Fiction / June 2015 (Issue 28)

All We Know Of

by Sharmini Aphrodite

At sixteen, she had been wild haired and noisy, Gloria; he had seen her first smoking outside her apartment, rolling her eyes and tapping ash into the pot of a money-plant. Seventeen and hard-faced, with a nineteen-year-old boyfriend, which he supposed had been part of the charm.

She had offered him his first cigarette, which had also been his last, though a week ago he had considered a Camel, the tip glowing and the one offering benevolent, but he had declined eventually: the memory like chalk searing his throat and most of all her laugh—after all this time scathing and malevolent but with a sadness underneath like ringing bells. He had kissed her first in the stairwell with graffiti on it, all up the sides, the wall, the sun hot on their backs. Two days later, she had skulked in with a black eye, and he never spoke to her again. A year later she was gone, and he never saw her again.


Seventeen and there was Anna, straight haired and plain, but with a smile so pretty that the first time he saw it he was struck. She collected his work for him every time he skipped class, which was often, and didn't care when he ditched her for the boys—to watch Manchester City trash Arsenal while drinking hot, milky tea or searing beer—or to kiss the girl from second year and touch her hair, which smelled of mints. The inside of Anna's mouth, he would remember—a memory hitting his dreams once or twice a year, curdled out and spread like film—had been cold, questioning, unsure.


At nineteen and a half, for the first time, he was in love. He had seen her walking out of a museum and had seen her three days later on a train, rattling over palm trees and blue pools. She showed him how to paint though he never learnt properly.

When he kissed her, it was different from any of the others, whose memories were nostalgic but mostly devoid of emotion and whom she banished completely. She held his head in her arms and stroked his hair when he cried, and she kissed his eyelids like a prayer. Held his soul in her hands and his heart in her mouth, and she could do anything she wanted, anything, anything—and he would let her, he knew he would let her. She could swallow the whole thing, raw and bloody and messy, and the cavity in his chest would say thank you, sing thank you.

But he messed up, like he always did, and she said she would leave and she never returned; though he begged and begged and begged and he said with his eyes look, here is the light, here is the tree I kissed you under, and here I am saying stay, and here are my hands saying don't go, do not leave me. And he thought of her for months and months, and he still thinks of her: the smell of turpentine, the softness of down pillows against his cheeks. Still her eyes, still her hair, the feel of it, still her voice, with its rises and falls, still her name, at 1.45 in the morning, at 3.15 in the afternoon, in December when there are Christmas lights and monsoon rains or on a sweltering June day.


At twenty-three, Grace is the first one who makes him think of the possibility of someone else, but he soon comes to realise she has too much ambition and though she likes the way he looks with the sun cradling his face, that is it: the look of him. And she likes the way he makes her laugh, but she can't make a living off laughter, and when he gets drunk at a relative's wedding, she calls him the next day and they both buy ice cream though neither finishes, and she says I think this isn't working out and he says thank God and by the way you're a bitch, you know that, and she says yes I know and two months later he sees her and her new boyfriend at a bus-stop; they lock eyes and he wonders what he ever saw in her while she kisses her boyfriend in front of him, all the while making sure his eyes never move.


At twenty-five, he becomes a flight attendant, and he spends his days everywhere, around the globe, and Cynthia becomes his best friend and confidante, and then they go to bed together. In a year, she has started to plan their wedding. She is earnest and wants to go back to school—we'll have a house by the sea, she says, gripping his hand—and he loves her very much, but not enough. In Moscow on a transit flight, they look at St. Basil's together, the onion spires against a purple sky and light flurries of snow that stick to her eyelashes. On an island in the Maldives, he spreads her hair on a cotton pillowcase underneath a creaking ceiling fan and touches her crown, which is slightly damp from the heat, but sudddenly, fiercely he thinks of another name and spends the night drunk instead.

I could love you forever, she promises, and he doesn't doubt that. He watches her walking down the aisles, sometimes just across from him and their eyes meet, here thousands of miles above the ground. She writes him notes on old boarding passes and tells him one day they will settle down, they will get married. She says imagine us old together and he bristles. He thinks he could be in love, he likes her very much, she understands everything—I could do it, he thinks, spend my life with my best friend. He imagines kissing her at a church while she is rapturous in a wedding dress, though neither of them is religious, which seems almost sacrilegious, then, this image.

But at twenty-eight, after he is bored and jaded of airports and take-offs, when she too wants to get back to life on the ground, he realises he cannot pretend anymore, cannot force himself to love, and she cries and cries and he has to hold her, which is kind of twisted, and she is very nice about it. Three years later, he will receive an invitation card to her wedding. He will go and feel nothing but a twinge of nostalgia when the new groom kisses her, and later on, he will kiss her on the cheek and say remember ____ and she will laugh, and they will both go to their separate homes and forget about each other.


At thirty-two, he meets Rachel and everything falls into place. She is almost every girl he had ever been with; not Gloria though, that firebrand, that seventeen-year-old hell-raiser. She is the steady assurance and devotion of Cynthia, the determination of Grace without the callousness; she is the kindness of Anna with the pretty smile. Here, he thinks, is a woman I can marry.

And he marries her, gets a steady job. They have a child and he is happy, contented at least. He drinks in moderation and winces at plane rides, though he likes to take Rachel on the odd holiday. He comes home regularly, and he never does what he did to Anna, doesn't want to: what a bastard I used to be, he thinks. One day he realises that Grace works in the building across from him, and he does everything he can to avoid her, though he sees her buying noodles at lunch, clear soup and wheat, and he does a boyish dash across the road just to miss the potential encounter.

But one day, he is walking home from work—his car is under repair and Rachel is fetching their son from some supplementary class—and at a train station, he sees her, a book in her hand. She is older now, of course, but she has the same walk, the same look on her face. And suddenly he is nineteen and half again and the tree is there, and the light, and his voice saying stay. And one look at her, across the platform, is all it takes: his heart detonates again the way it did, all those years ago, all those countries and lifetimes and incarnations ago. She gets on a train, he is paralysed, watches it pass, faster and faster until she is gone, all the people are gone, only the shrill wind is left, and he says her name, softly to himself, he says her name, and it all comes back.

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