The following story has never been published before. It was submitted to Benji Knewman by the trustful email. Read Part 1 here.
On the morning of my Easter flight to Riga, I wake up at Ari’s. I open my eyes and look at her near me. She looks so dainty when she’s asleep.
I feel like, slowly but surely I’m getting used to this relationship, that it doesn’t matter if I like girls or boys, but what matters is that I like her. The thought of my parents oozes somewhere in the back of my mind, but I brush it away. I try to ignore the fact that I have to see them in a few hours.
Ari opens her eyes and I give her a big kiss.
“Will you write to me?” I ask her when we draw back.
Ari wrinkles her nose. “Oh, I’m not a big phone person.”
I wonder if she’s joking. “What does that mean?”
She stares at me. “Well, just that a personal connection is so much nicer than staring at one’s phone all the time.”
I get a little annoyed at this. “But we can’t have a personal connection a few thousand kilometres apart.”
Ari clicks her tongue. “Well, don’t go then!”
I look in her eyes and I can’t understand if she’s teasing me or punishing me.
I get to the airport just in time for my plane. I doze off immediately when we take off. When I wake up, we’re still in the air. I glance back and see the two flight attendants pushing the trolley with onboard snacks. They linger at some seats to serve, moving in some kind of unplanned synergy. Their movements reflect each other, composing a theatrical harmony. Both women are young and beautiful in a very doll-like way. Well groomed, never sweat, perfect makeup.
Suddenly the plane enters into turbulence. The seats start shaking a bit and it crosses my mind that we could fall. What if it really happened? Would I cry? Would I think about my loved ones? And who would it be first? Ari? My parents?
I feel guilty again that all of them are important to me, and yet I’m not so sure they will ever meet. The plane stabilizes and I sigh with relief.
Dad picks me up at the airport. He always picks me up. When I walk past the baggage belts outside, I scan the crowd to try to catch his silhouette. I see him first. He’s squinting, trying to locate me too. He’s too stubborn to wear glasses, although he really needs them at this point.
The first thing Dad does when we get in the car is drop a white envelope on my lap. I cringe but decide to take it. After this I immediately feel obliged to show that I’m a good daughter, so I enthusiastically start a conversation about my life.
I’m doing great at my internship job (I am not), I might be promoted to full-time (don’t think so), yeah, living with Marta is fun (it’s not). I don’t say anything about Ari, obviously.
Dad winds down the car window. “Why are you gesticulating so much? Are you overexcited?”
I turn to look at his face to see if he’s asking for real. Dad is staring at the road and looks dead serious.
“Calm down. Festina lente.” He adds condescendingly, “You look unreliable when you do that. Nobody will want to have anything to do with you.”
I try to keep it together and turn away. I feel rage and frustration rise, but I take a breath and say nothing.
As we drive through the familiar countryside, I see a Latvian flag here and there, and it evokes a kind of uneasiness in me. Like I betrayed something. Or someone.
The scenery flashes past me. I remember it differently in my mind.
I keep a history of these changes, like a topographical version control of these roads, getting built and rebuilt, supermarkets popping up on the side. Layering one on top of the other in my memory.
As we enter my childhood neighbourhood, I remember the bakery where I used to buy ice cream; it has since been demolished. You can still see its outline on the ground; the grass hasn’t grown over it yet. Or maybe the concrete layer was so toxic that it never will.
I used to love that ice cream. It cost 20 santims, and I could eat three in a row. Or maybe more. The waffle cone was sold with no packaging, except for a round paper label on top. The ice cream was handed to you by the big saleswoman, straight after taking your coins. Us kids, we would take off the paper label, lick it and stick it on a wall. The solid cold chunk of the ice cream would melt and leak through the soggy bottom of the cone, dripping all over our clothes, but we didn’t care.
We drive past an elderly group of Latvian women, spring edition – wearing very brightly coloured garments, acid pink and orange, tops and skirts in strange combinations and flowery patterns. Short hair, almost all of them. Somehow it is very typical to wear short hair here if you’re over 35, and you don’t have to be a lesbian.
When we arrive home, Mom happily greets me and we are rushed to eat. She is wearing her blue house coat again, but her hair is not curled up like the last time.
We sit at the kitchen table and Dad takes out a little paper note where he has a list of things to talk to me about. Finance, private life, the benefit of having babies, health. A little checklist of things important in life. Well, according to him anyway.
I see Mom roll her eyes. I roll mine back. I’m tired of taking sides, though. Mom gets up to start serving food and I study the kitchen table. There is a checkered tablecloth so I pick up a spoon and measure how many checkers fit one spoon length. Vertically and horizontally.
Dad is still talking. I slightly turn away to where my phone is. No messages from Ari. I browse my Facebook feed with one finger, super bored with what Dad is saying. On Facebook there’s Trump news, friends running marathons, CrossFit, babies, selfies, more babies. Urgh. Dad’s voice brings me back to reality and I zone back in, subconsciously alarmed by the change in his voice.
“… And those liberals, they are all pederasts. If you look at the western politics, it’s just all idiots, and all gay…”
“… No, definitely, this world doesn’t have real men left, like during my times. All who are left are ravishing faggots.” Dad’s bushy eyebrows come dangerously close and his face turns a shade of red.
How did we even get to this topic?
“We were not like that! We would play football and we knew how to please a woman. And these ass-fuckers, they can’t even change a light bulb anymore. Just lustful, perverted, twisted child molesters.”
Dad’s face distorts. I suddenly feel scared. I lower my eyes back at the spoon and the checkered tablecloth.
“If I had a gay son, I don’t even know what I’d do,” spits out Dad.
I feel my face flush hot.
“It’s all from the devil,” he adds.
I cannot force myself to eat anymore. I excuse myself and go to my room.
Having come to my room, I fall on the bed and bury my face in my hands. I will literally never be able to tell them about Ari.
My thoughts drift to her. Now that I’m in Latvia, she seems like a ghost, an unrealistic faraway image.
I frown and pick up the phone. No messages. Should I write to her myself? What is she up to now? She must be off work. Maybe she’s meeting some friends? Friends who brought other friends? Probably some hot-looking girls who always knew they liked girls.
This makes me feel jealous, so I send her a WhatsApp, “Hello, beautiful. What are you up to?”
She doesn’t answer for a good 15 minutes. I scroll through my Facebook and Instagram feeds, but can’t concentrate on anything.
Finally an answer arrives. “Not much, just staying at home, watching Netflix and folding some origami.”
I smile at this, feeling relieved. Of course she’s at home, I was so silly.
“Don’t you want to do something? It’s Friday.” I text back, but deep down I’m pleased she’s staying in.
“You know I’m more of a home person,” she answers.
Another text arrives. “Also this way I can do naughty things alone, thinking about you.”
Gulp. I instantly feel aroused, imagining her slim naked body in my hands. I lower one of my hands to press my crotch.
“Alex, do you want to come watch TV with us?” Mom’s voice punctures the space.
My hand jerks away from my crotch and I crash back into reality. My heart is pounding and I feel like I did when I was caught stealing chocolates from Mom’s drawer when I was 10 years old.
“No, thanks!” I scream back at Mom, and type back to Ari, “Mm, nice. Save it ‘til I come back,” but the last thing I feel now is aroused.
The Easter weekend is boring and I count the hours until I can go back to the azure skies of Barcelona. Finally, it’s time to go to the airport, Mom and Dad drive me. I feel somehow empty and drained.
Mom hugs me goodbye at the airport entrance. “When will you come back, honey?”
Oh, I hope not soon.
“I don’t know yet. I need to see how my budget is.”
“Do you need money?” Dad jumps in eagerly.
I sigh. “God, Dad, no, thanks. You’ve just given me some.”
“You know you can always count on us.” He pats me on the head, which makes me feel like I’m 10 again.
“I know, thanks.” I squeeze out a smile.
Mom hugs me again. “It’s my birthday in a few months. Please come visit, we can have a nice family dinner.”
A silent dinner, where you’re the one doing everything, Mom?
“Promise me you’ll come visit!” Mom squeezes me more, and her eyes look sad.
I don’t love this emotional blackmail, but I feel sorry for Mom.
“OK then, I’ll come back for your birthday.”
When I get past customs, I spot Ari among the meeters and greeters. She is wearing baggy jeans and a tight black shirt. Her eyes are fixed on the ground and the wave of her hair has already fallen on her face. She looks like a deer, and also it crosses my mind that she looks a little sad. Ari raises her eyes and sees me, and her face brightens up.
“Surprise!” she mouths from the distance.
I smile and roll my bag towards her. “Some surprise, I saw you first.”
She laughs back and kisses me, and while I enjoy it, I feel awkward with so many people watching us.
“You OK?” I brush her fringe away from her eyes.
“Yeah, all good. Just felt a little alone last weekend.” The fringe falls back.
I feel guilty that I left her.
We decide to go for a walk and lunch in Barceloneta. It’s very refreshing to be back, near the seaside, among the familiar palm trees on the Passeig Maritim. The sun relaxes me so I grab Ari’s hand.
I notice Marta from afar. I always recognize people before they recognize me. And it’s too late to do anything, to turn down another street, to go into a shop. As we cross paths with Marta, I speak first, perhaps a little too quickly, “Hey Marta, what’s up?”
Marta’s eyes wander from my face to Ari’s, to us holding hands, back to my face again. “Hmm,” Marta looks at us expectantly.
I really don’t know what to say.
“We were going to eat something.” The best I can come up with.
“I can see that,” Marta smirks.
My face flushes hot.
“OK, see you,” Marta waves to both of us and passes by.
I follow her with my eyes while her words painfully bounce in my head. “I can see that.” Did she have to say it like that? I can see Marta’s smirk in front of me.
I shake my head to brush away the image. “I think Marta doesn’t like me.”
Ari turns to look at me. “Mmm, so what?”
I shrug and we start walking, then Ari adds after the silence that follows us, “Why do you care what she thinks?”
I don’t know why, I just know that I feel immense embarrassment. I shrug and Ari turns to look at me again, “You should learn how to depend less on public opinion.”
I feel irritated that she’s stating the obvious.
We walk a bit more in silence, then Ari says, “Things work ‘til they don’t. Why don’t you move in with me so that you don’t have to live with Marta anymore?”
I am caught by surprise. A panicked thought whacks in my mind – how will I explain this to my parents? I hesitate to answer.
“Have you ever lived with someone before?” I ask instead.
Ari has a playful look on her face. “Yes, I’ve been in relationships before.” She smiles and I feel a pang of jealousy at her answer.
We walk some more. Ari adds thoughtfully, “Lived with my ex for a year until last spring.”
I cringe at that. Finally, curiosity takes over, and I ask, “Why did you break up?”
Ari’s eyes darken but she forces out a smile. “We were in different places in life.”
I wonder what that means, but say nothing.
When I come home that evening, I open the door and try to see if Marta is home. Seems not: her door is open ajar and there is no light coming from her room.
My thoughts return to Ari’s proposal of living together. How much would it cost? Would that be more expensive than sharing with Marta? The real estate prices in Barcelona have been going up lately. I really can’t afford paying more than I currently do.
The money question stings me again in the gut. I am so sick and tired of always having to think about money.
I decide to take a bath. Water always relaxes me. I go to the bathroom and let the water run down into the bathtub. Marta shouldn’t be home for a few hours still. I sit on the edge and watch the water make bubbles. Then I reach for a bottle of blue bath salts and pour some in. Instantly the water fizzes and splutters and the smell of lavender pervades the air.
I peel off my clothes, leave them on the floor and get in the bathtub. Ahhh. The water pleasantly envelops my body. I rest the nape of my neck on the edge of the tub and close my eyes.
Suddenly the bathroom door is flung open. I gasp and instinctively sit up. I freeze.
There is a guy standing in the doorway. A million murder scenarios run through my head. Then I recognize him – it’s Marta’s new boyfriend; I think his name is Diego.
I let out a sigh of relief. The guy stares at my breasts with a little smile. Out of all the emotions I can feel, I feel the most unexpected one – I feel aroused.
I grab my towel from the edge of the bathtub and press it against myself. Finally I manage to say, “What the hell are you staring at?”
The guy turns around and leaves.
I sink back into the water. Uff. I absolutely hate sharing this place with Marta.
I dry my hands on the towel I’m still holding, and grab my phone from the floor. I plonk back into the bathtub, open Whatsapp and write to Ari: “Can we move in together like you proposed?”
Then I think for a bit and send another one: “Also, can I stay at your place tonight?”
The screen throws back a “yes to all”.
When I walk out of our building, there is a Muslim woman slouching by the door, begging for money. Her head is wrapped in a scarf and she’s holding a portrait of a woman who resembles herself, her head also wrapped in a scarf. Perhaps her sister or daughter. I imagine that the woman in the portrait would also be holding a portrait. A Matryoshka of suffering.
Suddenly the image of Marta’s boyfriend flashes before my eyes, and I can’t help thinking that despite his intrusion, he was handsome. This makes me feel weird.
I get to Ari’s, and she’s cooked some nice vegan food for me. Broccoli, tofu, pasta, it looks so delicious. I admire her ability to cook so well. We share a bottle of wine, and I feel the weight of the world has been lifted off me tonight. I feel a bit tipsy and I start kissing and undressing Ari.
“You have a nice vagina,” Ari tells me. I blush. To be honest, I’ve always thought I have a nice vagina, but I’ve never heard anyone confirm it before.
Lovemaking with Ari feels much easier than with men. She makes me feel secure. I know she doesn’t care what size my breasts are or if I have cellulite.
I stay at Ari’s place all weekend, and we spend the time at home. Better this way. I wouldn’t be afraid that someone else might see us.
When I arrive at work after the weekend, Sophie and I have our traditional Monday coffee in the kitchen. I bring the remains of an apple crumble Ari baked for me over the weekend.
Sophie picks up a piece and examines it closely. “Ooh, I didn’t know you could bake.” She takes a bite. “Yum, this is delish.” She raises her eyes pensively. “Reminds me of something.”
“Nutmeg?” I suggest absentmindedly. I am considering if now is a good time to tell her about Ari.
“Yeah,” A slow nod. “Must be nutmeg.” For a second she becomes very serious, then shakes her head dismissively and takes another bite. “So, what’s new?”
I hesitate but then decide to just tell the truth, or a part of it. “I am moving in with someone.”
Sophie widens her eyes. Her mouth, still full, exhales, “Whaaat?” She covers her mouth and adds, “Things must be really serious then! So quick!”
I shrug and take a piece of the apple crumble too.
Sophie jumps up to me and hugs me.
“So happy for you!” She draws away from me. “And when will I finally meet him?”
I press my lips. “Soon…”
Sophie steps back and takes her cup of coffee. “You better!” She takes a sip and then points her finger at me with a graceful movement. “Your parents must be over the moon.”
I finish the piece of crumble and brush away the crumbs on my shirt. “Well, actually, I haven’t told them yet.”
Sophie widens her eyes again. “The secret life of Alex!”
I chuckle. “You know how parents can be.” Disowning you for engaging in a same-sex relationship.
Sophie becomes somber. “Well, true, I lived with someone a year ago and I didn’t tell my parents either…“ She hesitates. “I guess it wasn’t so serious in the end.” She shakes her head and makes her beautiful blond curls jump. “Hey, do you want to go out this weekend?”
“Um, no, we’ll probably stay in.” I shrug.
“You got so booooring. We barely go out now!” Sophie makes a deliberate sad face.
“Yeah, I know. Let me see if I can drag my… partner out. And maybe this could be a good occasion to meet…” I hesitate, “… them?”
Sophie bursts into laughter. “Them? Are there a few? You naughty girl!”
It’s hard to avoid pronouns.
Moving day is a little stressful but exciting. I thought I didn’t have much stuff, no furniture, but once I start packing all the little totes, books, vinyls, and vases, it becomes a lot of things.
Ari emerges from my room, wearing the leopard-print pants I gave her. She gives herself a look in the mirror and says, “I’m surprised you don’t want these – they’re great.”
I admire her. Her big smile, her tanned skin, the way she moves, the way she laughs. It just makes me so happy watching her. I get closer and hug her. Her hands, strong and tender at the same time, travel around my body almost absentmindedly, and yet I know she’s here for me.
“I can’t really wear those,” I say.
Ari detaches from me and picks up a big, black trash bag with my stuff to take down to the moving truck. “Why?”
I grab one as well. “‘Cause, well, I’m Eastern European and these things look extra kitschy on me. It’s like the ultimate cliche.” We exit the apartment, dragging both bags down the stairs with effort. I add, a little out of breath, “I just can’t do certain things – wear leopard print, smoke slim cigarettes, wear stilettos, wear too much makeup.“ I half-smile to Ari, without really looking at her.
Ari stops on the stairs and starts laughing, as if she’s heard something very funny. “Sure you can. You can do whatever you want.”
I feel annoyed. Sometimes she thinks she knows better than anyone else.
“Still, these pants look much better on you.” I turn around and start dragging the bag a little faster.
Having decorated the building entrance with bags and plants and suitcases, we sit on the stairs and wait for the moving van to come. I’m thinking about how on earth I am going to hide from my parents that I moved in with a girl, and we only have one bed, but ultimately decide not to think about it right now.
I like Ari’s neighbourhood better than my old one. I establish my new key shops – fruit and vegetable, Tabacs, nearest wine shop, nearest “paqui” shop for water.
Things start to go better for me. I have deliberately avoided talking to my parents for the last few weeks. Now that Ari and I share expenses, it’s actually gotten better with the money too. We establish our routine: I finish work around 6pm and ride my bicycle home, already looking forward to seeing her. I buy a bottle of cheap white wine, pushing the foldable Brompton (my parents’ present, of course) in front of me, leaving dirt marks on my pants.
“A verdejo from Perelada?” the saleswoman already knows me.
At home, Ari would already have made food for us.
I open the apartment door and the cooking smell rushes onto me, and I see that our small apartment windows are covered in vapour. “Food is almost ready, churri!” screams Ari from the bathroom or the kitchen. I go up to the window and draw a little smiley face on the steamy glass.
I change into home clothes, something Ari insists on. Pajama pants and a comfortable t-shirt. Tonight Ari sits against the light, which makes it look like she has a glow. We are a little woozy from the bubble.
I stare at Ari and imagine her in her teens. She looks exactly the same, only her face looks much younger with a more innocent expression on it. Her hair looks even bigger and fuzzier.
I am looking at her, and not only do I see her physically, I feel her too. I see her inside world. Pure, white, shiny. With some grey sorrow spots. We are human after all. With an immense radiant strength, sending shimmering rays of gold. I wish I were as strong as her.
It’s Mom’s birthday soon and I got tickets to travel to Riga again.
On a Saturday morning, while I’m in the shower, my phone rings from somewhere in the flat.
I turn off the tap. “I’ll get it, it’s your dad,” Ari shouts from outside.
I jump out of the shower and run into our living room like a wild goat, half covered in foam. From the balcony Ari smirks mischievously, a cigarette in one hand. The phone is still ringing somewhere.
I follow the sound to the kitchen, where my phone is vibrating on the table. I can see it’s Dad on Skype and a knot forms in my stomach but I tell myself that it’s going to be OK and pick up.
“Hey, can you see us?” Both Mom’s and Dad’s voices. This is quite unusual, because Dad never invites Mom to our Skype calls.
Their camera isn’t on.
“No, your camera isn’t on.”
“You don’t want to see us?”
“Your camera isn’t on,” I say a little louder and roll my eyes.
“Oh. We don’t know how to fix this.” They sound bemused.
I suddenly feel guilty. “You have to press the camera icon on the screen.”
“What camera icon?” says Mom.
“Hey, it’s OK without the camera. What’s up?”
“Oh, we wanted to see you.” Dad sounds upset. I think it’s best they don’t have the camera on – this way they won’t catch a glimpse of Ari or realize I am not in my usual apartment.
Dad exhales and continues in a more cheerful tone. “Do you remember my work colleague Olga?”
I do, vaguely.
“Well, her son, do you remember him? He’s looking for a wife!” Dad’s voice is triumphant.
I do remember Olga’s son, a very sweet and normal guy, actually. I decide that there is nothing better than a good old joke: “Oh great, now that he’s bald and fat, he is finally looking for a wife.”
There is a short silence on the other end, then Mom says carefully. “Just a little bald, I checked on Facebook.” Another pause. “But he looks like a very decent guy.”
A mixture of anger and frustration is growing in me. I can’t believe this conversation is happening, and the best answer I can come up with is: “But I live in Barcelona.”
“Yeah, but he lives in the UK,” they cheerfully answer almost in unison.
I still can’t believe this. “Well, so you see, it’s not meant to be,” I snap.
“Well, don’t worry,” Dad says. “If you’re interested, we’ll find a way.” Some background noise. “I’ll ask Olga to tell him you said hi.”
More background noise and then Mom says, “Or you can just add him on Facebook and write him a message.”
I let out a little snort, to which Dad says wryly, “I can see you’re not very interested.”
“No, but thanks a lot.” At that moment I hear Ari paddling past the kitchen door. I step further away from the door and say in a more muted voice, “In fact, I’m seeing someone.”
To this, Mom and Dad start talking excitedly over each other and their voices break up. “Mom, Dad!” I shout. “Sorry, I have to go, I left the bathroom tap on. Talk soon!”
I hang up. I imagine how they must have come up with this idea of introducing me to someone. Mom must have been sitting on the couch in her usual bathrobe, and Dad sprawled in the big velvet armchair. Maybe they were both drinking cognac. I imagine how they were discussing the fact that I’m alone and trying to find solutions. Maybe Dad clicked his tongue and sank deeper into the armchair, looking upwards, as he always does when he’s thinking. Mom stared into space.
But I am not alone. I have Ari. Will I ever be able to tell them that I’m seeing a girl?
I realize that I’m shivering and look down to see that I’m standing in a puddle of water. When I turn around to head back to the bathroom, Ari comes into the kitchen from the balcony.
“Do your parents know we live together?”
“Umm, no…” I mutter.
“Are you going to tell them?”
I prefer not to, but I say, “Eventually.”
Her face darkens.
“Soon,” I say.
Ari presses her lips together. “Look,” her voice is quiet but firm, “you’re a grownup. What are you afraid of all the time?”
My stomach tightens. “Look, they’re not as open as your parents…” I take a step towards Ari.
Ari shakes her head and says nothing.
“On top of that, you know they give me some money, and I need it,” I continue.
To this, Ari sighs and raises her hand as if to say “I don’t wanna know”, then turns and leaves the kitchen. I follow her to the living room. The balcony door swings shut. Ari is sitting on a balcony chair, back turned towards me, and she lights another cigarette.
When she’s upset, she gives me the cold shoulder. It’s probably the most torturous treatment I have ever received. I had imagined that here, in the south of Europe, when people are upset, they scream at each other and throw objects and swear and slam doors, and make scenes, and pack bags.
But Ari is not like that. I don’t know how to deal with this accusatory silence. Or maybe I just think it’s accusatory. Maybe it’s not like that at all. Maybe her silent back doesn’t leak dank and cold vibrations, maybe it’s just my paranoia. And that’s the worst part: I don’t know if I’m imagining all this and she is really fine, but I can’t ask because this silence and her body language paralyse my will, and all I want is to hide in a corner with my eyes closed and wait for all this to be over.
In the evening she makes a meal and presents it as a peace offering. We eat and stay at home that night. Again.
I scroll through my Instagram feed on the couch. Ari is smoking by the window.
There’s nothing on Instagram, so I scroll through Twitter.
“You’re always on your phone,” Ari says.
“Not true.” I don’t look up.
I feel like going out. I feel like we’ve been living like two recluses on our own private island. I’m searching to see if there are any events on Facebook.
“Shall we go out?” I raise my eyes to her.
“Nah, I don’t feel like it.” She blows out a smoke ring, reminding me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. She still hasn’t quit smoking. In fact, she has been smoking more lately, and she hasn’t touched her origami for a while.
I put the phone down. “Oh come on, we never do anything. I’m leaving tomorrow, and it’s your free night.”
Ari turns to me and says, “Well, you go if you want to, I don’t mind.”
I still look at her expectantly, so she smiles a little. “I’m just not a big going-out person.”
“We met in a club,” I protest.
Ari turns away and drags on her cigarette. “It was a lucky coincidence.” She turns back to me and smiles crookedly. “But you go if you want to, really.”
I feel annoyed at her, so I press my lips and say, “Well, maybe I will.”
She drops the ashes of her cigarette outside the window. “Well, maybe you should.”
All right, then. I get up and head towards the door. I grab my coat and walk out, without saying “goodbye”. On the staircase I drag my phone out and text Sophie: “What are you up to?”
I stand there and think about whether I’m being unreasonable. Maybe I should have stayed with Ari. But I am just so sick and tired of always staying at home.
An incoming message from Sophie: “Partying. Wanna come here?”
I hesitate and then remember Ari’s sullen face just five minutes ago, and start walking down the stairs.
Sophie texts me an address on Passeig de Sant Joan, so I grab a taxi.
When I get there, Sophie opens the door. She looks slightly tipsy but gorgeous as always – her curly hair is in a bun, and she’s wearing a light, flowery dress and lots of dangling bracelets on her wrists.
“Amooooor!” she screams as she sees me. Her bracelets dangle some more. We hug and exchange two kisses on the cheeks.
“Come, come,” she steps back to let me into the apartment.
We go into the salon, where there are around 10 people actively chatting. There’s techno music in the background, and the balcony door is wide open. The summer air is heavy with perfume and smoke.
I drop my gaze to the table in the room and see lines of coke. Sophie takes my hand and takes me to the table.
At around five in the morning, I realize that I’ve been at it for quite a while. Maybe Ari is worried. I pick up my phone but there are no messages. I guess she didn’t miss me.
I feel high and detached. My body is tired, so I decide to call it a night.
I call a cab, and when I’m in it, I check my face in a pocket mirror.
Daylight is breaking and I look quite beat, with tired eyes and pale skin. My clothes stink of tobacco. Suddenly I sober up and start feeling guilty and uneasy about the situation.
When I open the front door, Ari isn’t sleeping. I don’t know if she’s just gotten up or hasn’t slept at all. She’s sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee, fully dressed. Her hair is wet and combed backwards, which makes her look different and more vulnerable.
“Where were you?” she asks simply.
“I was out with some friends.” I put my bag on the table.
“Ah, the ones you don’t introduce me to?” She doesn’t move.
“Oh, come on, please not now.” I try to take my shoes off, but I can’t keep my balance on just one leg.
Ari gets up and comes closer. “Are you high?”
“No-o-o.” I don’t look up at her face.
“This won’t work,” she says.
I am not sure what she means. I look up at her.
“We obviously want different things.” The rays of the morning sun fall on her face and I can see her puffy eyes.
I lower my eyes and mumble, “Oh, come on, we never do anything outside of this house.”
“You are just like my ex,” she snaps. This makes me angry, so I raise my voice. “Well, at least she wasn’t boring!”
She is startled at this, but I continue, brave from the drugs and alcohol, “And you’re not perfect yourself! You can’t even quit smoking!”
She keeps silent for a while, then she makes a move towards the door. “Anyway, I have to go to work.” She grabs her motorbike keys and her backpack. Before the door closes, she turns around. “Maybe we moved in together too quickly.”
I flop on the couch and bury my face in my hands. Why does she have to be like that?
My body is very tired, and I decide to take a nap before my flight. I straighten my legs on the couch and bury my face in the pillows. I feel like I simultaneously live in two realities – the one a few days ago, when things were going OK with Ari, and the one now, when we just fought and I’m developing a terrible headache from the phantom faces and music echoing in my mind.
I don’t notice when I finally doze off. Suddenly I find myself already at my parents’ place, sitting on the toilet. The toilet door is flung open and both my parents are standing there, staring. I shout, “get out!” but they ignore me. I am so small and powerless and frustrated. I scream and scream and scream and that’s when the obnoxious sound of the alarm violently snaps me back to reality.
It takes me a few seconds to catch my breath. I look around and have the wild thought of calling my parents and telling them I’m sick and not coming. But later, my sense of responsibility takes over. I sigh and head to the shower. Streams of water run down my body, making it slightly better.
I board the plane on time. The flight attendants walk along the aisle, peeking at the rows, clicking the metallic counter, like hungry dogs searching for their prey. I feel uneasy and exhausted.
When I land, both Mom and Dad meet me. When they see me, they start smiling, but I can sense that they are both in a bad mood too. Perhaps they fought.
“Happy birthday, Mom!” I give her a hug and for a moment I feel warmth and sincerity.
Mom leans in to check if my pants are cotton. Dad leans in to check if my shoes are leather. I sulk again. Sometimes I have a feeling that they want to put their arms through me, break my throat, and rip open and examine the insides to verify if the material is organic and waterproof.
The weather is grey and everyone in the Riga airport seems to have grim lines and dark air around them. I feel like I want to scream.
As soon as we get in the car, I struggle with the seatbelt in the back. Mom turns expectantly towards me from the front. There is an unspoken tension between all of us.
“So, tell us something about this guy you’re dating?”
My stomach lurches.
I’m not in the mood to fake anything, but I manage to squeeze out a crooked smile. “Oh, not now, Mom. Later, OK? I’m super tired after the flight.” She nods and turns back to face the road.
Meanwhile, Dad’s hand reaches around from the front seat, holding an envelope. God, why do they have to do everything here and now?
“What is it?” I put on the traditional role play.
“It’s money for you.” The envelope wiggles. “Take it! It’s not very comfortable to be driving like this.”
“Daaad. I’m a big girl now. I don’t need the money!” This time I am determined not to take it.
The envelope disappears. “Suit yourself.”
When we arrive home, Mom sets the table for her birthday dinner. I want to help, but she says she can do it by herself. Good. I feel so exhausted, and I am really not in the mood for a conversation. I collapse on a chair at the kitchen table and support my face with my hands. Dad gets started on the standard heard-10,000-times-before questions on how I deal with the humidity in Barcelona and if I wear sunscreen.
I space out as usual and start fiddling with a box I see on the kitchen table. The box is in the shape of a flower and has a magnet to connect the lid to the base. I open and close the box, enjoying the clacking sound and the magnetic attraction between the two parts, and how it is almost inevitable that the box will close every time, and how I also have the power, with just a slight movement, to detach the two again.
“Stop playing with it. You’ll break it,” Mom says. I keep playing with the box.
“Stop it right now, please,” Mom says again.
I sigh and put down the box.
Mom says, “I know that you don’t care about anything.”
I open my mouth to object, but the shrill sound of the boiling kettle cuts me off.
Mom goes to turn off the kettle and I suddenly realize that she and I, both my parents and me, we function like an interdependent, painful solar system, powering each other’s weaknesses, bringing the worst out in each other, growing in our rage every year, ready to explode like three supernovas full of insanity dust.
We sit through Mom’s birthday dinner in silence. I feel sorry for all of us, but I don’t know what to say or do.
After we’ve eaten I volunteer to do the dishes. My head still hurts from the hangover.
I am slowly doing the dishes, making wide circular movements on each plate and looking down to see the foaming bubbles. I’m thinking that Ari must have finished her shift by now and I wonder what she’s doing. I glance at my phone, which I placed near the sink, but there are no new messages.
I make an elaborate dish tower on the drying rack. The result looks a little shaky but stays together, and I’m happy that my Jenga-playing days have finally paid off.
I excuse myself and pass out in my bed, and it’s not even 10pm.
In the morning I walk out of my room to find Dad walking up and down the apartment. I hear a closet door bang, then another one, some rustling, more closet door banging.
I take my phone out again to check if there are messages from Ari. Nothing.
Dad goes back to the living room and sits down in an armchair, pensive.
I sneeze. Dad turns to the sound. “Hay fever?”
I shrug. “No, I’m not allergic to anything. Just getting a cold.”
Dad nods. For a while we sit in silence, then he turns to me again. “So when are you gonna read that James Joyce book I gave you?”
I freeze. Here we go again.
“I don’t know. When I have time, I suppose.” I have zero desire to read that book.
Dad fidgets about a little in the armchair, as if trying to find a good position, then continues, “When you came home for Christmas, you promised to read it on the flight back.”
What a memory.
“Well, I didn’t. I wasn’t in the mood. I wanted to watch some shows.”
Dad sighs dramatically.
“You and those shows. They are simply degrading. I don’t understand how such an intelligent person like yourself can watch them. Please tell me, what do you get out of them?” He makes a mocking desperate face.
For a second I consider explaining but then decide it’s pointless.
“It’s hard to explain,” I try to smile. “Just consider me degraded.”
There is silence and I see that Dad’s face has hardened, his cheek muscles moving under his skin.
Suddenly I sneeze again.
“Hay fever,” says Dad grimly.
I’m starting to feel annoyed. “Not hay fever. I don’t get hay fever.”
Dad gestures impatiently. “So, when are you gonna read the book? Joyce is a great author, you should know that.“
Ari’s words that I am a grownup ring in my head.
“Look, I don’t know when I’m going to read the book. Maybe never. I have several other books piling up.”
“You have to promise to read it in the next two months.”
I feel blood rush to my head and I lose it.
“Do you even hear yourself?” I answer in a louder voice than necessary. “I can’t promise you to read the book within two months!”
I somehow have a feeling that I’m doing this wrong, and that this is what he wants, for me to get angry. I exhale and continue in a calmer tone, “A book is a pleasure for me. I can’t schedule that. I can’t promise you anything.” I look at Dad, his face still grim and cheek muscles still moving. I get scared.
“You can’t live your life like this,” he finally says.
“What? Like what?” I can’t believe that he means it. I can’t believe we are having this conversation. I can’t believe the absurdity of this, and again, like in my dream yesterday, I feel utter frustration and anger.
Dad continues, “You can’t live your life like this, like a butterfly. Flitting from one flower to another, carefree as you are. Only caring about pleasure. One day these times will end. And you will regret your carefree attitude.”
Oh my god, where is this even coming from? I feel my face flush some more.
Dad continues, “You have to have very clear expectations, deadlines, a plan. Gutta cavat lapidem. Think of when you get older, what will you do?”
I keep silent, and I feel tears forming in my eyes, but I try not to cry. This is so unfair.
“You see, that’s why you have to listen to me. You are much more intelligent than before, but still you need guidance in life.”
I suddenly understand. He is fully aware of what he’s doing, of all his little manipulations – they’ve all been calculated very precisely. It’s like a chess match, only he calculates many more steps ahead than me.
I cannot fucking take this anymore.
I get up and burst out, “I am leaving.”
“What?” Dad’s face softens and he looks perplexed, as if this were the last thing he was expecting.
“Leave me. The fuck. Alone.”
I storm back to my room and throw my belongings into my suitcase in the blink of an eye. I take it to the entrance and grab my coat. I don’t see Dad anywhere, but Mom comes out from the kitchen with a puzzled look on her face. “Alex, what happened? Where are you going?”
“Not now, Mom.” I look at her and for a moment I feel a change of heart coming on, but then I grab my coat and exit through the door.
I call a cab and book a flight back to Barcelona while in the car. 110 EUR down the drain. I sigh, but feel like I have bigger things to worry about now.
I take out my phone again, but there are no messages from Ari.
Back in Barcelona no one meets me at the airport, so I take the blue bus to the centre alone. I feel very vulnerable and nervous. I turn my head and notice that a woman is sitting near me. She is tossing in her seat, mumbling something. I look at her from the corner of my eye, and can clearly see that she has some mental trouble. I want to change my seat, but then feel shy doing so, like it would insult her. I spend the rest of the trip with my eyes closed, alert and with a heavy heart.
I drag my suitcase up the stairs to the apartment door, and as I’m about to put the key in the lock, I hear two voices inside our place. I can hear Ari’s low voice and another softer voice, which also sounds familiar. I freeze.
With a sinking heart I turn the key and enter the apartment. The conversation stops and I see the backs of two heads sitting close together on the couch. One of them is Ari and the other one is a blond curly head.
The curly head turns and I can see that it’s Sophie.
I can’t believe my eyes.
“Sophie, what are you doing here?”
Sophie looks as surprised as I am, though.
We both look at Ari.
“Have you two met?” Ari turns her eyes from me to Sophie, also bewildered.
Sophie gets up abruptly. “I’d better go.” I notice that she has on day-old makeup, her eye makeup is slightly smudged. There is an open bottle of wine on the table in front of them. I still don’t know what to make of the situation, and Sophie brushes past me. She gives me an awkward smile and says, “I’ll see you at work.”
I hear the door bang behind me, and I turn my eyes to Ari.
“How the hell do you know Sophie?”
Ari looks sad but calm. “Sophie is my ex, the one I told you about.”
“The party girl??” Come to think of it, Sophie is a party girl.
“Well, not less of a party girl than yourself,” Ari frowns.
I don’t know what to say to this. “Why was she here?”
“I called her. I was feeling very down after our fight, so I called her to come and see me.”
A sudden thought crosses my mind. “Did you two sleep together??”
“No,” Ari says simply. But I don’t know if I believe her.
Ari brushes her hair from her face.
“Look, I was very much in love with Sophie.” She lowers her eyes. “Maybe I still am a little.”
I can’t believe this.
“You know this origami wish that I told you about, my wish was to forget her and find someone new.” Ari still isn’t looking at me.
“Well, are you still in love with her?” I go to the shelf and grab a bunch of origami. “Are you?”
Ari presses her lips together and doesn’t answer. I crush the pieces I have in my hand and throw them to the floor. Then I walk out of the door.
I sit on a bench in a park not far from our house.
I feel such horrible frustration and almost paralysis, just like in that dream when I was shouting at my parents to get out from the bathroom.
I remember Ari’s words: “Things work ‘til they don’t.”
A flashback of her hand pressing in mine, squeezing, affirming, loving. I can see her moving in the sunlight, her deep blue eyes sending twitches of joy somewhere in my stomach. Her curly hair, her beautiful smile.
I can see us taking that roadtrip to Berga, staying in bed too long, having lunch together. They say you see all your life go before your eyes before you die. I guess a breakup is a little death.
Isn’t it funny? It just takes a second for everything to fall apart. A week ago, everything was all right. A month ago everything was even better. How quickly things change and seem to exist simultaneously in my broken universes.
End of June
I call in sick at work to sort my head out, and also partly to avoid Sophie.
My phone has been very active, for once.
Ari sent me a message saying that she’ll stay with a friend for as long as needed, while I find a new place to stay.
Mom and Dad have been calling like crazy, but I’m not picking up any of their calls.
Sophie sent me a text. “Let’s talk.” But I don’t want to talk to her just yet, either.
I go swimming, the only temporary cure to sadness I know. I plunge into the water and lower my whole body and face, so that I see half-blue, half-air. Funny. Since we went swimming together often I miss Ari so much in the water.
I spend the first few days browsing apartments. There’s an interesting offer in my old neighborhood Poble Sec, cheap and nice-looking. I leave the house to go see it.
I spot a short, dark haircut from a distance, and my heart jumps. I feel faint and weak. The silhouette gets closer and I realize it’s not her. I manage to smile to myself.
The momentary uplift is replaced by a sense of grief again, rushing in and overtaking me like 1000 black birds, almost lifting me off the ground.
I stop abruptly on the street to let the moment pass, and the crowd instantly swallows me up like a giant meat mincer.
I walk on. I see her in everyone. Since she’s lean and has short hair, I get doubly lucky – I see her in men and in women, I see her in teenage boys, I see her everywhere I look around, and not until I get a better look does the mirage vanish. If you really see people, you can fall in love with pretty much anyone. If you look close enough, everyone is beautiful, no matter the gender.
The place is nice. Small but cozy, just like in the pictures. I’ll have to share it with two Portuguese girls. They are both non-smokers, which I feel relieved about. We agree that I can move in the day after tomorrow.
Afterwards I go into a bar a block away from my new place to get a drink by myself. I sit at the bar counter and ask for a rum and coke. The waitress turns around to reach for a glass high up on the counter shelf and her shirt does that movement too, slightly twisting and curling up, so I manage to get a glimpse of what’s underneath the shirt, that naked line between jeans and a top. I notice thin, white stretch marks on her tanned Mediterranean skin that almost all girls have, but which you will never see in any glamour magazine. I see a small tattoo the waitress has hidden there, in faded ink.
“Tough day?” The waitress puts the glass near me. It crosses my mind that she’s cute. “A breakup.” I rub my temples. The waitress tilts her head, so I continue, “It’s over now and I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again.”
She smiles at me. “Sure you will.”
I sigh and put my hands down. “It’s just that I am so tired of starting again. I am so tired of getting to know someone, of telling the story of my life, of showing the other person my attractive sides. I just don’t have the energy to do it again.”
The girl nods. “Yeah, I know what you mean. I guess that’s how modern love goes.” She wipes a wet spot from the glass on the table. “We just want the good stuff and we don’t want to work on the bad stuff.”
The next morning I decide it’s time to pack up. I walk around Ari and my place looking for my things. A faint scent of warm lemon hits my nostrils and I think about our time here together, the cozy dark mornings with artificial half-lights, still-warm blankets and rustling.
I wander around from the kitchen to the living room, from that room to my and Ari’s room. No steam from cooking anymore, but I do see the dirty spot from the smiley face I drew when things were good.
I pick up my backpack to start putting things in and find in the front pocket a little seashell she gave me from the time we went to the seaside, right after we met. Memory. Ari. Hurts. I withdraw my hand slowly and meditatively zip up the pocket.
Her picture on the fridge, fixed by a little cat magnet. An object seen so often before but only noticed now. I lower my gaze.
Her shirt hanging on the back of the door. This one is tough. I hesitate for a moment and then quickly reach out for it and bury my face in it. The smell almost makes me faint from sadness.
Her smell intoxicates me as always, makes my knees weak, makes me want to slide down onto the floor and doze off like a drug addict, drawing the scent off the shirt over and over again.
Instead, I abruptly hurl the shirt into the laundry basket on the opposite side of the room with a big slam dunk.
I miss, so I step over the shirt and wander around the apartment again. This little physical effort seems to have drained my energy completely.
I wander around the apartment more to try to find the stuff that actually belongs to me.
My blue tote bag she used to borrow. “I love this shade of blue” rings in my head. The tote bag isn’t mine anymore. It smells of her and it sneers at me.
I decide to throw out most of my stuff, as a start-over ritual.
I am so hesitant to leave, but in the end I put the keys on the table and walk out, shutting the door.
There is no turning back now.
I settle into my new room and the rest of the week passes by. I mostly stay on my bed, staring at the ceiling.
On one of these days I see an incoming call from Mom. This time I pick up.
“Alex?” Mom’s careful voice reaches through the thousands of kilometres.
“Yeah,” I sigh weakly.
I hear an exhale of relief on the other end. “Darling, are you OK? We were so worried!”
I am wondering whether Dad is also on the line.
“I’m OK. I just broke up with someone,”
“Oh, that person you were seeing?”
I hesitate, thinking about those money envelopes, but then realize that I somehow don’t care anymore.
“Yes, that person was a girl. I was dating a girl, Mom.”
There is a careful silence on the other end of the receiver.
“I don’t know what to say, dear.” Mom’s voice is a little shaky.
There is another pause, then she continues, “I am sorry that you’re going through a tough time. We love you whatever happens.”
“Um,” Mom takes a breath. “Actually, he just left the room. But don’t worry about it. I’ll talk to him.”
My vision goes blurry and I feel a tear roll down my cheek. I brush it away.
It’s Monday and I’m dreading facing Sophie. I think about her beautiful peachy skin, her curly blond hair, and the energy in her eyes. No wonder Ari was still in love with her.
I spot Sophie in the kitchen, making coffee as usual instead of working. She sees me and her face turns darker, but she avoids looking me in the eye.
We both just stand there.
Sophie finally speaks first. “Since when do you like girls?” She pushes a lock of her curly hair behind one of her ears and finally looks me in the eye. I cross my arms over my chest. “I can ask you the same thing.”
Sophie snorts, “I always have. You just never asked me.” There is a hardness in her voice I haven’t heard before.
“I thought friends just share things, without asking.” I try to sound firm as well.
“Coming from you? You didn’t exactly let me in on your personal life either.” She makes a dismissive gesture with her hands and also crosses her arms over her chest.
OK, she’s right about this one. I don’t know what to say. I suddenly feel very weak.
But there is one thing I have to know. “Did you sleep with her that night?”
Sophie doesn’t answer. I see a strange light in her eyes.
“Why aren’t you answering me?”
“You two have nothing in common,” she says instead.
I feel anger rising in my chest. “That’s exactly what she told me about you.”
Sophie slashes a finger in the air and opens her mouth to apparently say something else.
“Weekly meeting, girls!” the speckled face of another intern pops into the kitchen.
I turn and walk out.
I sit at the meeting and secretly scroll through my Facebook feed, thinking how fucked up this world is. How we have invented the concept of offices, and lock ourselves down 24/7 in dusty, claustrophobic bureau spaces with air conditioning and pretend that free Diet Cokes is a great perk, and that if we don’t meet our deadlines and quarterly performance goals, we fail as human beings.
I look around and I see serious, concentrated faces. Someone’s even taking notes. I wonder how many people are really following the speech, and whose mind has already wandered off and is thinking of completely unrelated things.
I think about how many hours these people spend at work. How much they probably think about work when they’re not at work. Perhaps that guy over there, perhaps he tries to remember if he still has some beer left in his fridge. Or which girl from Tinder to ask out. Or perhaps he actually has a sick grandma he thinks of going to visit this weekend. I really don’t know. Poker faces all around me.
I can feel Sophie staring at me, but I ignore her.
When the meeting is over I go back to my desk and open LinkedIn. I watch as the page loader bounces back and forth. When it finally loads, there aren’t many results, but they are looking for a junior architect in another firm. I quickly fill in the application and hit “Apply”.
It’s been a while since we separated and almost a year since I saw her for the first time in that cafe on Blai Street.
I made friends with the Portuguese girls. They’re teaching me to make a Salada de feijão frade, a Portuguese dish, and they love cleaning, just like me. The people from that other architect firm called me back and miraculously offered me the position. I agreed instantly and now I don’t have to painfully face Sophie every day and think about Ari every time I do so.
But one Saturday morning, as I’m going to grab my breakfast in Sant Antoni, I bump into Ari. She’s wearing sunglasses so I can’t tell how her eyes look.
We exchange kisses on both cheeks, and it fucks me up tremendously. How many times have I kissed that mouth? It feels so weird not being able to do it anymore.
We decide to get a coffee. As we move towards a cafe in Carrer Parlament, I feel like I’m in a rehearsed movie scene, only I don’t remember my lines.
We’re sitting in the cafe, and I’m staring at Ari’s oh-so-familiar lips as they move. I can’t bring myself to say anything or look her directly in the eyes.
“I’m back together with Sophie.” Ari takes off her sunglasses and breaks the silence first. I raise my eyes at her but I can only see her fringe. I lower my eyes again.
“This is how life goes. Everything is a bridge to something else,” she says.
I feel so numb that it doesn’t even hurt me that she just said our relationship was a bridge.
“Are you happy?” That’s all I can say. Ari is wearing a colourful shirt with some purple and green patterns. I follow the pattern lines with my eyes, tracing where they start and end.
“We figured it out.” That’s all she says.
“Anyway,” Ari starts gathering her phone and her wallet from the table, “it was nice seeing you, but I have to go run some errands.” She stands up. I suddenly hate her.
I watch her as she leaves and I realize that it’s over. I’ve secretly hoped that this would end well, like in the movies.
When things go wrong for the main character and then there’s the climax, but eventually it all sorts itself out happily. The end.
Her hands. Hey eyes. That little cafe on the corner. Her hands again. How they feel.
I walk home, still thinking about our encounter and the pattern on Ari’s shirt for some reason.
“Hey, you!” At first I don’t realize it’s me who’s being addressed. “Ei!”
I raise my head and see a girl waving at me. I recognize the waitress from that bar where I got a rum and coke the first week after my breakup with Ari.
I look behind me but there’s no one else she could be shouting at. “Ei!”
I wave back.
She joins her palms and shouts as if into a loudspeaker, “Come on in sometime!”
I smile and show her the thumbs up.
When I get home, I plop onto the couch and pour myself some wine.
Life is like a roller coaster. You start off smiling and excited, looking around with bravado, showing everyone how not afraid you are, and then, at the first turn, you grab the handle, close your eyes, and silently pray for all this to end.
I swipe through my phone, to find someone to talk to; someone meaningful, someone who would understand me. I browse through my WhatsApp chats, through my Messenger chats, and even go see Instagram comments.
I feel like talking to no one.
I just sit there and stare at the space around me. Eventually my eyes fall on the deer origami piece, standing on the shelf. I go pick it up. I examine it in my hands like I’ve never seen it before. I wonder if Ari has quit smoking.
The deer is so beautiful and fragile, just like her. And like us all, a bit.