Glances flick around the noisy room: noisy both in sound and vision, the bustle and hiss of the people and the coffee machines in the ears, the visual disarray of bags, tables, suitcases and chairs, and amid it all, a well of calm, he sits there, not fiddling with anything. Every pair of eyes, sending darting looks around alighting on the scribblers, the internet junkies tap-tapping on their tablets, the parents wearily calming tired toddlers: every restless gaze lands on him and pauses, at least, before flicking on. His earthy red hair, half-tamed into directed disorder, the lightly freckled pale of his early summer skin, the youthful angularity of his profile silhouetted by the early morning sun, all offer no reason to look away, but it was his grace, his contentment to just sit and be.. that was what kept you looking, risking the awkwardness of being noticed noticing. Plenty of pairs of roaming eyes coursed the public space looking for a safe place to land and stopped on him, and when he inevitably looked back, it wasn’t a look of pride in his attraction or of hostility in defence of his privacy; more of curiosity. Like he’d just answered the door.
I stood there, smiling that incongruous smile that you do when you’re not ok, where all the muscles do the right things (or at least, they do if you’re good at it) but you know with the certainty of having seen it many times in others, that the eyes are not going to lie for you. Lips are slick liars. Put your lips around the shapes that make phrases like “Get home safe” and “Was good to see you” and they will do it with all the nonchalance of “Move along now” and “Nothing to see here”, but you can’t stop your eyes just going on and on and on with the pitiful “Don’t go” and “But I still want you.”
Like I want him to see any of that. I don’t. So I blinked and looked away and made goodbye a blunted moment of brief and forced good cheer, one that still felt like an age of peeling and splitting painted-on bravado.
I played music in the car, stuff I know so well that I sing along without thinking; upbeat stuff that doesn’t let you sink into any long outbreaths.
At home, feeling like I’d made it, cleared the danger point and ready to push forward in some new direction. Maybe a couple of drinks with some friends, maybe do some work, straighten up the flat, maybe sort out some of these things lying around.
These things. Things you just somehow hold on to, not noticing for ages that you’re holding on, until you realise how hard it is to let go of them. Like the presence that’s just wrapped itself around me: the scent he left in my clothes that he wore, now lying limp in my hands, in my arms and against my cheek: rocking with me from side to side, an invisible man materialising inside my empty clothes, here in my empty arms, giving me hollow consolation for the vacancy he left in me.
He sits at his desk, croaking well-meaning grumbles like a bloated amphibian, short-tempered and snuffly, shuffling his day’s work-papers decisively to one side and then to the other, busily resenting bothersome questions and dismissing with an irritated wave the foot-to-foot shuffling questioner, immersed in their own miserable frustrated hurry. He frowns away all plaintiffs, referring them mercilessly to unfathomable systems and processes of his own unnavigable design, impatient and work-wearied at the start of the day. “Get to the point”, he tells them, and those naïve enough to do so get the bluntest of short shrifts, “what on earth do I have you here for if I have to do your JOB AS WELL AS MINE” he barks, heartless and oblivious to their helplessness.
“Hello you”, I breeze, adopting his accent to announce my address to his personal self, “how’s your motor?” Tectonic plates shift under his amphibian features and he suddenly radiates cuddly uncleness; she’s running a lot better now, do I want to borrow it at the weekend, know you’re visiting family and the trains, well they’re terrible dear, isn’t it? The mottled cheeks wobble with jollity: do I have everything I need for the day? Lots to do yes, but all in a day’s work, isn’t it, how did it go with the stuff he put together for me last time? “Lovely, lovely job, thanks for the help, much appreciated”, oh not at all, flushing slate pink under the compliment, just let him know anytime, always there to help. His smile puts an arm around me and the grey-skinned dictator is another man, one who swallows him up on a bad day, except you know that you know, that you’re never really sure who swallowed whom.
The lady looked at her watch again, reflexively. It didn’t look like she even noticed the time. More like she just had to do something other than be still, and so repeated the motions of pushing up her sleeve, looking at her watch, pursing up her lips, pulling her sleeve down, looking out of the window, crossing her legs, sighing, pushing up her sleeve and looking at her watch again.
The other passengers noticed the slight oddness of her behaviour but, not wanting to make contact, they busied their eyes reading and re-reading the advertising that lined the inside of the tram.
Sascha stood up from her seat, looked around at the other passengers, smiling, and announced loudly, “Ladies and Gentlemen! Today is free foot massage day. There is a free five-minute foot massage for anybody here, now. If you would like a free foot massage, please simply take off your shoes.”
The other passengers stared at her for a moment, then looked away. Nobody spoke. Some returned to inspecting the advertising. Some stared at their feet as though their feet had embarrassed them.
Sascha smiled again, then sat down and took her shoes off.