He might be wrong, but he’s sure she’s made an effort tonight. Her eyelashes are heavy with mascara, like he remembers from school. Eyes lighter and greener for it. She’s wearing a dress, fitted, over tights and boots, still all black, but she looks beautiful.
From their table – candlelit and intimate – he watches her through the window as she smokes, lit by a street lamp, her profile illuminated, shivering against the icy evening air. Last night was spent picking up his phone, hovering his finger over the power button and dropping it onto the bed again, over and over, but ultimately, something had stopped him from turning it on.
She returns wearing a coat of icy cigarette smoke. Tonight they are drinking more slowly, taking their time. They are still finding their feet, testing the water, but they’re talking a lot, and they can’t stop asking each other important questions.
They sit opposite each other, faces uplit by the candle between them, as she runs her finger round the rim of a pint glass. They are in their own world.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” he asks her, readying himself.
“Not yet. I’m not sure I know myself at the moment.”
“But you were abducted, right?”
“Yes and no. Initially, I ran away.”
“That’s an even bigger question. That one needs some ruminating. For now, let’s just call it…a feeling. A feeling I couldn’t get rid of.”
“What kind of feeling are we talking?”
“A big, scary feeling. It’s too much for now, Peter. Honestly.” The fingers on both hands draw themselves into claws and pick at her thumbs feverishly, before finding their way to her mouth to be chewed. “But, I knew it wasn’t going away.” she says. “The feeling.”
“You couldn’t have known that. You were a child.”
“I don’t think it works like that. My feelings then were just as valid as my feelings are now.”
“Well, were you right?”
“I don’t know. To a certain extent, yes. I still feel the same. But perhaps I feel differently about the feeling, if that makes any sense.”
“I thought it would always overwhelm me. That I couldn’t ever cope with the way I felt. Now I guess I’ve accepted it as part of me, so while the original feeling hasn’t changed, it’s just as strong as ever, it’s not everything any more.”
“Does that mean you regret it? Not going back?”
She pauses and stares at her fingers as she picks at the skin around her nails.
“No. I had no choice. I knew what I knew, I felt how I felt.”
“And do you ever wish you were different?”
A snort escapes as she looks up at him, somehow both angry and amused.
“Well, that’s a fucking stupid question. I’ve spent my entire life trying to be someone else. Trying to change into something I could bear to be.”
“Sorry.” he says, wondering if he should give her a break, stop asking questions. But he can’t stop himself. “Did it work?”
“I’m still alive, aren’t I?” she replies, in a tone that is equal parts triumphant and defeated. “What about you? What are you even doing here?”
“I wanted to get away, I guess. Things have been a bit crazy at home and I thought it would do me some good to go somewhere…different. Off the beaten track. Plus I thought it might inspire me a bit.”
“Inspire you to do what?”
“I’m a photographer.”
“Oh right. What do you take pictures of?”
“People, mostly. Models. I do fashion photography, commercial stuff. Products, sometimes. I get to photograph famous people occasionally, for magazines. But I’ve not been enjoying it so much lately. I’ve lost my passion for it.”
“Are you rich?”
“Ha. Um, I don’t know. I’m pretty comfortable I guess.”
“That’s a yes then.” He feels himself blush. “Are you here with somebody?”
“How long are you here?”
“I don’t know yet.” he lies, choosing for now to ignore the reality of the return flight booked for two days time.
“Don’t you have a life to go back to?”
He searches her face for an emotion, but can’t read her. He has no idea if she is genuinely interested or just making conversation.
“I’m not sure any more.”
“No wife? Girlfriend?”
He swallows awkwardly, aware of his guilt, and shakes his head.
“I was with someone for a while. But it ended.”
“A month ago.”
“I can tell. You act like someone who’s used to being in a relationship.”
“Do I? I think my ex would disagree.”
“Why did it end?”
“I guess I wasn’t in love with her. Not in the way she wanted me to be anyway.”
“And how was that?”
“Completely. Unreservedly. She was right though, I get it now.”
“Have you ever felt like that about anyone?”
He almost says something. Almost, but not. “No. How about you?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure. It was always based on lies, even if it felt real. So no, I guess not.”
“Have you lied to me yet?”
She looks up blankly, then a hint of surprise flickers through her face, raising her eyebrows. “No.” she says, a tiny half smile twitching at her mouth.
“Well. That’s good.”
“It’s definitely new.”
They both sit back and watch quietly as a waitress picks up their empty glasses. The waitress pulls out a notepad and he watches as she orders desserts for them. In another language, she is another person. She speaks fluidly and she smiles with each phrase. He is fascinated.
The waitress retreats.
“How many languages do you speak anyway?”
“I don’t know. It’s not like I’m fluent in them all. It’s mostly just useful phrases. And once you’ve learned a few, it gets easier and easier…”
“And how many countries have you lived in?”
“I’ve lost count. I used to move non-stop, but mostly in northern and eastern Europe. Fewer British tourists to worry about. I lived in Germany for a year when I was younger, but other than that, this is the longest I’ve been anywhere.”
A round, smiling, middle aged man appears next to them, holding individually wrapped red roses and mumbling in Estonian. Peter goes to wave him away and then changes his mind. He looks at her and smiles.
“Has anyone ever bought you one of these before?”
She almost smiles back. “They’ve tried.”
“Tried? But you didn’t let them?”
“What the hell would I do with it?”
“Put it in a vase?”
“And be all grateful and coy?”
“Fine.” he says and takes out his wallet.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” she says and leans back in her chair. The man waves four fingers at them and Peter gives him five notes and takes a rose. The man retreats, mumbling, grinning and almost bowing. Laying the rose on the table, Peter takes a sip of his drink, feigning nonchalance, as she looks on, bemused.
“Oh, it’s not for you.” he says.
Finally, she smiles.