TW: trauma, abuse
The smell of freshly ground coffee surrounds me. I am sitting at the table in the corner right next to the door, breathing in the fresh morning air, the scent of summer rain on cobblestones. I listen to the sound of the seagulls, a sound so new to me but so easy to get used to. The cup between my palms is still hot and I let my fingertips trace the rim, waiting for the coffee to cool so I can drink it.
You never liked coffee. Maybe that’s why I picked it. The bitter taste still stings but I’m slowly getting used to it.
The sound of footsteps makes me look up and I see James hurry through the door, shoulders hunched, his jacket pulled over his head against the rain. He smiles when he sits down across from me. Raindrops are glistening in his dark hair, cheeks flushed from running.
This is our third date. Even though none of us has ever called it a date. We are friends, acquaintances, people who help each other out every once in a while. He helped me carry in the new sofa that I’d bought a week after my arrival. The living room had been emptier than I thought. Then, a week later, we met at the grocery store, me desperately looking for canned peas and him helping me out again. That was where he invited me to the café, to introduce me to the “best cake in town”. Another service.
I’m not sure if I should address the tension between us or just let it be, wait for what will happen if I don’t try to understand everything right away, like I always do. I am not good at this. You know I’m not. But I’m getting better.
James orders a coffee and thanks the barista - Joanne, a lovely elderly lady with colourful glasses and precise, calm hands - when she sets the cup down on the table. Everyone knows everyone here. But no one knows me.
James stirs through his coffee, the white foam slowly dissolving in the dark liquid, firm fingers holding the delicate cup. “I wasn’t expecting rain today. It was sunny all morning.” He brushes through his short hair, a crooked smile on his face that shows the dimple in his left cheek.
“I brought an umbrella, just in case.” I didn’t even need it. But I like being prepared.
The rain draws crooked lines on the clean glass next to us, blurring the world outside. I wish it would work the same with memories. One rainshower and you don’t even know what happened anymore. But I guess that would be too easy.
He talks about his job, his new coworker Alice, who has the craziest hairstyles, and I feel as if we’ve known each other forever. It’s nice forgetting the past, the life before this one. I like to pretend that this is everything I have ever known.
I get home - alone - and remember that it’s not. Cardboard boxes greet me in the corridor to the kitchen and I lean my wet umbrella against the half-empty bookshelf next to the door to the living room. I can’t be bothered to put it in the bathtub to dry. The bathroom door is still half blocked by boxes.
I moved in two months ago but it feels like I just arrived. I feel like I just arrived, when I forget that I wanted to leave everything behind and start anew and allow my mind to wander. It’s amazing how many memories the tiniest objects can hold.
Do you remember the book you gave me, whilted pages filled with fairy tales and tiny illustrations? I put it in the drawer of my writing desk, all the way at the back behind the jars of ink and the fresh, clean pages. I haven’t looked at it since I got here, since I hid it, but I think about it every time I enter the living room. I can almost feel it waiting for me. Do you remember? Or the cup that you used to drink out of, the one with the faded lilies and the chipped rim? I see it every time I make tea in the morning.
Maybe I should have thrown it all out. But I haven’t.
James asked why I moved, where I come from. A small town, you wouldn’t know it, I said. True.
I’ve always dreamed of living in a town like this, a dream come true, I said. Not true. Not technically, though I don’t want to complain. I like how small everything is. Similar enough to be comfortable, but different enough to not remind me every day of the past. Other things do.
Every morning I grab the post from the little red letter box at the wooden garden fence and every morning my heart stumbles a little as I skim the letters. But you never write.
I cycle through the town, down the hill to the flower shop, past colourful, salt-encrusted facades, breathing in the salty fresh air and feeling a little lighter every time. I buy a bunch of sunflowers to go on the kitchen table hoping they will distract me from the chaos inside and out. The lady behind the counter swiftly gathers them in her fingers, skin still smooth but time will change that, wrapping them in dyed paper. I put them in a vase that I don’t remember having and place it right in the middle of the table, the flowers almost touching the pendant light with their delicate silken petals.
I meet James at the grocery store three days later. It’s sunny, it has been all day, but he is carrying an umbrella. Amidst some silly small talk I invite him for tea. A spontaneous decision that I'm not sure if I regret. He has never been to my house, and I never to his. Maybe this is a step too many too fast. A leap in the wrong direction. But I don't cancel.
He is wearing a knit jumper, he always wears jumpers, and looks a little lost at my kitchen table, turning the old mug in his hands. Not your mug, of course. I pushed it back behind the others when I saw it this morning.
I look at James and wonder if he regrets coming, if he only agreed out of politeness. Maybe he never intended his friendliness to go this far and now he doesn't know how to get rid of the helpless, scatterbrained new woman in town. Maybe he doesn't even like me.
I sit down, my mug of peppermint tea in front of me, gripping it despite the heat as if my life depended on it. I would have gone for coffee but I don't own a machine. We talk, we always talk, and he asks me about the house. I give him a little tour, glossing over most of it, hoping he doesn’t mind the chaos.
The bedroom is the only room that doesn’t have boxes in it anymore, the only finished room. I don’t know what that says about me. The bed is new and I think James notices. His eyes linger on the fresh blue sheets, the unscraped light wood. I left the old bed in my old life, too many memories attached to it that I couldn’t bear to carry with me. Some things are better left behind. But now the new bed reminds me of the old bed and everything that happened in it. I would like to say those were good things but not even I can lie to myself that much.
James traces the edge of my dressing table with his fingertips. He has long, slender fingers, a little rough from his work at the workshop and I want to lace my fingers with his and I don’t know how but the next moment, we are kissing and his gentle hands on my body send shivers down my spine.
He stays a little longer, tangled in my sheets, while the tea is growing cold and the sun blinks through the bedroom window across the roofs of the neighbours’ houses. Outside, the seagulls are circling on that rosy strip of sky between the pointed roofs and the blueish night sky, gliding down like a cloth thrown over an old piece of furniture.
The evening light makes James’ skin look golden and I run a finger over his shoulder and down his arm. I wonder how long he will stay - an hour, or maybe until tomorrow? - not daring to hope it could be the latter. Sleeping alone in a large bed like this for the first time in seven years turned out to be more lonely than I’d imagined. Then again, I hadn’t imagined anything much two months ago, on that day when I had decided to leave everything behind.
To leave you behind.
I wonder when you noticed that I was gone. I wonder how you reacted. You always had a short temper.
I take James’ hand and gently stroke over his palm. His hands are smaller than yours, more slender, soft. Less angry. Then again, it’s not the hands, it’s the way you use them.
James stays. He makes tea the next morning, his hair tousled, eyes blurry with sleep. I can’t fight the smile on my face. We spend the day together, go down to the beach and watch the soft back and forth of the water until the sun sets and we part. Only on my way back, a light sunburn on my legs, the cries of the seagulls behind me, do I notice that I didn’t waste one thought on you. Is it possible to forget you?
I enter the house and realise that it’s not. I see you everywhere - in the small cabinet at the end of the hall that you always wanted to paint black even though I liked the light wood, in the dining room table that still has that notch from your knife, when we were arguing about my work hours, in your cup that used to be mine.
I go to the living room, my writing desk and open the drawer. My hands are trembling when I push aside the ink jars, fingers searching for the familiar linen cover, heart racing. I take the book out, green linen, thin on the edges, the pages wilted and a little uneven. It’s heavy in my hands even though I know it’s not, the weight of the memories pulling it down and I let my thumb run over the worn spine. You gave it to me the first time we met, in that bookshop you worked at. I remember your amused frown as you turned the book in your hand, the remark that made me laugh, how you refused my money and somehow, between our awkward exchange, slid a note with your number into the book.
Things changed only after the first year. Slowly, not at once, outburst by outburst. Too easy to brush off at first, blame work or some other arbitrary thing so that things could stay the way they were. So that I didn’t have to see the truth.
I’m glad I did eventually.
I’m glad I escaped.
Then why are you still here?
I turn the book in my hands, flip through the pages. You never liked fairy tales, said so during our first meeting and I didn’t bother asking why. I just laughed, that stupid laugh, every time you made fun of something I cherished, said something that I know for a fact is not true. I know what happens when I disagree with you.
I tear out the pages, one by one, watch them fall and create a circle around me. A paper sea, black and white. It’s never that simple.
I think of the nice moments with you, the calm one's. The ones that made me believe that I could really be happy with you. When you took me out to dinner, remembered to buy that bar of chocolate I really liked. It always happened after one of our fights. It took me years to notice. Then again, it was never our fight. You yelled, I gave in.
Half-hearted apologies, the 'it will never happen again's. I always forgave you.
I grab the pages, the empty linen shell and stuff them in the bin in the kitchen. I take the cup - your cup, my cup - and throw it in the bin. I take the picture that I took during our vacation - no people, just the landscape but that's enough, that dress that you used to laugh about, the porcelain bunny you bought for our second anniversary, glued at the ear because you threw it in one of your outbursts, and I stuff it in the trash. I take the bag and drag it outside, put it next to the fence gate where I know the dust cart will pick it up the next morning.
When I packed my life into a truck two months ago I wanted to leave everything behind. There is no going back now, no gentle way to do this. And I am done with being stuck with you.
I go back to the house, linger on the threshold for a moment. It feels different, lighter. I go to the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. I sit by the open window, watch the gentle breeze comb through the grass in the garden. I think about inviting James over again. I get cautious when I think about him, the memories too fresh to risk repeating my mistake, but I feel safe with him. Maybe I will even find that person inside me again that I have locked away for so long.
I breathe in the salty air, shift the hot cup in my palms as the first gentle raindrops start falling.