Ari Makes Origami
You know that happy endings don’t exist, right? Like when you watch a movie and the hero kisses the heroine and the credits roll, and then you get off the couch or leave the cinema super satisfied: well, you should know, it’s all a lie. Remember this the next time you have this fake warm feeling that something good has happened in your life.
Because after every final screen kiss, the hero and the heroine start living their life together, and it turns out that he doesn’t close the toilet lid, or maybe she is too close to her mother, and after ten years he cheats on her, and leaves the love of his life with two young kids. And she is forty something, and her already thin lips are now set in a grim expression. There are dark circles under her eyes which cannot be hidden by any foundation, nor can that sadness. Not much of a happy ending.
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 is no elevator to the 4th floor we live on, 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 rain or the kindness of random visitors. The apartment has a big living area, combined with a 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 big-legged, too big-boobed, too out of proportion.
Marta, on the other hand, is everything I’d like to be. She has very small breasts and a long slender body. Slender legs too. That alone lets every fashion garment she wears look ideal on her.
There are a few remarkable traits of Marta’s awesomeness - 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 thinks about something, she pins her hair up in a bun, and it manages to look perfect without her even peeking in a mirror. In a few seconds, she moves her hands up again, does some finger magic, and the wave of her hair streams back down her shoulders, leaving a perfect messy look. And then back up again.
Marta doesn't wear make up.
I feel naked and helpless if I don't wear makeup, and people ask me if I have gotten sick or something.
Oh, Marta. I like watching her when she doesn’t notice. She also 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 cigarette, pauses before licking the paper to listen to someone, and then laughs, spilling the tobacco outside of the roll, right onto our apartment floor which I struggle to keep clean.
Her tight flowery dresses and short black tops which 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 is not going to ask me again how my love life is. I wish I had a love life, but I never really found the right guy. I am 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 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 is typing; she is taking forever, so I put the phone down and do one more plate.
Finally the phone buzzes again. I feel a little jump 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 with gifts and flowers.
Christmas is a few weeks away, so I wonder what they got me. An iPad? A smart watch? She is typing again.
“A ticket to visit us next week!”
I shrivel inside.
A few hours later Marta puts her beautiful head through 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 is 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, left to France for the Christmas break.” Right, she told me.
Another text from Sophie. “I am back for the 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 am always weary of the same boring conversational buzz, of the smoke, of me 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, where customers and waiters whir around like bees bringing nectar to the hive.
As usual, when I am 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 browse through my recent WhatsApp chats, as I walk down the street. I almost dial 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 am in front of a cafe, which is protruding a nice warm light. Must be new. I hesitate a bit and then pull the door handle. A jingle enters my ears, as I step inside. The cafe has white walls and Mexican calavera styled illustrations on them. One wall is half covered by a long horizontal mirror, which makes the place look more spacious. The cafe smells of fresh baking, with a hint of cinnamon and vanilla, and quiet music murmurs 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 a hundred euro left till the end of the month, and it's still two weeks to go. I dither about whether to leave, but feel like treating myself whatever it takes. I go to a table near the mirror.
Having taken up this position, 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 recent Facebook feed, Instagram feed and Twitter, but there is nothing exciting happening; a few posts I see there make me feel misanthropic, so I turn my nose up and put the phone down.
I sigh again, have a sip of wine, and turn my head to look into the mirror on the wall and 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 which falls on her face, as she moves her head. I decide the girl looks like a short-haired version of Kristen Stewart but older, although 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 a familiar hold of the glass in my hand, the back of my palm pushes something solid and I hear a thump. I lower my eyes down at the table. Shit! I have knocked 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. Sandal? 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 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 can hear Marta and her guest come back to the living room. I don’t think they are going to clean up but probably 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 talk 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 after yesterday’s party. When I enter the living room, a woody smell hits my nostrils. Marta must have lit some incense sticks to cover up for 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 are not in your comfort zone but you don’t have to solve anything, it’s all okay right here right now. You are 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 are alive. Cause most of the time you are dead. Or on your phone. Travelling is the only moment when you are 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 meeters-and-greeters, my stomach ties in a familiar knot again, and I hope that the first fight won’t happen in the car already.
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 more white 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 too absend-mindedly 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 role play 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 is wearing bulky gold earrings, which juxtapositions with her favourite blue bath robe of thick material. We hug and I wonder why bath robes 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. I admired her grace and beauty, feeling too 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 meters, 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 to the other. 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, which was between two identical grey buildings.
We 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.
All the clothes you had to buy for the Barbies. Like in the real world, never enough. My mom would regularly make a trip to the centre of Riga, to the pink Barbie paradise shop, where all the treasures stood lined up, 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. I seemed ugly to myself compared to a Barbie.
Suddenly I remember that a Ken boy 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 the 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 of 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 deeper, 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 still 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 what this is all for, or you just don’t 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 come 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?” answers Mom’s.
“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 fifteen years.
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 am in a dream. All the water in my eyes and ears makes the 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 vertical 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 emphasise 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 eye-liner, mascara, lipstick - there, the woman looks twenty 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 a chicken leg with his fingers and puts some ketchup on it. I follow the leg half way 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 had just heard the doorbell ring. His fingers, covered in ketchup and the 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 what he probably wants to hear. “But not now… What will I do with a kid now? I am only 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.” The jerking movement sends a ketchup drop 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 the relationship is, I get used to my parents too, and Mom almost cries when I leave. It breaks my heart a little too. And yet I look forward to going back.
After a week in Latvia all my life back in Barcelona seems surreal and so far away. If somebody told me I had dreamt it, I might believe them. Latvia-imposed values suddenly seem important to me. I start acknowledging the importance of a pension plan and home-made cabbage pies.
My flight lands well past lunch-time on New Year’ s Eve. I drag the bag full of homemade cabbage pies back to the Barcelona apartment and kick my bag through the main door. The house is a mess and Marta is not home. I slump 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?”
In a few minutes 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 11 PM, and it’s already packed. I am completely sober so the sight of dancing people seems idiotic. As I stand in the entrance and I get shoved several times, which gets me even more irritated.
“Where are you?” I text to 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 am 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 are even moving in the same synchronous flow, so it looks 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 down 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 come 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 take 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 am 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 recognise me, or at least her face shows no surprise.
I grab her somewhere between her shoulder and elbow (definitely those shots of rum speaking) and scream in her ear: “What’s your name?”. My heart is beating very fast. “Ari”, she screams back. It feels like 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?” This is even more stupid.
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.
Meanwhile we step outside to the designated smoking area, a few square meters isolated by a rope, which makes me think we are in a sheep-pen.
The girl pulls out a crumbled tobacco package out of her jeans pocket. I realise 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 am joking.” She hands me the tobacco bag. “I am happy you did.”
I grab at the package 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 her the package back, 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 the first few seconds my brain doesn’t follow, until finally I understand what she is asking. “Alexandra.”
“It’s OK. Most people call me Alex.” I am struggling to roll the cigarette. It seems like I can’t suddenly 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 like 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 which looks more like a tiny palm tree.
Ari laughs. “You don’t roll cigarettes very often, do you?”
I shake my head that no.
“Good for you. I am trying to quit smoking,” Ari leans in to light up 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?
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 is the most commercial holiday out there, and I agree. I would agree to anything.
“Diez, nueve, ocho,...”. We both turn to the source of the sound. It must be almost midnight.
The crowd is cheering and singing, I hear the whistling sound of the firecrackers. “Tres, dos, uno-o-o!” I see people toasting with their plastic cups, the yellow lights of street lanterns swimming on their heads.
“I guess we should also hug.” I hear Ari’s voice.
I quickly turn back to her and she is smiling. “Yeah, OK.” I feel very nervous.
She leans in to hug me and I catch a whiff of her sandal 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 better go back to my friends.”
I don’ t want her to go, and I am just trying to make this moment last, not really knowing how to act further, 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 draw my phone from my pocket. Five missed calls from Sophie. Shit. I’ll take care of this later.
We exchange phone numbers, every digit I put down feels like I am being lifted off the ground, then Ari says bye and disappears at the entrance of Apolo.
I watch her leave and then I stand there, replaying what just had 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 am outside,” I scream back, scaring some passersby.
“Wait there,” she screams back.
Sophie emerges from the club. She is wearing an ornamented jeans 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 am waving to her.
She raises her eyes and waves back.
“You OK?” I come closer.
She brushes away 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 my nice sensation from 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 more 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 deeper, where the living room is filled with conversational buzz and smoke. We kiss our hellos, Sophie seems to know quite a few people. We take two shots of tequila on the way, and I start feeling more relaxed.
We go through the apartment to the patio filled with plants and a big sitting area, crowned by an elongated table. When we come closer, I see that the table is full of glasses with liquids of different colors, 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 am not sure of 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 through.
I put the line through my right nostril. An overwhelming spasm clenches my throat and an instant light-headedness 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 wears away to the background.
As I get into bed later that night, the 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 am not going to be fresh. I try to sleep but I can’t. I take my phone and scroll through Instagram stories to watch many Boomerang fireworks and champagne glass clicking forward and reverse. Then I open WhatsApp and check Ari’s profile picture. It is taken from a distance. Ari sits at a table and doesn’t directly look at the camera.
Shall I write her? Suddenly I feel a cold leaky feeling in my stomach. What am I expecting out of this? So, we will meet, and then what? Can it be that I like girls?
I don’t think I do, or at least I have 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 3 PM? I just got up. What a beautiful sunrise!”
This makes me feel bad about myself.
Finally I manage to fall asleep and when I wake up later that day, my head feels like it’s pressed between two metal plates. There is 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 2 PM. Shit! We agreed to meet in one hour! It would be at 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 twenty minutes the metal plates retreat from my head.
Shall I wear makeup? No makeup? Would she like makeup? I remember her last night dark eye shadow, and decide to go for makeup. A hoodie and jeans for a more casual look.
We meet in the same cafe I first saw her. Turns out she works here as a waitress. Ari is wearing a blue denim shirt, which really matches her eyes. Now that I have a better look, I can see that they are an azure color, 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 am boring, or she is boring, or I am not talkative, it’s just that she makes me nervous and I want to cherry-pick the conversation topics to feed her the Ambrose she deserves.
She doesn’t look at me directly, she casts these sideway glances when I am 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 convolutions have 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 covered under sunglasses to me, and answers to my questioning look: “It’s origami. I am trying to quit smoking. So better keep my hands busy with something”.
I sit down, while Ari keeps folding the paper piece 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 in 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 hangover after the New Year's party. We walk a little further on the sand and watch the azure sky. Seagulls squeak, gliding around.
“So where are you from?” Ari turns to me.
“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 stick which is nearby. “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 folding 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 the stomach. Dig deeper with my hand in the sand. “I mean..” I hesitate. “It just doesn’t seem stable. Aren’t you afraid?”
“Of what?” Ari smiles and picks up the the yellow paper again. “Right now it works, and things work till 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 my mind, and I remember his words about how stability matters.
Meanwhile Ari stands up and brushes some sand away from her knees.
I raise my head, alarmed. “Is something wrong?”
She probably thinks I am boring and uptight.
“No, no, everything is 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 keep in touch.” Ari bends forward to me and we exchange two kisses on the cheek, and I catch the scent of her sandal 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 come home after work the next day, I find a paper note from Marta that she won’t be coming home tonight.
Perfect! This means I can invite Ari for a 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 is available tonight.
Ari answers that yes, and that she can come around 7 PM 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 on my account either. I spent all the money I got in Latvia on January rent and my swimming pool subscription.
Maybe I should ask for some money from Mom.
I pick up my phone and remember Mom’s message about me dating a girl. I pause for a second. Where did she pick it up from anyway?
I feel the creeping anxiety again.
Well, Ari and me are not dating. It’s just a dinner. I blow the air out and send a message to Mom asking for some money. She immediately agrees to make me a bank transfer. It should be here in a few days, and meanwhile I can spend what I have left on a decent food shopping.
This makes me feel uncomfortable, like I am lying to Mom. I try to push this thought away, like ushering an unwanted guest out of the door.
I decide to cook a vegetarian pasta and run to a store downstairs for a quick shopping. I throw some veggies on the pan and hear the doorbell ring. She is here already!
I buzz Ari in and while she walks up the stairs, I jump around from happiness, but so that she cannot see this, of course.
I show Ari in. She is wearing a shirt with violet flowers, which makes her shy eyes stand out. My heart jumps. Here is the corridor, here is the kitchen, here is the living room. Ari walks around, lingering at the book shelf, 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.
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 rescued. Maybe I should boil water for pasta meanwhile.
I hear Ari come to the kitchen.
“I hope you like burnt food.” I say as I reach up to open a kitchen cupboard for the pasta package.
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, 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 are hungover. It feels like home.
Ari draws away from me.
“Have you ever been with girls?” She stares me right in the eyes.
I blush. “No.” Somehow I think she will walk out now, but she doesn’t. She stares a little bit more at me, 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. This 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 the inexplicable feeling of shame creeps in, and I wonder what Marta is making of the situation.
“Marta, this is Ari.” I try not to look at them both. “A friend.”
The two girls exchange two smooches on the cheek.
“What is this smell”, Marta drags the air with her nose.
“I am making a pasta.” I shrug apologetically.
Marta makes big eyes. “Bon profit, have a nice meal.”
This reminds me I still haven’t put the water for the pasta so I excuse myself and gallop to the kitchen.
In a while the pasta is ready. Ari takes a first bite and chews on it 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, healthy is important.” She throws me a look and smiles again. “But hey, I am not a princess and I don’t mind what to eat in a good company.”
I am a good company for 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 unhealthy.” She smiles but her eyes are a little sad.
I feel a pang of jealousy, but at the same time flattered that she is comparing me to her ex.
When Ari has to go, I come 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 a slight bewilderment. For a few split 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 under her fringe. I can’ t figure out what she is thinking.
“Can I see you again on Friday?” I guess she will say “no”.
But she says “yes”.
The next day at work I ask Sophie to come have a coffee with me to a bar downstairs. I want to tell her about Ari, but I am not sure how she will 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 being on our ridiculous intern salary.
We take the two free seats on 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 will tell her that I am 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 will say? 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 am not ready to tell anyone yet.
Finally Sophie puts down her phone on the table and raises her eyes. “Sorry, what were you saying?”
I let the air 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 am 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 to make plans with?
Sophie widens her eyes. “Ohhh, who is he?”
Ugh, now I feel there is no way I can tell her. “I will tell you later,” I say.
“Secrets, see-eecrets.” 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 an awkward kiss on the cheek, and then smoothly transitioning it to a proper kiss on the lips. I love how soft and yet insistent her lips are.
We draw from each other and she takes my hand.
I grin at her. “So, are you at a thousand origamis already?”
Ari laughs. “Almost.”
With the corner of my eye I see an elderly woman passing us by and staring at us.
It’s a disapproving stare.
Suddenly I feel very conscious about me 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 if you look up, there are windows and you might 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 are in the darkness of the pool, I am not paranoid that someone will see us. I look at her face close to mine, until the features start blending in.
In the changing room she tosses her wet swimming suit 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 am 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 weak. I am pretty sure I know what we are doing 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 some stupid articles. I roll my eyes and cringe at how silly I am being.
She has a cozy small studio apartment near Sagrada Familia. It faintly smells like sandal incense sticks. 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 come to examine it closer. There are paper butterflies, dinosaurs, birds. She is pretty good at it.
Suddenly on the side of the shelf I spot a big wooden hair brush. 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, indeed almost a thousand origamis here. I guess you are very close to making your secret wish come true,” I say, slightly blushed.
“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 with 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 a little wrapped bundle from the living room table.
“Here.” Ari’s fringe is covering most of her face. Then 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 deeper and deeper into it. I enjoy all her sharpnesses and tendernesses. I feel self-conscious and nervous at first, but it just comes naturally in the end. It’s like swimming.
“So what about your present?” Ari’s voice jerks me back to planet Earth and I open my eyes. We are 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 is resting her head on my chest, which feels odd yet liberating. It makes me feel powerful and strong, and that everything will be alright 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 am breaking a sweat, and yet am too lazy to 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 muffled voice as I can. I suddenly feel self-conscious that I am naked.
“Alex, darling! How are you? Is it good weather there? 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 are inviting you back for Easter, we already bought you tickets!”
Oh, great, thanks for asking if I want to come.
I can hear some clank 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 is making coffee.”
“Ah, I see. So what is your plan 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 the breakfast we watch Netflix on the couch and Ari is making another origami piece from a 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 are 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 makes big 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 am 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 is thinking of me but I don’t know what more to add.
Finally I break the silence first. I pick up my tea cup from a coffee table nearby 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 will love them.”
I feel a little jump in the stomach. She wants me to introduce 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 am a grown up.”
This hurts, but I decide to let it slide. I take another sip. “So, and 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 sixteen, my dad told me - don’t you dare move in with a guy, and I said OK. So one year after, 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 after that.”
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 in 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 just that people always start thinking about sex first.” She pours herself some tea from the tea can too. “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 are disgusted. Well, they are really, I suppose. But trust me, I think that the most impassioned homophobes are actually like that because they are 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 am dating a girl. This makes my stomach lurch. I am pretty sure there will 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 imagination monster still chewing on the 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 the weekend?” Sophie drags the “e”s in the “weekend” and winks at me.
I blush a little. “Very good.”
“What did you do then?” Sophie still 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 startle, 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 makes big eyes. “You’ve just been there for Christmas.”
She hands me a cup with 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 think that 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 into my face. “You always come back super nervous.” Then she smirks and adds, “I am surprised you turned out alright, knowing a bit about your parents.”
Now I am angry. No way am I telling her about Ari.
Me and Ari 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 would like and I decide that lingerie could be a good choice, since the few boyfriends I’ve dated before had given me some.
After work I pass by Intimissimi and stand there pensive 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. Me and Ari are roughly the same size, so I say yes, it is for me, indeed.
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 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 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-serious half-joking.
“You're coming to Berga this weekend with me.” She seals this with a kiss on my nose.
At first I am 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 in 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 come close 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.
And when it’s 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 am feeling a little uneasy about the whole trip. Will her parents like me? I start chewing on one of the strings of my hoodie. 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 to this.
OK, then. I turn to my side of the window to see the view.
We are 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.
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 imagining which of the houses could have been Ari 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 all 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 comes back.
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, leaving me with a slight scent of male 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, although it’s quite warm inside.
We sit down for dinner. Ari’s parents chat animatedly to Ari, still in Catalan, and I sit upright on 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 it over my plate.
I hold onto the grinder awkwardly long. As soon as I put both my hands on my lap, Ari grabs one of them again. I glimpse at her parents, and I think Roser is watching me. Is that a disapproving look too on her face?
During the 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 smile in the direction of her parents:
“Moltes gracies, everything was great.” I say.
I wonder if we are sleeping in separate rooms.
I follow Ari up the stairs, viewing the decoration of the house 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.
Meanwhile Ari pushes one of the doors and pulls me inside after her.
“Ta-da!” She turns the light on and then jumps on 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 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 alright?” comes a voice from downstairs.
Ari runs out of the room, and I just stand there, completely petrified. Tears forming in my eyes.
“I am 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 too. 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 tears, but I feel jealous and scared. Suddenly I feel a strong identity split, like this is not happening to me but to some other Alex.
I suddenly realise that all the past months I feel like I am 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?
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 is asleep.
I feel like slowly but surely I am assuming this relationship, that it doesn’t matter if I like girls or boys, but what matters is that I like her. The thought about my parents oozes somewhere on 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 me?” I ask her when we draw back.
Ari wrinkles her nose, “Oh, I am not a big phone person.”
I guess she is 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 kilometers apart.”
Ari clicks her tongue, “Well, don’t go then!”
I look in her eyes and I can’t understand if she is teasing me or punishing me.
I come to the airport just in time for my plane. I doze off immediately, when we take off. When I wake up, we are already 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 very doll-like beautiful. Well groomed, never sweat, perfect makeup.
Suddenly the plane starts going into turbulence zone. The seat starts 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 beloved 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 am 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 through the baggage belts outside, I scan the crowd to try to catch his silhouette. I recognise him first, he is squinting, trying to locate me too. He is 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 dropping a white envelope on my lap. I cringe but decide to take it. After this I immediately feel obliged to show that I am a good daughter, so I enthusiastically start a conversation about my life. I am 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 tell anything about Ari, obviously.
Dad winds down the car window. “Why are you gesticulating so much? Are you over-excited?”
I turn to look at his face to see if he is 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 some 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 the 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 neighborhood, I remember the childhood 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-based 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 colored 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 are over thirty-five, 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 draws 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 am 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 to one spoon length. Vertically and horizontally.
Dad is still talking. I slightly turn away to where my phone is on the seat near me. No messages from Ari. I browse Facebook feed with one finger, super bored with what Dad is saying. On Facebook there is Trump news, friends running marathons, CrossFit, babies, selfies, more babies. Urgh. Dad’s voice brings me back to reality, 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 meet 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 the 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 am in Latvia, she seems like a ghost, an unrealistic faraway image.
I frown and pick up the phone. No messages. Shall I write her myself? What is she up to now? She must be off work. Maybe she is 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 text, “Hello, beautiful. What are you up to?”
She doesn’t answer for a good fifteen minutes. I scroll through Facebook and Instagram feed, but can’t concentrate on anything.
Finally an answer arrives, “Not much, just staying at home, watching Netflix and folding some origami.”
I smile to this, feeling relieved. Of course she is at home, I was so silly.
“Don’t you want to do something, it’s Friday?” I text back, but deep down I am pleased she is staying in.
“You know I am 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 crush back into reality. My heart is pounding and I feel like I was caught stealing chocolates from Mom’s drawer when I was ten years old.
“No, thanks!” I scream back at Mom, and type back to Ari, “Mm, nice. Save it till I come back,” but the last thing I feel now is aroused.
The Easter weekend is boring and I count the hours till 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 I am doing with my budget.”
“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 am ten 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 are 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 exit through customs, I spot Ari among the meeters-and-greeters. She is wearing baggy jeans and 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, 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 a 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 recognise people before they recognise me. And it’s too late to do anything, to turn down another street, to go into a shop. As we cross with Marta, I speak first, perhaps a little too quick. “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 off 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 the public opinion.”
I feel irritated that she is stating the obvious.
We walk a bit more in silence, then Ari says: “Things work till 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 panicky thought whacks in my mind – how will I explain this to my parents? I hesitate with an 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 understand if Marta is home. Seems like not: her door is open ajar and there is no light coming from it.
My thoughts come back 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 how the water creates 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 the 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 round 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 am 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 for 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 is holding a portrait of a woman which 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 has 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 that the weight of the world has 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 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 come to work after the weekend, me and Sophie have our traditional Monday coffee in the kitchen. I bring the remains of an apple crumble Ari has baked for me over the weekend.
Sophie picks up a piece and examines it closely, “Uuu, I didn’t know you could bake.” She bites at it, “Yum, this is delish.” She raises her eyes pensively, “Reminds me of something.”
“Nutmeg?” I suggest absent-mindedly. I am considering if now is a good time to tell 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 makes big eyes and 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 shake down the breadcrumbs which stayed on my shirt, “Well, in fact, I haven’t told them yet.”
Sophie makes big 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 was not so serious in the end.” She shakes her head, so that her beautiful blond curls jump. “Hey, do you want to go out on the weekend?”
“Um, no, we will probably stay in.” I shrug.
“You got so booooring. We barely go out lately!” 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 in a laugh. “Them? Are there a few? You naughty girl!”
It’s hard to avoid pronouns.
The 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, vases, it becomes a lot of things.
Ari emerges from the room, wearing the leopard pants I gave to her. She gives herself a look in the mirror and says:
“I am 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 come closer and hug her. Her hands, strong and tender at the same time, travel around my body almost absent-mindedly, and yet I know she is here for me.
“I can’t really wear those,” I say.
Ari detaches from me and takes a big black trash bag with my stuff to take down for the moving truck. “Why?”
I grab one as well. “Cause well, I am 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 an effort. I add a little out of breath, “I just can’t do certain things - wear leopard prints, smoke slim cigarettes, wear stilettos, wear too much make-up.“ I half-smile to Ari, without really looking at her.
Ari stops on the stairs and starts laughing, as if she 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 passage with bags and plants and suitcases, we sit on the stairs and wait for the moving van to come. I am thinking of how on Earth I am going to hide the fact from my parents that I moved in with a girl, and we only have one bed, but decide not to think about it right now.
I like Ari’ s neighborhood 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 we share expenses with Ari, it actually got better with the money too. We establish our routine: I finish work around 6 PM and ride my bicycle home, already looking forward to seeing her. I buy a bottle of cheap white wine, pushing the foldable Brompton (my parent’s present, of course) in front of me, leaving dirt marks on my pants.
“A verdejo from Perelada?” The sales woman already knows me.
At home, Ari would already have made food for us.
I would 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 come up to the window and draw a little smiley face on the steamy glass.
I would change to 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 skin 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 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 and I got tickets to travel to Riga again.
On a Saturday morning, while I am 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 inside.
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 calm myself that it’s going to be OK and pick up.
“Hey, can you see us?” Both Mom 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. And 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 he 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 is 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 is bald and fat, he is finally looking for a wife.”
There is a little 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 the moment I hear Ari padding past the kitchen door. I step further from the door and say in a more muttered voice. “In fact, I am seeing someone.”
To this Mom and Dad start talking excitedly on top of 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 was sprawled in the big velvet armchair. Maybe they were both drinking cognac. I imagine how they were discussing the fact that I am alone and trying to find solutions. Maybe Dad clicks his tongue and sinks deeper into the armchair, looking upwards, as he always does when he is thinking. Mom stares into space.
But I am not alone. I have Ari. Will I ever be able to tell them that I am setting a girl?
I realise that I am shivering and I look down to see that I am 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 grown-up person. What are you afraid of all the time?”
My stomach tightens. “Look, they are not as open as your parents…” I take a step towards Ari.
Ari shakes her head and says nothing.
“On top, you know they give me some money, and I need it,” I continue.
To this Ari blows the air out, raises her hand as if to say ‘i don’t wanna know’, turns and leaves the kitchen. I follow her to the living room. The balcony door swings shut. Ari sits on a balcony chair, back turned towards me, and lights another cigarette.
When she is upset, she gives me the cold shoulder. This is probably the most torturing treatment I have ever received. I imagined that here, in the South of Europe, when people are upset, they scream at each other and they throw objects and they 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 of it, I don’t know if I am 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 this as a peace offering. We eat and stay at home that night. Again.
I scroll the Instagram feed on the couch, Ari smokes by the window.
There is 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 have a feeling we’ve been living like two recluse, on our own private island. I am searching 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 am 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 makes a little smile: “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.”
Alright 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 chat Sophie: “What are you up to?”
I stand there and think about whether I am 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 made in a bun, and she is 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 come into the salon, where there are around ten people, actively chatting. There is a techno music in the background, and the balcony door is wide open. The summery air is heavy with perfume and smoke.
I drop my gaze on the table in the room and see lines of coke. Sophie takes my hand and takes me to the table.
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, and this doesn’t give me any emotional twirl but my body is tired, so I decide to call it a night.
I call a cab, and when I am in it, I check my face in a pocket mirror. The daylight is breaking and I look quite beat, with tired set 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 is not sleeping. I don’t know if she has just got up or haven’t slept at all. She sits 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 balance on just one leg.
Ari gets up and comes closer. “Are you high?”
“No-o-o,” I don’t look up to 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 startles at this but I continue, brave from the drugs and alcohol. “And you are not perfect yourself! You can’t even quit smoking!”
She keeps silence 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 she turns around, “Maybe we moved in 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 in the pillows. I feel like I simultaneously live in several realities - the one a few days ago, when things were going OK with Ari, and the one now, when we just fought and I am developing a terrible headache from the phantom faces and music echo in my mind.
I don’t notice when I finally doze off. Suddenly I find myself already travelled to my I 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 drops me back to reality.
It takes me a few seconds to catch my breath. I look around and have a wild thought of calling my parents and telling them I am sick and not coming. But later the sense of responsibility takes over, I sigh and head to the shower. The streams of water run down on my body, making it slightly better.
I board the plane on time. The flight attendants walk around 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 through my throat, 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 am struggling with the belt in the back seat. Mom turns expectantly towards me from the front. There is some unspoken tension between all of us.
“So, tell us something about this guy you are dating?”
I get a lurch in the stomach.
I am not in the mood to fake anything, but I manage to squeeze out a crooked smile. “Oh, not now, Mom, later, OK? I am super tired after the flight.” She nods and turns back to face the road.
Meanwhile, Dad’s hand reaches 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 am 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 can do it by herself. Better, I feel so exhausted, and I am really not in the mood for a conversation. I collapse on a chair in the kitchen table and support my face with my hands. Dad gets started on the standard heard-ten-thousand times 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, 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 voice of the boiling kettle cuts me off.
Mom goes to turn off the kettle and I suddenly realise that her and me, both my parents and me, we function like an interdependent painful solar system, powering each other 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 am thinking that Ari must have finished her shift by now and I wonder what she's doing now. 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 dryer; the result looks a little shaky but stays together, and I am happy that the Jenga playing days have finally paid off.
I excuse myself and pass out in the bed, and it’s not even 10 PM.
In the morning I walk out of my room to find Dad walk up and down the apartment. I hear a closet door bang, then another one, some rustling, more closet door banging.
I flip up my phone again to check if there are messages from Ari. Nothing.
Dad comes back to the living room and sits down in an armchair, pensive.
I sneeze. Dad turns to the sound:
I shrug. “No, I am 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 haven’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 hardens, his cheek muscles moving under his skin.
Suddenly I sneeze again.
“Hay fever,” says Dad grimly.
I am 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 grown up ring in my head.
“Look, I don't know when I am 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 the 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 in two months!”
I somehow have a feeling that I am 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.
Meanwhile 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 does this even come 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 is doing, of all his little manipulations - they are all 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, “I am leaving.”
“What?” Dad’s face softens and 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 in the suitcase in a blink of an eye. I take it to the entrance door, 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, 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 drag 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 there is 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 the 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 am about to put the keys in the keyhole, 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 keys and enter the apartment. The conversation drops and I see the back of two heads sitting close 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 better go.” I notice that she has a second day make up, her eyes are slightly smudged. There is an open bottle of wine on the table in front of them. I still don’t know what to make out of the situation, while 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 about it, Sophie is a party girl.
“Well, not less 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,” simply says Ari. 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, my wish was to forget her and find someone new.” Ari still doesn’t look at me.
“Well, are you still in love with her?” I come to the shelf and grab a bunch of origami. “Are you?”
Ari presses her lips 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 in the park on the bench, not far from our house.
I feel such horrible frustration and almost a 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 till 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 lunches together. They say you see all your life go by before your eyes before you die. I guess a break-up is a little death.
Isn’t it funny, it takes a second for everything to fall apart. A week ago, everything was alright. 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, also partly to avoid Sophie.
My phone has been very active, for once.
Ari sent me a message saying that she will stay with a friend for as long as needed, while I find a new place to stay.
Mom and Dad has been calling like crazy, but I am not picking 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 eyes, so that I can 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 for apartments. There is an interesting offer in my old neighborhood Poble Sec, cheap and nice-looking. I exit 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 realise it’s not her. I manage to smile to myself, ridiculing the haircut stereotype.
The momentous uplifting moment is replaced by the sense of grief again, rushing in and overtaking me like a thousand 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 is lean and has short hair, I get double 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, to which I feel relieved. We agree that I can move in the day after tomorrow.
Afterwards I drop 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 there hidden, in a faded ink.
“Tough day?” The waitress puts the glass near me. It crosses my mind that she is cute.
“A break up.” I rub my temples. The waiters 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 of doing 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’s 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 cook steam 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 a little seashell she gave me from the time we went to the seaside when we met – in the front pocket. 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 limp, 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 wall 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 which actually belongs to me.
My blue shopping 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 leers at me sneerily.
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 in my new room and the rest of the week passes by, I mostly stay on my bed, staring at the ceiling.
One of those days I see an incoming call from Mom. This time I pick up.
“Alex?” Mom’s careful voice reaches through the thousand of kilometers.
“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 am ok. I just broke up with someone,”
“Oh, that person you were lately seeing?”
I hesitate thinking about those money envelopes, but then realise 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 are going through a tough time. We love you whatever happens.”
“Um,” Mom takes an inhale. “Actually, he just left the room. But don’t worry about it, I’ll talk to him.”
My vision gets blurry and I feel a teardrop roll down my cheek. I smudge it away.
Next Monday back at work I dread of how it will be to face 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 hands 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 them over her chest.
OK, she is right about this one. I don’t know what to say, I suddenly feel very weak.
But there is one more thing I have to know. “Did you sleep with her that night?”
Sophie doesn’t answer. I see some 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 door.
I turn and walk out of the kitchen.
I sit at the meeting and secretly scroll my Facebook feed and think how fucked up is this world. 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 working perk, and that if we don’t meet our deadlines and quarterly performance reports, we fail as human beings.
I look around myself and I see serious concentrated faces, someone even taking notes. I wonder how many people really follow the speech, and whose mind has already wandered off and thinking of completely unrelated things.
I think of how many hours these people spend at work. How much they probably think about work when they are 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 come back to my desk and open Linkedin. I watch as the page loader bounces back and forth. When it finally loads, there are not 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 now and almost a year since I saw her for the first time in that cafe on the Blai street.
I made friends with the Portuguese girls. They are teaching me how to make a Salada de feijão frade, a Portuguese dish, and they love cleaning just like myself. 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 go to grab my breakfast to Sant Antoni, I stumble into Ari. She is wearing sunglasses so I can’t tell what is in her eyes. We exchange a kiss 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 bar in Carrer Parlament, I feel like I am in a rehearsed movie scene, only I don’t remember my lines.
As we sit in the cafe, I stare at Ari’s 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 colorful 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 realise that it’s over. I have secretly hoped that this will end well, like in the movies. When things go wrong for the main character and then there is the climax, but eventually something happens and 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 realise it’s me who is being addressed. “Ei!”
I raise my head and see a girl, waving a me. I recognise the waitress
from that bar where I got a rum and coke the first week after my break-up with Ari.
I look behind me but there is 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 plump 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 scroll 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 in the space around me. Eventually my eyes fall on the deer origami piece, standing on the shelf. I get up and go pick it. 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.