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 →

Fury

There are few people in my immediate social ecosystem I truly dislike.

I left one such person behind when I moved from Romania a few years back, and during that time, whatever negative feelings I’d had for them eventually faded into this colourless mix of mostly indifferent emotions. And I suddenly found myself in a good place socially speaking, no energy-draining animosities in the air. And it felt right.

Now, don’t think that I’ve gone out of my way to mess up my newly discovered universe of peace and sympathy, as I tend to mess up all good things in my life. This time, I most definitely did nothing wrong. Or not on purpose, anyway. And nonetheless, my disliking-people-is-so-paseé mantra is now itself a thing of the past.

Because these days, I’ve got someone new to dislike.

I’m not proud of it. And no, I’m not going to badmouth them on the interwebs or publish their Twitter handle for you equally spiteful people to poke fun at out of some deranged online solidarity. In fact, I haven’t and will not do anything about my animosity. I won’t be voicing my negative feelings towards them, I won’t be sending bad karma their way, I won’t be feverishly praying for the day of retribution. I’ll repress my emotions, like the responsible, perpetually unsatisfied adult I’ve grown into.

The other day I ran into this person in the street.

When someone’s mean to you, my Grandma used to say, just look at them. Look at them real close, and picture them smiling. You’ll realise they’re good people after all. Just good people having a bad day.

From a distance, I tried to imagine them smiling.

It didn’t really work, it was cold and getting dark and people were sliding in and out of the layers of air between us, and a smile would be nothing but a tiny horizontal line from where I was standing anyway.

It pains me that I’ve allowed a human being to make me not like them so much. It’s not a fading feeling either, or not yet anyway. It’s strong. You’d think you could squeeze it out of me and pour it in a cup, a thick, poisonous looking juice.

I gave up picturing smiles and walked into a nearby grocery store. I took my glove off to squeeze a mango, its skin stamped with the name of a country V and I were looking at visiting just the other week. I smiled. I settled on a baguette, pears and two bunches of daffodil buds. The clerk wrapped the flowers in Christmas themed paper. Too keep them warm until you get home, she said, and we smiled. I didn’t even have to imagine it, like Grandma had said. Some people, you could tell they were good without any tricks. I walked home and put the daffodils in a vase on the dressing table.

Someone once told me yellow is the colour of courage.

When I got back from work last night, none of the buds had opened yet and I worried they’d died. I cooked us dinner, did my accounting, read a little. As I was getting ready for bed some hours later, I noticed two of the flowers had opened. And not just a little, but fully bloomed and yelling their yellows like war cries. Had I been paying more attention, I’d have heard the petals part, I just knew it, and the thought that I’d missed it made me unbearably sad.

I suspect they’re not just having a bad day, this new person in my life. A bad day doesn’t do that to you, I wouldn’t think. They might be having a bad few days though, a bad few months, a year. A bad slice of life, and that might explain them being the way they are. I wish I knew what to do with this revelation, but somehow, even after all these years of playing the people game, it feels like the rules are changing all the time.

I’m off to hug someone now. They tend to smile when you do that.

Breakable Girls and Boys

I think a lot these days.

People tell me things, and I listen, and then I take them with me, their sentences, their stories, and grow them into thoughts that need constant rethinking, thoughts that end up keeping me awake at night.

I feel more alert than ever.

At times I catch my reflection in a computer screen or a random shop window, and I’m surprised that my eyes aren’t three times wider than usual, that my pores aren’t visibly open into little black holes, that I’ve still got membranes keeping the outside world at bay. Because lately I’ve been feeling like I’m breathing everything in, with all my senses, painfully gulping every sound and every idea and every speck of light, until I’ll have swallowed the entire world and everybody in it, and then what.

I doubt this makes much sense.

The other day, a friend told me she didn’t have anything left to live for.

We’d been chatting on Skype for a while, about our plans for Christmas and my recent adventurous furniture shopping sessions, when these sentences suddenly started filling the screen, these frightening sentences threatening to drip onto my desk and my keyboard, stain the carpet and sip through into the guts of the earth. So I had no choice but to swallow them up. And here she is now, carrying her unhappiness back and forth inside me. She’s lost, she whispers constantly in my ear. She can’t think of anything, not one thing that would make her happy, she says. She gets home after work sometimes and just sits there. Just sits there, you know? No book, no TV, not a light on, until it’s time to go to bed. She knows something is wrong and then sometimes, she doesn’t. Because who knows, perhaps this is it. Her life from now on. A new phase. Something that can’t be helped.

I think a lot these days.

It’s not easy.

Yesterday morning I jumped out of bed troubled by the unexpected peace and quiet. 8:45 and I started yelling at V to get up already, I’d be in such big trouble, and just as my contract is up for extension, why was he looking at me like that, let’s go!

It’s Saturday, he said, as I kept slamming drawers and trying to squeeze into a pair of jeans. I don’t care it’s Saturday, we need to get a move on!

Hey, it’s Saturday, he said again, and smiled. I sank to the floor and almost cried, jeans tangled around my ankles. It’s too much, I said, and he must have thought I was talking about work. But I meant all this thinking. It’s getting to me.

And it scares me how we’re nothing but other people’s memories in the making. Such responsibility, isn’t it, to grow into someone’s good memory. Such hard work it takes.

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.