The ice clinked faintly against the glass. He stared into it unseeing, his hand repeating the circular motion over and over, creating an impotent funnel cloud that expired in the amber liquid.
Pleasant murmurs carried on vaguely in the background. No clear words, just impressions—a sort of aural Monet. Though it would have only cost him one turn, he preferred to imagine the scene behind him: ladies and gentlemen replete after the banquet, chatting of life and society. The warm notes of rustling taffeta, cigar smoke, gentle chuckles, and hot coffee lent themselves easily to a fifth voice of poignant sorrow.
He let his hand drop.
Once, her hand had rested next to his on the dark polished wood of the bar. Perfect half-moon nails absentmindedly tapping treble clef melodies, while the corners of her mouth turned up in tender laughter. She was unbearably beautiful in those moments. He couldn’t be so close to her and not kiss her, though he didn’t. It was a series of small deaths.
That had been the time in Budapest when she was there for work and he was there for work but in reality, for her. He never told her. The film he was working on at the time was never completed—in fact, never begun. At night, he reasoned with himself: if his options were having her on the opposite side of the world or halfway across the world, he would take her halfway. So she took his arm and they walked along the Fisherman’s Bastion, chatting quietly. She loved the Buda side of the city, but he saw the beauty in Pest. It was generally like that. They saw everything two-sided. It was almost what made him love her.
When they were apart, sometimes she would write him, infrequently and eloquently. He saved the letters until he was done with work for the day. At some late hour he would walk home slowly to his apartment in Shanghai, savouring the sweetness of knowing that her words were within his reach. Opening each letter was a sensual experience that masked a razor-sharp edge of sadness. Once her words were read—her words, written in that flowing hand that made him reminisce about books he had never read, cafés he had never frequented, cities he had never seen—he would sit back, a glutton for beauty, and close his eyes. It wasn’t hard to imagine her. It was never hard to see her in his mind’s eye. Her flat in London; which he had only ever seen in one picture. But he could imagine her sitting charmingly by some window, penning him those words. She was half-smiling. Every now and then he knew she glanced out the window at the grey rain and grew a little distant, a little hazy; she let the pen drop quietly to the page.
They had been young once, together. It was the only time they had ever lived in the same city—when they met. Their university years over, they had convened at cafes and bookshops to continue the Great Discussion stirred up in their minds in those heady days. Sartre and Simone, they called each other. In love with each others’ thoughts and words. For so long they played those roles—long enough that the night they broke the fourth wall, it took them both by surprise.
She had ascended the wrought iron staircase noiselessly. Their sleeping companions on the first floor never noticed her departure or his anticipatory silence. He hadn’t known if she would come—had guessed, but hadn’t known, and the not knowing made her soft footfalls seem unbelievable. Surely he had imagined them. He had imagined her slim form curling beside him on the settee. He imagined her cool hand brush against his cheek; imagined the timbre of her musical voice whispering to him (though he couldn’t hear the words for her voice). He had imagined, even planned, his own measured responses; imagined his hand taking her empty one in his and twining their fingers. But he couldn’t have imagined this—the warm, eager pressure of her lips to his, the inaudible sigh that came from her deep in her throat, the smoothness of her skin—God! her skin, the softest silk he ever touched; he couldn’t have known that was how it felt, though he had often wondered—the way she smiled when he kissed her and he could feel the corners of her mouth tilt upward in her perpetual secret laugh. He couldn’t have imagined the exquisite lightness of her body, stretched lengthwise underneath his, as he laid her gently back. Unimaginable but not, now, unimagined.
He picked up his glass when the bartender walked by. “More whiskey?”
A quick look darted from this young fellow. No doubt wondering why the dark stranger was drinking alone in the midst of such a lush party, with plenty of beautiful women to be spoken to, danced with. “Sir,” he nodded curtly, filling the glass afresh.
“You have to let me go,” she had whispered to him between long kisses, before their stories became indelibly written into each others’. The gentle seriousness in her voice, so different than her lilting laughter, had the same quiet sound as a final curtain swishing into place.
He had exhaled, the building passion leaving his body in a rush. He slumped against her breast, his hands still tangled in her hair—nodded. He had known it couldn’t be; wouldn’t be. But how he had hoped there would be something left behind for him when this ephemeral being flitted back to whatever place it was she occupied in the world and in her mind, even if it were only a memory. Her mind outpaced her—her insatiable hunger for the thoughts of others could not allow her to remain anywhere overlong. They had known that from the beginning; had persisted with that burden hanging over them all the while, a veritable sword of Damocles.
He had laughed softly, close to her face.
“What?” she had smiled, unwilling to be excluded from his private amusement.
“This means,” he had whispered, “that you will be perfect forever.”
She had reached her bare arms around his neck and tucked his face into the smooth hollow between her neck and shoulder. An eloquently wordless farewell with no hint of apology.
They were so young.
He sipped his whiskey and sat up straighter on the bar stool, rolling his shoulders to stretch his back. The murmurs had subsided and the tones of an official-sounding voice came from the behind him in the room, telling him that the final acknowledgements and thanks were taking place. Soon everyone would leave. He would stay, as he always did. He would not think of her, as he usually did. It was enough to know that she had been here this evening. He didn’t hadn’t spoken to her, hadn’t seen her. But he had felt her presence.
Gentlemen escorted ladies swathed in fur coats and scarves to the door. It wasn’t until then that he heard a whisper to his left. He half-turned and started.
She stood there. Her burgundy evening gown swept elegantly over one shoulder and spilled to the floor in a wave of satin. Over the other shoulder she carried the sleeping form of a small boy, his precocious bowtie come undone in the excitement of the evening. Two little girls hovered near her skirts, one sucking her thumb and the other fighting to keep her blue eyes open.
Perhaps the universe had repaid some of their kindness over the years and been kind to them both. She looked as serene and lovely as she had the day they bid each other goodbye at the train. Though he could see some of her worries in the way she held herself; could read of trying times in the creased skin of the back of her hands. He knew he looked the same as he had those twenty years earlier. They had both learned to live outside of time. They had this in common, still, if nothing else: their lives moved at a different speed than the chronological time of the world, as if they were leaves drifting impossibly slowly across a swift current. They were not bound by the things that bound others.
Her lips parted a second before he could absorb the scene in front of him. Startled blue eyes met unreadable black eyes and she inhaled sharply.
“I have to go,” she breathed, neither regret nor indifference in her voice. “Girls, say goodbye.” She reached a hand down and gently pushed her two small daughters toward his chair.
He leaned forward and looked at both of their small faces, so full of the likeness of the woman he once knew. Yet there were parts of them that he could not read—foreign things he had not put there and had never recognized in their mother. He glanced up at her and knew then that he would never read them the way he read her.
“Goodbye, girls,” he said soberly, patting both of them on the top of the head. He looked back up. She caught his eye and nodded. The merest hint of her bewitching half-smile had surfaced. He felt a queer pressure in his chest and found himself smiling with her. The same smile he had for her twenty years earlier, only weathered a little by time. He knew that smile. It was his.
She took the hand of her littlest daughter and turned slowly toward the door.
He wished he had the temerity to reach out and stroke the curve of her bare shoulder as she walked away, unspeaking.
He watched them walk away, unspeaking. What else could be said? They had loved. They would love. Yet they would never love one another at the same time, in the same place. It was (as she had calmly explained to him on a front porch so long ago) that they were soulmates in another life, in another story. Perhaps part of his story had got accidentally written in her book; perhaps a few lines from hers had inadvertently slipped into his pages. They hadn’t ever been meant to arrive at the climax together; hadn’t ever been meant to be one another’s supporting character. The plots had got crossed and somehow these two protagonists had been suddenly written alongside each other for a few incandescent chapters, before some editor noticed the mistake and corrected it.
But they could never undo what had been done. The words that had been written about them were etched across continents and years.
He dropped his eyes back to his glass and missed the final look back she cast him from the doorway.
“Who was that, momma?” a sleepy voice queried. She looked down at her daughter, the little hand tangled in the silk and lace of her mother’s dress.
“Just someone I used to know long ago, darling,” she said, “when momma lived far away, in another place.”
She wouldn’t watch him anymore. She knew if she turned around the story would continue and the chapters write themselves. Instead she shifted her small son against her hip and stepped through the doorway into the snowy street, where her husband waited with the car.