This Time Last Year: Dear Friend

Dear Friend,

I’ve decided this is what I’m calling you now, though you know you’re not, and I know you’re not, and we’re both OK with it.

But they tell me everybody needs a name, and everybody needs a friend, so I guess I’m just killing two birds with one stone.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a little while, but I hadn’t yet decided what to call you, and you need to at least know that when you start a letter. So I didn’t. And then last week Facebook said you had a birthday coming.

So here it is, my birthday gift for you. A name and things you never knew. Read the full post here →

Fabric

I used to own a green scarf.

I can’t remember if I’ve told you this story before, it was the green of the first grass, bright enough to hurt the eyes. A bitter color, I imagined, one you’d sink your teeth into and feel it seeping through the membrane of every cell, stirring juices around. And I was wearing that scarf, for the first or second time ever. It was winter, and I was very young, or at least that’s what I’d say now. Back then I thought I was old enough for anything and everything.

The city felt like it was growing from me, from a stray seed stuck to the sole of my boot, and not the other way around. I walked the streets like they were of my own making, I faced the endless parade of people and buildings like I’d invented them, I and no other, and they were there for nothing more than morning entertainment on my way to wherever I was going.

By the fountains, I ran into this man I knew.

In retrospect, he was just a boy. We’d met on a bus, if you can believe it. For years we’d been taking the same bus from our home town to the city on Sunday evenings, often sitting together, our elbows touching through layers of fabric.

The lights never worked. On the bus. We’d ride through the snow for a while, leafing through papers or looking out the window, until it got dark and there was nothing left to do but try and sleep or stare into the night and think your life over. We never spoke. We nodded when we ran into each other at the bus stop, and one evening he offered to help as I was trying to push my embarrassing, overstuffed suitcase into the luggage compartment, and introduced himself.

So I knew his name now, and he knew mine, and when we met by the frozen fountains that morning, in full light for the first time ever, me wrapped up in my apple green scarf six times over, cheeks flushed from the cold, his name was right there for the picking like I’d kept it close at hand on purpose. I rolled it expertly in my mouth and said hi.

He said hi back and smiled. Half a second later we were walking past each other in opposite directions, but I knew. Something was beginning.

Remember when every little thing felt like the beginning of something extraordinary? Like anything could happen, and probably would, because you knew, you just knew you were meant for great things.

That’s exactly how I felt as I was walking away from the fountains that day. We’d meet again, I knew it. We’d run into each other a few more times, by fountains and museums and random newspaper stands, my curls perfect in every way each single time and my lips painted his favourite shade of plum. Then we’d finally go out for coffee. I’d be charming, didn’t my mother always say I could be terribly charming when I wanted to? I certainly wanted to now. He’d fall in love with me, of course. We’d be perfect together, one of those couples you feel have got a secret too valuable to share with the rest of the world. “How do they do it?”, people would wonder, sometimes out loud, and we’d just smile and he’d lean in to kiss my cheekbone.

I wore that scarf every day for months, well into the spring. He’d noticed it, I was sure, the sheer greenness of it, and would now see me from a distance. He’d run to meet me, I’d be charming, cheekbone kissing would ensue.

*

My favourite scarf these days is black, white dotted. It’s not a metaphor this, green to black, young to old. They’re just colors, and not meant to mean anything. There’s no lesson to learn.

It works well with my red winter coat, that’s all, the scarf. The most special thing about it is that the moment I saw it in a Mango shop a few months back, it made me think of the sky at night. A proper one, stars and everything, unlike what I normally see in London these days.

From my home town too, you couldn’t see the stars. When we were small, my sister and I spent our summers at our Grandpa‘s house, and I remember I’d fall asleep in the swing every night, out in the open at the edge of the field, despite being grounded for it time and time again. I just wanted to look at the stars. I thought God covered the planet with a large black umbrella at night. And that the stars were nothing but tiny holes in its canvas, worn thin from so many centuries of using, through which sunlight seeped through.

I check myself in the mirror one last time before I’m out for the day. Everything’s in its place, and somehow not really in its place at all. Also it seems that as I grow old, my eyes, if slightly more wrinkled at the edges every time I check, grow bigger. Or maybe the rest of me is getting smaller. I do feel it, sometimes, when I walk the streets of this city. Like I’m the morning entertainment, a tiny one at that, and not the other way around. It doesn’t sadden me, how things have changed. But sometimes I catch myself expertly knotting my scarf in the mirror, my fingers moving of their own accord like they’ve slipped out of my reach and become better at dealing with life than the rest of me is, and it hits me: I was a kid once.

We Have No Past

I bought a cactus today.

No bigger than a lime fruit, and barely rooted into a spoonful of  compost and what looks like a plastic shot glass. But now that I’ve temporarily made room for it among the piles and piles of crap on my desk, I find myself glancing at it and feeling plain old happy. And I’m glad I’ve reached this point where I need so little to brighten up my day. It must mean it’s not too dim to begin with.

Meanwhile, it rains. It rains and rains and I don’t mind it, despite it meaning it doesn’t feel like winter yet. On the inside, winter’s already here, and I’m slowly trying to find my bearings, as always slightly overwhelmed but secretly giddy with excitement.

I miss C.

Autumn has always been our season, and when I find myself thinking of him most often, but this year autumn’s been such a mess that I didn’t get my chance. So now he’s sipping into my winter, my darling friend C and the version of myself I was when I knew him.

It’s strange, how I imagined I’d grow out of it. Troubled friendships, a million little dramas, forgetting, misunderstanding in every possible way, acting up, giving up. I thought as an adult, things would be simple. People would just get along. We’d be too busy working at piling up our extraordinary futures to waste even a second of our precious time doubting and hurting one another.

And now, life is not a line. Or mine isn’t. It wriggles and spirals and I find myself revisiting mistakes and feelings I thought I’d outgrown, when really, I’m not too old or too wise for anything.

C would take photos of everything. This was before the time of digital cameras, when my parents kept our old Leica M3 in a green shoe box behind a rack of suits and raincoats, and we only took it out once a year, on the eve of our seaside trip, when Dad would spend the evening dusting and polishing it to perfection, then placing it in its leather holder, a soft folded towel and on the bottom of his most trusted suitcase, safe from bumps and scratches and stray fingerprints.

But C, he had a camera of his own.

There must be tens of thousands of photos of me on these discs. Years of focusing, zooming and clicking, printing, then later scanning every print to write on CDs, some of which I’m sure I’ve misplaced in time and still, I’m left with enough to browse through for days. For an entire winter maybe, no sleep, no drinks, no liking Facebook statuses, just breathing in and out and staring into our past.

There’s a closeup under very bright lights, my cheek covered in cake frosting. A friend’s 18th birthday party and I’m sheepishly smiling, trying to pick icing out of my eyelashes, someone’s hand resting on my shoulder. Then I’ve got my back to the camera, looking towards the sea, my hair tangled in a messy knot, footprints in the sand. I’m in our classroom, sitting at a desk, going through a stack of crumpled papers. In the park, leaning against a bench, friends kicking a balled up t-shirt down the alley in front of me.

A few are of the two of us together. You can tell they’re not taken by the same hand, and that we’re aware of the lens being there. We look right into it, shoulders straight, hardly aware of one another. We’re children. Sure, I’m wearing mascara, he’s cleanly shaved, but we’re clearly new at this game we’re playing. We’ve lived through what we’re certain must be the most difficult times of our lives, and together. We’ve shared fears and secrets, and now we wait. For things to fall into place, I suppose. Backs straight! Say cheese! Click.

I like this story. I think about it, not just in autumn. I loved this person. There was once a person I loved, and there’s mountains of photographic proof of it. A cinema adapted version of this narrative would have us walk into the sunset together in the end. Perfectly happy, slowly blending into the background, and you’d know we’d be just fine.

In real life though, things sometimes fall into place in unexpected, new patterns.

*

Plans of carrying my baby cactus home during rush hour crazies suddenly break my train of thought. I find myself drifting to other subjects, present and of little consequence. Like what pot I’m going to transfer the poor thing into. What ledge I’ll be placing it on. Our badminton game tonight, the first in many months, and the prospect of sleeping at last, rain falling against our windows, a favored pastime these days.

It’s meant to be Wordless Wednesday today, and I smile. Another pattern broken.

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.

Remembered: First Friendship and Other Sailing Vessels

When Dana was four, her mother turned into a Siamese cat.

She’d been one good looking lady, her mother, but just a lady, you know. Long hair, lipstick, high heeled shoes. No hint of magic. No promise of how she was going to make her sudden, high heeled exit and subsequent soft pawed entrance into their lives, changing everything.

Because things really change, you know, when your mother is suddenly a pet. Pets don’t need raincoats and dresses and their own half of the family king size bed, they don’t cook you dinner or check your socks for holes. And it really seemed that Dana’s mother had used all of her magic on growing fur and whiskers, and had no special powers left at all. She was just a cat, and that’s what she was fated to remain, a quiet creature by the name of Mama, who sometimes came when you called her, but most often just looked your way from a distance and decided she had better things to do.

In time, Dana’s father gave away his wife’s dresses, threw away her lipsticks, and took to sleeping in the middle of the bed, his limbs stretched out to form a snoring human starfish. He had no magical powers of his own either, and found he couldn’t possibly keep up with his daughter’s curfews, homeworks and tattered socks. So Dana came to spend her days in her grandmother’s house, chasing her mother through tangled forests of living room table and chair legs. It was there I met them both, the morning my parents too gave me away.

– Come out from under there, child, say hi to your friend.

The old woman leaned towards the patch of darkness under the dining table, her hands reaching wide. She was a big lady, thick legs wrapped in wool stockings under a dark skirt and white apron. Her hair, a dust coloured braid reaching down to her lower back, ended in a green ribbon which looked pressed and starched six times over, and like it could cut your finger off if you weren’t careful. I’d never seen anyone looking so neatly dangerous. Or anyone wearing an apron. And I’d definitely never met anyone named after a small cloud. Had it rained the day she was born? Had her parents fallen in love over weather talk? Did she have any other siblings named after meteorological phenomena?

As Tanti Norica’s presence was slowly sipping into every nook and cranny of my frightened body, two pairs of eyes made their appearance from under the table, and Dana and her mother entered my life with a smirk and a hiss. My own mother, high heeled and lipsticked but clearly devoid of any trace of internal magic, squeezed my shoulder and I automatically blurted out a faint hello, and offered an open, sweaty palm. The cat hissed again and the girl held her tighter, grabbing her stretched out paws in the cup of her free hand.

– I’m Dana. This is my mother, she doesn’t like strangers.