He and Sara were on their way to her parents’ house, and he was making up stories about how they first met. He thought that finding each other on a dating app, meeting in a bistro, kissing on a nearby bench and ceremonially deleting the app together didn’t make for a good enough story.
‘We could tell your parents you tripped over me,’ he said, ‘when I was tying my shoelace on the pavement. Or that we were in the library and you almost accidentally squashed me with one of those rolling shelves. Or that you sneezed on me on the bus.’
‘Why am I the clumsy character in all your stories? Why don’t you trip over me?’
‘It doesn’t matter who trips over who.’
‘You think literally any other story is better . . . I didn’t know you were so bothered by how we met.’
Both their parents had meet-cute stories that were worth telling. Sara’s parents had picked up their clothes from the dry cleaner at the same hour of the night, and Sara’s mother, who was not yet her mother, had inspected the man’s hands like she always did. A man who bit his nails wasn’t what she was looking for: nail biting spoke of unresolved tensions and a lack of self-control. It was almost as bad as noticing a ring on his finger. This man, picking up his dove-grey suit, wasn’t wearing a ring – though he was married, as she would later discover, and she would have to spend two years asking him to leave his wife before he finally did it.
His parents had met at a hotel on the shores of Lake Lucerne; his father had moved there from Lugano to work as a sous chef. As assistant to the hotel manager, his mother supervised the cleaning of the rooms. They saw each other for the first time at lunch, which the employees took in the restaurant after the guests, and soon they were visiting each other’s small rooms in the break between lunch and dinner services. His mother often told him that he was conceived in that hotel. He didn’t know anyone else who had access to that information about themselves and he tried not to think about it. But when he did, it was their naked bodies he pictured, his mother’s groans, fluids leaving one body and entering another, stained bedsheets. Still, that was better than the things people conceived by artificial means had to imagine: test tubes, petri dishes, pipettes. He wondered whether something unusual had happened at the moment he was conceived: a lightbulb flickering, a bolt of lightning striking the lake, a song bird singing a melody that wasn’t its own. But most likely none of those things had happened, he just wanted them to have happened so that he could feel special. Had his mother felt special in that moment? A female orgasm wasn’t necessary for conception, but he had read somewhere that orgasmic contractions were supposed to help.
‘It’s just a story, I know. But . . . what would we tell our children?’ he said, and instantly regretted it.
‘Do you sometimes imagine having children with me?’
It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the truth, either. Whenever he slept with a woman, he couldn’t help but imagine accidentally getting her pregnant and having to stay with her. Not because he had this great longing for children – it was the opposite. For the same reason, when he was rock-climbing, he sometimes imagined falling. It made him value his current situation all the more, and take proper safety measures.
‘Do you give them names?’
‘I just know what names I wouldn’t give them. Kevin. Marcel. Thomas. Rita. Sabrina.’
‘You’re right, those are awful. Luckily, I only know one Marcel and one Sabrina. They’re both terrible human beings.’
‘A person can’t help being called Sabrina, though.’
‘Why don’t you want to tell my parents how we really met?’
‘If they’re anything like mine, they’ll think people who use that app are just looking for sex. I don’t want them to think I was only after their daughter’s body.’
‘My dad is more likely to give you a lecture about the app being very unfair when it comes to the distribution of likes. There’s some kind of coefficient that shows it’s more unjust than the economy of South Africa or something.’
‘Let’s go with the story about the rolling shelf,’ he suggested. ‘It’s funny, but still plausible.’
‘But you are the one squashing me, alright?’
‘Okay, I’ll squash you.’
They walked a few paces in silence.
‘What if they ask whether we’re together?’ she asked.
‘We’ll tell them the truth.’
‘But what’s the truth?’
‘We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves.’
‘Pigeonhole is a disgusting word, please never say that again. So how do you refer to me, when you’re telling a story about me?’
‘Just as Sara. I don’t say my girlfriend, if that’s what you mean. What about you?’
‘But you can’t just keep saying my name all the time. Sara this and Sara that. What if you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know who I am? You can’t explain our relationship to everyone before you tell a story.’
‘I don’t know if it’s important that they know whether you’re my girlfriend.’
‘So you don’t care if they think I’m just some random woman?’
‘That’s not what I said.’
‘What if a woman comes up to you and asks for your number?’
‘Women don’t do that.’
‘Well just imagine they did. What would you say?’
‘I’d say: there is someone who means a lot to me and I’d risk hurting that person if I gave you my number.’
‘We’re almost there. Three, four minutes.’
‘You haven’t told me much about your parents. All I know is that they like to pick up their dry cleaning in the middle of the night.’
‘Did I tell you he’s a professor of economics and she manages the perfume section in a department store?’
‘I hate that section. It makes my nose itch and after a few minutes in there I get a headache.’
‘Well, don’t tell her that. She loves perfume.’
He stopped walking.
‘Do you want me to be myself, or someone else?’
‘Are you being serious?’
‘Maybe you’d rather take someone else home to meet your parents. Someone who wants to talk about how much he loves perfume.’
‘That’s so ridiculous. All this time, you’ve been looking for a reason to get angry so you can blow the whole thing off. And I realise that now I’ve said that, you actually have a reason to get angry and not come with me.’
‘But maybe you’re just saying that so I’ll get angry, because you don’t want to introduce me to your parents.’
She turned away and carried on walking.
She didn’t wait. He strode after her.
She stopped, but didn’t turn back, forcing him to walk around her.
‘Listen, I’m sorry. I just want them to like me. I’ve never met anyone’s parents before.’
‘We don’t have to go if you don’t want to. It won’t change anything, one way or the other. I’ll message them and say we’re not coming, okay?’
She got out her phone and as she was typing the message he got his out as well. When he glanced up at her face again, it had changed: she was looking at him as if he’d just trodden in dog shit.
‘Are you searching for someone better? I know I’m not perfect, but nor are you. I thought maybe we were perfect for each other. God, I sound like a walking cliché. I should go home now.’
He didn’t follow her, not knowing what he needed to apologise for. And then it suddenly hit him: she must have peered over at his screen at the wrong moment and seen that he’d redownloaded the app. Since they had grown closer, he’d been scared she might suddenly say: I’ve met someone. It was easy to meet someone and it would be easy for her to tell him she’d met someone: they weren’t a couple. He wanted to be prepared for that day and so he’d begun swiping left or right on pictures of women again. He’d started writing to the women he’d matched with but hadn’t met up with any of them. Now Sara had gone, he messaged two of the women he’d chatted with recently, asking if they wanted to meet that evening. He would make plans with the first one to reply.
Quite soon, Nina wrote back, saying she could meet him in half an hour outside the dim-sum place at the entrance to the Platzspitz park. He set off slowly in that direction, because walking slowly was better than waiting when it was this cold. The pavement was covered in snow that had been compressed by the weight of pedestrians and was now more like ice. It even creaked in an unsettling way as he walked on it. He didn’t particularly like winter, but he enjoyed inhaling the fresh, scentless air, like his body was being cleansed on the inside.
He thought about why it was so important to be able to tell a good ‘beginning’ story. Did he really just want to impress her parents, their future children? Wasn’t it more of a deep-seated human need? There must be a story about the creation of the world in every language that existed. He knew about people being formed out of clay and then he remembered a raven who accidentally created the human race out of a peapod. Every superhero had their origin story explaining their superpower and their weaknesses. His favourite was Superman’s. Born on Krypton, sent to earth as a baby, his only weakness was what was most familiar to him: Kryptonite, a mineral from the planet of his birth.
He got to the dim-sum place slightly too early and tried not to look like he was waiting for someone. If she didn’t turn up, it would be less depressing if no one knew he had been waiting. He would have just been standing there for a while, looking up something important on his phone. He wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince the passers-by or himself.
He considered what he and Nina could do. All the cafes and restaurants were shut now, and there was actually only one option remaining: go for a walk, preferably holding a hot drink. He would have chosen that option anyway. On a walk, when he didn’t have to constantly look the other person in the eye, he could think and speak more freely. At half past seven he turned his back to the direction he thought she’d be coming from. He could never figure out what face to make when someone he only knew from photos was walking towards him, and he couldn’t be sure they were the right person. He studied the plane trees that leaned over the river, their branches coated in hoar frost, until he heard a voice saying his name.
‘This elbow thing is really stupid, can we just hug?’ he asked.
She nodded, and they hugged.
‘We could walk along the river,’ he suggested.
Although she looked exactly like she did in the pictures, she was different from how he’d imagined. She was beautiful in an obvious way and he’d always believed that beautiful women knew they were beautiful. He thought beautiful women stroked their own hair and were always asking people for favours. Did Nina know she was beautiful? At least one person in her life must surely have told her, but either she hadn’t believed it or it hadn’t changed her. But what if she genuinely didn’t know? If she really knew how beautiful she was, she would hardly have met up with him, so it was best not to tell her.
He was nervous and didn’t want to leave any uncomfortable pauses, so he started talking about the first thing that came to him.
‘People look so different with these masks on. You can’t see half their face and they kind of look better like that. Maybe I just have a generous imagination. I always imagine the lower half being more attractive than it actually is.’
‘That’s nice of you,’ she said.
That was her response? Sara would have said something like: ‘When you watch TV, you get the impression that the average human is good-looking, but when you walk down the street, you realise the average human is actually pretty ugly.’ But Nina reacted like he was being serious, like he was trying to impress her with his good-heartedness. She was probably used to men trying to impress her.
They walked on in silence.
‘What have you been up to today?’ she asked eventually. She was asking not out of interest, he could tell, but because she wasn’t comfortable with the silence. So it was fine for him not only to conceal from her what had just happened, but to make something up.
‘The usual. Washing my elephant, brushing his tusks, taking him for a walk. What about you?’
‘Not a lot.’
So far, she had only given him brief answers, as if it was his responsibility to keep the conversation going. It was either shyness or a sign that she was aware of her beauty and had been shaped by it: she didn’t need to tell impressive stories; she was waiting to be impressed. Suddenly he missed Sara. He got his phone out as they walked, which of course was rude, and Nina reacted at once. She stopped and looked up at the crowns of the plane trees, like she was a stranger who just happened to be in his vicinity. Sara had sent him a message saying she would burn his stuff if he didn’t come and get it by tomorrow. The stuff was two items: a T-shirt that said atheists do it like nobody is watching, which she had given him, and a Joy Division record that he’d lent her. He didn’t reply. The other woman had written back, and she could meet at half eight – that was in fifteen minutes. He replied that he would wait for her under the fat blue angel that hung from the ceiling in the station concourse. So that was all arranged; now he just had to get rid of Nina.
‘It’s pretty cold, I think I’m going to go home. It was nice meeting you,’ he lied, and waved goodbye from four paces away. A hug would just have been awkward in these circumstances and to say goodbye by touching elbows was always awkward. So he simply left beautiful Nina in the park and went to the station. As he was waiting under the fat blue angel, he wondered whether he and Sara would still be, well, together if they’d met in real life and not had to argue over the story of their beginning.
Ten minutes after the agreed time, the woman he was waiting for still hadn’t appeared, and he sent her a message. She didn’t reply. She didn’t even read it, she hadn’t been online since she’d written back to him the first time. When he checked again five minutes later, he saw she’d been online just two minutes ago, but hadn’t read his message. Another five minutes passed, she was twenty minutes late now and he sent another message, trying not to sound either annoyed or annoying. It was getting increasingly difficult to look like he wasn’t waiting, but eventually he thought, maybe that’s what I’ll tell my children one day. Well, you know your mother, always late, but just imagine if I’d left – we’d never have met, and you wouldn’t exist now. This idea made the waiting bearable.
Another ten minutes went by in which she didn’t read his message and so he decided to leave the station. She had probably matched with someone better, a better-looking guy, a wittier guy, and decided that meeting him was a waste of her time. It was so easy to find someone better. Wasn’t that what he’d been trying to do himself? Now that Sara had turned her back on him, he suddenly saw all her flaws: the passive-aggressive leading questions she liked to ask, to which there were only wrong answers; her absolute conviction that her way of doing something was the best way; the condescension that resulted from that. But she would never, never stand him up when they’d arranged to meet, or leave him hanging in conversation.
He had crossed the park and was walking along a path that was flat and straight as a die: a former railway track. The little station building by the side of the path now housed a skate shop. He wasn’t far from the road Sara lived on, and he considered ringing her bell. But what would he say? He couldn’t tell her he’d had a date right after she’d left, although they had never declared their relationship to be an exclusive one. They had shared their lives like a couple, but then why had it been so hard for him to call her my girlfriend? Did he really want to find someone better? But if that was true, then when he was out with Sara, he’d be looking at other women and thinking, I’d rather be with her than with Sara. And he didn’t do that. Maybe he was just overestimating the power of words: if two people weren’t a couple, they couldn’t split up.
He walked up the steep road she lived on; the light was on in her room. He pushed the buzzer and after a few seconds of silence, he heard white noise.
‘Do you want to be my girlfriend?’
More white noise, then silence. He waited for the hum of the door release. It didn’t come. A window opened and something landed in the snow: a bag containing his T-shirt and his record.
He walked through the city carrying the plastic bag, along the pavements covered in false ice, past illuminated shop windows. There was hardly anyone out now, just cyclists in orange uniforms delivering food, then a man with a dog wearing a flashing collar. He walked down a tree-lined avenue; between the trees lay branches that had broken under the sudden weight of the snow. He looked at everything closely, paying attention so he’d have a vivid memory of it later.
So this was the story of how it all ended.
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