November rain is cutting through the stillness of the day, like a reminder 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, clinging to their comfort zones. Nobody can tell they used to be lovers, and they can’t tell if they are going to be lovers again.
But she looks at him like he’s glowing. His presence is the small bliss of her morning. She wouldn’t say that out loud, of course not. He leans back in his chair, arms folded behind his head, and watches her draw patterns on the table with the tips of her fingers. She is surprised to find him smiling, but she secretly loves it. He remembers her draw circles with her fingers across his back. He always liked to watch her draw – she was always in a rush to start or finish a sketch – 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, watched him for a moment as if wondering where the question came from, then shrugged. She never really answered it, but his innocence filled him up with feeling, like warm water rising up his body.
That 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. But since he came back, he realised he didn’t know how to pick up the pieces anymore. He wants to tell her about everything he saw, 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’s back, he doesn’t know where to begin to make the puzzle where his life out there and their life back here fit together and create the picture he’d been dreaming of. The only picture she never managed to draw, because she never got it in the first place.
The coffee warmed up her entire body. She likes watching the brown sugar melting into her drink, and then the hot steam rising up from it. It’s quite early in the morning and, if on most Saturdays she’d rather be asleep, this Saturday is special. She fought the magnetic pull to crawl back to warmth and dreams and splashed her face with cold water, hoping it’d make her feel excited for the day ahead. 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 with very little to say. At first, she felt anxious and wanted to ask him lots of question; but she has been waiting for too long to stain their new first date with stupid, meaningless words, and reveal the nothingness that’s been filling the air everywhere she went. She’d 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 had been so good at erasing the contours of her real life and infusing herself with magic in front of him. 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 and 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 asked 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 saying about how one can’t stand in a river at exactly the same place twice goes, he knew that 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, dripping down from his skin to the ground. He always felt that he was losing her in between the minutes, but then found her again at the end of the day, when she came crawling into bed next to him.
Her fingertips 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 says again.
He would say it again and again, but waits. He knows he’s fighting against many months, but feels determined to drag her back into the story; although, none of them is any longer in it. 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 finally answers, and her honesty takes him by surprise. “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.”
“Hey, I am back,” he says, “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 have 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, because you’re a traveler. But I’m not, and I haven’t got much to say except for what’s in my head, and I know that’s never been enough for you. You wanted it all, yes; plus the rest of the world, too.”
“Listen, that’s not true. I asked you to come with me and you didn’t want to, but now that I’m back we’ll tie up the loose ends. I’ll make a rope or a ladder – don’t laugh – and come rescue you from negativity. You can take your colours with you, I’ll take the maps and albums and we’ll build something beautiful out of both photographs and imaginary corners of the world. I’ll tell you all the stories and you’ll paint them, and somebody will feel inspired to write purple, poetic prose about all of it. We both win from getting what we wanted. 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 new 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 old 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. If she was to be honest with herself, she didn’t really want to.
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 he 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 later. 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 quickly, before another man sweeps her off her feet with better words and better plans.
Every concern she had when he first went away was magnified by the end. She made herself a promise that she wouldn’t talk him into coming home sooner than he wanted, and she kept it throughout the 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 again. 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. As much as she tried to put these thoughts aside, something inside her kept burning with a low, blue flame next to the memories, the promises and the plans. Going around the decision to wait was like swimming around in circles. Maddening. And full of hope. But mostly, maddening.
She 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. And then, 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 she might be unhappy. Many women fancied him. He was a handsome, charming man, driving a green 1970s Mercedes and opening doors for everyone. There wasn’t room for many doubts. Most importantly, she thought, he wasn’t going anywhere. But it was when he told her that the way she painted was like a love letter to life that she realised she wouldn’t be rushing away, either.
Their first time together felt 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 more, letting him see past the fake smile, and maybe buying an old car of her own – all while gazing at the map of the world glued to their wall and fantasising about it peeling off, somehow.