We hadn’t bothered with a guide book. The best way to experience a city, we had agreed, was to allow ourselves to get lost in it. And so, in leafy squares, across ancient bridges, down narrow lanes veiled in shadow, we had strolled hand in hand, exploring, discovering, drinking in the atmosphere of the present and sensing the haunting echoes of the past.
In the mornings, we had sat with our croissants at a tall wooded bar whose counter was polished to a high shine by the elbows of city workers as they sipped their coffee, flicked through the pages of La Monde and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Then unhurried, we had been content to let our days unfold, lunching sometimes outside bustling cafes thick with tourists or in cool dim-lit bistros tucked away down side streets. In the afternoons, we would climb three flights of stairs to our tiny rented rooftop apartment.
Now as I fling my handbag on a chair I watch as you wander over to the balcony doors, open them and then step out on to the small terrace lined with flowering shrubs and baskets of scarlet geraniums. I can see the lift of your shoulders as you stand still and drink in a view of sky, of treetops and the spire of a church whose name we do not know. I can’t see your face but I know that it will wear the look of calm contentment with which you gaze at all beautiful things, as if they refresh and sustain you. And as slowly I take off my jacket, I wonder when and with what expression do I love your face the most? Is it when you first wake from sleep instinctively reaching out for me as you come into consciousness? Or the way your black eyes fire up with both regret and with pride when you talk about the country that you were born to but felt compelled to leave? Or is it when I feel the intensity of your gaze upon me as we dine in a restaurant gleaming with candle light where our reflections shimmer back at us from highly the polished silverware and from the mirrored walls. I can’t make up my mind.
And it’s sometime later lying on the bed as I lift my arms up to welcome you into my body, that the answer comes to me. In that slow languid dreamscape before I feel myself loosing altitude in the swell and fever of desire, I realise that whether your expression is one of excitement, gravity or of fatigue, it’s your face I want to see before me… always right then and there, in the moment… now.
Later lying on your side, your face turned towards me, you give yourself to sleep. I smile to see that your feet are hanging slightly over the edge of the bed.
“Well of course…” You had laughingly told me that first night “Albanians are taller than French”
Wakeful, I am content to lie back amongst the crumpled pillows and look at your high Slavic cheekbones and strong full lips. I stretch out my hand and with one finger softly trace the line from your nose, across the curve of your cheek to your ear. Those ears into which I love to pour a stream of sweet and dirty words. I take in the square set of your shoulders and the firm contour of your thighs beneath the sheet. Becoming familiar with a lover’s body is like learning a foreign language, hesitantly one finds one’s way slowly, getting acquainted with the structure, the landscape, the mystery of the other. Now, several months in, I am more fluent, more confident. I have kissed the scars upon your legs and upon your arm. I have smiled at the unaccountable fact that the hair on your chest has become silvered with the years but yet, on your back remains jet black. The subtleties of your responses are gradually becoming known to me as mine, I hope, are becoming known to you. I look down then at my own over-blown body and for a moment, I feel my eyes prick as I experience a pang of doubt. Do you delight in me as I delight in you? Swiftly I brush the thought away and settle myself into sleep.
I wake to the sounds of the City preparing itself for evening. I see in the dim light shadows thicken and take shape like beckoning fingers around the half open balcony doors. I will rouse you soon and then we will bathe and dress and go out into the night in search of music and of wine. Looking down at your body now stripped in shadow and following the rhythmic rise and fall of your chest, I turn my head, as between the soft sighs of your breathing, I hear, like the whisper of a disclosed secret, a faint rustling sound. A petal has dropped from a vase of roses and now lies gleaming dully amongst the pages of an upturned book. The air seems breathless, rain scented and portentous. This moment should be preserved I think. It’s like a vignette from a novel or a cameo from a Still Life painting: the lovers lying corpse like upon the bed, the pair of abandoned coffee cups, discarded clothes strewn about the floor, and in the background as a reminder to the looker-on of the ephemeral nature of happiness and symbol of the inexorable march of time, the fallen petals of a flower.
A chill gust of wind brings me sharply back to the reality of a grey London afternoon. As I let myself into the car and start the engine, I wonder when, if ever, the day may come that, without betrayal and without guilt, we really could take that Paris trip together. For I never have watched you sleep. We haven’t even had a whole night together. Filtering into the southbound traffic I consider how many of us ever get the chance to live out our true destiny?
That secret destiny of the heart. The life we believe we should be living but are not. I sigh and experience the now familiar longing for something that may never be. But, I tell myself, imagination is a powerful ally and mine has fortified us both. We may not have been to Paris but it will wait for us. And I am strong and used to waiting. This doomed love has unlocked me. I feel alive again. That is your gift to me. And at this thought I feel my spirits rise because tomorrow, in the office, I will look upon your face. I will see you. And you will see me.