Les Jours Tristes

Katarzyna Suchodolska (3rd place. Fiction. Spring 2012 Writing Contest)
 
I hear the music and after just few words, whispered softly in French, I find myself in your apartment, for the first time watching smoke from you cigarette slowly find its way to my face. Your eyes fade away in the grayness and I hold my breath, partly because of the smoke, sneaking into my nostrils, partly because of your smile, dazzling even when half hidden behind the cloud. I’m one glass of wine away from saying something silly; you open the second bottle and disappear into the kitchen to check on the dinner.
 
That dinner and that smile were a long time ago; now I sit on the stained seat in the bus, watching tired people come and go without paying much attention to their surroundings. But when I put on my earphones to isolate myself even more from the gloomy crowd, the very first song moves me in time and space. I am no longer in the bus driving through the rainy city; now I sit on your brightly orange couch and can smell mushrooms you just sautéed with garlic; I remember it filling the tiny space of your apartment and mixing with the warm rosy scent from the candles you put on the table. I compliment the aroma while trying to envision your ex, probably tall and blond as they all are in my head, buying them a few days before you broke her heart.
 
You talk about her briefly when you pour black coffee into my ice cream the next morning; she’s French and she left you, end of story. “Would you like some more coffee?” I choose to trust you because of the way you laugh, carefree, when my coffee leaves another fat drop on your orange couch, and maybe because I need someone to trust.
 
The soft murmur of the playlist you made for me in the first weeks of our relationship brings back nostalgia, and it’s a good nostalgia, in the color of a soft, gray sky on a cold day. It is filled with memories of our first trip to Chicago, two chilly, windy days in January. We spend hours looking at the dark surface of the lake and argue, half seriously, about the importance of feeding ducks who try to find their way to the shore among the broken pieces of ice. They finally come to us, but you had already taken my sandwich crumbles and I have to face them empty handed.
 

We leave the ducks that follow us with their black greedy eyes and we decide to look for a cheap place to eat, freezing and starving, one word away from destroying the mood of a precious day we could finally spend together. We end up at a minuscule greasy Greek tavern, no tables, just two chairs, chipped mint paint on the walls. The owner with a black mustache doesn’t understand a word we say. We sit on two single chairs, hungry and tired, and watch him sizzling mysterious bits and pieces. “I could spend my life with you,” you whisper into my ear, still reddish from the cold, but I can’t stop thinking about the ducks. Will they survive the winter?
 
The next song puts me in our first apartment, the one with red curtains you chose to match your couch, and with spiders caught in between the windows, making webs that will never be filled. I find myself in the kitchen, impatiently waiting for the water to boil, for bread to bake, for you to come back.
 
We still listen to the playlist you made for me and I try not to think about your ex (tall and blond, as I imagined; I saw her pictures in one of the hidden folders on your computer) when I clumsily walk through a department store to buy candles for my friends’ first visit. I pick the freshest scents possible to balance the suffocating smell of your cigarettes that I came to love just as I came to love you, unconditionally.
 
We argue sometimes, but who doesn’t? After you win the argument, and you always win, you watch Puerto Rican kickboxing matches on your computer, even though you know I get dizzy when I see blood, so I leave the apartment and walk to the zoo, two blocks south. Yann Tiersen plays soft piano melodies while I try to find the fastest way to see the elephants without having to pass by the cage with the vultures. I focus on measuring the number of steps from the entrance gate; it calms my mind as I walk to the rhythm of the songs I already know by heart playing through my headphones.
 
I go to the zoo quite often that year. I discover that elephants are good listeners; no judgments, just the peacefulness of their black eyes with the incredibly long eyelashes, just like yours. I find comfort in the calm and stillness the zoo offers, even in the busy summer time when children rush to the zebras and leave sticky fingerprints on the metal bars. We briefly talk about having kids; we agree that you would make a great father and that I still need some time to grow as a person. I value your honesty.
 
I sometimes feel that perhaps you play the kickboxing just to make me defenseless, but you just laugh, careless again, and turn the volume up. Every time I come back home I find a bouquet of red tulips on the table; you whisper your apologies into my neck and make me coffee in my favorite mug. I like coming back to that tight hug and smell of roasted coffee beans, and maybe kickboxing is an interesting sport, after all?
 
The same smell wakes me up every morning, dark and intense as your eyes. We’re always running late–me trying to find car keys hidden in your pockets, you burning your lips with fresh coffee–yet you always have time to hold me tight and make me feel special. For a moment I can forget about your blond ex, your brunette coworkers, your new boss. I kiss your burnt lips; French songs play in my head all day.
 
I don’t remember the first blow; just the red flowers you brought me the next day. Few friends notice that now I wear sunglasses much more often, even when it rains, and as always, they mumble something angry against you. Because they never came to like you in the first place, they are now entitled to feel like winners, predicting the accurate result in a lottery or a bingo game. Whispering about solutions and escalations, they act concerned, even worried, but I know they feel proud that they somehow figured you out before anyone else, before I did.
 
They don’t understand. They cannot see your eyes when you apologize, so eagerly, and cannot feel how you hold me, so close. We then sit together on the orange couch and play the French music you always loved, the one you made me the playlist of. You light the cigarette and blow the smoke into my ear as you kiss me, tenderly. I smile and feel that you’re probably right in the end; no one will ever love me as much as you do. The love in the French songs you play is always tragic, anyway.
 
“I love every inch of you,” you say while painting me. You surprised me with a watercolor set one day and asked if I could be your model; somehow you knew that I had always dreamed of being a model. You have a unique talent of guessing my dreams and wishes.
 
“You’re my muse,” you whisper, your left hand caressing my hair when you slowly trace my face on paper. I melt into the warm autumn sun and in your smile because I realize that no one has ever paid so much attention to me.
 
Each week you formulate new names to better describe my hair, my skin, and my eyes. Raw sienna and Bermuda gray are my favorite; you promise to take me to the islands and show me the ocean, the true color of my eyes. We hang all the paintings above the bed. I notice you like to look at them when we make love in the evening. I love you and the lazy Sundays when all we have to worry about are mosquitoes piercing our skin.
 
Later at night, my fears are back and I slowly examine your body with my fingers, searching in the darkness for bite marks and scratches. I never find anything that might validate my suspicions, just tiny bites from mosquitoes in the park. A trip to the bathroom cabinet for cortisone and I fall asleep curled against your naked back.
 
I never quite understood what happened. I tried hard and I know you did too, you said so many times. Maybe it’s because I missed so many chances to tell you how important, how crucial you were in my life, but it was always too early, too late, too prosaic. Even when I worried about us, obsessed about your previous and future girlfriends, I always thought we still had time together, some time, more time.
 
And then one night you simply ask me to put away that Christmas wreath, with cranberries and gold pines that I wanted to make for us, and you sit next to me with a cup of coffee and a smile on your face. Your smile is different now, cruel, your eyes dark and intense as always, but harsh and disapproving. I worry that maybe the wreath is not good enough and quickly remove the last few pines, but you just snort and go straight to making arrangements. “Keep the place, I already found something,” you say simply and grab a bag you must have conveniently packed earlier. You disappear before I can even notice my tears dropping on cranberries; you never had patience for my weeping and I can’t blame you for that.
 
A song comes to an abrupt end; the battery in my player has died. I remove my earphones and come back to the reality of the bus. A quick look outside to figure out where I am and how long I have been reminiscing about the past. Through the fogged window I recognize familiar buildings and the park where we used to jog in the summer; I get off at the next stop.
 
It’s already been three months since you disappeared. I tried to call you a few times to apologize, but you never picked up. I finished the Christmas wreath with currants and pines and sent it to your mother; I hope you liked it. I still go to the zoo quite often; the vultures have now been moved to the front, so I spent some time figuring out the new way to the elephants. They didn’t change at all, majestic and quiet.
 
I step outside the bus armed with an umbrella to face the rain, but the severe shower from few minutes ago has now reduced to just a drizzle. I cautiously dance a strategically designed ballet to avoid the puddles on the sidewalk; few people turn their heads and smirk at my awkward movements. The clean smell of spring is now distinct in the air and I breathe it in, slowly.
 
I stop and wait for the light to change when suddenly I notice a car coming from behind the park. It goes fast through the flooded street, scaring the ducks washing their wings in the puddles. Even from where I stand I can recognize your face, dark eyes and careless smile. For a brief moment I hold my breath, unsure what to do, then I quickly jump left just in time to avoid the splash from your wheels.
 
The ducks run away quacking, frightened. I reach into the pocket of my green bag and find bread crumbles; I turn around and quickly walk away from the puddle, the street, the car. The ducks continue making noises when I follow them to the park, but they quiet themselves once they reach the pond. I drop the crumbles disturbing the still surface of the dark water and sit on a bench. In a perfectly straight line the ducks walk into the pond, majestically. Silent they investigate the newly found food as if they have already forgotten about the speeding cars that almost killed them.
 
I let my mind drift as the soaked crumbles disappear into yellow beaks. Yet again, I reach into my bag; I find my music player and a forgotten, half-eaten sandwich. I leave the player on the bench and break the bread into tiny pieces to follow the ducks, swimming along the sloppy banks of the pond.
 
 
 
 
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