Not the last time, but the week before.
I remember the last time that I saw your face, though I didn't know it. No-one told me it would be the last time. This year has been the longest and most painful year of my life and yet, in some ways it feels like it was yesterday. The truth is that it was yesterday, just yesterday in 2016, not 2017.
It was Mother's Day and my mind was flooded with memories. I was not feeling great. My last boyfriend had left on Mother's Day 2015 and my mum had only recently died. Besides which, being a single parent of young children on Mother's Day sucks at the best of times, as you struggle on cooking and tidying and trying to keep people happy, all the time seething because this is your day and someone should be looking after you for a change. But no-one is.
We'd said goodbye in the morning as we always did, just before the children came back from their dad's. You'd gone to buy your mum some flowers and taken them to her. (It was to be the last time that she would see your face too.) I wasn't expecting to see you until Tuesday. I never saw you on a Sunday. I wouldn't let you meet the children, not after what had happened last time with the other boyfriend, although we had been discussing it. It had been eight months and things were going so well. You were planning a bonfire and you wanted me to bring the children. I'd said I would. All that remained was to decide whether I would bring them as your friend or as your girlfriend, out in the open for the first time.
On the Saturday, things were not right. Looking back, the signs were all there that you were not well. I remember sitting on your knee and pointing out that you had big dark bags under your eyes and you teased me, 'what faults of yours can I pick on?' you said. And you were forgetting things. You couldn't remember where we were meant to be going from one moment to the next. 'What is wrong with your brain? I remember asking. You laughed it off. 'There's nothing wrong with my brain,' you said. We went to your friend's house that night. It was the night that you invented the code, the taps on your hand: two taps to tell you that I was ready to leave, three to make love. I tapped three times of course and you made me laugh, 'what, right here?' you said and we left. No doubt we did make love that night but I don't remember it. We were still at that stage. Only eight months in. Deeply in love. No-one told me it would be the last time.
The children and I were coming back from a play centre that Sunday evening and the neighbours were having a bonfire. We watched for a while, throwing sticks into the fire over the fence and I told them that my friend Paul was having a bonfire and that they were invited. They squealed with excitement and then my daughter asked me if we would let off the paper lanterns that you'd left at our house. And suddenly I found myself asking if they wanted to do it right now, with you, if you were free. I sent you a text and you said, 'be there in 10'.
The rest of it feels like the stuff of mythology. You made stone circles on the ground outside with my daughter and burnt herbs in an offering to the Greek gods that she was obsessed with; she was thrilled to have someone who shared her passion. And then we wrote on the paper lanterns. We wrote on one for my deceased parents and the other one you sent to the gods. You and she were in clear accord that Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, was the best. You wrote a message to him though I didn't look what it said and then you lit the papers and my children held the lanterns and waited patiently for them to balloon with the heat and we stood and watched them together, floating off into the night sky like we were a little family waiting to be born.
'I really like Paul,' my daughter said when you were out of earshot. 'Can he stay?' I said he could and I left the two of you watching The Witches while I put the little one to bed. Afterwards, you said goodnight to her and then there were just us two. I held you tightly in the hall, swaying in your arms, still feeling the glow from watching you with them and the lanterns. 'I love you,' I said. And 'I love you too,' came your reply. We kissed goodnight and then you left with that move that was uniquely yours, the one that I've written about before: the twist on the ball of a foot, one foot on the step, one on the ground, graceful like a dancer, hand raised and your voice tossed into the darkness saying 'goodnight'.
And there we were, just at the beginning of a lifetime together, not knowing that we were at the end. I didn't know that it was the last time I would see your face. You didn't know it was the last time you would see mine. The next day I phoned you in tears, in a panic, saying I wasn't sure I could do it, it was all too big, what if it all went wrong again. You calmed me down, said I was grieving for my mum, said it would take longer before I could trust again after what had happened last time when I had introduced someone to the children. You said that we had all the time in the world, that there was no rush. You told me to rest, to go to bed early on Tuesday instead of staying up all night with you, to go and see my friend on Saturday and have a week off from you; I'd spent every spare moment with you from the day we met. You told me to take some time, said you weren't going anywhere. Though neither of us knew it, it turned out that you were.