Stuck

Stuck (In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of) — Vignettes From A Doomed Courtship
a lot of words . August 2012 . This is a work of creative non-fiction

#1. A Long Walk On Christmas Day

By three-thirty it was full-on dark. I stepped out into the garden with my mitts and scarves wrapped protectively around me to keep out that bitter city cold that eats into your bones. I followed Globe Road to Old Ford, made a right onto Cambridge Heath, ensuring I walked briskly, so as not to give conversationalists an opportunity, however small, to waylay from my goal. Even on Christmas there were drunkards on the street. One swayed past just ahead of the entrance to the canal, shouted briefly at me in a language I couldn’t understand. His expression made it sound foul.

Funny how there can be so much of a place you still don’t know, I thought. Because here was the road I’d walked with Zanada as we felt each other out for the first time, gauged our aptitude for friendship, where a man spat, “Lesbians,” at us just for laughing at something at the same time whilst looking for the entrance to the canal. The same road she and Maura and I covered on our way to Victoria Park barely a month later, where we lay on the grass and ate Kettle Chips and I fell asleep, happily, listening to the sound of my friends unspooling the skein of the end of summer. Because here was the ramshackle petrol station by the ugly-as-sin flat I lived in for a week, a listing from a guy with a fake name, where the wi-fi never worked and the exposed concrete billed as ‘trendy stroke retro’ did little to mask the arguments next door and the urgent, rhythmic, grunted-out lovemaking from upstairs. The staid stone pavements that had made a long, long walk on the ninth of August bearable, marking time against the dum-dum of my heartbeat, the one that hadn’t slept since I’d met Sergiu for the first time, muttering in a voice low with desire that something was happening, we were heading towards something, stop now or start something that you won’t be able to control or demand…

I had chosen Bethnal Green over and over and over again in a haze of love for East London. I made a wish to remain in Zone 2, on the Central Line, one stop, albeit a long one, from Liverpool Street and the rest of the Square Mile. And so, here I was again. Exactly where I intended. Except intention and emotion are very different. Coldness steeped into the flanks of my tights. The opposite of tea, I thought, for what is the opposite of tea except just cold, bitter cold?

In the cleared-out living room back at Welwyn Street things must be picking up. With the Christmas tree in a corner they had moved a dining table. Sophie set it. Abby, wearing a one-piece matching her sister’s and reminiscent of a baby Audrey Hepburn, tapped her fingers rapidly over a new Macbook Air, her mother clearing an entire bottle of wine in the kitchen on her own. They were opening Christmas crackers. “Do me!” Abby, who earlier had explained the rules, said. The way you do it is like pulling apart a wishbone and the person who ends up with more cracker keeps the prize. A tissue-paper crown, the last item, is meant to be worn. The vibrancy of my orange crown kept me warm as I walked.

On the left side Regent’s Canal wended, silent, and if there were swans like when Sasha and I went to Central St. Martin’s I couldn’t see them. The wall running along the side kept out the traffic from above. Every now and then someone would stumble down a set of stairs, make their way to a boat, or else back in the direction I had come.

For a moment I stood outside a block of flats in Haggerston and remembered going to Patrick’s on the night of May thirtieth. I snapped a photo. I probably wouldn’t be back.

Another little bit and I had to consult the nearest Barclay’s map to understand that Kingsland Road, that famed artery of party-hard Dalston, ran up before me. I remembered walking up and down Kingsland with Zanada and Sergiu, looking for Dance Tunnel, before we finally realized the way the numbers were increasing meant that we’d been going in the exact opposite way we needed. I remembered following Zanada into a pub to use the toilet, Sergiu left outside muttering that he wouldn’t bother even though he had to go, because, as he put it, “The owner’s only letting you because you two are girls.”

Then I remembered standing on the stoop of some kind of kebab place as Sergiu went in to speak to Zanada, who was ordering enough food to kill a horse, and catching him grinning at me across the ten meters between us. I feel stupid now, knowing what I know – that he felt nothing, that I was alone in it completely. But at that moment, I only thought, “Holy shit. Holy fucking shit.”

For what it is and what it represents on a Friday night to so many of us, Kingsland is quite narrow and unassuming.

I crossed it and couldn’t find where to go next, fumbling in the dark until I discovered a tiny opening to a path that continued along the canal.

Around New North Road I abandoned the canal completely and headed towards Highbury & Islington. Past the sign for Essex Road, Upper Street, its off-licenses and newsagents dark, so uncharacteristically deserted, forked backwards from the vanishing point that soon became the ground under my boots. Then I took a deep breath and stood at the roundabout for just a moment longer.

Though I believe I already knew then what was going to happen, I couldn’t turn back.

Though the tips of my ears were frozen, my breath steamed at my scarf. One of my gloves stayed on, the other off. My dignity must have fallen by the wayside there too, if you looked hard enough.

#2. Hendon Central

+

He folded his arms over my shoulder blades, hands applying gentle pressure as though he were afraid to touch me should I break. I’d often wondered how it would be to walk towards him at that moment after waiting so long, and not being able to touch – whether I would stop and look at him or run to him. The answer fell much more simply.

Steadily I walked into his body. His bones stamped solid against me and the material of his blue shirt met that of my dress.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hold still,” I said. “Because I don’t think I ever want to let go of you.” It was the truth.

He stopped and held. I’d felt him beginning to unclasp and tightened my grip on all of his angles, crowding him to me, as I thought Hey. Look at me. His door opened directly onto a polygonal platform overlooking the station tracks, where a carriage was opening to admit the latest onrush, bag-toting, furious shoppers on a last-minute holiday binge. I didn’t care if they saw. This was the person I never wanted to be separated from, and as I was inhaling deeply, I tried to name the scent of laundry detergent, something fresh and comforting, like I was coming home.

+

In England they call vacuuming “hoovering”, and entering his room it was apparent, despite his protests that he didn’t care if I came or not, that he had taken the hoover to the floor covering, a modest mud-brown carpet upon which sat very few furnishings apart from what had been provided when he moved in. In the corner below a large valance-covered window there was a twin-sized bed. Next to it stood a nightstand with his favourite lamp. He kept his bedtime reading, a biography of Steve Jobs, there, which also served as the platform for some recent acquisitions – a new e-cigarette to replace one that had stopped working, and nicorette gum in a blister pack, half-emptied of its contents.

Diagonal to the bed was his student’s desk of white beechwood where he did his assignments and designs for uni, and perhaps more importantly, where he would methodically do his listing. I realized for the first time how personal his room was to him when I noticed row after row of white sheets taped to his walls. These were, of course, his lists. One for each of his courses, the myriad deadlines and catalog codes printed in a bold, calligraphic hand. Five lists covered the wall on the right that ran to the window, and still more he’d tacked up over the desk. Quit smoking. Go to the gym with Nils. My favourite one listed in several neat columns a selection of superior, positive, affirming vocabulary to use in his writing. He tended to self-deprecate in writing, but I told him people didn’t appreciate that subtlety, not when they needed to know whether to hire him or not.

I should have seen in the lists what was happening to us. He would tell me, later, “You can’t just go around interrupting people’s lives. I have one, you know. I’ve got to move on with it.”

He had a full-height dresser, plus another little shelf for his books. The room was arranged like the way he smoked his cigarettes, so fucking neatly. All of his outerwear hung from the back of the door on clean brass hooks, including his new navy-blue overcoat, which made him feel too posh, like he didn’t belong, like he were playing at something he hadn’t achieved yet and thus didn’t deserve even if it were what he intended all along. Walking with me to the library he would wear a thin windbreaker instead of the overcoat, hood pulled up over his short brown hair. He would remember afterwards that it was cold, and I would laugh at him, because it was the same old argument with us. I – maybe no girl – could ever make him change.

He would try to hide his vanity from me, unsuccessfully. But it was there in the way he folded his white cashmere scarf, the one that went with the too-posh coat. It was present in a small but carefully selected copse of health and beauty products, kept in an enclave fashioned at the foot of the bed. He owned exactly two pairs of shoes, and they were polished, arranged, angled in the same spot. Black vans, a nod to his past. Glossy new chelsea boots.

He once ran his hand over the upper in front of me, pointing out the pattern of indentations on the wingtip. He said, “Isn’t that fucking. Awesome?”

“It’s glorious,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, and carefully replaced them, with a knowing grin. That kind of thing drove me crazy.

The only indication in the room that he had been to China was a green backpack I recognized from his pictures in Macau. Distinctly missing were photographs of anyone he knew. “I don’t belong to any country,” he said. “In a way I don’t have a home.” When he said things like that I would feel this pain in my stomach, knowing he was pulling away and disappearing in front of my eyes.

+

I let go and whispered, “You’re taller than I remember.”

“Really?”

“And skinnier.”

He was barely three dimensional, but god help me if I didn’t want every inch of his nothingness wrapped around me so I said, “You are.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “People always say that about me. The skinny part.”

Now I knew that the pictures and icons that had been sustaining me could never do him justice. He was solid, he was real, the concert of his limbs. I knew I never wanted to be away from him.

“Stop stalking me,” he said. I looked up. He was grinning. “You’re looking at me…like…”

“Like?”

“I don’t know.”

I knew. It was hunger. It was desperation. I once asked him what craving for a cigarette felt like and he had answered that it was a hunger, not unlike the need to eat, the need to have sex. He made me feel so desperate I could flatten myself to his skin till I couldn’t be peeled off. How could we be so close and not love each other?

I murmured, probably just to hear it, his name, two syllables that I still didn’t know how to say right.

#3. Admiration

+

“Alright. Who do you admire?” I asked.

“That’s the next question?”

“It’s the next on the list.”

“These are weird as shit questions,” he said, with that dip in his voice, but I wouldn’t be that easily deterred.

He was clearly surprised I really did have a list because I had spent a while thinking of what I could ask that would get him to open up when he wasn’t that type, to keep him from retreating into his maleness and batting the ball with his one calloused hand squarely back into my court.

Who did he really care about? I wanted to know. I wanted to catalog it.

“Do you admire your parents?” I asked.

“You’re weird,” he said. “And, no, not my parents…”

I waited.

“I love them. I don’t admire them,” he said. “I… There’s no one that I admire, per se, in the way that you’re thinking because…”

“Because,” I said. “Because what?”

“I don’t know. Like, I like Leonardo Dicaprio – he’s a good actor and I like his movies – but I don’t admire the guy because there’s nothing to admire about him otherwise!”

“It’s not a hard question,” I said. “Don’t stress. It’s not a test.”

“Well, does that answer it?” he asked. He pulled his knees up under his chin.

He wore red, skinny slacks and was looking out the window where I knew the view, from when I was there, presided over the roundabout. There was a Costa Coffee. Any time of night you could get a minicab and leave.

“It’s a little funny you know, though, that you should ask,” he said.

“Why’s that?”

“She,” he said. “My girlfriend.”

Oh, I thought, we were back there again.

“It’s funny ‘cos my girlfriend always said that there’s nobody you admire, and that’s why– That’s why you’re sort of a dick.”

He wasn’t over her, that continual use of “my girlfriend”, instead of “my ex.”

The mind, I realized, wants what it wants. Even when you’ve been a fucking dick to the person you love, when you tell her you don’t love her and you fucked someone else when you were in Hong Kong and from her face you can see she is not ready to break up with you yet. Even then.

I said, “You are a dick.”

“Sure,” he said. “That’s why you keep talking to me, right?”

#4. London Bridge

+

Zanada and I met outside of London Bridge since it’s easier for her to get there from North Greenwich. We had a bite to eat at Caffe Nero. They have really good paninis to get heated up. The guy behind the counter wore a nametag that said he was in training, and he forgot to take my panini out. Zanada giggled at him but I just smiled.

I was feeling better, if not by much, since I had apologized to Zanada for being a bit grumpy the day before when we were with Sasha. I should have known then what I know now, the symptoms of my limerence for a boy. It had just been so long that I’d forgotten what a shit I could be when under the influence of a feeling like that. I had built up whatever it was between Sergiu and me to something it wasn’t, and I had to remember he was a boy, that not everything has to mean something, and maybe I take things too seriously. To be honest I hadn’t slept properly since I met him.

Out on the lip of the South Bank where we had settled to sit on the balustrade and eat, raucous, fanny-wearing crowds commingling with the tourists of Westminster boxed us in, my knees cool in the mid-evening breeze. Brown pincurls from Zanada’s hair blew like desert tallgrass, loose, back and forth. She held up her smooth, uncalloused hand in protest of my video-taking.

I asked, “What’s wrong?”

I couldn’t help but think back to Thursday night by the bike racks, when I knew I had won Sergiu over, after he’d pulled out his camera and said he wanted to take pictures of us.

The shutter clicked rapidly. He moved around us. He was smiling.

“Too many things,” Zanada said, pushing buttons on her phone, an old T9 model like mine. “I can’t fight off your videos and type on this shitphone and talk with you all at the same time. Too many sentences.”

I laughed. “You want me to go somewhere?”

“You’re going to have to be quiet for a second. Come on.”

“That’s hard,” I said. “For me.”

“Try,” she said. She rolled her eyes.

“Oh, all right. But who are you talking to?” I asked, pulled my knees farther up and zipped shut the front of my trenchcoat, trying for a bit more warmth. London weather was so unpredictable. I had gotten used to an extra jumper or coat everywhere.

“Sergiu wants to know what we’re doing. He’s at home and wants to come down,” she said, distractedly. Her fingers worked rapidly over the keys, and I was looking at her, and trying to hide my sudden interest.

“Sergiu?” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“Where does he live anyway?” I’d not found that out in a night of talking to him, besides “up north”, which could mean anything from Camden Town to Hertfordshire to bloody Scotland. Zanada shook her head and shrugged, like who knows?.

“He’s a bit of a funny one, isn’t he,” I said, without removing my eyes from the orange surface of the water, and Zanada looked up briefly.

Her eyes glinted.

“I find it funny that you two didn’t exchange numbers after Thursday,” she said. She reached for the phone I held in my hand and said, “Here, I’ll give it to you now.”

I blushed furiously. “What?” I said. “It’s not like that.”

“We’re going to have to wait for him anyway,” she said. “So you might as well take it for later. I need a toilet soon and he might show up in the meantime.” She looked thoughtful. “I’m going to tell him to meet us at Millennium Bridge.”

I stayed quiet and bit my tongue as she typed.

It was a good point actually. I had been so sure when he was with me on Thursday of how much we liked each other when he’d barely left my side all night. Once, Zanada urged me forward and she shouted in my ear, “I think he really likes you.”

“Do you really think so?” I’d said because saying it out loud made it seem real that I didn’t know how to deal with it. I hadn’t liked anyone this much in so fucking long I didn’t know how to stay still in it, just exist in it.

Now, offhandedly, she said again, “Maybe he does like you, after all.”

I didn’t know what to reply, besides the same thing I’d said before.

“But I don’t want to say anything,” she said, with a sly smile. “Because knowing it might make you behave differently to him.”

“What? I wouldn’t behave… I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“But anyway I don’t know if he does,” she said. “Maybe he acts like that with a lot of people.”

“Right,” I said, biting my lip.

I didn’t want to think so. All the things he’d said about his parents. That time when he was thirteen. How he listened to me so intently, like when I get to the part about how I hate my life and don’t want to be a doctor anymore, and that’s the bit of the downer. But it’s also the test. If they still stick around after that I guess they really do like me. He passed the test. Leaning back onto the cool surface of the bike stand, looking me straight in the eye, he told me he thought my parents were wrong when they said I was a bad daughter. After ten more minutes, he knew about Yale. I could tell he understand in an instant how big of a deal Yale was to me. I didn’t have to explain that.

Sometimes I feel a bit sleazy using this “smart girl” card. I’m not that brilliant, especially compared to my classmates. I just couldn’t bring myself to care when he was clearly liking me more for it.

“You know he is a kind of funny guy,” Zanada had said. “Making jokes and stuff. But he would not just say those things to anybody.”

But maybe I was kind of girl that boys changed their minds about. I felt this sickly sinking feeling inside, like I was losing something that I never even had in the first place.

+

When Zanada left for the Tate to use the toilet I sat down on the granite steps just west of the main entrance, where a trio of doo-wop singers warbled out a version of Dream A Little Dream of Me. They wore their hair in pincurls, their petite frames stitched into perfect 1940s dresses of starched poplin with trench coats to keep out the cold breeze from the water. I fumbled with my phone. With numb fingers I texted Sergiu: “Are you lost?” but there was no reply.

Zanada came back and we moved to a bench set at an angle off from the Bridge.

We finally saw Sergiu come off the bridge and I let the two of them hug it out. Afterwards he turned to me and he gave me a hug too. I remembered the one from Thursday night, when I had thought fleetingly that I should turn my head and kiss him on the cheek. I should have shown him I wasn’t indifferent.

He wore a flannel shirt in a soft-looking weave, untucked, and skinny trousers. The way he wore trousers was effortless. They didn’t look like they were trying to be skinny and simply suited his limbs.

He rubbed a hand through his hair. “You good?” he asked.

“Fine. Did you not get my text?” I asked.

He shrugged and said, “I wasn’t lost,” flashing a small smile that lifted his cheeks, just as Zanada said, “Let’s go over the bridge. He’s not been across it before.”

“Really?” I said. “How is that even possible? You’ve lived here for two years! This is most people’s favourite bridge?”

“I don’t come down here much. It’s kind of far from where I live.”

“Come on, then,” I said. “Hurry – it’s essential.”

“Yeah, all right,” he said. “You’re a bit bossy, aren’t you?”

I shook my head.

“Yes,” he said. “You are. Admit it.”

Zanada gave me one of her looks. “You gonna get him lost?”

“I’m educating him,” I said. “I resent that.”

He’d brought his camera bag again and I had been urging him, as we joined the thin stream of people on the deck of the bridge, to take some pictures.

A curtain of darkness had drawn its tarp over the city so that we could see Blackfriars Bridge and after that Tower Bridge, everything lit up, London different, as always, at night. On the roof of Walkie-Talkie black cranes hovered, stopped until the dawn. I watched Sergiu’s shirttail loose over his narrow hips, Zanada walking slowly on our other side.

“But you’re a photographer so you have to take these opportunities and do it properly,” I said.

“I’m not,” he said, quietly. “Not really.”

“What?”

“A photographer,” he said. He was raising the camera to snap a photo, looked at the result briefly and made a face to himself.

I was trying to make a choice inside myself, about where this was going to go, my heart sloshing jerkily around my insides. He wasn’t making it easy. Not that I was expecting anything worthwhile to be easy.

I looked at him. “Could have fooled me,” I said. “Then what are you, Sergiu Gheorghita, if not a photographer?”

“Who says I have to be anything.”

“You don’t have to,” I said, taken aback just slightly at his tone. “I didn’t say that.”

“Oh?”

“I just think that you are. You take pictures, don’t you.”

I wiped my hand along the steel railing, and looked at the great big dome of St. Paul’s gleaming, white and timeless and daring, at the end of our projected path where I’d walked so many times but never got old. It has this hold over me, and so I guess when I said it was most people’s favourite what I really meant was it’s my favourite. It felt good now to be walking it with people again.

I remembered the very first time, dizzy, my lips numbed from the Bacardi I’d bottled and nipped at through three floors of the Tate Modern, walking out from beyond the glass double doors into the crisp back night and following the blue lights back to the church. And then what I thought was the last time, with Sasha and our new friend Howard. We had walked and walked until we got to Blackfriars and stopped finally in a pub so Howard could have his first official drink in the city.

Howard, who still tended to fumble over the pronunciation of “Thames”, informed me, “I think this is what I’m going to remember about London – the bridges and the river.” He took a sip of his Jack and Coke and shuffled around the postcards he’d got at Foyle’s. I had asked for a vodka lemonade. Sasha was drinking Kronenburg and texting her friend Alix on my dinky T9 phone.

“It’s not like New York, is it?” I said. “I mean, the East River and Hudson exist, sure, but it’s not been done up quite like this.”

Howard lives in Queen’s, like my friend Vincent did before he moved out to 99th and Park Avenue to be near the medical school. I stayed off the East River a year and a half ago, on my fourth solo trip to the City, when my father was so afraid that I’d end up crashing on someone couch he went ahead and me up in a hotel in the heart of Wall Street.

I have some specific feelings about NYC too; it’s just harder to see it now as a city unto its own, and not as an extension of my feelings about New Haven.

“No, you’re right. London’s different,” Howard agreed.

“Good different,” I said. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” he said.

Now we stood again leaning against the rail and I felt the wind stir up wisps of my hair that I hadn’t tied back out of laziness. Sergiu raised his camera to the light, lowered it again.

“A photographer,” he said, his voice smacking of distaste. “Please – stop saying that because I’m not.”

I made a face.

“So it’s just something that you do,” I said. “And you don’t want to call it what it is.”

He said, “Well, what are you?”

“I’m a writer and I consider myself a writer even if I haven’t published anything as of yet.”

“Maybe you’re not what you think you are,” he said. “Maybe you’re wrong.”

I shook my head, and in fact, Mathilde had chastised me in Paris in exactly this way for thinking otherwise. Because of course I was a writer; Zadie Smith said all that matters is what you put on the page. There is no writer’s lifestyle. Writers write. If we did that that was enough. Everything else is just posturing.

“I’m not wrong,” I said, thinking I had lived three more years than he had, which was a long long time at our ages. When I’d graduated uni for the first go round he was seventeen and running away from home to live with his girlfriend. We couldn’t be more different and even when I thought we’d gone as far as we could go emotionally with each other, he would always say we were from different planets. Always would be.

Zanada said, “You two are hilarious. Sometimes I just like to stand back and watch you guys misunderstand each other. You’ve no idea how amusing it is.”

“Sure,” he said.

Sergiu lingered behind, as if considering some potential shots. I kept my mouth shut.

“Where do you want to go,” Zanada asked. “The night is young.”

“Where’ve you not been?” I said, because that was the real question. “If you’ve not been to the other famous bridges either, then we have our work cut out for us. Remediation, boys and girls, remediation.”

“That one,” Sergiu said. “The one that opens up in the middle.”

“Tower,” Zanada said.

“Right.”

“Really?” Zanada said. “Not there either?”

“Christ,” I said. “Come on.”

“You know the way?”

“Not generally,” I said. “But this is my jam, all y’all.”

I didn’t say that I knew the way from St. Paul’s to Tower Hill perfectly, that this is what happens when you’re alone for a really long time. You learn things. When you’re with other people, you get distracted. Sometimes I felt like my first two weeks in London were all to prepare me for what happened afterwards. If I asked James now if he liked me better after Paris, what would he say?

#5. Take A Picture

+

– I’m here.

– Cool. Be there soon.

– Marylebone Street entrance. There’s only one bench. You can’t miss it.

I sat outside Baker Street station on a wooden bench, and because I’d arrived ten minutes early I’d had time to scope out the area, making a full circuit around the station, and looking for the Lost Propery Office.

Lost property was a personal interest of mine. I’d watched a documentary on the BBC about it. They take lost property quite seriously on the Tube.

I was reading about osteomyelitis when he texted again, Which entrance?

I rolled my eyes. I already told you. Marylebone.

– Oh, that’s the name of the entrance? I thought it was the street.

– Here. I’ll come find you. I texted rapidly.

I queued up to cross the street. Halfway across I saw him and waved until he saw and threw up his hands. I could sense his frustration as he said, “I could have found you.”

“Sure, whatever you say,” I mumbled, and stood up on my toes to give him a hug. “How’ve you been?” I asked.

“I was just studying my Chinese,” he said. “I thought I should get at least something useful done before I saw you.”

“Oh, this isn’t educational?” I said. “Guess we’ll have to change that.”

I had texted, rather regretfully, that if it wasn’t too weird we should hang out on that day. A Sunday. He wrote back, a few minutes later, “Sure. But only if you keep telling me about places and their history.”

“Here,” he said, reaching over now, “Let me take your bag,” and as I offered to him we began to walk, and I heard my voice starting to tell him about Baker Street and the biggest lost property network in the world.

+

In Regent’s Park the wind blew across us, sharp, from the northwest, like a scalpel.

“You’re shivering. You’re cold.”

“No,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You are. Jesus, do you ever wear enough clothes? You’re freezing your ass off, I can tell.”

I was harping on the point, but if my own skin felt a little bare with my jumper and my yellow coat I couldn’t imagine how freezing he was.

He wore a simple long-sleeved jumper that hit just below the waist of a pair of dark shorts. His jumper was the color of red wine. Once again I thought about how these European boys wear their shorts differently – no surfer shorts in sight. He looked good – really good – but he also looked cold.

“You can’t tell,” he said, his forehead wrinkling up tightly in the way it tended to do when he thought I was being difficult to deal with.

“Here,” I said, rummaging around in my bag. “Do you want my jumper? You need this more than I do.”

“Stop it. I don’t need it.”

What a horrible liar.

“Take it. I can’t bear to look at you. Just looking at you makes me feel cold.”

“I’m fine. And if that’s actually the case, I think you should probably get that checked out by a doctor.”

“Ha-ha,” I said, dryly. “Don’t distract from the issue.”

“Elizabeth.”

“Sergiu.” I stared at him, silent, sullenly from where I sat in the grass. He still wouldn’t sit on my tarp. It was like he was five years old.

“What?” he said.

“I didn’t say anything.”

He grumbled, “You don’t have to say anything because I can hear you worrying in your head. I’m going to be fine,” he said, and reached over to stuff my jumper back in my bag.

I’d never really met anyone like him before, so completely set in his ways. A few weeks later he would tell me this was what his ex-girlfriend would say about him, that his problem was nobody could influence his decisions.

I put my hands on my hips. “It embarrasses you that I care about your well-being?” I asked. “Really.”

“Move on,” he said. “Next topic.”

“How about this – you want to move over there?” I said, pointing to where the sun lit up the grass to a brilliant gold. That was what I loved about the parks in London, the unending planes of grass, short, easy to sit on, just easy. Surely he couldn’t object to that.

He paused then started to get up. “Fine.”

And as I followed him I whispered, “Knew it,” just before he shot back, “You knew nothing.”

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“I still can’t see the hill,” he said, as we tramped up the narrow path, avoiding the others who trickled down, a few couples hand in hand, picnic baskets swinging. A pair of shirtless guys sparred away in a corner, clearly exhibitionist.

“You sure about this?” he asked, and looked at back at me. He held his camera bag close to his chest. From the bottom of his shorts his skinny shins looked like twigs. We were looking for Primrose Hill.

“Keep walking,” I said. I neglected to point out that he walked slightly ahead of me and therefore must be confident in the hill on some level. Or just proud.

He said, “Elizabeth, you better not be wrong.”

“What are you going to do if I am? Shoot me?” I asked, grinning.

Earlier, I really had been wrong when I’d proclaimed that English was a Romance language, and of course as soon as it was out of my mouth I knew it wasn’t.

Sergiu had corrected me, not, I felt, without a bit of glee. “Aren’t you pleased with yourself – I think this is the first time that you’ve known something more than me,” I said.

“I am,” he said. “Quite. I’m pleased as punch.”

“It’s not going to happen again,” I said. “I’m prepared now. I might make you pay for that one. Next time we see each other.”

“So…we are going to see each other again?” he asked.

“Are we not?”

I didn’t want to say my real worry, which was that we wouldn’t get along in the daylight, the both of us sober.

We were halfway up the hill. I paused to catch my breath and he came up next to me.

“Maybe the world will end right now,” I said, trying to hide the feelings I felt must show on my face because I could never hide anything. “It could all just go,” I said. “In a moment.”

He looked at me askance.

I said, “And you’d be here with me. How would you feel about that?”

He said, “That’s not so bad.”

“It isn’t?”

“No,” he said, walking ahead of me. “Not when I think about it.”

We got to the top of the hill, whereupon he raised his camera and captured a few pictures. Rose hues painted the sky over the bright silver rod of the BT Tower, and very far away the London Eye turned in a miniscule increment, and like the time I’d come with Sasha blankets abounded.

I stared at his back as his scapula lifted like wings and resettled beneath his shirt.

“Pretty,” I said. “Isn’t it.”

“Yeah.”

“Worth it,” I said.

Then I felt his touch on my arm.

“Look at me,” he said. “I’m going to take a picture now.”

#6. Pillow

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He handed me a pillow from his bed to put against my back. “Don’t let it touch the floor,” he said. “I bought this set myself. My parents sent me the other set, but I told them I didn’t like it and got these. It is pure duck feather.”

As he searched for a feel-good movie I rearranged the pillow.

“I’ve got so many white hairs,” I said, pulling one from its counterparts, its snowy nub coming away easily from my head. His hand reached over. “Hey, what are you doing?” I asked, alarmed, as always, that body parts were flying free of their fields of confinement.

“Hold still. For god’s sake, just stop moving for a second,” he said.

He caught the hair between his fingers and yanked loosely, brow furrowed in concentration, at a taut, paling strand.

“Satisfied?” I asked. “What have you got there?”

He paused for a moment, then said, “It’s so thick. Mine’s not like that. Here, come here, you can see.” I could tell he wanted me to pull but I didn’t trust myself. “Here, let me do it for you,” he said, and struggled, comically, for a moment, to grasp, just one, not two, not three. “There,” he said, and handed it to me.

“What?”

He held my hair to his. The only light came from the bare bulb overhead and an uneven cone that sprayed out from that beloved lamp of his on the nightstand.

I said, “Tell me,” and trailed off. About my hair, I thought. About us. I could think of so many good stories, but they didn’t matter if he didn’t believe.

In a relationship both people get a veto. Not a democracy. And he wasn’t afraid, I could tell, to exercise that authority.

Squinting, he said, “What’s even stranger is what yours is doing at the end there. It’s like it’s…dying from the bottom. It goes from black to white in the space of a millimeter. How did you do that?”

“I didn’t do anything,” I said. “It just grows like that.”

“It dies like that,” he said. “You mean.”

He pulled his knees up to his chin. His feet were large and floppy, I noticed, dizzily.

“I…” I said, mouth suddenly very dry. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Are you cross?” he asked, gone back to playing with the laptop.

“Let’s watch the movie,” I said. “Or I’ll drop your pillow on the floor.”

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