or the cold, not any more. The couple with the baby were at their car now, and the man was gently laying the little one into a car seat in the back. Smiling faintly, he tore his eyes away from the scene to turn to Olivia.”Listen, Olivia. I don’t know if now is a good time to talk about this, but..”
She looked up, then, thick brows knitted into a frown. She was buried under an enormous scarf much like Julian himself, but her suspicious frown was impossible to miss.
Swallowing thickly, Julian continued, “I’ve been thinking recently. About us.” A pause, only so they could both carefully step over the lethal spread of a frozen puddle. It stretched over the entire pavement, even seeping into the frosty grass to their left. He let Olivia go first, mulling over his own words in his head. Why did he have to bring this up now?
Safely on the other side of the death trap, Olivia turned to him. “What about us?” Her voice was pleasant, but Julian saw the flash of concern in her dark eyes.
Fighting back the swell of guilt that rose in his chest, Julian let his gaze drop. His heels dug into the ice, cracking the clear surface so his boots sank into the muddy water underneath. Cringing, and not just because of the dirt, he made it to the other side. “Well,” he started slowly. It was rare for him to consider his words so carefully – especially around friends – but Olivia was different. He had this deep, aching desire to please her no matter what.
She watched him expectantly, linking their arms again. Even as they continued to walk – past the cars and empty spaces, past the trees lining the car park – she kept an eye on him.
“Well, we’ve been together for a while now. Haven’t we?” Oh, this wasn’t going how he had rehearsed it in his head. Julian shouldn’t have even brought this up, but the sight of the family and baby had put it into his mind, and now it had made a home there. Running his free hand through his thick hair, Julian sighed. “I thought maybe we could talk about… settling down?”
Olivia halted mid-step suddenly enough to send them both stumbling. She turned, incredulous, to face him. More students were spilling out of the university now; dozens of people, young and old, rushing to the warmth of their cars or the bus stop outside campus grounds. Even then, Olivia didn’t budge to let them past.
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” he huffed, voice raised against the chatter of the rising number of people. Two young men shoved past and Julian shot them a glare – but this was his own fault for picking now, of all times.
Olivia’s expression softened. Just a bit. She reached out with one freckled hand to brush hair behind his ear, then let it rest against his shoulder. “A year is not a long time, Julian,” she answered quietly. Her voice was almost lost to the noise, but already the number of students was thinning. “What brought this on, anyway? Darpan told me you were talking about children the other day.”
Julian winced, feeling the thud of his chest against his ribs. Right. Darpan. He never could hold a secret. “I might have mentioned it in passing,” he admitted with an offhand shrug. He doubted it looked as dismissive as he wanted, especially considering it was accented with a muffled sigh. At least his scarf hid the worst of his expression. “I want kids. Is that so awful?”
Olivia had to scuffle back to allow a crowd of boys to fumble past. They crowded the entire pavement and didn’t so much as mutter thanks, but Olivia didn’t complain. She might have, if her mind hadn’t been so occupied. She watched them go with a scowl, then turned slowly back to Julian. “I’ve barely turned twenty-one, Julian, and you’re only turning twenty-two in January. Don’t you think it’s early to be talking about that? We’re still so young, and we’ve barely figured out what we want to do with our careers, never mind everything else.”
“Well, sure, but it doesn’t change my mind.” They hadn’t moved an inch, and Julian was all too aware of the people nearby. Anyone could have been listening in, and the thought made his stomach squirm. Darpan already teased him enough, and he didn’t need complete strangers overhearing this, too.
Olivia, though, stared at him with quiet intensity and didn’t seem to care who overheard them. Arms folded – against the chill, maybe, or in silent defiance of Julian – she hopped from foot to foot with restless energy. “It’s great that you know what you want from life, but that’s just it. You’ve got your whole life to decide these things. Why now?”
A shrug, and Julian couldn’t hold her gaze any longer. Irritation began to bubble up in the back of his mind, and it was becoming difficult to shove it back down. Yet he did, for Olivia’s sake, and forced a smile onto his lips. “Because I know what I want, so why pretend otherwise? Think about it, Olivia – the two of us in a cute little house somewhere, with kids in our arms. You could get an office somewhere, I’d work in town, and we’d never be too far from each other. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”
“It sounds so… domestic.” And to Julian that was exactly the point, but Olivia’s voice held none of the exciting joy he’d hoped for. No, her voice fell flat as she continued to shuffle from foot to foot. “Especially for two people who were still teenagers up until a few years ago.”
The chill was slowly seeping into Julian’s bones. His hands were turning numb, even as deeply buried in his pockets as they were, and even his feet were beginning to nip. He began to walk, one careful step at a time – and thankfully, Olivia fell into step beside him. Yet this time she didn’t link arms, and Julian didn’t try to, either.
“I don’t want to just settle down because it’s convenient, especially not when I’m still so young,” Olivia murmured. They passed by a gaggle of women hovering on the grass, and Olivia stepped aside to avoid them. “I want to make something of myself first. Start a career, travel, experience life.”
Her words stung, and Julian glared at the ground. “What, and having children isn’t experiencing life?”
“Not the kind of life I want, no. At least, not for years yet.”
When they had first started dating, the question of settling down had never come up. Julian hadn’t thought to, because at the time they had just been two friends experimenting, and it had never meant to become something serious. Yet now it was, at least for Julian himself, and it left him feeling heavy. Like he was drowning, but there was no water to be seen.
Olivia picked up her pace; eager to be out of the cold or away from him, Julian didn’t know. She wore a long brown trench coat and her hands disappeared inside, but it didn’t slow the click of her boots against the hard ground. Julian felt a jolt of fear that she might trip and fall, but she never did.
“So you really don’t want kids? Ever?” It wasn’t supposed to come out so demanding, but Julian couldn’t help himself. He caught her by the crook of the elbow, spinning her effortlessly to face him.
Something cold flashed across Olivia’s features – but then it melted into something softer. Resigned. “I didn’t say that,” she countered, “but… maybe? The idea of kids has just never appealed. My parents say it’s because I’m young, that I’ll change my mind, but I wish people would understand that it’s all right if I don’t change my mind, too.”
Some of the anger seeped from Julian, leaving him even colder than before. Had he pushed her too far, too soon? Grip on her elbow loosening, he stepped away. “You are young. How do you know what you’ll want in five years? Ten?”
She shrugged, gaze cast aside to stare at something off in the distance. Julian turned too, eyes fixed on the dark shape of a woman with a tightly coiled afro. Molly. Behind her, a smaller woman with a shock of auburn hair. Lindsay.
Julian hastily turned away before they could spot him, features twisting into a scowl. “Can you really say that you don’t want kids? Some people are desperate to have children, and you’re saying they don’t appeal. Do you have any idea how selfish that sounds?”
Olivia’s eyes snapped up to his, and there was fire blazing within them. She snatched her hand away, turned on her heel, and began to storm off down the road. “Is it selfish, to live how I want to?” she snapped, “because if so, then I’ll happily be selfish.”
“I think I’ll walk home with Molly and Lindsay after all,” she tossed across her shoulder, but didn’t look back. “I’ll see you on Thursday.”
Julian could have gone after her – should have, really – but his feet were frozen to the spot. Literally. They were so cold he could barely feel his toes, his feet rooted in place. So he only watched her go, her long coat trailing in the wind, and wished things could have gone differently.
They broke up two weeks later. It had been a long time coming, really. Even now, all these years later, Olivia still thought about those early days. Julian hadn’t changed since then – he was just as desperate for the life he’d wanted for so long, but no closer to finding it. Women, even women their age, didn’t want a man whose first thought was not of their first date, but of how their future might look.
She glanced down at Apricot’s sleeping form with a faint smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Olivia had never told Julian this – and there was no sense now, because what good would it do? – but he had been formative in Olivia’s decision not to have kids. He had been so desperate, at such a young age, and it had made Olivia realise just how different their lives were. Their goals and desires.
Now, with another decade under her belt, their argument seemed silly. Childish. Why had they even been discussing settling down, when they were just poor university kids themselves?
Julian had called her selfish, for not wanting children. But was it? Her life was her choice, and what did it matter to anybody else if she wanted a family or not? And yet… maybe Julian had a point. It had been said in anger, she remembered that as vividly as if it had been shouted at her yesterday, but there was truth to the words.
Not everyone had that choice to make. Some people, like her friends Molly and Lauren, couldn’t have children. Some, like Elise, wanted kids desperately but had sworn off romance. In fact, Elise wanted kids just as badly as Julian – but they were different in one glaringly obvious way. Where Julian wanted a family, a wife – Elise hadn’t dated since she was twenty-three.
Reaching down to scratch Apricot behind the ears, Olivia sighed. Maybe, in her refusal to have children, she had accidentally made life more difficult for those like Molly and Elise, who wanted but couldn’t have.