One Woman's Choice
by Hannah Westman
How long had it been since Olivia had been to a bar or pub? She used to go almost every weekend with Connor and Darren, but now they were too busy with the adoption to go out much. Now she mostly went to cafes or coffee places – and that was great because socialising was socialising regardless of where - but she missed the pub. She hadn’t actually realised how much, until that moment.
When Olivia stepped inside, she was greeted by the hum of chatter and upbeat music that filled the bar. She had never been here before, but Liam had insisted that travelling to Paisley was worth it for this place; looking at it now, with the buzzing atmosphere, she had to agree with his judgement. It looked fantastic.
Liam was already there, sitting at a table near the back where it was a little less busy. Most of the chatter came from the tables above, looking down over the balcony railing. Here, though, offered a little more privacy than the tables overhead.
"You're early," Olivia joked as she slid into the seat across from him, "I hope I didn't keep you waiting?"
"Not at all," he replied softly, "I was just too overeager and took an earlier train." He gestured to the menus in front of him, sliding out the one designated gin. "I don't know what you like to drink, but they have plenty to choose from."
Personally, Olivia enjoyed a wide range of drinks, depending on her mood. They were at a gin bar, though, so it made sense to at least try one of their speciality drinks. "They have a lot of citrus flavoured," she mused, "maybe I'll try one of them."
It felt strange to be out with Liam again; although they had specified that there was nothing romantic between them, the atmosphere and the drinks all felt a little too much like a date. The thing was, Olivia didn't necessarily disapprove. It felt nice to be out, sitting across from Liam like they were old friends. It felt natural.
A pretty waitress with dark hair came to take their orders, and both Liam and Olivia ordered the same drink; a sweet, limoncello gin cocktail. "I'll be right back with your drinks," the woman chirped, before disappearing over to the bar.
"My brother took me here for my thirtieth a few years ago and I've loved it ever since," Liam said as he made himself comfortable in the seat. They were big round armchair style seats with plenty of room, the backs high enough that Liam simply sank down into it. "They're a little expensive, but I promise it's worth it."
Olivia found herself smiling, eyes flickering down to the drinks menu again. She didn’t mind splashing once in a while in order to enjoy herself... well, didn't she deserve it? The last week hadn't been the worst ever, but she had been working right down to the last second to submit a new story in time, having only just made it with a few minutes to spare before the deadline.
"You know," Liam piped up after a moment, and his eyes turned serious, "our first date got me thinking, and it's been on my mind all week." His eyes darted aside as if he were embarrassed to voice his thoughts, but his voice came out even as he continued, "do you think we're maybe missing out, by not having kids?"
Oh. Straight to the point, wasn't he? Olivia had to admire him for that, actually. She offered him a shrug - because truthfully, it wasn't something that she had an answer for. How could she know if she was missing out when this was the only experience she had ever known? Could she even miss out on something that she had no desire for anyway?
"I mean, people have kids for a reason, don't they? And maybe we don't want any ourselves, but there are some experiences that we'll never have, some things that we just can't understand or empathise with because we just don't know." A shrug, an awkward smile. "Maybe I'm just overthinking."
He didn't seem like the type to overthink at all, but Olivia didn't really know him all that well, did she?
Reaching out to pat his hand, she offered a kind smile. "I think maybe there are certain aspects of having children that people think we're missing out on. I know I have friends who think I'm making a big mistake and I'm brushing over my decision too lightly. That I'll regret it when I'm older and when I don't have a choice anymore." It was never said in such words of course, but the meaning was always clear. "I think it just depends on how you look at it."
"What do you mean?"
There was no chance to reply, because at that moment the waitress reappeared with two huge drinks. Crystal clear liquid glittered inside the huge round glasses, ice clinking against the sides. Fresh lemon floated on the surface, and it looked delightful. "Here are your drinks," the waitress said cheerfully as she places them on the table. "Is there anything else I can get you?"
"Not for now, thanks."
She turned away to serve another table, leaving Liam and Olivia alone again. Olivia's eyes flickered up to him as she took a sip of her drink; it was sweet and punchy, not as strong as she had expected but refreshing all the same. "What was I saying?"
"That it's all about perspective?"
Ah, right. It was true though, wasn't it? They were only missing out if they let themselves believe it,
and they had plenty of other experiences that made their lives unique. So what if they had chosen a different route to most? That all sounded so deep and thoughtful though, when in reality it was much simpler. "I think that implying we're missing out on anything means there's some universal norm that everyone aspires to, but that isn't true. The only thing I could really say for sure has affected me in any way, are my friendships."
Liam rolled his eyes, a laugh escaping his lips. "Tell me about it. I have two friends - married, of course - and that's all they ever talk about. It's always about their wives and their children, and everything else kind of just fades into the background." He took a sip of his drink, the smile returning to his lips. "I feel like I've not got anything to talk about with them anymore."
That's exactly how it was with Darpan now, too. Lauren and Joseph, too. So perhaps Olivia didn't feel like she was missing out, per se, but it was easy to say that she felt she had less and less in common with her friends during the rare occasions when they saw each other. While she was striving to make it in a tough career and keep her social life afloat, most people she knew were content with where they stood now, settling down into a comfortable life with family. Those who didn't have that already were searching for it.
Well, save for Elise, but they hadn't spoken in years. Olivia had no idea where she was or how her life was going.
"Are you all right?" Liam asked softly, and when she looked up his eyes were dark with concern. "I didn't mean to get all depressing on you. Sorry." He managed an awkward smile and shoved his glasses further up his nose despite the fact they hadn't even fallen. A nervous habit, maybe?
Olivia felt guilt swell in her chest, and she offered him a smile in return. "Don't worry about it," she replied kindly, "you just got me thinking about something."
"Oh?" Liam raised his glass to his lips and took a drink, the ice clinking together.
Across the bar, a large table of women stood to leave, gathering their various coats and handbags. It was quieter now that they were leaving, and the gin bar felt that much calmer, more relaxing.
Olivia still hesitated to reply, though. Did Liam really need to know what went on in her thoughts? Hadn't they had enough deep conversation for one evening? Biting down on her lip, she said, "it's just that I have friends who I've lost contact with over the years - it happens, I know, but we ended on bad terms and I can't help but wonder if I'm to blame." Glass held between her hands, Olivia stared down at it with a frown. "We fought. Not just about kids, but that was part of it, and sometimes I wonder if I wasn't sympathetic enough. If perhaps my own choices clouded my opinion and I was unfair because of it."
"Did you try to force your opinions on them?" Liam murmured, and he reached out to take her hand in his. Liam's skin was warm, although condensation from his drink had gathered on the back of his hand. "Because that doesn't sound like you, and I can't imagine that you're solely to blame."
Well, maybe not solely, but Olivia had definitely instigated the fight with Elise. And when it came to Molly... well, Olivia had blown it all out of proportion, hadn't she? It was obvious, at least to her, that she hadn't helped herself. It had taken a long time for her to come to terms with the fact that she was in the wrong.
"It's in the past, right?" Liam said after a beat of silence. He didn't seem to feel the least bit awkward giving advice to Olivia; a woman he had only met twice. In fact, now that the conversation had turned to her he was much more comfortable, leaning back in his chair and offering her a gentle smile. "You've moved on, and your friends probably have too. There's no sense in dwelling over what can't be changed."
Olivia hummed under her breath, and she shoved down the little flip in her stomach when she met Liam's eyes. They were wide and bright, filled with reassurance, and she felt herself relaxing, too. "I guess," she admitted, somewhat reluctantly, "I wish I had handled it better, though."
"You could always meet up with them again. Try to patch things up, make amends?"
The thought sent a swirl of nerves in Olivia's chest and she ducked her head in embarrassment. Had it been too long to make that work? Sometimes she wanted to phone up Molly and say would you like to meet up? I'd like to talk. Other times the whole thing seemed so silly, and Olivia determined that it was better to leave things as they were. At least that way, there was no relationship to ruin again.
Or perhaps that was just a childish excuse.
She sipped thoughtfully at her drink, surprised to notice that half of it was gone already. It was so sweet and delicious that it barely felt like alcohol at all, but Olivia was sensible enough to pace herself. Long gone were her years of drinking excessively and still waking up fine the next morning. As she got older, her tolerance got weaker.
Liam must have decided the same, because he pushed back his glass and rested his hands on the table, instead now focused entirely on Olivia.
It made her stomach flip and her chest flutter. Maybe she did like Liam, but she wasn't ready to admit that aloud just yet. Shaking her head to dispel those thoughts, she managed a smile. "Maybe I will contact Molly and Elise," she said quietly, "I mean, the worst they can do is tell me no, and things will just go on as they are."
He nodded enthusiastically, a smile spreading across his handsome features. Liam wasn't the most striking of men, but he had a strong jaw and neat beard that gave him a rugged, attractive sort of look. "Exactly! It doesn't hurt to try. You weren't going to try dating but you did, and now look at us. Wait," he groaned, rolling his eyes. "Not that I'm saying this is a date because you specifically said it wasn't, but you know what I mean."
Olivia had to bite back sudden laughter, and she hid it by taking another sip of the gin cocktail. "I do," she managed to say eventually, "know what you mean. That getting out of my comfort zone isn't a bad thing, and I might be pleasantly surprised?"
Liam hummed in agreement, his smile widening. His embarrassment hadn't totally faded though, cheeks still tinged pink. "Right. Just try, and you might be happy with the results. It's a risk, but it's worth it if you get your friends back, isn't it?"
Yes, Olivia agreed. Once, she would have called him crazy and ignored such advice; now, Olivia found herself contemplating his words with an air of seriousness. She hadn't wanted to go on a date, but then she met Liam and things had progressed naturally and here they were. Maybe things would be the same with Molly and Elise, if she was willing to take the first step.
And anyway, the whole dating business hadn't been as horrible as she anticipated. Liam was even kind of attractive, in an unusual sort of way. So long as she was opening herself up to new ideas, perhaps she could even agree that she wasn't entirely discrediting the idea of another date in the future, either.
Olivia flipped through her phone as she readied to go out; she had a multitude of texts from Liam and Connor, and the group chat was blowing up with various messages.
I'm going to be late, Molly warned, traffic's a nightmare. Knew I should have left earlier.
Almost immediately after came Connor's reply, same here. Sorry folks.
Rolling her eyes, Olivia shoved her phone into the pocket of her leather jacket. The group chat would probably continue for the entire journey to the restaurant, but hopefully, nobody else would be late. Although, knowing her friends, it was unlikely to just be the two of them.
It was a quick jog to the bus - and yes, she could have driven, but parking was terrible and anyway, she wanted a drink. This was the first time all of them had gotten together in, oh, a long time, and Olivia was going to enjoy herself. The fact that Elise and Christine were also going to be there made her stomach turn in anticipation, but she wasn't going to begrudge them a chance to have fun.
After all, the only reason this reunion was happening at all was because of Christine, who had insisted that they all get together on the anniversary marking the day the last one in the group graduated. The youngest in the group, Connor, had graduated from Child Psychology twenty years ago today.
Besides, Olivia reminded herself as she climbed onto the bus, you're all on speaking terms again, even after all this time. That was something to celebrate, surely? It would be good to see everybody again; catch up and see where their lives were at. Although, Olivia couldn’t quite ignore the nerves that stirred in her chest at the thought. Would it even be like she remembered?
It wasn't long before the bus journey was over, and soon enough Olivia was standing in the busy Glasgow street. The wind blew at her hair and tugged at her dress, but there was a little hint of sunshine that made it almost bearable. Turning on her heels, she made to head toward the restaurant-
Only to bump into a tall, broad-shouldered woman.
"Oh, sorry Olivia!" a distantly familiar voice exclaimed, "I didn't see you. You okay?"
Olivia glanced up to see none other than Elise, her blonde hair bundled into a messy braid at the back of her head. Her hair was paler than she remembered, either because it was dyed or she simply misremembered, Olivia wasn't sure. She had round glasses perched on the end of her nose, and a nervous smile on her face.
This was the first time they had met in person since... well, since the whole ordeal almost two decades ago. Despite having reached forty, Elise hadn't aged a bit.
They stood there for a moment, staring awkwardly at each other while fellow pedestrians rushed by. Olivia hadn't anticipated being alone with Elise, and now it was as if words had simply fled her mind.
It was Elise who spoke first, gesturing down the road. "We should probably head in before they start without us. How do you feel about this reunion, anyway?"
They began to wander down the street, side by side. "I'm surprised it was Julian that suggested it," she admitted with a shrug, "I would have thought that he'd be too busy planning his wedding."
"Oh, I know. I'm so happy for him - it took him long enough to find someone." Elise beamed, eyes crinkling. She had more wrinkles than Olivia remembered; but didn't they all? "And what about you?"
Olivia paused, turning her gaze up to Elise. This was dangerously close to deep water, too much like bringing up the past. "Actually, I started dating an old friend recently. It’s funny, we actually met on an online dating app and decided we were better off as friends… ten years later, here we are.”
“It took you that long to go out?”
Humming under her breath, Olivia fought back a laugh. Truthfully, she’d been harbouring feelings for Liam for a long time, she just hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it until a year ago. After not dating for so long, it all still felt so fresh. New. “Let’s just say it took me a while to realise how I felt. I dated a few guys in between, but we never really clicked. I just took it as evidence that dating still wasn’t my thing, but then Liam told me how he felt and it all sort of fell into place.”
Elise’s smile was sweet. Genuine. “Any plans on children then?”
“Goodness, no. We’re happy as we are – although I can’t help but wonder what the others will think. I know I haven’t exactly followed the same path as the rest of you.” Olivia frowned at the thought, lip caught between her teeth. Connor and Darren would be there, probably desperate to talk about the newest addition to the family. Then there was Darpan and Lauren and everybody else who had a stable relationship and family to talk about. Ugh, this was why reunions made her nervous.
“That’s just why it’s so great; we’ve all followed different paths. Not all of us are married with kids, you know. Molly isn’t, and Julian’s only just got engaged. Look at me; I’ve only just started dating this nice guy called Ethan, so I’ve no plans of having kids anytime soon, if at all.”
Olivia quirked a brow, feeling a flicker of delight in her chest. “You’re with someone?”
Once, Elise had sworn off men forever. Not because she didn't want to date, but because she felt it wasn't worth the heartbreak. Yet now she smiled fondly, laughter leaving her lips. "It isn't serious yet, so don't get your hopes up, but it’s going great. I'm sure everyone will quiz me on it as soon as we get inside."
Speaking of, they had reached St Vincent Street and now stood outside one of the huge grey buildings. The steps leading up to the restaurant were steep enough to make Olivia groan, but it was worth it when she saw Julian and Darpan waving at them from the table.
The high ceilings and delicate furniture made this place look opulent and expensive, but in reality, it was actually quite affordable. It had been Julian's idea to meet up here, given that he loves Italian food, and everyone had been happy to agree.
"Long time no see," Darpan chimed as he stood to greet them, "how's everyone doing?"
"Wishing the wind would let up," Elise grumbled, but she accepted Darpan's hug with a smile. "How about you? I hear you've another baby on the way."
Oh, Darpan hadn't told Olivia that. Her chest fluttered in delight, a grin spreading across her lips. "No way. How many kids is this now? Five?"
"Six," he replied with a grin, "we're having twins; we just found out at the ultrasound last week."
"Congrats!" Olivia exclaimed, reaching out to clap him on the shoulder. Then she settled into the nearest chair, grinning up at him. "How many more do you think you'll have, before you call it quits?"
Darpan only rolled his eyes as he sat too. "I'd say two more, at least."
She studied him, lips forming a smile, but it was impossible to tell if he was joking or not. If he had said that he wanted a dozen more children, Olivia would have honestly believed him.
Julian sat beside Olivia, reaching to pluck the drinks menu from the middle of the table. "I know we're still waiting on people, but if they're late they can order when they arrive. I think I'm going to have a cocktail. Oh." His eyes lit up as he turned to Olivia, snapping his fingers as if something had suddenly occurred. "I was going to ask about this new job of yours. How is it?"
Olivia couldn't fight back the smile. Julian's voice was too loud in the quiet restaurant, his voice echoing off the high ceilings; but that was just him in a nutshell. "A work friend put in a good word for me, and her boss saw my work... and decided he wanted me on his team. Turns out he doesn't just want me as a writer, but as an investigator too."
"Oh, investigative journalism. I bet that pays well."
"It does, but I care more about the fact that it's so interesting. I've learned loads since I started." That, and the fact her social life had exploded since joining. Work colleagues were one thing, but work friends were even better. And now, with better and flexible working hours and more control over her job, there was more time to enjoy herself. After years of dedicating herself to her work, Olivia deserved to let loose a little more than usual.
Julian's eyes twinkled. "And how are these other friends of yours? I'm not going to say that you've been neglecting us, but..."
Rolling her eyes, Olivia elbowed him in the ribs - lightly, of course. "I'm not neglecting anyone. It's just difficult to keep up with everyone nowadays. You’re all so busy. Besides, it’s not unfair to say we’ve all drifted apart over the years, right?" At that, Olivia's eyes drifted over to Elise. She was chatting animatedly with Darpan, a wide grin on her face, and Olivia had to admit that she looked good. Maybe this reunion was a good thing, despite her apprehension. She had missed everybody, and it made her feel warm to see them all together again. Well, almost everyone. They were just waiting on a few more to arrive.
“And what about this Liam guy?” Julian asked. He leaned across the table to see her better, brows raised. “I heard about him from Darpan.”
Olivia shifted in her seat, suddenly nervous. “Well,” she replied with a shrug and a smile, “it’s easy sailing, I think. Neither of us wants children and having that conversation helped the connection between us when we first met, but sometimes I wonder if he might change his mind.”
“And why would he?”
Another shrug, and Olivia bit down on her lip. “I don’t know. I guess I’m just worried we won’t always agree on what’s right for both of us.” She had never said so out loud before, but now the worries came bubbling to the surface. Even now, a decade after having made peace with her decision, Olivia still couldn’t always shove down the concern of what other people thought. It wasn’t easy, when the entire world was convinced there was one right way to do things.
Julian only smiled, though, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Well, you know what you want and that’s admirable. So what if it isn’t what everybody else wants too? Besides, if he’s any good he’ll respect your decision no matter what his opinion is.”
Olivia’s chest warmed, and she managed a smile. “Thanks, Julian. You always know what to say, don’t you?”
If he planned on replying, Julian never had the chance. "Hey guys!" a voice called across the restaurant, and Olivia turned to see Joseph and Lauren ambling through the entrance. Behind them was Molly and Christine, both peeking out from around Joseph's tall frame to wave hello.
Already the quiet restaurant was looking livelier, their table quickly filling as everybody settled in. Christine ended up right across from Olivia, and she offered a nervous wave and a warm smile. Admittedly, this one tight-knit friend group hadn't kept in great contact over the years, but seeing everyone together made it feel like old times. Now all they were missing were Darren and Connor.
Olivia didn't have to wait long, because soon enough the men in question appeared in her peripheral. Connor collapsed dramatically into the chair across from Darpan, already reaching for the drinks menu. "Sorry we're late," he said with a sigh, barely heard above the chatter, "our youngest decided she didn't like the babysitter and tried to sneak into the back of the car."
"Why does that sound exactly like something one of mine would do?" Darpan replied. He rolled his eyes, but a well-meaning smile graced his face. "At least you're here; presumably without a toddler in your car."
"Oh no, we made sure to leave her at home," Darren interjected as he settled beside his husband.
"Although I just know she's going to cause a fuss when we get back."
"And that's the reality of having children."
Olivia couldn't help but smile fondly as they bantered on. Once, she might have felt awkward around such a conversation; not knowing how to relate or what to say. Now, though, she quite enjoyed listening to the antics that these kids got up to.
Now, with everyone gathered around the table and the sound of chatter rising, it really did feel like old times. Old times but better, maybe, because they'd all grown and changed and found new things to enjoy, but at the end of the day, they still loved and cared about each other. So maybe things weren't exactly how Olivia had pictured her forties to be, but she thought things had turned out pretty well, regardless.
And Olivia realised, perhaps belatedly, that no matter what her choices were and how they differed from everyone else’s, she loved her friends and they still loved her just the way she was. In this moment of time, there was nowhere else she would rather be.