Last Day

Last Day (In London With A Boy) — Part I
a lot of words . June 2012 . This is a work of creative non-fiction

+

I’d spent the day writing and doing my last rites around the city. I took the Central Line to St. Paul’s and visited Paternoster Square, where in the corner you can still see the metal crowd control barriers that choked the square end-to-end when the city was trying to prevent Occupy protests in the space. Tourists taking pictures swarmed the great dome of the church. For a long time I simply sat with my picture book on the embankment below Millennium Bridge coming towards it from St. Paul’s, where there are many neat wooden benches from which you can watch the crowds swarm along the bridge like longitudinal waves, the slinky compressions and rarefactions. It’s nice to look at, but shit if you actually want to get somewhere.

I leaned over the edge with my elbows balanced on the railing, the overcast sky transmuted into muddy brown over the surface of the Thames. Goodbye is the worst. I’m the worst at goodbyes because I begin my mourning in earnest far too early. Linda had said, “Effy, are you okay?” when I tried to sneak past her out of the apartment that morning. “You’ve been so quiet. I’ve hardly heard a peep out of you all day,” she said.

“I was napping,” I lied.

If the city would miss me too it was doing a good job of hiding it. You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me, I thought. And now I had discovered something in between, a continent untouched, that I wanted all to myself. If it would have me back.

+

Of all the people that I’ve met in London over the six weeks that I’ve spent there, I felt that Sergiu was the only one who really loves London maybe as much as I do. I mean, everybody likesLondon. But there’s a difference that takes a leap nearly to love-hate.

Whilst I grumble about sodding Tube delays and planned engineering works like everyone else, I love the Tube so fiercely I didn’t know what to do with myself. I love the smell of London, the smell of rush hour that never seems to reach the armpit dog-shit cesspool odour of the Paris Metro, when you somehow allow strangers to press up against you closer than you’d ever permit even in a dirty, sweaty club. When I came back to Bethnal Green the first thing I did was lay out my plastic tablecloth over the lawn in front of the Public Library, sit with my legs folded, breathing in the air. I love the curt grass in the city parks. I love the pubs on every corner (except for South Kensington, which Maura and I discovered was essentially dry – what the fuck). I love terrace housing, as prevalent in Knightsbridge as in Battersea. I love dirty old Regent’s Canal with its penchant for becoming the final resting place of many a murder victim.

And I love the people. So proper and reticent in the day, endlessly fake-apologetic, all-annihilated starting Friday night.

Linda had said, “Nobody binge-drinks like the English do.” An immaterial truth.

And I even love that. I love boys and girls throwing up on the night bus back from Camden. I love Canary Wharf suits who drank so much they walked straight into the chain-link fence at Stratford DLR. I love the eerie quiet of the Square Mile on the week-end, and the sound my Oyster Card makes with a successful scan, the grating, thunderous rumble when teenagers took advantage of the thinning traffic about ten in the evening in the summer to skateboard directly across Millennium Bridge. How the Thames is actually chocolate-brown, its meandering curves etched into the new bottles of London Pride pale ale, a company whose breweries still reside in Chiswick on the bank of the river after more than a century.

Sergiu acts really blasé and all, but, the previous Thursday, maybe just a tad buzzed, he’d spoken against my ear, “I love it too.”

Probably too premature, but I just thought: All right. Then your kind is my kind.

+

I was meeting Sergiu for lunch. I arrived at High Holborn to meet him just a tad early, as one does, when it was starting to drizzle over my head. Sergiu had texted he was stuck in what he termed a terrifying traffic jam, so I waited for him just inside the door. Garden baskets of flowers hung from hooks just beneath the awning of the building. A boy and girl stood close to a sign advertising pub food and put their heads together.

He arrived from the Holborn direction and I stepped into his hug. We swiftly exchanged pleasantries and a found a table.

These English pubs are so strange; nobody seats you. There are menus on the tables and you go up to the bar to order.

Sergiu sat down and asked, “You know what you want?”

“Yeah,” I said. I’d spotted the all-day brunch. I do it all the time in Toronto – getting pancakes and eggs and bacon and fruit salad at Fran’s or The Red Room down the street. “Is it a very North American thing, you think. The all-day brunch?”

“Maybe it is.”

“I think so.”

As he went up to order, I pulled out the book I got for him a few days before and placed it on the table, slipped into a brown MUJI bag.

“This is for you,” I said when he returned, and slid the book across to him.

“Not going to lie, but I saw it on the table already. I was curious of what it could be. It looks like a book,” he said.

“It is a book,” I said, smiling. “You know what kind of person I am; of course it’s a book.”

“So,” he said, picking it up. “I don’t know what is culturally appropriate in this case. Do you guys open gifts when you get them?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s fine. That’s actually totally North American. In China, people would be aghast – like my mother when she first came to Canada. She thought it was like putting on a show, all this crap about how much you love something when it doesn’t fit, pretending you want to use it right away.”

He started to flip through it. I’d been looking to pick up the book myself for a long time. It’s by David Gentleman who did the artwork on the wall at Charing Cross station, a month-by-month depiction of scenes of London, done in graphite, charcoal, watercolor. I am quite fond of the way the artist works. He paints an impression of a place rather than every precise detail, which is how I see London myself. Not static, more a residence of imagination. A place for the girl that I could become.

“Oh, wow. This is…” he said, and seemed to admire the pictures, the one of the model planes in the Science Museum, Regent’s Canal, Nelson’s column keeping guard over Trafalgar Square.

When he had reached one of the pages defaced with my tiny green cursive, I said, “Um, I also wrote in it? Like, I wrote about what I did at some of the places in the drawings? And I offered some suggestions on where you should visit? Because you need to go to more places?”

I tried to ignore how there were too many question marks in whatever drivel I’d just let escape my mouth. I could tell he was trying to thank me, but now I was feeling too embarrassed to proceed. When that happens I just keep talking and talking and burying the issue.

“I do need to go to more places,” he agreed. He kept flipping. “Thank you. This is really great, Elizabeth. It’s actually exactly what I need.”

“Um, there’s also a note at the beginning?” I said.

“Are you reading my mind?” he asked, skimming it, squinting at my writing.

“Hmm?”

He pointed to the first sentence of my note. “You wrote ‘don’t be embarrassed.’ It’s like you’ve read my mind.”

“S’not hard, in this case,” I said. “Are you embarrassed?”

“Yes.” And then looked at me funny. “Are you sure this isn’t your copy?”

“I’m sure,” I said. “Why would I give you my copy? This is for you.” My copy was at home.

I tried to explain why I thought he might like it. “Um, it’s just that, of all the people I’ve met abroad, I feel like you’re the only one who actually loves London as much as I do? Like Zanada likes it, but she says things like Brighton is her city. You’re always hiding how much you like it, but I know you really do.”

“Did you point out the places we were together?” he asked.

With Zanada we’d taken him to Millennium Bridge for the first time, to Paternoster Square, to Tower Bridge, and finally along the Queen’s Walk. The next day he and I had met at Baker Street station, gone to Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill. I still remember his face when I told him I usually came into the park through the Camden Town entrance. He’d asked, “It goes that far?” It was pretty funny.

“Some of them,” I said.

I’m probably going to get in trouble some day for trying to read people’s minds so much. Fortunately, Sergiu kindly gives me a pass on most of my moments. Like Zanada says, “Oh, that is just Effy.”

+

After we both ate for a bit he picked up the book again. “I want to read more artistic books,” he said. “Everything I read right now relates to marketing. To my work.”

“I could suggest some to you,” I said. “The problem is that boys tend to like a different kind of literature.”

My guy friends all seem to have the same favourite books. I was thinking, Catch-22, Brave New World, 1984. If you’re super emo maybe Catcher in the Rye, On The Road. If I ever suggested to a male friend that he read a female author he’d probably think I was trying to cut his dick off.

I said, “Like, science-fiction or dystopian stuff. Um, have you heard of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”

“That sounds like some kind of Star Wars,” he said. “I’m not really into that. I like emotionally complex things.”

“Oh, god, you’re one of those Russian Lit types, aren’t you?” I asked.

I was thinking about the only boy I ever tried to date, when I was twenty, who wouldn’t read anything except dark, morose, psychological Russian prose.

When we were going out he had been reading Dr. Zhivago for four months and I had just finished Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is deeply psychological. The problem is that people don’t bother because it sounds like a relationshippy book. And anyway they only know that Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby. The title references the fact that the calm and cover of night is fragile, easily shattered, like an honorable man’s facade in life. It broke my heart. I’ve always felt that the main character, Dick Diver, was me.

“Well, you’ve heard of Dostoevsky.”

“Oh, yes.”

“You could try Crime and Punishment, then.”

I had found that one tolerable when I was thirteen. We’d also studied it again in school in Year Eleven.

I said, “You also might like Hemingway. Because he’s kind of a real Man’s Man.”

“What does that mean?”

“Like, he writes about manly things.”

“Which are…”

I thought of Hemingway’s short story The Hills Like White Elephants. There is a single scene with an American man and a girl and a very slick line about absinthe. Sergiu had said that it wasn’t legal to get absinthe in the US but you could in Europe no problem.

“Well, a lot of his stories feature bullfighting,” I said.

“Why bullfighting?”

“Who knows? And hunting, lots of hunting.”

“That’s….strange.”

“He writes about men and women too, but in a really rigid, terse way,” I said. “Nobody says how they really feel. There is also a lot of drinking and smoking, which is, like, fucking awesome, in my opinion.” In fact these days all I’ve been focusing on in my writing is drinking and smoking. Hemingway was on to something because I find it lets the dialogue stand out.

He nodded thoughtfully. “You know,” he said. “My parents actually have a lot of these books. I should get them to send them to me.”

“I do all my reading on my phone,” I said, because I actually have a process consisting of carefully updating my Goodreads profile using the Android app with the percentage read of each book. I add a small comment with each update so I remember the dominant impression of what I read. You can set a goal for the number of books you read every year. And you can compare to your friends.

He shook his head. “But it’s not the same as holding a real book in your hands.”

“Don’t be a hipster, now,” I chided.

“No, just a purist. In fact, I’m going to text my father right now,” he said, grinning, reaching into the pocket of his trousers.

“Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll wait.”

I watched him tap on his phone. I was thinking how nice it must be to still be on speaking terms with one’s parents. What was it like to have them still on the end of a text or call?

I leaned over, but the only word I recognized was Dostoevsky. Oh, and “tata”, but maybe that meant something other than what I thought.

“Is it the same alphabet?” I asked.

“Yeah, look you can see.”

As he continued to type I wracked my brain for more guy-friendly literature I could suggest to him. My reading habits, though eclectic, tend to err towards families, childhood, broken relationships, and ordinary life. I find mundane situations heart-breaking. My mother was an professor of English language in China and she raised me on the classics, borrowing large-print Jane Austen for me from the library when I was just eight years old. Now she tells me I’ve input too many books in my head and have lost touch with reality. I have been accused of becoming a useless romantic. Her brain hasn’t registered that I’m not reading romance novels and that she’d probably be happier if I were.

The first novel that made me think I could be a writer; I have something to say was “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan, about four sets of Chinese mothers and their Americanized daughters growing up in San Francisco in the mid-twentieth century. I realized I was reading about my mother, and I think, in a way, I have always read about her. I have searched for her, in literature, for the fragments of affection and guidance she failed to provide me.

Predictably, my mother hates Amy Tan.

“That woman is a mother-hater,” Mama used to say. “Blames her mother for everything.”

“Mom, you haven’t even read it,” I had said. My mother also never wants to read my writing. With good reason, because she knows it’s all about her.

+

When I was in Paris I was really forced to confront my loneliness. It was not just a language barrier but a problem of connecting with people. My prepossessions notwithstanding, Paris encapsulates its own sort of charm that’s inspired artists for centuries, the famous boulevards, Le Marais, the shallow fountains hemmed in by terrace houses at Place de Vosges, the Seine’s narrow flanks walling off the crowds at sunset, doors to the Metro aggressively snapping shut at Chatelet des Halles. Of course I understood the objective delights of a city so heralded and celebrated. But lately, the way I’ve been losing family, losing ancestors, and by that token losing history, as though pruning a tree, diluting my own bloodline, has cast me adrift. Aside from my hosts Didier and Kenza, and cursory interactions with cashiers at Monoprix or the community piscine, I hardly spoke to anyone in the course of the day. And by simple reciprocity no one showed themselves to me. It was the loneliest, maybe, that I’ve ever felt in my entire life, an isolation that directed my thoughts inward. I thought, if “found family” are the ones you choose, it still doesn’t show youhow to find. You’re still on your own. It was what drove me to write.

When I wasn’t rewatching Ratatouille over and over for the Paris I had been searching for, I ended spending a lot of time lying on my stomach in the bed, re-reading what I’d written about the people I’ve met. I had written probably 50 000 words on these people in the past six months, from Sajjid and Daniel in Tofino, to Grace at Brent Cross, to Clare and Justin at Elephant & Castle, the girls from Brick Lane. To dear, darling James who I really think is one of the best, most decent people I have ever known in my life.

I realized that I wrote about people in an attempt to make connections. On the page I see them at their most fleshed-out. I see them robust, full-bodied like a stout beer. Most times all I take with me is a snippet of dialogue, a single mannerism. I don’t know people, apart from what they tell me, and so, the best moments are when a person lets me in. If I’m to be honest it doesn’t take much for me – some people think friendship must startle the waters like a dropped inkblot that subsumes the space around it. I say all it takes is a door left slightly ajar. Enough to let the air through.

I believe in what Miranda July wrote: “But, like ivy, we grow where there is room for us – she seemed to have room for me; she never turned away in the pauses that allow for turning away. She never inquired, but she never recoiled, either. This is a quality that I look for in a person, not recoiling. Some people need a red carpet rolled out in front of them in order to walk forward into friendship. They can’t see the tiny outstretched hands all around them, everywhere, like leaves on trees.”

+

This third time I came back to London I didn’t really expect to make more connections. My only hope was to study, and breathe, and see a few old friends, so it’s been really nice to spend time with Sergiu. I don’t pretend to know things about him, but he did the minimum. He let me in. He even read my writing. He showed interest in the person I was.

I took a sip of my Coke and said, “You know, it’s always kind of awkward to meet people for the first time after I’ve written about them.”

“How so?”

“I feel kind of exposed, like they know what I really think now. It’s funny.”

One month before, James had Facebooked-messaged me after reading my 6k on our night in the East. He told me he wasn’t creeped out. He said it was interesting to see another person’s perspective on something he also experienced. He said it highlighted the subjectivity of experience or something. Still, his approval didn’t preclude my clawing at my face from the other side of the computer screen. Afterwards I probably had scratch marks on my cheeks from mortification.

Sergiu seemed to have had a similar experience reading about our previous Thursday in Dalston.

“You are exposed,” he said. “But it’s hard to describe how much I enjoyed your essay.”

He said the thing that surprised him the most was the level of detail. That I remembered what he wore, the blue jumper, the collared, pin-striped white shirt.

He said, “I mean, I don’t even remember what I wore that night. Or what you wore.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I said. “So I could have been wearing a bag for all anyone cared.” I was thinking about how girls go to so much effort to wear nice outfits when going out. I guess the truth is most guys don’t even notice.

“You were definitely wearing a dress. Was it this same dress you’re wearing today?”

“No.”

“And I think Zanada was wearing a jumper and trousers.”

Wrong, I thought.

She was wearing denim cut-offs over black leggings. That was why her shorts glowed under the black lights of the club. But it was still funny what he thought he knew.

“You also remembered what color my eyes were. That was honestly pretty amazing to me.”

“Um,” I said, looking straight at him. “Of course I remembered what color your fucking eyes were. I spent like all night talking to you. I didn’t spend it talking to the ground!”

“But I would not have been able to tell you what color your eyes were.”

“Um,” I said. “I’m Chinese. I think it would be pretty obvious what the answer would be.”

“Yes, but,” he said, seeming to struggle. I am very curt sometimes.

“What.”

“Fine, I guess so. Maybe I would have remembered whether they were pale or dark.”

“I’m not offended,” I said. “For God’s sake, my father wrote in my passport that my eyes wereblack. I don’t even think black eyes are possible. So you’re fine.”

“They’re…dark brown,” he said, after a moment of scrutiny.

Light, I thought, smiling to myself. My sister has dark brown eyes like dark chocolate. Mine are much lighter. But he got points for effort.

I stood up. I had finished with my Diet Coke. “I’ll get this round,” I said, digging out my coin purse.

He hesitated. He was thinking about turning me down, I could tell. If he said something to the effect, I would insist. “You sure?” he asked.

“Yes, I want to,” I said. “What would you like to drink?”

“Um,” he said. “I’ll get a Guinness.”

“All right,” I said. “Stay here.”

It wasn’t until I actually got off to the bar, teetering rather precariously in my high-heels, that I realized I’d no idea what to say. Did I have to say how much? Like a pint? Well, no shit, only girls and pussies drank halves, right?

A long line of inverted bottles displayed along the back wall. I tried to keep my cool, remembered the etiquette of no waving or flagging and generally being a douche, waited for the bargirl to speak to me.

I said, “Hello, can I get a Guinness and a Kopparberg Strawberry and Lime?”

“Coming up,” she said. That seemed like an acceptable interaction? I guess?

Whilst I waited for her to fill the glasses from the tap, I rested my elbows on the bartop. I took a look around at the space of Penderel’s Oak, huge, even bigger than it looked from the outside.

I liked it. When you entered there was a fancy reception bar, close to where I waited for Sergiu under the awning. A corridor beyond the main bar opened onto a staircase to a third bar and seating area in the basement. I had to pass this part to go to the toilets. Where we sat there were two tiers of table-chair sets with wooden accents, full at that time of day with chattering patrons.

The dearth of suits and fancy-men among the clientele didn’t escape my notice – it was a Saturday afternoon in The City, in between Holborn and Chancery Lane no less, and so, the atmosphere smelt less business, more social. A few misplaced tourists had darted in from the side entrance through an alley off of High Holborn. They looked relieved to escape the rain, shaking out the glittering silver skeletons of freshly-purchased umbrellas onto the floor.

After I paid I realized I had to confront a second dilemma of transport.

I already held my coin purse in one hand. There was no way I was going to be able to hold two glasses, one nearly overflowing with Guinness, the other with ice, and a bottle of cider. I experimented with a few different, equally-awkward configurations before another of the bargirls noticed, and it was the help of the tray that I finally got the alcohol back to Sergiu. Walking with a heavy-laden tray is harder than it looks!

He was sitting in the same position checking his phone.

I wondered if maybe I was just boring him. Well, he could tell me so if that were the case. His friends were having a get-together in Brixton, famous for Electric Avenue, that night, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry.

Sitting down, I pointed to the Guinness, whose color fascinated me, like dark eastern medicine, like cola, or maybe diseased urine. I stared at the white, foamy three-quarter-inch of head in the glass and asked, “Can I have a sip of it? And are you supposed to wait for the foam to settle?”

Sergiu looked at me kind of oddly and said, “Well, maybe. There are no rules. Go on and drink it, then, if you want.”

“I actually think there are rules,” I said. “You could Google them on your phone right now.”

He rolled his eyes and pointed to it rather forcefully.

Drink,” he ordered. When I hesitated, he picked it up first and sipped it down, his Adam’s apple bobbing once, twice.

The head left a faint moustache of eggshell over his upper lip. It was fucking adorable. My fingers itched to touch his face, so I shoved my hand between my knees to prevent myself from acting on the impulse.

He said, “Now you.”

I was left with a similar souvenir on my upper lip. I licked it off carefully. The bitter of Guinness takes longer to hit you, I think, lingering in the finish, probably an acquired taste, like black liquorice. The first time I tried scotch I felt the same. It was the brassy fire it left in my belly that I remembered, not how it felt going down. Drinking scotch neat I still can’t bring myself to do, still too strong. I need to temper mine with at least one ice cube. Delbert and I would drink scotch when he helped me practise for my clinical skills exams because it was the only way I could focus on something I hated so much beyond about eleven p.m.

It’s been fun to learn more about alcohol; at home, I always keep a decent stock. I’ve got Balvenie for the boys who come over and feel a bit fancy, gin for G&T, and Polar Ice when all I’ve got to mix is Diet 7-Up and I want to get drunk fast. Recently I’d picked up a bottle of Pimm’s No. 1 (which is gin-based) just for the hot summer days. I like to think I make a mean Pimm’s cup.

I said, “Try mine,” and pushed the strawberry cider across the table to Sergiu. He drank.

“Doesn’t even taste like alcohol,” he said.

I tapped at the side of the glass where the cider shone bright pink, the bubbles dotting to the surface like moving ellipses. “Right? It’s like soda. Just sugar,” I said.

I don’t mind cider usually because it’s what the girls always drink when we go out. Cider has become very fashionable these days. I like Aspall for traditional apple. Maura’s favourite is the Kopparberg Pear, a Swedish brand. They are especially good for suspending you just on the edge of tipsy throughout a long night of dancing, but I have to say the volume problem is insidious and pernicious.

Drinking cider responsibly means always having knowledge of where the toilet is. I much prefer spirits. I like shots even early in the evening. It gets the job done. I’m a pragmatic drinker.

Sergiu, apparently, couldn’t stand watching my slow drinking anymore, though.

“Okay, enough of that,” he said, pushing the dregs of my cider aside and handing me the Guinness. The glass made a satisfying clink on the surface of the table. “Start drinking this,” he said.

Sometimes I think he just likes ordering me around. Like a father. Which is weird because he’s younger than I am. But I think in many ways wiser.

Last Day (In London With A Boy) — Part II

+

One of the best things about Sergiu is I can kind of just talk to him about anything. It requires no effort. We were being kind of meta, retrospective, picking things apart. We can talk about the way people act, how they are.

“I just knew I would like you almost immediately,” I said. “Sometimes you just can tell.”

“Actually, I knew I would like you too,” he said, quietly. Our eyes met over the table.

I laughed. “Really. When was that?”

“Thursday.”

“No, I mean, of course it was Thursday, but what time on Thursday? I think it was within the first hour for me,” I said. I buried my face in my arms and felt myself reddening. “Was it the sign? It was the goddamn sign, wasn’t it? Or in the park?” We were still working on the Guinness. Outside, the rain had long stopped and cleared the humidity.

“No, it was later. When we were actually talking.”

“Really?”

He lifted a hand to scratch at the short hairs on the back of his neck, and admitted, “At first it was kind of a strange situation with the three of us. I felt a bit dumb, speaking just to you, and then just to Zanada. It was as though we were speaking only in pairs and not all three of us together. It took me a while to get comfortable.”

I said, “So it was when we were outside the club.”

“Actually, that club was not much of a club, I have to say. Kind of shit. I think the best things about that night happened outside on the street,” he said.

I flashed him my widest smile and said, “I think I’m flattered. And also on behalf of Zanada and her mysterious suitor.”

Zanada had told me a few days afterwards that she hadn’t wanted to inform me at the time, but, indeed, she had made out with the guy she was with.

I didn’t care, so I don’t know why she thought I would. Maybe my jokes had been too aggressive that night. It’s just easier for me to joke about sex because it kind of pre-empts my awkwardness. This is the reason why I touch people first on purpose, so that it doesn’t surprise me later, so that they don’t touch me first.

“About that,” he said, looking apologetic. “I hope I didn’t go overboard with the teasing.”

I think Zanada is just a bit private; she doesn’t want her business everywhere, and she likes to think she can take care of herself. It’s the pride.

I shook my head and said, “No, she’s fine.”

He said, “It’s just that I’m a guy. I know how guys work. A guy just doesn’t pay so much attention to a girl and buy her a drink and get her weed if…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. If they don’t want something in return. But how much is enough?” I asked.

“Guys always want more,” he told me honestly.

I made a face.

So here’s my sexual hang-up: I’m no prude – the physicality doesn’t bother me at all – but I don’t know whether I can find it in myself to give guys a pass on this biological imperative argument. This discussion always reminds me of my father, who loves women far too much. He thinks with his dick. With no regard for consequences.

My mother would say, “A man only wants one thing from a woman, even your Daddy who you seem to love so much.” If it’s so easy to play with a girl and drop her when she doesn’t do exactly what you want, then how much am I worth? What someone decides at the moment? It makes me want to curl up into a ball and die.

I used to wonder what my mother did that made my father not love her anymore. I wondered what it was that made him say, when he was angry at me, that I was exactly like her.

I changed the subject and said, “You know, Zanada said that she thought you would probably be a real romantic. That you were the type of boy who would treat a girl really well.”

“Really,” he said.

“Yes. I thought that too,” I said.

“How so?”

“Because I think it was what you said about when you were living with your girlfriend, when you left home. You said you would buy her flowers to eat,” I said.

I don’t know why I found that so utterly charming. Maybe because you really can’t make this stuff up.

He protested, “Not to eat! It was just flowers, full-stop. I was working such a shit job for shit pay that all I could afford to buy her were flowers.”

“See,” I said. “Romantic.”

I wouldn’t lie about a thing like that. A grimace formed at the corner of his mouth. Maybe guys never liked to think of themselves as romantic.

“Well, maybe, but that was one of the really tough years of my life. I think so many things happened to me that year,” he said, fiddling with his collar which had come loose from the top of his jumper.

He wore a red jumper and charcoal trousers, the white tips of a soft-collar shirt peeking out from under the lip of the top. His profile looked so smooth that he’d obviously shaved only that morning. He looked so young, fresh-faced, a bit at odds with what he was saying.

“Grew up quickly,” he said finally. And I know how that’s a bit of drag.

+

On Sunday in the park he’d already alluded briefly to it. He left home at eighteen, telling his father and standing his ground, and moved in with his girlfriend. I was thinking: there was a story there. The story of this girl, who seemed to be the the girl, if you know what I mean.

The source, the fountainhead, the Waterloo.

The keystone to Sergiu Gheorghita.

It became a segue into something about relationships, and I found it fascinating because he’s twenty-one, but he’s so much more experienced than I am. Just from the way he spoke about her you could tell how deeply he loved this girl. He probably still loved her.

“I will say,” he said. “That I did do something pretty romantic once, even in my thought, involving throwing rocks at her window, and a bit of crying, and confessing, and ultimatums.”

I thought about the Dominican author Junot Diaz. He wrote, She was the kind of girlfriend God gives you when you’re young, so you’ll know the loss for the rest of your life.

Sergiu was giving me fucking second-hand embarrassment, my cheeks growing warm.

“Well,” he said. “Now you officially know more about me than anyone else. I never told anyone that before.”

“Um, thanks?” I said, thinking It was funny how we met through Zanada but now it seemed he’d spent way more time with me than with her. I guess people have told me I am a good listener. I guess because I feel everything so deeply. It’s hard for me to go just half-way.

In this case I don’t think you really get over these things. You just pick yourself up and move on. It’s been five years since I’ve even attempted to date anyone since J, and sometimes I think he fucked me up for anyone else. And I didn’t even really love him. Actually, it had nothing to do with him. My mother drove doubt so deeply into my ribs that I became hysterical and told him it wouldn’t work just so I could stop crying.

This is the problem of youth. You can’t handle the intensity of it (me), or you’ve got no money (me x 2), or you’re changing too quickly that you’re strangers after a few months (me x 3). I promised myself I would never be that weak again.

Two years on from the girl, Sergiu says he’s not interested in being in a relationship anymore. What was the point, anyway? He was studying abroad and he still wanted to travel and he wasn’t ready for a big, time-consuming thing.

Again, I understood. I told myself that because I was so convinced there was so much more ambition left inside me. The problem is it’s easier for boys; my mother says why can’t I just be satisfied that I’m clever enough already; I’ve already been told I’m not a real woman, I failed, I missed my chance when I was seventeen, when I wouldn’t marry the boy my mother wanted.

She thinks my ovaries have shrivelled up inside me, that I couldn’t get someone to sleep with me if I tried. She makes me feel like I’m already dead.

“I’ll probably take it more seriously when I’m around thirty,” he said, stretching out his arms. He said it like it was already set in stone, just another domino in the pattern, something so straightforward and easy.

I snorted. “And then you’ll be going after eighteen-year-olds, right?”

“No, let’s say twenty-five-year-olds,” he said, looking a bit pleased with himself.

“Don’t even try to deny it,” I said.

He drank his beer. I was falling behind.

Later Sergiu actually admitted that he’d kind of tried to hit on Anna once when they all went out, which made me smile. Anna gets so much male attention she always has the most shocking stories.

The day before we met Laura’s Finnish friends for drinks at Paramount on Tottenham Court Road, and when Otto had asked if I were getting any abroad, I joked that when I was beside Anna nobody looked twice at me.

She had hugged me, embarrassed. But she knows it’s true.

“Actually, she’s not really my type,” Sergiu said.

I was trying to drink as fast as I could without bursting.

“Ah,” I said. “You have a type.”

He shrugged.

“And, tell me, what kind of girls do you like?” I asked.

“Uh,” he looked sheepish. “Actually, there are like some requirements.”

“What? You mean, a checklist?”

“Maybe?”

“God, you’re like a girl! Well, go on, then. What’s on this list of yours?”

“There’s not an actual list,” he said, backpedalling. I wouldn’t let him get away with it that easily.

“No, tell me.”

He sighed. “Okay, well, first she should be beautiful.”

I nodded. “Of course.

“And smart.”

“Uh,” I said. Maybe I was missing something here. “I think every guy wants a beautiful and smart girl.”

“Beautiful, yes,” he said. “But not smart.”

“But by smart I don’t think you mean just smart,” I said. “That you can have a conversation with. Interesting. A lot of people are smart but they’re just reeling off facts and nothing else.”

“Right.”

“What else?”

“And ethical,” he said.

“Ethical – what does that mean?” I said. “Honest?”

“Like doesn’t do shady business dealings, or cheat children or something.”

“Right, because normal girls do those things and all…” I said.

“It’s an example,” he said. “An extreme.”

“You,” I said. “Are a funny boy.”

“Boy,” he repeated, forming the word slowly.

“I call all male persons boys,” I said. “It’s not a comment on you in particular. God, not everything has to be about you, you know.”

He rolled his eyes at me but smiled.

“Okay, hold on,” I said. “Toilet break.”

I was feeling the volume problem in earnest (all his fault for scolding me!) so I left for downstairs and came back. Which is when I remembered something.

“Oh, by the way, guess what I did yesterday!”

He looked at me expectantly.

“I smoked an e-cigarette! Do you know what that is?!”

“Yeah, I have one.”

“It’s was so cool, like minty? And you charge it with a USB!” I said, thinking how cool it would be to carry one around in my backpack and light up in a library or something.

He laughed. “I know. I have one.”

“Still,” I said. “It was amazeballs!”

He totally thought I was lame. But who cares? It really was amazeballs.

“Just keep drinking,” he told me. “Concentrate.”

Last Day (In London With A Boy) — Part III

+

What I love about cities is that they always come back around on themselves. Memories layer over each other in the places that I’ve been, in unexpected ways, like sewing on a button only to realize you’ve sewn it to two layers of cloth by mistake.

Chancery Lane, for example, is probably one of the most unassuming stations on the bustling Central Line, nestled between Holborn and St. Paul’s, in the heart of the Square Mile. I pass through the station every morning on my way from Bethnal Green into Westminster, and I’ve only alighted there twice before this. The first time, by mistake, on a Sunday, when the place was so dead I couldn’t even figure out which direction was towards the water. There wasn’t even anyone around to ask for directions. I ended up going back into the station and heading to Tottenham Court Road and more familiar landmarks.

The second time was to see my friend James for a quick drink on a cloudy afternoon in mid-June. James works on his PhD sometimes at Maugham Library, King’s College London, just north of Fleet Street, and it was the experience of sprinting down Chancery Lane, having stupidly forgotten the exact directions to the library, that first impressed upon me the labyrinthine character of the area. After visiting a nearby pub, he didn’t wanted to leave me at loose ends, and walked me down to Temple, also known as the Inns of Court.

“Have you been to Temple?” he asked. “You might like it. There are some very pretty gardens. This is the area where all the barristers and solicitors work.”

He led me down narrow, twisting alleyways. Hidden shops, tailors and clothiers, the exclusive precinct of the lawyers. Countless dead-ends, gates that wouldn’t open. I remember the tight security around the courtyard at Middle Temple. Fortunately, pedestrians passed freely in and out.

He lingered inside the gate, looking uncomfortable at the thought that pretty much only Delbert and some internet friends knew I was even in Europe for the summer.

He said, “If you ever get in trouble in Europe, just call me, wherever you are. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’ll do something.”

Since that time I’ve always thought of Chancery Lane as rather austere, a walled-in area in which it wasn’t immediately obvious where the dome of St. Paul’s was, where the Bank of England was, which direction was the river. Still, in a way, the same sentiment held a certain kind of charm. My favourite line from Hemingway, from The Sun Also Rises, goes like this, “You couldn’t see the sea. You could only see hills and more hills and you knew where the sea was.”

Here we were in the center of Old London, and we couldn’t see the lawyers working, locked up in their Inns. We couldn’t see the Thames. But we knew it was there. We knew it was close.

I asked Sergiu if he wanted to try to head towards the water, into Temple, at night, and he acquiesced.

+

“Which bridge are we on?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Maybe Blackfriars. But I don’t know.”

“You’re kidding. I’m disappointed in you,” he said.

“I’m sorry! Don’t expect so much!” A whip of cold wind lashed against my face, causing me to squeeze my coat tighter around my bare arms. We were standing on the pavement of one of the bridges near St. Paul’s.

“That was a joke,” he said, patting me on the back. “You still don’t get my humor. I don’t think we’re ever going to work this out.”

“Yes, but do you care?” I asked. I didn’t. Personally, I felt that was what made him so interesting to me. Someone who thought differently from me, but was so easy to talk to.

“Wouldn’t it be too simple, otherwise?” I said. “If every single one of your jokes were always spot-on, predictably funny, everyone laughing at the right place? You’d be the only one not laughing.”

He smiled slyly, as though thinking it over. “Okay, I see your point,” he said.

We passed an embrasure that jutted out in stone from the bridge out over the water. An empty bottle of wine rested on it – someone had definitely been having fun. I wandered over and peered over the edge, and looked back towards the facade of the bridge where the word Blackfriars was printed in gilt lettering.

“Look I was right,” I said. “It is Blackfriars Bridge,” and beside me, Sergiu came back and climbed onto the ledge as well. We looked out over the black, black water.

That was good to know. It’s kind of funny, the feeling of losing your bearings in a place you think you know. In spite of just a slight change in angle the riverfront looked different from the way I usually view it, from Westminster Bridge, or Victoria Embankment, or South Bank. Just about twenty minutes earlier we’d finally exited the pub and started walking, in my words, “towards the water.”

“That’s such a funny expression,” Sergiu had said. “I would never say that.”

“I’m from Newfoundland, though,” I said. “Everything in my life is with reference to the water.”

A bit tipsy on my heels from the Guinness, I’d tottered onto High Holborn at a fast clip anyway. The wide green bugle-skirt of my dress skimmed over my thighs, the wind raising goosebumps upon my skin. Sergiu always thinks I should move to New York City because of how quickly I walk. I’m always in a hurry.

“Do you know where we’re going,” he’d said.

“No, but there’s going to be a map…any…second. There it is.”

I ran up to one of the Barclays pillars.

See? At rare times I have a picture memory of places I have been.

“We need to turn right. I don’t know on which of these streets, but we need to turn right,” I said.

The funny thing about Sergiu is that even though he kind of didn’t know where we were, a kind of intuition guided his movements. I wasn’t the one who chose the road we went down. I seem to remember tottering down a narrow set of steps around the High Courts of Justice. He was steering.

I admired the Gothic architecture of the Inns looming over us from both sides, shadowed cornices blooming into busts of historical figures in curly wigs, potted plants whose vagaries tickled the fringes of glowing streetlamps.

He peered into the window of one of the bespoke tailors and laughed. “This place kind of makes me want to become a lawyer.”

“Isn’t it creepy?” I said. We were alone on the street. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“I’m going to ignore that,” he said, grinning.

“Don’t insult the ghosts,” I said.

When we walked past one of those iconic red phone booths, Sergiu mentioned that he had never been inside one and I thought, Really? That would have to be rectified immediately.

“Come on,” I said. I stopped dead. “Get back here. You wanna go in? Let’s go inside.” I pulled him with me.

“It smells like piss,” he pronounced.

“True,” I said, and lifted up the receiver, held it out to him. “Try?”

“No, thank you.”

“Don’t want to get diseases, eh,” I deadpanned.

“Something like that,” he said.

A short time later we reached the water, the deserted riverside benches raised slightly from the pavement. I didn’t remember the lights being so violet. At one point, I had thrown my leg over the stone balustrade and loomed over the water and think I scared Sergiu a bit. If I weren’t carrying so much electronics I would probably have jumped in.

I was feeling really free. I was reminded of two days before I went to London for the first time, back in Canada, at a housewarming party at Jiayi and Nathaniel’s apartment, where this guy named Jason was talking to me over a glass of funnily-proportioned rum-and-coke. He couldn’t stop talking about the movie stereotype of Manic Pixie Dream Girls (e.g., Zooey Deschanel in any film she’s ever been in, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and said he was still looking for his MPDG.

I laughed in his face, thinking, who the fuck actually gives an acronym to the type of girl they like? But when we walked home along deserted Queen Street West Zexi said to me, “Dude, you’re totally a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” I protested, “Are you fucking serious. No! They’re annoying as fuck!” Okay, except now I kind of get what she meant. Sometimes I just – not really on purpose, I swear – get like, “Woo-woo, WOW,” like Cassie from Skins and do weird fairy shit.

All of these things are the real me, I think. There are just many parts to me, and just because I show them to different people, doesn’t mean they aren’t authentic.

I thought, Evening Standard headline: Girl found in Thames. “You can bury me in England,” she said, before jumping. “I’m not going back.”

+

I turned back to Sergiu who seemed to have some kind of plan that involved crossing the bridge into South London.

“Are you heading to Brixton, then?” I asked.

“No.”

I swung my arms open and twirled around in a circle.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked.

Maybe I had a pensive look on my face. He’s started reading me out loud, but he’s not perfect at it. Sometimes that’s just my face, and I’m not thinking anything special. When I was little my frenemy Jiasi used to think I was mentally retarded because I would linger over words after saying them, just thinking about them. I would repeat them under my breath, like, chandelier, chandelier, chandelier.

You have to take time to love things, sometimes, I think, even if it’s just a little word. Language has given so much to me. It deserved something back.

“Elephant and Castle,” I said because we were in South London. For a while I had stayed with an Australian couple, Justin and Clare, at Elephant and Castle, a busy roundabout at the southern terminus of the Bakerloo line that Linda has taken to calling, “The armpit of London,” and that even James and his friend Steffan, who live in the South, couldn’t quite refute, saying, “That’s…harsh, but probably true.”

“All right, honestly hour,” I said, suddenly. “Ask me anything. As long as it’s not something I don’t want to answer.”

“I don’t know what to ask,” Sergiu said.

“Really? You sure?” I said, taking a pause to let the wind blow across my face head-on. I was facing west. “Fine, I’ll go first then: I think I’ve finally found a person I could talk for hours and hours with,” I said. “Which is really, really nice.”

He didn’t say anything.

“If I were a boy,” I said. “We’d still be friends, right?”

It doesn’t matter if he didn’t feel the same way about me. Not really. Not as long as I have my writing, and my faith in myself. And London. This is what I do. I take time and deal with my emotions in whichever way I can.

“Yes,” he said.

+

He led me over to the roundabout bench made out of a grimy-looking stone, so derelict that he touched it first to gauge whether it were appropriate for sitting. I’d no such qualms; I plopped down with my bare thighs on the cold concrete. The breeze blew stronger now, faint prickles of moisture dabbing at my skin.

As he lit up, I realized I knew exactly where we were, just past Blackfriars bridge, behind Southwark Station.

“Jesus, I’ve been here before,” I breathed. “I got thrown out here, actually. It was maybe my first full day in London. You see those Boris Bikes there?” A corrall of the blue bikes, most of them empty, straddled the path across from us, a few on the bottom, others beyond a set of steps leading up to a second platform.

I said, “I was eating cookies and milk on the step there and the bike maintenance guy pulled up in his truck and told me I had to leave if he was going to service the bikes. I had to move my stuff to where we’re sitting now. I spilled my milk everywhere on those steps.”

That felt so remarkably long ago now, before Lydia, before James, before Zanada, before any friends in London. Simply using the Sainsbury’s self-checkout seemed a minor triumph for the day. I remember wishing I’d packed more jumpers, left the umbrella at home. I’d no idea what the fuck I was doing.

He looked down to where I still held the cigarette and lighter. “You going to smoke that or what?” he asked.

“I don’t know how to light it.”

“Put it in your mouth first,” he said. I did. “Flick it,” he said, and made the motion. I tried but the fire wouldn’t ignite. He made a noise of endeared frustration and took it from me. “Let me,” he said, pale cheeks hollow with the effort of keeping the cigarette between his lips. I held his cigarette, still swiftly burning, while he worked. “Here,” he said, and we exchanged.

“God, you’re such a terrible influence,” I said. “But don’t worry. I want to. I’m perfectly capable of saying no if I really didn’t want to.”

“So you say.”

Earlier in the pub he had admitted that he hadn’t smoked in three weeks before that night in Dalston. This was maybe something that happened to smokers when they drink. It didn’t really count as being a smoker. He had nodded vaguely in the direction of outdoors and said, “I think I’m going to buy a pack later.”

Maybe it was me. Maybe he only smoked when he was with me. If that were the truth, I’ve no idea what it says about me.

“Do you want me to stop you?” I asked. “You probably shouldn’t.”

“You wouldn’t be able to,” he said.

“I,” I said. “Am insulted. Why don’t you think I wouldn’t be able to stop you?”

“I do what I want.”

“I could stop you.”

“And how would you do that?” he asked.

I could think of something. If I had the nerve.

“It’s a secret,” I said. “I have my ways. I have some magic too.”

He squinted at me. “I don’t think so.”

“I’ll say you’re an illegal alien! I’ll say you’re stealing shit! Who are they going to believe, you or me? Come on, I’m just a cute little girl.”

He said, “You’re not cute.”

“Wow, thanks,” I said, as a cough wracked at my throat after a particularly vigorous drag. “Sorry,” I said, covering my mouth with my fist and turning away, embarrassed.

“Maybe you should stop,” he said. “If you’re coughing.”

“I held it in too long,” I said. “My friends told me in the Dominican that I should hold the cigar smoke longer in my throat.”

“This is different from a cigar,” Sergiu said. “Just so you know.”

“You know, Zanada was a little mad at you for making me smoke last time, but I told her you didn’t make me,” I said.

“Okay, yeah… I did feel a little bad about that…” he said, and there was a stint of silence between us as he exhaled, quickly, to the side, in a neat triangular funnel of whiteness, sharp in the cold, still so, so neat about everything.

In between the compact bursts of talking, when he listened, when it seemed his thoughts drifted, he would, subconsciously, push his fingers through his short brown hair, the bright red cherry of the cigarette beating its color out next to his temple. I thought of the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, the ubiquity of want, and not just that, but of wanting something you can’t have, that you know is probably bad for you.

He had wanted me to hold my cigarette farther away from me, saying, “Don’t light your hair on fire,” and taking a moment to flick the ashes off. My hair really had gotten so long, not having been cut in ages after I stopped speaking to my mother, who had always cut my hair since I was a child.

He said, “But really, what I thought of you was that you kept saying yes to everything I suggested. You were so easy that night–”

“You…thought I was easy,” I said, pretending to be aghast. “I’m going to give you a chance to rephrase that. I’m not that kind of girl.”

“No, that came out wrong,” he said, shaking his head.

“Explain, then.”

“It’s like, you were easy to suggest things to. You would go along with things, say okay to everything. It’s not like that with, say, girls like Laura and Anna. You suggest something to them and they always need to do things differently, go their own way in their own idea.”

“I know, but I listened to you because I believed that you were experienced in these things. And I’m clever enough to learn from experienced people. This is not my area of expertise. I’m not so arrogant as to insist upon that,” I said.

He laughed and repeated, “Expertise,” like it was a bad word. “And in what area is that?” he asked.

“Partying,” I said, and even as it left my mouth I thought, well, that made me sound like a Grade A prude, didn’t it? He was making me sound like a mealy-mouthed person who couldn’t make decisions for herself.

Was this a recurring pattern in my life? I thought. Within the first few hours of landing in Paris, I had been accosted by an older man in the Jardin de Tuileries, who, as part of his hitting-on-me schtick, seemed compelled to tell me, “You’re so naive. You seem like the kind of girl who can’t make decisions for herself.”

Like, what the fuck? Is it tattooed across my fucking forehead?

“There is a vulnerability about you,” Sergiu had said in response to this. “I have to say.”

“Like I’m fragile?” I said.

“Fragile,” he agreed. “But fragile is not exactly the same as vulnerable either.”

I tried again.

“I just thought,” I said, very seriously. “That you were the type of person who would never deliberately try to hurt me. Maybe it was naive, but I just really thought that. You would never deliberately try to hurt me.”

He paused. “Okay.”

“I just thought…you were a gentleman. I mean, with the taking my coat, and offering to safeguard my passport…”

“Oh, god,” he said, suddenly rubbing his face with the heel of his hand. “It’s funny you should mention that because after that came out of my mouth I realized how…fucking…creepy that sounded.”

“No, I didn’t think it was creepy,” I said. “Don’t worry.”

“Well, I was thinking to myself, so now I’ve just met this girl and I’m trying to take her passport. I was just thinking that I couldn’t believe you had brought your passport to a club in Dalston. That’s not safe.”

“I don’t have any other ID! I don’t have a driver’s license! I had no choice!” I defended.

“–But I just sounded like, such, a, creep.”

“No, seriously. It was fine. I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking something else.”

“I saw the look on your face, like–“ He wrinkled his forehead in what I supposed was an imitation, but ended looking more like severe constipation.

“Oh, wow, that’s attractive,” I said. “Anyway, now you also know the reason I gave it to you, right?”

“Yeah, you wanted me to trust you.”

“I knew that I liked you and I wanted us to be friends, at an accelerated pace if possible. But that’s built on trust. And trust isn’t easy to forge. Actually, the easiest way, I thought, was for me to take a step, to make the first move, and that involves being vulnerable. I would trust you with something that was important to me, and take the risk that you’d lose it.”

He blinked. “That’s…kind of amazing,” he said. “But I would have to advise you that in the future you don’t do that. Please.”

“It worked, didn’t it.”

“Yes, but that’s not the point!”

“Then what is the point? And where did you put it, anyway?” I asked.

“There is a reason I wear skinny jeans,” he said, a brilliant smile playing across his sharp features. “Because it’s fucking hard for someone to stick their hand down your trousers and take shit.”

“I’ll take that under advisement,” I said, dryly.

“In any case,” he said. “I think that your logic there, what you did, makes you much more intelligent than I am. I would never have thought of something like that.”

I waited.

“And, you were right,” he said. “I wouldn’t. Hurt you, that is.”

I looked beyond his bony shoulder to the lights over the bike racks. I shut my eyes briefly, listened to the sound of the cars driving by Southwark, mostly cabs now, traffic thinning at this time of night. My cigarette had burned down to the filter between my fingers.

It seemed like I really operated far too much out of conjecture these days. It would just be so easy to take, and take, and take from me because I wouldn’t stop it.

“Good,” I said, quietly. “Please don’t.”

Last Day (In London With A Boy) — Part IV
a lot of words . June 2012 . This is a work of creative non-fiction

+

The rather unfortunately-placed timing of the nightly Tube closure has fostered a phenomenon in London: of trying to stay out as late as possible without missing the last train to where you want to go. We walked swiftly into Southwark, joining the swarm.

On the Jubilee Line platform, at least four or five green-haired, orange-faced oompah-loompahs squinted at the number of minutes till the next train to Stanmore. It was Saturday night, the time of tipsy girls in tiny dresses and gratuitous footwear and no overcoats. Nobody ever thought to wear enough clothes in the city, including poor Sergiu who of course ended up shivering like crazy in the night air.

He had still refused my jumper, even as I threw it over his face. “Do you want me to leave?” he asked in an attempt to get me to stop.

Boys and their pride, I thought. It’s a losing battle.

He tapped away at his ubiquitous iPhone and decided, “We’ll go to London Bridge,” except at London Bridge a ribbon of yellow tape walled off the stairs to the Northern Line.

“Planned engineering works,” I read. “Oh well. No worries. I say go back to Waterloo.”

Then we could go up via Charing Cross. I didn’t yet realize that both branches of the Northern Line were out of service.

We stood in the carriage together even though there were empty seats.

I’d no idea how Sergiu was still getting reception underground, but he said, “All right, I think I’ve figured out how to put you on the last train…and I’ve found a bus for me back to Hendon.”

Oh, so he was coming with me. That was sweet of him.

“Thanks,” I said.

Then it was probably the fatigue that made us both get on the escalator at Waterloo instead of switching to the Bakerloo. And as we took the escalator down back to the platform level he turned around to face me despite standing at a lower level.

On the platform I kissed him quickly on the cheek. I think I surprised him. Okay, maybe I am a bit MPDG. Excuses, excuses.

“Do you still have my book?” I asked, nudging him in the shoulder.

“Of course,” he said and opened his camera bag to show me.

I observed the white spine of the book tucked in perfectly warm and snug against his camera. He wore that camera bag everywhere. I anticipate that whenever I remember our time together in London I will picture him the same way – with the bag slung across his narrow frame, the jumpers, collared shirts, that flannel the one time we were with Zanada at Millennium Bridge, skinny jeans, the dark shoes with the white laces (Vans?). Then there is the character of his dark brows, the solid line of his shoulders, and the notches in his spine visible even beneath his shirt. He is so skinny.

I said, “Wow, it fits perfectly.”

He shrugged. “It was meant to be there.”

“I’m touched,” I said. I had told him that he should write in it too and fill it up with the places that he’s been in London. He said that maybe if I came back at Christmas he would have to give it back to me. That wasn’t the point, I thought. Just show me that you did it all.

Maybe I was getting quiet, but I didn’t want to leave. If I got on the train then I would have to go to Bethnal Green and say goodbye to Linda and take two night buses at four a.m. And get on the Gatwick Express and motherfucking leave–

He read my mind and said, “You will be fine, Elizabeth.”

“Hey,” I said. “You called me Elizabeth.” I found people didn’t use my name that much anymore. A bunch of people at school call me “Liz”, most people on the internet and abroad call me “Effy”. But recently it was like they were afraid to offend me by using the wrong name or something. They avoid it and just say, “Hey.”

“I wanted to make it personal,” he said.

“You were successful,” I said. “Well done.”

And it kept going like that. On the train to Oxford Circus we sat facing each other and our eyes kept meeting. I find eye contact weird so I always start to laugh, and he would ask me what I was thinking about, as though I were never exhausted.

As the train pulled into the station, I asked, “Did you ever think – that maybe this whole week wasn’t real? Can you believe we’ve only known each other for like ten days? Maybe I’m just a figment of your imagination. Some kind of fairy. Maybe you made me up. Maybe I made you up.”

He smiled but didn’t say anything.

Then it was one more change, to my beloved Central Line. The last train or near-to-it, eastbound, towards Epping. Easily, I stepped into his arms for a hug.

I only looked away once, to mind the gap.

He stayed on the platform until the train left the station. “See you at Christmas,” he said.

I blew him a kiss. I’m so cheesy.

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