It was one of those few evenings that last an eternity.
We stood on the balcony together. We watched the lights go out in window after window. I was humming a song and you were tapping a restless beat on the railing with your fingers. My legs were bare, I felt a pleasant chill. The stars winked at us and I thought that maybe there, in the silver-specked night sky, there was a parallel couple – a girl and a boy, just like us. They’d be looking in our direction, they’d see us on the balcony amid the many identical concrete ten-storey blocks, and they’d be surprised that we were blinking back at them.
And then time accelerated rapidly. It was morning already. You slipped out thinking I was still asleep. Without saying goodbye, you ran down the stairs, silent and stealthy. You didn’t turn back. You couldn’t have known that I was standing on the balcony, still warm from sleep, that I was watching you, that…
I didn’t want anything. I had no expectations. I let you go, even though I never really had you.
Maybe you scared yourself talking about you and me in thirty years. Maybe you didn’t want to frighten me away with thoughts stretching so far into the future. Maybe that was actually the perfect moment to break it off, to retreat, beforehand. To run away just to avoid coming to a dead end, awakening when there was no way of reversing.
How could you have known I was watching you if you didn’t look back.
You left the next day. I stayed. We were walking different paths again. Separate and parallel. I didn’t miss you. I didn’t want to miss you.
I entertained myself in other ways, played other games with other people. After some time a letter arrived. Three pages of passionate declaration to be read between the lines. Three pages as strong as a tsunami. I drowned. I lay without feeling, breathless for hours, days, weeks. With this confession you bound me. You did the thing we were never to do to one another. Those three words we weren’t allowed to utter. No “you”, or “love”, or “I” on those pages, but every other word was screaming it out. I buried your letter away and decided to forget it.
While I was forgetting, you were sitting on the pavement in a hot city in southern Europe, drinking wine from a box; someone pounded a drum, and you breathed fire and span to the beat. Coins clattered. Languages mingled: Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, English, Italian. Everyone who smiled immediately became your best mate, your friend for the evening. Beer, wine, vodka, jazz. “Te quiero mucho,” you whispered in the ears of those who were enticing and willing. You closed your eyes, but something was missing. You knew perfectly well what it was.
The hot summer night continued.
You picked strawberries somewhere. You painted pictures and sold them from the pavement. In the evenings you danced with fire and let the music lead you.
You fed cold pizza to the rats at Notre-Dame. You saw the Sagrada Família reflected in a pond, and when you threw a pebble, the building began to shake its hips and dance. You pitched a tent between the lake and Chalikounas beach, every morning you dug coins out of the sand, and when you had enough, you went to a surfer bar and ordered a mojito. You met some blokes who were paragliding from an escarpment. And you paraglided with them. You hitched a ride with a half-Finnish guy who built straw houses.
At the flea market, a man tried to sell you a Lassie figurine with no ears, a threadbare fur coat and a kaleidoscope. You took the kaleidoscope, but you dropped it when you were running madly through the Arab port city where a famous writer had hidden several decades earlier, after a game of William Tell with his wife had gone awry. You wanted to visit the hotel where he’d vegetated, but you lost your way. They whispered to you in the alleys – “ashish, ashish” – but it wasn’t that you were seeking.
You bought a ticket and headed further south. The bus scudded through the sands all day and night. From time to time you looked out of the window and saw, like a mirage, either a girl holding a desert fox, or rams hung from their legs and bathed in blood. At some point, you saw a huge skeleton, maybe a camel’s, maybe an elephant’s, maybe a dinosaur’s. In the burning sun, everything was possible and at the same time unreal. The bus raced on, sometimes it stopped at stands where you could buy something resembling shashlik made from rat, and hot, sweet mint tea. “Shukran, shukran,” you said, but you couldn’t say anything else in this foreign language of serpentine lines, swirls and ribbons.
The natives nodded their heads and it wasn’t clear if they understood or were simply nodding. Forty degrees in the shade. The bus stopped. Someone told you that you wouldn’t be going any further, because that was where the disputed territory of Western Sahara began. An informal border. He spoke French and was roughly your age. His uncle’s cousin, or maybe his cousin’s uncle, ran a hostel. Very-good-price-for-you-my-friend. You followed him down a narrow street, then an even narrower one, around the corner to the left, and through a dark gateway. That’s where you stayed. In a room with green walls, on a dirty, greying mattress.
In the morning on the beach, at the oceanfront, the sand was lighter and finer than ever. On a dune in the distance, you noticed a small plane, a tiny replica, and a placard marking the place where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had written The Little Prince.
And then you remembered: ‘You become responsible, forever, for what you’ve tamed.’
You ran back to the hostel. You asked if they had a telephone, you had to make an urgent call. The number you knew by heart, because it rhymed nicely, because you knew that at the other end of the cable, thousands of miles to the north-east, over the sea, in a desert of concrete ten-storey tower blocks, there was a flat on the sixth floor, and inside it a red telephone receiver and a voice that would tell you: “You won’t find me in twenty years, and even if you do, you won’t recognise me.”
Someone gave you a lengthy and convoluted description for how to get to the post office. You raced off in that direction. They looked at you like you were crazy – in this sleepy little town, people rarely ran like that. Let them look. At that moment, all you wanted was to hear “hello”. You were desperate to say: “How good to hear you. Your voice is so sweet. Like honey.”
And to hear laughter in response. Trying your hardest to sound serious, you’d ask: “Have you got a boyfriend at the moment?”
And I’d reply lazily, casually: “No, not at the moment.”
You’d say: “Would you like one?”
And a moment later, in a hesitant whisper: “Would you like… me?”
That’s not how it went. The phone wasn’t working. There was no signal. You hung up, then picked up the receiver again as if in a trance. The man at the post office didn’t understand what you were saying. Until finally, agitated, in a language full of twists and turbulence, with something like four different types of “h”, he made it clear that you wouldn’t be calling because the phone was broken. His entire argument went something along the lines of “hala, alah, ala, halah and allah”, and maybe even “akbar”. The handset, deaf and dumb, hung wistfully, gently nodding to a rhythm. Your speeding heart beat twice: once south, once north-east. Do you remember? ‘What you’ve tamed.’
This was in the days before ubiquitous coverage, before free Wi-Fi, before limitless LTE, before all this technology that lets you send a Snap rather than writing unnecessary words. Nowadays, maybe you’d have taken a selfie in a turban, marking your coordinates 27°56’ N 12°55’ W and your location Tarfaya, Morocco. And I’d have liked it fifteen minutes later. You’d have known that I knew. And I’d have known you wanted me. You wouldn’t be missing me, you wouldn’t be feeling this uncertainty, you wouldn’t hesitate. You’d be checking my My Story, you’d see what I was eating, where I was going out, who I was taking pictures with.
In a desert frenzy, in the African heat, in the sun, burning down on the earth virtually at a right angle, with a pen on a sheet of paper, you wrote a three-page love declaration. You stuck on a stamp and posted it. And that same afternoon you began to regret your decision.
But it had happened, it was done. There’s a phrase for that now: ‘YOLO’. You only live once, so don’t think twice. It’s gone.
For a while, you thought about writing a second letter, asking me not to read the first, or if I had read it, to forget it. But you didn’t, because your pal good-price-for-you-my-friend, whose uncle’s cousin ran the hostel, took you to a bar where music was playing, you smoked hashish, and a colourful bird sat in a tiny cage hanging from the ceiling. And it sang.
In the morning your head was thumping. You ran to the ocean, dived under the water, and it crossed your mind then that the letter you’d sent me the day before was bound to get lost along the way. You convinced yourself it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, you believed it, and in doing so you made it true, because the more you believe in something, the more certain it is to happen.
You returned along the beach, wet and salty. Girls in hijabs were played boules in the school playground. They peeped at you shyly. You turned onto the narrow street, then the even narrower one, collected your backpack from the hostel, got on the bus and set off in the opposite direction, heading north. You fell asleep quickly and dreamed that every mile was bringing you closer to me.
That was a long time ago and perhaps untrue, in the days when people wrote letters to each other with a pen. In the days when a roll of film had thirty-six frames, in the days of cassette tapes.
I read your letter hundreds of times, word by word, sentence by sentence, until I’d learned it by heart. I thought to myself, that’s enough. Don’t come back. I miss you too much, I don’t want this anymore. I desired you then more than ever. Far more.
I read your letter hundreds of times and not once did I manage to reply.
translated by Kate Webster