November rain is cutting through the stillness of the day, as a reminder for them to be present — a reminder that they are finally together, even without much to say, and that maybe they shouldn’t drift apart from each other yet.
It’s still early, and conversation is hard to hold. Their voices are breaking too often. They sound nervous and uneasy, like cold, timid souls clinging to their comfort zones. Nobody can tell they used to be lovers, and they can’t tell if they are ever going to be lovers again.
But she looks at him like he is glowing. His presence is the small bliss of her morning. He leans back in his chair, arms folded behind his head, and watches her drawing patterns on the table with the tips of her fingers. She is surprised to find him grinning, not knowing he is remembering her drawing circles with her fingers across his back. He always liked to watch her draw — and she was always in a rush to start or finish a sketch, from what he remembers — and wondered where she got her ideas from. The few times he asked, she turned around, her soft brown hair curled like smoke in the air, shrugged and put on a naive face that filled him up with feeling, like warm water rising up his body. A face she put on many times, to protect answers she didn’t want to give; and he went back to his novels, and his plans about how it was going to be. It was, of course, going to be wonderful, he thought every time. But since he came back, he realised he doesn’t know how to pick up the pieces anymore. He wants to tell her about everything he saw in his journeys, all the experiences he had and all the people he met and all the towns he got lost in only to come out as a cleaner, better, stronger man. This was, after all, why he left in the first place, but now that he is back he doesn’t know where to begin to make the puzzle where his life out there and their life back here fit together nicely, creating the wonderful picture he dreamt of so many times.
The coffee warmed her entire body. She likes watching the brown sugar melting into her drink, and the hot steam rising up from it. It’s half eight in the morning and, if on most Saturdays she’d rather be asleep this early, this Saturday is special. She fought the magnetic pull to crawl back to warmth and dreams and splashed her face with tap water from the kitchen sink. During all those months she daydreamed about him coming back, about the rumble of his car and his enormous backpack with maps and diaries and perhaps little gifts for her poking out. He would have buttoned up a white shirt and wore a smile for her, as if those months of being away only served to prove how strong they were. But instead, she woke up to find him in a café near the train station, and they are sitting quietly in a cloud of smoke. At first, she felt anxious and wanted to ask him lots of question; but she has been waiting for too long to stain their first date with stupid meaningless words and reveal the nothingness that’s been filling the air everywhere she went. She’s been counting down months to be here, and she wasn’t going to ruin it. In the end, what she always loved most about them as a couple was how they didn’t need artificial smoothness to be comfortable around each other. She thought their silence must be the proof that that was back; and then refused to think about it again.
Little over a year ago, she lived for nothing else but their world and her art. She was amazing at erasing the contours of her real life and infusing herself with magic. She sprinkled their world with high hopes every morning and got him used to goodness, and he saw her as a different kind of explorer — the kind that could soften abrupt beginnings and loose ends, escape wanderlust, avoid exorcising the abstract inside because she could embrace the unknown. She was wonderful in a warm and meaningful way that he always admired and secretly envied. She was kind, easygoing and peaceful to watch at work. She’d paint sunlight and shades, and skin and words and light, and every time she showed him another finished canvas it felt like Christmas day. Later in their dating days, she told him that he makes her come alive as a wilder creature than she’s ever imagined herself to be. But as much as part of him wanted her to be that, more of him wanted her to stay the same beautiful, blue-eyed, calm girl he fell in love with at the fun fair near the ocean. When he decided he was going to leave for a while, it was the first time he saw her upset, angry and, above all, scared. She begged him to stay; told him about all the plans she’d made in her head and never dared to share with him. He laughed quietly to himself, and she thought he laughed at her plans but what he laughed at were his. He knew that going away was selfish and, after all, stupid, but he was not going to wait another year. Something told him that she was still going to be there. That she was still going to be here. But like the guy who said you can’t stand in a river at exactly the same place twice, he somehow knew he was never, ever going to find the same beautiful, blue-eyed, calm girl he fell in love with at the fun fair near the ocean again.
Her soul was far from her shore too, but in a different way. Her paintings speak for her – they are like marbles thrown up into the air. She leaves you wandering and working out the pattern, and moves on to the next one. He never understood them, but liked them all. They were beautiful and incomplete and strange — just like her, and he knew he could fall in love with her a thousand times, once for every new painting and new bit of soul that she’d reveal. He liked her mysterious nature and her love for open endings and multiple interpretations. He wasn’t like that; he was a planner, a doer. She was like water, running down his fingers and dripping down from his skin to the ground. He didn’t like their silence; he was losing her in between the minutes.
Her finger tips are still lightly pressing down onto the table, like they used to dig their nails into his arms. He clenches his fists.
‘I’m really happy to see you,’ he finally says.
He knows he’s fighting against one year and four months, but feels determined to drag her back into the story. Although, none of them is any longer in it. They both have new stories, and to leave them for an old, unfinished one is to dangerously rewind time and thoughts. But her eyes sparkle, and he can’t think of parallel lines anymore. They are finally here, together. This has to be the one that leads to infinity, with them on it.
‘I don’t know what to say to that,’ she answers. ‘I’m happy to see you too, but this feels so much like a dream. It’s like you’re going to vanish in a minute, and I’ll be left staring at happiness particles floating into the air like confetti.’
‘Mel, I am back,’ he says softly, ‘and I am not going to vanish unless you ask me to, and maybe not even then. I’m ready now to share everything with you, and I want you to share everything with me.’
She puts the mug back onto the table and lets out a big heavy sigh.
‘I haven’t got as much to share as you. This would be unfair —’
‘No, it wouldn’t.’
‘The more you’ve lived and the more you have to tell me, the less I feel that my paintings still mean anything to anyone other than me. It’s an indescribable feeling —to let imaginary worlds form onto paper and then pretty them up, but that’s all I can do. Frankly, it’s all I want to do, too. ‘
He watches her lips moving, fascinated.
‘You wouldn’t know this, though, because you’re a traveler; but I’m not, and I haven’t got much to say.’
‘Listen, we’ll tie up the loose ends. I’ll make a rope or a ladder — don’t laugh — and come rescue you from negativity. I’m back, just like I said I’ll be. You can take your colours with you, I’ll take the maps and albums and we’ll build something beautiful out of photographs and imaginary corners of the world. I’ll tell you all the stories and you’ll paint them, and somebody will feel inspired and write purple, poetic prose about all this. It’ll be like reinventing the wheel, but make it even greater. What do you say?’
She doesn’t really say anything. She drinks her coffee and nervously suggests that they go for a walk. What he doesn’t know is that for her, it’s getting late and her boyfriend is waiting to have breakfast together downtown, before his book signing at their favourite library. It was there where she met him. He thought she was the most beautiful woman in the room, and after the speech he invited her for coffee the next day. She blushed, but thought of her boyfriend and, in a firm voice, said she doesn’t have coffee with strangers. He didn’t seem to like her answer, so she had to add that she liked his new book nevertheless — which was true, anyway. His face then brightened up and he said that reading a book is like drinking a coffee with the author, and vice versa. She couldn’t think of another excuse.
He holds the door open for her and the sun hits him in the face. She makes a joke about how unpredictable the weather is, and he tries to laugh. The broad daylight makes everything that took place inside feel rather surreal and embarrassing. It’s still cold, and she slips her hands into her pockets. He wanted to hold her hand, but wasn’t quick enough, so gives up on that thought. Her face looks fresh and beautiful and he can’t think of anything smart to say. After a short and awkward silence, she moans about the low temperature and suggests they could meet up after lunch. He agrees and she kisses him on the cheek, then turns right and quickly walks away, checking her phone. He almost wants to follow her home, on the short narrow streets he used to know so well, but doesn’t. Instead, he walks down to his red car in the otherwise empty car park, crashes in the driver’s seat and lights up a cigarette. He has to think of a way to win her back before midday, and before another man sweeps her off her feet with better words and better plans than his.
Every concern Mel had during the time he was away was magnified by being unable to contact him. She made herself a promise that she wouldn’t try to find him and she kept it throughout the one year and four months he was gone. At night she would lie awake, making up strange scenarios in her head. Sometimes, he returned and asked her to leave with him. Other times, he didn’t even return; he would have found his inner peace somewhere in Asia, or South America, and she never saw him again. Most times he came back, after one year or maybe two, and pretended nothing happened, nothing changed. She would then have to make a decision, and it would be a tough one, so she secretly hoped that either the first scenario would come true, and quickly, or the second one.
As much as she tried to forget, something inside her kept burning with a low blue flame next to the memory of him. Every now and then, she had a lot of short, bright flashlights in her heart — like a lighthouse reminding her that, no matter how much she tries to swim her way out of the best story she’s ever lived, she is never far after all. It was like swimming around in circles. Maddening. And full of hope.
Mel was alive and sometimes, life hurt. At first she would simply snuggle up on the sofa and close her eyes, reaching back to catch hold of the girl who embodied all the strength she thought she’d have in this life. It didn’t take long to know that it was all a lie. She never lived up to becoming the hero of her childhood’s dream. She was like every other woman — in love, and unable to be light. But unlike most women, her burdens were eased by the openness and intensity flowing through her veins. Strangely, she never thought of this. until she met Adrien.
On their first date, she wore a blue dress that fell to just above her knees. He thought she was glowing and never suspected that she might be unhappy. In fact, it was when he told her that the way she spoke sounded like a love letter to life that she realised he had won her over. Many women fancied him; he was a handsome, charming author driving a 1970s Mercedes. There wasn’t room for many doubts. But most importantly, she thought, he wasn’t going anywhere, and was as serious about life as he was about his prose, which is unusual for a young writer. As the night went on, her regrets became more soluble and her unfading smile, more genuine. Their first time together was promising and she sincerely liked him. As he drove home, he could still feel the taste of her cherry red lipstick and the way her smile forms on his lips. In a world where his people and his gods have been slowly but surely dethroned, one by one, he could for the first time reinvent divinity by covering the outside with the inside. And she was all over.
Curled up in her bed, late that night, she thought of painting again, packaging the blogged novels she’d been writing and buying a car of her own – all while gazing at the map of the world glued to their wall.