Fifty Shades of Green

I kind of ruined Christmas this year.

Well, not really Christmas, but Saint Nicholas Day, which V and I have grown to favor over  Christmas since we moved to London. It’s been our dearest holiday as kids, and not many people we know here celebrate it, which makes it feel deliciously clandestine. Oh, and it’s so much fun!

On the evening of December 5th, Romanian children wipe their winter boots squeaky clean and leave them on the doorstep or the window sill. Then overnight, Saint Nicholas drops by, and if the boots are shiny enough to eat off of, he fills them with gifts.

He’s not as well-to-do as Santa Claus, our Nicholas fellow, so his gifts are usually a mix of trinkets and chocolate in its many forms, though in my case, no sweet tooth to speak of whatsoever, he’s proven to be quite ingenious over the years. One year he actually STOLE my boots, and replaced them with another, brand new pair, in turn overflowing with a bounty of tiny bags of salted popcorn. Gotta love the old guy, right?

Well, anyway, that’s how Saint Nicholas Day is meant to work.

As far as how it’s worked for us this year, that’s a whole different story.

Yesterday evening found me absolutely fuming.

Three or four canceled trains later, I’d been waiting in the freezing cold in Clapham Junction Station for over forty minutes, no book and no internet connection. Not that my fingertips were in scrolling or page turning shape anyway, as they’d frozen into fingernailed icicles a long time before. Eventually I got on the-only-running-train-in-London, one that must have circled my intended destination six times over before eventually making it there, almost an hour later. Lovely V, probably anticipating I’d be blaming him for my ordeal, as I tend to do whenever there’s no one else to blame, picked me up from the station and we drove to a nearby Amazon pickup point, where our super-duper-Black-Friday-deal food processor was waiting for us. I must admit that made me feel a bit better. I mean, I’ll probably be dusting it more often than actually using it, but I can’t help getting high on new-stuff-we’ve-got-new-stuuuuuuuuuuff euphoria every time we get, well…, new stuff. So on the drive home I was slowly defrosting and feeling like life was worth living again.

Then it happened. I ruined Christmas Saint Nicholas.

As V was setting up the food processor, I almost broke my neck stumbling over his backpack, which, to be fair to the guy, was in its regular place, smack in the middle of the living room. So totally my fault.

Anyway, once I made sure my spine was still intact, I picked it up and moved it to a less trafficked corner. And then I saw it, the package inside, wrapped in a way only V can wrap, like it’s just been in a tumble dryer for a full cycle. I’d have pretended not to see it, I’m nice that way, but he’d come to check on me after hearing me tumble, and saw me seeing it. He SAW me see it. End of story, goodbye Saint-Nicolas-is-still-almost-a-week-away folly, we simply HAD TO exchange gifts then and there, he decided, I’d ruined the surprise.

Now, wouldn’t it have been brilliant if I didn’t have my gift for him ready too? It would have made a much better story, I know. But I’m such a Saint Nicholas maniac, that I’d bought his present a long time before, had it wrapped up in Rudolph themed paper and hidden at the back of my sock drawer, which is where I tend to keep all my dangerous secrets.

A mess of torn gift wraps on our floors for the first time this winter. For the first time since we got the place, come to think of it, so I guess we’ve crossed another threshold of our life here.

Not all things are new, though.

Every year since we started dating, I’ve been giving V a green sweater for Saint Nicholas Day.  I hadn’t intended starting a tradition, but he liked the first sweater so much that it grew into a brightly colored, third member of our little family. This occasion calls for the green sweater!, he used to say, and I laughed. He started buying jackets and shirts to best complement it, and I thought he was crazy, but hey, if sweater-crazies is the worst kind of crazies he’s got, count me in!

So every December since, I’ve added to his collection of various-shades-of-green protective layers. They’ve got their own small section of his wardrobe now, and every time I come across it, this block of greens I’ve picked from places all over, it feels like we’re really doing this together-thing the right way. Who knew we had it in us.

I was going to end on a Happy Saint Nicholas Day note, for those of you who happen to be celebrating it, but it’s still way too early. So a “Happy Random Tuesday!” will have to do for now.

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.

All Our Little Things

Picture this. Yours truly marching up and down the flat at 2 AM on Saturday night, green gooey face mask drying my T-zone into a crust, all the while fighting my tangled post-shower head with not one but two brushes, and squeezing my brains for an acceptable excuse not to have to get out of bed and traipse to central London in the morning.

– We could set the alarm for 6 AM, and Skype them that I’m unwell and puking all over the place or something. They’ll believe that, I look like I could start puking at anytime anyway, I’ve just got that kind of face, you know.

V was buttoning his phone in bed, entirely immune to my rambling, not even raising his eyes to face me with his now very familiar you’re-a-psycho look.

– OH!!! We could say I’m pregnant. They can’t hold anything against a pregnant lady, right? They can’t pretend I have to keep ALL my promises. I mean, I’m pregnant. I’m a carrier of life. I’m forgiven one lousy broken promise.

– You’re not a carrier of life.

I knew the battle was lost, I’d known it was lost all along. It was rude to cancel hours before the meeting. It was rude to pretend you’re pregnant to get out of an hour long tube trip on a Sunday morning. I was nothing but a rude disaster waiting to happen, I should consider myself lucky I had V around to guide me back to normalcy and good manners. And it had been my idea all along, going to the Royal Academy for the Summer Exhibition. Crazy, right? To top it off, what started as this couple of hours thing that I was dragging poor defenceless V into, eventually turned into a proper, official get together when a bunch of friends decided they wanted to go too. They didn’t really get art, they said, but it would be fine, I’d just teach them about it. Me! Pretend-pregnant lady, teacher of modern art.

Six hours of zombie-sleep later, I was marching up and down the flat untangling my bed hair and trying on summer dresses showing enough skin for what looked like it would be one of the two yearly days of summer we get in London, and covering enough skin for me not to worry about my wobbly bits. Half a dozen discarded outfits and a belgian waffle (wobbly bits don’t get wobbly by themselves!) later, we were finally out of the flat and on a Piccadilly Line train to Green Park.

During our first couple of years in London, V and I went to all the art exhibitions there were. Every Saturday we set off to visit another gallery, walk the streets and feast on steamy lasagnas and pints of strawberry cider in dark, loud Soho pubs. It was our thing, hanging out together, making fun of other people’s art, chomping on baked pasta varieties. Our weekend patterns have somewhat changed since, what with our Saturdays dedicated exclusively to entirely unartistic house hunting, and our Sundays a time of licking our house-hunting-related wounds and just lying there, like exhausted amoebas, waiting for the week to end. But I would change that, I for some deranged reason decided. I’d guide us back to our intellectual, artistic universe, and at all costs.

So here we were on this beautiful Sunday morning in the Royal Academy courtyard, messing around the jet fountains in an effort to cool our no-longer-used-to-summer-who-knew limbs. As soon as everybody arrived we stepped inside, and it was nothing like any other museum trip I’d ever been on, pretty much because on none of my previous ones did I spend my time talking very little about the art and infinitely about mortgages, fertility treatments and how there’s-no-love-after-marriage,-didn’t-I-know-that? I didn’t even have to turn my art-teacher mode on, no one really cared to know much about the exhibits, except for the prices I mean, and we each had a catalogue for that. Several £60,000?-And-I-can-paint-way-better-than-that! later, we walked out (shortest. museum. trip. ever.) into the sun and started towards Hyde Park, where the plan was to rent a bunch of those touristy bikes and do a couple of laps around the lake.

Note to self: gypsy skirt + bike, never a good combination. Suffice to say that half of Sunday’s Hyde Park population, including a bunch of innocent, defenceless toddlers, caught a full frontal view of my undies. But other than that there were no victims of my precarious cycling, and I actually enjoyed the trip, so much so that I would have kept at it for a couple of hours more, had everybody else not succumbed to hunger.

They’re strange, the dynamics of small groups of people trying to get through a day out together without judging each other’s life and topic of conversation choices. I’ve had my ups and downs trying to make friends in this country, and I’ve come to decide, as with most things apparently, that I’ve still got tons to learn. We seem to be, on our own or as groups of friends-strangers-and-in-between, permanent works in progress. It can be comforting to know that you can amend yourself and your relationships at any time but then, sometime’s it’s really tiresome how everyone and everything-we-feel/mean-for-eachother is so volatile. I can deal with friendships that somewhat change, but not so much with friendships that change out of friendships and into something else. Something else is rarely a good thing.

V and I decided to walk for a couple of stops on our way back, so we parted ways with the rest of the group in front of the Science Museum. They were in a hurry to make it to their Sunday afternoon naps, and as I’ve never had a nap myself unless I was really ill, I found myself judging them for cutting a day short to get a half hour’s worth of sleep. Can I be friends with an afternoon napper, I wondered. What if a group of British scientists discovered that all extraordinary, life changing things tend to happen precisely on Sunday afternoons, would I just miss those wonderful opportunities because everyone who voluntarily hangs out with me is having their nap? Or is that simply too much of a compromise to make?

We found ourselves walking down my favourite street in Notting Hill, where all the houses are painted white and everybody seems to live perfect, white painted lives, though I know they probably fight similar existential problems, like do you jinx it if you fake pregnancy to get out of a museum trip, or does it make you a freak if everybody else but you naps at the same time every day.

Of course it’s not about nap time, I swear it’s not (not even I’m that crazy to care about that). I’ve just been thinking about relationships of all kinds these days.

As I’m sitting here typing, in this white painted flat where life has never been perfectly white, my Spotify player is making its way through the Top 100 UK Tracks list. There are songs about girls wiggling their wobbly bits (on bikes?) and why-does-it-feel-so-good-oh-so-good-to-be-bad, and I normally don’t enjoy the mix and spend most of my time pressing skip than actually listening to anything, but today I’m either tired or into something new an superficial or both, so I don’t mind. John Legend starts his lovey-dovey All of Me, this all-of-me-loves-all-of-you…wait it goes on!…love-your-curves-and-all-your-edges-all-your-perfect-imperfections thing I’d probably never listen to unless I had my headphones forcefully glued into my ear canals. But it makes sense today, and it makes me sad. I’m past the point where I’m able to like/love people’s perfect-imperfections liberally. I’m aware it’s a problem (mine? theirs? ours?), but I’m tired and disappointed and I can’t pretend like everything can simply be painted over in quick dry paint.

Every time I come to a half epiphany these days, I end up wondering if it means I’m finally a grown up. I think I’m past that point too. I am a grown up, that’s a fact by now. It’s all about what kind of grown up I’m evolving into these days, and I guess it’s the kind who expects things in return. A fair treatment, a listening ear, a bit of effort, respect, all the things I’m willing to put in. It must mean I’m not selfless (any longer?), that I’ve got perfect-imprefections of my own. A vicious circle which will probably have me end up friendless, and then it won’t make any difference who’s napping when.

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.

*

You only met me a few months ago.

It was the day of the ten years high school reunion and we were making our way up the stairs towards the atrium, a couple hundreds of us fully formed human beings, kids half our age holding flowers over our heads. I stumbled and reached for a shoulder to lean on, and there you were. I mentioned my dangerous shoes and I guess you felt it was an intimacy you could live with. Did you think I was hitting on you? I wonder. You’d only just met me and here I was, all wrapped around your arm, nothing but a couple of layers of canvas keeping our skins apart.

We sat in opposite corners of the room, never to touch again. Hours passed. Speeches, clapping, the Gaudeamus. When it was time to go, we dropped by our old classroom. It seemed smaller and the walls were painted a different color. You couldn’t find your old desk. I found mine, they’d moved it further back. I recognised the scratches.

At the party, they’d sat us at the same table. Sure, I said, I’ll move so you and your friend can sit together. We didn’t speak again. There was dancing. Drinks. People to smile at.

It was almost closing time and I was chatting to someone I used to regularly crush on back in the day. You interrupted. Brought a chair. Wanted to know what it was all like, leaving the country. We talked for a while. I told you about the longing, the loneliness, the freedom, about how nothing is ever the same. You listened. It was time to go, they were turning off the lights. You said let’s walk, let’s walk you said, though we were three miles out of town and I was flying to London in the morning, and I had my killer shoes on, and you’d only just met me hours before.

I carried my shoes in my hand. The sidewalk was smooth and cold, like a fresh bed sheet. For the longest time, I listened. There was rain in the air. I’d turn my head towards you but you just kept talking, staring ahead. Once or twice you stopped and waited for me to speak. You looked at me then, and I looked back, and I said the words I’d rehearsed in my head as you’d been telling me the story. You were unhappy. It wasn’t just something, a relationship, a mistake, a thirst. It was a million things, and I thought I understood, though I wasn’t unhappy for a million reasons then and there myself.

You wished we’d talked before, you said. All those years. Even in school. Why hadn’t we talked, you asked. Why hadn’t we met. Oh well, you didn’t think we could have been friends then anyway. I said I didn’t think it either. But I lied.

*

I met you in the autumn of ’99.

We were fifteen. They sat you at the desk behind me and I turned to shake your hand. Hitting on you and I’d only just met you, you must have thought.

I’d let you copy off me in Chemistry and you’d lend me your CDs. You had a Korn T-shirt I really liked, a brown one with a cartooned version of the band members on the chest.

One day they were teasing you in front of everybody, your friends. You liked this girl and were too shy to tell her anything, but you’d blush when she walked by, and you’d even followed her from a distance to find out where she lived, and I guess that was weird, because everybody laughed. I felt like you could use some cheering up so I gave you my Snickers bar. Take it, I said, I’m on a diet, and you didn’t even say I looked fine, but it didn’t matter.

At our graduation party we danced our last dance just before the night was over. Your shirt was covered in red lipstick marks and you said you’d asked all red lipstick wearing girls in school to kiss it, and you’d keep it as a souvenir. I laughed. My lips were pink. We’d see each other at Uni, you said, and I wished it true, but you hadn’t even met me yet so what were the chances.

Six or seven years later I saw you again in a nightclub. I was waiting in line at the cloakroom, sweaty paper ticket in hand for my winter coat. I swear I felt someone’s eyes on me. I turned and there you were, hands in pockets, leaning against a wall. I went over everything in my mind. What I was wearing, how my hair looked, how much care I’d put into my makeup that evening. Was I slouching? Was I biting my lip? You walked over and we talked for a while, about our jobs and how it would soon be ten years since graduation. You’d gotten fat, you said. Snickers bar, I remembered, and said you looked fine. The girl was handing me my coat by then and her hands were skinny and full of blue veins, as I imagined mine would turn in my seventies. I was twenty six. I could have grabbed your elbow with my white, vein-less fingers.

My girlfriends were waiting for me in the street. Short skirts and beautiful legs. Colourful and loud under the streetlights, laughing. We hugged and I felt one of your buttons pressing cold against my collarbone, leaving a mark.

I met you again after our friend A. had his accident. A bunch of us were visiting him at home, everybody was laughing and drinking and A.’s dad had just sat him in his chair and was wheeling him out of the room. A million tears started dripping down my cheeks and I quickly turned my head to hide them, and there you were, sitting nearby, and you passed me your napkin. I’m an idiot, I said. The napkin smelled like chocolate.

*

Dear friend,

It’s been almost 15 years of us not meeting each other. I know some people may like this story better than the alternative of a boring, straightforward relationship. It is, after all, classic Young Adult novel material, and I guess we should feel special or something, but you know what? 15 years is more than half our lives and that breaks my heart.

As we were making our way towards town, me barefoot and quietly listening as you talked and talked into the night, I could see it happening. Any time now, any time. We’d finally meet. It wouldn’t be a big thing. I mean, it wasn’t like we were in love, or had ever been. I wasn’t your one who got away and you weren’t mine. We were just a friendship waiting to happen. I smiled. There you were, telling me about how depressing everything was, and I was smiling. I’m an idiot, I thought, but it didn’t matter. We’d be friends now, we’d finally be friends, and everything would be all right.

I don’t remember any thunder. Just a million drops crashing against my eyelids. I must have cursed like a drunken sailor but you didn’t mind. You’d grabbed my hand and were dragging me towards the taxi stand, the soles of my feet soaking wet and my blood pumping with infinite hatred. I’d have punched the storm in the chest with both fists. Fuck this rain, you said, leaning in through the window to hug me goodbye. Your parents’ house was only a couple blocks away, you’d walk, you said. You can’t walk now, I yelled, but you didn’t get it, it was just a little rain, you’d be fine. We’d see each other soon, you said, you’d come and visit. Yes, of course, I whispered, we’d see each other really soon. But I lied.

Happy birthday.

 


Writing Soundtrack: James Vincent McMorrow – We Don’t Eat