The last time, in my opinion, is not a point in time but a feeling.
It’s the feeling that comes over you in moments of total bliss and preciousness, like a first kiss, or a good-bye when you wonder, what if this is the last time…? It’s the feeling when someone walks all over you, mocks you and you're swearing to action, this is the last time…’
Eran and I had a lot of those last time feelings. The good and the terrible.
There were moments when Eran wasn’t terrible at all. Neither was I. On a late summer’s afternoon, the sun stood warm and bold over the silhouette of the fringes of the forest-covered mountains just outside of town. They had left their bikes on the side of the track that led into the forest. Eran had a brand new, sleek-black mountain bike. A farewell gift from his dad.
‘To ease his guilt, no doubt.’ Eran mumbled, ‘I don’t care. He said I could choose whatever I liked and so I chose the top of the range, just because of it.’ He laughed out loud, when I when admiringly touched the smooth contours of the handlebars. ‘I’m sure my dad had no idea that bikes could cost that much. Sucker.’
We walked up a grassy hill full of purple clover and yellow buttercup, and stopped at a spot in the sun from where they could overlook the meadows that bordered on the road. We sat down and Eran pulled out a joint. He wet the paper with his tongue and lit it. He offered it to me, but I never cared for it. It dries your mouth like a dentist’s spit sucking tube and burns your throat. I still remembered last time vividly.
‘Come on, it’s too late for acting like a goody-two-shoes!’
I ignored him and instead rolled a cigarette.
‘You’re such a hypocrite. You smoke, what’s the difference?’
‘Difference is I don’t like joints. They burn my throat and leave a foul taste in my mouth.’
‘So what? It’s not as if you are kissing anyone, unless—’ he leaned over, suggestively, ‘that’s what you had in mind all along when you suggested to come here.’
A well-aimed stab with my elbow into his chest flipped him on his back, groaning.
‘Once a frigid, always a frigid. You will die a spinster if you don’t watch it.’
I kicked him in the shin, and he yelped, before he launched at me, knocking me on my back, kneeling on my forearms, pinning my hands down.
‘I could do with you what I like, you know,’ he laughed, ‘but maybe I won’t.’ The washing powder scent of his shirt and the fresh grass were intoxicating; blocking out the world around them.
His face was close to mine now, and for a moment they were both thinking the same thing – before I bucked and threw him off me.
‘No, you couldn’t,’ I laughed.
We wrestled for a bit, laughing, and then, a stinging pain rushed through my hand before I jerked it away. The joint had fallen on the grass during their wrestling and had burnt into my skin. The cherry of the joint was red-hot and instantly ate into the back of my hand, leaving a dark, red spot. As suddenly and unexpectedly as it came the spell was broken and we stopped. With a swift motion Eran took my hand and pressed his cool lips against the spot where the cigarette had left a mark before I even registered anything like pain. Then it stung like hell and I bit my lip, pulled away my hand and squeezed it in agony.
‘Hold it against your ear lobe, it helps.’
I was doubling over with pain, shaking my head all the same.
‘That’s silly…’ I forced out a laugh.
‘Trust me,’ he again took my hand ‘or just do this,’ he pulled it close and spat on it.
‘Yuuuuck!’ I pulled a face in disgust, but didn’t make any attempts to wipe it off. Maybe it would help.
Eran took what was left of his joint as if nothing had happened. He laid back in the grass. The pain in my hand eased off a bit. I joined him and we both looked up above. We weren’t speaking, just breathing in the warm sun above us, and the fragrant grass below. Not even one cloud wandered over the bright blue sky. Frigid. Anything, but, I thought, painfully aware of my body’s response only moments earlier. You won’t die a spinster, he wrote in the only post card he’d send me weeks later, from the Geneva Lake, while holidaying for the last time with his parents. I’d marry you.
‘Look, I’m a dragon,’ he said after a while, puffing the smoke straight up in the air.
‘Puff the little dragon, I get it. Ha-ha, so clever.’ Ridiculous. ‘I don’t need a joint for that.’ I drew in smoke from my cigarette and blew it out like he did, straight up into the blue sky, to prove it.
‘No, not that dragon.’ He sat up and pushed the remainder of the joint into the earth. He drew up his knees and he rested his chin on his forearms. He then picked a purple clover flower and started to rip off the little flower heads, very slowly and deliberately, one by one.
‘Rilke’s dragon, I mean,’ he finally said, after a few minutes. Of course, it hadn’t meant anything to me at the time. Only many years later, when another friend at university had given me Letters to a Young Poet, was it when I understood what Eran was trying to say. And even though years had passed since, the words Rilke found for the young poet in a letter burnt into my skin like a cigarette:
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
What I understood then, on the green meadow among a sea of purple clover, blue bellflowers and yellow dandelion and buttercups – after the almost-kiss, after my blood heating up like a tea-kettle – was something else: that Eran was a dangerous. Hoping it wouldn’t be the last time we moved closer, I was also afraid of the dark doors he would open, of the fire in him that would burn me to dust.
The next day at work, the store manager noticed the blister that had morphed out of the burned skin on my hand.
‘What did you do to your hand? That looks nasty. Put this on it, it might burst and that’ll put off costumers,’ she said and gave me a band aid.
‘I burned myself on the stove,’ my attempt to lie failed miserably and I knew it when I saw the manager’s face.
‘Looks more like a cigarette burn to me,’ she mumbled. ‘If you are going through some trouble, best not to let it show like that, girl.’ For some stupid reason I was scared she would sack me for lying. Damned, Eran. I needed the job. If I’d lose it because he had to smoke that stupid joint that burned me… I wanted to travel and only was half way there with my savings for the trip. I fretted until my shift was over and the boss gave me the pay cheque for the week.
Next time I saw Eran, everyone was fast asleep. A mild evening, the linden-scented air came through the open window. A night owl called from the forest across the street; only every now and then in the distance she could hear a lonely car pass by the sleeping houses. It was the best part of the day to be alone and reading without interruptions. I was determined to finish the book Momo I had been reading all week. I lit candles and grabbed the book from under the bed. Would the men in grey, the time-thieves, prevail and rob humans of all their time reserves? I hoped Momo, would be able to release the hour-lilies before it was too late. I sat on my bed in T-shirt and PJ shorts. My legs were tucked under, pillows and cushions huddling all around me. I was all withdrawn into this other world that was so strangely familiar. Momo had just received a one hour-lily from Master Hora, after he’d stopped time in a frozen world, to beat the Men in Grey and free all people, when I heard a noise outside. The sound – stones crunched under footsteps – made me look up. The faint whirring of wheels came to sudden stop right under my window. Someone whistled, softly.
Eran. Let me in, he gestured, something in his hand. I sneaked out of my bedroom, in half annoyance, half anticipation. For some reason I was thrilled to see him at this hour, when the house was asleep. I tippy-toed quietly on socks down the stairs, not to wake the Bobby, who slept downstairs in Mama’s bed.
Through the glass pane of the door I saw him, with a long red rose in his left hand, his right hand nervously combing through his hair. My heart skipped and I opened the door.
‘I saw it and thought of you,’ he said, smiling.
I smiled back and took the rose. Its scent was velvety and cool, like dew drops on grass in the morning and I knew the moment imprinted itself – as if for the last time –
there and then in my memory through the simple smell of the rose, the sweetness of boy.
Why? I wanted to say. Where did you get it from at this time of night? He stood there, waiting for me to say something meaningful. The night was so quiet, I could hear my heart beat.
‘It’s late. What are you doing here?’ I said instead and instantly wanting to catch the words mid-air, knowing they weren’t enough, would never be enough. The words sounded stupid.
‘Is that all you can say, after I’ve come all the way out here?’
I shook my head and reached for the rose.
‘Thank you. It’s very sweet of you.’ I took it slowly, still smiling, biting my bottom lip. I was touched by his tenacity, his quixotic perseverance, his deep grey eyes that set on me without blinking. I could feel them pierce through my chest into my stomach, stirring a kaleidoscope of butterflies.
‘I forgot my keys and my mum will kill me if I wake her up. She thinks I’m asleep. Can I stay here tonight?’ He pushed, his smile challenging.
I knew he was lying. Still, it excited me to know he’d do something like this. I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and tell him what he wanted to hear, and—secretly—what I wanted to say, too. Maybe. But I didn’t. Instead I heard my own voice, with a mind of its own, reply,
‘Not a good idea.’ My hand wanted to reach out and didn’t. ‘Go home,’ I whispered. ‘Or go to Ellie’s.’
It had come out of nowhere, it simply slipped out of my mouth as easy as the air from my lungs. And now it was too late. The heat rose into my cheeks and I wanted to melt into the floor without a trace. Why did I have to bring up the girl he taunted me with for weeks, trying to make me jealous?
Eran stared at me. He didn’t move. He just kept staring. I thought for a moment that his heart must have stopped and that his brain—still in shock—forgot to send the signal to collapse to his limbs. I couldn’t stay there any longer; I felt sick to the stomach.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ And with a single motion, I did both, close the door and cut an invisible string between them. Whatever had been between us I’d ruined in that single moment. I’d ruined his hope that I could, would be his rescue and I knew it and didn’t enjoy the sense that I, Siri, was a terrible person. If Eran was the dragon, then I had now turned from maiden into the dragon slayer. Up in my room, I turned the rose upside down to preserve it. Its stem was long and the full flower bud red and beautiful and I didn’t want it to fade. I thought it was the last time I’d see Eran and cried.
The year I left home was the year after the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobyl changed a lot and then nothing. The news of people dying of direct radiation exposure; mutant horses and pigs with two or more heads being born months after the nuclear poisoning around ground zero and all over Ukraine; still born babies and the looming of an infertile generation – all eventually faded away. The core of the disaster – the Zone – morphed from scientific disaster to myth: too big to comprehend while it continued burning in its invisible flames for another 20,000 years to come. After the Chernobyl cloud had rained down on a number of cities, people who’d held their breath, until they started breathing again, for everyone was going to die one day and there was nothing anyone could do about. A strange thing happened: under the radioactive cloud, the world had shrunk visibly and emotionally and a longing gripped me to see more of it before it was too late.
Like so many things that didn’t fit anymore, the city I lived in had become too small, too toxic. There were rumours of Eran’s heroin addiction; rumours of the world's end.
When the acceptance letter came to study up north, I rode my bike to the top of the hill let it roll all the way down; at breakneck speed I stretched out my arms in a victorious pose, let the wind slap my face once more, breathe in the heavy perfume of the pine trees that lined the road as if it were for the last time. There were new streets waiting for me and my bike to explore, new roads to map, hills to conquer and alleyways to discover. New people to meet. Eran to forget.
The second last time I saw Eran was the day before I moved away.
I was in town to meet with friends for one last coffee. He was leaning against the wall behind the bicycle stands of the university, near the underground pedestrian walkway. It was one of the main hangouts of local drug dealers and I rarely passed this way. Drug dealers sold their merchandise in broad daylight: first, second and third grade dope and pills to secondary and tertiary students. Everyone knew, nobody cared. Like every city, this city accepted the existence of its underbelly. The place smelt of urine and dog shit even after the cleaners ran their street sweepers through town during the early hours of the morning. Homeless people slept nearby with their big dogs, which they kept for warmth in winter and for protection. The contrast between the rich and the poor was nowhere greater than right here; between the huge music supply shop which had everything under the roof from flutes to a shiny, black Grotrian-Steinweg grand piano. On the other side an arts and literature bookstore sold the latest trends in coffee table books and academic anthologies. Around the corner, drug dealers were fighting turf wars, and young, homeless people overdosed in the shadow of the bridge in the small hours of the day.
It was in this short alleyway of the old part of town traditionally laid out with cobblestones and dotted with syringes and shattered hope, that I spotted Eran, near the bike racks.
He looked so pale, skinny and wasted down to the bones that it was visible even from a distance; his shirt and jeans hung off him like they didn’t belong to this body of skin and bones. I forgot momentarily to breathe. As if someone had hit me in the gut, I ducked, cowardly, into the bookstore in front of me. I knew that he’d end up like this. The realisation and the sweetness of having been right all along didn’t give me any satisfaction though. Instead, I was ashamed: of him and even more of myself. Had he seen me? Of course, he had, I was sure of it. What was I going to say to him? He seemed barely a shadow of the boy I once knew.
Bravery eluded me when it came to Eran. My hands were laced with sweat. By the time I finally remembered to breathe, and summed up the courage to step out on the street to face what had to be faced, he was gone. I was sure he had seen me, seen my cowardice and wanted to spare them both. A feeling, that this was the last time I’d ever see him—alive—came over me and the dread of the news of his passing began to hang over me from this moment on as though the loss of him was certain. At the time I’d put it down to my overall melancholy mood of leaving town and everything I knew.
The last time - the last time - last time - time.
Like the inevitability of a winter’s cold, I knew, the certainty would brood in my mind and poison me, would haunt me into the future.
I thought him to be dead for so long, his death was part of who I’d become; heartbroken, broken and beaten. Overdosed, they rush me to hospital. I open my eyes for the last time before I surrender to darkness.
There, at the emergency entrance, I see him right in front of me on the street, a stethoscope hanging off his neck, smiling at me.