That exhibition of mirrors where they looked at each other in the glass, pausing at one such reflection to take its picture as if to render themselves permanent in a moment of strange kinship.
Her slight step descending upon the stone stairs as the day set upon them both in darkening gold, its ending light spilling through the soft fabric of her sleeves such that they were briefly translucent. The outline of an errant curl tumbling from the side of her head. The phone tucked away into the fold of her right hand. Everything from that afternoon unfolds in stop-motion, as if her brain has isolated real movements and made all memory of Elena a perpetual cinema of the mind. A series of images. A futile exercise in collecting detail after detail, as if to delay time and its undoing.
She would see Elena on several occasions thereafter but the shape of things would be sharper and more bitter, cold even as the winter between them burgeoned, enabled by the gaping distance, the open wound.
In a retinue of corridors, Elena weaving through the crowds, dressed in another one of those stitched jackets of hers. Always adorned in histories, embellishing herself with the past lives of her parents. Fabric cut down to her frame and remade for the shoreline of her arms, for the delicate river of her shoulders. In the back lane, wearing pleated grey trousers and modest black shoes. Outside beneath the trees, the red-white dress and thick silver chain. Her bag crammed full of papers, unzipped, unkempt. Her large eyes unwaveringly set away from everything. Later, with her curls shorn, no longer Elena from the photographs, tight lipped and shut-off.
Their first real conversation was the product of an accident, much in the way that all strange coincidences are. It was about The Battle of Algiers. Elena recommended the film and talk seemed to expand in the aftermath, spilling over, shaped by growing curiosity. They found each other out when the hours let them, often sitting together for the sake of convenience. There came the brief, scrawled words about Beat poetry. The handing over of Patti Smith’s Just Kids like a promise. The notion of meeting somewhere, for a coffee or a smoke, to drink up the ageing city’s splendor as the cold slipped out of it; mere excuses for more talk, more time.
It was tentative still when they sat down on the grass on one of many afternoons and read from a collection of jazz poems. Elena’s unruly hair caught in the breeze. Her voice carrying, quieting over the commas, dipping low between the verses. There came the dallying walks to public parks, reclining at the benches, watching Elena on the sly when her face was turned away. It was shy still when they laughed amongst friends, in a heady daze of smoke and sunlight. Spring took them under its wing, brimming with possibility. Trees flowered in shades of orange and yellow and they wrote to each other sporadically, odd interruptions to the continuity of time which seemed to swim both back and forward for them.
I’ll see you in a year with no teeth, she said, sipping on the coca cola through a paper straw.
Elena laughed and dug her toes into the pebbles, a french fry propped between her slender fingers.
So much of the summer was in their writing to each other — a living, breathing exchange that cluttered her mind, that hung before her eyes in bizarre tangibility as if Elena was really in her room again, sitting on that black chair, humming softly to Charlie Parker. She wrote about the family vacation — the verdant hills of the south, the women working the coffee bean plantation, her sister’s smile in a staged picture, dusk clouds beyond the airplane window. Elena wrote back from her own place — the muddy bike rides, the decaying buildings, Dylan’s and Guthrie’s sounds from the 60s, and the enduring fear of disappearance, of age. As the weeks swept back into routine and they returned to each other, there arose a question in her that she couldn’t quite answer.
The badly written, desperate poems she put together as she thought of Elena were no clear indication, were no measure of the feeling at all. Whether it was that evening of decadence when they stepped into the rain recklessly and coughed through soup afterwards or the catalogue of mute colours in Elena’s bedroom and their subsequent meandering through flea markets, love was too big a word for them. They were just kids.
Swinging to Elena’s jazz forefathers, dropping tears into the shared prayerbook of Howl and Other…, buying flowers for each other when money was abundant and setting a hesitant eye to the camera each time a moment seemed precious. They were just kids.
When Elena moved into a new flat, she paid the inevitable visit and they sat together in the unfurnished room, sharing that feeling but being unable to identify it, unable to name it. It swam out into the room, large and threatening, making her dizzy. Their eyes skittering, refusing to meet. Bodies barely just brushing, an almost. She gave Elena the poems soon after — there was no count to the days then, no sense of what a month could bring — and Elena secured her burdens in careful newspaper packages. They weighed nothing when Elena gave them to her. She carried them home in her bag, fingers itching, that old curiosity resurfacing — the feeling recycled and remade, still a question without an answer.
A friend — abused as a child — I couldn’t stay.
Elena’s past as a mirror to her own. The fear rearing its ugly head finally, a tight clamp around the heart, a brutal lump at the back of her throat. Putting a few desks between them, then a few days, redrawing the map because the question could not be answered.
All of Elena’s hurt in her hands, scrawled and messy, an admission, an accusation. Their last hurried meeting on a balcony, beyond the summer when Elena took her left hand — her writing hand, her drawing hand — into her own and pressed her lips to it. The question was being asked, without any of the words they were so used. It seemed to take shape and acquire presence as if it were a third person in their company.
She could not find the answer, let alone her voice — could only feel her heart rushing somewhere, could sense her stomach plummeting, could only see some kind of impending crash unfolding before her. The terror of it. She; so easily overwhelmed. Elena; patiently sitting, an articulate poet still.
She cradled the hand long after and couldn’t decide if she wanted an unkissed version of it or a braver incarnation. A hand unafraid of affection. A hand that had reached out in reciprocation, had given an answer even if the words hadn’t arrived for either of them yet.
If Elena was always looking for the exit, where did that leave her? If Elena lived in fear of somebody else’s hurt, how could they nurture each other? She thought of love that night, the phantom of Elena’s mouth hovering over the skin of her hand. Lingering. That beautiful little thing she knew only as happening between men and women.
In her head, the picture could not fit her and Elena both. It was still a question. She still could not answer. She did not have brave hands. She could not return something she could not understand.
The fear grew teeth and hung over her like a shadow, stilling her hand just as it sealed her mouth. Well into the spiralling weeks of abandonment, she planted a silence deliberately between them. There came three pleas from Elena — the first bewildered and riddled with hurt, the second listing all of her own shortcomings and noting ruefully I’ll never see you toothless now and the last, immersed in rage, all dismissal and destruction. Furious for having been forsaken at that exact moment in which she needed care the most.
She saw Elena on a number of occasions thereafter — Elena, who grew brittle and seemed to change colour and sound like the film that she was, weary and betrayed, having received no word, having been given nothing. Elena, who disappeared for weeks on end then and the loss of whom was so intensely physical that it pained her to carry herself from one hour to the next. Elena, who cut all of her hair the next year and kept her jaw clipped, a marked line, a wall. Elena, whose words persisted like stains, like souvenirs. Elena, who’s loving hands had taken hers, who’s loving hands had fixed her in poems and spun her out in pictures, who’s loving hands had been, who’s loving hands could not be.
She revisits their summer less often now. She only reads the letters when she wants to punish herself. She keeps the jade pendant in the drawer. Elena’s gift — a precious stone from Japan, given to her by her grandmother, passed on in affection — like so many other things. She understands the question now. It swarms in around her when she’s unguarded, staggering in its immensity, overwhelmingly present when it’s at its worst. She feels it most deeply when she is lonely. She has the answer. Only now Elena’s hands are not there to hold.