There is a point in conversation, I’m pretty sure we’ve all experienced this, where you realise you’re talking, but also realise you haven’t been listening to yourself. Maybe your mind wanders off on a private tangent, following the trail of some quicksilver thought, or maybe you just aren’t interested in what you’ve been saying. Either way there’s always a judder and pause while you reengage the brain-mouth connection. I’ve noticed this happen to people giving lectures, and in business meetings. I do it everywhere. I drop out of the conscious reality and drift off into another dimension, entirely in my mind. It took me a long time to realise what was happening, as the frequency of this ‘slippage’ was increasing.
I’m experiencing it right now, sitting here in this cafe. Across from me is a perfectly lovely girl, her amber eyes are looking at me and her coffee alternately, but she is listening. What I am saying is beyond me, as right now I’m thinking about why I’m not listening to my own voice, and wondering what I could possibly be saying. What’s the last thing I remember saying. Something about airports, who knows. I’m looking at her face, examining all the particulars and special observations. Those eyes are incredible; amber shards around a green centre. So deep, so calming. I’m convinced there’s something amiss here. What would this girl be doing here with me.
I can’t quite make out what her face is telling me, but I know I need to reengage, come back down to earth and this cafe. My coffee must be getting cold if nothing else.
We’re talking now, about flying. She’s just come back from northern Italy and the flight back was the most turbulent she’d ever been on. She’s telling me how she kept giggling every time the plane lurched and shook because the top of everyone’s head, the bit you can see over the headrest, was bobbing in perfect synchronicity with all the other passengers, as if it was some kind of interpretive dance.
“Now students, I want you you to show me, using the medium of head bobbing, the intricacies and minutiae of the fear of falling from the sky in a ball of flames” she said, using her best professorial voice. I laughed, picturing this girl grinning and sniggering while all around her differing levels of fear and terror were gripping the other passengers.
We talk on for a while and the conversation sashays between us, the verbal equivalent of wiggling our bottoms at each other. This is flirting, there can be no doubt. Then it comes over me, doubt, fear. Why is this girl here, seemingly having a good time, or at least pretending well. Does she know, was she sent. I instantly lose all trust for her and start to connive a scheme to catch her out.
I ask her about home, growing up, work; all good date conversation, but it’s lacking the casual humour and relaxed verve of before, and I can tell she’s feeling it too. It’s definitely too late for me to turn this around and go back to where we were; my mind is reeling, and the speed of thought is beginning to increase. I can taste it in my mouth, stronger and darker than the coffee I’m drinking. My cup literally trembles as I pick it up from the table, and the focus it takes to bring the cup to my lips completely betrays the fact that this is an empty cup, bereft of liquid. I can’t pretend to drink this nothingness, for a start I’m not that good an actor. I place the cup back on the table, breathing deeply and slowly, remembering the CBT from my therapy last year.
“Take a few deep breaths, slow but steady, make sure you are getting enough air. Feel the air clearing your mind and allowing you a moment to think. Focus in on the thought that came first, the very first moment you realised you were scared. Take that thought and begin to analyse using the methods we discussed. Keep breathing and focus on your surroundings while you think.”
The words of my lovely psychotherapist come back to me and I relax for a second. She was such a lovely, caring, funny and charming lady. I breathe out and look up, back into those eyes.
My thoughts are slowing now, gathering around me again and returning to a smooth orbit around my mind. My thoughts are like music, with each idea and observation like a different channel of the sound, a different instrument. I listen to the music and look to the person opposite me.
I tell her my cup is empty, that my coffee ran out a while ago. She laughs, and I laugh. I still don’t trust this girl, but then who do I trust these days.
Who of my friends and family can I honestly say I can be myself around, particularly the ones from before my break from reality, just over a year ago. I either feel awkward around them, or see in their eyes the particular care they take around me, in case I crumble into madness just because they put milk in my tea.
We walk out of the cafe, and I’m glad the sun has begun to go down already. These last days of summer are warm and dry, calming my spirit. Out the door and onto the street, it feels great and I feel a slight spring in my step.
She pulls me by the arm down to the meadow by the river and I let her lead me into the cool greenery. There aren’t many people here and in the middle the bank of the river is high enough to sit on. Our feet dangle above the mirky water and I take in the fresh air, the soft sound of the trees rustling in the cool breeze.
We talk on, slowly, more carefully than in the cafe. Before the coffee we had probably only shared a few hundred words, and it had been important to cover a number of topics early on. We needed to gauge compatibility, or at least, I did. This was a new person, an unknown. I could monitor the before and after of people I’d known for a few years, but didn’t have enough evidence to draw a baseline for new people.
I asked her whether she knew this place, from growing up, as I did. She was from the other side of town, but had come here in her teenage years. I put forward the idea that she’d seen me, or vice versa, all those years ago, but that at the time we wouldn’t have had anything in common. She laughed and asked me what we had in common now. I told her we were here together, sitting near to each other on the riverbank, looking over at the greenery, listening to the rustling trees. Our fingertips were touching, just lightly, but enough that I felt them. It went quiet for a moment, with nothing but the sounds of the busses on the bridge, and the gentle ebb of the river. I was smiling and warm. It had been a long time since I had been in a position to relax with another person, but at the same time it had been equally long since I had been attracted to someone. It was getting chilly but I wouldn’t be the one to move my hand away, just in case the moment shattered into sharp glass that would cut and hurt us. I pictured us sitting here all night, freezing and shivering, but neither of us moving our hands a millimetre in either direction. I could imagine the morning sun coming over the trees and warming us, gently at first, until we were in the same position, precisely 24 hours later, but in the same state of comfort and calm.
A group of kids cutting through the trees that ran down the middle of the two meadows broke the stillness, so we stood up and walked back toward the orange lights from the road, across the darkening field. By the time we crossed the little rickety bridge, my hand was in hers and we were walking together.
There was still time in the evening, and neither of us wanted to break the moment. There are always a number of pubs nearby here, but choosing the right one to suit the mood is of vital importance. I also didn’t want to bump into anyone I knew, as I knew my manner would change in their presence, I would withdraw into myself and smile a hollow facade back at the world again.
I always drink ale these days, I tell her. She’s willing to try and so orders a pint of the same. We sit at the table and I watch her purse her lips towards the rim of the glass, as if the liquid contained within could explode at any moment. Closer, closer, the liquid starts to drain over the edge and into her mouth, and I realise I’m staring too much, so take a sip of my beer. As she moves the glass carefully away, setting it on the table like a punnet of nitroglycerine, she looks straight at me and declares that she likes it. I get a tingling of Norse paganism from her reaction, and immediately my mind puts her on the edge of a fjord, a shield maiden, her hair blowing wild in the cold northern air. It’s just a glimmer, just a glance into fantasy, and I’m back before the conversation falters. I can feel the caffeine from the coffee keeping my mind alert, but it’s the repetition that keeps me observant, watching and placing everyone in the pub, monitoring for any signs of the underlying tension I feel everywhere.
I relax and take a deep breath, giving me a precious few seconds to interpret the thoughts beginning to rise in my mind. I dismiss them for later analysis, a technique that I really only mastered in the past few months. Without strong medication, legal or otherwise, it is hard to sit down and have a really insightful period of introspection.
We stay a while in the pub, and the night draws in, the light in the pub grows dimmer, warmer and I feel the alcohol working through me, dropping my filters, holding back the curtain and leaving us to ourselves. I’ve never fully understood the idea of feeling alone in a crowded place, but can irrationally compare this to the way I think about crowds: the more people there are, the more anonymous I am. The bigger the swarm, the less they care about one of their number. But am I one of their number. Are we working towards the same goal though?
Last orders have come and gone, and our drinks are nearly done. I’ve been purposefully slowing the rate at which I drink, trying to eek out every second I can in this place, with this girl, with her eyes. I’ve had no trouble this night in staying in the conversation, like the setting sun has focussed my mind, or tuned it to the frequency that everyone else operates. We’ve talked long, and short, on any number of subjects. Her soft hair, earlier in the day so neat and tidy, is now taking a wild edge, with her fringe flowing in at least three discernible directions, but still looking natural and well kempt. As we get up I notice across the bar that someone I know is there, enjoying a drink alone. I know where they live, and know this is the last stop of their evening. I don’t want to catch their eye, but by staring it inevitably happens, and I smile that distant greeting smile, to say hello without uttering a sound. I have no inclination to make a beeline toward them and engage the conversation. Tonight I am with her, and she with me. This has been implicitly acknowledged by both of us, and it would be a treason to break this bond. We leave and I glance over my shoulder, pulling the same smile as before, but my friend is talking to the barkeep. I feel a sadness wash over me, asking why I couldn’t safely interact with two people at once, asking why I couldn’t share this feeling. It doesn’t linger though. For one thing I know that times like this are not for general consumption, but also I know that my friends mostly realise when I want to be with them, and when I want to be far away with myself.
We say goodbye at the bus stop. I want to keep the moment going but every idea I have to keep it going seems forced and brutal, just the thing to destroy a wonderful day. I look deep into her eyes one last time and she leans in to my left shoulder, as I place a hand on her hip, and one on her opposite shoulder. We stay like this and time stops. It doesn’t slow down, it stops. In this place, feeling her against me, feeling her heart beat on my chest, it’s where I belong, where I want to be, to stay. The pneumatic brakes stir us both from this bliss, she twists away and out of my arms, up the step and onto the bus. I curse the timing, but when she looks back the world starts spinning on it’s axis again. Our lips didn’t meet that night, our bodies shared a small consolation of warmth, but the moment in the park as our fingertips touched was as powerful as any experience I had shared, in any surrounding.