My Bones Are Shifting In My Skin

So.

A few nights back I dreamt I was pregnant.

It wasn’t one of those dreams that turn you upside-down-inside-out and haunt you for weeks, deliciously relentless and so vividly alive that you end up wondering if you’ve actually dreamt them. Or if they’re in fact part of a parallel reality in which you’re perfectly content with your life, an infinitely more wondrous one than what real, dreaming you has to deal with.

But no, it was just a regular dream. My belly felt like one of those Halloween pumpkins piling up in Tesco veggie aisles these days. Round and firm, ready to sink your teeth into.

Then I woke up. Made coffee. Had half a biscuit. My brand new wisdom tooth was killing me, so I inspected it in the bathroom mirror for the longest of times, like a wild animal caught in mid roar, volume muted for some reason. It looked a lot less painful than it felt, which I guess is to be expected with most things in life.

Then, on my way to work, I fainted on the train.

It wasn’t hot or crowded and I hadn’t run into George Clooney or anything. Just a regular, celebrity free day, and my regular body making its complaints heard in its regularly annoying way. Half a biscuit is not enough. Sleeping with a throbbing jaw for eleven nights in a row is not sleeping. Fainting among strangers can be just as bad as getting a bout of morning sickness among strangers.

I wasn’t phased by any of it, the evil fang, imagined pregnancy, surprise loss of consciousness, but went on with my day like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I do this more and more these days, ignore the extraordinary. It’s less energy consuming.

*

I guess I’m going through a weird phase again.

Which is fine, you know, I seem to thrive on weird somehow.

We flew to Barcelona last week for a few days’ visit with my old friend B and his new girlfriend. We hadn’t been, V and I, but were both so exhausted with the year long house hunting/moving crazies, that I wouldn’t say we were in the most happy-happy-joy-joy of holiday moods. On the flight back last night, I felt like I was leaving the heaviest of burdens behind me and couldn’t wait to get home and just lie there, fallen against the oak ribs of our still mattress-less bed.

We cannot, I understand it now, be happy.

Me and my friends, me and my family, happy is simply not something we do.

I don’t know if it’s the Romanian way of dealing with changing relationships, or the expat vs. people left behind way, or the me way. But whatever it is, it’s here to stay, evil grins and sticky tentacles and all.

I don’t know how and who to be among these people.

It amazes me that I can’t do the simplest of things with them watching me. Stupid things, like ordering a sandwich. If I do it in Spanish, which I’ve spoken for a decade, way before I moved to London and our friendship obviously derailed for good, it’s called showing off. If I do it in English, why do I need to do it in my silly Queen-of-England accent and make them all feel small and Eastern European? Why does my sandwich need to cost €1 more than theirs? Do I absolutely need to remind them I make more money than they do?

I sit at this tiny cafe table across a person I used to share Tequila bottles with, and watch grenades explode over our heads. I don’t get it, so I say less and less as time goes by, I order tap water, no lemon, thank you very much. Gracias. Whatever.

I don’t want to end up having a bunch of kids just to surround myself with newly made people who, at least for a while, don’t hate me.

But I don’t get it, I really, honestly don’t get any of it, and it breaks my heart.

My English is good. I’ve been in London for almost five years, and studied it in school for more than a decade before that, is it really so surprising? I’ve got a Cambridge diploma for crying out loud! I called you after I got the test results in the mail, remember? My mother had opened the envelope and I was so mad she hadn’t waited for me to get home, and you laughed. You got it, who cares who tore the letter open, you said. And now, is it really so unusual that I’m constantly working at improving a language on which I build my livelihood and most of my social interactions? How is that belittling to anyone around me? And why? Why have we even reached this point in our conversation? Why is it so vitally important how much my freaking sandwich costs, is it not the same couple slices of bread with gooey stuff in between it’s always been? What does friendship mean these days?

As I type this now I’m so mad I’m crying.

I miss everything, you know. The boring, the bad, the scary, the let’s-never-go-to-bed-again-this-is-the-only-thing-worth-doing-until-we-die. And talking, I miss talking the most. I rarely ever do it these days. I can’t discuss any of my problems with my friends and family from home. How can I have problems when I’ve just bought a flat? When I’ve got Netflix?

I sip my lemon-less water and wait for the smoke to clear, secretly hoping my brain has learned its lesson well over the years, and will prove appropriately selective in terms of Barcelona memories. A map of broken friendships is the last thing I need in my perfect, British accented little life these days.

*

I bought a couple of picture frames on my lunch break today. I’ll spend tonight nailing things to the walls, leaving more permanent scars into the surfaces of this place. Then on Friday, my book shelves are coming. I’ve taken the day off and I’m planning to spend it sipping indecent amounts of Spanish wine, dusting, stacking and re-stacking my hardcovers. We’ll probably have a little house warming get together around Halloween, so I’d better learn how to turn the oven on by then.

My high school friend M gave birth to a baby girl yesterday. We spent the morning on FaceTime laughing and crying like silly teenagers, and I’m planning to open that first-night-in-the-new-flat bottle of champagne we’d forgotten about tonight, in her honor. Teodora. Thirty hours old. A piece of someone I used to share secrets with. Crazy how you can love a person based on just that. I guess there’s a very thin line between the everyday and the extraordinary, and the latter, exhausting as it is, is worth it sometimes.

Collection of Walls

bit·ter·sweet
adj.

1. Bitter and sweet at the same time
2. Producing or expressing a mixture of pain and pleasure

Seventy-four boxes.

It’s strange how you can put a number on pretty much everything after all.

Layers we’ve worn, objects we’ve touched, things we figured we’d need one day but never did.

It took me six days to pack them all, physical traces we’ve left since we moved to this country, and once I was done and our living room became a a scale model of a cardboard sky-scraper-ed city I barely managed to Gulliver my way through from one surface to the next, well, I squeezed into an armchair and looked at it. A mountain of things wrapped to survive an Armageddon. I wished we could just drop them by the curb after midnight, and set on our way attachment free, hands in pockets and all. We’d keep our pockets, I decided. They’d come in handy when we started collecting new things.

We moved everything into storage instead. A few nights in a row, back and forth to a box infested, yellow painted hangar. We did it after dark, what with our so called lives keeping us busy until late, and it felt like an adventure of sorts, finding our way along the yellow, deserted corridors, burdened by boxes and armed with nothing but flashlights and the key to our lock.

And then last night we drove back to an empty apartment. No cardboard metropolis, no trace of life, and it suddenly felt like something was ending.

Sometimes I’m truly terrified of how you can’t really un-erase anything.

I find comfort in mistakes crossed out with a million crooked lines. I don’t care if it messes up the page, or that people will figure out I’m not perfect. I want to see them there. To draw arrows from them and scribble bright coloured explanations between the lines. Erasers scare me.

As I was scrubbing down our soon to be other people’s flat yesterday, I felt like I was erasing a part of our life.

There’s a whiter patch on the kitchen wall, where our Pairing Wine With Food print used to hang. A confetti sized red nail polish spot on the floor by my side of the bed, the aftermath of a manicure tragedy. Forgotten fingerprints on surfaces I was too tired to reach last night. But most of what “us, here” used to mean is gone.

I took the morning off today to meet the cleaners, leave the keys and say goodbye.

I shut the door and started down the poorly lit corridor. I smelled coffee. People rushing up and down their rooms looking for misplaced car keys. I remembered how I’d loved that door, the first red door I’d ever had my own key for. Poppy red, and how the colour always made me smile. There must be nice people living behind that door, I imagined our neighbors thinking as they passed it by. They must have wonderful lives.

I grabbed a latte and toast at a coffee place on the street corner. People were queuing for takeaway, their caffeine orders ready to jump off the tips of their tongues. I sat by the window and warmed my hands on the flimsy paper cup. The street was an explosion of colour and movement, and I couldn’t help thinking how I’d been so miserable these past couple of weeks, dragging my feet up and down this very street. Like a ridiculous, hopeless moron.

I have a wonderful life.

On the Inside

Things are happening.

We’re almost there on closing the deal on a flat we’ve found. Of course, there are legal issues on the vendor’s side. And yes, you’ve guessed it, she refuses/isn’t able to sort them out. So we might not get it in the end. Which is nice. It’s only been eleven exciting months of house hunting, sleepwalking and almost breaking up once or twice.

*

My parents are pretty much forcing me into getting married. They’ve told their friends we’re buying a place together, so obviously we need to get hitched now. They’ve looked into Romanian marriage licenses and bridal bouquets, they’ve booked days off and pretty much picked wedding bands, all of it while I was unassumingly trying to live my unexciting little life a continent away, bridal plans as far from my mind as they’ve ever been. And all of a sudden, it looks like they’re actually doing it now. Getting me married or something. I don’t think I’m in the best mood to comment on this, maybe another time.

*

It’s my sister’s birthday tomorrow. I spent my morning trying to pick the perfect bouquet of white roses, stressing over every single petal and pointy leaf.

We haven’t spoken in months.

It’s been so bad that I turned thirty this June and she never called. Then I got a Romanian stamped envelope in the mail the next day, and my heart jumped at the sight of what I thought was her writing. She cares, she cares, and I ran up the stairs to the flat, because I didn’t want to read it in the dark, stew smelling corridor. A letter from my sister deserved proper lighting at least. It was a birthday card from V’s sister (or should I say my soon to be sister in law!), and I literally felt something snap inside me, like really, making a noise by which you can tell it can’t be repaired. She didn’t care.

So I ordered these roses today, because it’s her birthday, and I’ve been sending her white roses every year since I moved to London, and that’s something, that’s really something, something you don’t just stop doing just like that, because people don’t write letters when you’d like them to.

Then I was on the phone with my mother and in between “You’d better get your ass over here and do it! We told all our friends!”, I mentioned I’d ordered flowers for my sister and hoped she’d like the surprise.

“What’s she going to do with flowers?” And then, to my sister, who I had no idea was in the car with her: “You don’t want stupid flowers, do you?”

Snap.

***

It’s just a regular day, today.

I walk, I sip, I click. It’s getting cold and I seem to remember this as my favourite time in the year. I used to love going back to my sweaters, to scarves and my precious dark green leather jacket with its leather scratched on the left elbow. I used to love going back to school, to friends, to my comfortable rituals. Summer was often exhausting, with its skins on display and races to the edge of the frightening waters. Autumn was a comforting return to things known and loved. In a way, I still feel the same. But in a way, I don’t know. It’s like those tea coloured tissues you get with a cup of latte to go. 100% recycled in bold brown letters on the soft paper, and that’s how I feel. Like I’ve been used and put back together to be used again. What awaits is a future of spilled coffee and lipstick smudges, and a hot, delicious sip in between.

Daddy’s Girl

My first ever memory is lying in bed with my mother on a winter morning. She’s trying to get back to sleep but I’m wiggling around her, holding my stretched palm an inch above her nose and mouth, to make sure she’s breathing. I’m at an age when their death is a constant worry. I beg for hours, late into the night, to be allowed out of my cot and into the grownup bed, where I then restlessly spend the night alternatively pinching them to check that they’re still alive.

On the morning in question, my mother’s breathing is regular, abnormally hot in the barely heated bedroom. The widows have frozen overnight, and filter the morning light into a milky mass the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before. I must be around four. There’s a poster on the wall opposite the bed, a blonde blue eyed toddler reaching for the hand of an invisible grownup. My eyes are neither green nor brown. They’re nothing like my mother’s or my father’s, in fact, which is probably why random grownups sometimes stoop to my level to ask, in squeaky voices they never use among themselves: “Whose baby girl are you, huh?”

Somewhere deep in the heart of the apartment, my father is getting ready for work. Drawers open and shut, water flows down the drain towards the river and that lovely, magical place where all sick goldfish go to get better. I listen to the sounds of his morning rituals, finding comfort in the fact that he’s alive too, well enough to slam doors and clink spoons in coffee cups, and that I’m not alone in the world like that poor blonde poster child.

He walks in and kisses us goodbye. His lips make brief, soundless contact with the top of her sleepy head, then loudly smooch my eyebrow, the tip of my nose and my bandaid wrapped pinky finger. He smells like something, something other than the smells I’m used to, and I breathe it all in and file it somewhere in the spacious place my memory still is back then, to bring back and inhale at a later time, voluntarily or less so, with joy or sorrow.

“Ciao”, he says, and I realise I’ve never heard the word before, that it might just be another name they’ve got for me, they always seem to be calling me something new, baby, bear, dumpling, pumpkin and another million snacks I can’t possibly keep track of.

“Ciao”, I say back for some reason, and he leaves soundlessly shutting the door behind him, while I whisper a short prayer to myself that he doesn’t die in a car crash on his way to and from the office.

*

My father and I never really talked. He never knew my friends’ names or my favourite ice cream flavour. He never took me camping, never told me stories of his childhood, never said anything of his dreams for me. He worked long hours, seven days a week, ever since I can remember, and ever since I can remember I’ve been praying for his safe return at night, exhausted and not really in the mood to hear about my day, but there, close enough to hold on to if I lost my balance.

He drove me and a classmate to a Cambridge exam once, and when we got back from the four hours long road trip, after we’d dropped my friend off and it was just the two of us in the car, he looked at me gravely in the rear view mirror and said:

– You laugh a lot.

– I’m happy, I guess.

– Sometimes happy is not the safest thing to be.

I was sixteen, there was nothing in the world I was afraid of. Except for my father.

He turned me into this independent, somewhat on the manly side, guy magnet. I can talk boxing, football, handball, tennis, Formula 1, I know how to paint a ceiling, use a fire extinguisher and dress a wound. The day I was born, he planted an apple tree in my grandparents’ yard, then another one a couple of years later on my sister’s birthday, and every year since we’ve been picking the apples together, loading them into his truck and lining them on wooden, dusty shelves in our cellar, an inch in between unlike the pile of random apples you see in supermarkets, because, he says, those people know absolutely nothing about proper fruit care.

*

When I decided I’d be moving to London, we had our one and only fight, a terrible affair we’ve yet to recover from.

We seldom really talked before, but after that we stopped talking altogether, and every time we met we ended up slamming doors, fists against table tops and words to be later regretted into each other’s chests.

He retired this year and spends most of his time at home these days, painting and repainting ceilings and fences, planting and replanting trees and hedges. I can’t help feeling relieved. He’s safe. Thirty years of secret prayers have kept him far from danger, and I’ve still got a father to lean on, even if it takes me half a day to get to him these days, and he never says I laugh too much anymore.

It was his birthday this week.

I’d been worrying about the phone call for days in advance, rehearsing three or four safe phrases in my mind, imagining that infinite moment when neither of us had anything else to say, and we’d just wait for a saving something, a natural disaster of biblical proportions to erase everything in sight and deliver us from discomfort. And then I called.

He was rebuilding our back yard fence. We talked about Belgium vs United States, about how this World Cup is so unlike the ones before it. About our young girl who’d made it into the Wimbledon semifinals, and how she for some reason reminded him of me. He was worried I worked too much, worried too much, while I should just try and be happy, and I laughed, thinking about how happy had suddenly become, fifteen more years into our life together, the safest thing to be.

I put down the phone and stood for a while in the middle of the hallway, no stable furniture to lean on. There was dust in the air. Stupid filthy city, I’d only just dusted yesterday. Stupid filthy humans, shedding skin flakes everywhere for the rest of us to breathe in. Nothing really leaves your lungs, you know. You end up carrying it all around, dirt, other people’s skin cells, smoke, everywhere, until you die.

I coughed. Up until recently, they were my favourite thing in the world, coughs. I’d hide everything behind a cough.  Anger, embarrassment, tears. Everything used to tear me up, it must have been hormonal or something. My baby making imprinted body trying to make its baby making cravings heard. Could I have involuntarily coughed my way out of it, the baby making dream, I wonder. Because nowadays I rarely ever shed a tear.

Instead, I just laugh a little sometimes, when no one’s looking. I love my father. I understand love.

Ciao.

Friends and Other Demons

I conveniently blame each and every new flaw I discover in myself on this rainy city in pursuit of which I uprooted my entire life:

  • I simply can’t have a proper conversation here, I decide. I’ll never get all of their jokes and I’ll never pass for a native speaker, no matter how stubbornly I rehearse my made up British accent to myself in the shower every night.
  • I’ll never make a real friend in this place. We didn’t grow up watching the same cartoon shows or trying the same ice cream flavours. Heck, I’d never even seen a real life ice cream truck before I came to this country, and by then I was already in my late twenties. And still, even if we manage to somehow make it past that, there’ll always be London, this horrible London with its millions of different postcodes and miles of tube tunnels, keeping us apart. No one’s really one phone call away, I tell myself. No. They’re one phone call, two buses and 12 stops along the Bakerloo Line away. What friendship can possibly survive that in the long run?

So I give up. I slowly give up on all things I believe are not meant to be for me in this country. Closeness. Friends. Being myself, restrictions free. The only constant throughout is me blaming this place for it all. In some deranged, I’m-not-really-happy-but-happiness-is-overrated-anyway way, it’s been working fine for me so far. But these days, I’ve been thinking.

When I was growing up, my mother never had girlfriends over for coffee and cake like all the other mothers. She never exchanged chicken casserole recipes with anyone. She never borrowed anyone’s party shoes, she never spent hours on the phone telling secrets. I used to ask her about it, her unfriendliness, and she’d say she found it difficult to make new friends in her thirties. That my father had taken her a hundred miles away from what had been her life, to this place where she’d spend the rest of her days picking casserole tips and tricks from cookbook recipes and wearing her own shoes if there ever was a party. There never were, and my mother grew into this person I rarely ever remember surrounded by other people, but most often on her own, coffee cup in hand, nagging me about spending way too much time with my friends for my own good.

We’re very different, my mother and I.

I grew up with a hunger for other people’s closeness. I’d love to play games where you got to grab people’s hands or at least share your most intimate secrets with them on a dare. I used to love school, to really, really love school, even when I hated it, because it meant I got to be close to my friends. I’d spend hours on the kitchen phone talking to C, my mother standing next to me sipping her coffee and stomping her foot, outraged at how I could possibly be so irresponsible so as to endlessly hold up the only line in the house with my silly giggles, when there was surely an emergency and a dozen people were busily trying to get through to her. There never were any phone emergencies in our house. Just the permanent, unacceptable danger of me turning into other’s people’s friend.

This wasn’t meant to be another one of those posts where I moan about my mother ruining my life, because she didn’t really. She just didn’t know how to handle a daughter who needed other people, when she’d molded herself into not needing anyone at all. We fought about things. My freedom. Me obviously turning into a bit of a floozy, not studying hard enough, taking everything for granted, looking for comfort in the proximity of strangers instead of that of my own family. A time of screaming and slamming doors it was, and we both came out of it bruised into somewhat, if minimally, changed people.

But this is not a post about my mother. It’s about me.

These days, I’m someone else. I blame it on this country but in fact, it’s me. Not this tunnel infested city, not this slice of continent keeping me from getting somewhere, someone, anyone. It’s nothing but me, I have changed, willingly, or at least consciously, into this person who doesn’t know how to do friendships anymore.

I stopped talking to C a while back. It wasn’t anything dramatic, we were meant to meet and I canceled a couple of times, then he called and emailed and I wasn’t in a mood for talking or writing, and slowly the most extraordinary friendship of my life faded into this thing where we like each other’s photos on Facebook, and I often remember him, episodes of us, but don’t really do anything about it. I could probably pick it up, this shriveled thing that used to be our relationship, and work at bringing it back to life, but I don’t.

And then, there’s new people. They’re nice. We run into each other, we connect, even in this friendship-unfriendly country, I’m fine with talking about why London’s great and why it often sucks, about my favourite colours and TV series, and then I reach a point where our proximity makes me anxious, and I don’t know how to handle it.

I build walls.

I stay in, I make myself a cup of tea, I wipe the table top clean. There’s things people won’t like about me. There’ll be times we’ll have nothing to talk about. Every once in a while, we’ll make plans and those plans will fall through. I’ve lost the ability to deal with all that somewhere along the way. I seem to have passed through adolescence with flying colours, self esteem intact, only to crumble into an insecure shell of myself into my late twenties. And here I thought things would be getting more fun and games as I advanced into adulthood. Oh well.

V and I went out with new friends this weekend. We walked the streets, had great food, played UNO (I know, talk about geeky), lied in the grass. When it was time to part and they invited us up to their place, my psycho friendship-is-dangerous alarm went off in a way that would have made my mother proud had she been there, coffee cup in hands and all. I don’t know how to make friends anymore, I told V as we were driving home. You’re still better at it than I am, he answered, and I laughed. It’s a miracle we’re not too anxious to hang out with each other.

I’m turning 30 next week and V and I are leaving London for a birthday holiday in the sun. When I turned 23, back in Romania, my friends threw me this amazing surprise party at my place. I remember turning the key in the lock and unknowingly stepping into an explosion of purple coloured confetti and Happy Birthdays. There are photos of me snapped at that very moment, T-shirt covered in purple flakes and this huge, unattractive, happy smile on my face. I wonder if my mother ever had photos like that taken of her and her pack of friends she left for love and a daughter she never could relate to. I wonder if she’s right, and I’ve forever lost my friend making skills as I was slowly reaching the edge of my twenties. I hope I haven’t. That confetti breathing chick looks on top of the world.