Lines and Dots

I was in London when Grandpa died. A sunny day for once and I was sitting in this windowless office, typing rows of letters onto a window scattered screen. My sister called. The ringtone, a couple of notes from a Romanian folk song, made people lift their heads and frown.

I knew something had happened. You move across the world and never think how bridges may be broken and connections lost, but this weird umbilical chord you didn’t even know you had, will effortlessly stretch over rocks and waters, tying you down. Not an ounce more freedom than you can handle.

In my mind, I went over everybody I loved, beads on string, each with their possible illnesses and arrays of domestic accidents. Fast growing tumors. Crushed limbs. Chests shattered on impact. Preparing myself for the worst.

It was Grandpa.

It comes with growing up, I think. We get wide open spaces, alcohol and speed dating, and the chance to ponder over the eventuality of everybody’s death. I think about it all the time. The death of my parents, my friends, my own. With grandparents it’s always been different. As a child, I knew they were old and could be gone at any time. I dreaded being left alone with them, thinking they’d die on me and I wouldn’t be strong or tall enough to unlock the front door, run out into the street and cry for help. But then nothing happened. I grew older and they did too, but at a such slower pace that at one point there I was, an almost fully formed human being, while they’d stayed pretty much the same. They were beyond dying by now, I was sure. Forgotten. They’d slowly be getting smaller and whiter for decades, then surely I’d catch up with them. We’d end up looking so much like one another that people would get us mixed up on the street.

They found Grandpa fallen on his kitchen floor. He hadn’t been picking up the phone. I picture Mom’s worries, hastily making their way along her umbilical phone cable, towards this destination that was slowly dissolving into nothing. She must have felt the cable snap.

So they broke down the door and found it, this thing no one thought would happen anymore.

It’s strange, the things we forget. I don’t remember what colour the kitchen walls were painted. Or what slippers he wore. But I remember that screen door. The mesh had rusted in places and it was so thin that I was sure if you pressed your body against it hard enough, you’d break through to the other side. A pile of bloody spaghetti strings they’d have to bury in a pot shaped coffin.

*

I dream about them, the people I’ve lost. I see their faces, every wrinkle, every pore, closer I think than I’ve ever looked at them in real life. I miss them more than I miss my young self, more than I miss my happiest of days. I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid of death in the way other people I know seem to be. But I am mad with hatred towards it, and death knows it. Doing its nasty business behind my back, what kind of thing is that? Waiting for me to drag my suitcases across half the planet, and then strike. When I’m not looking.

*

Grandpa and I had the same birthday, 60 years apart. We almost shared a first name too, if my parents hadn’t changed their mind at the last moment, picking a fancier, more modern name for me. Something I never really forgave them for. Perhaps it was a way of protecting me. Would I have remembered him every time someone called my name? Would it have hurt? Or would the pain, like all feelings these days, have faded out in time, a dubious spot on a table cloth washed over and over again in a million waters?

Tomorrow, Grandpa would have turned 90.

I was in London when he died. It’s been four years and still, I haven’t cried and haven’t said my goodbyes. In a way, it’s like it didn’t happen for me when it did for everybody else. Like he’s still there, close enough to reach if it weren’t for that mesh door keeping us apart, dissolving him into a million tiny squares. In fact, I know the door doesn’t exist anymore. They took it down along with the rest of the furniture, before they painted the walls clean and replaced the cupboards with more modern, plasticky replicas of their original selves. Nothing looks the way I remember it now. Like it never was, my childhood. This man and his loneliness.

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.

Every Day is Cake Day

One of the perks of sharing an open plan office with 80 strangers and their annoying iPhone ringtones, is the fact that pretty much every other day, one of them gets married, has a baby or yet another “late thirties” birthday.

Now, I’ve been other places before this, you know. People there were growing old and having babies too. We got them donuts or little supermarket cakes and cheeky cards everybody signed in a million different shades of ink. “Have a good one”, “50 is the new 15”, “XOXO”, nothing crazy. Then we sang our embarrassing Happy Birthdays, poked a little fun at them soon to become pensioners, and life was back to normal in a matter of minutes. I was able to handle that pretty well, my social inadequacy considered.

But oh, how things have changed. Office celebrations are a whole different story in my current workplace. They’re like the Olympic opening ceremonies, like the crowning of a new royal. People expect the extraordinary. Chocolate fountains. Fireworks. Miley Cyrus in tight pleather daisy dukes.

Of course, everybody must attend to the wonderful preparations. The birthday boy/gal is obviously aware of what’s coming, but plays along for some reason, allowing themselves to be dragged into suspicious, several hours long meetings, while the rest of us proceed to taking our event planning roles very seriously. Mountains of plates and glasses are brought out of the cupboards we’d stacked them into just a day before, in the aftermath of another celebration. Bottles of wine are set to rest at room temperature. Bags of Doritos the size of toddlers are opened, their cheesy flavored contents distributed into a dozen porcelain bowls. Custom made birthday cakes are ordered and delivered. Yes, cakes. Plural. Every other day.

These joyous occasions are known among us as the “cake and stares”. The reason for that is that people generally gather around the mountain of goodies, start wildly munching on industrial quantities of cake and crisps and, their mouths stuffed with the delicious bounty, they’re unable to say a word. So, for minutes on end all you can hear is the satisfied chewing of a couple dozens party food enthusiasts. No Happy birthday, no Holy cow, this is some scrumptious grub, nothing but people staring satisfied into each other’s eyes as they chew away. It’s marvelous.

Now, I’ve got a problem. I don’t like cake. I know, I know, you can’t possibly believe that a cake hater actually lives and breathes in nowadays world, but what can I say, I must be the among the few remaining members of a dying species. I don’t have a sweet tooth, never had. I sometimes feel like having a bite of chocolate, or a spoonful of ice cream, but one bite or spoonful later and I’m done for the month. I do like Doritos, so much so that I’d fill my bathtub with them cheese dust oozing triangles of ecstasy and would just lie in there forever, crunching myself into a cheese flavored overdose.

So my cake intolerance and Doritos addiction considered, I try to keep myself away from the “cake and stares” celebrations. I’ll sign the birthday card, I’ll help with the preparations, I’ll even have a glass of wine (or two). Still, I’m seen as a traitor. It’s disrespectful towards the birthday boy/gal if I don’t join the munching. Not to mention that I’m also too skinny, therefore I need to help myself to a couple of brick sized slices of chocolate injected cake, and pronto, or I’ll surely succumb to inanition before long. Standing there all slim and superior, no sticky crumbles around my mouth, is seen as a form of defiance and will not be tolerated forever. I need to show a little respect and start chewing.

I push my luck every day, and every day I’m afraid they’ll have had enough with my smug attitude and will end up forcefully feeding me a briefcase sized cake. A particular scene from Roald Dahl’s Matilda comes to mind. Have you read that? If so, you’ll understand the constant terror I live in.

I need to run now, the wife of this guy I’ve never spoken to just had a baby. There’s sugar in the air.