A dark shade of blue and red. The stripes on his crisp white played tricks on my tired eyes. They made him look taller, sharper, more alive. The fluorescent lights were uncharacteristically soft that night. Seated on the blood-red sofa, they lit him generously. He seemed happy.
And I wasn’t the mass of nerves I usually am in his orbit. A couple of beers before our dinner calmed me down from the manic belligerence of the week. I was spoiling for a negotiation of terms, something on which to map the trajectory of our paths interweaving. I’m not big on ambiguity. Not about life plans, not about immediate tasks, and certainly not about things I’ve decided I wanted badly. I was prepared to bargain to a point. But I was also prepared to lose it all. I rehearsed them all in my head, what I’d been meaning to talk about. If I didn’t think the terms yielded me an ounce of peace of mind, I wanted out. And then he came with his dorky “allooo” and I forgot.
As we poured over the menu, I pretended to care what to eat. I rarely ever crave anything other than fish or something spicy, so I settled on the fish. He said to share a salad. I remembered our first dinner together, all those weeks ago. He didn’t like the salad we ordered then. For the life of me, I still don’t know what was wrong with it. A salad is greens, yellows, reds and oranges dribbled with browns or creams. One appreciates the crunch and other textures. A salad is something one ingests to assuage guilt over the heart-attack food one has for the main meal. A salad is a salad.
I’m not big on small talk, over-the-dinner table conversation. I credit my parents, who were sparing with words, preferring to do rather than say. We talked about the food, the people we knew, work, stuff. I had a million questions about him. Details to fill in my rough sketch. But I never felt quite at ease to ask, it wasn’t my place. There’s sticking tongues in each other’s throats, then there’s peeling those protective layers well-hardened over the years. I can’t imagine anything quite as scary as taking off those layers, for someone who wasn’t brought up to believe himself to be nigh indestructible. Like me.
I didn’t have a campaign to scale the walls of his fort. I never do, trusting my inner marshal wouldn’t lead me falsely. From without, I looked across his moat, up the formidable towers casting long, long shadows. He was tantalizingly substantial and opaque, too much to resist. Amazingly, I was never intimidated. I was often annoyed and pissed off, but constantly intrigued. Looking back, I wonder now whether I should have laid an elaborate siege plan. Maybe then I can convince myself I’ve tried everything before signaling the retreat. And not to have regrets.
He’d chosen to see a horror flick over my suggestion of a testosterone-laden whimsy about cars and cops and robbers. I found his popcorn habit weird, but then he’d always struck me as a creature who abided by the rules and followed the protocols of dictates of norms of normalcies. How bizarre, for someone everyone would surely categorize as ‘not the norm.’ I don’t know whether the preoccupation with following those protocols convinced him he was not the freak he is. Si tendre, mon original.
The cinema was as cold as his elbow was warm. Munch, munch, munch went the popcorn in his mouth. I wanted desperately to be scared by the movie, so then it wasn’t money wasted on a rollercoaster that didn’t dip or crest. I wasn’t disappointed. I remembered how it was when we first saw a movie together. We’d been first in the cinema. The stillness of the space, I thought, had been shockingly intimate. But we hadn’t touched then, even though I’d longed to. There his thigh had been, resting, fidgeting. Twenty minutes in he’d nodded off. How adorable, I thought. I’d squeezed his shoulder and he’d woken with a start and grabbed my hand. Thinking back now, I wonder if I’ve imagined it all.
Munch, munch, munch went the popcorn in his mouth. At each cheap trick of our horror flick, we willingly surrendered. Every start was punctuated by the release of bated breath and relieved chuckles. The warmth of that elbow radiated warmth all over. He finished his popcorn and made a big show about cleaning up. He settled. I uncrossed my right leg over my left to cross the latter over the former. Then I felt a pinch on my arm. What a weirdo. And the radiating warmth burst into a small flame. A couple more pinches at every scary start. I was grinning internally and grimacing outwardly over the horrific manipulations of our horror movie. I leaned over to smell his shoulder and made some idiotic comment about him smelling nice. He’d been under the sun all day he said. I’d always loved how he smelled. He straightened up and stretched, and casually put his left arm around me.
Outside my brain it must’ve unfolded in real time, but inside it went in slow motion. Then he had his arm around me and naturally I fell close to his side. And inhaled. Every so often he would dip his head close to mine as we gazed up the screen. Like magnets our free hands caressed and stroked, mine bigger than his. Bizarreness. And it felt so marvelously right.
There wasn’t any post-mortem of the movie after, just a quiet companionship, and a few exchange of words as we made our way to the parking lot. It felt right to be quiet as our feet fell in step. He walked me to my car, and I opened the door. I knew when I turned back I would get what I’d often thought of since that furtive first. Bizareness. And still, it felt marvelously right.
There are moments now when I doubt the veracity of those episodes. I check my phone and wonder whether we'd said what we did. And I wonder now if we'd really meant it. His messages stare back at me, a tenuous foothold on reality. Those moments seem so long ago at times. And there are moments like now, when they seem as recent as an hour ago.
Dream the world into existence, goes one Aussie aboriginal song. But there are limits to wishes. And some things, no matter how hard one tries, cannot be dreamt to come into being.