©2019-2020 Kassie N (dear-llama). All Rights Reserved.
Chapter 22: Everything I've Ever Let Go
"Where are we going tonight?" Zuzi asks, stashing her books into her messenger bag. I watch her papers catch and crinkle, but she makes no move to smooth them out. Once they're all crammed in, she draws the zipper closed and gives the bag a self-satisfied pat.
I look away and catch sight of Frederik's slightly horrified look. He's still staring at Zuzi's bag. I stifle a grin.
"What about coming over to my place for kiwi film night?" Priscilla suggests. There's a hopeful light in her eyes that I cringe at the thought of dousing.
I open my mouth to say something, but Ludo beats me to it. "Are you going to cook?" he asks.
Priscilla grimaces. "We could order something on Wolt," she says hopefully.
"I haven't downloaded the app," Zuzi says. "Is it any good?"
"I've tried it a couple times," Priscilla says. "It's good. I always get my food on time."
I've never ordered any food with Wolt, either, but delivery staff with the big purple food bag are not an unfamiliar sight in the streets. Having seen them around so much, I've always been curious about ordering food through their delivery service.
Priscilla turns to me. "What do you think, Emi?"
"I can't tonight," I say. I try to pull my face into a grimace, but it comes out feeling more like a grin, even to myself. "I have dinner plans tonight. Could we do this another time? I don't want to miss it."
Zuzi makes it a point to look around. "Dinner plans?" she asks. "With who? All your friends are here."
"Hey!" I exclaim, mock affronted.
Even Priscilla is laughing.
"So who are you having dinner with?" Zuzi is like a dog in search of a bone it is sure it has buried – right in this spot. "Did you finally get on Tinder?"
I make a face. "Tinder? No, thanks."
"Who is it, then?"
I don't want to tell her. She's been talking about me and Aksel so much, finding out that we are meeting for dinner would be extra fodder for her.
"Just a friend," I say. "I do have friends outside of this group, you know."
"Well," says Priscilla, nudging the conversation back on track, "we should do movie night another time, then, when all of us can make it. You're not allowed to miss it, Emi."
"I promise," I say. "I definitely want to be there. I want to see what a kiwi film looks like."
"So," Zuzi says, "where are we going tonight?"
I tune them out as the others start throwing out suggestions, swiping on my phone instead. There's a message from Aksel – I'm here. Just two words, but they're enough to make my heart skip.
I stand up, scraping the chair legs against the floor as it shifts behind me. "I should go," I announce, abruptly cutting into Frederik's flat-out refusal for Thai food.
"Too spicy," he is saying. "And too many soups."
Zuzi breaks off her glare at Frederik to eye me suspiciously, but Priscilla gets up to hugs me goodbye. "Have fun!" she chirps.
"Wait," Zuzi says.
I know she's going to start interrogating me again, so I grab my bag and make a hasty escape. "Have fun at dinner! I'll see you guys tomorrow."
"Isn't that suspicious?" I hear Zuzi asking as I let the door close behind me. "Isn't she acting suspicious?"
Breathing out a long sigh, I head for the exit. I'm feeling a sense of urgency – I don't want them to come out and see Aksel standing outside, waiting. That would be too reminiscent of the last time he was here.
When I step outside, I am hit by a sense of déjà vu so strong, I stop dead on my tracks. Aksel is standing in almost the exact spot I remembered him in the last time. He is still dressed in his office wear – he must have come straight from work. Even though he's been at work all day, there is still a crispness to his shirt that makes it stand out nicely. I've always liked seeing him in collared shirts.
I inhale deeply and head to where he's standing. He looks down at me as I come to a stop.
"Hey," he says.
"Hei," I reply. "Have you been waiting long?"
"No," he says. "I just got here."
"Okay." I let the silence drape over us for a brief second, before remembering that I'm supposed to be avoiding my friends. This means getting as far away as possible before they decide to head out. "Let's go?" It's supposed to be an imperative, but comes out ending on a lilt.
"Where to?" Unlike me, Aksel doesn't seem to be in a hurry. I take a few steps forward, but he doesn't follow.
"What are you doing?" I ask, even as I'm distractedly eyeing the doorway for any familiar figures. "Aren't you coming?"
Aksel is silent for a moment. Then he asks, "What are you doing?"
My eyes snap back to his. "Nothing," I say. But I'm still itching to leave. "Let's go."
"Where should we go?"
"I don't know," I say. I can feel my foot tapping and make an effort to still it. "Is there anywhere you want to go? Any food cravings?"
Aksel shrugs. His slowness is infuriating.
"Why don't we start walking," I suggest, "and see if anything catches our interest?"
He's looking at me, as if thinking something over.
"Come on," I say. "Let's just walk."
But he's still not moving. I hear an overly-familiar peal of laughter ring out from somewhere in the distance, and my heart rate shoots into overdrive. I don't need to look back at the doorway to know what – or who – I will see in the next instant.
Sheer instinct propels me in that moment. Grabbing Aksel's hand, I pull him along as I try to put as much distance between us and the university building as possible in fifteen seconds.
He finally moves, letting me direct him out of the university and onto the main street. I don't stop until we are past the tram stop.
Then I realise I'm still gripping onto his fingers, and let go.
I clear my throat. "Well," I say, "maybe we can walk around here and see if there's anything interesting." He doesn't reply, but he does finally fall into step beside me.
We walk side-by-side in silence down the street, until Aksel speaks. "Are you ashamed to be seen with me?"
My head snaps up at that. "No," I say. "It's not that."
The corner of his mouth curls upwards, but I can't tell if he's joking or putting on a brave face. I know all too well about that.
"I just… It would be awkward." The thought of Zuzi's pointed remarks in the aftermath brings an involuntary grimace to my face.
A pause. "So," he says slowly, "you are ashamed to be seen with me."
I frown. "That's not it."
"But your friends don't know you're meeting me tonight?"
Wisely, I stay quiet. After a moment, I glance surreptitiously at him. He catches me looking and shrugs. It's a gesture that tells me he has let the topic go, but my own shoulders remain tense.
"I don't have to tell them everything," I mumble. "Just because I haven't told them I'm meeting you tonight doesn't mean I'm ashamed of it." Shame is too strong a word.
"Okay," he says simply. I can't tell from his expression alone if it's genuinely bothering him or if it was just a casual topic he brought up to break the ice.
If it had been the latter, it has done the complete opposite. There is a heaviness in the air now, and although Aksel is still walking beside me, I'm getting the feeling that he might prefer to be anywhere else right this second.
I last sixty-four more steps before I cave.
"Okay," I say, stopping short so suddenly that Aksel takes a few seconds to realise I'm no longer by his side. He drifts to a stop, turning to look at me.
"Okay," I repeat, "I didn't want my friends to know I'm meeting you tonight, but it's not because I'm ashamed of you. I just don't want them to think…" I swallow, "that this is something that it's not."
His mouth twitches and flattens. "What is it not?"
I press my lips together as my hands lift in a palms-up gesture of helplessness. "It's… They think…" I blow out a noisy breath, the air escaping my lips in noisy spurts. I don't want to talk about this, to make him think that I'm dredging up ancient history. Or the not-so-ancient past of last weekend.
I finally settle on, "They take too much interest in my love life." Then I add quickly, "Or lack thereof. Zuzi especially always thinks there's something going on, even if there isn't."
Aksel doesn't say anything. He's so quiet that I have to glance at him to see if he's listening.
"She – they don't believe that we are just friends now," I say. "Even though we are. They have all sorts of weird theories about our friendship." I force a laugh. "It's ridiculous. I suppose I'm tired of trying to convince them. That's why it's easier to just keep it from them."
And then he says, an old tune on repeat, "You care too much about what other people think."
This pisses me off. I roll my eyes and shoot back, "They're my friends! I have to see them every day. Of course I care. You'd care about what Lumi and Aliisa and the others think too."
"If they were really your friends, they wouldn't make fun of you for meeting someone."
"They don't make fun of me," I snap. He is misunderstanding drastically, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not. Either way, I am filled with an indignant fire that burns at his words. "They're just curious, that's all. They are my friends – they're the only people here who understand me and support me."
I'm glaring at him, so I catch the twinge on his face as I spit out the words. If I didn't know better, I would think my speech has hurt him.
He's silent now, so I say, running out of steam, "They're my best friends here, but I don't have to tell them everything. You don't tell your friends everything, either." I'm not sure how true this last statement is, because Lumi seemed to know quite a bit about our break up back when I'd run into her, but I know Aksel. I know he is an intensely private person. Even if he had told his friends about us, he would have glossed over a lot of the details.
That was, after all, the problem we'd had. He had kept all his feelings in, letting them fester until they hit the boiling point and finally came gurgling out in the form of one short, cold word.
Do you want me to leave?
The memory of the word still has the ability to clamp a vice grip around my heart.
"How much do your friends know about our break up?" I ask suddenly.
I'm not about to repeat myself. He's heard me perfectly well.
Aksel takes his time in replying, as if he's giving me time to retract my question. Finally, he says, "Not much."
"Why not?" I ask, genuinely curious. "Didn't you tell them about it?"
"I don't tell them everything," he says, then stops and lets out a short bark of a laugh. "Touché."
I can't help but smile in self-satisfaction.
"Fine," he says. His voice suggests that he's not happy, but his expression tells me that he's holding back a smile. "I get it."
As we walk on, though, I can't help but wish that he had given a concrete answer to my question. Because there is a part of me that did want to know – exactly how much has he told his friends about us? But asking now would be ripping open a hornet's nest.
"Let's not fight," I say, as a peace offering. Dinner hasn't even started, and we are already sniping at each other. Not for the first time, I'm wondering if we can stay friends. If we should stay friends.
He must have had the same thought, because he sighs. "Yeah," he says. "I don't want to fight."
I look at him, and he gives me a small smile. As if out of habit – as if he's forgotten – he reaches for my hand and begins to intertwine his fingers in mine. I know he does it without thinking, because it is his default when it comes to reassuring me. Then he jerks away, and I know that realisation has hit him. We don't get to hold hands anymore. "I…"
I clear my throat and stick the exposed hand into the pocket of my hoodie. "I know," I say quietly, whirling on my heel, leaving him no choice but to follow. "Are you hungry? Let's find a restaurant or something."
We find a small eating place tucked away in the corner of the district, bordering the fringes of the city centre. They sell coffee, soup, and pies. I look at Aksel, and he shrugs, so we step into the store's warm aromatic embrace. Its interior reflects its menu – simple but classic, with light-coloured walls and dark wooden furniture.
Aksel finds a table far in the back, in a corner, as if he's trying to hide us away from prying eyes. He waits until we start eating before he gets back on topic. I thought he had forgotten all about his silly mistake before – the way he had habitually reached for my hand – but the words out of his mouth prove it hasn't gone far from his mind.
"I didn't like it," he says.
"Huh?" I look up from my soup, my voice coming out in a bewildered gurgle because I've just taken a huge mouthful. Hrngh?
"I…" Then he expels a long breath and lowers his face so that I can't see his expression. "Never mind."
I pause, chew, and swallow. Then I say, more clearly this time, "No. What were you saying? I want to know." I wait a beat, but when he doesn't lift his head, I repeat, more forcefully, "Tell me."
He looks up then. "Do you remember when we were together?"
"Of course I remember," I say, a little snippily. I'm hardly likely to have forgotten our history. "What are you talking about?"
He sighs. I watch him place his knife on the plate and sit back, fork still in hand. The other hand is laid on the tabletop, two fingers drumming noiselessly against the surface.
"What?" I ask, prompting him when he still doesn't say anything.
"Do you remember whenever we went out somewhere?" He waits for my nod. "You were always…" He hesitates, then changes tack. "You never wanted to hold my hand."
"That's not true." The instinctive denial is out of my mouth before I've even fully registered his statement. Then I suck my lips into my mouth to keep myself silent.
It's rare that he opens up about what he really thinks. I should know – over the past months, I've been subjected to his long stretches of silences enough times. And so, I shut up and let him speak.
"I stopped holding your hand after a while," he says. "Did you even notice that?"
I go still. I can't answer, because it is only now that the realisation comes crashing down on me. He's right. He had stopped holding my hand in public – long before things had gone icy between us. And I hadn't noticed until he pointed it out.
My face must have revealed my unspoken thoughts. Aksel smiles grimly, like there is a small part of him that had hoped he was wrong. "Right," he says.
We're having a heart-to-heart now, I find myself thinking. Except, unlike the first time we spoke about the break up, this one isn't the congenial kind.
"Why?" I ask, because I do want to know. When we were together, Aksel almost never talked about his own feelings. It was always me – this thought hits me so suddenly, I rock back in my chair, flattening my back against the hard wooden frame. It was always just me and my feelings. I don't know anything about how he felt.
For his part, he seems intent on telling me now.
"It made me feel shitty." He says this flatly, shifting back in his chair, as if his mind is trying to shield his vulnerability by moving his physical body as far away as possible. "Whenever I tried to hold your hand, you would move away from me. I got the hint after a while."
I open my mouth, but he's still talking.
"I don't know. It was only when we were here." He shrugs. "You were fine in Hamburg. I always wondered why. It seemed like…" he hesitates now, stopping to look down at the table. I'm sure he's not seeing a thing, though. "It seemed like there was something wrong with me in Helsinki. You only wanted to be with me when I was in Hamburg."
The muscles in my brow curl tighter at that last sentence. "That's not true," I say, leaning forward, feeling the wood of the table bite into my underarms. I was about to say that's ridiculous, before biting back my instinctive words and choosing more appropriate ones. "It wasn't that at all. I just…"
He's watching me, so I take a deep breath and try to go on.
"I don't know if you noticed it at all," I say, "but people always stared at us when we were together here. Nobody stares at us if we hold hands in Hamburg. But when we're here…" I spread my hands in a gesture of helplessness. "They stare so much. I hated it."
His lids are lowered as he absorbs this.
I swallow. "I thought," I say, my voice small now, "that if we didn't hold hands – didn't look like a couple in any way… then they wouldn't stare at us so much. At me. Because I don't look like I belong with you."
We are no longer together, but saying that last part still feels like forcing nettles into tender flesh. My heart aches at the reminder. Aksel is still silent, so I add, in case he hasn't gotten it, "We look too different. We look weird together. Especially here, where there aren't as many interracial couples. That's why… I didn't want to stand out."
The next thing I know, Aksel's chair is scraping against the floor as he springs to his feet. My entire body is ice as I watch him walk away without a word. Even as my mind is scrambling to react, my body is starting to shut down. The muscles in my legs have gone cold; there is a buzzing in my ears.
Is he leaving? Is what I admitted that bad?
Aksel is almost back at the store entrance when he stops, turns, and starts walking back. The set of his expression sends a frozen weight right to the bottom of my stomach, so I tear my eyes away. I blink hard, letting the blurry sight of the waitress staring at him come into view.
He's back now, hovering over the table. I finally refocus my eyes on his face. He sits back down across from me.
I burst into tears.
Aksel runs a hand over his face. "Shit," he says. "Don't cry. I don't want to make you cry."
"What the fuck!" I snap, the pain in my chest escaping in the puff of anger. "What's wrong with you? Why would you just get up and walk away?"
"I…" He looks like he doesn't know the answer to that either. "I don't know. It made me mad, hearing what you said."
"When you get angry," I sputter around a nose full of mucus, "you say something! You don't get up and walk away!"
"I'm sorry," he says. "It was too much in the moment."
I inhale shudderingly. Aksel hands me his napkin. I press the fabric to my face, not exactly blowing into it, but letting it absorb the moisture leaking from my nose.
Asshole, I think, but I don't say anything. I don't say I hate you either, even though my tongue is itching.
Aksel leans forward; reaches for my hand. This time, he curls his fingers around mine and leaves them there. I barely dare to breathe, expecting him to jump away again, scalded.
"I wish you'd told me before," he says quietly. "How you felt."
I snort at this, the noise muffled through the napkin I'm still holding. Up against my face like this, it feels like a protective barrier. I have no interest in lowering it, even though my sniffles have run out by now.
"I've been telling you how I felt since the day I met you," I say. The problem with our relationship had been that I'd told him too much. Been too brutally honest about how much I'd hated Finland at the time. "You always said the same thing – Don't worry about what other people think. They don't matter." I shrug to punctuate the sentence. "Telling you didn't help anything. It just made you sick of listening to me whine about the same things over and over."
"I didn't think you were whining," he says.
"But you did get sick of it," I counter.
He falls silent. He can't deny it. He's admitted as much since.
Finally he asks, "Is that why you didn't tell me?"
I pull my hand out of his and sit back. "I didn't tell you a lot of things," I say. "But you were already tired of the things I did tell you." I shrug again, like it doesn't hurt me to remember.
He doesn't withdraw his arm. It lies on the table between us, white against the oak. I tear my eyes away.
"I'm sorry," he says, after a long pause that feels like he has been weighing words in his head. "I should have known. I knew how you always felt out of place, back in Edinburgh – and even in Hamburg. I should have known, but… I wanted to think it would be different for you in Helsinki."
A smile leaks out of me. Aksel has always been supportive – not always understanding, but always supportive. This doesn't mean he hasn't tried his hardest to understand.
"That's because you belong here," I say, but without the rancour that might have tainted the words before. "You forgot that I don't feel the same way."
He opens his mouth, but I hold up my hands in surrender, to ward off the protest I see coming. "I'm not being sarcastic. I'm just saying – we see things in very different ways. And that's normal. You don't fully understand the way I feel, why I care so much about not fitting in or about being stared at, because you didn't grow up experiencing the same things I did. There are things I'm sensitive to that you don't even notice." I shrug. "And there are things you notice that I don't. We are different. That's all there is to it."
I pick up my spoon, taking care that my hand doesn't tremble, and tuck back into my soup. I don't look at Aksel. I can't.
"I've been thinking about that," he says, when I'm two mouthfuls in. I swallow and hover over my food, waiting. "Since we broke up." He stops again, as if saying it out loud requires its own moment of silence. "About how different we are – the way we think, the way we act."
I smile mirthlessly at my soup. Tell me something I haven't already figured out.
"We should have talked more," he says. It sounds like a sigh. A sigh filled with unsaid words. "Really talked."
We're both quiet then. It's easy to look back and play should haves, could haves, but I wonder if things would've been so simple. No, I decide. That would have made things easier, maybe filtered out the resentment, but it wouldn't have changed the outcome.
"You know," I say, in a casual, almost throwaway tone. "All these years since we've met… you've always been telling me that I'm enough."
"Of course you are," he says, after a pause he takes to recalibrate his mind to the change in topic. "You've never believed me, but you are enough."
"You've been saying it since Edinburgh," I say, with a little laugh. "You were the first person to pick up on how I felt without me telling you. It meant a lot."
A frown creases his brow. I know what he's thinking. This sounds like a break-up speech – even if we've already been broken up for a while now.
But maybe this is the speech I should have made back then.
"Still, over time, hearing it from you stopped being enough." I give my soup a slow stir – an excuse to break eye contact. "It needed to come from within me. I needed to believe in it myself."
"What about now?" Aksel asks. "Do you feel like you're enough now?"
That stops me short. I take a sip of soup to slow the moment. "I don't know," I say finally, after I've swallowed and laid my spoon back down. "I haven't been thinking about it lately." I stop, startled by my own words.
He smiles. "That's something, then," he says.
I look at him. His eyes are crinkled, the irises a dancing blue that I haven't seen in a while. He looks younger, lighter, when he smiles like this. Seeing it now makes me remember my original vow – the one I secretly swore when I'd first arrived in Helsinki and seen how much he loves his city. The vow of learning to love Helsinki as much as he does, to keep this smile on his face.
How far we have come since then.
Before I can think – truly think – about the consequences of what I'm about to say, the words are scuttling out of my mouth. "I wrote something."
He blinks, not expecting that. His eyebrows go up.
"It's an essay," I say, speaking faster now. "There's a competition at the uni for international students – an essay we can write about our experiences in Finland so far. I wrote about… how I've been feeling since I got here. I don't think I will submit it for the competition, though. It's too personal." I let my voice drift off. I don't know why I've told him this.
Then he says, "Can I read it?"
I open my mouth – to nothing. I'm not sure I want him to read it. I've written so much about him. How mortifying would it be, for him to pore over the thoughts I've had about him, about our relationship?
As I mentally run through all the possible replies, Aksel sits staring at me. He doesn't push, but he's not taking back his request either. He's waiting for me to make up my mind.
I take a deep breath. "Okay," I say, throwing in a little shrug for a good measure. "Why not?"
The regret set in almost immediately after we bade each other goodbye. That night, Aksel walked me back to my apartment, even thought we'd only spoken lightly along the way. The heaviest part of the conversation was over. Aksel has said what he had to say – the ball is in my court now. Everything I still have left to say is in that essay.
So, naturally, I put off sending it out. It sits in the folder on my laptop… and smoulders.
I let it sit for another week.
Aksel and I have started texting again, innocuous daily messages that have forgotten the kiss and the hand-holding.
A picture of the weather forecast set at 11 degrees Celsius. Warm today, he would type as a caption.
In response, I send a picture of the 30-degree-weather in Hamburg from a particularly warm summer day earlier in the year. THIS is warm – and a cheeky emoji.
He sends back a row of cry-laughing emojis. We're laughing at our differences now.
But he doesn't ask about the essay, doesn't even hint at it.
It would be so easy to pretend to forget. He may not even bring it up again. Or maybe he has forgotten. But there is a small, perverse part of me that wants him to read it. Even if I can't muster up the courage to send it to him.
"It's hard," Priscilla commiserates, when I tell her about my dilemma over lunch. It's just the two of us today, having lunch at her apartment before heading to class. It's a reminder of the days when we were living together, and something I look forward to every fortnight.
It's also the only time I feel safe enough to talk about Aksel. Sure – the others are my friends, too, but Zuzi makes too big a deal out of everything. It makes me shy away from telling her my true feelings. It's different with Priscilla, though. Priscilla sits and listens and doesn't bring it up after.
"It's like he still cares," I muse aloud, "but he doesn't want to do anything about it anymore. When we had dinner, we talked about all this heavy stuff… but never once about that night in Kallio."
"Hm," says Priscilla. "Maybe he's scared."
"Scared of what?" I've never known Aksel to be scared. I'm the one who's terrified of so many things. He's always taken things in his stride in a way that I've often admired.
"Maybe," says Priscilla, in a reaching tone that curls its tendrils around the words, "he's afraid of being rejected."
A long silence. Then I let out a strangled laugh. "Are you kidding?" I ask, tempering my voice so that it doesn't come out as a demand. Don't shoot the messenger, Emi. Priscilla is wrong, but she's trying to help. It's just a suggestion. "He was the one who rejected me."
Priscilla smiles, an expression born less out of mirth and more out of understanding. "Yeah," she says, "he did. But – it's like he said at your dinner that night – it looks like he felt rejected by you, too. Right?"
I feel my lips twist.
"Right," Priscilla answer in my stead. She raises her eyebrows, waiting. I huff.
"Fine," I say, the words creaking as if pried out of me. "It went both ways." The words I've once said to Aksel are coming back to haunt me – it takes two hands to clap.
"There you go," Priscilla says. "Wasn't so hard to admit, was it?"
I almost growl at her. "Whose side are you on?"
"Always yours," she declares, then cocks her head. "But that doesn't mean I can't be the voice of reason when I have to."
"Fine." I laugh despite my grumpiness. "Voice of reason, huh? How about calling yourself my fairy godmother?"
Her grin radiates the brilliance of a brand-new lightbulb right in my face. "You know what? That's the nicest thing anyone has ever called me."
I screw up my face, "I didn't say you were my fairy godmother, just that you'd probably love to call yourself that."
"Uh-uh," she wags a finger at me, "you can't take it back now."
"All right, then," I challenge. "If you're my fairy godmother, that means you can give a swish of your wand and fix all my problems, right? Turn a frog into a prince?" I spread my arms akimbo and turn my face upward, as if waiting for a miracle to fall from the sky – or, in this case, the ceiling.
Priscilla waves her hand in my direction. "My wand is invisible," she informs me haughtily. "Only magical beings – like myself –" here, she lays a gentle hand against her chest – "are able to see it."
"Not commoners like me?" I guess.
She nods. "Not commoners like you."
Then we both dissolve into giggles.
"Okay, okay," Priscilla wheezes finally, wiping a pretend tear from her eyes. "Let's eat – or we'll never get to class on time."
I wolf down my sandwich in three big gulps. "Done," I say, after I'm done choking it down. I cough to clear my throat of the remnants of dry bread. "Hurry up, slow poke."
"How do you do that?" Shaking her head at my lack of table manners, Priscilla turns to her own sandwich and takes a prim bite. But, try as she might, even she can't stop the tiny crumbs from flaking off the bread crust.
"So," I say, crossing my arms across my chest as I watch her take thrice the amount of time it took me to eat, "what did you fix with the wave of your wand? Are all my problems with Aksel gone now?"
She casts me a glance. "Maybe I've magicked Aksel away. All your problems with him would be gone then, wouldn't they?"
I open my mouth, then snap it shut. I know she's just kidding, but the idea of Aksel vanishing into thin air has stolen the breath from my lungs.
"Maybe, now that he's gone, you can find yourself another Finn." She wiggles her eyebrows at me, half in jest.
I roll my eyes. "I date one Finn, and people think I have some sort of fetish for Finnish guys." I keep my tone light-hearted, but mixed into my voice is very real exasperation.
It's not about his nationality. I'd fallen for Aksel because he was Aksel. The idea of replacing him with someone, even someone of the same culture, seems… ridiculous.
"Maybe," I say, my turn to waggle my eyebrows, "you should find a Finn for yourself." I toss it out like a joke, but I'm serious. I almost can't imagine Priscilla ending up with anyone but a Finn. She would assimilate into the culture so well. Her Finnish is already superb – she would be able to speak in Finnish with her partner's friends. All the things I wish I could've done.
"No!" Priscilla is laughing even as she huffs in indignation. "I was joking. Now who's the one making assumptions about the type of guys I want to date?"
"Who says it has to be a guy?" I deadpan.
Priscilla laughs. "True," she says. "Have you seen the girls in this country? They're all so pretty."
"I know," I lament. "I always feel so inadequate around them."
"Me too," she sighs. We are both silent for a minute, pondering this. An image of Lumi's fairy-like features has flashed into my mind. I shake my head to dislodge it.
"Do you want him back?" Priscilla asks, suddenly serious. I suspect she has picked up on the subtle shift in my mood.
Hearing the question thrown out in this straightforward manner – devoid of the levity that's cloaked all our mentions of Aksel thus far – makes me hesitate. Do I?
"I don't know," I say. It seems to be my default answer to important questions lately. Delving deep into my feelings and desires has never been my strongest suit.
"Well," muses Priscilla, tapping a finger against her chin, "it seems like the two of you can't stay away from each other. There's something that keeps pulling you back." She laughs, pressing her hands together in the shape of a wish. "To be honest, it feels almost like you're the main characters in a rom-com."
I can't help myself. I start giggling again.
Priscilla plants her hands on her hips, even though I can only see up to the crook of her elbows behind the table. "Hey! It's not that funny." But she's smiling, too.
"Okay, but," I say, "you've been telling me to stay away from Aksel since we broke up. That we can't be friends. And now it's like you're saying we belong together. That's a drastic change."
"Well," says Priscilla, "because you can'tbe just friends, can you? Look at what happened after a few drinks." She shrugs, pressing her lips together and scrunching up her forehead. "I thought you needed to stay away from him because I've seen how much he hurt you. But maybe what you two need is to work it out. I don't think you'll get any closure otherwise."
"Besides," she adds with a quick grin as I digest her words. "I believe in true love."
I raise my eyebrows, half in exaggeration, half truly surprised. "And you think we have that?"
I expect either a teasing reply or an idealistic one, but Priscilla looks at me for a long moment. Then she says, "Maybe. But it doesn't matter what I think. What do you think? Is he your one true love?"
A hiss of breath escapes between my clenched teeth. "I don't know if I believe in true love," I admit. "I think there are a few people who are compatible with us at any one point in our lives, that things can work out with… but I don't think there is any onetrue love for any of us."
Priscilla lets out a low hum. "We'll have to agree to disagree on this, then." She grins at me. "Isn't it ironic, though? You're the one with a fairytale romance, but you don't believe in true love. I'm the hopeless romantic, but I've never even come close to having any meaningful relationship."
"Fairytale romance?" I roll my eyes. Is that what she really thinks about me and Aksel? But I'm more curious about the latter part of her statement. "What do you mean, any meaningful relationship?"
I have been talking so much about my own love problems, I realise. I know nothing about Priscilla's – or if she even has any.
She shrugs, her smile dimming. "I had a boyfriend back in New Zealand. We met at university and were together for whole four years. But when I decided to move here, he didn't want to come with me." She shrugs again. "So we broke up." For the first time, I see her turn away to hide her face. "It must have not meant too much to him."
"Shit." I reach across to touch her arm lightly. "Pris, I'm so sorry."
"Nah," she says, a wobble in her voice. "It's no big deal. We wanted different things in life. It wouldn't have made sense to drag things out."
I stay silent, not knowing what to say. I'm not good with words of consolation.
"Besides," Priscilla continues, "the time difference between Finland and New Zealand is eleven hours! That's almost half a day." She lets out a scoff. "We never would've been able to find the time to talk, ever."
I look at the hair falling over her face and say, lamely, "That really sucks."
"But you know what sucks more?" Priscilla's voice is trembling harder now, but it also sounds flinty. "That he wouldn't even try."
"Yeah," I say softly. I remember how, years ago, after we'd left Edinburgh, Aksel had called and told me he wanted to try being together. And I remember how, just a month ago, he had texted me and said he didn't anymore. "I know. That's the worst part. When someone doesn't even try."
Priscilla doesn't say anything else, and I look away to give her some privacy.
"But you know," I say, focusing on a smudge on her table cloth, "he's not the one for you. If he were, he would have tried his best, no matter how many oceans separate you. There's someone else – or a few someones – out there who will always want to try, who will always fight to be with you. And that's the person who's worth it."
I let out an awkward chuckle. "Yeah, well." That must have been the longest speech on love and relationships I have made in a long time. Maybe even forever.
"Emi," says Priscilla, an awed breathiness in her voice. "That was amazing."
"All right, all right." I'm mumbling now, my face growing hot. "Don't sound so surprised."
"Not surprised," she says, laughing now. I sneak a look at her and am relieved to notice that her eyes, although a little red in the irises, are completely dry. "But you have to admit, that was a pretty romantic speech."
I shrug. "It's true."
"Hm." There is a faraway look in her eyes now. Her half-eaten sandwich lies on her plate, forgotten. "I reckon." Then she notices that I'm desperately trying to hold back a smile. "What?"
"Sorry," I say, "I know we're having a moment and everything, but you sound so… Kiwi when you say that."
She looks confused for a moment. "Say what? 'I reckon'?"
I put my face into my hands to hide my full-on grin. "Yeah. I've never heard anyone say that before."
Priscilla laughs. Her previous vulnerability seems to have evaporated. For the first time, I wonder if there are deeper, darker wounds in her that she keeps tightly bound up. Before today, I never would've guessed that she was nursing a broken heart.
"We say it all the time back home," she tells me. "And a lot of other words that you'd probably find ridiculous."
"I've never heard you say anything I didn't understand, though."
"Yeah," she says, "I try not to use any New Zealand slang when I speak with people who're not from there." She gives it a moment's thought, and adds, "Or Aussie. They understand us pretty well."
I sit up straighter. "Tell me! What slang words do you have in New Zealand?" Before she can reply, I plow on, inspired by my own excitement, "I love regional language differences. Did you know there are different ways to say 'bread roll' in German, depending on where you're from?"
"That's so cute!" Priscilla has returned to her sandwich, but her eyes are wide with interest. "How do you say it?"
"Well, it's mostly called Brötchen. That's what we call it where I'm from. Sometimes we also say Rundstück. Or Schrippe. They call it that in Berlin, too. Other regions call it different things – like in the Southern regions, it's called Semmel or Weck, I think."
"Oh, I love that!" Priscilla is beaming.
"What about Kiwi English? I want to know. How different is it from, I don't know, British English, for instance?"
"I'm not sure about British English," she says slowly, "but we speak a lot like the Aussies. I mean, we're neighbours for a reason. We call McDonald's Macca's, for example. The first time I tried saying that here, everyone looked at me like I was crazy."
"Macca's," I repeat. Then I laugh. "I've never heard that, ever."
"It does sound strange, doesn't it?" Priscilla giggles. "I've never realised how strange New Zealand slang can be to other people until I came here."
"You need to teach me some of it," I say. "I'm going to go around confusing people."
"Only if you teach me some German," she says. "I've always wanted to learn some German."
We shake on it, grinning at each other.
"Okay," says Priscilla, looking at the remainder of her sandwich. She places it back down, arranging it neatly on her plate. "And now, time to go learn some Finnish."
A/N: I can't believe it's already June. 2020 has flown past strangely quickly for me... March lasted forever, but everything after that seems to have gone by in hyperspeed. :o Yeah, well. I'm still working from home right now and feeling really happy about it! Introvert through and through. Also, it gives me more time to write and dream up new creative projects. :P I have some new plot bunnies bouncing about in my head about a story (or two) set during the pandemic, among other ideas. If only nights and weekends were longer...
Oh yeah, Camp NaNoWriMo is in July. Time to write more (hopefully). I think this story is probably winding down. After this, I will go back to Auld Lang Syne. But I really do still want to write another story that's set in Finland / Helsinki. My obsession with Finland and Finnish is not over yet. :x
Anyway, here are some replies to the last few reviews (haven't done that lately, whoops):
Kavi: Your review made my day! I was really excited after reading it, haha. It feels unreal to me to know there have been people who have been around since way back when. Unreal. Hope the sequel lives up to your expectations... :x Anyway, definitely DM me anytime you like :)
Pseudonym59: Aw, thank you! I'm so glad you think it's realistic - I don't want the process of Emi and Aksel working through their issues to seem like they're just brushing the problems under the rug. If they do that, it will just rear its head again in the future, y'know? I want to give them some proper development, to make them really think about what went wrong in the relationship.
Anon-y-maus: OMG I remember you! HAHA. Ok, sorry. I was just excited to see a name I remember from ages ago. Thanks for sticking around so long, and hope you're staying safe as well :)
Askel Anon: Hahaha I love it though, I mean, I probably wouldn't have realised it was spelt wrongly if I saw the name Askel either because you know how they say the brain reads words as a whole so as long as the first and last letters are the same, it can understand the word.
And to everyone else:
Thanks for reading and please review! And stay healthy. :)