She lived in an old school building; the entrance had glass double doors. A makeshift buzzer board divided the building into apartments. Most of the names on the board had been scrawled on masking tape. He stood still in the small hall between the two sets of doors; leaves lay strewn on the rubber mats. Even in the flat light, her black hair shone. When the door behind them locked into place, Marie pushed open the next one, her hand on the wired glass. Her fingers were long and thin, the skin of her knuckles dark.
The hallway was filled with the sweet smell of urine. He knew what that meant: rats.
Marie went ahead, leading him up the broad stone stairwell. They circled around an air shaft. On the landing of each flight, there were old, tattered school posters taped to the wall. ‘Notice to all students,’ one said, but the lettering was too small for him to read.
He looked at Marie’s legs, her calves in tight black jeans. Instinctually, he placed one hand on her ass. Marie looked over her shoulder, her hand sliding up the wooden banister.
The clicking of her high-heeled shoes.
Sculpting the air.
Later on he would remember how it felt, following her into a bar with everyone looking at her. She’s mine, he had thought. You can all look, but she’s mine.
One hot summer day there had been a queue at the car rental on the Cruquiusweg. She said, ‘We have a wedding to attend.’
They had neither suit nor dress on, and no bags with them. But the men in line in front of them dared not contradict her. What if they were to run into her someplace else — a bar, a restaurant? Did they want to be that asshole from the line at the car rental? The women in the queue couldn’t say anything either. They’d be considered jealous.
Marie just wanted to get out of the city. It was too hot.
Another time, at a birthday party in the Ruysdaelstraat, he heard two women talking about Marie’s figure. One of them said, ‘You can tell by her legs that she exercises a lot. You need to have that kind of dedication.’
‘You mean: you need to have the time,’ the other woman said. Her hate-filled voice silenced the room.
‘Does she still work with us?’
‘She does. She went to the conservatory for piano, or something like that, but now she’s reading law. She’s Bastiaan’s assistant.’
Marie never exercised. She had plenty of time, but she never did. I know this because I was there.
I was always there. He told her what he had told other women, but this time the worn out ‘I want you’s’ sustained him, he meant it.
Her apartment was an old classroom with an improvised kitchen in the corner where a disconnected dishwasher served as the cabinet and two wooden sawhorses held up a counter with a sink in it. Most of the furniture looked like it had been left behind by the previous tenant or taken from the street. There were tea lights and candles everywhere.
‘Cheap heating,’ she said.
The table was littered with glasses, no two alike, each still marked with dark dredgings of wine. A piano stood silent in the corner. There was sheet music scattered around it, law dictionaries lying open on the table. Marie lifted her leg and took off one of her heels.
Later on, coming back from Groningen, Den Haag or Kerkrade, his shoes clapping in the dark, his cameras in the bag on his shoulder, taking those stairs two steps at a time on his way to her squalid apartment, past garbage and old bicycles and cardboard boxes, he thought: See, she doesn’t give a damn either. She understands that the outside world is a landfill. Shiny metal. An exercise in vanity.
He told her what he had told other women, but this time the worn out ‘I want you’s’ sustained him, he meant it — his body, his thirsty, aching body, lived on those words. He wanted to say them. To say them and repeat them over and over again. To make her feel what he felt.
She was standing at the bar in the back of the large hall, her arms crossed, wearing a tight, black dress. He stood leaning against the wall of De Melkweg. Cold air came from a ventilation hole. The DJ onstage played loud electronic dance music.
He looked at his phone. He was scrolling through old messages, pretending to be in a conversation. He laughed. He put his phone back in his pocket and looked at her.
They made eye contact. Brief but tangible. Then he looked at her again. He let her know he was looking. He moved his eyes from her face to her feet and back up again, nodding his head to the beat of the music. And then he smiled.
She returned his smile. He looked away. He felt annoyed by the old shirt he was wearing. The annoyance surprised him.
‘You did well,’ she would say, later, on that first night, as she ran her hands over those tight black jeans. ‘That looking away uninterestedly, playing with your phone, and biting your lip — that sexy laugh. You did well.’
He couldn’t remember biting his lip.
He brought his eyes back and looked at her, as the music blared. She curled her hair around a finger. She took another sip of her beer. The air was cold.
He brought up his hand, made a gesture, Come here.
She mouthed, ‘You come here.’
Occasionally he would wake up in her apartment because someone was walking and singing in the hallway drunk, or playing the music in their apartment loud, a life momentarily impinging on his: Lana Del Rey, ‘Video Games’, on repeat for forty-five minutes.
One time he hit the coarse plasterwork separating them from their neighbour with two flat hands.
‘Knock it off!’ he said. ‘Stop!’
Nothing happened. He hit the wall again.
He didn’t think they could hear him. As he turned around, Marie was sitting up in bed, her breasts bared.
‘Why don’t you leave him be,’ she said. ‘He has to impress a new lover.’
This was how she handled annoyance: with silence and well-placed sentences. He should have noticed that.
Sometimes I wander through the landscape of my memories and end up at that old school building in Oost. I walk in. I climb the stairs. Her door is open. She’s inside, sitting behind the piano, wearing black jeans, a baggy shirt, the light of the piano lamp falling upon her. Her fingers are trying to find the right keys; she is humming the melody line, searching for the chords.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Sorry. Found it.’ And she sings: ‘When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s Easter time too, and your gravity fails, and negativity don’t pull you through.’
The piano sounds fill the room like sunlight, her voice is hanging there like particles of dust: glistening, soft, everywhere.
‘Don’t put on any airs, when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue; they got some hungry women there, and they really make a mess outta you.’
He’s there too, of course, lying on the ground, eyes closed, listening.
‘Now if you see St Annie, please tell her thanks a lot. I cannot move, my fingers are all in a knot.’
And he, too, remembers.
Here we go again.
He looked around her classroom apartment, white light from outside coming in through the windows. The walls were cracked; there were leakage marks on the ceiling. It smelled a little damp.
He walked over to Marie, who was standing, and put his hands on her hips. Without her heels on, she was even shorter. He pressed his lips into her neck. The skin was soft and tight. She jolted; her body shuddered, as if she was cold. She pulled him in. His mouth found hers. Her lips were a little rough; her teeth clicked against his. Her tongue felt warm and soft; there was a small string of saliva between his mouth and hers as she pulled back and smiled.
‘I like that.’
‘Me too,’ he said.
He held her face in his hands: her flat nose pierced by a small ring; the curve of her upper lip, her square chin — all of it. His heart tightened. He took her hand and they walked over to the table; Marie sat on the top of it. A wine bottle plugged with a candle fell and rolled towards the edge of the table. It landed on the floor with a loud thump.
She undid his belt, unbuttoned his jeans; her dark fingers edged up against his hard cock and he trembled. When she kissed him on the mouth, their foreheads bumped. She smiled again. The white of her teeth, the pink of her lips, the caramel colour of her skin — it all shone in that magnifying semi-darkness.
He brought up his hand, made a gesture, Come here.
She mouthed, ‘You come here.’
This was happening. He was leaving it all behind, the waiting, the wondering, the wanting. This was a new era of wondering, of wanting, of deficiency, but there was no need to think of that now. He kissed her again, more forcefully. Marie grabbed his wrists; her long nails pressed sharply into his skin. From the table they moved to the bed — a mattress on the floor, really — undressing each other greedily at every step.
At the bar of De Melkweg he leaned in close and said,
‘Confession: I don’t really like this music.’
He could feel strands of her hair moving against his face. It smelled of lemon and lavender. He breathed in her smell.
She noticed, edging closer.
‘Neither do I,’ she said.
Men kept glancing at her, at them.
‘It isn’t female-friendly music,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t have enough melody.’
‘Not enough what?’
‘Melody. Women want a melody.’
‘Do they now?’
‘To make plans. They sing along to songs. Men want a rhythm, something they can tap along to. This is drum music. It doesn’t have a future. There’s no plan.’
‘There isn’t? That’s too bad…’
His stomach fluttered when she said that. They had known each other for three hours.
Now, her head was on the pillow. Her dense hair bobbed gently as he entered her. His hand landed on her flesh with a sharp slap.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes.’ She grumbled and bit down on the pillow.
Her back was gleaming with sweat. He saw the vertebrae under her skin, the ribs, her shoulder blades. His hands gripped her ass, then he reached up, another feeling overwhelming him. He grabbed her hair and pulled it; her head arced back towards him.
‘You’re mine,’ he said. ‘Mine.’
The silver light fell on her high cheeks.
‘I want you to fill me up completely,’ she said.
Her words barely filled the large room around them.
‘I want you to fuck me completely.’
They spent hours in that bed — weeks, months — talking. Talking and fucking. Fucking and talking. About his work, her work, her music. A saucer on the floor near the bed was filled with milk for the neighbour’s cat.
‘He shits on the bed when I leave,’ she said.
‘That’s cat poop,’ he said. ‘Ungrateful bastard.’
He turned her around, thrusting her down on the bed, and pushed her wrists deeper into the mattress. He felt with his tongue on his lower lip. It bled a little where she had bitten him. He entered her again and her nostrils flared: she fell down further, harder, into the bed, then clawed back again, to meet him, ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Fuck me. Fuck me hard.’
When he let go of one of her arms; her wet fingers were suddenly on his stubbled chin; her salty taste in his mouth.
He wrapped his hand around her throat, her fingers still in his mouth, the tips hooked behind his teeth. The skin of her neck was soft, but the sinews underneath were tight as rope, and her larynx seemed made of stone. His fingers disappeared deep into her flesh.
He lay in that room and slowly saw the light changing, from honey yellow to grey white. It grew colder. When he would leave her building, the birds cawed from the bare branches. The gutters filled with leaves. She sat behind the piano and played, Bob Dylan, Queen, Rihanna.
Winter came. Frost appeared on the windows. The canals froze over. When the cold reached their bones, he bought her a winter coat. She made her own woolen cap to go with it. It became spring again. They bought fruit and nuts at the Dappermarkt. He mixed them into her yoghurt. She peeled her grapes. He had never seen anyone do that before. Her nipples were perfect buds, dark in colour. She had healthy, large teeth. All the times she smiled: I am not making them up.
That first night, after fucking, she went to the bathroom. He switched on the lamp next to the bed. There was dried blood on his fingers the colour of rust. On his cock. The blood on the sheet had soaked through to the mattress cover. He only smelled it after he had seen it.
He walked across the room to the kitchen sink, the wooden floor felt cold underneath his feet, as and turned on the tap. He heard the flush and scurried back to bed, his hands still wet. The light of the bathroom fell on the floor in a bright rectangle and Marie appeared again: her taut body, her dark nipples, her hard stomach. Her pubic hair in the shape of a diamond.
‘I hope I just got my period,’ she said. ‘Either that, or this is going to be tough.’
He smiled. She crawled in next to him and fell asleep quickly.
He lay awake and watched the light slowly change from silvery grey into black blue and, finally, into a greyish white. Mice skittered across the floor. There were so many it sounded like rain. She lay next to him, blissfully unaware, a small speck of spit in the corner of her mouth.
His body was tired and his eyes burned but he didn’t want to fall asleep. Usually this was the hardest part: to be awake, in someone else’s bed, in a strange room, his armour of nonchalance taken off and replaced by a naked body, stabbing himself. But his thoughts were soft at the edges now. He wanted to take it all in.
Mice skittered across the floor. There were so many it sounded like rain. She lay next to him, blissfully unaware, a small speck of spit in the corner of her mouth.
The next morning, he woke as she got up and out of bed. Outside was a blue sky. The branches on the trees were gently shaking. Next door, they were playing The Köln Concert. He sat up against the wall. She never removed her eyeliner before going to bed; her pillowcase was covered in black smears. There were flowers in the room he hadn’t noticed, placed in various receptacles: a pint glass, a water pitcher.
She got back into bed with some tangerines that she slowly started to peel. After taking off the rind, she started picking the white inner skin off the fruit. His stomach rumbled.
‘Do you know what this is called?’ she asked, holding up a little bit of the small white membrane. She handed him a piece.
The back of his head rolled against the wall as he shook it. ‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’
‘Neither do I,’ she said.
She ate the tangerines in bed, smacking her lips a little. When she was done she laid down again, her head low on his chest. He liked the tight feeling of her hair.
Afterwards, they stood talking in the shower. She had tattoos on her arms and her fingers and her chest. This close, they were easier to discern. One was a composition of two mirrored F-clefs making a heart.
‘Did it hurt?’ he asked, fingertips tracing the ink.
She shrugged her shoulders; water poured from her mouth. ‘Not really.’
‘Will you sing for me once?’ he said.
‘Maybe,’ she said. She talked about Curaçao, island life, her school in Willemstad, her parents and her parents’ friends: ‘I never wanted to walk the narrow path they all walked,’ she said. ‘That’s why I came here to study music. Too bad there’s no market for me.’ She laughed. ‘We just had sex so you don’t mind if I take a piss, do you?’
He smiled as he shook his head.
The warm air was bitter: fat, round drops, yellow like concentrated apple juice, fell down with the water coming out of the showerhead.
‘What are we doing today?’ she asked afterwards, drying herself with a towel.
Her neck was long and delicate.
They spent that winter together, the spring, the summer, the autumn. She went back to college and finished the last few courses, studied for her law exams. Two days a week she started working for the law firm again. That’s probably when she started seeing Bastiaan, too. But she didn’t tell him about Bastiaan. She didn’t tell him she was falling in love with someone else. She took the easy way out.
It made sense. It was what he had liked about her: that she never divulged herself. She didn’t owe the world anything, let alone an explanation.
I am remembering all this the way I am telling it to you. I am owning up to the truth. Because of my vantage point, I am able to tell you all these things they would never tell you themselves. I am telling you what happened to them even if she would disagree. Of course she would.
He was playing with her clit. The sheets were lying on the floor. The insides of her thighs were wet.
‘Gently,’ she said. ‘Gently. Yes. Like this.’
Her breathing was speeding up, her moaning becoming louder.
‘I’m going to come…’ she said.
‘I want to hear you,’ he said. ‘I want to hear you.’
She came and after she had come he entered her again, very gently, and pushed on until he, too, came. They were spent.
Towards the end of the relationship, she once admitted no one else made her come as well as he did. She was drunk then.
‘And anyway,’ she said, ‘there’s more to it than that.’
They had taken the train from Amsterdam to Alkmaar, then got into a bus that brought them closer to the coast. Now, they were standing at the edge of a field; a large white horse had approached the fence. Marie put her hand on its long muzzle and stroked it. The horse’s eyes were round and black and bulging. It was impossible to know what was going on behind them. It was impossible to know what was going on anywhere, he thought. But everything was exquisite in the cold and clear light and he had a strong sensation of how much they belonged to each other, and how, together, they belonged to the world. This was the first day of their life. This was just the beginning; it was all unfolding around them.
The horse shook his head and seemed to stretch its limbs. Marie withdrew her hand. An enormous cock appeared from the barrel between its hind legs. It still dangled a bit, growing firmer as the stallion started to piss. The stallion lifted his front hoofs one at a time. His piss spread out on the ground and steamed in the crisp winter air.
‘Jesus,’ she said.
‘Yes, what a relief that must be,’ he said.
There was a house nearby he had often visited as a child. It belonged to a family from Amsterdam. It had no heating upstairs; there was only one bathroom. The family kept a key underneath a wooden bench beside the front door.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said.
‘I told you.’
The gravel crackled as they walked up to the house; the key was in its usual place.
‘Are you sure we can do this?’ Marie asked.
‘Of course,’ he said. He opened the door, trying to conceal his shaking hands. He liked opening doors. The vestibule smelled the same as it always had, of stale air and old wood.
Once they had closed the door, it was easier to relax. The walls were lined with stuffed birds; a crossbill, a redwing and a goldfinch among them. Marie liked the look of a pair of common bullfinches. Next to them hung the heads of deer and wild boars and two landscape paintings of the coast. Portraits of grey-haired white men looking rather pink were framed on the wall: dignitaries in oil paint.
‘Yes, I remember these,’ he said. ‘I liked them. I feel like drawing a moustache on them now though. A Hitler one. They always have the same smug expression.’
‘You can’t,’ Marie said. ‘We’re guests here.’
At the back of the house there was a large kitchen, with a big green oil-fired stove and cream cupboards. The shutters were closed. A green sheet with a print he recognized covered the contours of a table and its wooden chairs. There was nothing in the refrigerator except some butter and olive oil.
‘They’re not very hospitable, are they?’ he said. ‘Unless you want some olive oil with your butter.’
‘Have you noticed that people with money are never very generous? Unless it involves some exhibit hall they can name after themselves, of course. A wing with the donor’s name on it.’
The drawing room was dark too: the walls were dark, the upholstered furniture was dark, even the shuttered windows were dark — no light came in at all. It was only at the back of the hallway that a ray of sunshine entered through a skylight three floors up.
He grabbed her hand. ‘Come with me,’ he said.
She wet her fingers before she fingered herself. She sat down on the bed on her hands and knees and looked over her shoulder towards him. ‘Are you going to stand there and stare or are you going to come here and fuck me?’
He pushed his cock in all the way up to his pubic hair. When she took his balls in her mouth, it felt as if she was sucking the inside of his scrotum. She stuck a finger up his ass, because she wanted to ‘hurt him, too’.
When he came, his head emptied of all thoughts.
‘I love it when you come inside me,’ she said. ‘I feel like we’re two animals doing what we’re supposed to do.’
Their life that summer was glorious, it was a flood. It can be best described in its moments of brilliance: a deer standing in a forest, the light falling on its antlers through the roof of leaves, the creature frozen in the speckled shadow of the foliage, the sheen of its fur almost orange. The silent seconds pass. His shoe presses down, a twig snaps, the silence shrinks. The creature leaps away. All of this, this moment too, is woven into a tapestry of regret now, thus deceiving us. It was great, it was glorious.
He loved her so much he doesn’t believe it now; he laughs about it, a long, hard and cynical laugh. It is the laugh of someone who has lost.
He loved her so much he doesn’t believe it now; he laughs about it, a long, hard and cynical laugh. It is the laugh of someone who has lost.
After she had left him, he would press his body up against the wall of his house, his arms spread. The plaster felt cold on his cheek, but the bricks behind it held her voice. He should be able to squeeze it from the stones. But the wall was too wide to get his arms around. In bed, he would close his eyes and see her sitting in Bastiaan’s car; he would see them at work, whispering, laughing, their fingers linking with each other underneath the meeting room table. He had to hurry. He wrote her long letters. And imagined her reading them in bed, sitting up, her eyes narrowed in concentration. He never sent them, so she never read a word, never read about his heart beating against that cold white wall as the room went dark, never heard about that low, humming noise walls seem to make.
He remembered how they lay there, in that house in the dunes of Bergen aan Zee, in the silence of a calm crisp winter afternoon, in a bed that wasn’t theirs, but now was, at least for that evening and that night. They had just made love. He lay on his side, stroking Marie’s shoulder; a small opening between two shutters let in the last of the sunlight. She was talking of past holidays, her first in the Netherlands. She had gone to Zeeland with some friends. She thought it was too crowded and too cold. She didn’t like the small families, peering only at each other. She felt distinctly separate as she walked past them. They’d created suburbs on the beach. The uncomplicated pleasure of beach life wasn’t there. She began to understand what it meant to be different. She felt she would always have to be more.
‘It’d be nice to have a house like this,’ she said.
‘Hmm…’ he murmured. It was quiet outside, warm under the blankets.
‘A big bath full of foam and two kids. Girls, preferably. A few dogs. Toys lying around in the garden.’
‘That’ll be hard,’ he said. ‘A house like this is unaffordable.’
‘I guess one could also rent it over the summer,’ she said, gently pursing her lips. ‘Ownership is a hassle. And it’s hard to be able to afford something like this year round. But maybe, as a family house, we could pull it off. I can’t live for ever in the kind of place I’m living in now.’
As his hand touched her soft shoulder, he said, ‘I request another dream to realize.’
Please, I know how this sounds, but I am remembering this scene as it happened; I’m chained to what was said, however foolish. And I can’t undo it. I may have missed some beats.
She rolled over, her breasts the same colour all over. Her fingers touched the stubble on his cheek.
‘Next time,’ she said. ‘I’ll take you to my childhood beach.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘A day trip to Curaçao. Wouldn’t that be nice?’
She traced his mouth. He felt his lips curl into a smile, a warm sensation filling his chest. He felt sleep coming, too.
‘Are you sure we can stay?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes. I’m sure.’
And he disappeared between her legs. Every night and every morning he would disappear between there.
I am writing this down because he wants to remember how it happened, as it was. And that it was what they both wanted.
Regardless of what she later said.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, early one December morning in her apartment. They had been seeing each other for a little over a year. ‘But the feeling is gone. I’m… tired. Tired of the things I say. Tired of what you say. I’m tired of us, babe… I have been for months now.’ They had already been awake a few hours, talking and talking. Now she looked at him apologetically. ‘I’m tired of these arguments. Tired of all this negativity. Tired of our fucking.’ Her sigh was deep and long.
She sat up against the wall. ‘I just don’t want it any more. When we wake up, my first thought is, “How do I get him out of my bed?” I don’t want to fuck you any more. I don’t want to lie in bed until eleven every day. There’s more to life than that. I —’
It hadn’t anything to do with their mornings. It was about what she wanted. It was about a fifth-floor apartment with a working elevator, it was about a nice address with trees somewhere close; it was about fancy dress shirts, expensive wristwatches and fashionable sunglasses. It was about an extra bedroom and a savings account for college. She’d been taught to think about those things when she was young. She wanted to escape from where she was.
He got out of bed. The floor was sticky.
‘You’re fucking Bastiaan, aren’t you?’
She was silent, the duvet wrapped around her. She looked at her hands.
‘How long has it been going on?’
She still did not dare to look at him.
‘I said, how long have you been fucking him?’
She looked up. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘What I felt for you is gone.’
Despite his suspicions, he had not thought she was fucking Bastiaan. His fists loosened, his fingers covered his face.
He slumped against the cold wall. His eyes burned.
There were pigeons in the communal gardens of her building. She fed them ground flaxseed. With pink-ringed eyes they watched her beautiful hands; their bobbing heads went down quickly. Most of them were missing a toe or an eye or even a whole foot. They were a battered bunch. She stood feeding them, and had looked so very happy.
He felt like he wanted to jump into the abyss with her. Until he had met her, for him, the idea had been preposterous. Uncomplicated pleasure seemed to him the very fullness of life. But now he knew that uncomplicated pleasure could not go on for ever. It provided no mooring. He began to think about the costs of a house and of those inflatable pools that go in the garden. How many assignments would he have to complete for one inflatable pool? How many jobs to get that mortgage? If that’s the world, how much do you want for it?
Forgive me if I’m skipping over certain bits. When they had a fight, she was scared he would hit her, although of course he never did, and he wasn’t allowed to touch her for days. She would sit on the windowsill and say, ‘Maybe it’s best if you leave.’ That was all.
Now imagine her sitting at the kitchen table with a big bag of apples and an apple-core remover. He had bought her those apples. She was making a cake. She always made cakes at times like that. And every time she handled that sharp instrument he was afraid she would hurt herself. She moved the blade carelessly. But he wasn’t allowed to approach her.
Maybe that was her way of punishing him. By keeping him close but out of reach. Maybe she thought her presence was enough to persuade him to start a family. She had no idea how close she got. Perhaps he shouldn’t have celebrated his independence so much, his unwillingness to compromise, his loathing of families.
The last time he saw her was when he had to collect some things at her place, including his computer. She hardly looked at him. He had quit his job at the newspaper. He noticed all their photos were gone, even the post card taped to the fridge they had bought in Bergen aan Zee.
‘If you have to do this,’ he said, ‘you could at least have had the decency to keep one photograph. Is it necessary to destroy all that you’re leaving behind?’
‘You can’t destroy anything,’ she said, ‘when there’s nothing to leave behind.’
The months after she left him, he told me he mostly saw her in his dreams. Sometimes, too, in the crowds on Saturday. Or in a crowded bar. But it was never her, until he ran into her at some fancy new place on Het Rembrandtplein. It was a weekday. He was sitting at the bar. All of a sudden, she was standing next to him.
He often thought of the moment when he would run into her and what he would do and say. But now that she was here, he had no idea what to do.
‘Hey,’ she said. She had let her hair grow out. ‘Hi. How are you?’
He said nothing.
‘You look like shit.’
He looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar. He hadn’t shaved in two months.
‘You look fantastic,’ he said.
She smiled. ‘Thank you. How are you?’
‘I’m well,’ she said. ‘I got a promotion.’
He looked at her thin wrists, her dark skin, her pink nails. He remembered those nails.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ he said.
He pulled her close, still leaning against the bar. The irises in her green eyes grew larger.
What are you doing?’ she said.
The bartender looked over. He let her go. There were stained-glass windows above the bar. He had never seen them before.
‘I just wanted to hold you for a second,’ he said. ‘I thought that was OK.’
‘Well, it wasn’t and it isn’t.’
Will you sleep with me?’
‘Do you want to have his babies? Please don’t make accidental babies with him.’
Suddenly, Bastiaan was standing next to her. They both knew that trick, apparently.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘How have you been?’
Bastiaan ignored his question. He looked at Marie. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
‘No, I was just saying hi,’ she said. ‘He’s just leaving.’
Bastiaan nodded. ‘Good. I’ll wait for you at the table then.’
As Bastiaan turned around, he got off his chair hit him in the face, well, the side of his face. Right on his jaw.
Afterwards, while still lying on the ground, Bastiaan said, ‘Motherfucker. You hit me from behind.’
Because she loved him (did she?), he let Bastiaan get away with that.
That day in Bergen they had stood on the beach, overlooking the North Sea. A flock of gulls had passed over their heads and fluttered out over the grey, endless water. He had wondered if it was to going to be like that with them: if they would go on until it all simply disappeared into nothing. He hoped so. Imagine that: he had actually hoped for what would happen. But he thought it would be the two of them together. While all along she was looking for another kind of life, a life more tailored to her needs.
There was a time — a season, really; their season — when he thought he had it all. That he owned the city, the river, the bridges, the canals. He would open up the window in the morning and think: Fuck you and your rules. There was a time when he thought: You can all do it your way, but I refuse.
This was the time of the wedding cakes with light blue icing and the mortgages and the Bugaboos. The time of Volvos and their car radios that had to be turned down, the time of receding hairlines and marriage counseling. This was the time of self-confidence. She was his compass. Now he was back where he’d started. On the edge of it, writing and burning letters, taking pictures, rejecting one image accepting another.
But that morning in the seaside house in Bergen, as he lay there and looked at Marie again — at the fold in her earlobe; the dark spots under her eyes; the small black clots of mascara on the tips of her eyelashes; the fine lines on her lips — he felt very clearly that he wanted to share everything with her: the city, his thoughts, his past, the pastures, the beaches of Bergen. He felt it very strongly. He felt very strongly that for her he might change. And he would have. Then a strange constricting sensation arose in his chest, near his sternum. He tried clearing his throat without making a sound but ended up waking her from whatever dream she was having. She was smiling. She smiled at him. ‘Hey,’ she said.