Note: Set in the film universe, after the closing scene, though I attempted to reflect the book's depictions of the characters. Apparently, this is what happens when I read Fight Club while in St. Petersburg. Most information about the city is true - yes, there are statues of lions everywhere - and Lena's Russian was done by yours truly.
Finally, a large virtual cookie goes to Tomazine, for the beta and the birthday.
From this height, nothing seems real.
Through the oval of the airplane window, everything is so distant, a copy of a copy of a copy. The cotton candy clouds, the little Lego buildings, the cars like ants, crawling down motorways. Weird. The really funny thing is, all I can think about is this is where I met him. Somewhere, up in the air, in the clouds.
Marla taps me on the shoulder. She's looking at the safety card, with the blank-faced Hindu cow people. "If they're all gonna die, why're they so… calm?" she says.
And I want to laugh, because, for a second, the person next to me isn't Marla. It's Tyler, who once told me his theory about the oxygen masks drugging passengers into a calm trance. Tyler, with his blond hair and strong jaw lines and garish Hawaiian shirts. Tyler, Tyler, Tyler. I force myself to keep breathing, swallow hard. I can feel my ears popping from the pressure change.
No clue, I say to Marla, as I watch the clouds float by.
I can't sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I see him, smiling, leering. Tyler, Tyler, Tyler. My eyes are burning from dryness, my head is swimming.
I try to focus on something else, anything else. I think about Marla's dead great-aunt, the one that left all of her money and property to Marla despite never having met her, her reasoning being that everyone she'd ever met had annoyed the hell out of her and that Marla was probably absolutely lovely.
Apparently, Marla's whole family is crazy. Not that I'm complaining about the money. Plane tickets and a life in Europe are expensive, and my own account was a total mess after Tyler – no. Stop. Don't think about Tyler.
Whatever you do, don't think about Tyler.
Sometimes I feel like I'm suffocating, like there's not enough room in my head for the two of us.
I feel the weight of Marla's head drop onto my shoulder, feel her even breathing against my neck. Out like a light. I raise my hand and tangle my fingers in her soft hair. I've read articles about therapy animals – pet their fur, and your soaring blood pressure lowers, your pulse drops, you fall asleep easier. Seems fitting, somehow – Marla, my power animal.
I hardly notice the flight attendant as she approaches, pushing her trolley of disgusting packaged meals in front of her. She's all smiles and cheerful nodding, a caricature of a person. I can see her eyes flicker with horror at the still-healing wound in the side of my face, but then the cartoon smile is back, like some sort of clown mask.
"Pasta, or chicken casserole?" she asks. The light glints off both her teeth and the tin foil coverings of the dishes.
Casserole, I say.
As always, the chicken will feel like rubber on my tongue and the carrots will have cooked down to a mush. I'll probably only eat the roll, anyway.
"And for your girlfriend?"
She's not –, I start to say, but cut myself off. Marla nuzzles into the place where my shoulder meets my neck.
She'll have the pasta.
We end up in Strasbourg, a quaint little French town, with its rows of houses with the wooden beams showing and flowerbeds under the windows. We rent a room at a tiny motel for two weeks, which we spend wandering the narrow alleyways and eating too many pastries. Marla soaks up the language like a sponge; I don't bother getting past 'hello' and 'goodbye'. I hated French in school, and wound up taking German, instead.
We stay until I avoid the hotel's pink soap bars like the plague and Marla finds a bottle of lye drain cleaner under the sink and refuses to go anywhere near it.
After that, there's an attic room in Prague. Marla gets up at an ungodly hour each morning when she thinks I'm sleeping and wanders out to the Karlov Bridge. The stars fade from the sky as she watches, and then she slips back into our temporary little home and pretends she never left.
I don't mention it, but I think she knows I know – I rarely sleep these days.
We only stay until the numbness the change brings with it wears off, until the past catches up to us, and then we're grabbing train tickets and leaving without warning.
I insist on Germany so I can finally be better than Marla at a language, for once. We walk the streets of Heidelberg in the nighttime and she forces me to interpret all of the signs until I give up and admit that my schoolboy German is dead.
"Told you so," she says, her lips curving into a smirk.
Yeah, yeah, Marla. Rub it in.
When the lights in the windows and the castle on the hill stop being enough, it's on to Denmark. We stand for half an hour under a lighthouse. The clouds race by on the strong sea wind, and the tower looks like it's tilting in contrast to them.
Sometimes, we can't decide where to go next. The property Marla's crazy relative left her in the will sells itself. For the first time in our lives, money's no object.
I want Belgium, Marla wants the Netherlands. We both want Finland, with a cabin in the forest and a dark, deep lake that reflects the sky.
We never stay long – two weeks, or for however long we can bear it. We count on the novelty of it all to hold back the ghosts, and when that crumbles, we're off again, because only in death - and maybe Europe - are we no longer part of Project Mayhem.
And we never hold still. We never stop running.
Until, suddenly, we do.
It's getting late, and the lake is reflecting the colours of a sunset. Marla is sitting on the edge of the little boat dock, dangling her feet in the water, and little ripples spread in all directions.
"I was just thinking," she says, "I think I could… I could learn to like this." She tilts her head back, settling back on her elbows.
Actually, I was considering Russia, next, I say. St. Petersburg, and then maybe –
"Why?" asks Marla. "Why right now?"
Everything, I say. All the things we've tried to get away from.
"Is it – I mean, he's not back, or – or is –? Why the fuck didn't you tell –?"
No, I say. No, he's not back, because he never really left. He's dead, but his memory, everything he used me for – that's never gonna go, Marla.
Tyler used to have half of my time, only the part when I was asleep. Now, his ghost has it all.
"God," says Marla. Her lips twist into a wistful little not-quite-smile. "You were so in love with him, weren't you?" She doesn't bother with giving me time to respond. Just as well, I'd have no clue how to answer. She pulls her feet from the water.
"Can we… Can we just try? Just a little longer, somewhere – I don't care where, but I want to stay still for a little," Marla says. The wood under her feet is becoming darker, soaking up the water that drips down from them. "We're never gonna outrun him. I wanna see if maybe we can just face him, instead of…"
She doesn't need to finish, I already know. Because Marla's right. He'll always catch up. One day, we'll have to stop running, whether it's the money running out or an accident or anything at all, really, and it's always best to be able to choose your time to face any unpleasant situation. Your time to go.
God, that sounds morbid.
Not here, I say. We've already had too much time, here.
"Fine, sure. How does Russia sound? Rent an apartment for a month," Marla tells me.
I glance up. The faint form of the moon is floating overhead.
Yeah, I say. Yeah, I could learn to like that.
"…And you have… nice view… from bedroom window," says Anton, in broken English thick with an accent that hardens his consonants and strains his vowels. He fiddles awkwardly with his shirt cuff. "So, you… you want to rent?"
Yeah, we do, I tell him.
The people one floor under us have Shostakovich's Waltz No. 2 blasting at full volume, and the louder strains rise up through the floorboards.
"A month," says Marla.
The refrigerator hums.
Anton, still fidgeting with a pen, names a price. Marla's eyes bug out.
"What?! That much, for this –?"
I elbow her sharply in the ribs.
"Ow! What was that –?"
Marla. Rubles. Different currency.
"Oh," she says, rubbing her side.
To a rather stunned-looking Anton, I say, yeah, fine, we'll take that.
The lacy curtains breathe with the breeze from the open window, rustling softly. I pull out my wallet, dig through the euros and dollars, and finally pull out the money I painstakingly took from Marla's inheritance account, using a Russian-language-only ATM at the train station. I press the bills into his clammy hands.
"Thank you," he says. I'm getting the impression that this place doesn't get many tenants. "You have my telephone, if you need me?"
I nod, fish a card with his number out from my wallet to show him.
"Yes, good," he says. We stand for a moment in uncomfortable silence. Then: "I should go, now. Good-bye," says Anton.
"Bye," says Marla, waving as he slips out the door. A beam of light from the hall sweeps across the yellowing linoleum as it closes behind him.
The ceiling light over the tiny kitchen-slash-dining-slash-sitting room buzzes with the electrical charge. A green wire pokes out from one side of it.
"I want to check out that view he mentioned," Marla says, kicking off her flip-flops and padding, barefoot, into the bedroom. I set our two small suitcases against a wall and follow her in.
She's pushed the window open and stand on tiptoe, leaning out the window and looking out.
So? I call. How's the view?
Marla pulls her head back to look at me. Her wild hair is sticking out in all directions. "Have a look," she says. Without opening the window, all that's visible is a red, scruffy-looking wall of the building opposite. She shifts to the side to make room for me, and I crane my neck and lean out the window. It is beginning to drizzle, and the wind is blowing the drops into my eyes.
The street opposite is lined with old houses, the paint chipping and fading from their facades. The pavement is cracked and dark from the rain. The sky is layered grey.
Well, I say, there is a view.
She laughs, flops down onto the bed. Her hair splays out, framing her face.
The springs creak.
Do you want the bed, I ask, or the sofa?
Marla arches an eyebrow at me. "Bed, definitely," she says. "Only a lunatic could possibly want the sofa."
Hey, be nice to it, I point out, it's apparently my sofa, thanks to you.
"Yeah, but you don't want it. I'm forcing you to sleep there. There's a difference," Marla says. I sit down next to her.
You okay with this place? I ask.
"Yeah. No worse that 8G, anyway," she says. "And definitely not worse than Paper Street."
Paper Street, with its leaky pipes and peeling walls and broken everything. With its space monkeys, crawling over it. With Tyler.
It's difficult to be worse than Paper Street, I say.
The rain pours harder.
I drift in and out of a light, dreamless sleep. I'm jerked awake by various noises – a cat screeching next door, a violin concerto from downstairs, the sound of the rain. Every time I open my eyes, I think, am I still here, on a sofa in this two-room apartment, or am I somewhere else, sometime else, someone else? Next time I wake up, will I still be me?
I keep looking at my watch – how long have I slept? An hour? A day? How much damage has he managed to do?
It's rarely more than ten minutes.
The light is already streaming in through the lace curtains by the time Marla wanders into the room, barefoot and wearing an over-sized shirt.
Sleep okay? I ask.
"Well enough," she says, covering a yawn with her hand. She looks me over. "Did you at least sleep?"
"A little, as in, not nearly enough?" she clarifies.
She shakes her head, opens her mouth to speak, then closes it and starts rummaging through our cabinets.
"Could've at least left us some cereal," she complains, moving aside dishes in hopes of finding something. "Empty."
I say, there's a low-price grocery store two streets down.
"Well. Get changed, then," says Marla, and vanishes back into her room.
We're sitting at our tiny dining table, scraping the remains of our yogurts from their cartons. Marla's wearing a bizarre, scarlet dress printed with little white daisy-looking things that she picked up at a second-hand store a while back and her hair is sticking out every-which-way.
Bach is blasting up from underneath us.
"I wonder what sort of person lives there," says Marla.
A very musical person, I say, who has no regard for the sanity of their neighbors. Marla laughs, and gets up to throw away her carton.
The refrigerator starts up its odd humming again.
"Still beats Mrs. Bishop's top-volume knitting shows from back…" Marla begins, but stops short. "I… I keep wanting to say home, you know? But it's not anymore. Not sure it ever was." She shrugs. "It's just got, I don't know, sentimental value, or something. I mean, it's where I overdosed on Xanax. That's gotta mean something, right?" That's Marla for you. She takes my container, and chucks that away, too.
The refrigerator stops humming, and the room is silent for all of five seconds, when there is a knock at our door. Marla throws a questioning look over her shoulder at me as she goes to answer it, and I get up and follow her.
The woman standing behind our door is holding a cat. A huge, fluffy cat – Maine Coon, probably. The cat opens one eye, yawns, and meows at Marla before wriggling out of the woman's arms and landing on the floor with a thud.
"Здравствуйте," she says, smiling. She's older than us – forty-five, at a guess. She's barely over five foot, thin, all bones and sharp angles. Her blondish hair rivals that of her cat in fluffiness. "Можно зайти?"
The cat darts past Marla and sits in front of me, casually licking one paw.
"Здра-вствуй-те," Marla sounds out in response. He-llo. "Um…" She looks to me for help, and shrug.
You're on your own, Marla.
The fluffy-haired woman seems to have caught on, though.
"Not Russian?" she asks. Her accent is lighter than Anton's. "From… England?"
"America," Marla says.
Of a sort, I say. Travelers, at least.
"Ah," she says. "Can I… come inside?"
The cat curls up against my shoe.
And that was how we met Lena Volkova.
Let me tell you a bit about Lena.
Lots of what I could tell you about her involves 'was' and 'could have been' – which, Lena thinks, are the two saddest phrases in any language.
Lena was a photographer, but most of her photographs never got sold and wound up in cheap frames all over her apartment.
When Lena was a child, she studied at an English school, where they taught her the language. Unlike my German – or lack thereof – it hasn't fallen completely into disrepair. She used to lead tours in English, to make a bit of pocket money.
Lena used to be beautiful. There was a time when the prominent cheekbones were rosy and the spaces under them were less hollow, maybe even a time when her hair was combed and carefully managed, not ignored or clumsily piled.
At one point, Lena didn't even have a limp.
Lena was a sister. A daughter. A girlfriend. A lot of things. Lena could have been happy, loved. She could have built a life for herself, a good distance away from this building with peeling walls and leaky pipes.
The reason Lena's story doesn't involve 'is' is because Lena isn't, but I can throw in a few 'is'-s to keep you happy.
Where our apartment screams with noise, Lena's is dead silent. The empty, lifeless space eats at her. It's hollowed Lena out.
To mask the quiet, Lena fills her space with life. There's a jungle of potted plants, a huge tank of guppies and goldfish, and a huge cat named Napoleon. After the cake, not the French emperor.
She's taken to talking to it all – the cat, the fish, even the plants. She rarely talks to any humans.
She has a limp from a car accident ten years ago.
Lena lives off of tea, biscuits, and canned vegetables. Her only income is from a few photographs sold to magazines yearly, accident compensation, and the remnants of the money her wealthy fiancée left her with twenty years ago. She rarely leaves her apartment.
The reason there is no 'is' for Lena is because she isn't. The shell of Lena Volkova continues to function, but don't confuse that with being alive.
I think I haven't slept in three days. Maybe I have, and I can't remember. The dark circles under my eyes give me a deranged panda look. Every morning, when I open my eyes that I might not have closed at all, the light is too bright. The usual thrill of a new city is absent.
"I wanna go out, look around," says Marla. "There's a whole city out there, and we've been sitting here for three days." Maybe that's my problem.
Marla, it's raining.
"So? Lena says it's always raining or cloudy. Get used to it."
"I'm going out whether you're coming or not." She crosses her arms over her chest. I need fresh air, or maybe coffee.
Okay, yeah, fine, I'm coming, give me a sec.
She smirks. I realize there's not enough coffee in the whole world.
The metro is crowded when it rains – forget about sitting, there's not enough room to breathe. The metal bars we hold onto as the car lurches are clammy from too many human hands.
Marla insists on getting out at every stop and wandering through the underground palace. This is nothing like the New York subway. This place is gorgeous, like it should be a museum or something and not a public transport system.
The river of people parts around us. Chattering in an unfamiliar language, hurrying past. People. Thousands of stories, all around me. A guy with a little girl clinging to his leg who keeps looking at his watch in exasperation. A pair of teen girls with their joined hands swinging back and forth in between them.
I need to get out of here.
"Here, specifically, or the city? Because, remember, you said –"
Here, as in the metro. Here, as in this can of sardine-people, packed in tight. Here, as in here, here.
"Jesus, I get it! C'mon, the escalator's that way."
We stumble out into the rain. The wheels of the moving cars kick up a spray of water from the puddles.
The sky hangs low, here, lower than back home. The clouds are stacked in layers. It is always grey. The pavement is always wet. The puddles stand still.
So, where the hell are we?
"Want to find out?" Marla extends a hand. Just like last time, and yet nothing like last time.
I feel my breath hitch, look around, but there are no stars in the sky, no collapsing buildings. Tyler isn't here. My face is not being shredded by a bullet. There is only a scar, tight and uncomfortable, on my skin.
Yeah, I say. Let's.
Marla throws my umbrella at me, laughing as I fumble around with it.
It's August, but cold. The rain splatters on my face. It feels like snow. Marla and I wander along the street, pointing out souvenirs in the windows – we rarely buy things like that; we have nowhere to take them.
The rain and wind are picking up, changing direction and trying to snap my umbrella. I allow Marla to drag me in to a sweets shop. The air smells of chocolate and cotton candy.
We sit, order a coffee each. Marla twirls her hair in her fingers. I can tell she's dying for a cigarette from the way her hand jerks around.
"How are you?" she asks.
What? I've been talking to you all day, why are you –?
"No. I'm just… okay, you know what? Never mind." Ah. It's about what happened. About whether I'm coping.
I'm fine, I say.
"You're sure?" Marla's fingers hold a pen the way they would a cigarette.
Yes, I'm sure.
"Completely sure? 'Cause, you know, if you're not –"
Marla. If I stop being fine, I'll tell you.
"I'm holding you to that," she says, just as someone brings out our coffees. I inhale deeply. Smells clean. Marla quirks an eyebrow, says, "See, that's what I'm –"
I promise I'll tell you. Okay? I promise.
"That's three times you promised."
The cup feels warm against my fingers, and I can't for the life of me remember where I heard those words before.
It's been a week, and I've hardly slept.
Have you ever tried to move underwater? You know how your legs feel like lead, how, no matter how hard you try, you're moving in slow motion? You know that feeling, like when you open your eyes and it's all blurry and there's chlorine everywhere and you can see the bubbles of your breath? And your ears pop from the pressure of the water over your head? That, right there, is the feeling of insomnia.
Yeah. Welcome to my life.
I mean, sure, it could be worse. It's been worse, and I know that it will be worse. And that's my problem – it's the anticipation, the certainty of the coming deterioration, that keeps me up all night, thinking, am I asleep? Have I slept?
If Marla notices the darkening bags under my eyes, she says nothing.
We move around as much as we can in the city. Museum after museum, palace after palace. Marla jokes that we've practically moved into the cheaper ones.
It rains and rains. We sometimes see patches of soft blue of sunrise orange or maybe a star or two at night between the heavy clouds.
But never for long.
I've been out. Just walking, looking around. Getting drenched.
Marla! I call. Marla, I'm back.
There's no answer. I take my shoes off, leave them by the door next to hers. Both pairs are wet – she's been out.
"I'm in my room." She is. She's standing on tiptoe, elbows on the windowsill. The rain falls sideways. Her wet hair has plastered itself to her forehead.
"Nothing," says Marla. Brushes it off. Nothing's happened, why on earth would you ask?
"I called my mother," she says. Her breath condenses on the wet glass of the half-opened window. "Today. Found a public phone, and called her. And, you know what's really funny?" she says. "She asked me where we'd been, what cool, foreign-y stuff we'd seen, and you know what? I didn't know how to answer. 'Cause what the hell do you tell someone who's never been out of the mid-Atlantic? Who's never spoken another language, who's never gonna see… Who thinks foreign-y is a good description of every other country out there?"
I don't speak. Marla's lower lip is jerking, just a bit.
"And it's weird, 'cause that was me, just a few months ago. That was you, before… before everything," she says.
I know, I say.
If none of that had happened, where would we be? Without Tyler, we would have nothing. It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything.
Those are not my words.
What did you tell her? I ask.
"That we'd seen castles and forests and things she wouldn't believe, and she asked me if I was alright with it. Never settling down. Not having a home. And I said, sure. I'm happy."
I look at Marla. I ask, And are you?
"I dunno. I'm not always sure, but… I'm okay. I'll be okay," she answers. Holds out her hand.
Good, I say, and take it.
The owl-shaped clock on Lena's wall ticks loudly, accenting every fifth beat. The pendulum-slash-tail swings leisurely back and forth.
We are drinking tea out of her old cups, their rims chipped and uneven like teeth. A piece of pink or blue gone, replaced by the default white. This is Lena's world.
The aloe plant under the clock is too large for its small pot. The cactus on the kitchen counter is tilted to the side. The huge aquarium on the coffee table by the wall is teeming with goldfish and guppies that swim in circles. A few of the swim relentlessly against the current of the filter, moving, but going nowhere – like a hamster in a wheel.
"St. Petersburg, it is… city of lions," says Lena. "I did photographs for souvenir book of them." The funny thing about Lena's English is that she sometimes leaves out the little words – 'the'-s and 'a'-s. Russian doesn't seem to have them.
She pushes herself to her feet, leaning on the armrest of her chair, her bad leg sliding out a little bit, and picks the book out from her shelf. Every page has a photo of a lion statue in the rain, or against the backdrop of a cloudy St. Petersburg sky and a brief description of said lion's location in the city.
"This one," says Lena, indicating a pensive-looking lion's head on an elaborately decorated door, "is in Hermitage Museum. Getting permission to take it…" She laughs, plopping back onto her chair.
Napoleon jumps into her lap and curls up, looking like an excessively furry blanket.
"My lion," she says. He purrs against her stomach.
"So," Lena says. "Where are you from?"
America, I say.
"From which city? State?" Lena's ankles have sharp, prominent bones on either side of the joints.
I stiffen, trying to block out the images of the crumbling buildings of a city I was from, once. A city we – I – destroyed. I feel Marla's hand on my arm.
"Doesn't matter," she says. "Not from there, not anymore. We left."
No, I think to myself, gripping the cracked china a little too tightly. No. We didn't just leave. We ran, and refused to look back.
I focus on the warmth of Marla's touch and drown myself in Lena's soft accent.
The wire is green. Jesus, why green? I could deal with blue, even maybe learn to deal with, say, red, but green. Paraffin and nitro, detonation in ten minutes, don't pull the green wire. Anything but green.
Those are not my words.
I'm underwater, the insomnia feeling, but it's not the same. It's not numb, it's like a scratched CD, playing on loop in my head. I'm drowning in memories I've tried to bleach from my brain. Get me out, Tyler. Give me your hand, with the scar of your puckered lips across the back.
Why does the wire poking out from the ceiling light have to be green? I'm breathing through my mouth. There's not enough space in this crumbling apartment, not enough room for two and a ghost.
Three minutes, gun in my mouth. Wrong city, wrong country, wrong side of the ocean. Tyler, honey, get out.
Light fixture, green wire, mixing nitro and paraffin. Are those my words? Tyler, Tyler, I love you, get out.
I might be breathing through my mouth. I might not be breathing at all. The scar on the side of my face is uncomfortably tight, pulling at the edges of my skin.
I can hear someone calling my name; there's an element of fear in her voice. Marla. Marla, the one who loved the both of us. Poor, crazy Marla.
Marla, it's green.
"Yes, it's green, you idiot," she says. "You – You promised me."
"You're having a meltdown. You're not fine! You are nowhere near fine!" I'm drowning. I feel like, if I breathe, I'll end up with a mouthful of water.
My cheek suddenly stings in the shape of Marla's hand. I gasp. No water. I'm not drowning. I touch the spot, zero in on the pain. I am not underwater. I am not on top of a building. I am standing in a kitchen, staring at a light fixture, and having a long-overdue breakdown.
I look at Marla as I feel my breathing even out. Her huge doe eyes are round, scared. She looks close to tears, her chest rising and falling. I feel a pang of guilt.
"No. Please. Don't… just don't." She sucks in a breath. "I… I don't know anything anymore."
I know. I –
"I need to think. I need some air, preferably polluted with nicotine," Marla says, pulling on her shoes. Her voice is tight, overflowing. I think she's drowning, too.
Okay, I say.
I don't mean it.
The door shuts behind her with a click.
The refrigerator hums. The curtains swish in the breeze. I can hear a faint tango from under the floor. The room is screaming all around me. Get out, get out.
Who am I to argue?
The clouds race by overhead. The pavement is wet in patches. It rained last night.
Who'd have thought?
When I get back, Marla's at the kitchen counter, hacking away at a carrot viciously. Her mascara is streaked down over her cheeks. Her hands are shaking.
"I can't do this," she tells me. "I can't share the rest of my life with a ghost. I – I won't – I –" The knife slips, the tip nicking her finger. She drops it with a gasp. "Damn it!" Her hands flutter like butterflies; she can't get them to stop shaking.
The water from the faucet runs red over her hand.
Marla, I breathe.
"I – I –" She's laughing, bubbly little giggles a little bit like tears. She turns the tap off. Turns around. "God –" She chokes out, and then her arms are around me, her face buried against my chest. I awkwardly rub circles onto her back. "I'm fine," she says. "I'm fine, yeah? We're both… fine."
I breathe in the scent of her hair and think, no, of course we aren't, but we might be, someday.
I can live with someday. Someday is good.
Someday's just fine.
We're always fighting.
On the surface, there's always a different reason. The coffee's too hot. Does a sphinx count as a lion. What station of the metro are we meant to get off at.
Of course, we know it's not about that. If you scrape away the layers, you can always find the real reasons, and those never change. Why don't you let me love you. Why won't you forget. Why are you asking the impossible of me.
Things we can't say out loud. Words too heavy to carry.
We've got this pattern going. We fight. One, or both, of us walk away, wander the city. Drink in the air, the rain, the atmosphere. Come home, make up. Repeat as desired. We're going through variations on a theme, like the concertos our downstairs neighbors are so fond of.
She's the one to walk out, this time. I sit at the dining table while our impossibly loud space laughs at me. There's only one pair of shoes by the door. Her jacket isn't on its hook. The gaps are painful to look at.
It's moments like this that hurt the most. I can see Tyler smiling at me with his usual confidence, blue eyes twinkling. I can feel his lips on the back of my hand, and then on my lips, my shoulder, my neck. Or maybe they're Marla's.
Jesus, listen to me.
I get up. I'm not staying here, not while Marla's out. I'm not going out, either.
And, somehow, I find myself knocking on Lena Volkova's door. She opens it, Napoleon in tow.
Marla left. Not left, left – she'll be back. Just needed some space. Can I come in?
"Yes, of course. Tea?" Napoleon turns tail and slinks away.
"You and Marla – you are what? Lovers?" Lena asks me. I get the blue cup, this time.
We're… huh. Maybe. I don't know. We're two people who happen to be in love with the same ghost.
I can tell that Lena understands. When I look at her grey eyes, her frizzy hair, her angles and lines, I know. Lena Volkova is in love with ghosts, but she's long given up trying to get away. She embraces them, clings to moments that have vanished, immortalized in her photographs. She surrounds herself with living things to feel less empty.
It's kind of poetic, if you think about it.
A few of her fish still struggle against the current, the light glinting off their scales. There's one, this little silvery-pink thing, which keep getting swept aside, and keeps on coming back. Dumb fish.
Lena taps the glass with her finger, her thin lips curving into a smile. "The wild fish, they swim… против течение – against current, to stay in place. If they stop swimming, current carries them to sea," says Lena.
That's us, isn't it? Fish against the current. It takes so much energy to stay still.
And that one, there?
"Too weak. He gets pulled back," Lena says.
Those two, they're me and Marla, always fighting against the flow, and that little frail one there is Lena, struggling to keep up, embracing the ocean.
I look at Lena. At broken, tired Lena, with her limp and grey eyes and fluffy cat.
I've got to go.
I set the cup down with a click and walk away, Napoleon meowing after me.
I'm sitting on the sofa, eyes closed, drifting in and out of the soft lull of sleep. The tide creeps up over my toes. I am a fish.
The refrigerator hums like the waves. The crinkle of the curtains is the sea wind. The concerto downstairs – well, that's ignorable.
And the really funny thing, all I can think about is this is where I met him.
Huh. I swear I've said that before.
The door opens with a creak. I look up, half-expecting to see him, but it's not him. It's Marla, and she's soaked and shaking.
Marla, what happened?
She clutches at the wall to support herself, doesn't answer.
I can see her swallow; her breath comes in tiny gasps. I get up.
Are you alright?
"Y-yeah." Her voice quivers. I reach out to touch her arm, and she flinches away. I look at her, closely. Her jeans are torn open on the knee, her forearm is red and raw and peppered with gravel. I can see a dark bruise spreading under the skin of her cheek.
Marla, look at me. Tell me. What happened?
"A car. Just came out of… n-nowhere, and, um… I dove out of the way, it d-didn't hit me. I'm fine, I'm f-fine," she breathes.
God, I can almost see it. Marla, caught in the current of moving cars, the stream of honking horns, the sea of metal. You know how they always say to swim sideways if you're caught in the rip tide?
She slides her arms around me. I can feel her whole body shaking, her heart hammering inside her ribcage like a bird caught in a net. I hold her, gingerly.
The water is up to our shins, now, and Tyler's nowhere in sight. He's my hallucination, not hers.
My words, I think. Are they?
Marla, I say. She clings to me.
The water is above our knees.
Marla, I say again. The rest of my words tie themselves in knots on my tongue. Sometimes, words are completely inadequate.
I can feel her lips against my jaw, against my scar, on my neck.
The water has to be up to our hips, by now. The tide creeps higher and higher. We only have a little while before it sweeps us away again.
I breathe Marla's name against her lips. Her skin is warm under my fingertips.
Maybe this is someday.
I imagine that the water is already up to my shoulders. The tide pulls me with it. My feet slide sideways in the sand.
And I realize, I don't want to go.
I feel my fingers trace over her bruise. Damage assessment underway.
Up to my neck. The spray tastes like sea salt and Marla.
Marla's hand curls around the back of my neck.
Salt water, climbing. Let me stay. Please, please, let me stay. Wait a while before you carry me to sea.
I imagine the waves rising, rising, until I'm completely underwater, and there is only me and Marla and the clattering rain.
I lean my elbows on the bridge railing. The rising sun dances on the surface of the canal water from its place between the clouds. The railing is still wet from the night rain.
I feel Marla's head drop onto my shoulder.
"I think it's time to go," she says.
The reflection of the sun ripples. I can see fish swimming under the surface of the water, wonder which way the current is going.
Running away, again? I ask. I thought we'd stopped.
I can still smell her perfume on me, feel her kisses.
"Don't think of it as running," Marla says. "Think of it as walking away after a long time in one place."
Norway, then. We could give Bergen a go.
"Why Norway?" she asks, laughing.
My hand finds hers. I'm not looking, but I know that she is smiling. We're fine, I think. We'll be fine. A flock of little sparrows swerves above our head, their reflections dancing across the canal.
A single low-flying bird hovers just over the water, and, for a moment, it looks larger than the image of the sun.