On my way out of the hospital, I walked past the cafeteria. My glance lingered on the back of a woman sitting at a table by herself. It could have been anyone’s back. Wow, she said, turning around. Right? It’s been a while, I replied. Like a show horse that has forgotten how to clear an obstacle, I’d frozen in my tracks. I rubbed my eyes with the palm of my hand a few times. Thankfully she filled the silence, telling me about her upcoming exhibition, there’d been an article in one of the big newspapers –had I seen it? I shook my head, searching for a reply. There was something about her eyes. She seemed almost – happy. The next time we run into each other, she concluded, we’ll go get a drink.
I’d forgotten the details of her face, the gestures she made, the cadence of her voice, and at the same time I recognised everything. In the door opening, I wanted to look back over my shoulder. I didn’t, of course.
There was construction work going on in the hospital, so I left through an unfamiliar exit. Disoriented, I looked for the bus stop. No, that wasn’t right – I hadn’t forgotten all of her details. Her mouth, which was a fraction too big, with an upper lip that jutted up slightly – I hadn’t forgotten that. Or the way she’d unfurl her arm like a fern frond as she was talking. I got on the bus, knowing we wouldn’t see each other again.
There would be no going for drinks because of what I had just – hey! The bus driver interrupted me as I walked past him. You forgot to tap. And if you don’t tap, I’m not going anywhere. I pulled out my card and touched it to the scanner. The bus pulled out, I swung into a seat and only now noticed that I was the sole passenger.
She’d had a dream about me – that was pretty much the first thing she said to me, decades ago. After much urging on my part, she emailed me a steamy rundown. With an open ending – like all good dreams, she said. We wrote long emails back and forth; before long, hers opened with a nickname – something to do with an animal – in which I recognised not myself but her. That’s why I relished the twinge of discomfort, the way I relished the scorching sunshine during our next meeting. We’d accidentally ordered German hefeweizen which was served by the pint. So I thought you were, like, a minor royal or something, I said. She was luminous. The merciless late-afternoon heat mixed with the sound of her voice and became a kind of feverishness. The beer numbed first my limbs, then my brain, which decided to play deliciously dumb. Next time we’ll go eat oysters, she said. Yeah, next time, I said, and – full of bravado – I added that I wanted to see her paintings. Especially the nudes, I added, and I liked that I’d had the balls to say that. When we got to our bikes, she touched my shoulder. We put off everything that should logically follow next. We figured we had time enough.
Weeks later she wrote asking if I wanted to go swimming with her. If she went to the pool like she did every Monday morning, she explained, it wouldn’t cause any suspicion. I couldn’t imagine her with anything so banal as a bath towel or flip-flops. I cancelled a dental appointment to go.
Once we got in the water, it didn’t take long for me to lose her. I crossed lanes, swimming against the sloshing water, dodging kicking legs. Out of breath, hopelessly out of practice, I gulped down a mouthful. I clung to the side, spluttering. Suddenly there she was, one arm slung loosely over the edge, a broad grin on her face and the imprint of her swimming goggles ringing her eyes. What she said was lost in the maelstrom of pool noise and radio. She leaned in and repeated: Where did you go? Even through the chlorine I recognised her scent. In the shower I looked at the rectangle of blond hair under her arm, blew drops of lukewarm water off my lips. Over there, she said, firmly steering me toward the communal changing room. So I can finally see you naked.
So you’re not getting off the bus, the driver said. We’d been stationary underneath Central Station for about five minutes. There was construction going on here, too, the decay carefully hidden behind scaffolding. Travellers were neatly rerouted via temporary stairs and walkways.
The bus driver nodded in his rear-view mirror and started the engine. We’re never even going to share sleep, I thought. All of it postponed.
The bus took the same route that it had on the way out, though there was a detour once we’d left the city centre. As we barrelled down the wrong side of the road we passed a huge, rumbling milling machine that was ripping up the old asphalt. All that is broken shall be mended, it seemed to be saying. Then we pulled up at the hospital and it was like it had all happened yesterday. Or, no – like the memories belonged to someone else, a dissonant someone.
Part of putting things off was looking. In the communal changing room, the women swimmers undressed more or less unselfconsciously on the assumption that there were no leering eyes there. And yet everyone always seemed to be in something of a rush to get their clothes back on. She was sitting on a bench half-heartedly patting her hair dry and looking at me. I, standing in the middle of the empty space, slowly pulled the straps of my bikini top off my shoulders. She did the same. Her heavy breasts swung free. She dried off her upper body without looking – all her attention was focused on me. She watched as I bent over, peeled off my wet briefs but then wrapped the towel around my body at the last minute. With her lips slightly parted, she finally got up and rolled her bathing suit down in a single motion: the gentle curve of her soft tummy, and then her pubic hair, not meant for harsh pool lighting, her legs planted slightly apart. That’s how she stood before me, towel in one hand.
I don’t have time for this, the bus driver said. He was standing in the aisle; he was shouting slightly. This is a regularly scheduled service and it goes from A to B. He shouted something else; I started feeling hot and he transformed into the doctor who, dressed in his white coat with the short sleeves, said something about quality of life. And postponing things. Yes, I wanted to say, time enough.