Tag Archives: Stories

Here Comes The Big Third

Here we go then, little love: the third trimester. The final stretch.

I do wish it weren’t my beachball face doing so much of the stretching. It’s almost impossible now to take a selfie where my extra chins aren’t hogging the attention. But I am trying hard to let the weight irritation go, this time around. It’s mostly worked, which is sort of astonishing to me. I haven’t weighed myself since June, and I don’t care. I take my clothes off to get into the shower in the morning, look at this giant curve of belly in the mirror, and think it looks rather lovely, actually. I mean, I really think that. I can’t say enough how foreign that is to me.

I can still walk, as long as I waddle straight into the embrace of a groinular hot water bottle afterwards (2sexy2handle). I am mostly remembering to take my medication. At night I groan and hurt and throw Gaviscon tablets into my mouth with desperate abandon, and she kicks a lot. So I don’t sleep much, but HA, sucker, that ain’t getting better any time soon.

I am anxious, though. Not about labour, newborns or having enough love to go around – we’ve done all that before, and odds are that it’ll be alright again. I just lie awake at night, for hours, imagining catastrophes. In the first trimester I once found myself (in a secret and ashamed way) wishing I were feeling horrible for someone more tangible – you’d go through just about anything for your children, wouldn’t you? The ones you can see and touch, the ones you love so much it hurts? It’s not so easy to suffer for someone who’s only just managed to move from blastocyst to embryo. I don’t know if that makes sense at all. These are the things you find yourself thinking when you’ve narrowly avoided a deep-dive vomit into your handbag in a public place.

Now I have the opposite problem: she feels like a person to me already. We decided to have a third because we felt like there was someone missing – now it feels like there’s a space shaped like her, waiting for her to step into it. I am in, all the way. I am so excited, which means I have lots to lose. My brain likes to remind me of it at 11.30pm.

But I am getting ready. Do you hear me, love? I am trying to be ready: for a last labour, a last first newborn cry, a last whirl through breastfeeding and weaning and sleep schedules. There’s a lot for me to get wrong, but her brothers will be able to tell her plenty about that. Barbara Kingsolver wrote something about last babies that made me sob the first time I read it, long before I had any of my own, and I think about it often now:

‘the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after…

She’s the one you can’t put down’.

It seems like a good plan, and I’m sticking to it.

Take three

An appropriate visual metaphor for this, the first week of sickness.

An appropriate visual metaphor for this, which was the first week of sickness. Down to earth with a bump.

I cried when I saw the little cross on the pregnancy test.

I always do cry, because all those things you’ve signed up for nebulously, ambiguously, in your head, are now out of your head and busy turning into a blastocyst in your actual body. Suddenly they’re all definitely going to happen. Doesn’t matter how much I wanted it – and I did want it – I usually need ten minutes, a cry and a Dairy Milk to get my head around it.

(‘I can do this’, I’d said to Tim some weeks before, propped on my elbow in bed, when we made the final decision. ‘Look at me. You know I can do it’. He’d heaved the sigh of a man who could see years of bubbly white vomit on his shirt shoulders again, and said ‘Yes, I know. Let’s do it, then’.)

The first trimester is a weird, lonely time, I find. You beat yourself up because you’re so lucky, think of how lucky you are in comparison, what a miracle, what a flipping lucky miracle – and instead you feel sick, and headachy, and fat, and angry, and not lucky or miraculous at all. The guilt about what you should be feeling adds to the rest of it, and you can’t tell anyone about it. Isolated in a bubble of misery that often, honestly, feels like a bad dream.

I found out early, by chance, and spent two nausea-free weeks furiously cooking two dinners a day, and freezing the extras. This helped.

Other things that helped: getting outside even in slow motion, singing loudly in the car with a spear of icy air pointed directly into my face, and eating a continuous, joyless parade of meat-flavoured crisps, cheese crackers and cold Sprite (someone call Deliciously Ella). By the first week in September I had a sore throat, and was – in the tradition of Gaston – roughly the size of a baaaaaaarge. Which was a neat coincidence, since I also had a Gaston-like level of personal charm. Especially in the evenings when the boys wouldn’t go to bed, and I would happily have paid a cadaverous man a large sack of gold to take them away in an asylum cart.

We got through the days quite nicely with morning outings, lunch and then a movie for them while I laid in bed and gently moaned. I cracked sometimes in the evenings and cried about how useless I felt and how much TV they were watching. But mostly I didn’t look further ahead than the next meal, and felt alright about doing what I had to do to keep going. Tim picked up absolutely everything I let drop and never made me feel bad about it. I thought to myself all the time that it was lucky H had no idea what pregnancy was like or what it was for, or he would’ve cottoned on immediately. He was terribly concerned about my ‘very long germ’, worried that the rest of them would catch it, asked whether I was going to be sick whenever I retched in the car (eventually I started passing them off as burps, which gave me a reputation for belching prowess that I do not deserve). But he gave me so much leeway. He was so kind. I was amazed.

I also spent quite a lot of time lying on floors. I haven’t vacuumed for several weeks. Make of that combo what you will.

Eight weeks after the cross on the pregnancy test, the Dairy Milk, the crying, we walked into the ultrasound room at the hospital. The screen blurs and bubbles and then there it is. A heart, a hand. An apricot-sized baby that is real, after all, and really there. This baby refused to get into the measurement-friendly horizontal position, and spent ten minutes bracing its legs against the wall and springing up and up, like an Olympic swimmer. I’ve never had a baby do that during a scan before, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Brace and spring, brace and spring. Underneath my skin having the loveliest of times, all this time.

(‘There is a baby in here and it will have to come out of me‘, I gasped, on the way out. ‘I know! You wanted it to!’ Tim said, half-exasperated, half-amused. He bought me a Kit-Kat, and a packet of Malteasers.)

You tell people, and everyone cheers. The bubble pops. Out you come, and find yourself not alone, not a misery after all: just a grower of an actual heart-and-hand baby, and the luckiest one of all.

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The desert, and other stories

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You are in Arizona. There is something odd about Arizona. A huge, open valley ringed with mountains you never reach. Burning heat. It feels like the ends of your hair are crisping up, like every tiny part of your skin sits under a magnifying glass held by a curious, ant-killing giant.

The intense flatness of the vivid blue sky: no clouds, no sense of perspective. Beautiful, and pitiless.

The Aztec-style decorations on bridges and highways: spirals and lizards etched out in chalk.

The cacti loitering by the freeway and in people’s gardens, playing it cool, like it’s not the weirdest thing ever. You text home. ‘THERE ARE CACTI ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, ALL CASUAL. Like we’re in the Wild West or something?’ ‘Um, you ARE in the Wild West’, they text back. Good point. Where else would it be but here?

The knowledge that every plant has been put there on purpose, because almost nothing grows spontaneously except those enormous lordly cacti. Then seeing how the city planners got carried away with the plant thing and started disguising non-plant items as plants, like mobile phone masts dressed up as palm trees. It feels like a sixties Bond film. Are there Russians dressed up as palm trees too? It’s brilliant.

Citrus fruit trees, with their trunks painted white to stop them shrivelling. The flash of acid yellow lemons between the leaves looking as foreign as anything you’ve ever seen.

The dust in the back of your throat. The point at which your winter-ready English feet get tired of sandals, so you take them off, and last about half a second before you have to leap for some shade, soles singeing.

Hunting for scorpions at night on the wall. Watching them glow blue under torchlight. Spending some time afterwards imagining scorpions leaving the wall for a jaunt into your bed. Sleeping with the duvet tucked in.

The m.e.x.i.c.a.n f.o.o.o.o.o.d. (Pause for sobbing.)

The family whose conversation you slide back into like you’ve seen them every day for the seven years they’ve been gone. A wedding full of lovely details. A ceremony you cry through, a reception where you eat burritos until your dress is straining, and then dance hard and hilariously, sweating into your hair, through the orangey evening and into the night.

Walking out into a city anchored onto desert, and never being able to forget the desert just a few feet underneath, hustling around the edges, whipping into your hair and mouth on the back of a hot wind.

The wind always hot. Even at night. When there’s any wind at all.

There is something odd about Arizona. You belong back with the tangled weedy hedgerows and narrow roads, the drizzle and the dry humour. As soon as you land you feel the rightness of it. But you miss the desert.

You are in Arizona, and then you are not, and you don’t think you will ever get it out of your head.

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Perfect fifth

Teddy was born with his feet splayed outwards, and immediately proved me a liar.

I’m the sort of person who tells stories because they feel true, and then afterwards realises they’re not true at all. Here’s one of my accidentally invented stories: my feet point outwards because I spent my childhood in ballet class. Not true, since I got it from my dad, and have now passed it on to the chubby feet of the bear. Here’s another: I was given the choice of ballet lessons and horse riding lessons, and chose ballet because I didn’t want bandy legs. Then ballet gave me bandy legs anyway. Ho ho!

This one definitely isn’t true, because I started dance lessons when I was three. It’s one of my first memories, in fact: I have hazy flashes – real, I think – of a classroom at the top of a fire escape, and looking down at my own ballet-shoe-clad feet. I started ballet because my mother always wanted to and was never allowed, so she went along to her friend’s lessons and watched mournfully from the sidelines. Ask her and she’ll tell you about it. It’s a very sad story.

So I have Susan’s 1960s dance lessons to thank for mine, all thirteen years of them, and in every stripe and shade. Ballet, of course. Modern dance. Tap. Theatrecraft, which I remember as floating soulfully about in a long skirt (I have just learned that it’s supposed to be Broadway-style dancing, and now I feel cheated, because AMAZING). Pointe work, when we were old enough to have our feet hammered once a week. I was determinedly average at all of it, but by heckers I had a perfect fifth position. My feet faced so far outwards anyway that I only had to try a little bit to make them fit horizontally like a subway sandwich. In ballet, I decided, weird feet are good. I milked it for all it was worth.

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It was all I had to milk, really, because while I loved the dancing, I was too self-conscious to stand out on stage. The girls who had private lessons, who were entered into competitions, flung their arms out and beamed into the faceless audience. You’re supposed to dance without inhibitions, and my inhibitions squatted under my skin, sitting on my voice box when I tried to make conversation with the other girls who all knew each other from the school I didn’t go to.

One year we wore outrageous ‘tropical’ outfits – shiny orange-and-pink frills in crackly fabric – and danced in our Christmas show to the Test Match Cricket theme tune. I don’t know whether it was the bouncy moves or the music or the outfit, but suddenly I was possessed with the wild spirit of the Competition Girls. I leaped around and smiled and danced my little heart out, danced like a nine-year-old with nothing to lose, danced like someone who wasn’t a walking fire hazard in glittery polyester. It was exhilarating, and they noticed. Someone apparently asked ‘who is that girl?’, and my dance teacher spoke to my parents after the show about private lessons. The C-word was mentioned. I genuinely think it might have been one of the happiest evenings of my little life, floating home in a cloud of hairspray, dizzy with chosenness and possibility.

The competitions never came to anything much, but as I got into my middle teens I started to own my perfect fifth position. I still had to force myself through the door, but once inside there was a kind of fierce satisfaction that came with dancing free. Sometimes, when I caught the wind just right, the music would lift my arms and legs by itself and I would move exactly the way I wanted to. Our group was smaller now, and kinder, more used to each other. As the only one still being stubbornly ignored by the puberty gods, I never had to worry about excessive jiggling in my unsupportive lycra, and I was always the one getting flung into the air to the accompaniment of REM. The year we did Britney Spears, my goodness. One girl’s gym skirt popped off mid-performance, the button sailing over the heads of the startled third row, but aside from that, we were flawless.

It didn’t last. Once my exams started hotting up, my enthusiasm for spending long evenings at the Methodist hall twice a week cooled off. One day I just stopped going, without saying anything or saying goodbye. It was the least courageous thing I could’ve done, fading out as though thirteen years of demi-plié hadn’t done anything for me. It had, and I still feel guilty about it. I wish I’d told them that I’d be holding my wrists just right for the rest of my life, that I would keep my pointe shoes satiny and perfect in every house I lived, that I’d watch High School Musical with a catch in my throat, that just occasionally I’d dance out old dreams, my mother’s and mine, with the enthusiastic abandon of someone wearing neon polyester and a bun hairsprayed into a helmet.

If my children want to dance, I’d like them to try. I will tell them that if you want to – and you have to want to – you can put on fearlessness like a second skin. I will tell them that a good place to start is their inherited, dorky, perfect fifth.

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I went to India, and found some words

Hey, come back here with me a minute. All the way back here, to October 2008. A strange world, before One Direction, Sherlock and the iPhone 3GS. I’ve been married six months, a milestone twice over. First, thanks to Timothy’s two years in South Africa, we’ve only just now spent as much time together in the same country as we’ve been together apart. This is a fact that makes us sound weirder than we really are (I hope). And second, I’ve just been sent to India for a month, and I am frightened to death about it. This is a fact that makes me sound lamer than I really…oh no wait, never mind.

It’s an opportunity I can’t turn down, so I don’t. My mouth falls open when I get there, and doesn’t close for weeks. I’m sat in a huge 4×4, gaping out of the window at two parents and three, yes count them three small children all on the same motorbike. The motorbike-for-five is swerving hypnotisingly close to us – I can see the breeze ruffling the tiniest boy’s hair – and I notice I’m gripping my seatbelt so that my hands have turned into claws. I think, Tim would never believe this. I should write it down.

When I get to my hotel room I leave the unpacked suitcase where it is, and open a fresh Word document. Something about a clean piece of paper and a pen makes me freeze – I can never find the right word first time, and I’m obsessed with finding exactly the right word – but I look at the empty white screen with a keyboard under my hands to fill it, and it feels like there are stories in my fingers and a world here for my making. I haven’t written anything for fun since high school, unless you count The Ballad of the Tiny Ironing Board. I’ve forgotten what it does to my insides.

I write long, indignant, amazed, colourful essays from Chennai the whole time I’m there. Somewhere during that time it dawns on me that this will not be something I can easily stop. When I get home, I start a blog.

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I reread my Indian travelogue last night. It’s pretty painful in places – I had yet to realise that it’s possible to be funny without being grumpy and sarcastic, though I suppose anything you write in your early twenties comes with a side-order of hideous embarrassment – but I haven’t edited it. All the time since I haven’t been able to stop looking for stories. They might be tin-pot little stories that never go anywhere except here, and I might be hideously embarrassed by them in years to come, but they feel like worlds for my making. And I found them first in a fresh Word document, a hotel room in Chennai, a tiny boy on a motorbike about to bang on my window.

This is what I believe so fiercely I could shake a fist at it: find what you love. Do what you love. Start something that does things to your insides. You have worlds to make and stories to tell, and I for one would love to see them.

Three things:

what have you always wanted to do? Do tell me, and leave your blog address below if you have one.

I’m on cupcake mascara today, talking about why I started blogging. I suppose this is the long version.

And my India diaries start here. Have a look, and we can laugh at how grumpy and pretentious I am together.

Pets at home

I was in Bradford one Saturday, and passed a gang of youths (this is the technical term) glowering their way across the car park. They were intimidating enough that a very sheltered sixteen-year-old might reasonably cross the car park to avoid them, except that I was wearing my sports shop uniform, so felt a tiny bit gangsta myself.

“What’re we doin’?” one of them said.

“Goin’ to Pets at Home’, growled the largest, beefiest one. ‘Goin’ to see t’ rabbits”.

Thug life, my friends. Don’t imagine that stroking rabbits in a pet shop doesn’t feature heavily in their down time, because it does.

I thought about this on Tuesday afternoon, when I took Henry out for a treat after our museum trip, and decided to pop into Pets at Home first. To see t’ rabbits. I couldn’t help but feel that a handsy two-year-old would strike more fear into a rabbit’s heart than a burly teenaged hoodie, so really, we were the most gangsta of all. Hen was over the moon, trying to count the fish and yelling escape instructions to the hamsters through the glass cages.

Hamsters don’t need escape instructions. They are artists. We were never pet people, mostly because my dad wasn’t a pet person, and passed his hair-spit-and-poo aversion solidly onto the next generation. But I kind of fancied myself as a pet person once, the way you might fancy yourself a hat person and try out a few, before you realise you don’t have the right nose for hats. Before I realised I didn’t have the right nose for pets, either, I had hamsters.

The first was a peach and white Syrian hamster, called Toffee. She was a lean, angry warrior hamster, who never took to us in the way the books said she would. I tried all sorts to make her love us, but she still spent all her spare time scratching at the corner of the carpet, or leaking milky pee all over us out of spite. One day, I left the cage door open by accident, and she ran for it. We had a boiler cupboard in the bathroom, with a sizeable gap in the floorboards to let the pipes through. Just made for a hamster with no fear and something to prove. You can see why we thought she was done for.

After a fruitless, sobby day of searching, we were put to bed with the promise that Dad would leave her little ladder down the hole, and her cage open on the floor, in case she found her way up in the night. It’s the sort of thing parents say when pets are definitely dead. But the next morning, there she was, huddled in her little house, a scratch on one side of her nose. AMAZING.

Now I’m wondering if my parents went out, bought another hamster and roughed it up a bit. Surely not.

She was like Braveheart, that hamster, but even Mel Gibson rodents will succumb to convulsions. About a week after her passing, I mentioned to Mum that hamsters sometimes hibernate and look like they’ve died.

‘Kenneth, they hibernate’, Mum said. Apparently forgetting that she’d witnessed the hamster die from convulsions.

My dad tried to look as though he didn’t know where this conversation was headed. ‘So?’

‘So what if she’s hibernating?’

‘She’s definitely not.’

‘I’m so worried about her. You need to go and check.’

And so on, until Dad went out, in the middle of the night, to dig up a hamster that had been dead for a week. He came back in looking like he was suppressing a gag reflex. She wasn’t hibernating. At all.

Hamster no. 2 was called Smoky. I must be searingly honest here, dear readers, in the interests of journalistic integrity. And so I confess to you that I abandoned him – heart, soul and hands – because he turned out to be male, and had large balls.

I was young and shallow, but they were very large. And weirdly soft. And dragged along your hands when he walked. It was incredibly off-putting. So I handed him over to my sister, who took him on and loved him like her own. (If you’d like to know the difference between me and my good-hearted sister, this incident would be a good place to start.)

He died of hamster cancer, and I was sorry, but by then my reputation for hard-heartedness had lost me the right to grieve. I’d like to think that now, older and wiser, I’d be able to look past his supreme genital over-endowment and appreciate his equally large heart. But I dunno. Maybe, deep down, I’ll always be the sort of person who’d wrinkle their nose at being caressed by hamster balls. If that’s not the sort of self-discovery that blogging was made for, I don’t know what is.

I don’t think we will be pet people, either. Not even for t’ rabbits.

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Though he still has hopes for a lion.

Passports

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My mama is here for one more day. She lives a long way away, and I have spent the past week and a bit talking her ear off. I am sat in the baby-and-toddler trenches with not much idea of what I’m doing, and not only has she been there twice as many times, she was there with me.

We have brainstormed toddler behaviour and baby feeding, the minutiae of my days and nights. Where I am, and where I want to be. Our mutual love of cheese and onion crisps, and the difficulty of eating them in public without seriously putting people off. The gaps in my childhood memories, and hers. I can’t stop asking questions; I can’t help it. It’s just that she always knows exactly what to say.

One of the things we talked about this week was her mother, my nanna. She died when I was eleven, so I can’t remember much. She was kind, and a stickler for good manners. She wore a red cardigan, and smelled like the cough sweets she kept by her bed. She fed us stew and dumplings every Sunday, and sneaked pink wafer biscuits and magazines into our bags after we’d taken her shopping. She paid for every pair of shoes we wore for a decade, sticking stamps into a savings book for months at a time. Piece by piece, week after week. One year I got the starry shoes with the keyhole in the heel. When I turned the key, a fairy picture appeared at the bottom of my shoe. I don’t know how many savings stamps my nanna collected so I could have them, or how long it took. They basically made my seven-year-old life, and I hope I said thank you.

Yesterday I found out that this old lady in her red cardigan was once a girl who went to join the British army. She was a sergeant and a cook. Women weren’t supposed to be on the front lines, but thanks to clerical oversight she ended up in Berlin with the Allies at the end of World War Two. It was rubble, only rubble. I wish I knew what she thought. Later she was sent to Belgium, to manage a factory that had ground to a halt during the war. One blueish day she was swimming in the sea, her husband on a deckchair on the beach, when everyone suddenly scarpered. She turned around in the water to find a German U-boat had popped up behind her, cool as you please. She climbed out of the water dripping in oil.

Later that day, we watched The King’s Speech. That scene where they all listen to Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war gets me every time: I think about how it must have been to hold your breath on the precipice of terrible change, not knowing how exactly how it would touch you but knowing it would all the same, and I go cold. Mum said ‘Nanna was listening to that, somewhere’, and I realised my twenty-five-year-old grandmother sat by a radio and went cold, too.

I’ve been looking over her passport today. Stamps for every country you can think of, and every one of them a story. Pieces and pieces of a girl who went to join the army, and cooked for soldiers in Berlin. I don’t know how it felt, making stew and dumplings with all of that in her drawer. I would give anything at all to get back to her armchair and ask her.

One day we’ll all be stories packed in drawers. I hope by then I’ve listened enough to remember them, and talked enough to pass them on.

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Five

Tomorrow is our fifth wedding anniversary, and I have been thinking about phases.

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We are eighteen. It’s my first move away from home. I am happy here, in a way I haven’t been for a while. We’re sat in someone’s living room on a Sunday afternoon. He’s playing chess, and tries to teach me the rules. I’m terrible, though he doesn’t say so. He’s too kind, and that – more than the dark-blue eyes and the dimples and that magnificent woolly jumper – is what makes me look at him twice. Then we’re eating a buffet dinner squashed in a corner – classic Mormon singles behaviour – and someone says ‘so Rachel, tell me everything about yourself’. I say ‘everything? Well, I was born in March 1985…’ And his ears prick up, I can feel it without looking at him. Because he assumed I was older, and actually (I find out later) we’re the same age. I think to myself – probably not in so many words – my dear self, GRAB THIS WHILE YOU CAN.

We’re not-dating for an awfully long time, and then we are. It’s confusing and heart-hurting and absolutely perfect. And then he leaves for South Africa. And we look like this.

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I still can’t play chess.

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We are twenty-one, and he has come back through the arrivals gate at Heathrow, tanned and skinny in a worn black suit, and back into my life as though nothing’s changed. Except everything has: I’ve finished my degree, read piles of books, moved away from home for good and found a career I think I can love. He has left Africa behind: two years of connecting with people in corrugated iron huts and walking miles in a shirt and tie under blazing suns. He has jumped off sand dunes in the Namibian desert and seen more beauty and more degradation than he could’ve imagined. We have two years of letters to show for it: casual letters, heartfelt letters, carefully non-committal letters. He’s kept all of them, and brings them back nine thousand miles in a shoe box.

And now here we are, and this is the real deal. We start talking about marriage. It isn’t the easiest thing to work out, and it’s confusing and heart-hurting and absolutely perfect. And we look like this.

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I still love the days when he wears a suit.

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We are twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. We live in a little two-bedroomed flat in the sky, all whitewashed walls and cream carpets. My books are crammed in bookcases and his African print sits above our bed. We spend long Saturday mornings eating pancakes in bed and week-nights watching movies. We celebrate birthdays in London and anniversaries in Edinburgh, in Paris, in the Forest of Dean. He works late on university assignments and has dinner ready when I come home from work. We are busy, and often stressed. But the time we get to ourselves, oh, there’s nothing like it. We fit alongside each other like we’re two halves of a whole.

Marriage is hard work, and some days we get it wrong. It can be confusing and heart-hurting. Other times – more often – just perfect. And we look like this.

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I still beg for pancakes on Saturday mornings.

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We are twenty-six, and now there’s three of us. We are bowled over by what this tiny baby has brought with him. Most days I can barely see straight. He finishes university and starts work, and I stop (for now). He comes home in the evening to a toddler waiting by the gate, and me, with hair pointing in ten directions and mashed banana all over my clothes. I feel like everything I was has been dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. I feel, more to the point, quite indecently wrinkly. There are days, weeks on end when I can’t remember being the girl who wrote one hundred and two letters for a boy under African sun. And then there are moments where I look across the room at him and I can see myself the way he still sees me. I can see the boy who tried to teach me chess in a blue jumper. I can see us rattling around in a little yellow car in Cape Town, and scoffing pain au chocolat on a Parisian street. I can see him this evening, reading a story to a little boy who got his eyes. I can see it all, all together, all of it at once.

We look like this, for now. Things are about to change again.

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I can’t wait for what might come next.

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