The following story has never been published before. It was submitted to Benji Knewman by the trustful email.
I am doing the dishes in my Barcelona kitchen.
I share the apartment with a girl named Marta in the hipster Sant Antoni area. The apartment is small and not too cozy. There’s no elevator to the 4th floor where we live, so we get to strengthen our thighs. The apartment has a cute balcony with a few plants, which neither of us cares to water, leaving the life support of the feeble herbs to the occasional Barcelona shower or the kindness of random visitors. The apartment has a big living area with an open kitchen. It’s a bit messy thanks to Marta, but at least I managed to negotiate that she doesn’t smoke in the living room, just in her room.
Marta is Catalan and very pretty. I’d like to have her looks. Myself, I have always been surprised that other people manage to find me attractive. I always feel too fat, too big-nosed, too thick-legged, too big-boobed, too out of proportion.
Marta is everything I’d like to be. She has very small breasts and a long, slender body. Slender legs too. This means every piece of clothing she wears looks ideal on her.
Marta’s awesomeness has more than a few traits – her legs, as mentioned; a pair of dark brown, piercing eyes filled with scorn (you know, the sexy Eva Green look); and thick dark hair, which smells of Garnier honey shampoo.
When Marta is thinking about something, she pins her hair up in a bun, and it manages to look perfect without her even glancing in a mirror. A few seconds later, she moves her hands up again, does some finger magic, and her hair streams back down her shoulders, creating a look that’s messy in the most perfect way. And then it goes back up again.
Marta doesn’t wear makeup.
I feel naked and helpless if I don’t wear makeup. When I go without it, people ask me if I’m sick or something.
Oh, Marta. I like watching her. She has this infectious laugh, and a deep voice, so typical of Catalan and Spanish girls.
Sometimes when we have home parties, I watch her. I watch the way she yo-yos her hair up and down. The way she rolls her cigarettes, pausing before licking the paper to listen to someone, and then laughs, spilling the tobacco outside of the roll, right onto our apartment floor that I struggle to keep clean.
Her tight flowery dresses and short black tops that leave her flat stomach bare.
That birthmark near her plump lips.
If only you weren’t such a bitch, Marta. But most perfect-looking girls are.
Deep in my thoughts, I jump when I hear my phone buzz on the counter. I dry my hands on a towel, pick up the phone, and see an incoming WhatsApp message. It’s Mom back home in Latvia. I hope she’s not going to ask me again how my love life is. I wish I had a love life, but I never really seem to find the right guy. I’m too picky.
Mom still can’t get over this. When she visited a month ago I invented a boyfriend just so she would get off my back. She’d still ask how old he was and what he did for a living.
“Hey darling, how are you doing there?”
I finish drying my fingers on my sweatshirt and type back: “Yeah all good. Doing the dishes.”
The screen lights up with an answer. “And how is your love life?”
I roll my eyes and type back: “Non-existent. I hope you can accept such a failure of a daughter.”
The screen says she’s typing; she’s taking forever, so I put the phone down and do one more plate.
Finally the phone buzzes again. I feel a little thump in my stomach, and I tell myself I can handle it. I look at the phone from the corner of my eye, dry my hands against my sweatshirt again, and pick it up.
Mom writes: “Of course I can accept everything.” Followed by too many emojis with their tongues sticking out.
The screen lights up again.
“As long as you don’t go on a series of random sexual encounters or date a black guy.”
For fuck’s sake, Mom.
Another message pops up. “Or a girl.”
I freeze. Where is this coming from?
Meanwhile, the next message arrives, so I push the uneasy feeling down.
“We bought you a Christmas present!” says the new message, followed by a flood of emojis of gifts and flowers.
Christmas is a few weeks away, so I wonder what they got me. An iPad? A smart watch? She’s typing again.
“A ticket to visit us next week!”
I shrivel inside.
A few hours later Marta pokes her beautiful head around my bedroom door. “Are you up for a party?”
I don’t know, maybe.
“It’s at our place,” Marta adds and disappears.
Oh, great. I pick up the phone and text my friend Sophie: “Wanna come over and make my existence more beerable?”
I chuckle at my own pun. Sophie’s going to love it. Sophie is the French intern at our architecture firm. She joined just a few months ago, but she is the only nice person at the office, and my age, so we instantly connected. We are paid peanuts, but I am sure our great future lies ahead of us.
A text buzzes back. “Can’t do, amor, in France for the Christmas break.” Right, she told me.
Another text from Sophie. “I’m back for New Year’s Eve, shall we party then?”
“Affirmative xxx,” I text back.
I leave the house with the excuse of getting more beers. I’m always weary of the same boring conversational buzz, of the smoke, of painfully watching every red wine stain soak into the wooden table.
Marta says I am obsessive-compulsive. Maybe. But I swear I don’t blink in even numbers or crack my knuckles eight times.
I exit the building. The main street is lively, with a gazillion cafe umbrellas, under which customers and waiters whir around like bees bringing nectar to the hive.
As usual, when I’m alone, I feel that I don’t belong anywhere. I feel there is no one waiting for me anywhere. This thought makes me really sad.
I have an impulse to call someone, so I take out my phone and look through my recent WhatsApp chats, as I walk down the street. I almost call Sophie but decide not to bother her. I open Instagram and scroll through the feed out of boredom; there is nothing at all happening on the phone. I sigh and decide to turn back home.
When I turn around, I notice I’m in front of a cafe that’s emitting a nice warm light. Must be new. I hesitate a bit and then pull the door handle. A jingle rings in my ears as I step inside. The cafe has white walls and Mexican calavera-style illustrations on them. One wall is half covered by a long, wide mirror, which makes the place look more spacious. The cafe smells of fresh baking, with a hint of cinnamon and vanilla. Quiet music hums in the background. I take in the counter full of enticing-looking snacks, but I can’t really afford to waste money on overpriced food. I have less than 100 euros left for the month, and there are still two weeks to go. I dither about whether to leave, but feel like treating myself, whatever the cost. I go to a table near the mirror.
As I sit down, I relax more.
I order a glass of red and flip my phone out again, a typical modern remedy for not seeming too alone when you are alone. I scroll through the Facebook feed, Instagram feed, and Twitter, but there is nothing exciting happening; a few posts I see make me feel misanthropic, so I turn my nose up and put the phone down.
I sigh again, sip some wine, and turn my head to look into the mirror on the wall. I freeze. A pair of eyes are staring at me. Do I know this girl? I don’t think so. I feel a strange tingling in my stomach.
For what feels like an eternity, I feel completely immersed in the ocean-deep blue eyes of the stranger. The girl smiles at me and lowers her gaze. I feel my cheeks flush hot.
I continue watching the girl in the mirror. A rather small and pointy nose, a few freckles, a septum ring, short, dark curly hair with a long fringe that falls on her face as she moves her head. I decide the girl looks like a short-haired version of Kristen Stewart but older, though I can’t tell her age from this far.
The girl is wearing black fingerless gloves and black nail polish; her hands move with precision. She is rolling a cigarette. She raises the cigarette to her lips and licks the long side for the paper to stick.
I can’t stop watching.
I reach for my wine glass, still looking at the girl, but instead of the familiar feeling of a glass in my hand, the back of my hand pushes something solid and I hear a thump. I lower my eyes to the table. Shit! I’ve knocked down the glass and the wine has spilled all over. I hurriedly grab a few paper napkins and blot out the wetness on the table.
When I raise my eyes again to the mirror, the girl isn’t there. I turn my head from the mirror to the centre of the cafe, only to see the girl passing by my table to the door. A whiff of perfume lingers behind her.
Sandalwood? Cedar? I almost get up to follow her, but I sit down again.
Why would I follow a stranger?
I stay seated in the cafe for a while, absently tapping the table with more napkins to dry out the wine, the stranger’s perfume still lingering in my nostrils.
When I get back to the apartment, the guests are already gone. There are half-empty glasses in unusual places, and I can hear a low male voice in Marta’s room, so I figure one of the guests decided to stay.
I go to my room.
After a while I hear Marta and her guest go back to the living room. I don’t think they’re going to clean up but probably to get more booze from the fridge.
“Do you like jazz?” The guy’s voice comes through the door.
“Oh, yes I do.”
“You know Miles Davis?”
The guy must have spotted my small vinyl collection on one of the shelves. Vinyls are a hipster investment, like stocks and gold.
Marta giggles again. “Um, yes, I think I’ve heard of them.”
“Wow, you have a ton of books. You must like reading.”
“Sí, mucho. A lot.” Marta simpers.
Those are my books, you witch.
“So who’s your favourite author?”
“Oh you know, there are so many. Do you want some wine?”
I hear the fridge door clang.
After a while, their talking trails into murmuring and finally the door to Marta’s room shuts.
I sigh with relief. I hope I won’t hear any sex sounds.
I wake up feeling lonely, and my eyes are puffy. I grab my phone and scroll through the Facebook feed to feel something else.
The loneliness still won’t go. I miss having someone to share stuff like what I read on the news, or which sneakers to wear in the morning, and I especially hate sleeping alone.
I drag myself out of bed to go clean up the mess of yesterday’s party. When I enter the living room, a smell of wood hits my nostrils. Marta must have lit some incense sticks to cover up the cigarette smoke.
The incense stick smell makes me think of the stranger from the cafe yesterday, the look she gave me in the mirror, and I feel a strange longing. I wonder where she is now.
“Or a girl.” Mom’s message from yesterday that she wouldn’t understand me dating a girl pops back in my head. Why would she say that? I’ve never dated a girl before.
The week passes by quickly and it’s time for my Christmas visit to Latvia.
I get to the airport on time.
Airports have a very soothing effect on me. Travelling is a no-problem zone. It’s the limbo of the earth. Most likely, you’re not in your comfort zone but you don’t have to solve anything, it’s all okay right here, right now.
You’re only passing through, trying on a different reality, often to find that it suits you perfectly. You are a passenger, enjoying the passage while it lasts.
Maybe it’s the only time when you’re alive. ‘Cause most of the time you’re dead. Or on your phone. Travelling is the only moment when you’re present. The places you go to are unfamiliar: you have to stay alert, you have to pay attention, you have to be present. You can finally be present. All those efforts to stay in the present moment pay off. And you know what? You remember everything more brightly afterwards.
The plane lands smoothly. When I see Dad’s stubby, impatient silhouette amongst the meet-and-greeters, my stomach ties in a familiar knot again, and I hope that the first fight won’t happen in the car.
I roll my hand luggage closer. Dad is wearing a big green jacket, which gives him a military air, and I notice that his dark hair has gone whiter since the last time I saw him. We start driving home. I look out of the window and wonder if I should start a conversation.
“So, how are things at work?” Dad breaks the silence first.
“Um, very good, yeah. Stable.”
Dad nods and joins his bushy black eyebrows, which makes his big face look sulky for no reason. “Stable, yes, that’s what’s important. A career is what matters most in life.”
I nod absentmindedly and look out of the car window to the snowy plains with no thoughts in my head.
When you live abroad for many years – and then come back home – your surroundings look like a long-forgotten dream. It takes time to get used to parents again. It takes time to get used to local food. In Latvia it always takes time to get used to the fact that nobody smiles.
I am jerked out of my thoughts by a tap on the shoulder. I turn my head back. Dad’s outstretched hand is poking me with an envelope.
I pretend to be surprised, but of course I already know what it is.
“What is it?” I put on the little roleplay anyway.
“Some cash for you.” Dad pokes me with the envelope again and the car swerves. Dad keeps driving, holding the envelope, still staring at the road.
I need the money and yet I don’t want to accept it. I finally say, “Thanks a lot, but I don’t need it.”
Dad drops the envelope on my lap. “Who else am I going to give it to? You are my only child.”
I finger the envelope and sigh.
“Thanks,” I force out finally. I feel a bittersweet mix of gratitude and irritation.
As the car rolls into my parents’ neighbourhood, I see row after row after row of grey apartment blocks rise and grow before my eyes.
Mom meets us at the door. Her ash-blond hair is freshly styled in big curls and she’s wearing bulky gold earrings, which contrast with her favourite blue bathrobe made of thick material. We hug and I wonder why bathrobes are such a thing for Mom. People look so unprotected in them.
I enter my childhood room. All my old toys are sitting on the couch, waiting for me. I used to have names for all of them. I notice a pink plush puppy. My best friend in middle school gave it to me.
She was so beautiful, that friend. A typical Nabokov’s Lolita, a perfect nymphette. Tall and skinny, she did ballet. Her eyes were round and blue and innocent, and her face looked like a little elf’s. I admired her grace and beauty, feeling bulky and grotesque beside her. I’d just stare and stare. We were together all the time and I protected her from anything and anyone.
I feel a prick of nostalgia as I gaze at the toys, so I turn away and go to the window instead. Between the blocks of grey concrete, I see a patch of green.
Three to four square metres, no more. The green is scantily spread over thick black soil. Not the royal, thick kind of green, but more of an impostor kind of green. A balding gentleman, trying to cover his skull with hair from one side. It looks sad.
When I was a kid, it didn’t seem sad at all. I played a lot in this yard, on this patch of green between two identical grey buildings. I used to play Barbie dolls with my friends there.
We would take a blanket out, and then start transporting all the Barbie capital downstairs – furniture, clothes, tiny tea sets. Every piece of this children’s bounty was precious and unique.
You had to buy all the clothes for the Barbies. Like in the real world, never enough. My mom would regularly make the trip to the centre of Riga, to the pink Barbie Paradise shop, where all the treasures stood, smiling their fake plastic smiles. This was big. This was the only fucking reality.
I remember the excitement and the plastic smell of those freshly unpacked dolls. Bright yellow hair, shiny and smooth, stiff arms, rubber joints – the dolls promised a better future. Already at seven, I wanted to be the same perfect creature. In my eyes, I was ugly compared to Barbie.
Suddenly I remember that a Ken doll was more expensive than a Barbie doll, so not many of us girls could afford one. Instead, we would nominate one of the girl dolls to be the husband of a Barbie. Funny.
I go to the kitchen to hang out with Mom while she cooks Christmas dinner for us. She does it all alone, and also sets the table and does the dishes. Dad never lifts a finger for domestic work.
Food back home is torture. I’m vegan, and it was difficult enough to persuade them that slipping chicken and ham bits into meals secretly is not cool. Since then, they’ve been unsure what to feed me with.
“Ieva from downstairs, her daughter is pregnant again,” Mom plonks herself on a chair near me, drying her hands on her apron. Her light blue eyes pierce into me for a second.
“Oh, really? Good for her.” I keep my eyes on the dinner table.
I remember Ieva’s daughter, an obedient, boring kid the same age as me, who I used to boss around and create coalitions and plots with, against other little girls who I used to hang with.
Mom fans herself with the kitchen towel. “Yeah, isn’t that nice? Ieva is very excited, I saw her this morning.” Mom’s golden earrings sway in agreement.
I pretend that my nails need some urgent examination.
“I hope I will have grandchildren one day too,” Mom lets out a slightly theatrical sigh.
I frown and try not to say anything.
Mom sighs again, even more deeply, and I can’t contain myself anymore. “Seriously? Like, really. You hope to have grandchildren. Why?”
Mom stares at me with a hurt look, but says nothing. Not that I let her, anyway, I keep talking even more fiercely. “And why do I have to have children just because this neighbour’s daughter does? Do you ever even think about what this is all for, or do you just not want to be fucking different from everybody else?”
Mom bites her lip, gets up, and turns her back to me to do the dishes. I feel guilty.
“Mom, wait. I’m sorry, Mom.”
I get up to go closer to her.
“Come on, don’t get upset. Sorry for swearing,” I say. “Look, Anna from next door doesn’t have kids. Come on, all the smart ones don’t have kids.”
“Your cousins all have kids. You mean they aren’t smart?” Mom retorts.
“Sure, Mom, but they’re also years older. That means I still have some good years, right?”
Mom keeps her back to me. I turn around and plod to my room where time has stood still for the past 15 years.
The next day I decide to go to the swimming pool next to home to cool off and have an excuse not to be at the apartment. Luckily, it’s open. I pack up my stuff in a little black tote and quietly walk out of the door.
When I get to the pool, it’s almost empty. I step into the water and drift on my back, spreading my arms and legs in a star shape. I watch the moving reflections of the water on the ceiling. My ears are in the water, so all sounds seem muted. It feels like I’m in a dream. All the water in my eyes and ears makes time seem to go slower, and I feel safe, as if in my mother’s womb again.
I smile and return from the star position to a supine floating one, in time to see another woman get in the pool. The woman has a shapely body, but I can see that her skin is slightly doughy, and her face is wrinkled. Her hair is hidden under a red swimming cap.
How many things we hide under our clothes. I imagine how the woman would look if she were fully dressed. Something elegant and black, and tight – to emphasize that still-well-proportioned body. High heels to make her look even more graceful.
Under that swimming cap she must have dark, freshly tinted curls, a little fluffy as happens when you tint white hair. Black eyeliner, mascara, lipstick – there, the woman looks 20 years younger.
So yes, people look very real in the swimming pool. At least they do somewhere.
When I get back to the apartment, it’s time to eat again. It’s always time to eat at this house. Mom and Dad are sitting at the table, waiting for me.
They both changed for the occasion. Dad has put on a white shirt and Mom is wearing a green velvet dress, which I haven’t seen before. I sit down at the table, and Mom gets up to put some food on my plate. Dad does nothing to help as usual, and just stares at me. That makes me feel uncomfortable.
We start eating in silence. Dad picks up a chicken leg with his fingers and puts some ketchup on it. My eyes follow the leg halfway and then turn away before it reaches his mouth. Mom is picking at a salad with her fork and looks sulky.
“Mom, are you still angry with me?” I say. Mom presses her lips together.
“Why? What happened?” Dad barks like a house dog who’s just heard the doorbell ring. His fingers, covered in ketchup and chicken fat, pick up another piece from the plate.
“Well,” I sigh. “I swore and I raised my voice, but long story short, we fought about kids, and the fact that I don’t want to have any.”
Dad looks at me expectantly.
“Well, not never.” I think that’s probably what he wants to hear. “But not now… What will I do with a kid now? I’m just starting my career and I don’t have my own place.”
Dad nods vigorously. “Yeah, renting like a hippie. An unhygienic setup too, your place is squirming with strangers and you have to share a toilet seat with all of them.” His jerking movement sends a drop of ketchup from the chicken leg onto his shirt.
I follow the uneven red edges on white with my eyes.
“Anyway, you can give the kid to us,” Dad throws a triumphant look at Mom.
I freeze. Is he joking?
Mom throws me a look and gets up from the table. “By all means, she’d have to meet a decent guy first.”
Then she gets up to add more food on my plate. Dad takes yet another chicken leg.
A week in Latvia passes eventually like everything in life, and it’s time to go back to Barcelona. It took me almost a week to start getting used to the old ways, to get used to another mentality, another way of dressing, other values, other food, other weather.
Hard as our relationship is, I’ve gotten used to my parents too, and Mom almost cries when I leave. It breaks my heart a little. And yet I look forward to going back.
After a week in Latvia my life back in Barcelona seems surreal and so far away. If somebody had told me I had dreamt it, I might’ve believed them. Latvia-imposed values suddenly seem important to me. I start acknowledging the importance of a pension plan and homemade cabbage pies.
My flight lands well past lunchtime on New Year’s Eve. I drag my bag full of homemade cabbage pies back to the Barcelona apartment and kick it through the main entrance. The house is a mess and Marta isn’t home. I slump down in an armchair and wish I could afford to live alone. I drag my phone out and send a WhatsApp to Sophie: “Where do we meet?”
A few minutes later Sophie texts back: “Apolo.”
“I’ll see you there!” I answer and put the phone down.
I stay for a while in the armchair, deep in my thoughts. I feel reluctance and anxiety about going out. Every New Year’s there is this pressure to go out, to have fun, when you don’t feel even the slightest like having fun.
I get to the Apolo club around 11pm and it’s already packed. I am completely sober, so the sight of dancing people seems idiotic. As I stand at the entrance, I get shoved several times, which makes me even more irritated.
“Where are you?” I text Sophie.
“Almost there, please, please don’t be angry,” she writes back. I hate how people are always late in Barcelona.
I go to stand on the balcony, gazing down. People are watching the stage, moving their heads to the same beat, and I’m watching the people. I stare and stare until my eyes get tired, and suddenly everyone starts to look identical. All the bearded boys look the same, and all the girls with buns look the same, with every passing second turning more and more from thinking individuals into a gooey mass of molecules. They’re even moving in the same synchronous flow, so they look like boiling porridge.
The air is heavy with perfume and sweat and alcohol.
Alcohol! It’s definitely time for a shot. Now that I have the money Dad gave me, I can afford it.
I elbow my way to the bar and stand in the line for a while, watching people around me. I love watching people.
When it’s my turn in the bar queue, I get two shots of rum and drink them straight away. Almost instantly my perception of the situation changes. I feel lighter and more inspired by the atmosphere. I start tapping my foot to the rhythm of the music while having another look around.
Drunk people, high people, happy people. Some have their eyes closed and are tossing their heads from side to side. They look like they are genuinely enjoying the music. I like that. Genuine is good.
And then I see that girl from the Mexican cafe in the crowd.
Something flutters in my belly. I watch her for a few minutes to be completely sure. But yes, it’s the same wave of hair in front, the same pointy nose.
Why do I remember her so vividly? I feel like I need to do something, to go closer, to say something.
I start towards the girl but then I stop myself. Why do I have this desire to approach her? And what am I going to say?
Finally, the courage from the shots takes over and I cut through the dancing bodies towards her, afraid she will vanish. The lights flash incessantly in time to the music: yellow and bright green, a strong strobe of white, and a fade-out again. I feel like I’m in a slow-motion music video.
For a moment I lose sight of her, but then again the back of her head swims up out of the crowd.
Finally I reach her and tap her shoulder. Suddenly I feel stupid. The girl turns to look at me. Her eyes run over my face. She seems to recognize me, or at least her face shows no surprise.
I grab her somewhere between her shoulder and elbow (definitely those shots of rum at work) and scream in her ear, “What’s your name?!” My heart is beating very fast. “Ari,” she screams back. Her name echoes in my head.
“Ari, do you want to smoke?” That’s the best I can come up with.
She nods. Then she says something inaudible to her friends and we move through the crowds towards the exit of Apolo.
My heart is pounding. Why did I just do this? This is so unlike me. And what am I going to say to her next? “Hey, so, you come here often?” No, that’s stupid. “Don’t you just love dancing?” That’s even stupider.
I look back to see if Ari is still there, and she is. She smiles at me and my stomach turns. I start feeling really nervous. I will probably screw this up.
We step outside to the designated smoking area, a few square metres isolated by rope, which makes me think we’re in a sheep pen.
The girl pulls out a crumbled pack of tobacco from her jean pocket. I realize I actually don’t have any cigarettes.
“Can I have one too?” There we go, a perfect conversation starter.
The girl chuckles softly. “You asked me to smoke with you and you don’t have any cigarettes?”
Ari looks at me and laughs. “I’m joking.” She hands me the tobacco pack. “I’m happy you did.”
I grab at the pack and our fingers touch for a second, which sends immense heat right to my belly. I thank her and open the package to draw some tobacco out.
I pass the pack back to her, and again I feel her fingers brush against mine. This makes me want to grab her hand fully, but I restrain myself. What is happening to me?
“So, what’s your name?” Ari asks.
For a few seconds my brain doesn’t follow, until finally I understand what she’s asking. “Alexandra.”
“It’s OK. Most people call me Alex.” I’m struggling to roll the cigarette. It seems like suddenly I can’t make, talk, and think at the same time.
Ari nods and brushes her hair away from her face. “My full name is Ariadna, and I hate it. Why would you name a child that?” She giggles. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my parents. But it’s a stupid name!”
“I like your name,” I do. I like everything about her.
“Sure you do,” Ari makes a face.
I finally manage to roll a cigarette. It looks like a tiny palm tree.
Ari laughs. “You don’t roll cigarettes very often, do you?”
I shake my head.
“Good for you. I’m trying to quit smoking,” Ari leans in to light my rollie and I see her face much closer. Her eyes gleam, reflecting the fire. “No, really. A New Year’s resolution.”
“I believe you.” Do I sound as nervous as I think I do?
She draws back and I inhale the cigarette smoke. My throat instantly feels congested.
We chat a bit more. Ari is a waitress. What did she do for Christmas? Well, not much, she doesn’t normally celebrate Christmas. She thinks it’s the most commercial holiday out there, and I agree. I would agree to anything.
“Diez, nueve, ocho…”
We both turn towards the source of the sound. It must be almost midnight.
The crowd is cheering and singing. I hear the whistle of the firecrackers.
“Tres, dos, uno-o-o!”
I see people toasting with their plastic cups, the yellow lights of the street lanterns swimming on their heads.
“I guess we should hug too.” I hear Ari saying.
I quickly turn back to her and she’s smiling.
“Yeah, OK.” I feel very nervous.
She leans in to hug me and I catch a whiff of her sandalwood perfume again. Her hair brushes against my cheek. Again, I feel an instant heat in my body and I don’t want her to let go.
After what feels like forever, we draw back from each other. I feel dazed from her presence, from her perfume, from the feeling of her body against mine.
I hear Ari’s voice: “I think I’d better go back to my friends.”
I don’t want her to go. I just want to make this moment last. But I don’t really know how to act, or what to do.
“But do you want to meet again tomorrow?” Ari’s smiling eyes are peering at me.
Oh, God, yes please!
“Sure, give me your number?” I try to sound as casual as possible. It’s hard to with so many butterflies in my stomach.
She nods and I take my phone out from my pocket. Five missed calls from Sophie. Shit. I’ll take care of this later.
We exchange phone numbers. With every digit I type, I feel like I’m being lifted further off the ground. Then Ari says bye and disappears at Apolo’s entrance.
I watch her leave and I stay standing there, replaying what just happened in my head. Ari’s hand holding a cigarette. Her fringe falling on her eyes and her quick, sharp eyes, swiftly browsing my face. I have never asked for a girl’s number before. What does it mean? Does it mean I like her, like-like her? How can this be?
I look at my phone again and see another incoming call from Sophie. I pick up and she screams through the club music and crowd, “Where are you?!”
“I’m outside!” I scream back, scaring some passersby.
“Wait there!” she screams.
Sophie emerges from the club. She’s wearing an ornamented jean jacket, tight black trousers, and some glitter on her face. She looks gorgeous and slightly tipsy. She drags a cigarette from her bag and I notice she is a little unnerved.
“Holaaa,” I wave to her.
She raises her eyes and waves back.
“You OK?” I walk closer.
She brushes some strands of her slightly curly hair from her face and lights the cigarette. “Yeah, all good. Just saw some people back there I didn’t want to see.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that.” I touch her shoulder. I learned to touch people this way when I came to Barcelona.
“Anyway,” Sophie makes a dismissive gesture and exhales the cigarette smoke. ”Let’s go to a house party not far away from here.”
I give it a thought. I feel rather unwilling to meet new people and override the nice sensation of getting the treasured phone number from Ari. I glance at the watch and it’s only half past midnight.
“Come oooon,” Sophie pulls me by the sleeve of my jacket. “Don’t be a bore.”
I sigh. “Well, OK, let’s go.”
The house party is on the same street as the Apolo club, just a few blocks up. The apartment is on the ground floor. As we get buzzed in, we enter a stylish space with glass walls and expensive wooden floors. We make our way to the living room. It’s heavy with conversational buzz and smoke. We kiss our hellos. Sophie seems to know quite a few people. We take two shots of tequila, and I start feeling more relaxed.
We walk through the apartment to the patio. It’s filled with plants and has a big sitting area, crowned by an elongated table. When we get closer, I see that the table is full of glasses with liquids of different colours, spilled tobacco mixed with weed and crumpled rolling papers. Then my eyes stumble on an arrangement of thin white lines.
Oh, it’s that kind of party.
“Quieres?” A smug, long-bearded stranger pushes a rolled banknote near my face.
I look back at Sophie, who laughs and nudges me forward. I’m not sure about this but I feel tipsy and courageous, so I shrug, turn to the guy and take the banknote from him, wondering how many noses this has been passed to.
I put the line through my right nostril. An overwhelming spasm clenches my throat and an instant lightheadedness fills my chest and my head. I thank the guy in a friendly tone.
“Look at her go,” Sophie laughs and takes the banknote from my fingers.
From there on the party takes a lively turn. Me and Sophie drink more shots and dance. Everyone suddenly seems nice and interesting. The thought of Ari melts away into the background.
As I get into bed later that night, daylight is breaking in. I still have the party in my body. I hear strangers’ laughter, the frothing rhythm of Spanish and Catalan chatter. I remember that I have to meet Ari later today and feel guilty that I’m not going to be fresh. I try to sleep but can’t. I grab my phone and scroll through Instagram Stories to watch many Boomerang fireworks and champagne glass clinks move forward and back. Then I open WhatsApp and check Ari’s profile picture. It was taken from a distance. Ari sits at a table and isn’t looking directly at the camera.
Shall I write to her? Suddenly I feel a cold, leaky feeling in my stomach. What am I expecting out of this? So, we’ll meet, and then what? Can it be that I like girls?
I don’t think I do, or at least I’ve never noticed before. Ari doesn’t have my number, so I can just erase hers and forget the whole thing.
I look at Ari’s WhatsApp picture again. Her head is slightly turned, and that wave of hair is about to fall on her face. I wonder who took that picture.
This gives me a weird push, so I send her a message. “See you later today?”
She answers swiftly. “Yes, around 3pm? I just got up. What a beautiful sunrise!”
This makes me feel bad about myself.
I finally manage to fall asleep and when I wake up later that day, my head feels like it’s pressed between two metal plates. There’s a bad taste in my mouth.
I pick up my phone and check Ari’s WhatsApp profile picture again and the two messages we exchanged yesterday. Maybe it was a stupid idea to meet.
It’s 2pm. Shit! We agreed to meet in one hour! It would be, at the very least, impolite to cancel now.
I jump out of bed and take a cold shower. Then I make myself a coffee and pop an Ibuprofen 400. In some 20 minutes the metal plates retreat from my head.
Should I wear makeup? No makeup? Would she like makeup? I remember her dark eye shadow last night, and decide to go for makeup. A hoodie and jeans for a more casual look.
We meet in the same cafe where I first saw her. Turns out she works there as a waitress. Ari is wearing a blue denim shirt, which really matches her eyes. Now that I can have a better look, I see that they’re an azure colour, just like the Barcelona sky; her hair is freshly washed and falls on her face in a big wave, contrasting with the undercut on one side.
At first I feel super timid to talk to her. I poignantly search for conversation topics, and it’s not because I’m boring, or she’s boring, or that I’m not talkative, it’s just that she makes me nervous and I want to cherry-pick the conversation topics to feed her the ambrosia she deserves.
She doesn’t look at me directly. She casts these sideway glances when I’m not watching, and then turns away when I notice. Like a deer.
We sit outside on the terrace of the place. The warm January days of Barcelona are like bumps of cocaine: you never have enough, you always want some more. Barcelona is a city you might hate or love, but it’s always there on your mind, it’s like your brain convolutes to the same shape as the city streets.
I go to order coffee for us, and when I come back Ari is twirling something yellow in her hands. It looks like a piece of paper.
Ari raises her eyes to me under her sunglasses and answers my questioning look: “It’s origami. I’m trying to quit smoking. So better keep my hands busy with something.”
I sit down while Ari keeps folding the paper until it soon resembles some kind of a bird. “Wow,” I say. Ari laughs and throws down the almost-finished origami. “Uff, anyway, today I might have a cigarette.”
We sip our coffee, and I watch Ari roll one. There is no wind on the patio so the sun is burning. We take our jackets off, and Ari is just in a t-shirt. I watch the slight muscle on her bare arms, and her smooth skin. It makes me feel something strange in my chest. Do I like girls? I swallow. “You look like a deer.”
She looks at me, and I add, blushing from my own audacity, “You are so beautiful.”
“You need glasses,” she laughs.
After the cafe we go for a walk to the beach. The city seems strangely empty. Everyone is probably still hungover from New Year’s. We walk a little further on the sand and watch the azure sky. Seagulls squeak, gliding around.
Ari turns to me. “So where are you from?”
“Latvia,” I say.
“Oh, I don’t know much about it,” Ari sits down in the sand.
“I get that a lot,” I smile softly and follow her to sit down.
Ari picks up a nearby stick. “Can you draw me some words in Latvian?”
I pick up the stick from her hand, our fingers passing electricity.
I flatten the sand and scribble down probably the most impossible Latvian word combination – “Šaursliežu dzelczeļš.”
“Shzhfshkshrrrrr,” Ari spurts.
“Close enough,” we both laugh.
Ari pulls out more origami paper. “Do you know that if you fold a thousand origamis, your wish would come true?” She squints at me.
I raise my eyebrows. “I didn’t know that… What do you wish for?”
“It’s a secret,” Ari smiles and her fringe covers her eyes again.
For a while we say nothing and I just watch her fold origami. I turn my eyes to the sea, reflecting the azure sky.
“What do you do for a living?” I turn to Ari.
She makes an impatient gesture, “I told you, I work at the cafe.”
“Oh, but… what do you want to do for a living?” I put my hand into the sand.
“Nothing.” She frowns and puts down the origami piece. “This is good enough.”
I feel a little knot in my stomach. I dig my hands deeper into the sand. “I mean…” I hesitate. “It just doesn’t seem stable. Aren’t you afraid?”
“Of what?” Ari smiles and picks up the yellow paper again. “Right now it works, and things work ‘til they don’t. Money surely isn’t what’s most important in life.”
“Uh-huh.” I spread the sand around a little bit. Dad’s bushy frowning eyebrows come to mind, and I remember his words about how stability matters.
Ari stands up and brushes some sand from her knees.
I raise my head, alarmed. “Is something wrong?”
She probably thinks I’m boring and uptight.
“No, no, everything’s OK,” Ari smiles at me from above. “I promised to call my parents roughly in an hour, so I have to go now.”
I guess, unlike me, she enjoys talking to her parents.
“Oh, OK…” I feel a heaviness in my chest, because I don’t want her to go.
“But shall we meet again soon?” Ari brushes the top of my hair with her hand.
This gesture makes my heart drop to my stomach and all the heaviness crack to pieces. “I… I would love that!”
“OK, we’ll keep in touch.” Ari bends towards me and we exchange two kisses on the cheek, and I catch the scent of her sandalwood perfume, which makes me feel even more elated.
When she leaves, I hide my face in my hands and press the palms onto my skin. Then I brush my hands away and exhale. I obviously like her. As a girl. I like Ari as a girl. Which means I am attracted to girls. Does that make me a lesbian?
When I get home after work the next day, I find a note from Marta saying that she won’t be coming home tonight.
Perfect! This means I can invite Ari over for dinner!
I stop myself short. A slight sense of guilt comes over me for a few seconds. But then I shake my head and text Ari to ask if she’s available tonight.
Ari answers yes, and that she can come around 7pm that day, which makes me feel nervous but happy.
I open the fridge to see what I can cook. A lonely jar of pickles. A rusty piece of cheese. There isn’t much and I know there isn’t much in my bank account either. I spent all the money I got in Latvia on rent for January and my swimming pool subscription.
Maybe I should ask Mom for some money.
I pick up my phone and remember Mom’s message about me dating a girl. I pause for a second. Where did she pick that up from anyway?
I feel the creeping anxiety again.
Well, Ari and I are not dating. It’s just a dinner. I breathe out and send a message to Mom asking for some money. She immediately agrees to make a bank transfer. It should be here in a few days, and in the meantime I can spend what I have left on some decent food.
This makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m lying to Mom. I try to push this thought away, like ushering an unwanted guest out the door.
I decide to cook a vegetarian pasta and run to the store downstairs for some quick shopping. I throw some veggies on the pan and hear the doorbell ring. She’s here already!
I buzz Ari in and as she’s walking up the stairs, I jump around from happiness. She cannot see this, of course.
I show Ari in. She’s wearing a shirt with violet flowers, which makes her shy eyes stand out. My heart jumps. Here’s the corridor, here’s the kitchen, here’s the living room. Ari walks around, lingering at the bookshelf, touching my books. I am sneakily watching her, and she is secretly throwing glances at me too. The late sun is colouring her face peach pink, and I can’t stop watching.
Suddenly I smell something burning. “Fuck!”
Ari turns her head to me and I run to the kitchen and take the pan with the vegetables off the fire. OK, it’s not so bad, some of it can still be salvaged. Maybe I should boil some water for the pasta now.
I hear Ari come into the kitchen.
“I hope you like burnt food,” I say as I reach up to open a kitchen cupboard for the pack of pasta.
Suddenly I find her warm arms come around me from behind and her head and chest press against my back. My guts jump to my throat and I feel so dizzy that I have to squeeze my eyes shut.
After what feels like an eternity, I turn around and we kiss. Her lips are very soft and yet her kiss is firm, and I can’t get enough. It feels like gulping fresh water when you’re hungover. It feels like home.
Ari draws away from me.
“Have you ever been with girls?” She looks right into my eyes.
I blush. “No.”
Somehow I think she’ll walk out after hearing this, but she doesn’t. She stares at me a little bit more, slightly hesitantly, and then kisses me again.
I never knew kissing girls was so amazing.
Immersed in the sensations, I barely hear the front door bang. We draw back from each other. That must be Marta, damn her. My heart is pounding hard.
We come out from the kitchen, just in time for Marta to enter the living room. She throws us a glance, and then says hi indifferently. I feel my cheeks flush, and an inexplicable feeling of shame creeps in. I wonder what Marta is making of the situation.
“Marta, this is Ari.” I try not to look at either of them. “A friend.”
The two girls exchange smooches on the cheek.
“What is this smell?” Marta drags her nose through the air.
“I’m making pasta,” I shrug apologetically.
Marta widens her eyes. “Bon profit, have a nice meal.”
This reminds me that I still haven’t boiled water for the pasta so I excuse myself and gallop to the kitchen.
In a bit, the pasta is ready. Ari takes her first bite and chews politely. I try some too. It’s really not very good. Ari chuckles.
“What?” I half-laugh too.
She grins, “This is one of the worst meals I’ve had on a date.”
So this is a date. I blush and feel guilty again.
“Well, I guess we can’t always have nice and healthy things,” I joke it off.
Her face darkens a little bit, “Well, being healthy is important.” She throws me a look and smiles again. “But hey, I’m not a princess and I don’t mind what I eat in good company.”
I am good company to her!
“I try to be as healthy as I can,” I hurry to reassure her.
Why did I say that? And do I?
“Good, good,” she nods. “I mean, our body is our temple, right? My ex was quite a party girl, so I know something about being unhealthy.” She smiles but her eyes are a little sad.
I feel a pang of jealousy, but at the same time flattered that she’s comparing me to her ex.
When Ari has to leave, I go with her to the corridor. I pass her coat but she grabs my arm and drags me closer. I feel too terrified that Marta will walk in on us, so I duck from Ari’s lips and kiss her on the cheek instead.
Ari looks at me in slight bewilderment. For a few seconds we both just stand there.
Ari moves first. “Well, I better go.”
I grab her by the sleeve. “Wait.”
“What?” Ari peers at me from under her fringe. I can’t figure out what she’s thinking.
“Can I see you again on Friday?” I guess she ‘ll say “no”.
But she says “yes”.
The next day at work I ask Sophie to have a coffee with me at a bar downstairs. I want to tell her about Ari, but I am not sure how she’ll react. What if she judges me?
Sophie looks very elegant today: a long brown coat, and cute boyfriend jeans. Her hair falls in neat waves over her shoulders. I wonder who pays for all her nice clothes with us on our ridiculous intern salary.
We take the two free seats in the sun and order two cortados.
“So, what’s up?” Sophie brushes her hair with her hand and straightens out whichever few strands were not in place.
I study her face, imagining how I’d tell her that I’m seeing a girl. How will she react? Will her mouth drop open in amazement? Will her almond-shaped eyes widen? What will be the first thing she says? I feel my face flush.
“Listen, Sophie,” I lower my eyes, “been wanting to tell you something…” At that moment her phone rings, so she gestures for me to wait, picks it up, and murmurs in French. Her hair falls over her face like a waterfall.
I press my lips together. Suddenly I feel I’m not ready to tell anyone yet.
Finally Sophie puts her phone down on the table and raises her eyes. “Sorry, what were you saying?”
I breathe out. “Nothing much.”
“Are you sure?” Sophie looks me in the eyes.
“Yeah, yeah. All good.” I take a sip from my coffee.
“Oh, OK, then.” Sophie shrugs. “Wanna go out on Friday?”
I’m meeting Ari on Friday.
“Um, no, I can’t…” I smile apologetically.
“Why not?” Sophie sips her coffee too and looks at me with curiosity.
“I have some plans.” My cheeks flush a little again.
“It’s a secret.”
I am definitely all red now. Also, why does she think I have no one else to make plans with?
Sophie widens her eyes. “Ohhh, who is he?”
Ugh, now I feel like there’s no way I can tell her. “I’ll tell you later,” I say.
“Secrets, seeeecrets.” Sophie taps my shoulder and giggles. “OK, then.”
When Friday comes, I can’t wait to see Ari. I invite her to my safe place – the swimming pool. When we meet on the street before the pool, I don’t know if I should give her a kiss on the cheek or a kiss on the lips. We end up first giving each other an awkward kiss on the cheek, and then smoothly transition it to a proper kiss on the lips. I love how soft yet insistent her lips are.
We draw away from each other and she takes my hand.
I grin at her. “So, are you at a thousand origamis already?”
Ari laughs. “Almost.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see an elderly woman passing by us and staring at us. It’s a disapproving stare.
Suddenly I feel very conscious about holding Ari’s hand on the street, where anyone can see us. “Let’s go!” I pull Ari towards the entrance to the pool.
The pool is below street level but there are windows on the ceiling; you could even catch a glimpse of the Sagrada Familia. The lights are dim and change colour from light blue to violet, giving the space the atmosphere of a mysterious cave.
We float close to each other and I can’t help peering at her slender body through the water. Ari has a swimmer’s body. She’s got strong shoulders and small breasts. Her front crawl is flawless and her movements are very precise and coordinated.
We swim closer to each other and kiss. Now that we’re in the darkness of the pool, I’m not paranoid that someone will see us. I look at her face as it comes closer to mine, until her features start blending.
In the changing room she tosses away her wet swimsuit and stays naked. She turns to her locker to look for a towel. I sneak a look at her shapely legs and nice round bum, and it makes me feel desire and confusion.
Ari turns to me and I lower my eyes, pretending I’m rummaging my backpack for something.
“Do you want to go to my place?” Ari says. I raise my eyes. She has already covered herself with a towel.
I feel my cheeks flush hot.
“Um…yes, sure.” My voice is trembling a little.
Ari nods and turns again to her locker.
I feel my knees go weak.
I’m pretty sure I know what we’ll do back at her place. How will I know what to do?
“I’ll be right back,” I tell Ari. I grab my phone and jump to a bathroom. I open the phone browser, hesitate, and then google “how lesbians make love.” The results are mostly porn videos or stupid articles. I roll my eyes and cringe at how silly I’m being.
She has a cozy studio apartment near the Sagrada Familia. It smells faintly like sandalwood incense. Pillows, colourful cloth, candles, plants – there are many things for such a small space, and it seems cluttered, which makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. A big shelf is home to many little origami figurines, in all shapes and colours. I go closer to examine them. There are paper butterflies, dinosaurs, birds. She’s pretty good at it.
Suddenly on the side of the shelf I spot a big wooden hairbrush. I lean closer and see a blond hair tangled in it, just like mine but longer and curlier. I frown. This can’t be Ari’s – she has short dark hair.
I hear Ari come behind me and pretend to examine the origami instead.
“Wow, there are almost a thousand origamis here. I guess you’re very close to making your secret wish come true,” I say, slightly blushing.
“I hope so.” With a swift movement Ari picks up the brush and tosses it in the corner on a pile of some tote bags and what looks like clothes. Then she pulls me closer and gives me a big kiss on the lips.
My mind is racing. I feel the excitement of the situation. Her kiss opens me up and I feel a sweet energy spreading from my lips down through my body.
Ari draws back from me, and I draw back too, unwillingly. “Ah, I have something for you!” She picks up a little wrapped bundle from the living room table.
“Here.” Ari’s fringe is covering most of her face. She adds hesitantly, “I think I really like you.”
This really makes my heart melt. I pull her back to me and we kiss again. We move to the orange couch and bury ourselves deeper and deeper into it. I enjoy all her sharpness and tenderness.
I feel self-conscious and nervous at first, but then it just comes naturally. It’s like swimming.
“So what about your present?” Ari’s voice jerks me back to planet earth and I open my eyes. We’re laying down on the sofa hugging and our clothes are scattered around us like mushrooms after rain. Her body feels small and light in my hands, and she’s resting her head on my chest, which feels odd yet liberating. It makes me feel powerful and strong, and that everything will be all right in the end.
It’s crazy how we can get close to someone, someone who used to be a total stranger, and perhaps will be again in the future.
“You have to open the present!” Ari insists.
I pick up the box, which is tied with a white ribbon, and extract something yellow and intricate. It’s an origami deer. The deer has long legs and elaborate paper horns.
“You said I reminded you of a deer,” Ari caresses my shoulders. “So I decided to give you something to always remember me by.”
I laugh. “I will never forget you.”
I stay at her place that night. When I wake up in the morning, for the first few minutes I try to understand where I am. My body has a light memory of having been held by someone, which makes me remember everything that happened yesterday.
The sun lights the room up, and it’s very warm under the sheets too. I feel like I’m starting to sweat, and yet am too lazy to push down the sheets to get some air. I imagine that I am a ripening peach, maturing in the sun, ready to be picked, and eaten, full of juices. This thought makes me horny again.
Suddenly I hear my phone ring. Shit! It’s Mom.
I feel panicky and decide to decline the call, but accidentally do a wrong swipe, so the call gets answered instead.
“Hello! Alex? Hello!” Mom is hollering in the receiver.
I cover myself over the head with the blanket and try to speak in as small a voice as I can. I suddenly feel self-conscious that I’m naked.
“Alex, darling! How are you? Is the weather there good? What are you doing?” Mom goes on without giving me a chance to answer, but then she pauses.
“Um, nothing.” I desperately search my brain for an adequate fake activity. “Cleaning!”
“Ah, wonderful, wonderful. Listen, we all had such a great time with you here for Christmas…”
Did we, really?
“… and we already miss you, so we’re inviting you back for Easter. We already bought you tickets!”
Oh, great, thanks for asking if I want to come.
I can hear a clang from Ari’s kitchen. “Cari, do you want coffee?” Ari’s voice comes through loud and clear.
“Who was that, honey?” I can almost see Mom’s ears moving and fine-tuning for any foreign sound.
“Um, it’s Marta, she’s making coffee.”
“Ah, I see. So what are your plans for the weekend?”
Have lots of sex with a woman. “I don’t know, Mom, maybe go out.”
“Great, maybe you’ll meet a nice boy!” Mom sounds pleased.
I feel guilty again. “Yeah, OK, bye, Mom, I have to go help Marta with the coffee!”
I hang up and bury my face in the pillows. I feel like this is only the beginning of my double life.
After breakfast we watch Netflix on the couch. Ari’s making another origami piece using colorful paper. Our legs are on top of each other, and it feels cozy and right. “Tell me about your family,” Ari half-turns to me.
“Oh, well, it’s complicated.” I remember Mom’s call earlier this morning and an uneasy feeling creeps in.
Ari sits up to look at me. “Why?”
“I don’t know… I love them, and yet I feel like they’re too much.”
“I can’t explain it.” I hesitate and then continue. “They still give me money sometimes, so I feel obliged to them.”
Ari widens her eyes and I regret telling her instantly. She makes a dismissive gesture. “Well, then stop taking money from them!”
I feel a little annoyed. Easy for her to say. “I will someday. But right now I need it. I’m not paid amazingly at my internship.” I feel the need to justify myself, so I continue, “I was used to nice things growing up.”
Ari raises her eyebrows, but doesn’t say anything. We sit in silence for a bit and watch the screen. I wonder what she’s thinking of me but I don’t know what more to add.
Finally I break the silence. I pick up my tea cup from the coffee table and clear my throat. “And yours? How is your family?”
Ari turns to me and smiles, her fringe slightly falling to her eyes. “They live in Berga. They used to have a local bakery, and then they sold it and retired early.” Her voice sounds softer. “I guess they figured out what’s more important in life. They are really great, you’ll love them.”
I feel a little jump in my stomach. She wants to introduce me to her family? This feels so soon!
“Mm, sure,” I bury my face in the tea cup. “So…they know you date girls?”
Ari smirks. “Of course. I’m a grownup.”
That hurts, but I decide to let it slide. I take another sip. “So, how did your parents react when you told them you were a lesbian?”
Ari grins. “They didn’t take it lightly, for sure. When I was around 16, my dad told me – don’t you dare move in with a guy, and I said OK. So one year later, I moved in with a girl. See, I kept my promise.” Ari smiles wider. She’s got nice dimples when she smiles.
Then she grows serious and presses her lips together. “And then we didn’t speak for a year.”
I lower my eyes back to the cup. The thought that my parents might not speak to me for a year horrifies me.
I guess it’s on my face because Ari continues, “But they’ll come around eventually. After all, you are their only daughter.”
She leaves the origami on the couch and heads towards the kitchen. “You know what the problem of homophobia is? It’s that people always start thinking about sex first.” She pours herself some tea from the teapot. “They forget the fact that there are two beings who simply love each other.”
She has a point.
“People just start imagining sex. And then, the little prudes, they pretend they’re disgusted. Well, they are really, I suppose. But trust me, I think that the most impassioned homophobes are actually like that because they’re too afraid to admit they might have a little of that in themselves.”
I stay on the couch, staring at the wall. I imagine how I would tell my parents that I’m dating a girl. This makes my stomach lurch. I’m pretty sure there would be no more money envelopes.
“What?” I find myself back on earth with Ari standing in front of me. She pours some more hot water in my tea. “You look sad,” she says.
I say it’s okay and drag her towards me, the monster of imagination still gnawing on parts of my brain.
When I get to work on Monday, Sophie is already there. We go to the office kitchen to grab our morning coffee.
“So, how was your weekend?” Sophie drags out the “e”s in “weekend” and winks at me.
I blush a little. “Very good.”
“What did you do, then?” Sophie beams at me.
I remember exactly what I did and blush a little more.
“Well, I met this…” I hesitate. “… person. And, yeah, it’s going very well, I think.”
Sophie comes closer and hugs me. “I am so happy for you! I mean it. You never manage to connect with anyone.”
I’m startled, taken aback by this, but let her hug me nevertheless. Then Sophie goes to the coffee machine and starts it.
“Also my parents called,” I say louder through the machine noise.
Sophie turns and makes a face.
“Yeah…” I start arranging things on the table in parallel lines. “They gave me another ticket to Riga for Easter.”
“Again?” Sophie widens her eyes. “You’ve just been there for Christmas.”
She hands me a cup of coffee, then studies my face. “Why do you go there so often if you hate it?”
“I… I don’t know.” I stir the coffee and the spoon makes a weird sound on the edge of the cup. “I have to.”
Sophie shrugs, “No, you don’t.”
“Yeah, I know I don’t.” Now I feel irritated. “But Mom and Dad miss me… they need me.” I raise my eyes to look at Sophie. “I mean, isn’t that what families do? They keep in touch. Mom and Dad don’t have anyone but me. They don’t even have friends.”
I feel very sorry for myself, and also for Mom and Dad.
“Yeah, well, suit yourself.” Sophie peers at my face. “You always come back super nervous.” Then she smirks and adds, “I’m surprised you turned out all right, knowing a bit about your parents.”
Now I’m angry. No way am I telling her about Ari.
Ari and I start seeing each other regularly and before I know it, it’s Valentine’s Day. I always thought it was stupid, but deep inside I feel content I finally have someone to celebrate it with, so I decide to give a symbolic present to Ari. I try to think of what she’d like and I decide that lingerie could be a good choice, since the few boyfriends I’ve had before had given me some.
After work I pass by Intimissimi and stand outside pensively for a while.
I’ve never bought underwear for someone else before. It feels funny to reverse the roles.
I sigh and step in. A petite sales assistant comes to help.
“Is that for you, miss?”
My heart jumps. “Um, why do you ask?”
“For the size, miss.”
Oh. I sigh with relief. Ari and I are roughly the same size, so I say yes, it is indeed for me. I end up picking something black and red, very lacy and mostly transparent.
Ari struggles with the gift box I give her. She finally manages to untie the colourful tangle of ribbon and opens the box. Ari fishes out the lacy underwear with the tips of her fingers and lifts it up to inspect it more closely. And she looks as though she would rather have fished out a dead rat.
Ari probably notices the look on my face, ‘cause she drops the panties and takes a step towards me.
“Hey, sorry,” she cups my face in her hands. “It’s just too girly for me.”
She lets go of my face and stuffs the underwear back in the gift box uncaringly.
“Anyhow, I got you a present too.” Ari turns back to me. “But not a physical one. An experience. ‘Cause those are the best ones, aren’t they?”
She smirks as she sometimes does when she says something half-seriously, half-jokingly.
“You’re coming to Berga with me this weekend.” She seals this with a kiss on my nose.
At first I’m not sure if I understand correctly.
“Where are we gonna stay?” I ask cautiously.
“My parents’, of course.” Ari is now trying to push the present somewhere into the depths of a wardrobe, almost falling inside of it. “They’ve got loads of room.”
My mind starts racing. Will her parents like me? What do I wear? I walk closer to Ari’s busy back.
“Oh, are you sure about that? Isn’t it too soon?”
Ari manages to find a place for the gift box and triumphantly crawls out of the wardrobe and turns to face me.
“Time is relative.” She smirks again.
On Friday, after I finish work, Ari picks me up in a rental and we start driving to Berga. Ari puts on one of her Spotify playlists. The sound of hip-hop fills the car. I’m feeling a little uneasy about the whole trip. Will her parents like me? I start chewing on one of my hoodie strings. Ari rummages through her bag with one hand while driving with the other.
She pulls out a cigarette and rolls her window down. I suddenly realize she looks very serious, almost sad.
“Are you OK?” I put my hand on her lap.
“Oh yeah, yeah. Just thinking about some stuff.” She gives me a crooked smile and lights her cigarette with one hand, then turns back to focus on the road.
“What stuff?” I insist.
Ari smiles apologetically but doesn’t answer this.
OK, then. I turn to the window on my side to look at the view.
We’re passing through the mountains now, and they look so beautiful, bathing in the pink foam of the setting sun. The sight makes me feel more relaxed. I start imagining how I would paint this, following the wavy outlines with my eyes. People always want to tame what they don’t own. Possess this sunset to prove that we can be better than Gods.
The car makes a little leap, and I start feeling a little nauseous, as I always do when driving on curvy roads. I decide not to mention this to Ari. I glance sideways at her, she is tapping her fingers on the steering wheel to Alabama Shakes, who are currently playing.
I close my eyes, hoping that I will feel better. I’ve been to Berga once before, but a while ago. I try to remember what Berga looks like and imagine which of the houses could have been Ari’s parents’ place. Maybe I’ve seen it. Hey, maybe Ari was there as well. Maybe we’ve even met!
Although I would have probably remembered that.
Almost as an answer to this thought, I feel Ari’s hand press on mine and slightly squeeze it. I open my eyes and look at her face, lit pink by the setting sun.
When we finally get to Ari’s parents’ place, the sun has fully set. I get out of the car and look straight up into the sky. Still looking up, I slam the door, and hear Ari’s door slam.
The sky looks beautiful, rich and swollen, with corpulent stars hanging down like harvest grapes.
I can only hear silence, and the muted chirp of crickets. The air feels light and fresh, tinged with a faint scent of wood smoke.
I draw the air in and my car sickness starts easing up. Meanwhile, Ari is walking up to a sand-coloured house with a tiled roof. The house has cute little white curtains and there are a few lights on.
“Hey, churri, you coming or staying?” Ari has turned around at the door of the house and is waiting for me.
I push my mouth into a little smile and start walking towards her. The uneasiness of meeting Ari’s parents has crawled back into me and my nausea returns.
Ari rings the bell and I hear footsteps approaching. I exhale nervously. A woman who looks very much like Ari but more round and feminine opens the door.
“Ariadna! Darling!” She draws Ari close and gives her a big hug. Ari pushes her away a bit and takes a step back to introduce me.
“And this is Alex.”
“Welcome! I am Roser,” she says.
I look anxiously at her face, but she seems sincere when she draws me closer to herself and gives me a big hug too. She smells of soap and cigarettes.
“Make yourself at home,” she says.
We step into the house.
Roser and Ari start chatting in Catalan, so I space out and look around.
Everything looks neat and tidy, just like at my parent’s place, but with a Catalan touch – antique wooden furniture, clay floral plates on the walls, intricate knitted doilies.
Meanwhile, I hear more footsteps approaching. A corpulent man appears from another room, peering at us over his reading glasses, an unfolded newspaper in his right hand.
“Dad, this is Alex.” Ari slightly pushes me towards her father, and we exchange the traditional kisses on both cheeks, which leaves me with a slight scent of aftershave.
“Benvinguda.” Ari’s father looks at me another time, then puts his reading glasses back on and disappears into what must be the living room. Was it a demeaning look?
I feel a little disoriented and I don’t know what to say, so I just smile like an idiot. Did Ari’s dad like me? His voice seemed a bit dry. I feel upset again.
I suddenly become conscious of a flower tattoo I have on one of my arms. I am afraid Roser might disapprove of this, so I reach for my jacket in my backpack and put it on, even though it’s quite warm inside.
We sit down for dinner. Ari’s parents chat animatedly to Ari, still in Catalan, and I sit upright in my chair and closely follow, just in case they ask me a question.
Something touches my hand and I almost jump. I gaze to my left, and see Ari’s hand on mine. On top of the table.
I push out a little smile and free my hand to reach for the pepper grinder. I slowly grind pepper over my plate.
I hold onto the grinder for an awkwardly long time. As soon as I put both my hands on my lap, Ari grabs one of them again. I glance at her parents, and I think Roser is watching me. Is that a disapproving look on her face?
During dinner I gulp down at least three glasses of wine, and start feeling more relaxed and woozy, so when Ari gets up from the table I awkwardly jump up as well, hitting the table edge so that the cutlery jingles, and then plomp down again straight away.
Ari giggles, and so do her parents, and my embarrassment is enhanced by the slight tipsiness. I feel my cheeks flush.
“Come, I’ll show you where we’re gonna sleep.” Ari stretches out a hand to me.
My cheeks get even hotter and I smile in the direction of her parents.
“Moltes gracies, everything was great,” I say.
I wonder if we’re sleeping in separate rooms.
I follow Ari up the stairs, viewing the decorations on the way. Ari’s mom collects porcelain pigs; my mom collects porcelain birds. Her house has a lot of carpets; my house has a lot of carpets. Her house is crammed and jammed with too many things; so is the house of my parents.
Ari pushes one of the doors and pulls me inside the room after her.
“Ta-da!” She turns the light on and then jumps onto the bed, which is in the middle of the room. The wallpaper in the room has a crimson rose pattern, which does not fit with the Ari in my head. I linger by the door.
“Are we going to sleep in the same room?”
Ari gives me a puzzled look.
“I mean, are your parents OK with that?”
“Of course,” Ari chuckles. “My ex used to come here all the time.” She gets up from the bed to come closer to me.
I turn around and storm out of the room blindly, only to crash into something solid, which makes me see stars. I hear a loud shattering sound. I look down and there is what was probably a vase. There are white ceramic chunks flying everywhere, as if in slow motion.
I instantly sober up.
“Is everything all right?” comes a voice from downstairs.
Ari runs out of the room, and I just stand there, completely petrified. Tears forming in my eyes.
“I’m sorry.” I start sobbing.
“Hey, churri, it’s ok.” Ari comes closer to me and hugs me. “It’s just a vase.”
Roser has already come up the stairs. I am afraid to look at her.
“Alexandra, it’s OK.” I feel another hand on my shoulder. “It’s just a vase, no big deal.”
I smile through the tears, but I feel jealous and scared. Suddenly I feel my identity split, like this is not happening to me but to some other Alex.
I realize that these past few months I’ve felt like I’m living someone else’s life. How can it be me who is visiting her girlfriend’s parents, and they seem to be OK with it?
To be continued.