I have often reflected on the Beatles' rendition of Till There Was You. Despite their earlier work being hit-or-miss with me, that song sticks with me no matter how long it has been since I first heard it over a decade ago.
I guess it is because it reminds me of my ex-girlfriend from college, of immature love where you could have fun and mess around rather than seriously commit to a deep, almost intrinsically ingrained relationship.
Since then, I had married and divorced, got laid off and worked in low-paying entry level jobs, both parents have died, I have moved city, and my only close companion for the last few months has been a turtle named Aron.
They do not explicitly tell you that these things are going to happen by the time you are in your mid-to-late thirties. They may happen out of order or they mighten happen at all. Regardless, you always lose a part of you by the time you reach this age—your youthful smile or your sex drive or contentedness with life, etc., etc.
So when I listen to that song, I remember that me without the lost bits. Was it the true me? I do not know, however I surely hope not!
Anyway, this story is about my ex-girlfriend, as all good stories should be.
It was raining out when I sprinted into the cafe. I had no foresight in predicting that it would be lashing like it was so my entire body was drenched in cold December rain.
The cafe was near the college campus where I was studying computer science. I remember the windows being fogged up as the old electric heaters blasted the place with a fuzzy warmth. This warmth also brought with it the smell of roasted coffee beans and pastries such as sausage rolls and warm waffles topped with icecream that melted into the square-shaped holes.
My stomach gurgled at the smell so I went to the counter and browsed the pastries stored in the clear glass container. I had visited the place before and remembered how tasty the homemade sausage rolls were so I ordered two of those with hot chocolate topped with cream and marshmallows.
I took my seat with the hot chocolate and rested my head on my upturned palm, staring out the frosted window. The rain was not letting up any time soon, a heavy mist descending and smacking against the glass. Despite it being the afternoon, the streetlights were on, their clinically cold light glistening the sidewalk below. Cars drove slowly through the rain, leaving apparitions in their wake.
I sipped from the hot chocolate and glanced at the patrons inside the cafe. An older gentleman sat in a leather armchair reading the newspaper. A woman reading a hard copy thriller, at least I deduced that from the cover. A mother with a child silently staring at the table as her child, grinning like it was her birthday, clumsily ate her slice of chocolate cake.
Nothing unusual it seemed.
The barista brought me my sausage rolls and with a smile told me to enjoy. I smiled back and thanked her, staring down at the sausage rolls in front of me and watching the steam rise from them in little twirling spirals.
I noticed that I had forgotten to get a knife and fork so I got up and walked over to the cutlery tray. Taking what I needed, I turned around and was about to head back when I stopped in my tracks.
Sitting at my table, resting her head on her arms, was a redhead. I initially thought I was looking at the wrong table, yet sitting in front of the girl were my sausage rolls. I walked back to the table and sat down, knife and fork in hand.
"Hello?" I said.
She barely reacted to my greeting and so, I started eating. It was not like she was bothering me in anyway so I felt no need to harrass her further. The meat of the sausage roll stung as it hit my tongue and I huffed through an open mouth in an attempt to lessen the pain.
After the pain went away and I was done with one sausage roll, I asked, "Are you hungry?"
She shook her head. "I'm too tired to eat."
Oh she can talk, I thought. "Well, a good hot meal—really, a good hot anything—can wake anyone up. Go on, have a bite."
"Are you my grandma or something?"
"The last time I've checked, no, though maybe back in the forties I was really avant-garde when it came to sex." I got up from the table and grabbed another pair of cutlery and brought it back. I then pushed the un-ate sausage roll over to her arm, placing the knife and fork on the plate. "If you want, I can get you a coffee or something to really wake you up."
Her head peeked from her arms, her sapphire eyes reddened and her eyelashes stuck together. She had a fine face and if I was a little younger, I would have stumbled over my words though by that time, I had grown into my own a little.
"Do you think you're funny?"
"A little, yeah. I've made a few people laugh in my time."
She puffed a little and sat up, taking her knife and fork before cutting into the sausage roll and eating it.
"Do you want me to get you red sauce or coffee or?"
Her eyes flicked back to me before returning to her plate. "Are you always that annoying?"
Something resembling a smile appeared at the ends of her lips, though it was subtle enough that it could have been the light or an involuntary muscle twitch. "A glass of water would be nice."
"Coming right up." I got up and asked the barista for a glass of water. When I got back to the table, the girl had finished her sausage roll. I set the glass beside her and sat back down. "Did you like it?"
"Yeah, I did. Thanks."
I pointed to the corner of my mouth and she wiped a flake of pastry from hers. We sat in silence for a while as she sipped her water.
"Why were you crying?"
"I said, 'Why were you crying?'"
"Oh, well, um, it's a long story."
"Too long to say? Or do you just don't want to?"
"No—..." She gauged my face, and then, seemingly smirking. "Are you always this meddling?"
"I think that's a nicer way of saying what you said earlier, but yeah, I guess since I was a young, growing boy, I like to listen to other people talk about their problems or whatnot."
"Are you studying psychology or something?"
"Computer science, though I've definitely considered doing psychology or something more people-based rather than computer-based. Computers are simple creatures—they are either on or off, so they are pretty easy to understand. People, on the other hand, have so many states that it's a lot more complex and interesting. Not to say I don't like computers, I've just been fascinated by people all my life."
She pondered my words for a moment. "So, why are you studying computer science instead of psychology or something people-based?"
"Well, it's a lot harder to get into psychology courses and jobs are a lot harder to find in these parts. Also, my parents wanted me to do this course instead of psychology as they think I will become a billionaire and pay for their retirement. They did not specifically say the latter point, but it is obvious when they are the sort of people who waits for the weekend."
The cafe radio, which had been playing many of the hits during that time, had just finished a song. Till There Was You started playing, the latin-inspired influence oozing from the speakers. I initially thought it was a song by some new and upcoming band, but then I heard McCartney's voice and realized who the band was.
The song, to put it mildly, was beautiful to me. Something about the sound just resonated every inch of my body. I lost myself to the song, forgetting the girl and the worries and the world, for those brief few minutes, existed.
During those minutes, the girl had started talking about why she was so distraught and though it may seem I was not listening, her words melted into the music like thick dark chocolate, becoming one.
Her boyfriend had disappeared. One day, they were talking on the phone, the next she never heard from him again. She thought something must have happened, like a family member died or he was busy with work, so for a while she did nothing. Then, when a new week had arrived without as much as a voicemail or a brief phone call, she made a welfare check at his home.
The door was unlocked and after a brief few knocks, she entered. The place was clean and tidy, nothing seemed out of place or stolen, though the house was silent, a jarring detail considering her boyfriend was always playing music or guitar. She went up the narrow stairs to his bedroom and, like the rest of his house, it was clean, empty and quiet. None of his instruments were gone and his expensive speaker system sat gathering dust. No note was left for her, his family or friends, though the silent house spoke all she needed to hear.
She headed to the police station and filed a missing persons report. Through the subsequent questioning, the girl had shown no emotional outpour at the prospect of her boyfriend since childhood had gone missing. The police's suspicion was apparent, one of the questions asking that if she had any involvement with his disappearance to which she denied flatly. One of the officers suggested that she gets hooked to a polygraph machine, however this test could neither indict or prove her innocence and eventually, she was let go.
When she returned home that night, she threw herself into bed and bawled into her pillow: she knew he was dead.
"It's a general sense of disconnection, like an invisible wire holding us together had snipped, leaving me with a dial tone that never goes away. And I know I will never see him again."
Her eyes shimmered under the cafe light and I felt an extreme uncomfort go through me. Unsure as to how I was meant to react, I bowed my head a little and said, "Sorry, I shouldn't have asked."
"It's fine. By the looks of it, he left on his own accord so I hope wherever he is, he is happy." The look on her face told me it was not fine at all—her eyelids could not contain the swelling tears and they trickled down her flushed cheeks. I wanted to embrace her, to tell her everything was going to be okay, but I had only met her minutes ago and it would be wrong on multiple levels to just swoop in.
"I can refer you to a grief councilor if that would help?"
"Thanks, but I just want to deal with it on my own."
We sat in silence some more, the cafe ambience of clinking plates and chatter filling the gap between us. She sipped again from her glass of water. What could I say, No no, lady I don't know, you are coming with me to meet Dr. Markkus. He's a great doctor, trust me? Despite my more sociable nature, there is not much you can say in the way of grief—in helping the be-grieved other than simple pleasantries. Hell, even those pleasantries do not make much sense if the person is only missing, not confirmed dead. Sorry for his disappearance? That was as close of a pleasantry I could formulate at the time, but I never said it because I was not a dumbass.
She broke the silent with a question, "Do you want me?"
Her voice did not portray her request so I had thought I misheard. "Do you want to have sex with me?"
"What, uh," I stumbled over the response. This was what they called a loaded question—filled with buckshot aimed directly at my head pointblank. If I said no, it would be like calling her unattractive (far from fact); but if I said yes, it would be taking advantage of her in her low state. In my mind, I tried to find a simple answer that bordered between the two extremes, something vaguer than the outline of a mountain in the fog. "You know, he might still be alive. I wouldn't want to impose myself in there if he—"
"He won't. I've known him since childhood and one day, in our tree house we built in the forest by our small village, he said, 'If I ever disappear from your life, assume I will never come back and try to move on.'" I could tell she was being truthful as the details were so specific she had to be a novelist to conceptualize them on the spot. "And so, me having sex with you would classify as me moving on."
"Right, but he's only been gone for like a few days. When he said move on, he probably expected the process to be a lot slower and longer."
"Probably, but we never agreed to anything verbally. So, I interpret his words as I desire. You've been the only person to listen to this so..."
"You thought you can pay me with your body?"
"I mean, I am flattered, but it feels weird to have sex with someone clearly grieving. I don't want to be blunt, but it's kinda like turning to drugs or alcohol to mask it and I don't feel comfortable being that mask."
She sat there staring at her cup for a while. Then, she took out her flip phone and put it in the center of the table. "Can we at least exchange phone numbers and see how things go?"
I had no reason to say no so I took out my phone and placed it in front of hers, going to the exchange contacts app to initiate the transfer of details.
That was when we started going out.
As with most relationships that start under conspicuous circumstances such as the ones presented in that cafe that day, the first few dates were awkward. Those dates contained a lot more silence than our first conversation as we were both unaware as to how to feel about the whole situation. Occasionally, the silence was interrupted by us asking each other how the food is, how shitty December tends to treat the city with icy roads, darkness and torrential rain and about our courses.
Her name was Emily and she was in her second year of her English and Law course. She had later confided in me that she wanted to become an English teacher and was planning to get certified in her last year without her parents knowing. Then, because they were abusive to her, she would cut contact and move to some distant country to teach English and the beauty of literature.
I told her my far less eventful future: I would graduate from the university and get a job as a software developer for some startup organization looking for cheap graduate work. I would somehow make enough money by the time I was old to live relatively comfortably in a house somewhere in the mountains, where the milkman had to drive up a long winding road to deliver the milk.
"That last bit is oddly specific, isn't it?" she said, drinking a milkshake through a pink straw.
"Yeah, it was just a descriptive piece, I'm not expecting a minimum-wage guy to drive up such a long driveway just for milk."
"None of your goals mention anything about being married either."
"Neither did yours."
"Fair, fair." She looked thoughtful at me, as if she was gauging my life goals on the spot. "Sounds lonely though, living so far away from civilization like that."
"That's the life I want—as far away from people possible. I think to the Apollo 13 mission when the crew orbited around the dark side of the Moon and the realization that they were the loneliest people in existence up to that point, watching the battered terrain of the Moon through a small, circular porthole. Sure, the house will be on Earth, but the benefits of walking out to my front garden and hearing silence—the light breeze, the occasional bird, but none of the urban screeches of tires and children—would be the best. Have you read A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami?"
She shook her head. "I have only read some of his short stories and while I found them interesting, my to-read list is super long and so, his work is way in the distant future."
"Well in the novel, the protagonist goes to a remote house in rural Hokkaido, separated by a long perilous road from a small town. He said, something to the effect of, 'If a brutal war had started which leveled Tokyo, he would be the last person to know.' That sort of isolation captivated me since I read it years ago."
"But would it be ideal? You would either have to have food delivered to you, get your own or something else. Without anyone by your side, you might become an old cranky shut-in like those 'off my lawn' types. Does that seriously appeal to you?"
"Yeah, I don't really care what people think of me—they can fuck off for all I care."
And the awkward silence continued until I dropped her off at her apartment. We did not kiss until the fifth date and even that was awkward, despite my experience. Throughout the ordeal, I felt the ghostly stare of her boyfriend peering into my being.
Eventually, the relationship deepened and conversation was not as stilted. We were hanging in my apartment, watching a VHS copy of The Little Mermaid when she asked me, "Do you dream often?"
I was drunk so I blathered some response that resembled a no.
"Well, I do—especially since meeting you. They seem to revolve my boyfriend telling me to move on and whatnot, causing me to wake up crying. One of them was him playing Blackbird on guitar, except his singing is muffled. The guitar was clear, so clear I could hear the pick slap against the strings. Then, in the final verse, his voice folded into clarity and his voice was as I remember it—soft, withdrawn, like a puppy letting out a whimper. But it was beautiful. Do you know guitar?"
I shook my head and took another swig of the cheap shite in a can.
Throughout the rest of the film, I heard her mumble the melody of a song. I would later remember it as the melody of Blackbird as I sat with a cigarette in my lips, filing divorce papers a decade later. I went online to listen to the song and sure enough, it was that song.
Later that night after the film, we had sex. I think her getting me drunk was intentional as she knew I would have put it off longer if I was sober. I enjoyed it, at least in the smatterings I remember, though I am unsure whether she enjoyed it as in every memory post our first encounter, her face gradually faded into a blur.
After that, we snuggled, a cigarette in both our lips and puffing smoke. Like most nights, I was asleep before I knew it.
And I was flung into a dream.
I heard bells, distant yet loud enough to vibrate the ground beneath me. I laid on the sunny-side of an emerald rolling hill, the grass long and tickling my feet. I was nude, just as I was in my bed. The second I saw the clear skies and small white fluffy clouds, I knew I was dreaming.
An endless sea of rolling hills the exact same as the one I was on spread out before me. Fences lined the flatter land in-between the hills with white fluffy sheep scattered amongst the green. A faint whiff of rain filled my nostrils yet there was not a hint of it to be seen.
I climbed to the top of the hill and scowered the landscape for the bells. In the distance, the silhouette of a bell tower peeked from the summit of a hill. So, I leapt down the hill, rolling all the way to the bottom. Grass kicked up in my wake though it was not a painful descent—it was much like rolling down a long mattress, causing me to bounce every so often.
When I reached the bottom, I got up and climbed over the fence into the sheep field. The moment my feet touched the ground, the sheep's heads whipped to face me. They were all white-coat, black-faced sheep with amber eyes. Some of them were chewing grass. When I walked forward, their heads followed.
Feeling alienated, I sprinted through the field to the hill on the other side, practically leaping over the fence. When I turned around to face the sheep, they were gone, the grass in some of their mouths fluttering to the ground or caught by the wind.
I climbed over the next hill which was significantly wetter and therefore muddier, causing me to nearly slip. I stared down to the bottom where the sheep were and pondered rolling down it when a gust of wind pushed me off balance and tumbling down.
I was coated in a thick layer of mud when I reached the bottom, but I wiped it from my eyes and climbed over the fence into the field. This time the sheep started slowly moving towards me, their feet not even moving. I ran through the field, noticing it was also muddy and therefore slowing me down. I seemed to have an ultimate amount of stamina, however the caking mud significantly restrained movement.
When I reached the summit of the next hill, I was so covered in dirt that I probably resembled a creature from the depths. The bell tower was only two more hills away. After rolling down the hill and adding an additional layer of mud and grass, climbing over the fence resulted me landing on my ass.
The sheep were moving faster towards me. I made it through the field without one of them touching me, but it was pretty close. I knew that in the next field, I had better be quick or they will bottleneck me.
When I made it to the last field, instead of cutting through the middle, I went around the edges of the field. Sure enough, the sheep were charging at me, some crashing through the fence behind me. One sheep swerved in-front of me and I only had a few seconds to react, rolling over it and landing flat again on the ground. I sprinted to the other end and did the same with the fence, feeling finally the upper boundary of my stamina being reached.
Glancing back, the sheep had disappeared as they had before, allowing me to breathe a sigh of relief. The bell tower's shadow covered me so a light breeze caused me to shake. The sky was no longer clear but dark and overcast, the smell of rain even more present in the air. Luckily, there was a steep staircase leading up to the bell tower so I did not have to climb up muddy terrain.
As I walked up them, I noticed the stairs were clearly aged and worn away by the elements, with steps having long cracks and the wooden railing wobbly and paint flecking at the slightest touch. It started raining, heavily, so I jogged the rest of the way up the hill and to the bell tower.
By the time I reached the door, the rain had washed me off all my mud. The bells were so close that it was nearly impossible to stand straight due to the ground vibrating. I ripped the door open and entered, slamming it behind me.
The wind had picked up and lightning flashed, the rain now assaulting the structure. At first, I thought the tower would collapse as the storm outside was reaching hurricane levels, but it stood. Another positive was that the bells had stopped, the ground having a little residue vibration before ceasing altogether. I shivered as the rain dripped from my nude body and I took a look at the surrounding room.
There was not much in the place—a metal spiral staircase twisted upward in the center while in one corner there was an open fireplace. Various tomes lined the floor, some turned open and laying face-down. A spray of rain slapped my face through the open slit embrasure. I grabbed a bunch of the tomes and shoved them into the embrasure, stopping the rain from getting in. A few droplets dripped from above, but it was not enough for any needed concern.
I went over to the open fireplace and taking some of the logs stacked near it, chucked them into it, adding a couple handfuls of dried grass stored in a container before searching for a matchbox. I did not find one, however I found a fire striker and after scrapping the rod at different angles for a spark, one scrap flicked off a drop of fire, igniting the fireplace.
I sat down and turned my attention to one of the books still laying on the floor, opening it to a random page. It was written in a language that mirrored English yet words changed in the blink of an eye and a lot of the words contained various symbols from other languages. I threw the book away and huddled my head against my knees, the warmth of the fire tickling and pin-pricking my wet skin.
As the logs blackened and twisted, the loneliness hit me. The only other living creature I had seen were sheep—not so nice sheep to be blunt. I almost lamented and thought how much I would love to be in my bed, cuddled up with Emily, her warmth soft and comforting—a fire without the burn.
As minutes, hours, days, years passed, the hurricane outside never let up nor did the fire stop burning. I did not becoming hungry or thirsty, and the only change was the hair on my body. The wind whistled at me, a choir of gust that never let up. The water dropping from the ceiling seemed to not make the puddles they landed in any bigger or smaller, their sound a replicate of the previous splash. I did not sleep the entire time either, only peering endlessly into the flames. I had begun to notice a pattern with the flames as well, a pattern that reset itself once every month or so.
I wanted the dream to end but I also wanted it to last forever. I could sit there for an eternity, lonely but alive. Student debt, landlords, university—all the woes in my life, I would never have to see again. But I also knew that even if I stayed there for millennia, I would wake up in the morning, ready to face another mundane but stressful day.
Then, the thought occurred to me.
I… don't want to be alone, I thought to myself, hundreds of years into my mental hibernation. Loneliness… without other people, basic emotions are worthless. People hurt me yet people are the ones to lick my wounds. People annoy me yet people interest me. People hate me yet others… love me.
I had known my time in the dream had come to an end. The bell tolled and a flash of lightning struck the tower, causing it collapse around me. Even as I laid there, painless in the rubble, my face obscured by dust and brick, I could still hear the bell ring as if it never fell.
This work by chanchanirl is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit /licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0