ISSUE TWELVE | SPRING 2019
The first day I arrive we don’t talk. A friend, who agreed to host me for a couple of days and who is kindly arranging the airbed on the floor, tells me:
By the way, I forgot to tell you. Apparently, there is another person from your city, who is staying with us. I think the name is Lou, maybe it would be interesting for you two to meet each other.
I manage to mumble something in response.
You know, you guys have similar experiences and I just thought it might be helpful to talk to somebody who really understands… Or do you mind?
No, no, sorry, I’m just getting sleepy, I guess. Thank you!
Of course! Ok, the bed is ready.
The airbed floats through the night, my memories are little golden fish and one by one I let them back into the dark waters.
* * *
When I wake up, I wish I’d get confused, I wish there was hope in being mistaken. But no, I know exactly where I am. I remember this ceiling. I remember getting here. I remember there is another person in this apartment, who apparently came from my city. It is somebody I’ve never met and probably don’t have anything in common with, but I bet we seem almost identical to the people living here, identical interchangeable problems. To avoid the kitchen, to leave quietly, to find a job, to move out where nobody knows where I am from, as soon as possible. With this I get up.
I dress and sneak out to the corridor. Struggling with tying my shoelaces in the dark, I hear a voice:
Hey, you must be Gray’s friend. I’m Sage, nice to meet you. Have you met Lou already?
Hi, no not yet.
Would you like me to introduce you to each other? Lou!
No, no, thank you. I’m a little in a hurry now. Sorry!
* * *
I take a metro to one of the main squares. I get out, the square looks pretty and lively, many cafes, a couple of street musicians, young people hanging out at the base of a monument. I cross the square and head towards a volunteering centre. I enter the gate, there is a line for clothes, pots, food, and the name of my city here and there, everywhere, it is a neon sign, so bright its light dissolves you, so there is no more you, you are the city, you are the people seeking shelter and jobs and warm clothes.
When I get out, I just need to sit down for a second. I sit next to a young couple and focus on the people passing by, going somewhere, going with a purpose or so it seems, never returning. How much time will my feet take to forget the streets they walked over and over, when walking them was like brushing teeth in the morning, mundane gestures marking our realities, stretched out into lines, into heartbeats? And if I close my eyes will my feet bring me there, the body remembering? No, I can’t afford this privilege. I need to focus on these things here. It’s nice on this bench, maybe I should just stay here for a while. I pull out a random book I grabbed from my friend’s shelf this morning. If I just sit here and read, as simple as that.
* * *
When I finally get back home, feeling refocused, I hear somebody in the kitchen and I immediately know it’s Lou, because, of course, everybody else should be at work at this hour. This is the neon sign. I can’t handle it now. I rush to my room without introducing myself, without looking. I close the door, I disconnect. I breathe out, releasing pressure. No, I can’t stay here like that, with somebody knowing, with everybody knowing, with them seeing me just as another case with all the consequences. I pick up my backpack and start packing. I can move to another apartment where nobody knows where I am from. Halfway through I realise I’m pathetic, foolish. I have no other friends in the city and no money. There is nowhere to go. I kick the airbed, it slides weightlessly. I crash hoping to fall asleep. When I sleep I don’t need to make decisions.
* * *
Eventually I find a job, but finding a room seems impossible. My friend says: “I understand, don’t worry”, so I stay for a while, but I avoid the apartment, knowing there are two of us, in need of refuge. When I am done with work I start exploring the district, wandering around until it gets really dark, postponing my return to the apartment. It’s all high-rises with gardens in between and kiosks and shopping malls around. Night after night I stroll around aimlessly. I watch children, dog owners, alcoholics, I have no interest in them. I wander observing things, as if life is happening to me, and I’m just here, now. I try to learn all small secret paths that run in between buildings, so I walk from a garden to a garden, repeating routes, making myself memorise. I hope I will dream these routes like dogs dream they are running. When I finally return to the apartment the windows are brightly lit in the buildings all around me. Just before entering I watch them as paintings in a gallery, just people being at home, my favourite Vermeer, so distant, so dear.
* * *
One of the days I discover a desert, a real small desert right after an unfinished shopping mall. The mall is really just a red metal frame, a skeleton of a giant animal caught in between a district I’ve been memorising and a land so flat it could possibly lead home. When I finally enter the desert and stand right in the middle of it, I notice people on its edges, at a distance, their bodies and the buildings on the horizon seem to be the same size.
From here the high-rises merge into one that seems to be small and flat, a joke hanging in the air. I walk towards the people, towards the edge, and discover a lake behind it. I sit down on its shore. I see the buildings and construction cranes being reflected in the water.
* * *
Ever since my discovery, I start going to the lake almost every night. I love having people around, swimming, chatting, reading, playing badminton. I love the sound of life just happening. Its sounds travel through the sand, I take them all in and they dissolve in my body in waves of belonging. To be a part of this land here, I bury myself in the sand, I cover myself with it completely, I become sand.
One of the days having buried myself in the sand and watching a bright pink air bed floating in the lake, I hear a familiar voice. Oh no.
Hey, you are Gray’s friend, right? My name is Lou, I think we kind of know of each other.
How does one land in the desert out of nowhere? Did the airplane break down? I stay still for a couple of seconds, maybe if I pretend not to notice, Lou would go away. But that would be impossible, Lou’s long lean figure is right there in front of me, blocking the sun, blocking the sky and the beach. Arms are thrown into the air for attention, impossibly bright red hair, shoulders covered in freckles. The pink airbed is floating somewhere there. I start breaking the sand, preparing for a flight, but Lou seems to get that:
Wait, wait, don’t go. Listen, I am tired of it all. Can I just sit here for a while? I promise not to ask questions.
Why not? I mean, aren’t we just two strangers, two average people meeting by chance?
I am tired, so I give up. When Lou turns towards me, I say:
Listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s not about you. I just really don’t want to remember, don’t want to talk about it now, I can’t.
Both of us are quiet for a minute, staring at the lake, then Lou turns to me smiling:
I just wanted to say I’m going for a swim, watch my stuff, OK?
The t-shirt flies in the air revealing a back covered with freckles. Lou heads towards the lake. At first, I see long arms cutting through the water, disappearing and then emerging as if somebody is throwing them into the air with all intensity, but then I lose Lou in the crowd of children and airbeds, floating. It’s just a normal summer.
We walk home quietly, in between buildings with windows lighting up one after another. Something about night windows always makes me feel sentimental: all the lives I would never know. I wonder about people who’ve got nowhere to go tonight, who’ve got no one waiting for them and how somebody might be wandering in these night gardens, looking at the windows unreachable as stars, as some distant planets. Some windows offer views of living rooms or small kitchens, people in them having dinner, playing with children, and it seems everything they do, they do in silence, and every gesture looks like dance.
We walk home quietly, and I’m grateful for that. We pass through night gardens. From time to time street lamps pull us out of the darkness, and Lou’s red hair seems almost neon-like, freckles are constellations.
When we finally reach the house, I stop:
I need to drop by the supermarket.
Good call, I also need to…
No! I mean… Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. Sorry, it’s not about you.
I turn and leave.
* * *
The next time I see Lou is by chance. By then I live in a new apartment, a new district, I have a new job.
It’s a friend’s birthday and we come there to dance. We come together, but a soon as we get there, our group dissolves into the crowd and I am left on my own. I move through the crowd looking for my friends, in vain. People move to the music, looking distant, locked into their own experiences, it’s just them and the music, a crowd of lonely dancers, facing a DJ as a prophet. I pass through the first room, move into the next one, and that is where I see angular shoulders and red hair: dancing neurotically, throwing arms into the air as if they don’t belong to the body, as if you want to take your body apart and throw it into the crowd, into the world – balancing right on the edge of a some kind of cube; it is Lou.
I stand there for a while watching, I remember the days of avoidance and fear and then the heat of the sand and the pink airbed floating in the lake, days of forgetting. I head to the bar to get a drink. I sit down on one of the couches in the hall. My companions are still nowhere to be found and I think of parties I used to have with friends at home.
Hey! Just like the previous time, Lou appears out of nowhere, arms in the air welcoming an embrace. Great to see you!
Are you here with somebody?
Yep, colleague’s birthday.
I see. How do you like the party?
It’s quite nice
Yeah, it’s alright, I guess.
Lou stands there moving to the rhythm of the music.
Have you been to the garden?
There is this small garden in the backyard, want to check it out? It’s quite lovely.
So I end up following Lou downstairs.
You know, they are planning to build a new district in the desert.
Seriously, I’m afraid it might disappear soon.
We reach ground floor and walk through a dark corridor, where all doors seem to be locked. Lou is trying one after another, stumbling over objects, almost falling, and then a wild laughter.
When we finally find the right door, what we see is not really a garden, rather a small yard with a couple of trees and a bench. We sit down there for a second. There is no wind, and you can hear the music quite clearly.
Somehow I keep on avoiding you, and here you are again! I almost laugh.
I know, I noticed, and I’m not offended.
Arms in the air, Lou stretches up and pulls down a leaf. Gives it to me:
For the memory.
Oh, it’s a walnut tree, I say after smelling it. You know, there is one just in front of my home, I mean at home at home.
I rub the leaf on my hands, and then grab Lou’s hand. It’s the smell of a walnut tree in front of my house, we’d rub its leaves into the skin, believing the smell would repel mosquitos, we’d stay in the garden for hours. It’s the smell of a walnut, which means no more distance, like the first love in the city, feverishly, nervously, freckles drop in constellations, wishes for the falling stars, hopes and dreams and pulling closer, your body is a refuge, a boat floating through these dark waters, carrying me home.
When we part, and Lou says: “Sorry, I am really really sorry”, I shiver in the cold of the night. It’s the first time in this city I let myself cry. The smell of walnuts lingers on my hands.
* * *
When you know you are leaving and you have time to say goodbye, intensity takes over the space of last weeks. It feels like slipping away, unstable, shaking, everything is set in motion. In these last weeks I walk a lot. It gets dark too quickly, the lights of cars, traffic lights, lights of houses, commercials move towards me, past me, away from me. I am on a marry-go-round, spinning and spinning. Maybe, I do love this city and will miss it. When I finally get back to the district, I try to see the desert. New buildings are growing on its edges, looking dead, no windows yet. They come closer and closer and maybe soon there will be no desert. I sneak past the construction site and go towards the lake, tenderly: there I can soften the edges of the day and let my emotions sink into the water.
I decide I need to see Lou before leaving. We haven’t become closer, but there has always been a kind of mutual recognition, even in my days of avoidance. If anybody could understand my need for saying goodbye slowly and properly, it would be Lou.
We meet in front of the school. I bring beer, to celebrate. We pass by an enormous hardware store. The air is hot and dry. It’s a kind of air you imagine in Hollywood movies set in the outskirts of cities with youth adventurous and wild. On the way to the desert we pass by a fence torn down by activists a couple of days before, and a crane which was burnt down in the clash.
We sit down on the edge of the lake. The crane emerges from a desert. It’s quiet now, but the developers will probably be back tomorrow. You can see the dark shape of new buildings on the horizon.
You think the desert will disappear?
Lou doesn’t answer, neither of us knows that and something in me is glad that if it does disappear, I won’t see it happening.
When are you leaving?
In two days.
So yet another city, and in the west, right?
Yep. Following the sun setting.
It’s going to be great, a different context. …. And I’m actually considering going home.
Lou smiles. I want to say: “It’s dangerous”, but we both know it already. There is no need to explain.
You know, this is really as good as it gets, Lou says, ankles in the water, arms in the air.
Yes, just this. And I guess it’s enough.
With this Lou turns away and watches the water. It’s quiet and almost perfect. Impossibly red hair, awkward shoulder blades, constellations between them, I try to memorise it all. I grab a rock next to me and throw it into the lake with all my strength.
Let’s go, I say.
We don’t talk on our way back. Our feet sink in the sand and it’s hard to walk quickly. The desert doesn’t let go. We stop at a big concrete block to look at it stretching behind us:
It’s a goodbye to the city, Lou says.
When I get home, the sand from my shoes scatters around the floor, and I finally let myself remember.
Darya Tsymbalyuk spends her days writing short stories, working on art projects, and researching plant narratives in oral histories of displacement (PhD). She comes from Ukraine, but lives in Scotland, where she studies at the University of St Andrews. You can find some of her art projects here.
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