Contemporary Fiction

I must have only been dreaming, all that time away from him. Perhaps it’s within the revival of the forgotten that appears one’s true question of what living really means. 

In Clissold Park I sat alone and waited for him to show. The sharp, jagged shadows of pine trees stretched out infinitely on the lawns as the sun set, and a gentle wind carried the flitting swallows up and down as though strings were attached to their fragile bodies. Autumn’s first chill had passed over London so noticeably you could feel it in your bones, somehow piled upon all those same initial changes of past autumns, like a memory or some inner notion growing stronger year after year. 

I sensed the cold, unfair deaths of the primrose in the gardens and the brilliant marigolds that had long gone, felt the old fears of the me who sat on the same bench fifteen years ago when I had first come to the city. I felt that ecstatic yet long-gone existence as a death too, like a ghost or an extinction. I mourned that person gravely on days like this. 

The park began to empty as the sun shone through the clouds and dipped behind a row of council estates. A few mallards waddled across the pavement in front of me toward the lakes, which rippled lightly at the cool breath of wind coming in from the north. 

In the air I felt the strange but distant desire to be on an airplane later this evening, not so much the act of boarding itself but the idea of travelling far away, somewhere unknown, like I was meant to be elsewhere. Not here, not now. I wasn’t sure of the destination and it didn’t matter: rather, it was the yearning to feel that sort of wistful nothingness you experience when you’re just about to poke above the clouds, flying from one time zone to another like time travel. The feeling could’ve been caused by the clouds above me then, the way they hung so low and imposing like a dark, grey duvet. Their light, woolly cover beckoned me to stay put, in opposition to my abstract need to leave. 

I glanced down at my watch but still expected he would arrive late. Nevermind it, I thought. I had begun to slip into an almost meditative state as some old reflective ambient music played in my ears, blending itself into my surroundings, stitching the notes of a piano into the bark of a tree or the vacant echo of a synth into the bending of a hundred blades of grass. The trance soon diminished into another, becoming that strange sort of deja-vu in which you don’t entirely feel like you’ve experienced something before -  instead, you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time to a very certain spot in space and time, a corner of the world only you perceived at one point in your life. 

There, the air smells achingly familiar, the skies are identical to that one distant memory, yet somehow you know that you would have never actively remembered what the skies looked like on any particular day in the past unless it had happened to be the one you travelled back to. But somehow you’d still know it, just by the feeling it gives you, the feeling that you’d been there before and that you’re there once again for just a moment, that same old spot in the universe. It always fascinated me, the spontaneity and structure of my own memory. Perhaps that’s just the way nostalgia manifests itself, but it seemed deeper, and it had swallowed me whole by the time the sun was sinking below the horizon.

The light in the park turned a pale lavender for just a moment, distilled and pure, perfumed with the final days of the late summer flowers and the feeling of imminence amongst all of the birds. They chittered about with tufts of feathers and feeble chirps dotting the aural canvas of the air; I could sense their bubbling readiness to leave and fly southward. Like them, I brimmed with the affinity for flight, for its ability to provide escape, and right then, it dawned on me how it seemed that throughout my life, I had constantly been pining for escape in one way or another, though from who or what I’d never been sure. 

Ten minutes after the time we’d agreed upon he appeared, wearing a bobbly taupe jumper and a lopsided hat. “I’m really sorry,” he said, wringing his hands as he approached. “My bus never arrived so I walked from Haggerston.” 

“It’s okay,” I replied, returning a casual embrace, a funny first exchange after nearly thirteen years, I thought to myself. 

I noticed then his eyebrows and their new specks of grey, how they seemed more manicured than I’d ever remembered, how his face presently looked stretched, skin taut over the cheekbones and textured like empty, untouched canvas. He smiled just like he used to, though, the exact same way, really, which had always caused me to wonder if everybody smiles in a slightly different way for every person they know. I had always held the selfish impression that this specific way of smiling was saved for me, with that look in his eyes and that sad way the outer corners of them drooped down, as if all of the things he ever regretted were kept right there at the edge of his sight in the peripherals. 

“You look lovely,” he said with the look that immediately absorbed me and turned me inside out. 

“Stop it,” I blushed and was silent for a moment. “You look great too. Except for the grey hair.”

He faked a jaw-drop and quipped, “I know hair dye when I see it, darling.” And so forth the thirteen-year old ice was broken.

There was a new restaurant nearby, just outside the park’s gate - a compact little French place with glass fixtures and warm lampshades throwing shadows around its interior. For a Friday evening it was rather empty and I sensed the staff watching us as he and I leaned in to speak to one another across the table. We split a bottle of Cab Sauv and halfway through the second glass, the night began to feel splendid. 

“I actually thought you’d left the city,” he said, taking a sip. “Back when we split up, I had always thought I’d see you everywhere around town. Like I’d see you in the supermarket or at the other end of a train car, but I never did. London’s much too big I suppose.”

“The world is much too big,” I replied mistily, “that I never seem to find the things I’m really looking for.” 

“What sorts of things?” 

I toyed with the stem of my wine glass, twisting it round and round and watching how the velvety liquid stayed put as the glass surrounding it seemed to come full circle. Normal people wouldn’t reveal certain types of things to their ex. I debated being completely honest but didn’t see the point in holding back how I felt. Besides, he’d been a part of me at one time, so it all sort of spilled out of me. 

“Sometimes I think that I’m afraid of being happy. I look for it and try to seek it out, and sometimes I even know exactly what I have to do to make myself happy, but whenever I do those things, the feeling never seems to come in full. It’s still out there, floating on the horizon, like in order to really feel it I would have to escape myself and my own body and time. Impossible, I know. But maybe that’s how I like it. Maybe for me, the idea of happiness will always look more beautiful from far away.”

“You don’t think you’ve ever really been happy?” he asked, leaning in with an expression of concern. The conversation had quickly turned intimate, but I admired its nature; it had the essence of something strangely instinctive and alluring. He had a way of eliciting these spindling threads of existence and thought inside me that I had always been aware of but never learned how to speak about. It was strange to hear them come out easily after so long.

“I think I’m happy in the past and I’m happy in the future, but I’m never happy right now. I never know what I…what I am right now, do you know what I mean? I can’t get a grasp on the present. Every time I think I do, it becomes the past. Life moves too quickly for me to ever know how I really feel, if I ever really feel any way at all. God, I wish I could explain it better.”

“No, no, really, I know exactly what you mean. I thought I would know what I am by now, too. Sure, I’m a human being, a person. Sure, I have feelings and emotions and wants and needs. But I’m still just as confused as I was when I was twenty-five. It’s like, you take all of that away, and what else is left?” 

I breathed out. 

The rest of the dinner was as cordial and thought-provoking as the very first time we’d met, and as the wine soaked in, I felt a familiar pang of regret climbing up my throat. Why had we left one another entirely alone in the world when we so often experienced it in the exact same way? Why would anybody give up the one person who had understood them the most? 

The only reality of time, I decided, was its inescapability, and perhaps all along it had always been time itself that I longed to be removed from. My outward experience of life felt so ordinary and so familiar and so lonely that to once again attach myself to another human being could be likened to waking up from a deep and unintentionally long nap. But being with him wasn’t like being outside of time; it was simply like I was losing my awareness of it. 

The bottle of wine had disappeared before dessert, so I suggested Negronis, to which he obliged. As we waited, he set his chin upon his palms and looked at me kindly. The entire night, we hadn’t spoken much about how we’d ended things or rehashed old memories or remembered the way everything used to be. For once in my life, I didn’t need to. 

“You look pretty happy now,” he whispered. 

“I think I am,” I said and chuckled. “Must be what it’s like to recognise it when it’s happening.”  

“Doesn’t happen as often as you’d like, does it?”

“Not nearly.” I looked at him. His eyes were amber and seemed to hold the mysteries of the world, but they were his own mysteries. Not mine. What we shared felt like antiquated, mature love, but it had all been in the past. Perhaps that’s all love really was - a shared and cherished past. I always wondered if or how our love would continue on after we split and everything we’d ever been was frozen in time.

“Have you ever tried to make yourself aware of the present? To really feel it?” I asked him.  

“You can’t feel the present,” he replied. “It’s like dipping your hand in a pool for a second, where only the feeling of being submerged remains on your hand, and eventually even the liquid all dries up too. It’s gone forever.” 

“I don’t entirely believe that,” I said. “But sometimes I’ll get in this strange mood where I try and capture every single moment I’m living in my mind, you know? Like right now, and now, and now, and now, and now, and so on, but it’s never-ending. Isn’t that terrifying?”

He blinked. “I don’t know. Maybe the present is an illusion. Maybe everything is only the past or future.”

And then I thought I was beginning to understand everything I’d been feeling, watching it unravel itself before me like a bright ribbon flicking between the folds of my pink little brain. There was profound loss in my life, there lay an insatiable loneliness and emptiness embedded within my love for beauty, for things I could never understand or explain. I think I longed to just be that beauty I so often witnessed in the world, to escape from the nothingness of the present. To for once be something else other than me. For my whole life I had pondered about myself in such a peculiar way, always preoccupied with intangible things that I struggled to see how I could make myself appear as concrete and real. Were my thoughts just thoughts, my feelings just feelings, or were they all me?

As he paid the cheque I turned my eyes toward the road and the black cabs and buses whirring by. A mental list of images appeared to me in the mind’s eye. Fear and mirth, hatred and longing, boredom and freedom, and then unfurling once again, childhoods and deathbeds and green English pastures and salt and pepper and horseback riding and past haircuts and poison and television and Christmas and the atmosphere and grandparents and fire and bracelets and reality and everything real that I still somehow couldn’t explain because it was all only inside of my head. I didn’t understand it. It was all tangled up within me and then he tapped my hand. 

“Ready to go?”

Before I knew it we’d crossed the street and were back in Clissold Park where we’d met just two hours before. So much felt like it had changed. The sun had disappeared and a few squirrels scurried around the trunks of trees up into the darkness and the cover of the rustling leaves. The lakes lapped their banks in the light, teasing wind. A crow sat and cawed on the wrought iron fence and I thought of October and the brilliance of a distant childhood autumn. We walked silently with our hands behind our backs and admired the surreal coolness of the night time in London, coming up to where the pavement split ways across the empty field. 

“Oh,” I exclaimed as his footsteps began to take him toward the pathway on the left. “I’m going this way.” I motioned to the diverging footpath.

“Ah right, well.” He stepped back over and pulled me into a long, warm hug. “Goodbye for now.”

There was so much unexplainable in that hug, so much unsaid that felt utterly momentous in the joining together of our bodies there between the two Clissold Park lakes. With it came the disappearance of my desire to escape and the need to be forever transient. And as we parted ways I wondered whether I was less or more confused than before.

. . .

 Somehow, I have always found it curious that we are all living and breathing in the present, yet the pure essence of such an existence that encompasses the absolute now of a moment is nearly impossible to understand for most of our lives. It’s solely in a hug, a shared intimacy, or a sudden flood of sensual and indecipherable memories that we acknowledge the cruel, oppressive passage of time, that we come to understand how we exist as a speck of dust travelling through an endless line of empty picture frames, capturing ourselves in truth for just a second as we really are and then sending each one tumbling down behind us into nothingness. And still, day after day, the past remains a brilliant liar to which we lay prostrate, in hopes of receiving the gift to live it all over once again.

I recognised suddenly the permanence of every decision, understood how every beginning possessed its own end, even from the start. I wondered the ways in which time had affected him during those thirteen years apart, how it would impose itself upon him in the future where I wasn’t around. I had known him once, and it was in the release of the hug that I realized I would never really know him again. Not in the same way. No one ever truly knows anybody in the same exact way, because time forbids it, because every second, our own memories and experience and emotion stretch and warp everything about us into something else as we grow older. It’s a miracle we still look at ourselves in the mirror and think “yeah, that’s me.”

And right now I’m walking back home thinking about everything that just happened and feeling lost. But I still like to have something to believe in - that at one time, we shared a series of presently unreachable, unknowable now’s, and I’m not sure whether or not to believe it will happen again with the same person. Or if I even want it to.

Maybe in the future. But now is now, and I’m still trying to understand where I am in the middle of it all.

September 22, 2023 15:55

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Mary Bendickson
05:00 Sep 24, 2023

Now this was a lot of deep thought.


Show 0 replies
06:47 Oct 17, 2023

Nice work!


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