The Look in Your Eyes
It was the longest sunset I'd ever watched. Flying west at the right time of day made that sort of thing possible - I felt that the sun had been setting since we'd taken off from the Toronto airport. Now the plane was circling for a landing in Vancouver, the skies brilliant, the backdrop of mountains silhouetted darkly against the burning sky. My heart wrenched as I realised how much I had actually missed my home. A year is a long time - even with all that I was leaving behind I was intensely glad to be here again.
And what was I leaving behind anyway? I hardly knew if it was something real and tangible or just a figment of my ever-productive imagination. I had no idea what I really felt, and even less of an idea what he felt.
You'd think that having been to Europe, I'd spend my flight home recalling all the amazing places I'd seen. Thinking about walking through the Acropolis, touching those timeless pillars of the Parthenon and feeling the history emanating from the very marble. Remembering the Vatican and looking up at the hand of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Wondering how long the crumbling structures of Venice would last as each year the water rises higher and higher. Instead I was preoccupied by a pair of grey eyes and a soft Scottish accent that echoed in my ears, taunting me with things unsaid.
I had written a poem as the plane flew over the Atlantic. I had no need to open my journal and read it - the words still resonated in my brain. You don't see the look in your eyes, but it's yours. You don't hear the sound in your voice but it tears in my ears and it whispers its fears and it hints what it's trying to do. But do I only think that's what his voice was telling me? Oh why is life so confusing? So utterly complicated? Why is communication so difficult?
My biggest problem is my shyness. It's a stumbling block that is difficult to surmount. Sometimes my mind goes completely blank and I can't think, let alone get an intelligent comment out. That's how it always is with me, especially when I meet a guy that I could potentially be interested in. Or do I mean who could potentially be interested in me, until I make such a great impression on him with my amazing repartee? Oh yeah - I can always think of things to say after the fact, but at the time I can barely part my lips to breathe. You'd think now that I'm twenty I'd have a better handle on it, but I don't. Actually, I thought I made great headway this summer - meeting new people seemed easier than having to deal with people I already knew. But still, here I am not knowing if I'd had a chance at a relationship, a chance for the relationship of my life, or if I read all the signals wrong and was deluding myself yet again. All I know is that possibly I was at that point in my life where the tide was full and I only had to jump into the current to gain everything, but instead I didn't even get my feet wet.
I flew over to England from Singapore with four months to explore Europe until the start of fall semester at my university back home. My friend Susan was joining me. We'd known each other since kindergarten, and as it is with many long time friendships, our interests had diverged but we remained attached by our lengthy history. I was looking forward to seeing her after the ten months I'd stayed in South-East Asia with my parents. I love travelling but couldn't envision doing it on my own, and I just hoped Sue was up for the same things as I was. I think deep down I knew that I'd be making a lot of compromises but I refused to explore that avenue of thought.
The charter flight had been long, but I'd become friends with Kim and Angel who were in the seats next to me. Angel intimidated me somewhat - she was one of those girls who seem fearless and popular - the type I'd never connected with. Kim was sweet and funny and easy to talk to, which for me was something - especially since he was a guy and cute into the bargain. At the end of the trip we exchanged phone numbers and he promised to take me for the best wonton in the city when I was next in London.
I was smiling, thinking of him, as I shouldered my knapsack and studied the instructions my mom had written out for me so that I could find my way to Paddington Station. I bought a ticket to Bristol Temple Meads and then found my way to the correct platform. I was tired after over twenty hours of flying and I dropped my pack on the pavement and sat on it as crowds jostled around me, and porters trundled by with heavily laden carts. The smells and the noise swirled around me as my eyes fought to stay open and my mind blurred. I must have drifted off because it didn't feel like two hours when I heard my train announced and I groggily dragged myself into a carriage.
I'm not sure how long I'd been travelling altogether when my aunt collected me at the station. I think my longest sleep had been the one on the platform at Paddington. My head hurt, I was so hungry and thirsty I was beyond either food or drink, and the clothes I was wearing bore little resemblance to the trendy outfit I'd worn when I said goodbye to my parents in Singapore. And, as my luck would have it, that's when I met him.
Auntie Phoebe was her usual brisk and scatterbrained self.
"Oh there you are ZoŽ! I've got the car down the street where I found a little spot to park but I don't think it's really a parking space so I've left Poppet in the car and Euan. Lucky go - he's just got off work so I've saved him a bus ticket. It's jolly good to see you."
I smiled and after a quick hug of greeting followed her as she walked as quickly as ever towards the exit. It was all I could do to keep up with her - I had no time to wonder who on earth Poppet and Euan were. All I wanted was a bath and then bed - or bed and then a bath - at that point I didn't really care. Outside the cold air hit me and the brightness of the pearly overcast sky hurt my eyes, causing me to squint. A bus passed by leaving a strong smell of diesel. Little things like that stay in one's mind forever. Now, whenever I smell diesel I remember that first moment when I saw him through stinging, bloodshot eyes. A tiny Morris was parked half on-half off the sidewalk, and as we approached, the door opened and a figure pulled itself out.
He reached for my bag and I gave it to him gratefully as I looked up his tall, lanky frame into a pair of clear grey eyes. In my travel-weary state nothing should have registered but I noticed the light brown hair, short on top but the rest of it trailing to his shoulders, the nose that looked as though it might have been broken a few years back, the slightly crooked smile. He didn't actually say anything, just held the seat forward so I could get into the back and then put my pack in beside me. Aunt Phoebe, with her usual lack of formality, didn't even bother to introduce us. She shooed Poppet from her seat into the back with me and climbed in behind the wheel, adjusting her mirror as she turned the keys in the ignition. I sat with a dog on my lap, knowing that I looked a total mess, my eyes not leaving the back of Euan's head. I willed him to turn around so that I could see if he was really as good looking as my first fleeting impression told me he was, but the most I got was the edge of his ear and a tiny bit of the curve of his cheek.
Auntie Phoebe talked the entire way to Frampton Cotterell, but I could barely hear her over the whine of the engine and the grinding of the gears. She finally turned into a narrow driveway beside a stone cottage. Poppet was out of the car as soon as the doors opened, and then a hand came back for my bag. When I extricated myself from the backseat, Euan was already up the steps and going through the kitchen door, my knapsack slung over his shoulder.
"I've put you in the wine room," said Aunt Phoebe. "The bedrooms are all in use and I thought it was more private than behind the piano in the dining room. Janey won't let anyone stay in her room when she's away. I've got Okon and Lucius in the other upstairs rooms and of course Euan has the back room."
I said that anywhere was fine, as long as I could lie down and sleep for forty-eight hours. And that's how it happened - bed first and then bath. I awoke sometime the next day. It was odd to wake up in a room barely bigger than a closet - high window letting watery light through its filmy curtains - one wall completely devoted to shelves full of a motley collection of bottles, labelled with my aunt's crabbed scrawl. Elderflower wine. Elderberry wine. Cowslip. Blackberry. Damson. Colours ranging from a pale, greenish tinge to amber to rich, deep plum.
The house was quiet and I didn't have to worry about anyone needing the bathroom. I lay in a tub filled with blistering hot water and steamed myself for half an hour. Wrapping myself in big, rough towels, I tiptoed down the hall and back into my sanctuary. I rifled through my pack for a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I fluffed my straggly wet hair, attempting to dry it, and studied the mirror, not too happy with what I saw. There was no helping it - what I saw was what I was stuck with, but still I changed the t-shirt for a blue and green batiked shirt that wasn't too creased and then let myself out of my little room.
I found the kitchen by following the sounds of water running and pans banging in the sink. A small, round woman was wielding a pot scrubber and attacking the side of the kettle. She turned as I came in and beamed at me.
"You'll be ZoŽ! I'm Mrs. Buttle and I do for your aunt. Will you be wanting eggs?"
When I realised she was intending to cook me some breakfast I protested that I could do it myself, but she wouldn't hear any of it.
"Bacon, I'll be bound and toast too. You need feeding."
I sat at the table as she directed and looked around the kitchen while she cracked the eggs into the bacon grease. It was small and cosy, just as I remembered it. Five years ago I'd sat at the table with Janey and Rebecca eating tarts and listening to The Beatles. Now Janey was in London, if I remembered correctly from all the things my aunt had told me the evening before, and no one really knew where Rebecca was.
Janey was my cousin - Aunt Phoebe and Uncle Reggie's only child, and Rebecca was one of the many strays that they made a habit of picking up. I'd thought her pretty and very world-wise and more than a little frightening. She'd been a Rocker - a tough street kid in need of a home. As I thought of her I remembered how Euan fit into the picture. My over-worn brain had not made the connection the day before. He was Uncle Reggie's nephew and I'd not met him on my previous trip. He'd come to live with them six months later when his mom could not cope. Inevitably, he and Rebecca had got together. My mom always read Aunt Phoebe's letters to me so I'd heard all about the on again, off again relationship. After one disastrous fight Rebecca had run off, returning three months later recalcitrant and pregnant. He was nineteen and just starting college, but he married her, and when the child was born and it was obvious he was not the father - Lucius was half black - it apparently didn't faze him one bit.
Three months later Rebecca broke up with him again. She filed for a divorce, granted him full custody, and took off for Australia with a guy she'd met in London. Euan had stayed on at Aunt Phoebe's house, working by day and going to night school. The raising of Lucius became a joint effort.
Mrs. Buttle placed a heaping plate in front of me and I suddenly realised how hungry I really was. I had no idea when I had last eaten. Eggs and bacon never smelled so good. I smiled my thanks and she nodded and returned to her pots, humming as she polished them to a shine. As I ate I wondered where everybody was, so I ventured to ask Mrs. Buttle.
"It's your auntie's day at the clinic and your uncle's giving a lecture at the college. The little lad has just started half days at school - I'll be picking him up shortly. His pa's working at the shop. You'll not have met the African boy but he's at the Prep in Bristol. It's a busy household you've got yourself into, but you're very welcome to be sure."
I nodded and mumbled something about knowing that people were always coming and going, then I did justice to the food. After eating I wandered out into the yard. There were some changes in the five years since my previous visit. Virginia creeper covered both gables of the rear of the house. The upper windows barely showed through the rampant green foliage. The laurel hedge that marked the boundary between the next door neighbours was a good two feet taller, and the lower lawn now sported a badminton net, the grass on either side indicating that it was much used. In a corner was a plastic wading pool and a gate closed access to the path that led down to the river.
I lifted the latch and entered the steep, rutted trail, closing the gate before Poppet came bounding through it. I knew about dogs and rivers and I had no intention of throwing sticks in the water for her to retrieve or of being jumped on by a wet, stinky dog. I scrambled down ignoring her whines and soon came through the wild underbrush to a narrow beaten bank, cautiously avoiding the nettles as I went. It was a shallow, slow running river - more what I would call a creek. The bed was muddy with silt and reeds and waterweed abounded. A frog plopped into the murky water and I was unable to follow its progress. A pair of little black ducks bobbed their heads down to feed. Across the water a meadow stretched upwards, spotted here and there with trees I knew to be crab apples, though their blooms were now spent and the fruit still too small to see amongst the leaves. The sky above this all was patchy with clouds.
I followed the river until I came to a bridge that blocked my way. The path led up to the road at this point but I was afraid that if I tried to return to the house by that means I might get lost - the river had taken a number of twists and turns and my usually accurate sense of direction failed me. I turned and followed the water back the way I had come.
My mind wandered freely and I barely noticed my surroundings. Words were jostling for space - arranging themselves in patterns that bore little relationship to what I was doing. Poems came to me like that.
the opaque light
the sea brims full,
black rivers of echoes
grow in the dark.
I let the words run through me, concerned more with cadence than meaning - with the relationship of sounds and the feel of the shape of the words themselves. Meaning would find its way in afterwards. I sat on a hummock and took my ever-present notebook from my back pocket and pulled a ballpoint from its wire coils. I captured those words on the paper, discarding some even as I wrote.
hears the strange midnight calling?
The sand can't come.
The waves can't follow the beat of the clock.
Then I resumed my walk, unerringly found the entrance to the track that wound its way up to the house, and trudged up to the garden gate. Poppet was lying across the entranceway waiting for me and hoping for attention, a grubby tennis ball between her paws. I took pity on her and threw it as far as I could across the yard, then went to sit on the kitchen steps. My head was still dazed with poetry.
knows that the turn in the world
is the turn in your heart?
Who knows when it will start again.
"What is you doing?"
I looked up to see a round golden brown face - eyes nut brown and serious. His hair curled softly around his forehead. He was wearing the white shirt and shorts of a school uniform - the tie had already been discarded.
"I'm writing a poem." Somehow I was never shy around children. I could share almost anything with them. If it had been his father or even my aunt the notebook would have returned as quickly as possible to my pocket and I would have stammered something completely incoherent.
"I can't write," he confided as he sat beside me. "I go to school now but can't write."
"You are still very little for writing," I said.
"I'm three. Not little."
I looked him over. "You're quite a big guy for your age, but writing is hard until you're even bigger."
"Read to me."
"I don't think you want to hear it - it's poetry. Not really kid stuff."
"You talk funny."
"That's because I'm from Canada. I think you talk funny."
"No, you." He poked me when he said it. I poked him back in the tummy and he giggled. "Read."
"Okay, but I warned you." Surprisingly he listened quietly to the whole thing.
flame in the river
brings back the light.
In the night my voice carries softly.
"That's all there is so far."
"I want more."
"Shall I tell you a story instead?"
"No, talk about the river."
"You want me to tell you about my walk down by the river?"
"No, your pome river. Next part."
"I know - you can help me write it. What do you think I should put in it next?"
"Hmmm . . ." I sat for a moment and then words came to me.
the fish can't see the echoes
that fall from the stone,
or the grass on the wall when you're gone.
He smiled up at me. "You did fishes."
"Yes I did. You really helped me because I didn't know what was going to happen next. Now I think I even have an ending."
"What ending?" He screwed up his face so comically that I had to bite back a laugh and almost forgot the ending that had flooded into my brain. I wrote down the part I had just told him and then continued to write as I recited the last stanza.
the dust in the dusk,
the lift of the sea as it spreads on the shore
know the calling of the gull
that pulls you home.
"We are home," he said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and at that moment I really believed that what he was saying was true. Home. It seemed just as comfortable and just as real. I no longer felt the disconnection that had been lurking in the back of my mind all morning. I stuffed my notebook back in my pocket.
"Come on," I said, grabbing his hands. "Let's play. Do you want me to twirl you around?"
He giggled and nodded and we spent the next half hour running about all over the lawn. I was lying on my back with him sitting on my knees, singing, 'Had a little car, 1948, turned around the corner, slammed on the brakes.' As I said brakes I parted my knees and he dropped to the ground, squealing with joy. A shadow fell across us and there was Euan, very tall above me, a smile lurking behind his eyes.
"He's not disturbing you is he?"
I blushed and scrambled to my feet as Lucius cried "Daddy" and ran to throw his arms around his father's legs. My jeans were all grass stained and some of the buttons were undone on my shirt. I struggled to rebutton them while I quietly assured him I was having fun.
"He's very demanding. You can't let him have his head or he'll be pestering you no end." He said it very kindly, but it was his voice I noticed more than anything else. I don't think he'd spoken the day before at all. His accent sounded Scottish - but it was soft and with a lilt, not like the more guttural and harsh accent that I was used to from other Scots I had known. While I stood there watching him and feeling totally self-conscious about the mess my clothes and hair were in, Euan threw Lucius up on his shoulders, smiled at me, and carried him off into the house. I was left there standing by myself feeling like an idiot. Why couldn't I have even initiated something to continue the conversation?
At supper I finally got to see Uncle Reggie and was able to meet Okon. It was a very slap dash meal eaten around the large kitchen table and for the first half of it I was feeling slightly overwhelmed. Mrs. Buttle served the food and then tied a scarf around her frizzled greying hair and called a hearty "Cheerio" as she went out the door. Lucius complained about the lumpy potatoes while Aunt Phoebe completely ignored him and served another large dollop on his plate. She was telling a rambling story about two of the patients who she had seen at the clinic that day and I was having a hard time keeping their diverse symptoms straight. It took the entire dinner for me to realise that these patients were dogs -- I'd almost forgotten that she was a vet. Euan removed half of the potatoes from his son's plate to his own without saying a word, all the time apparently giving Aunt Phoebe his total attention. Uncle Reggie was arguing a philosophical theorem in a rather detached voice - at first I thought he was carrying on the discussion with Okon until the latter winked at me and I realised that Uncle Reggie was talking to himself.
Uncle Reggie is a professor of philosophy and theology. His appearance is unconventional at the best of times. At this moment his hair bore a remarkable similarity to that of Alfred Einstein. He was dressed in colourful African robes, his shirt collar rising askew from the deep V-neck. On his feet were a grubby pair of slippers. Bifocals hung about his neck and came alarmingly close to his gravy-covered potatoes throughout the meal.
Okon gave me another wink from across the table and said, "Never fear, you will get used to this chaos presently." His voice was beautiful and rich with that sing-song West African phrasing. He grinned broadly and his teeth stood out brilliantly white against his very dark skin.
I couldn't help but smile back, though it was impossible for me to respond. I would have had to speak very loudly for him to hear me, and uttering some inanity out loud across the table was more than I could bring myself to do.
After supper my uncle shuffled off to his study without even having acknowledged my presence. I helped Auntie Phoebe clear the table while Okon filled the sink with hot water and enough dish soap to have bubbles rise a foot high above the sink. He took a handful and placed them on Lucius' head, causing the child to run squealing into me, knocking the cutlery out of my hands. I went down on all fours to pick it up, almost bumping heads with Euan who was doing the same. He smiled at me apologetically and I mumbled that I was sorry.
"Go on, I'll pick it all up," he said.
I thanked him and was about to stand back up when Lucius jumped on my shoulders.
"ZoŽ, take him outside to play while the boys do the dishes," said Auntie Phoebe.
"But I wanted to do something to help," I said feebly.
"It will be a help," she replied. "With him in here it'll take twice as long to get anything done."
"I will take him out and you can wash the dishes," offered Okon.
"You can't get out of work that easily," said Euan, scrambling out from under the table with the last errant spoon.
Reluctantly I piggybacked Lucius to the garden as Euan picked up a tea towel and began drying the plates. It wasn't that I didn't want to play with him - far from it. I had fun rolling about on the grass with him and kicking around the soccer ball he'd found hidden under a bush. It's just that I'd been hoping to get to know Euan better. It didn't help that he was almost as quiet as me. Not that his lack of talking was due to shyness like my case. He appeared naturally reticent - at ease with his reserve. Not a mass of jumbled emotions. I cursed myself for being so lame that I couldn't just come out and say or do all the things that I thought I wanted to.
"You play football?"
I turned and there was Euan standing in the doorway, the backlight of the kitchen obscuring his face in darkness. I didn't know what he was talking about at first until I remembered that in England they don't call it soccer.
"Not really . . . no . . . I've never . . ." I kicked the ball over to Lucius but miss-hit it and it went wide of the mark. He ran over and intercepted it, deftly passing it to his son.
"Use the side of your foot and you can direct it better," he said. He stole the ball back from Lucius and then dribbled it over to me. "Inside of the foot or outside. Just like that. Try it."
I was so concerned that I would flub the ball again that I kicked it too weakly, but at least it went in the right direction this time.
"Just need to use a bit more power," he said encouragingly. "We'll go out to the common one day where there's more room to play, if you like."
I nodded and tried to say something that showed I liked the idea, but Lucius had taken over the conversation, clamouring to go to the common right away.
"Sorry sport, it'll be dark soon and it's almost your bedtime. I came out to get you to put on your pyjamas."
"No! Wanta play!" Lucius said, kicking the ball and running after it. Euan chased him down and threw him over his shoulder, then carried him protesting into the house. I stayed outside, and with no one to watch to see how inept I was, attempted to dribble the ball as Euan had done, passing it forward with the inside of my foot. My eyes were on the ground the whole time and I did okay until I tried to use the outside of my foot as well. I heard the sound of rushing feet and looked up, half expecting to see Euan again, but it was Okon who came up from behind me and stole the ball away.
"So this is what you do while I work myself to death in the kitchen," he said, grinning.
I laughed and tried to get the ball from him as he expertly danced away from me with it. Half an hour later we returned to the house in the fading light. Okon was describing a game where he had schooled all his opponents and showing me a few of his trademark moves. Whenever I attempted to copy him, he laughed good naturedly.
"I will make a star of you yet, though it will not be an easy task," he teased, and jostled me with his hip.
I was hot and tired and caught up in his amiability - I had left my shyness completely behind and joked with him as if he were my own brother. We had not lost our boisterousness as we burst into the warmth and light of the kitchen. Euan was sitting at the table watching a small black and white TV set that was on the counter. He glanced over at us with a questioning look on his face and then returned his eyes to the tennis match that was being broadcast.
"Wimbledon," said Okon by way of explanation, and sat down and began discussing the match with Euan.
I took a seat as well, not really familiar with what was going on or who the players were. I'd never watched tennis before and knew nothing about it, barring the fact that a ball was hit to and fro with rackets. It took me a few minutes to even be able to concentrate on the TV screen because I had become completely self-conscious again the moment I had unexpectedly seen Euan. In fact I looked at him more than at the television. He was intent on the match, his eyes following the back and forth action of the ball. Every now and then he exclaimed at a good play or questioned a referee's call, but all the time I wished he would look over at me.
When the commercials came on, Euan got up to put on the kettle. Okon sat back in his chair and grinned at me. "Adverts! Now we can talk again. How do you like the match?"
"I don't really understand the scoring and everything," I admitted.
"We're not boring you I hope?" asked Euan. "There's really nothing to watch on the other side anyway."
"BBC1 or BBC2 - we only have two choices," explained Okon.
"That's okay - it's interesting and I'll figure it out soon enough."
"We'll explain it to you," said Euan. "Would you like some tea?"
"We're going to be allowed to talk during the match?" asked Okon. "Are you feeling well?"
"As long as you just explain the game and don't ramble on like an idiot."
"He thinks I talk too much," said Okon.
"You do. ZoŽ hasn't even had a chance to say whether she'd like some tea."
"Yes please," I mumbled quickly.
I learned quite a bit about tennis during the next hour. McEnroe won in straight sets, and I even knew what that meant. I understood deuce and love and how a tiebreak worked. And I got to see Johnny Mac spaz at the referee for a bad call. All in all it was a fun time. During commercial breaks we even exchanged personal information. I told them I was going to be studying creative writing at UBC when I returned home and learned that Okon was eighteen, attending a preparatory school in Bristol, and had been living outside of Nigeria for the past two years. He was also full of self-confidence and enjoyed boasting about his abilities - this hardly surprised me after the way he had been showing off while we played soccer. His incurable good nature made this character flaw endearing, though. Euan revealed less about himself, but I now knew that he worked in a bookstore in Bristol and was planning on taking night school classes when Lucius got a bit older. He never did say what he wanted to study, and of course I was too reticent to actually ask him before Okon shifted the subject back to himself and his pursuits.
The next day at breakfast my Auntie Phoebe told me that she had the following few days off and suggested we drive over to Staffordshire to visit my grandma. I had to call Sue, who would be arriving in two days, and let her know that I'd not be in Frampton Cotterell to welcome her. She didn't seem to mind the idea of settling in with a bunch of strangers, something that would have had me quaking in my shoes.
Mrs. Buttle packed us up a picnic lunch as I put together an overnight bag for our stay at Handley - that was the name of Granny's house. There are still quite a few homes here in England that have no street address, only a name, and I'm continually amazed that all you have to do is write the house name, village, and county, and mail will get to them every time without mentioning a number or even a street. The drive was long - we didn't take the motorway at all but drove narrow country lanes through picturesque villages. We stopped for lunch in a farmer's field and then continued on our way. Aunt Phoebe was forever taking the wrong turnings and backing down winding lanes, but finally we arrived at Handley, an old Tudor home with a thatched roof and climbing roses that trailed over the front door. My grandmother hugged us both and led us into the drawing room where tea and biscuits were soon served. I sat among antiques, drinking out of bone china and looking at her collection of Venetian glass she kept in two tall cabinets beside me while she and Auntie Phoebe had one of those rambling conversations that I didn't even bother to attempt to follow.
The three days at Handley were lovely. We went for walks about five times a day - short ones with granny through the winding paths of her garden, and longer ones with only my aunt exploring every nook and cranny of the village, from the parish church to the post office, and down to the old stone bridge that spanned the river. I would have enjoyed it even more if deep down I hadn't felt guilty for not being there when Sue arrived. I was impatient to get back and keep her company and also plan our excursion to the continent. When we arrived back at Frampton Cotterell I was let down to discover that Sue was not sitting anxiously waiting for me. She had gone with Euan and a friend of his to the local pub. Okon grinned at my reaction and said that he was glad to see me back again, though, and not only because it meant that I would take over the burden of entertaining a most demanding child.
"I missed your sweet smile," he said, "and teaching you how to play football."
I suggested that the three of us play until the others came home, much to Lucius' delight. Okon pretended to be averse to the idea but I knew he was longing to one up me again on the playing field. We ended up walking to a little strip of green down the road because my uncle and a number of his students were taking up the back yard with a badminton match and the front garden was too small and full of flowers to allow us to kick a ball around. We played on the little green for about half an hour until we saw a group of familiar figures walking up the road towards us.
Euan was bent slightly in a listening posture while Sue looked up at him, talking animatedly. The friend that I had as yet not met trailed behind a few paces. Sue is about eight inches shorter than me, just barely five feet, and we always made a very Mutt and Jeff team throughout our growing years. She has thick honey-coloured hair that hangs down to her waist in ringlets and though her features are really quite plain her expression is so enigmatic and engaging that no one ever notices. I, on the other hand, have straggly hair that brushes my shoulders and is that indeterminate colour between blonde and brown that my younger sister likes to refer to as mud or sludge. Sue looks people straight in the eye and can converse with strangers as if she's known them all her life. I like to avoid eye contact as much as possible, and my conversational powers are inept at the best of times. My stomach twisted in knots at that moment as I tried not to be jealous of the way she seemed to have taken my place and caught the attention of the man I was attracted to. He'd barely appeared to notice me at all those first couple of days, and now there was no hope with a dynamo like Sue around.
That night I lay in my bed, thoroughly frustrated with myself. I was behaving stupidly and I knew it. But realising that didn't do anything to stop the way I was feeling. I was happy to see Sue and we'd had a fun evening, but the fact remained that though I'd done my best not to show it, I was upset with her. Not that anything she'd done was on purpose, or that she'd even known I was interested in Euan, it was just that unconsciously she'd taken my place - at least the place I ought to have held. Everyone treated her as if she'd always been connected to the family. And to make matters worse the whole idea of being in competition with her made me want to back off completely while conversely I found Euan even more appealing. She was asleep now, lying in a sleeping bag by my side while I was almost crushed against the bottom shelf of bottles that held murky greenish liquid labelled 'Dandelion 66'. The last thing she'd said to me before she drifted off was, "You never told me your cousin was so cute."
Technically he's not even my cousin - it's just easier to say that rather than explain the relationship. But I didn't want her impression of our family ties precluding the idea that he and I might possibly hit it off. I'd found myself paired with Euan's friend, Douglas, at the dinner table, and he'd seemed just as disappointed by that seating arrangement as I was. He'd made a few stabs at conversation, but I was too intent on overhearing everything Sue was saying to Euan that I admit to having inadvertently ignored him. To top it all off, Okon appeared to be offended by something and kept giving me strange looks from the far end of the table. Maybe he was just annoyed about being subjected to one of Uncle Reggie's monologues again, cut off from our livelier group. Livelier mainly on account of Sue.
I'd decided quite quickly that Douglas was perfect for Sue. This wasn't just because I already had my eye on Euan and couldn't even begin to imagine the appropriateness of them together, but also based on a few logical statistics. For one thing, he was 5'8" as opposed to 6'2", for another his dark hair and eyes perfectly complimented Sue's warm honey blonde and blue. His admiration of her was readily apparent while, though Euan was superficially attentive, his expression gave nothing away. Euan had even glanced over at me a few times during dinner with a look in his eyes that was completely unreadable. Open, straightforward people were more Sue's thing, and what could be more straightforward than Douglas' comment that he'd like to get to know Sue better? Almost every comment he directed at me was about Sue - what kind of music did she like, where did she work, and how long were we - meaning she - going to be in town.
However, I knew I could not rely on my wishful thinking which I was well aware was undoubtedly colouring my perception of everything. After all, in the couple of days I'd already had to get to know Euan I'd found out little more than where he worked and that he played soccer and liked to watch tennis. In the course of a day and a half, Sue was on such great terms with him that they'd gone to the pub not once, but twice; she knew what town in Scotland his family had come from and where they were now living; and he'd agreed to play the blues on his guitar for her in the morning. I hadn't even known he liked the blues, let alone that he played guitar. The fact that he played guitar elevated him a few notches in my estimation. As I lay half in and out of sleep, I imagined his long fingers picking out notes on the strings of an acoustic.
After breakfast we went to Euan's bedroom in the back of the house, and Sue and I looked through his records while he took his guitar out of the case and tuned it.
"Do you have any Taj Majal?" asked Sue.
"Or Jimmy Witherspoon?" I ventured.
He sat his guitar on the bed and pulled out a couple of albums for us. "I'm mostly into the real rural blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee," he said.
I hadn't heard them before but Sue was able to assure Euan that she was totally into them. We sat on the corner of his bed -- it was either that or the floor -- and he played a few traditional blues tunes. After that he played a couple he'd written himself which I liked even better because they had more intricate finger picking. He sang in a rough voice, imitating those old southern black men and I felt we should be on a sprawling back porch, sitting on rocking chairs, with a hound dog at our feet. Both Sue and I tried out his guitar, but neither of us knew more than one or two chords, and when he tried helping me place my fingers properly on the strings, I messed up worse than ever.
"Our fingernails are too long," said Sue, and cajoled him to play one more song for us.
This one was different, not so rustic, but slower and with a haunting quality. After a few minutes I realised it was Billy Holliday's In My Solitude, which I had never before heard played on guitar. He played almost as if we weren't there, totally absorbed by his music and I was awed by how much younger and more vulnerable he looked with his face all yearning and boyish. The strings rippled and the sound flowed echoing around us and I never wanted it to end.
When it was over he set the guitar aside and smiled crookedly, "Don't want to bore you," he said, "besides, I have to go in to work today."
Sue and I spent the rest of the day poring over maps and scanning through guidebooks, planning our trip. We were going to buy Eurail passes and take the train to Amsterdam, and then through Holland to Germany - visiting DŁsseldorf, Bonn, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Munich - then on into Austria, where we would go straight through to Vienna then back to Salzburg and Innsbruck. After that it was Italy - mainly Venice, Florence, and Rome, where we planned to spend a week - then on to Brindisi to catch a boat to Greece. So far we had decided on Corfu and Athens. I wanted our return trip to take us through Switzerland, Spain, and France, but Sue was still not sold on the idea. I was discovering that I already was making more concessions than she was and hoped I'd not miss out on some of the places that I really wanted to see. While Sue talked about visiting museums and art galleries I wondered just how interested she would be in touring them after the first one or two. I gave in on the lesser things, hoping that I could stand firm on the ones that were most important to me.
In the next few days we finalised our plans for the first part of the trip and reorganised our backpacks, leaving quite a bit of excess baggage behind. Afternoons we spent entertaining Lucius and evenings found us all in the kitchen camped in front of the TV, watching as Elie Nastase ruthlessly worked his way through all his opponents. If I'd thought McEnroe was bad, I'd never counted on Nastase -- he had a temper that made McEnroe look like a pussycat. Euan loved his style, though, and was backing him all the way. Okon liked to support whoever looked to be doing best at the moment, sometimes changing his allegiance a few times during a single match. Douglas joined us most nights too, but I think he was more interested in talking to Sue than watching tennis, and as she did not have a deep abiding interest in the sport, she gave him most of her attention.
The last evening before we were to leave, Sue and I went to a pub in Bristol with Douglas and Euan. We went as a foursome, not as two couples, and though she had favoured Douglas so much while we watched tennis, Sue latched onto Euan again and barely left his side. We took the bus and then walked down a few winding streets to reach the doors of the chosen establishment. It appeared to me to be more of a club than a pub. There was a live band playing -- I don't think they were remarkable because I can't even remember what kind of music they played. The big draw must have been something else, because the place was packed -- standing room only. We squeezed in and found ourselves a plot where we wouldn't be jostled by too many elbows and Euan left Douglas to look after us while he went to the bar for the drinks. He returned about ten minutes later with four pints and we stood there sipping our drinks and attempting to talk in all the noise. I felt awkward, not liking to have to yell out some meaningless comment, and I couldn't think of anything amazing to say, so I quietly pretended to be interested in listening to the music and took a few sips of my beer.
I soon discovered that I don't like beer. I hadn't had any since the drinking age had changed to nineteen in BC and every kid that was sixteen or older surged into the bars, especially the grungier ones that didn't look too closely at ID. At seventeen I thought I ought to like beer so I drank it, and after a couple was able to forget how bad it tasted. I was a little smarter than that now. But the last thing I was going to do was tell Euan that I didn't like the drink he had bought for me. When he asked me how I liked it I smiled and said it was good, but one hour later I still had a full glass of beer. He stood beside me most of the time, quite close because of the crowds, with Sue on his other side and Douglas doggedly beside her. I just stood there thinking of how close he was, and staring at him whenever I thought he wouldn't notice. I guess it should have been boring because we weren't actually doing anything but when my initial awkwardness abated I was just enjoying being so close to him without having to make the effort of saying something earth-shatteringly interesting.
Euan leaned over and said something to me that I couldn't quite catch, but rather than the confusion of trying to communicate that in all the noise I just smiled and nodded. He put his arm around my shoulders to bring me closer and spoke directly into my ear. "I don't think you heard a word I said. A smile and a nod was not the right answer."
I looked up at him questioningly, trying to hide my embarrassment at being caught out.
"Why didn't you tell me you don't like your beer?"
"No you don't. And don't tell me you're not thirsty -- at places like this drinking beer has nothing to do with being thirsty. Do you want me to get something else for you?"
"No thanks, I'm . . . well, I don't like the beer, but I really am not thirsty. Here, would you like it?"
I passed him the drink and he sipped it and made a face. "It's flat -- bloody awful." Then he grinned at me and tightened his hold on my shoulder. We stood like that for quite a while, and I wondered if he had just forgotten that he had his arm around me or if it was there because he liked me. I was glad that he didn't say anything more because I don't think I would have been capable of a response. I stupidly kept wondering if he would kiss me, and whether I wanted him to yet or not. I mean -- the idea of kissing him wasn't what bothered me -- it would be easier than talking and I was sure I would like it -- but after a kiss there was that whole level of communication that we hadn't gotten to that would need to be dealt with. I guess what I mean is that there was not really any foundation for a kiss, so how would we go on from it? I needn't have wasted the effort of worrying about it, because no kiss was forthcoming. Sue diverted his attention to her and he eventually let me go -- I'd like to think reluctantly - so that he could bend down low enough to hear her. And I had just wasted the great opportunity I'd had of leaning my head against his shoulder rather than standing stiffly under his arm, afraid to move lest he let me go.
Our bus trip home was uneventful. Douglas took a different bus, so it was just Sue, Euan, and me, and I was still feeling embarrassed about how I'd let my mind wander, thinking about him kissing me. I was afraid that he could somehow read my mind if he could see my eyes so I kept them downcast. Sue had no such pretensions and smiled up at him all the way home, talking about all kinds of different experiences she'd had in pubs before. Euan was almost as quiet as me, only responding as was necessary while Sue rambled on. He said goodbye to us as well as goodnight -- he was going to be gone to work by the time we got up. He gave me a long look before he turned and walked down the hall to his room in the back. I have no idea what he meant by it, but Sue noticed and looked at me too.
"You guys upset with each other?" she asked.
I shook my head. Disappointed, yes. I wanted some kind of clear sign from him. But I wasn't upset, and if I was it certainly was not with him. The signals were not clear, but my limited understanding of relationships thought them to be more on the positive side than the negative. A guy just didn't put his arm around someone that way for no reason, and friendship was certainly preferable to ambivalence
The next morning we had breakfast with the family - minus Euan. I was feeling sad at the thought of leaving because I'd been made to feel so welcome, and I'd become attached to Lucius and his bright eyes, Okon's friendly boastfulness, Uncle Reggie's obliviousness, and Aunt Phoebe's scatterbrained supervision of it all. Uncle Reggie was wearing a decrepit tweed jacket with elbow patches that were coming unstitched, and the baggiest flannel trousers I'd yet to see him in. He looked at me blearily and asked if I'd just come, his attention already wandering as I explained that we were actually leaving but would be back. Lucius climbed into my lap and said he would miss me, and Okon smirked and asked if he could sit on my lap as well. At the door he whispered into my ear. "I'll be waiting here for you, pretty lady," and he winked. At least I'd gained one admirer, though from what I knew of Okon, I imagined he was rather fickle.
Aunt Phoebe dropped us at the train station with a cheery wave and then continued on in her little car to drive the boys to their respective schools. Sue and I found an empty compartment and settled ourselves in for the journey to London.
We were to stay there for two nights with my uncle at Watford. I remembered his house from my earlier trip five years ago. It was a typical detached home with a large dining room and smallish bedrooms -- a good size for a family but he had remained single, so Sue and I would each have a room of our own -- the height of luxury after sleeping in the six by five wine room. His living room was also referred to as the drawing room, just like at my granny's, and its walls were covered in old family photos which I loved to see. Besides the quality of the old photography, the dresses the ladies wore were simply beautiful.
Negotiating the tube from Paddington to Watford was a learning experience, but we arrived in good time to walk across the large park which Uncle Nigel's house backed upon. It was mostly a rolling, grassy meadow, but here and there were ancient specimen oak and beech trees that simply awed me with the girth of their trunks and the solemnity of their presence. At the first one I threw down my pack and pulled myself up onto a massive lower branch.
Sue looked up at me like I was some kind of deranged fool. "Exactly how old are you, ZoŽ?" she asked.
"What does it matter? This tree is begging me to climb it."
"Well, just don't do anything like this when there are guys around. That's a sure way to scare them off." Then she wandered around a flowerbed nonchalantly, attempting to pretend she had no connection to the lunatic up in the tree. I climbed even higher and leaned back against the gnarled trunk. The canopy of dark green oak leaves obscured her from my view and for those few minutes I was up there it was as if I was all by myself on this trip and unexpectedly the idea appealed to me. A breeze rustled through the branches and with it came thoughts and words which I felt compelled to write down before they dissipated into the fresh air.
stand in broken shadows
sifting air from past mountain journeys
where it may have travelled
I wrote on, quickly, as it all tumbled from the wind and through me onto the page of my little notebook.
by day we sit on this porch in the dusk
opposite that orange sky.
It seems to be all arranged.
Those trees call to me
and I don't want to be here
I had no idea what it really meant, but the need to write was so strong that I just let go and wrote without analysing, without questioning word choice or format or anything. Sometimes writing poetry was like that. Months later I would take it out and look back on it and realise that it all made sense. Some of my poems needed years to understand, but even so when I read them they still resonated with enough power for me not to discard them. They were important to me, if to no one else, and might one day unravel the riddle of who I am so that I could at least understand myself better.
whether I am really who I say,
wandering on the beach
placing pebbles on top of rocks
wondering how high
I can pile them?
I gazed up through the leaves. Just what am I capable of? The answer wasn't up there, only little scraps of blue sky that haloed the edges of the deep cut leaves. I climbed down and picked up my pack. Sue's expression was one of irritation -- I tried my best to pacify her.
"I'll phone my friend Kim tonight and hopefully we can meet him in town tomorrow."
"Is that the cute Chinese guy you met on the plane?" she asked. "Do you have a crush on him?"
"He is cute but I don't have a crush on him."
She gave me a look that said she didn't believe me, but I didn't care. She'd obviously been appeased by the thought that I was a normal girl after all. I never even told her about to poem I'd written while in the arms of that old oak. It's not that I didn't share my poetry with Sue. I did and she always maintained that she liked it, though she is not at all literary. I think she is a little awed by that sort of talent and impressed because she can't understand it and because there is an element of coolness about being a poet. She can say, ĎMy friend ZoŽ, the poet,' and it sounds a whole heck of a lot better than ĎMy friend ZoŽ, the totally socially inept shy girl.'
My uncle had afternoon tea waiting for us. He is the epitome of the British gentleman and a real sweetie. He was dressed in a good tweed jacket, waistcoat, and old school tie, and he ushered us into the drawing room where his daily poured out our tea and served scones with Devon cream. After ensuring our comfort by turning up the electric fire and asking if our chairs were quite comfortable, he inquired about our morning's journey with conciliatory interest. He then entered into all our plans and when he discovered we were scheduling a late night in London the next day he told us on no account to cross the park unescorted after dark. He offered to meet us at the tube station no matter the time, but we opted for the sensible solution of walking the long way around on the well-lit road.
Kim was home when I called him and pleased to hear from me.
"I wondered if you had forgotten all about me," he said.
"Not after you promised me the best Chinese food in all of London."
He laughed and we arranged to meet him at the Soho tube station at 5:00 the next day.
We saw as much of London's sights as we could fit into one day -- Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square, a quick tour of the Tate gallery, and a ride on a double-decker bus -- something to appease the child in both of us. I wanted to take the river tour to Greenwich, but instead we went to see the guards at Buckingham Palace. Sue had some vain hope that she would see the queen, but it was not to be.
We were a little late for our meeting with Kim but when we finally arrived he was unperturbed and smiling his usual smile. He led us down a few short streets and around a corner to the Chinese quarter. The smells that wafted from the storefronts took me right back to Singapore.
We entered a small, crowded
wonton house where steam rose from the big vat of soup stock in the window area
that was always boiling while wontons and noodles were dished in and out of it
as they cooked. We sat on the end of a booth that was already occupied and Kim
explained that it was rare to get a table to oneself. The other people at the
table paid no attention to us, just kept on with their conversation as they
ate. Our order came within five minutes and both Kim and I drizzled hot chili
oil into our soup, then attacked our noodles with our chopsticks.
Sue picked up her spoon and tried to get at her noodles before looking at Kim pathetically.
"I'm no good with chopsticks and this spoon doesn't work, Can you ask them for a fork?"
He apologised for not thinking of it earlier and had one speedily delivered. Soon we were all stuffed and when Kim asked if we wanted to try something more we looked at him with horrified expressions.
"Okay," he laughed. "I get the point. But next time we come you'll have to have the fried noodles, and the deep-fried bean curd skins with straw mushrooms."
After that we went to Knightsbridge and did some window-shopping at all the most fashionable and funky stores. Kim saw us back to the tube and gave us each a hug.
"Don't forget to call me when you get back from Europe."
"How could I when you've promised me deep-fried bean curd skins?" I said, turning to run down the stairs into the underground. Sue and I just caught the train before it pulled out of the station.
"You've picked the wrong guy to have a crush on," said Sue after we'd found seats in the crowded train.
"What do you mean?" I asked. "Didn't you like him? Anyway, I don't have a crush on him."
"Sure I liked him -- he's cute and he's funny but he's gay, ZoŽ, face it."
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, for one thing he's a model -- and he is way too pretty. And look how he was talking style. He knows more than most girls."
"That's because he's in the business. Anyway, what difference does it make?"
"None -- unless you have a crush on him."
"How many times have I told you that I don't?"
"Okay, but don't say that I didn't warn you."
I sighed in exasperation. We were just starting our trip together and I was feeling like we needed a break from each other. And it wasn't just because of Euan. It had nothing to do with Euan at all and everything to do with how much we had grown apart in the last couple of years. I looked at the posters that curved up to the train ceiling and studied the one of the girl with vivid yellow and green eye shadow that went all the way from her lids to the high arch of her brow, and extended below her eyes as well. It was amazingly flamboyant, but so intriguing -- I imagined what I would look like with eyes like that. It was very, very tempting but when I mentioned it to Sue she said she didn't think I could pull it off.
"It's yellow," she said as if that explained everything.
"Yes, and green," I agreed. "But I like the idea of treating your eyes as a canvas." I was disappointed in her. Back during the hippie craze she loved all my velvet and satin outfits and even supported me against the football team who said I was way-out and weird. I didn't care what the football team thought of me, but I really appreciated the fact that she did that. Now it seemed like she had settled into a more middle class rut while I was still as avant-garde as ever. And if you think being avant-garde and terminally shy don't go together, remember that I've had to live down a name like ZoŽ all my life while growing up with more Dianes and Shirleys and Lindas than you could throw a stick at. I hated being in the spotlight but contrarily I brought attention upon myself with my freaky clothing. My style was a bit more laid back than it had been in the past, but I think I still managed to put a little of who I am into what I wore. And if I wanted green and yellow eyelids, I was going to get them. I laughed at myself then, wondering if I really wanted that look or if I was just rebelling because Sue had said it wouldn't suit me.
The crossing of the channel was cold and foggy -- somehow I'd expected that. Upon arriving in Amsterdam we first headed to the youth hostel where we'd booked a room and then we toured around the city. I don't remember too much of Amsterdam except that we found a great little Indonesian take out place tucked down a back street that served the fattest spring rolls you've ever seen at a price that young travellers can afford. I was a little down -- thinking too much about Euan and whether or not anything was going to happen between us. I'm the world's worst daydreamer, so I created alternate fantasies for our future -- fantasies that did not always turn out the way I would have wanted them to. The next day I didn't even argue when Sue suggested moving on to the next stop on our list. As I looked out the window of the train I tried to concentrate on the scenery and leave fantasy behind me. I stared out at long, flat vistas until I nodded off, lulled by the regular rumble of the train. When I awoke the terrain was different -- rolling hills, a lake, and turrets in the distance met my gaze.
"Just look at that! cried Sue. "Let's get out here."
We didn't even know the name of the town; we just got off at the station and then asked the first person we met where the youth hostel was. At least, Sue asked. I stood and watched our train leave, wondering at our impetuosity.
"It doesn't matter," cried Sue, grabbing my arm. "We don't need to keep to schedules -- let's explore."
So explore we did. We were able to rent bicycles at the hostel and were given maps that showed the way not only to the little turreted castle, but also to the ruins of a monastery, and some historic houses in the neighbourhood. The sun shone and I decided that this was the only way to travel -- as the whim took us. And it did work well, so long as Sue and I were on the same wavelength.
We continued on, taking a day or two here, a day or two there. Sometimes we didn't get off the train at all at cities we had planned to visit, just because what we saw from the tracks did not inspire us. The weather was good for the most part except for one day in Frankfurt that rained steadily and we holed up in our room at the hostel doing laundry in our sink and trying to dry it in front of the electric fire. All this time we had barely any contact with other travellers at the hostels, but in Vienna it was different. I don't know if it was because it was a larger place, but the hostel felt more like a community. We were told about a place to get dinner that most people went to where the food was cheap and plentiful. It was very crowded when we arrived and there were no empty tables.
Sue thought we should just do as we did in the Chinese restaurant in London and sit with anybody, but I was reluctant. As we were dithering about the doorway, a guy came up to us and pointed to a table where two other guys were sitting and asked if we'd like to join them. Sue accepted without even consulting me and started forward. All I could do was follow her.
The fellow who had invited us was German, and the other two turned out to be Canadian. Franz, Jeff, and David. Franz was husky and blonde, and he spoke English well only he had a very strong accent so was difficult to understand at times. Jeff was short with long, wiry hair and an open, friendly face. David looked a little like Jim Morrison, only more rugged.
"You looked like you weren't sure what to do," said Jeff. "Have you just arrived?"
We said we had and talked a bit about where we had come from and where we were planning on going to. It turned out that Salzburg was next on Jeff and David's agenda too, but they still wanted to spend a couple more days in Vienna. Just then food arrived at the table and was put in front of us.
"But we haven't ordered yet," I said. "This must be for you guys."
"Ours is coming right away," said David. "You don't have to order -- everyone gets the same dinner -- and it's good. This is the third night we've eaten here."
We ate and talked and then went for a nighttime stroll through the city, returning to the hostel before the 11:00 curfew. Franz was leaving the next day and said goodbye to us at the gate, but the other two made plans to meet us for breakfast and make the excursion to Shonbrunn.
Jeff and David knew the right buses to take and had the Austrian money all worked out so it made sightseeing a whole lot easier. They were really fun to be with too. The Palace was stunning in both its size and ornamentation. We first toured the elaborate baroque interior and then went out into the beautiful formal gardens and the expansive grounds beyond. Jeff wouldn't rest until he had discovered every highlight listed on the brochure -- the Palm house, the Gloriette, and the zoo. He and Sue ran ahead to see the animals while I walked at a slower pace with David.
"I thought you'd be right up there with them," said David, gesturing towards Sue and Jeff.
"I'm not really crazy about seeing caged animals," I admitted.
"I can't take the smell," said David. "Anyway, I think I've seen enough for one day. I'm overloaded on history already -- next it's going to be nature."
I didn't know quite what to say. I was enjoying the amazing park we were walking through with its lush grass and stately trees. I decided not to say anything and just walked by his side as the silence stretched between us. I wished that Sue had not been so quick to leave me behind. David kicked at the grass in mild frustration and then said, "C'mon, let's go find them."
When we were all together I didn't feel so out of place anymore and told myself off for having felt uncomfortable earlier. What was my problem? David was a nice guy and great looking too -- I should have been happy to be on my own with him.
The next day they took us to the Spanish Riding School where we got to watch the Lipizzaner stallions as they exercised and practiced their Ďairs above the ground'. The white horses were huge but amazingly graceful. It was difficult to drag Sue away, she was so fascinated by them, but we still needed to eat lunch before going to the Museum of Fine Arts. Here it was a different story -- I was the one they had to drag away all bleary eyed from looking at the huge collection of paintings.
That night at dinner the guys convinced us to hitch hike to Salzburg with them in the morning. They said it would be a lot easier for them to get rides if we were with them, and that we'd be safer too. Our safety was really a moot point because we would never have considered hitching if they hadn't come up with the idea. And we really had no reason to, because we had our Eurail passes, but they made it sound so appealing to travel together that we agreed. When we got to the highway, we found out that the plan was for us to travel in pairs so that it would be easier to get rides.
Sue and Jeff started hitching immediately while David and I walked along the highway for about a quarter of a mile before we stuck our thumbs out. I wondered if I was crazy. Here I was, in Europe, allowing myself to be separated from the only person I knew. A truck drove by and Sue and Jeff waved at us from the cab. There was no turning back -- I had to go on just so that I could get back together with her again. Five minutes later a trucker stopped for us. His English was passable and he told us he could take us to the outskirts of Salzburg -- better than I had ever expected. While he drove he made conversation with David, and I -- stuck in between them like a sardine -- attempted to make myself as small and inconspicuous as possible. I even dozed off for a bit, though whenever my eyes began to close I jerked awake, afraid that I would end up resting my head on David's shoulder.
"You should make your girlfriend more comfortable," the trucker said.
I tried to sit up straight and stay awake while David just laughed and began to ask the driver about the countryside we were driving through. When we were dropped off in Salzburg we went to some shops to buy food -- David went into a bakery and sent me to the deli for meat and cheese. I felt bad because I knew I was being a lousy companion. I had barely said a word all day. Here we were in Salzburg, safe and sound, and though I was still a little anxious about meeting up with Sue, I knew that I'd been silly to have worried about splitting up for the day. I chose some salami and then some white cheese with holes in it. I don't eat cheese so I really hadn't a clue what kind to buy and went along with the saleslady's suggestion.
By the time we got to the hostel, Sue and Jeff were already there waiting for us. We sat down on a bench outside and ripped open the buns that David had bought to make our sandwiches. The cheese turned out to be about as stinky as it comes and I never heard the end of it.
"That's the last time I trust you to do the shopping," said David, and I wasn't sure if he was actually angry or not. I do know that I felt terrible, like I'd let everyone down, and that my wimpy excuse of, ĎI don't eat cheese,' was completely futile. If I hadn't been too shy to tell him that I was the last person to send out for cheese and that he should get it while I got the bread there would have been no stinky fiasco.
We spent the following day together doing some shopping. I needed hiking boots because my shoes were falling apart and every shop window we came across was full of them. I think Salzburg must be the hiking boot capitol of the world. David was no longer mad at me and gave me all sorts of useful advice about boots and I felt considerably better. In the evening the guys tried their charm on us again, hoping that they could convince us to change our route of travel. They were bound up into Germany while we were going down to Innsbruck and into Italy. This time it didn't work. Nothing would deter me from my intent to see Venice, or Florence, or Rome, and though Sue did not have as strong an interest as I, she supported my decision. In the morning we said goodbye and then headed for the train station.
Looking out the window of the train I thought about Euan and David and Kim and what all these chance meetings might mean to my life. Was I supposed to find friendship? Love? Or was it some exercise to help kill the demon of shyness that all too often overpowered me? Would I understand myself better somehow through contact with unknown people? Could it be an opportunity to attempt to unravel the puzzle of what men were all about so that when I finally met the right guy I'd know? Or was it simply the natural ebb and flow of life and I was being jostled around in the waves like flotsam with no control over my destiny? My reflection stared back at me, a ghostlike overlay upon the landscape, but no answers emerged from that cold pane of glass.
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