Friday, February 17

From A Kiss To

IT WAS when I walked out of the toilet that I realized my nerves were shot. My stomach ached and my knees were not holding me as upright as I wished they would. When I left the office to meet her—my departure kept as inconspicuous as I could manage—I did my best to calm down but there was so little courage in me.
I thought that it was one day short of two weeks since I had met her.
She did not mean to enter my existence as valiantly as she did, I was sure of that, and I did not mean for her to either. There are things you cannot help.
On Sunday afternoon I had made her a mix CD. I had not made a mix CD in a long time. There were not very many songs on it, only twenty-five minutes worth, but I thought that she might like it anyway. She had told me that she was not looking for a relationship. We would meet as friends. I made the CD and took great care with it, made a front and back cover, and called it a gift to her. It was in my pocket, which it fitted in quite nicely. I was a little afraid that someone at work would see it in my bag and start asking questions. They never saw it.
The streets had warmed up from the previous week, when all that snow had landed. There was no wind now and any breeze that was feisty enough to button our coats only served to remind us of spring, for it had that spring smell within it.
I got there before her.
Will she smell the tobacco smoke on my breath? Will she mind? It was best not to chew gum because that looked a little rude. I got there before her so that I had to wait, walking in circles and reading the restaurant menu.
How would her eyes look now that I had not seen them in thirteen days? It was a miracle I had survived so long without seeing them in the first place.
The restaurant was next to a road that curved around a corner and there, over the corner, she came walking toward me.
She was more beautiful than I had remembered and I was very glad to see her. The thought had entered my mind that she would not turn up at all and that I would be standing there alone until the offices closed. So she walked at me and I was very alive right then, even though I was only stood in one spot.
She moved at me. I did not know how to greet her so that when she went to kiss my cheek I was awkward and struggled to swallow and felt flustered in my coat. I wished the wind would blow so I could cool down. The hello had been sabotaged entirely by me.
If only I could have told her beforehand that I was no good at hellos or good-byes. She might have forgiven me.
The restaurant was underground and was dimly-lit, which suited my skin just fine. A Thai man greeted us underwhelmingly and led us to a four-seater in the rear. There were not many people. Whoever was seated looked as though their meal was courtesy of an expense account, clinking on the seventeenth floor of a building somewhere. Where we sat a big mirror faced me and I could see a blurred reflection of myself out of the corner of my eye and it was very off-putting.
Originally I had planned to order a coke, but, because of my nerves, I ordered a beer. It tasted good and cold. She ordered a glass of wine—pinot grigio—and some tap water.
We talked while we ordered food. Our order was taken.
We continued to talk. I was very happy to listen to her. Her eyes shone. They were not quite blue. They were not quite blue, though a little green. They shone and I thought they were just as beautiful as Guernica or Mahler’s Fourth. She was a wo-
man, a lady, a life fully formed in front of me and it terrified me. The more she spoke the more she revealed to me that we were not at all alike and that, I thought, was what I needed. I need someone who is not is not at all like me, someone who knows how to open the tin can of life, yes, a great woman. She was good to listen to; her expressions, her gestures, her wide eyes widening with her stories. Her skin was flawless, without moles or freckles or marks or scars. She pulled her hair over her shoulder and rolled it around between her fingers.
The food was delicious. We had made good orders. We shared them. I ordered another beer but she did not want another glass of wine. I made sure I used my napkin a lot.
It was when I walked out of the restaurant toilet that I realized how much time had passed. I paid for the meal and left a tip. It was only the decent thing to do. She thanked me. We walked out and back up the stairs on to the street.
We made our good-byes. I thought that we might embrace or that she might kiss me on the cheek again as she had done earlier. I went to pull the gift out of my pocket—I would fling it into her hands at the last moment so that she would not have time to ask me about it. I was positive the gift would explain itself had she listened to it and read the enclosed note.
But she never embraced me or kissed my cheek. She just said “See you soon” or “Take care” or some such thing and took flight across the road as if there were a car coming.
I let go of the gift and it slid back into the recesses of my jacket pocket.
Do not be a fool and look around, I told myself. Anyone can look around right now but you must not. And I didn’t. I walked down the road very unsteadily and slow so that I could catch my balance. I pulled a cigarette out and lit it. The people on the pavement walked very slowly but I could not get angry so I just walked slowly behind them.
On my way back to the office—a very short walk—I cursed myself. You are a boy, a stupid boy, I said to myself and always avoided my reflection in the polished window of banks and cafes, where all the other young people briefly check their hair and make-up. No, at that moment the pavement was of much interest to me. I studied the stains and puddles and skid-marks and hard gum.
Back in the office I did not want anyone to notice I had been gone for so long so I went to a meeting room and removed my coat and jacket. I could snatch them one by one later and pretend that I had always been in there. It was a perfect plan. Again the memory of her flight struck me and I swung and punched the wall. I do not know why I punched the wall but my knuckle hurt and it quickly turned purple. I punched the wall again. Pain thrust itself up my wrist.
It was not meant to be. I knew that now. I sat down and tried to focus on all of my work, which swam around me on the desk. A girl walked into the room and she addressed me by name, even though I was the only person in the room. She mentioned the company’s director—“He called. Can you call him back as soon as, please.”
“OK.”
I went back to my desk. My knuckle was turning purple but I did not mind much because it was an attractive purple.
“Where have you been hiding?” asked a colleague.
I pointed behind me—“In a meeting room,” then I added “And I went for a meal.”
“Oh,” he said, and nothing more.

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