This Is What It Is Like in Words
ILLUSTRATION BY SOPHIE EDELL
WE ALMOST believed it would last. The summer was drawling on, the flies crackled in those long evenings, but we knew we were seeing our friends for these final times. There was a sense that somewhere on the other side of this, we would run into each other again and talk like different people. How had our lives been so far? Again and again, we would find moments in them where we had come so close to being in the same places. We would laugh at these implausibilities as the light dies behind us into that dark blue night, only the golden streetlights burning till we get home safely.
Two years ago, I had seen you standing by the windows when I walked in. You had a second beer in your hand. There was a power cut and everyone had followed each other out to take a look at the fuse box, so the hall was empty. It was this way only for a few minutes, but that’s what I remember it like. We were standing next to an arch in the wall that led to some secret part of the house, and we were talking. The apartment was on the first floor, and from the outside, it had looked dangerously close to the road. The car lights sloped on the walls in faint dull rays that dipped towards the floor and vanished as the cars bent around the corner.
It had made the room look like it was turning.
I had wanted to put my head against the wall next to you.
I imagined what we might look like standing like this. You were tall. Your shoulders stooped inwards in a way that made your arms look stiff, and you never moved them much, or not perceptibly, in the way tall boys sometimes learn to do when they are made to feel sorry for the space they take up. You were earnest in that light, as if you would never take your eyes off of me when I was speaking. I had felt so utterly significant, it was everything.
But that life was elsewhere. It had happened to somebody else, some old acquaintances we were once close to and had now forgotten.
Years later, it was still like watching you standing there by the windows. I had this sense of looking back at myself from some far point in the future, and catching my life reel past me, like a pin stuck on a spinning world.
Outside, the day was still. I watched everything with an attention that would make it impossible to remember any of it later. I would only remember being here, intensely aware of myself in the passenger seat of your car, as if there had been nothing before or after this to mark my life. I must have read the writing in the rearview mirror a hundred times: OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. I thought it would have helped if it was the other way round – if they appeared closer than they were, so we always knew how much time we had. Still I couldn’t help but believe some part of it. On one level, it was about trusting where you were seeing things from.
The moon had grown in one part of the sky. It felt as if someone could crack time open any second now and ask us to leave. We would have to gather what we needed quickly, and in the hurry, I imagined reaching for your hand. We had just been here, stealing into orange bars on a backseat in the school parking yard. The brick-coloured sand stuck to our arms, but we were used to it.
‘Ask me something,’ I had said, turning the orange bar between my fingers.
‘Anything,’ I don’t remember what you said next, but we could have those kinds of conversations back then.
It had been too hot to hold hands, but you loved me that afternoon in the way we love people when our worlds are small. Then you step into the grand oyster and discover that your life is, in fact, larger than you had imagined it. You had to start over and over again until you caught up with a more permanent version of the present. We went to our own beds in the mornings and slept naked under the covers, and when we were alone, we got cold and hot and thirsty and there was no one there to hold us.
Still, we believed we were walking towards something whole, and so we were fraught, breaking like the most beautiful matches against the side of the box.
AS I was turning the volume up, my hand accidentally brushed against yours. I apologised quickly. You said nothing, but it was not what I thought it was.
You were leaving for Copenhagen at the end of the month. A friend there, that you had been seeing on and off, had an apartment. A couple of your other friends from college were joining you. I pictured you running down those cobblestoned European streets, sloping at impossible angles until they fell into rivers, giddy with alcohol. Your eyes drooped slightly when you were drunk, and it made you look either intensely happy, or intensely sad. I saw you sitting at the curb by the docks with your feet dangling in the water, although I felt there were laws about that.
‘You think something might happen?’ I was scrolling through the music on your phone. I liked doing this. It was like sharing something far more intimate than it really was, as if we were an old couple, each of us sharing one half of a habit. I changed the song before you could answer.
‘I doubt it,’ you said, ‘it’s nothing like that’.
The latter, I thought, was exclusively for my benefit. I turned to look at you. You smiled without taking your eyes off the road, as if there was a conspiracy solely between the two of us. I didn’t know what exactly it was but I smiled too.
In my mind, I sometimes imagined what you really meant when you said something. There was a version of us I had thought of that lived an entirely separate life, unrecognisable from our own, except maybe our figures talked in our voices or walked the way we did.
In this version, you could stretch your feet over mine. I could simply take the seat next to yours when we were out meeting friends. I could point at something, anything in the world — a lamp, a storefront, a bird — and tell you something about it.
You were an intent listener, a quality that always made me feel self-absorbed. Sometimes you would say something in response and I would feel much later that it had been sincere. I would remember it and say it to myself sometimes to prove how meaningful it was.
Then one evening, I had called you, and you had picked up the phone and said, ‘Yes?’.
It was like walking out the door one day and finding that you had been living in a dollhouse this whole time. Everything had the same quality, but somehow the feeling that your experience had been false couldn’t be shaken off. If you stretched your arms now you couldn’t touch either side of the doorway. In fact, this was your bedroom, and the walls had always been ice blue. What do you mean you didn’t know that?
‘Are you busy?’ I had asked.
‘No, what’s up?’
I had made something up and then said I had to go, and I would call you later. We had gone on to live our individual lives as if they had been given to us on lease. But in some pathetic imaginary way, I had let you into mine.
Some evenings, I rehearsed telling you about my day. I framed and reframed my life in my head until it sounded more vital, more interesting. I told you these stories as if I wasn’t in them at all. At times, I looked in the mirror and imagined what you would say in these conversations. I imagined what I would look like to you in my most private moments, when I had just gotten out of bed or when I was stepping out of the shower. I was playing a part. I knew, of course, that none of this was true. Every time I caught up with myself, I stopped and started listing every real, flawed, wasted moment between us that I could think of to keep myself from going mad.
I HAD no memory of how we first met. We had simply grown into each other’s lives as if there had been no other way. You had always been somewhere within the range of my life, so for instance, I had known what your hair looked like even before we were friends. We took the same bus from school and sometimes you got off one stop later because a song we had been listening to hadn’t ended. Then on other days I fell asleep in that heat lulling us through the open windows and by the time I woke up, you had left.
We kept considering what kind of people we would be without these exact childhoods, without the friendships in our current lives, but it was impossible to imagine a complete person that didn’t resemble us. We simply did not know what we did not know, and so our whole lives could have happened differently, but it was impossible to see it from where we were standing.
I filled you in on the news. In a different conversation, I wouldn’t have been this person. But you cared far too little for other people’s lives which made it easy to share them with you. I took this to mean that you had a vastly detailed inner life that occupied you, in which I was a minor character who could easily be forgotten, like a person you meet on your way to a different direction. I told you about a coffee shop I had grown used to that shut down last month. It had a large balcony potted with lemon plants that people stepped out to in the evenings, nearly emptying out the place. If you saw them standing there through the glass doors, they looked like they were all waiting for someone who wasn’t there with them. Looking out into the distance, with little red rings flaming in their hands – something to mark that they were here. It was like someone had called an interval in a play and all the stage actors had stepped back tired and were, briefly, playing themselves. When they came back in, they were chatty again, entirely satisfied in each other’s company.
It made you feel alone.
‘You would have liked the place,’ I said, but immediately I doubted if I had meant it.
I told you about a common friend who had recently fallen out of a long relationship. I had been standing with her in her kitchen a month ago. She was looking for the mozzarella in her refrigerator, her arm scuffling in the deep freeze tray, when her face perked up in that blue light, ‘I keep thinking what we would be like if we both wanted the same thing, you know?’ She said it as if it was the cumulative meaning of everything she felt, and then went back to looking for the cheese.
I had thought about that for a long time afterwards. We had eaten our dinner in silence and afterwards watched a movie without paying much attention. It hadn’t come up again.
I looked out the window. The soft white contrails of airplanes were vanishing over us, and I felt like no one else in the world was seeing this. I wanted to know if you and I could sit quietly with each other without talking too.
‘And what’s up with you?’
I told you I was considering moving back. I hadn’t thought about saying it out loud before I had said it, but once it was between us, I knew how I wanted you to respond.
This could be something good. When you would come back from that other part of your life, it would be winter here. There would be a light fog over the tops of houses, and the pigeons would have disappeared. No one would seem to notice that they are gone, until someone finds a pair scuttled against their chimney pipe, and then, one by one, we would spot them all, sheltering by the windows. We could meet again and talk about other things.
I could look forward to it.
Sometimes I thought I was invisible on my own, and only when I was close to you did I slowly turn transparent, then opaque. The realisation that I had been in the world this entire time lowered on me suddenly then, and I forgot how to perform involuntary movements, like blinking my eyes enough number of times.
In the afternoon, we had gotten coffees. When you ordered yours hot and black, I had looked at you and said mockingly, ‘That’s just sad’. You responded as if I had said it to pick an argument, and later in the car I considered if I had.
They brought us small buns with our coffees, with little vials of strawberry jam and butter. I had cut mine in half and eaten one with butter first and then the other with jam at the end. I had watched you as you spread the jam on top of the butter, in thick, clean layers so they didn’t mix, and took a big bite. I thought of imitating you, doing this one thing exactly the way as you, but it was late already. I ate with my mouth closed and let the coffee wash the butter down slowly. For six months, working at a small deli at the corner of the street I lived on, I had entertained the fantasy of waking up before you so I could make you coffee, maybe eggs and toast. I pictured us years later in a house together, and suddenly regretted our inability to perform even this most simple function together. You were in every way unlike me. The things you liked looked nothing like my own.
‘It’s here, right?’ you asked as we were turning into my street.
ONCE THAT evening, as a car passed on the other side of the road, you had looked at me with attention.
‘Are you wearing make-up?’
I might have shouted it.
You laughed, a short, amused laugh, as if I had said something interesting that you would later recall around someone else. I had wondered what you might say about me to somebody who didn’t know who I was, wanting to peek into a small part of how you saw me. But the possibility of coming up in your conversation without being asked about seemed absurd. Even if I did, I pictured you dismissing the subject as if it wouldn’t hold its own. But maybe that would only be because you wanted to keep me private, like a pet bird.
We must have been barely visible in that internal light that held the room together in the dark. Everything about that evening felt unreal now, as if I had dreamed parts of it. The lives I had imagined for us, past, present, future, mixed into each other frequently, leaving moments that were so emancipating in their force that I couldn’t tell what part of it had been real.
It was funny that you had noticed me.
No, that’s entirely wrong – it was endearing.
‘I like the make up,’ you had said looking away.
‘Please don’t,’ I rolled my eyes.
You were beginning to say something when everyone burst back into the room. The music was up again and we immediately forgot how quiet it had been without it. A few people walked up to us, more drunk than we were. Someone asked the group if they wanted to smoke and you headed out.
I couldn’t help but feel like we had been interrupted, and for a moment I thought that’s how you felt too.
Over the years I had grown to see how it might have actually been, that there had been nothing more there. But sitting here now, with no one else around us, I had wondered if we could go back to that exact minute and begin there, feeling as we did then.
It was ridiculous, the time I had spent waiting to catch up with a life moving steadily away from me, like a part of a whole moving on its own mad axis in the universe. Still, for that second, I had felt touched by you. I had never felt as incredibly weightless as when you singled me out in your attention.
In school we read a poem by James Wright about frogs that died leaping before cars on highways. They watched the grass on the other side of the road shine wetly in the beam of headlights and leaped towards it. It was a short poem, but I had seen it so vividly. Frog after frog, jumping into the pool of light to get closer to that mysterious greenness. Frog after frog, even as it saw its companions crushed to a flat pulp under the tires, its life straightened out of it to amount to nothing in one unremarkable second.
I had leaped into that light too, over and over again.
In my round, bulging eyes, you stood out, splitting into a thousand seconds like a beautiful, impossible thing in the distance, that I could reach out and touch.
I was looking at you, but it didn’t matter. We couldn’t see the ones looking at us unless we were looking at them too. We gazed on, at the back of someone else looking at someone else, and only in the luckiest accidents did we catch someone in the eye – for a moment, the match struck, fire and light, and then faded out.
I asked you at the gate if you wanted to come up, but you had somewhere to be. I realised I had stopped listening to you midway. The emptiness of the rest of the evening stretched itself before me, drowning out everything that may or may not have passed between us.
We spent so much of our lives chasing the endings we were promised that when they finally arrived, we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe them. They had to be grander, bigger, more moving than the ones we had been given. I’d like another go please.
‘I’ll see you soon,’ I said. You nodded, drumming your fingers on the steering wheel, and smiled, but already the moment had passed. I imagined kissing you on the cheek and stepped out of the car.
I watched the dogs chase after you as you drove out of view. I stood there for a little while longer watching them as they came running back into the street, their foolish tongues sticking out. Everything was exactly where it had been before. Not a single minute had shifted, and yet the dizzying realisation that we had moved was with us.
In this world, something was always vanishing from our hold. The rabbits jumped into the hat one after the other and disappeared. Only we were here, now, with the light leaving unnoticeably. It was true that we had been here before and we would be here again, but each time, more and more of our lives would have gone by. Then, when we look back, we might recognise some part of ourselves and think, this is how it was.
The title of this story has been taken from ‘Words, Wide Night’ by Carol Ann Duffy
Nikita Biswal is a writer from Delhi. Her stories locate people within culture and politics. You can find her on Instagram @nikitabiswal.