They fall in love in the slow way of people who are unconcerned with bodies. Some weekends they go away together and stay in hotels, they travel on buses through mountain passes, one of them watching the world through the window and listening to music, the other asleep on her shoulder. At some of the hotels, they share a bed, and at others, they don’t, it makes no difference to them. They choose different restaurants every night, because despite their constant companionship they live by the mantra of variety being the most important aspect of any journey. It is a soft kind of love, like a warm bath. It makes few demands on either of them, they fall into each other in a way that makes it seem like it is something they were both waiting for. It isn’t sexual, but it is still consuming, still everything to both of them. The younger girl seemingly has no sexuality, has no such needs, and the older girl sometimes sleeps with others, but rarely more than once, and as far as she is able to she keeps it to herself and out of their apartment.
Nothing has ever been as easy as being together is. Even when they disagree, they never fight. At the core, it is hard to say if they share interests or not, they are so compatible that they finish each other’s sentences. There is no one else who could ever replace the other, and they both know this, but they are also aware of the fact that they live in stasis, that something at some point will need to change, that they can’t go on like this forever.
Within two weeks of their first meeting, they are spending every day together. None of them have ever been able to do this before with anyone else, not even the eldest, even though she used to live with a man, and knows how to negotiate space. They never seem to grow tired of each other. I wish I could want her differently, she writes in a small notebook by her iron-framed bed, filled with recorded dreams. She doesn’t, though, and so she keeps making poor decisions, keeps sleeping with men she doesn’t really want, men who are unavailable for anything more than sex, because she has a lover already, doesn’t need another.
Her mother worries, because she is turning older, slowly, but not that slowly, and soon, her mother hopes, she needs children, or a husband, or some tangible evidence of her existence. There is nothing to say to this, so instead, she calls her mother as seldom as she can get away with, and plans for a life with the other girl. We should get a house on a rooftop, the younger girl, whose name is Mai, says. Yes, nods the other girl, Clara, and they make up the details of this house for weeks. Mai wants to learn how to play the violin, and Clara wants a garden where she can grow vegetables. They live downtown, in a city so gray and polluted that they had previously resigned such dreams to a distant future. Now they plan for it, making it up as they go along. We could get hammocks, one of them says, and the other writes it down. And a little round table, she adds, and chairs. And then we would never have to leave. This is written down as well.
Often, when they go out with other people, Mai will be silent and leave Clara to do all the talking. Mai is more social than Clara is, so she imagines that maybe the younger girl is creating a space for her, leaving her room to talk, and no one has ever done this for her before. When they return to their apartment, Mai will talk about their night, and the people they have spent it with, and she will have observed many things that Clara has not, which never ceases to amaze her. I don’t trust him, Mai will say of the nice American boy who takes them out for lunch, and it will be almost a month before she is proven right, but in the end, she is almost always right, about these things. They don’t like us, she tells Clara about the Italian girls in her class, and at first, Clara thinks she is being paranoid, but later this turns out to be true as well, and she never mistrusts her again, after that. Sometimes she tries to temper her, because being so sensitive to others has left Mai a little broken, a little too guarded. She had still trusted Clara within a day, though it had taken Clara longer to return the feeling. How did you know, she will ask her, and Mai will shake her head. I didn’t know, it was just a feeling. Like everything would be ok. This is true for a while.
Time passes quickly, they live together for a month, and soon it has been three months, six, and then a year. Mai is offered a place at a university, and Clara supports her going, but is done with those things, and will not follow her there. They live in North Africa now, and it is warm and sunny and exhausting, everything Clara has ever wanted, apart from the other woman, because Mai is nothing like Africa, and still as important to her as air or water.
For a while, they don’t talk about it. Ignoring it is surprisingly easy, and they take to it with great conviction. Weeks go by, and the date of departure looms large, but in their apartment, no one thinks of packing, and dishes are still left in the sink, and everything is left to be as it has been for the last year, because to both of them the apartment feels like a shrine, and they are reluctant to change anything, lest it makes it all real. Suddenly though, the last week is there, and even though they don’t want to, they do the dishes and the laundry, and they fold their borrowed sheets and take out the trash.
There is nothing to be done. Clara cries a little in her room, late at night when she can be sure that the other woman can’t hear. They had agreed long ago that crying was for other people. She doesn’t know what she will do when Mai leaves her. She has nothing to offer her in exchange for her staying. If they had met sooner, it would all have been easier, because then they could have gone to school together, but Clara is done, Clara is getting old, really, and Mai needs to think of herself, and not of their unit.
You will come to China to see me, Mai says, and it isn’t a question, not really, but there is uncertainty there. Of course I will, she answers firmly, but knows that it probably isn’t true. An old friend writes her from Sweden and asks her to visit, and so she plans for this instead. It feels like cheating, and in a way, maybe it is, but she needs something with which to stem the tide of sorrow she can feel welling up in her chest. They go out for dinner, and they are scared of the change about to happen, but there is little need to talk.
Everything will be colder when she comes back there after the summer, and she will feel Mai in the corners of every building and on every street. They will never live together on the roof, instead, she will get a room in a flatshare where she will make transitory friends who will cover her basic need for companionship but nothing more. In five years she will become pregnant with a man she likes well enough, and she will keep the baby and stay with him. It will be something that is perfectly all right. Mai will never learn how to play the violin, but she will learn Korean, and she will do very well for herself in a major telecom company. Clara will never go to China. After a few emails that will leave them both tired and heartsore, they will stop talking. There is nothing to be done. Theirs was an affair, really, and should have been treated as such. Instead, they fell in love, and there isn’t really that much more to be said about it.