The steam from our tea curls in the air around her chords that still the monotonous march of reality that we fight against every day. That other reality – the one forced upon us; the one deemed to be mandatory and so easily choked upon by passengers on this vehicle of society. I suppose to them we look like the still from a film noir: something that could never truly be real. Tobacco, skins and a box of battered filters spread themselves against the cold tiles like a trail of breadcrumbs revealing our path of not giving a fuck about what is best, or right. Cold coffee is starting to stain the sides of the cafeterie and the jars we use to drink it out of. The table is sticky with honey and croissant flakes. Henry David Thoreous’s Walden lies ontop of a copy of The Economist that is waiting its turn to line the makeshift litter box of the homeless man’s kitten I accidentally adopted that grows in size and cockiness every day. Little shit has even figured out how to open my bedroom door, so I have to blockade myself in for any peace.
My friend sits perched on the edge of my sofa gently playing guitar to welcome the evening and the fatigue that keeps us so conscious of our every day, no two of which are ever the same. The guitar is not hers – it belongs to another musician, a man, who I have known for a mere fifteen days; his guitar has been here for the past thirteen. And just six days ago, he moved into my home for a temporary infinity before he leaves this place permanently. I suppose it’s fitting that I only feel free enough to allow someone in so intensely (and literally) when I know this freedom will not become a trap. Like a bird dancing through the air below the forest canopy. And yet, this time, it is so tempting to break through, and I can feel myself spiraling upwards, torn at by the leaves of rationality that send threatening warnings about the weather overhead: about the storms, and the darkness, and the vastness. But I am not one to be caged. Not even by my own nature.
I came face to face with my reality last night, and how fitting the absurdity of it intertwines with the cigarette smoke that drips from my nostrils, perhaps equally pleasurably and destructive. I was sitting in the shower, holding the water to my forehead and letting the increasingly cold water rampage over my shaking body. He was stripping the bed. Once the water became unbearably cold I gathered my thoughts enough to turn it off and pull myself up, grabbing my towel through the open door. Wrapping it around me, I saw through the crack in the door the pile of sheets and airing matress, and heard the man who had just powerfully and gracefully wrenched a chasm in my consciousness making tea in the kitchen. And, like the first shock of ice breath on a winter’s morning, I was savaged by the memory of the only other man who had carried me over the brink and stripped the sheets without a word. Swaying in my shower, my forehead found solace on the cold tiles and I finally realized, two and a half years too late, that I had loved that man, and that it was always going to be our fate that our two nights together would be the only temporary infinity we could offer each other, in our mutual states of fear and aggression and pain.
The heartbreak was silent but the tears were not as they streamed out over my still-wet face. I hoped my sobs would be caught in the cold box and not reach the ears of this man who was also destined to leave. My chest beat against the folds of my damp towel as pain, shock and unfiltered love fought against the cloth when I realized I love this man, too, and perhaps my destiny is always going to be to love those who cannot stay – those I need to run from. I had always felt I was uncomfortable in reality because my life was alien to others’, but with my burning face pressed against the tiles I realized how peaceful and comfortable I felt as an alien, and that the distraught was born from trying to pretend I wasn’t. My life story sat on my skin between the droplets of French water, and for the first time I didn’t try and rub it off.
Perhaps the kettle wasn’t boiling loudly enough, or perhaps musicians have especially sensitive ears, but suddenly I felt a soft hand on the back of my neck as his lips fell against my shoulder. I shivered against his kiss and both hands came to my shoulders without a word without a word, massaging as another sob echoed against the ceramic. I didn’t try to face him. I had nothing to say, because sometimes words can mar as oppose to express, and more than I had expressed in years was shaking out of my body. He gently tilted my head back and I felt the rubber drag of my hairbrush combing my short, wet hair. I thought this small act of kindness, of consideration and understanding, was the warmest silence I had ever felt as he teased out the non-words between my hair with his own. He brushed it back from my face so I could not hide, but I stayed facing away as I grabbed the corner of my towel to exfoliate the salt from my face. Eventually I turned to him. We looked at each other, as we so often do, the only difference being our eyes were level with me standing on the raised platform in the shower. But the added height gave me no insight into his inscrutable face, and I feared what he could be thinking of me and my outburst. Now I realize the inscrutability was my searching for what was hidden, even though he hadn’t once threatened to hide from me, not from that first morning when he showed up at my apartment with croissants and cigarettes after finishing his DJ-ing shift at the club I had danced in all night.
‘Come on,’ he said gently, invitation flooding his eyes and soft smile. I nodded, suddenly brusque, threatening to be overcome with shame. Sensing it, he backed out of the bathroom after placing a kiss on my forehead to allow me space to get dressed. I hastily toweled and put on my clothes, shaking my head in embarrassment. I remember catching sight of my face in the mirror – my face flushes in patches whenever I cry, as if the tears could mark out particular areas for my skin to flame, and I shook my head again in frustration, knowing my emotions would stay painfully red and raised for at least another hour.
When I went through to my kitchen he had made a tea that was waiting patiently next to a rolled cigarette. I was at once grateful and horrified at the lack of things I could busy myself with. My movements sharp and large, as if I could take up enough space to erase the immediate past by filling up his vision, I refilled the kettle and tried to tidy the already clean table. He gently caught my arms and directed me towards my bench-seat before taking the black plastic chair opposite.
‘Es-ce que tu veux parler?’ he asked as I lit my cigarette. I laughed with unnecessary bitterness, shoulders shrugging even as my head nodded. He waited patiently as I stared out of the window beside me, seeking the answers – the right words – in the cold night air.
‘I….’ I said after five minutes.
Another five passed. ‘Attends,’ I mumbled, pulling on the end of the cigarette. He did.
My eyes flickered and brow furrowed. Occasionally a grim smile would flash across my face. The struggle to be honest danced with the fear twitching on my skin, but I didn’t try to hide it. Perhaps anything I couldn’t say he would guess – or at least know I was trying.
‘J’ai pensé sur quelq’un,’ I started quickly, words tumbling out violently before the long peace of silence. He didn’t move.
The false starts shot out of my mouth like gunfire and he seemed to catch them gently with his gaze and lower down to the floor to rest. Something I have noticed since living here is French speakers are far more at ease being honest than Anglophones; their language doesn’t allow for the same potholes of mixed meanings and unclear structures that we so readily hide within. And so when the truth taps at the back of my teeth, requesting release, it is a painful and almost uncontrollable surrender to a language that I normally play with to create the fantastical or superfluous. Honesty allows for no such ploys, though, and so the evacuation of words in such a pure manner that decomposes basic structure feels violent and frightening to someone who can normally lie so successfully, even to herself.
‘There is a man in Scotland,’ I eventually sighed. ‘The only other man who’s been able to do that to me. You remind me of him.’ I started rolling my fourth cigarette. ‘Well, you’re not similar at all and you’d probably hate each other if you met, but the – situation – made me think of him. Even the way we met… I saw him one night in a club and immediately knew: Yup, him. The same way it was with you.’
I fastened my gaze to the sky above the rooftops opposite, but could see his stillness in my periphery. Once again he didn’t move. I jumped on another thought rushing through the melting tunnels of my rationality.
‘I’ve been in relationships with men I wasn’t in love with. I was even engaged to one I loved but not in love with. But I was never with this other man. We only spent two nights together after a two year build up when we were with other people. But I just…’ I glanced at his impassive face to see he was still with me. Perhaps it was the lengthening shadows, but I thought I saw a tug of encouragement pull at his lips. ‘But I just realized I love him. And I last saw him over two years ago.’
He nodded this time when I looked his way. Another thought raced past and out of my lips: ‘There’s so much I’m expected to be, and we’re surrounded by such normalised definitions of love and relationships but I don’t think they’re for me. I don’t think they’re going to be my story. So right now I feel an amalgamation – t’a compris? – of the comfort in moving further into an authentic acceptance of myself and a pain at realizing how uncomfortable I was trying to force that other way upon myself as I move further and further from it.’
He leaned forward then and picks up his phone. My breath caught in my throat fearing this was his preferred method to show he was either bored or didn’t care. Anger tightened around my heart that had been glowing only moments before and I could almost hear the screech of bars being pulled across it. He put his phone down, unlocked, on the table and came back to my gaze. I looked down and saw Google Translate open with the word ‘further’ typed into the English box. My cheeks flushed and my head hung in shame for a moment as I smiled at my own readiness to push the big red destruct button. At that thought, the honesty he deserved burned at my lips.
‘I didn’t cry because you’re leaving,’ I said levelly, finally holding his gaze. ‘That’s fine – of course it is. I cried because this seems to be the narrative I have chosen for my strange and beautiful life.’
The cadence in my tone signaled to his musical ears that my monologue was over, but as the minutes dragged out I crumbled in his large brown eyes and averted my own down to the floor. What could he say? All I asked was for him to be witness, not secondary care-giver, to my honesty.
‘You have no reason to be sad,’ he eventually said in his slow, soft French voice, ‘if it is your choice.’
I look at him and nod before returning to the shadows outside, thinking perhaps I managed to lie even through my honesty; loving this man and his stillness certainly does not feel like a choice to me.