He felt the spaces between his ribs; mind so crowded he turned in his sheets for relief.
“But I’m worried about you,” his parents and friends said.
“What about you?!,” his psychologist asked.
You, You, You, You, he thought, placing his hand on the empty side of the bed.
It felt good to sleep in a real bed instead of on the air mattress he’d been occupying in the living room. He worked up the lef to return to their—now his—bed since she abruptly left him and their relationship while they sat on their—her— couch. He remembered how it sagged in the middle.
She didn’t love him, she said. She was missing that thing needed for a relationship. It’s not that their relationship was bad—far from it. Four years, and further explanations missing like bookends; and the shelves filled with her stuff were gone, and her table, her desk, her couch, her words, her touch, everything colliding into everything else, leaving him hollow. The living room’s silence echoed her presence.
And this is the way it had to be, and no matter how much he protested against her haste and being almost entirely shut out of her thought process, it was done.
He had every right to be angry with her, she said.
“Get the fuck out,” he replied as they sat on the sagging couch, watching the woman he hoped to marry and bare their children tear up, utter “okay. . .” and leave. She wouldn’t fight for them, and the couch bowed under his weight; he shook as he cried.
"For a long time I felt like I could only get glimpses of happiness, you know? Somewhere, it was out there, but not then,” he said, trying to trace his thread by unraveling the entire spindle because any other way wouldn’t make sense, he told Sanne.
The small café they sat in overlooking a canal in the center of the city was crowded with people pushing and squeezing in between the tables and chairs; it was cozy, despite his unease.
“A couple of weeks after it happened, I went to visit some friends in Denmark,“ he explained to Sanne, sipping tea while she sat across from him, one leg folded under her body, elbows on the table. She nursed her coffee, eyes fixed on his face as she listened.
“I just had to get away,” he said.
“One night, we went to the house of the kind-of girlfriend of my friend Joas, who used to live here, and I was talking to her and her friends—it was a really nice and chill get-together. I really liked being around people, not being completely preoccupied with what just happened,” he continued, taking a large swig of his tea. It was beginning to cool.
“I could see myself being interested in other girls, but I didn't feel it. I wasn't ready. I was a mess,” he said, recalling when they had sat in a similar café to where him and Sanne now sat. She told him she noticed a change in how she saw him, how she saw them: he was no longer just a friend. Soon after they had their first kiss on a bright spring morning under the tree in front of her house, after an evening in the park and staying up all night talking on the very couch that failed to cushion their fall, which sat almost exactly one year in the past.
“One of the girls was really pretty and really sweet, and she asked about. . .my current situation,” he said, swallowing. “Fuck, it was a party, and I didn’t want to bring things down, but it was just so much weight on me.” Sanne sat, shifting her weight, listening.
“I told her about her eating disorder, her psychological disorders, the clinics she had been in while we were together, and how she expressed doubt and then a few weeks later, while still in the clinic for her psychological disorders, broke up with me, all without really talking to the people at the clinic. For such a big decision, one that I could see when she told me was consuming her in the end, you would think that she would have said more.”
“What was the point I was trying to make again? Oh yea, about those moments of happiness. Yea, so I don't know how that all ties in, and if this even makes any sense, I'm just talking, but it did kind of, in a weird way, give me hope for the future,” he explained.
“The girl was so sweet; I wanted that again. I told her that through all of it she had improved a lot in terms of food and stuff, and that she was one of the strongest people I knew—I know. So many mixed feelings: I loved her completely, hated the way she ended it, wasted us, and that made me angry. Seriously fucking angry."
“Last night, what does this have something to do with that?” Sanne said. They cuddled the night before and he inexplicably left while they sat on the couch at her apartment, her between his legs.
“Well, like I said, there was a lot of anger there because she just dropped all of this in my lap, but I also still loved her, so much. I think it was easier and safer to be angry at her—even though it was justified. . .”
“Why?! You should have been fucking angry. . . it’s healthy, hoor!” Sanne said, straightening and leaning forward in her chair.
“True, but anger’s easier than being sad. I mean, the sadness was letting go, being empty and full at the same time, it’s what’s left over after the anger fades, it’s the heavier of the two because it keeps you awake at night, it’s those good memories of how you were. . . but then again that made me angry, because it was so suddenly cut off. . .” he said, leaning back in his chair, looking at some indefinite point left of Sanne’s face.
“She was my sweetness. That’s what I used to call her, ‘sweetness,’” he said. The more he stared into the sensory mush of the café the more it faded into a shaky focus on his past’s persistent presence.
“And one of her things was me rubbing her head, she really liked that. . .” he said, “so that’s why I left last night, why I was so weird: it was that moment of happiness with you, the first real thing I had in a long time, and then along she came. . . it wasn’t fair to you. . .” he said. “That was just our thing, and the whole situation—on the couch watching movies, you between my legs, asking me to rub your head—was just too familiar.”
“Do you still love her?” Sanne asked, eyes flickering to his face and then back to the table.
“Is this what you want?” she asked, continuing, “If you’re still in love with her, after what she did. . .if. . . I’m not her. . . ” as she rubbed her hands on her thighs.
“Funny, I was wondering the same thing about you, if I’m what you want,” he said. “Last night, when we were cuddling, you said we should just fuck, Sanne.”
She would have asked the same thing, he thought, about what I want, what I feel, a smile of acknowledgement forming in the corner of his mouth. What he felt he wanted was Sanne, close—her body, her sweaty skin and her power. Her and Sanne clouded thoughts of one another; and affection, how him and Sanne never kissed while they fucked, and need, and release, and how he wanted Sanne’s words; how he wanted the present to show him how freedom from the past felt. Who said anything about love?, he thought, passing over the sharp end of Sanne’s words in silence.
Sanne inched forward, tilted her glass, discerning the amount of its contents, threw her head to the side in search for the waitress, pushing air out of her nostrils. “I asked about you,” she said, tracing the rim of her empty glass, shaking her head, “I just. . . want to know about you. You called me this morning—”
“Because I felt I owed you an explanation,” he said.
“Yea, is that what that was, just now? I asked you a fucking question,” she said, taking to her feet and walking towards the bar.
Last night was nice, he thought.
Sanne didn’t ask him to bring anything—“just you.” She even looked up “date movies” and allowed a few smiles to crack her lips as she watched pieces of tofu, pepper, and noodles end up on him, the couch, and floor. This mess was better than what was left in his living room after her departure: clothes strewn about the floor, dirty dishes collecting on a small coffee table dotted with remnants of previous meals. He remembered cycling for hours trying to shake the restless energy only to arrive in the same living room, the same clutter of a half-empty room.
On most days, simply moving was a chore. Little promises to himself—lists—stukjes of motivation waited to be crossed out; instead, everything fell to pieces—stuck. His silences across the telephone with his mother broke into tears and gasping, because he didn’t know what else to do.
It was natural, his psychologist said, he had to go through all of the steps of grieving, or else he’d dwell in the same place; his process was a pit, she said, and he couldn’t get from one side to the other without going through the bottom. Going forward meant feeling an unbearable presence while focusing on himself, what he wanted, needed. All he wanted was to not feel crushed, and stay in the country; they were tied together, he told his psychologist, and she had agreed to remain a couple on paper so he could remain—her last gift to him. He wanted nothing to do with her.
On paper, nothing made sense. On paper, they weren’t perfect, but that’s not the way she saw them, she said. He would see them together, walking to her apartment around the corner, the person she fell in love with in the clinic, the person who made her feel like he never did, the person that now commanded her affections. Her feelings weren’t requited, but he feared that one day her charm would break him. He closed his eyes and pushed it away—sacred thoughts only confessed to a few.
She was so close, the distance between them oceans.
“You’re a great guy, mate,” his boss said when letting him go weeks before she moved on, “but this job’s just not for you.” Prescience across a table overlooking the city’s bustling center and so many opportunities—he just wanted one to be his for enough time to at least give them the illusion of security. He’d hope they’d continue facing it all together; now, job applications with no motivation and immigration lawyers pushed him deeper into the gulf between him and what he wanted. His experience always fell short.
Slowly, he stitched his world together, opening his friend’s bike shop two days a week, living off of savings, and being with friends again. He didn’t know how he would make enough money to survive but he was alive, surrounded by those who were just there; still, appreciating life was difficult. His mother told him she would give him money, because she loved him and wanted to support his dreams, especially if his experience fell short.
And as soon as he began making what was their apartment his own, reclaiming some living room space with plants and rearranging chairs to occupy new places so that the room echoed possibility instead of the past’s hollow cadence, he let Sanne fling him back into the void She left four years ago. Across time with no contact outside him plucking explicit memories that stung him guilty for wavering from his love and their struggle against anorexia’s power over both of them, he found Sanne again.
“Let’s just take it easy,” he said when Sanne came back to their table. He traced imaginary circles in the wooden table, staring at his work.
“But do you still love her?” she repeated, and he detected a quiver in her firm voice. “When we. . . have sex, do you pretend I’m her?”
He didn’t pretend Sanne was her, he said, being disarmed by her unusual show of vulnerability. “But something is missing, I think,” he said.
“I need to know you need me too, much more than just sex,” she said.
“Can you promise me that?” he asked, “you have to open up, Sanne. This can’t be like the last time.” thinking about how much those words applied just as much to him. She had said the same thing—he continued tracing circles in the table.
Sanne slowly bobbed her head, legs pulled against her chest. “But. . . it’s going to be hard, for the both of us.” She chipped at the blue, red, and orange on her nails, biting the ends and then wiping the detritus from her thighs. Her words rolled up into a lump in his throat that he swallowed. Unfolding herself, Sanne asked if he wanted to walk. It would be easier for her to explain if she could move; she felt too cramped in the café.
They abandoned the café and walked onto the crowded, narrow street full of people enjoying Saturday strolls, window shopping, and the crisp, unusually sunny autumn weather. Him and Sanne wound their way through some of the smaller, quieter streets near the periphery of the city’s center, the majority of which was surrounded by a canal.
Feeling again was new to him— Sanne did give him that—but she also stirred something within him. “I’ve always been a bit of a prude,” he admitted, thinking of their aggressive sex; the way he buried her face in the sheets as she squirmed underneath him; how she twisted his body and made him hurt, how good it felt hurting her, and how she lay smiling and wet curled up next to him after they had exhausted each other’s bodies.
He apologized for leaving her the previous evening after she asked him to rub her head.
Sanne, accepting his apology, said, “When I was little, my father did me and my sisters’ hair.” “He would take it ‘like this,’” she said, mimicking his movements, “and then he would cut about ‘this much’ off,” turning her fingers into imaginary scissors.
“I remember how he would comb my hair before school when I was little and then I would beg him to put me on his shoulders while we walked to his bakfiets,” she explained, “and I liked to put my hands on the top of his head ’like this,’” interlocking her fingers, cupping the air. “I was scared because it was so high up there, but he made me feel safe. I didn’t like being scared, but I did like the excitement of being scared and then being okay,” finishing, “maybe that’s why I like my head rubbed. . . it reminds me of nice things, too,” she said, staring off into the distance.
Sanne, much to the chagrin of her mother and sisters, would roll around on their living room floor with her father, wrestling. “I think he liked having a daughter that liked being tough,” she said. “I also beat up boys at school when they picked on me. I beat them all, and when I got into trouble, I knew he couldn’t say it, but I knew he was proud of me because he would always buy me ice cream a few days after—just me and him, she remembered, adding, “yea, my dad’s pretty cool. We watch romantic comedies together.” Little girls in Belgium didn’t wear pigtails, or braids for that matter, he learned.
“What was her name?” she asked, changing topics, “I want to know her name.”
“Bo. Her name was Bo.”