He got engaged the same day I moved out. Whatever. Fair enough. No skin off my nose. Forget the skin off my knees. I found out later that he’d married her on my birthday. You try to think of these things as coincidences. Who knows?
I’ve been moving around fairly randomly since then. Not a problem. No big thing. It’s just seeing what fits. The big round global dressing room. I’ve tried a lot of jobs, but learning to work a tap and getting an ESL certificate made me instantly employable all over the world.
People always ask me what’s my favourite place I’ve been, and I never know what to tell them. I’ve tried to explain that I don’t rate things or attach them to a scale, but that tends to get me blank looks. It seems that everything should be judged in thumbs and stars.
I saw him again when I was visiting my parents, doing some shopping for them, to get some fresh air. An excuse to borrow their car, really. Getting out of the house has always been a priority.
I had just come into the mall when he came out of Starbucks and almost walked into me, followed by a double take and a look of utter surprise. All of which seemed a little over the top and suspect.
We talked a while, catching up on this and that. He looked like himself as I’d known him, in fancy dress as his dad. I didn’t mention this. I noticed that he was deflecting questions about his wife and kids. His voice would sink in both tone and volume and his eyes would shift downwards, before coming back to me with a new topic. I didn’t mention this either.
He told me he was thinking of taking a trip, maybe to Vietnam. He always used to talk like this, I remembered. Big, grand plans that sounded exciting, especially in company, and then zero follow up.
“Which part of Vietnam?” I asked.
He seemed excited to expound. “I’m thinking probably Ho Chi Minh. I’ve heard it’s the best place to visit. More authentic.”
“Really?” I asked. “Where did you hear that?”
He seemed puzzled by this and stumbled a little.
“I was in Vietnam for just over a year,” I told him. “Ho Chi Minh was nice, but I think I preferred Hanoi overall.”
“Is that right?” he said, kind of slow and vague. “Maybe I’ll think about that then. Maybe.”
“Have you been to Asia before?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Not yet,” he said quietly. “Soon though.”
This led on to talk about my travels. He seemed to be taking an interest in what I had to say, rather than in his own words. He asked me a lot of questions, and I did my best to answer them honestly. It’s difficult sometimes though. The things people want to know throw me sometimes. When they ask what I’ve been doing, I tend to draw a blank.
I tried though, and I talked about Chiang Mai and Sukhothai, but he wanted to know about Phuket and Bangkok. I told him my favourite cities were Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi, but he wanted to stick to Thailand. He didn’t seem at all interested in South America, except to make predictable comments about illegal substances.
“I never realised you were so wild,” he told me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He stood back and looked me up and down. “Look at you,” he said with a sweeping arm gesture.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
I mean, I know I look different from the last time we saw each other, but then so does he. It had been, what? A little over ten years. My hair’s grown a bit, I’ve bought new clothes. I could see him eyeing the tattoos.
“Can we meet up and have a proper catch up?” he asked.
He touched my arm as he said this, between the shoulder and the elbow. One of his fingers was under my sleeve. When I looked down, I could see his wedding band.
“What do you mean?” I asked again.
I was finding I didn’t want to ask him anything else.
“You know,” he said. “We haven’t seen each other for a long time.”
He was standing close to me.
“You seem different,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I told him.
I didn’t either. Iwas and I am just me. Nothing’s changed.
“It’s true,” he told me. “You do.”
I didn’t know what else to say to that. We stood there, neither of us saying anything. He touched my arm again and ran one of his fingers down it, over the elbow. I tried to keep eye contact, because I didn’t want to be the first to break it, but I kept glancing down.
I took a step backwards. “I’ve got some things to do,” I told him.
“Ok,” he said. “Sure. I can come with you.”
I shook my head.
“It’s not a problem,” he told me. “I have the time.”
“I’ve got to get these things and get back to my parents,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said. “Too bad.”
After that, he asked for my number and I strung together eleven numbers that were close to my real one, but not close enough.
I walked away from him, into the mall, and took the nearest escalator down towards the supermarket. I walked quickly through the crowd on the lower ground floor and to the escalators at the back and went down into the car park.
When I was teaching English, in Asia mainly, different countries and different age groups, I felt the most myself and also the most lost. Often, I’d be the only native speaker at a school or a language centre. Not always though. I preferred being the only one. If there were others, they tended to expect me to spend lots of time with them. It was like we were in some kind of club.
I don’t like clubs.
I enjoy walking on my own. I enjoy looking at things and thinking about them. I enjoy being me.
Every time I had a new class, whether I walked into the room with them already there and waiting for me, or I watched them filing in from my place by the board or the computer or or desk or whatever was there, I used to have minor panic attacks. Every time. I’d struggle to breathe, feel the tightness across my chest, the itching in my palms. I’d worry that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next, even if I’d been there a long time.
I have a complex relationship with the new.
But there’s not much you can do at that point. You have to power through it. I think it was good for me. Having to deal.
I don’t think any of the students would have even noticed, except maybe that I would rub my hands together and drink a lot of water. They were always focused on other things. I don’t think they believed me when they asked for my Facebook or Instagram or whatever and I told them I didn’t have one though. Maybe I’m old fashioned. So be it.
The main thing was, after that first day of trauma, everything would generally roll along smoothly until the end of term, when everything reset.
I enjoy teaching. I didn’t think I would, but I do. I fell into it, more or less, which is a long and boring story, and I tried to resist for some time.
The one place I struggled in was Delhi. I knew I’d made a mistake from the start. There was simply no escape. Everything was everywhere. Dense and overpowering. But it taught me what to avoid, as well as what to seek.
Speaking of which, I’ve been checking flights and maps and websites. It’s good to be home. It’s good not to be too.
I got back to my parents’ house without any shopping. They asked about it and I told them I hadn’t been able to get it. Dad looked at mum and she shrugged and then turned to me and smiled, as if she knew what was going on. Some things never change.
I went upstairs and I got into the shower. The water was only lukewarm, but that was fine. That was the temperature of home. I stood there with my hands hanging limp by my side, my hair stuck to my face, my shoulders, my back, and I turned on the spot. Slowly. Three hundred and sixty degrees. And again. Tiles. A small frosted window. Green and white plastic curtains. And again. Tiles. A small frosted window. Green and white…
I kept on turning and I didn’t speed up. I could keep going like that forever. I would never get dizzy.