“Oh, you make my heart clap!” I blurt but it’s true, with her soft hat on I’ve not seen in months. She beams, and she’s inside my coat, hugging my ribs hello, and I’m all around her, and the sharp cold and dark of the evening offset the bright lights pouring off of the shops, all of it’s perfect and wonderful and I breathe in her hair and her scalp and she’s here.
My eyes pour around her. I know that’s not how seeing works. She pours into my eyes. I’ve long since abandoned trying to hide my reaction to her, from her. I’ve looked up symptoms of addiction, which include mood swings, agitation, withdrawal from social activity, poor focus, poor judgement, poor work performance, loss of interest in things once important, inability to reduce or stop behaviours despite negative consequences – I could go on. How are any of these different from being healthily in love, or is there no such thing?
“I thought,” I huff, “the days are supposed to get longer after the shortest day!” It’s started to snow, slushy “plup!”s fluffing to slow-falling flakes. We stop to buy croissants and coffee and hurry back to hers to have them, breath clouding as we walk and talk.
“My mum rang,” she says at one point, sentences short in the bitter cold air. “Someone’s asked for my sister’s hand in marriage. An Air Force doctor.” (Her voice ooh-la-la.) “His family have even offered to pay for her Master’s.”
We reach a street corner where she rearranges my come-loose scarf, tucks it tighter into my coat, while we wait for the lights.
“The person who told us this man’s family are looking for a bride said” (putting on the accent) “ ‘Even if she’s not good-looking, he’ll take her…” It’s unbelievable!”
“So he’s been turned down?” I ask. I’ve made mistakes, presuming, in the past.
Back on the pavement. I turn to look at her, at the snowmelt streaking down from her hairline. “Have any noises like that been made in your direction?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says.
Nearing her street, now. “Maybe this Air Force doctor should enquire about you,” I say, despite myself, to spite myself. “You’re already working. It’d be cheaper than a Master’s.”
Tomorrow, she’s getting on a plane, to be away for the best part of a month. Her bags are already packed. These are our last hours together, for now.
“Is that what you’d like to happen? Really?” she asks.
I picture this doctor with a magnificent moustache, curved and wide. Huge oily black wings.
While she’s away, I send her private photos of myself, the first few arriving, I discover later, during evening prayer. I can’t get the time difference straight in my head. She sends similar pictures back, which interrupt nothing.
She texts day and night, about drinking with her friends and watching sunsets from rooftop terraces. I send song links, almost certain she’ll never play them, and then I listen to them myself and think “Oh God, no.” (I have tried her music, and enthused, and felt foolish.) She describes hot pink skies blackened by swarmed-that-day insects, the bats that mass and swoop to eat the insects. I write back nagging her not to smoke too much, or drink too much, or ride her mother’s moped high, or or or or.
We get to speak on the phone once, finally getting through, after several attempts, late on a Saturday night, my time (later hers). She’s in the disconnected upstairs bathroom of a friend’s house. (“…So who is this friend?” I ask, too abruptly, too barked.) She sounds party teary and I sound depressed: I catch myself pacing while we talk and try to stand still. She says my name, echoey, and I say hers. She repeats mine. Her voice is unsober, mine furry-throated. I press the phone so hard to my cheek it leaves a mark.
Future nostalgia, experienced in present time.
“You should be with someone else,” I say into the tuck under her buttock.
“‘Should’ always makes me want to do the opposite.”
“You definitely should be with someone else…”
She will be.
She will be. Her parents visited, this time last year, and happened upon us one evening, leaning into each other at the station entrance, gloved hands in hands. They were gracious enough to walk straight past us with their elephantine shopping bags but “conversations were had”, I was told, when she joined them for dinner later.
“You know you’ve tanned in the gap between”, reaching up to run a finger there, “the bottom of your t-shirt and the top of your shorts?”
“Leave my fat back alone!”
“Your tanned fat back. Your ‘tanned in a horizontal stripe’ fat back.”
Her back isn’t fat. Chubby, maybe.
“Some of that’s from last time I went. I think it’s accruing. Like dirt.”
She rolls over to look at me, nearly kicking me in the face. “Your fat dirty lover,” she beams.
I throw myself onto her, pumping a protesting laugh from her mouth, and lie there, taking most of my weight on my elbows, our torsos rising and falling against each other. She reaches for her phone and takes photos down the length of us, holds them up to show me.
“What if you accidentally sent one of those to your parents, or it came up on Instagram?”
“I’d say you were the surprisingly hairy cleaning lady. That I’d offered you a cup of tea but you fancied this more.”
“Oh, I’d have taken the tea if I’d known that was an option!”
The room abounds with afternoon light and the sound of our breathing.
“’Lady’!” she repeats, amused at herself, pressing her thigh against the contradiction.
The service bell rings downstairs but she shakes her head, expecting nothing, shakes her head again to free the hairs that have caught on my face, needs her fingers.
Our chests rise, fall, rise, fall.
Nick Black manages two suburban libraries in London. His writing has been published in lit mags including trampset, Okay Donkey, Splonk, Spelk, Lost Balloon, Ellipsis Zine and Jellyfish Review. He tweets about things he likes as @fuzzynick