©2019-2020 Kassie N (dear-llama). All Rights Reserved.
Chapter 23: Learning Makes Perfect
Priscilla starts off kiwi film night by giving us a crash course in New Zealand slang.
"So," she says, sounding for all purposes like a teacher – I briefly wonder if I sound just as authoritative with Juhani – as she ticks a mental list of items off her fingers. "The films won't contain that much slang, but you might hear things like reckon or Macca's – that's Macdonald's. And when we talk about chips, we mean both fries and potato chips. If we want to differentiate between them, we'll call them hot chips and chippies."
"So," says Frederik slowly, like he's imprinting the words into his mind, "hot chips are the fries?"
"Hot chips," I repeat, fighting the natural grin curling my lips. What a name.
Ludo has an eyebrow raised. "That just sounds… wrong."
Priscilla glares at him. "Well, that's how we speak. You guys must have regional dialects in Italy too, don't you? It's the same thing."
Ludo goes quiet, giving this comparison some serious thought.
"Chippies sound cute," Zuzi says. "Like some sort of squirrel."
Priscilla is shaking her head at all of us as we try to wrap our heads around the alienness of New Zealand English.
"Don't the Australians use reckon, too?" I ask. I've heard people using that word. "And mate, meaning 'friend' – but the British use that too."
"Yeah," Priscilla says. "We use mate too. But our slang is more similar to Aussie than to the British – maybe because we're so far away from Europe."
"Funny how Australian slang is so close to New Zealand slang," Zuzi comments.
"That's not surprising, really," says Priscilla with a shrug. "Our closest neighbour is Australia. Our language patterns probably rubbed off on each other."
"Neighbours? But you're separated by the sea!" I exclaim disbelievingly.
Priscilla laughs and gives a small shake of her head, as if thinking to herself, Europeans. "Yeah, but the whole of New Zealand is made up of a series of islands. Even within the country, we're separated by the sea. Australia is the only country even remotely close by. We're not an entire piece of land like you guys are here."
"We're not exactly one piece of land," I counter, but weakly. We all know what she means, and she's right.
Zuzi is shaking her head as well, albeit for a different reason. "But your countries are so far away from each other. How long does it take to get from New Zealand to Australia?"
That takes Priscilla more than a moment's thought. She taps at her chin, "I think… Maybe four hours when you fly from Wellington to Melbourne. I flew that route when coming to Europe. Wellington to Melbourne, then to Singapore, and then twelve hours straight to Helsinki." She gives a sigh, as if relieving that long journey all over again.
"That's a long flight," Frederik says, with the grimace of someone who has never needed to sit in an aircraft for such a long amount of time.
I've zoomed in on a specific part of her narrative. "You've been to Singapore?"
Priscilla laughs. "I wouldn't call it been to, exactly. The only part of it I've seen is the inside of the airport. I only had two hours in between my flights." At my downcast look, she asks me, "Isn't your mum from Singapore? Have you been there, then?"
I nod, even though I barely remember more than she does. At least she remembers the airport. "Yes, we lived there for a year or so when I was a baby… although I don't remember any of it, obviously. We went back a few times afterward, but it's mostly a blur." I leave out the part where I'd woven myself into a blanket of sulkiness whenever we'd had to visit. Eventually, those trips had petered out eventually in favour of family holidays to other parts of Europe – trips I much preferred.
Gabi had asked me once, "Why don't you visit again? Now that you're old enough to remember. Aren't you curious to see what it's like?"
I had rolled my eyes. "Not at all. I mean – how interesting can it be? I've heard it's hot all the time. And all they have are buildings. And it's so far away. I'd rather take a vacation somewhere nearby – like Southern France."
To dilute the pool of shame that is gathering at the pit of my stomach, I force a smile and say, "I want to go back someday, though. Maybe with Mama." And I mean it, I'm surprised to find. For the first time in my life, I want to learn about where my mother came from. Where half of me came from.
"That sounds like it would make a nice family trip," Frederik comments. "I've never been to Asia yet."
"Yet?" I ask, turning to him a little too eagerly.
Frederik nods. "I want to go someday. I want to visit places like India, Japan – and China. Maybe even further south, like Malaysia and Thailand." He looks at me. "And Singapore."
I smile. If I were Priscilla, I would be clapping my hands together.
"Maybe the two of you could go together," says Zuzi. I'm not sure if I'm hearing things or if there is a hidden barb in her words.
"Why would we?" I ask, genuinely bewildered. I've just said I want to go with my Mama, haven't I?
Priscilla clears her throat, reaching over to place a bowl of potato chips – chippies, she'd said – onto the coffee table. "Here. I thought we'd need some snacks, so I got some chips."
"Do you have any dips?" I ask, already reaching for the bowl. I grimace at the plain flavour. These aren't even the lightly salted ones – the kind that Aksel likes.
Then I forcibly shut down that line of thought. Who cares what he likes? He's not here. I'm here with my friends, and I don't like them – I prefer my chips covered in warm and gooey cheese. Or at least with a heavy dusting of flavoured powder.
"I have cheese and salsa," Priscilla says, handing over the jars as she recites the flavours. "Store-bought, I'm afraid."
I'm already salivating. "Good enough for me."
"No snacks from New Zealand?" Zuzi teases. She pops up beside me and twists open the cap to the salsa dip.
Priscilla laughs. "Unfortunately, no. I could get my friends back home to send some packages over, but they would take weeks to get here."
"What snacks do you have in New Zealand?" Ludo wants to know.
"Hm." Priscilla hums as she thinks, tapping a finger against her bottom lip. "Nothing particularly special, although Griffin's Cookie Bears and Squiggles are really nice… and Pineapple Lumps – I love those."
The rest of us stare blankly at her. She giggles at our expressions. "Okay," she says. "I'll get someone to send some over. You guys have got to try them."
"Squiggles. Pineapple lumps," Zuzi repeats flatly. "Can't wait."
"They're good, I swear."
I smile at Priscilla's wide-eyed insistence. "Pineapple lumps sound interesting. I'd love to try some food from New Zealand."
"I'll make my lemon meringue pie sometime," Priscilla says. "I have a recipe from my mum."
"Lemon meringue pie?" Zuzi frowns. "Isn't that Swiss?"
Priscilla shrugs. "It may be, I don't know. All I know is that this recipe has been in my family for generations."
Frederik pipes up. "Sometimes the same dish has variations in different countries."
"Sort of like the Schwarzbrottorte," I say, then again in English for the others. "The black bread cake?"
Frederik mutters something in Danish, as if testing out the translation in his language. "Are you talking about the rye bread layer cake?"
I frown. "Well," I say, "Schwarzbrot is made out of rye… but it's different from what we call rye bread."
Frederik is tapping on his phone now. "Okay," he says, "your Schwarzbrottorte looks like our rugbrødslagkage – rye bread layer cake."
I peer over his shoulder at the listed images. "You're right," I say, "they do look alike."
"Well," he says, "this is completely Danish. You guys must have taken it from us."
"Well," I drawl, mimicking his tone, "my friend's mother has always made it when I went over to her place, and their family is German. I've always associated this cake with them, not with the Danes."
Frederik snorts. "Excuses, excuses."
Priscilla is watching us with no small amount of amusement. "Look at you two," she says, a twinge of laughter entwined in her words, "fighting over who owns a cake."
I shake my head and turn, as if confiding in her, "That's what happens when you are practically neighbours. We fight over the origins of things."
Frederik laughs, finally putting away his phone. "Actually," he says, "I think you should say we are literally neighbours."
Frederik raises his hand for a high-five, and I reach over to oblige. As I shift back into my seat, I can see Ludo's eye roll at our sudden solidarity.
"Well," says Zuzi, almost sulkily, "aren't you two all cozy."
Ludo laughs out loud. "Zuzi, are you jealous?"
Zuzi's head whips around so quickly that I'm afraid she'll get whiplash. "You wish," she snaps.
Ludo holds up his hands. "Hey," he drawls. "Just saying things like they are."
"Well, they aren't," Zuzi insists.
"The lady doth protest too much," Priscilla murmurs, more to herself than to incite any drama. I hope Zuzi hasn't heard – and judging by the lack of retort, she hasn't. I glance at Frederik to gauge his reaction. He is quietly picking at the bowl of chips, not looking at anyone.
I exchange a look with Priscilla, who has turned in my direction. As she gives a light lift of her eyebrows and turns away, I file away the moment for future reference. Have I been so caught up in my own drama with Aksel that I haven't even noticed something sprouting right before my eyes?
"Okay." Zuzi flops onto the sofa and stretches herself out like a languid cat. "So what are we watching tonight?"
Priscilla perks up. A shine comes into her eyes as she claps her hands together – a gesture that would be her signature move if she were a video game character. "I made a list of kiwi films," she tells us proudly. "But I think the best place to start would be with a classic – The Piano."
Frederik looks pensive. "The Piano… The title sounds familiar."
Priscilla seems to deflate a little. "Have you seen it already?"
"I don't remember, exactly," says Frederik. "The title just sounds familiar, that's all."
"Well," I say, "I've heard of The Pianist, but not The Piano."
Zuzi claps a hand over her mouth. "Oh! So that's why it sounded familiar to me, too!"
But Frederik is shaking his head. "It's not because of The Pianist for me. I've heard of The Piano itself."
"Why don't we just watch it?" Ludo drawls. He's seated on the floor, slouched against the edge of the sofa. If Zuzi stretches her foot out a little more, she would be able to kick him in the back of his head. "Instead of talking about it?"
"Yes," I agree, reaching for the chips. "I'm ready. Let's get on with it."
Priscilla laughs and grabs the remote, tapping a few of the buttons in succession to draw up her home screen on Netflix. "Okay, here goes. It was one of my favourite movies growing up. It's about a mute Scottish woman called Ada who's sold into marriage to a frontiersman in New Zealand, and she goes there with her young daughter. It's called The Piano because Ada expresses herself through her piano-playing, and... well, you'll see what happens in the movie. The piano plays a big part in the story."
"Awesome," Zuzi says. "Sounds interesting."
Priscilla hits the 'play' button and Zuzi shifts over to give her some space. I pass her the bowl of chips.
Then the screen fades into a series of images depicting top hats and bonnets on a beach where the waves are nipping at the sand beneath their feet. The first words are spoken and we all fall silent, letting the characters and their stories draw us all into a shared world for the next two hours.
"So how was it?" Priscilla asks, when the final notes of the credits have faded away. I turn to her and see from the anxious sheen on her face that she's awaiting our judgement with bated breath.
"That was wonderful," says Frederik quietly. He's not looking at any of us, but staring into space as if still mulling the movie over. "The framing of the shots, the vividness of the scenes… I can see why it's become a classic."
"That Alisdair guy was so cruel!" Zuzi exclaims. "I hated him. But yeah, the movie was good."
"I don't know," says Ludo. A frown has settled over his lips."I mean, I can understand why he was so angry. She was supposed to be his wife, after all, but she was running around on him."
"That doesn't justify what he did to her!" Zuzi glares at him.
Ludo holds up his hands in surrender. "Yes, I know. I'm just saying – he was angry for a valid reason."
Priscilla turns to me. "Emi?"
"I loved it!" I tell her, unable to keep the grin from spreading across my face. "It was a really good film. It all felt so real to me and I wanted to cry at some points." I'm not good at critical analysis of art, the way Frederik is, so this is the best I can do.
But it's apparently enough for Priscilla, who beams back at me. "I'm so glad you all liked it! It's one of my favourite movies."
"There may be something about kiwi films, after all," Frederik says musingly.
"Excuse me!" Priscilla whirls on him, indignant, but she's still smiling. "Of course there is! There are so many good films and directors from New Zealand. It's only that not many people from the rest of the world know about us."
"That's true," Frederik muses. "The Southern Hemisphere doesn't get as much attention as the Northern Hemisphere."
"Exactly." Priscilla is indignant, planting a hand on her hip. "When people talk about Christmas, it's always in winter. What about us? We celebrate Christmas in the summer."
That little trivia has stunned all of us into silence.
"Holy shit," Zuzi says – the first of us to react. "I didn't realise that. I mean, of course I know the seasons are the wrong way round in the Southern Hemisphere, but I didn't think about what that meant. Your summer is at the end of the year!" She sounds amazed by this last fact.
Priscilla huffs, but I'm with Zuzi on this. "I can't believe I never realised that, either," I admit.
"All you Northern Hemisphere kids," Priscilla grumbles, not quite under her breath. She sighs. "See? This is exactly what I was saying. Nobody ever thinks about things like that. Christmas in the media is always portrayed with snow."
"Well, most of the world's countries are in the Northern Hemisphere," Frederik points out. "That's probably why the seasons are usually depicted accordingly."
"I know," Priscilla says. "I'm just saying – it's unfair."
I jump in to smooth her ruffled feathers. "It's cool that we're talking about this now. At least from now on, we'll remember."
"How do you celebrate Christmas in summer?" Ludo asks. "What about the Christmas trees? How would they survive in that heat?"
"And what about things like mulled wine?" Zuzi demands. "That's perfect for cold weather, but drinking it in the summer?" She pulls a comical expression.
Priscilla is laughing – at us or at an inside joke we don't understand, I can't figure out. But eventually she disabuses Ludo and Zuzi of their assumptions. "We have our own type of Christmas tree," she says, using her hands to gesture at something only she can picture. "It's called the pohutukawa and it has red flowers blooming at the time of Christmas. That's what the red and green colour scheme means to us. But most families still have pine trees that they decorate at home – my family does that, and we like to put a kiwi bird right at the top."
We are listening to her with bated breath. For us 'Northern Hemisphere kids', as Priscilla called us, her traditions are completely unheard of. "For Christmas lunch, a lot of families gather for a barbie – sorry," she adds, when she sees Zuzi's mouth start to open, "that's 'barbecue' in Kiwi slang – outdoors, usually on the beach. We open our presents around lunchtime, usually, since it's when everyone is there."
"This sounds so…" Zuzi trails off, searching for a word.
"Strange," says Ludo, just as Frederik says, "Interesting."
They look at each other, and Ludo smirks. "Strange but interesting," he amends.
Priscilla's mouth scrunches up, then smooths out into a resigned grin. "I'll take that."
"So," Zuzi says, crossing her legs and leaning back in her seat, "who's next? For our international movie night, I mean."
We all look at each other. Frederik is the first to speak.
"Well," he says, "I already have a movie in mind."
"All right," says Zuzi, so quickly that I wonder if she's been expecting it. "But I want to go after."
"Looks like we have a plan, then," Priscilla says. Her grin has brightened; her face is lit up. "I love this."
"Me too," I say, and I hear murmurs of agreement from the others. "It's so cool that we're learning more about each other's cultures."
"I know!" Priscilla exclaims.
"This is your best idea yet," Zuzi tells her, laughing.
"Hey!" But Priscilla's laughter tells us that she's not really offended.
"What's the movie you'll be showing us?" I ask Frederik, genuinely curious. Having grown up so close to Denmark, I'm no stranger to the Danish culture. If I rack my brains, I could probably name a few Danish films, myself.
Frederik just smiles. "Wait and see."
"Oh, acting mysterious, are we?" I roll my eyes.
Frederik, smiling, rolls his eyes back at me.
Zuzi has suddenly fallen silent, I realise with a pang. I'd forgotten about the earlier moment of awkwardness between her and Frederik. Now I'm wishing I had kept my mouth shut.
"Okay," says Ludo. "What's going on between you two?"
For a split second, I'm horrified by the insinuation of an unnamed something tying me and Frederik together, until I realise Ludo is not looking at me. His gaze is fixed squarely on Zuzi.
"What?" Zuzi snaps. "What's going on? Nothing is going on."
It's Frederik's turn to fall completely quiet.
"Uh-huh." Ludo sounds disbelieving, but doesn't press. I inhale deeply, glad that someone, at least, has given voice to the strange vibe permeating the air around Zuzi and Frederik. It means I haven't been imagining it.
"Okay," Priscilla says, in the steely tone of someone determined to change the topic. "Since we still have time tonight – what about another Kiwi film?"
"This is nice."
I look up at the cloudless sky, marvelling at the never-ending blue that stares back at me. If I tilt my head up just right, it feels as if I'm looking straight into infinity. As the words leave my lips, a sense of déjà vu engulfs me as I'm brought back to a moment far away, all the way earlier in the year, when I had first joined Priscilla and the group at the World Village Festival.
Now, everything has changed. And yet, I find myself back where I had been, sitting on the grass, shielding my eyes as I look up into a sky that glistens back in exactly the way it had all those months ago.
"Yeah." I can hear Aksel's voice waft up from somewhere beside me, but I don't bother to turn my head to look. The immeasurable depth of the blue sky is too alluring.
"It makes me feel drunk," I admit, fixing my eyes at a point in the distance and feeling myself go cross-eyed. "All this blue."
"Hm," Aksel says. But it's not a curt response. It's a low hum that tells me he's giving ample thought to what I'm saying. I wait, and he doesn't disappoint. "I see what you mean. If you stare long enough, it starts to feel unreal."
"You don't know where it ends," I agree.
We both stare up – or at least I do. I'm thinking about how nice it is to be here with him.
"I'm glad we're friends again," Aksel says. I'm not quite sure what to make of that. The statement that we have never been friends is on the tip of my tongue, but I let them lie dormant. What's the point? Maybe we are friends now. We're willingly spending time together, aren't we?
"Yeah," I say instead. "It's nice to hang out sometimes."
We don't speak for a while, but the silence is warm and comfortable. I had sent Aksel the essay eventually, of course. Something about the talk with Priscilla had given me that one last push. I'd stuck the file into an email and clicked 'send' without so much as a civil Dear Aksel.
And then I waited.
When he texted me a few days after to ask if I would like to meet at the park, I hadn't quite known what he was thinking. Did he want to talk about my essay? Had he even read it?
Now, here we are, lying in the grass in the park behind the central railway station, and I am still no closer to knowing the answer behind these questions.
"How are you?" Aksel is asking. "What have you been up to?"
I laugh. "Well, Priscilla introduced some kiwi films to us. I never knew there were kiwi films." Then I correct myself, "I mean – I know every country has their own creations. I've just never really thought about it."
"Kiwi films," Aksel repeats, tasting the words on his tongue. For a split second, I almost envy the words. I shift on the grass, looking away from him. "Were they any good?"
"Very," I say. "I might look for more kiwi films to watch on my own."
"Cool," says Aksel. A pause. And then, "I'd like to see what a kiwi film is like."
Several thoughts flit through my mind. Under normal circumstances, I would have invited him to our movie nights. Or suggested we watch some of the films together. But hot on the heels of those thoughts comes the realisation that both options fill me with an inexplicable fear.
"I'll do some research and send you a list," I say, a nervous giggle escaping alongside my shaky statement. "You can watch those that seem interesting to you."
"Hm," Aksel says, and I know I haven't given him the answer he wanted. Then he rallies. "Yeah, thanks, that sounds cool. I'll watch them."
"Cool," I repeat. There is a lump in my throat, which I try to clear before asking, "So how are you? How have you been?"
"I'm fine," he says, a generic little quip that slices at me.
I turn a glare on him. "Come on," I say. "I told you about my life – don't give me that small talk bullshit."
A laugh bursts out of him. "Okay, okay," he says. "I have to admit there's nothing much going on with me. Work – and meeting the rest on the weekends for a drink or two." He shifts his shoulders. "That's my life."
"Hm," I hum, a noncommittal response.
"Lumi asked about you the other day," he says. "She said she's been meaning to text you. I didn't know you two were in contact."
"We're not," I say evenly, though this topic has come out of nowhere. When I rack my brains, I can vaguely remember exchanging numbers with Lumi and her promising to text. When was that? A few weeks ago?
"We ran into each other once or twice, I think, at this café Elina and I would go to," I say, when the silence drags on. "Oh! It's the one we went to after you helped me with my rental agreement."
"I know that café," says Aksel. "It's Lumi's favourite."
"Right." The memories are coming clearer now. "Yeah, I remember you saying that."
"Yeah." A pause, before he clears his throat. "She's probably going to text you soon."
"She said that the last time, too. I haven't heard from her at all." Even though that's a relief, because I'm not sure what Lumi and I have to talk about if we did meet up.
"She's been busy," Aksel says. "But she'll text. She always does what she says."
It's a little more complicated than being plain busy, I surmise from his tone, but I shrug. "It's fine." It's not like I've been sitting around waiting for her to text. "Anyway – she's your friend, not mine. It doesn't matter if we see each other or not." Even if she had admitted to having liked me once.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Aksel turn and stare at me, hard. To avoid his gaze, I lean back and plop my head back onto the ground. The grass tickles the back of my neck, and I fluff up my scarf so that it protects me from the tiny stabbing sensations.
"This isn't so comfortable," I say with a laugh.
For a moment I think Aksel isn't won't go along with the change in topic. Then he lets out a pinched breath and says, "Yeah. Would be nice to have a pillow."
I laugh again.
"At least you have a scarf," he points out.
"I'd offer you mine, but I need it."
He laughs at that. "It's fine. I'll survive."
We fall into another silence. I should ask him about the essay, about what he thinks – but I'm not sure I want to know, either. It's much easier to relax and look up into the blue sky.
"How is… Frederik?"
All thoughts of relaxation forgotten, I turn to look at Aksel. He's looking up at the sky, concentrating hard on a specific spot that only he can see.
"What?" I ask.
I see his lips flatten. "Nothing. Never mind."
"Me and Frederik?" I repeat, feeling my lip curl. Whether from amusement or disgust remains to be seen. All I know is, I've never even thought of Frederik that way. "No way."
Aksel lets out a long breath. "Yeah? You two seemed very close."
I roll my eyes. "Do you live in the fifteenth century? I can be good friends with a guy without it becoming anything else."
He is uncharacteristically sulky. "You joke around with him," he mumbles, avoiding my gaze.
I shrug. "We're friends. That's what friends do." Then I laugh.
"What?" Aksel sounds disgruntled.
"It's funny," I say. "Zuzi wasn't very happy the other day either, about Frederik and me. She was acting a little like you are, actually."
"How am I acting?" he asks.
"Jealous," I say.
Silence. The wind runs a tentative finger through the grass. In the distance, I can hear the birds twittering in their various dialects. I wait to see if Aksel will acknowledge my statement.
Finally, he speaks, so lowly I have to stay still and strain my ears to catch the words, lest the rustling of the grass drowns them out.
"Yeah. Maybe I am."
Another silence, this one filled with a wealth of possibilities. My tongue is suddenly inert, a heavy slab weighed down at the bottom of my mouth.
I swallow. I don't know what to say next. I don't know why I even brought it up.
"Emilie," Aksel says, softly now, and I know what's coming next is big. I wait, but he doesn't say anything. I hear a rustle, before I feel his skin slide against mine. His fingers search for the gaps between mine before he slides them into place and closes his grip.
It takes me a long moment, but I curl my fingers around his hand too. My entire body feels warm.
I should say something, I know. But it is all I can do to focus on the comfort of his hand and the hammering of my heart. We lie in the grass like this, separate but connected at that one spot.
"I read your essay," he says.
Breathe, I remind myself, when I realise I've stopped for the briefest of moments. I try to pull my hand away, but Aksel doesn't let go.
"Okay," I say, my mouth dry. "So… what did you think?"
"I think…" Aksel subsides for a moment, choosing his words. "I think it was very honest. Very… enlightening."
"Enlightening?" I ask, my heart in my mouth.
"I wish I had known all these things back then," he says. I look away from his piercing gaze. "What you thought. How you felt. All of it."
"Yeah, well." I try to laugh. "When I tried to tell you, it all came out wrong."
He doesn't reply immediately, and I know he's thinking about that heart-wrenching moment of truth in the kitchen. Or maybe it wasn't exactly the truth – it was just me, spitting all of my frustrations out at the nearest walking target. He had pushed the wrong buttons and I had given him all the wrong answers.
"Yeah," he says. "I used to think I understood how you felt, especially after we talked, but… reading your essay made me realise that I don't. Not really. I've felt a little homesick in Edinburgh, but that's nothing compared to what you've felt here. I see that now."
"That means a lot to me." It comes out in a whisper. I can't speak any louder or my voice will crack.
When I look in his direction, he's smiling wryly. "I pushed you too hard, didn't I?"
"Yeah," I say. "But sometimes I needed that. Like for the Finnish class."
"You were miserable in class."
"Yeah, I was. But without it, I wouldn't have met my friends." And without them, I might still be back at square one. "Or Elina. And I still wouldn't know any Finnish. It turned out to be a good thing. It just didn't feel like that at the time."
"I get that."
"I'm sorry I wasn't so good at communicating all of it," I say. My voice is tiny, but he hears me.
"We both weren't that good at communicating," he says. Far too kindly, I think.
"No," I say, and I give his hand a squeeze when he opens his mouth. "You were trying. I pushed you away."
"It takes two. I stopped trying."
"I started too late," I say, and – amazingly – I feel a smile settle on my lips. "I didn't try when you were trying, and when I finally wanted to talk, you stopped trying." What a mess.
"Yeah." Aksel's thumb is moving lightly over the skin of mine. "What a mess."
My eyes fly to meet his, because I'm quite sure I hadn't said that out loud.
He grins, eyes sparkling in the sunlight, as if he knows exactly what I'm thinking. Then his grin fades. "Emilie," he says solemnly. "Have you thought about…"
He trails off, and I look away. Just like he'd read my mind earlier, I know what is coming.
"Have you thought about… What if we start over?"
I take a moment to let the words dissipate in the air. "I…" I take a deep breath, hoping he will say something else, but he doesn't interrupt. "I don't know," I say.
I feel compelled to add, "What changed? After that night, when we..." I stumble over my words, because I don't want to say kissed out loud, "The night at the bar in Kallio. You didn't even want to talk about it. So what changed?"
"Your essay," he says simply, like that is all the explanation he needs. Maybe it is. "I feel like," he frowns, thinking about it before starting again. "I feel like I understand you more now."
"And that's changed everything?"
"Not everything," he acknowledges. "But enough."
That word jolts me. Instantly, I'm back in Edinburgh, listening to him telling me, You are enough.
My chest constricts at the memory. Once upon a time, we were enough.
"All the same problems still exist," I say. "What's to say…"
What's to say we wouldn't break each other's hearts again?
"Nobody ever knows what's going to happen," Aksel says. "There are no givens in any relationship – or in life, for that matter."
"I'm not saying that we should get back together," he says. Hearing him say the words get back together sends a thrill through me. A thrill that I try to tamper down. "I just wanted to know… if you ever… wondered."
"Of course I've thought about it," I say quietly. "I just don't know what the answer is."
"Yeah," Aksel says. "I know how that feels."
"You hurt me so much when you told me you wanted me to go back to Hamburg." I'm dredging up an old wound, but he has to know.
"I know," he says. He casts his gaze downward. "I wanted to hurt you. I'm sorry."
"Well," I say, a little wryly, "we're even, I guess. I've hurt you a lot, too."
When he admits it, he sounds like I've dragged the words out of me. "Yeah. You did."
"I'm sorry," I say.
"We're different now," he says. He looks at me then, his eyes challenging.
I smile. There it is – his subtle pushiness, resurfacing.
"That's true," I allow. "I think we've both changed a little."
He stares up into the sky. Now that he's not looking at me, I take the time to study his profile. Those light lashes rimming his eyes, which looked like they were reflecting the colour of the sky; the straight-edged nose that is a little crooked at the bridge; the curve of his mouth a little thin at the upper lip. He is the most beautiful creature alive.
I lift our joined hands and press my lips onto the back of his.
He turns to me and smiles, and I feel like the whole world is smiling along with him.
We stay like this for a long while, neither of us saying anything. I still don't know where we stand or what we are – but maybe it doesn't matter that I don't have the answers yet. My heart already feels so full.
"So," Aksel says finally, and I know the previous subject is temporarily shelved. "Zuzi and Frederik, huh?"
A/N: I MADE IT! Yeah, for a while there, I wasn't sure if I could update before the end of July. And then I woke up today and wrote 2k words and finished that last scene. XD I was going to post without it, if it really came down to that. I'm not really happy about the lack of transition between the second and third scenes; I think when I do the (pre-publishing) editing, I'm going to add another scene in between. Thoughts?
Anyway, I have been looking into kiwi films so as to be able to write the kiwi film night scenes! It was quite fun - and enlightening. I forced my boyfriend to watch one of the kiwi films with me (I didn't mention that film here, but it was The Breaker Upperers, a rom-com). During the whole lockdown period a few months back, my boyfriend and I started having monthly 'movie nights', where we watch a movie online together on Netflix, because we weren't supposed to meet up (and neither of us wanted to flout the rules and risk bringing in the virus because we both live with other people). And that quickly became one of my favourite things, so we're still doing them now even though we're also meeting up again. So writing the film night scene was actually really fun because it reminded me of these movie nights the whole time. :) Also, I randomly learnt a bunch of information from New Zealand from my boyfriend, because he has family there that he's visited a couple times, and I was all, "WHY did you never tell me this?!" I also posted some sneak peeks on social media and someone from New Zealand commented to tell me about chippies, so that was really cool too. I'm always really stoked when I get to learn new things about other countries and cultures. :D
So, next up: Danish films and cultures. Heh. I've watched exactly one Danish film in my life, so unless I find something else, I'll probably write about that. Still, if anyone has any suggestions on Danish or Slovakian (that's for Zuzi) films that I can incorporate, please let me know!
I'm enjoying writing about the side characters a little too much. :x
Thanks to everyone who reviewed last chapter! Here are some replies.
Fangalitious: Hope you liked more of them talking in this chapter, then! Although maybe it was less of talking and more of... whatever it was. XD
Marjulie: I know you replied to Chapter 16, but y'know, your review made me think. Because I agree - I've actually always been saying that what people say when they're angry has some truth in it, even if they say "I didn't mean it" afterwards. And your perspective on what it means when Emi denies the truth behind her words makes perfect sense. Definitely something I'll keep in mind going forward and when editing!
Guest: Not sure if both Guests are the same person, but thank you for reviewing! As for whether Aksel would leave her alone if she had gone back to Hamburg... I haven't considered what would happen between them if she had gone back, because I never planned for her to return :x But Aksel did think that she had returned, and he reached out to ask if she had gotten back safely (in one of the more recent chapters). So I like to think that, if Emi had returned to Hamburg, they still would've gotten back in contact, and - who knows - Aksel might have gone over to Germany eventually. One of the endings I was originally considering had been Aksel moving to Germany because he thought she had gone back. (Part of that was already written for the longest time, until I changed my mind when I started rewriting this version.)
ellaistria: No worries! Thank you for writing a review, but don't feel pressured, really. It's enough to know that there are people out there reading and enjoying it. I'm so touched that this is your favourite story, that makes me really happy even if I do feel like it's not worthy, HAHA :P I agree about them bridging the gap in a healthy way, hopefully you'll still find the story realistic as it goes on! I worry a little sometimes, as I'm writing, if I'm trying to force them back together too quickly. I'm trying to think about how I could see things going if I was in the same situation... definitely a lot of mixed signals, reaching out and pulling back, I think. Which is why I hope it's also not getting draggy. Anyway, I'm doing well! I'm sorry you have to go through graduation without friends or a physical ceremony - my brother had to do the same recently. But congratulations on graduating! If this update could make you feel a little bit better or less stressed about everything, that already makes me happy :)
Anon-y-maus: Hehe, thank you so much! :D I'm glad you find the story relatable, it's so great when I hear this from people reading the story, because it also makes me feel like I'm not alone in my experiences as well. I think that's also why I write.
Oh yeah. I didn't meet my Camp NaNoWriMo goal (only 6k words out of 10k). But, oh well. At least I got a chapter out! And now to start the next one... due in August. Oh! And for those of you who are on Wattpad and would prefer to read there, I have started posting this story on Wattpad (under 'dear-llama'). But I'm posting one part every day, and I don't want each part to be too long, so it's going to take probably a month before I'm caught up on there.
Thanks once again for reading and following this story! Please review! :)