She told him she was too old for a holiday romance. She was in her late-thirties. Her hair moved in the breeze with the waves as the pages of the book she was reading blew forward like the sea onto the shore. She got up from her towel and walked with him across the inhaling sand into the exhaling sea. They kissed, for the first time, once the water was up to their chests. The waves pulled them apart and pushed them together, sprinkling their skin with warm diamonds and making it harder to have sex in the sea than films and books and her own lonely fantasies had led her to believe.
They walked hand in hand along the shoreline as the final, orange slices of evening peeled across the horizon, and the fishermen, in the last light, paddled their half tennis ball boats out to sea until the bare bulbs they worked their nets under shone like a constellation on the moving purple blanket of the water at night.
In her hotel room, she washed the salt from her body after smelling it for a while as a way of hanging on to the day. Later, she sat with the group of friends she had come there on holidays with, drinking cocktails in the sweaty heat and thinking about him.
Once they could they met up and kissed against low walls as rats hopped out at right angles from the bins. Their hotels wouldn’t allow guests, and in the murky dark they couldn’t find which narrow, sand seasoned side-street led to the beach, so she felt much younger, liberated by not having to sleep with him straight away, by having to walk for hours, tasting the salt in the air and talking about Wes Anderson.
She said, “there are still faint glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughterhouse known as humanity”, talking about the films but talking about what was happening there too. She said, only partly joking, that all memory of her “early brilliance had been erased by three decades of betrayal, disaster and failure”.
She booked a hotel room for them for the night after, they had to pretend to be just married to be allowed in. She’s taken part in lots of different role-plays, one of the things that happens when you’re single for too long, but that one that night was her favourite—playing along with the receptionist and pretending to be in love with him, which was easy since she temporarily was.
In her years as an almost adult, she had weathered her share of life’s rises and falls. She had broken hearts and had her heart broken. She had deleted texts without reading them. She had cried, and asked “Why are you crying?” and walked out on crying, never to go back. Her phones were full of numbers she could never ring or delete. She had sworn she’d leave and packed her bags threatening to leave and she had left, as the only response to the silence. She had slept with the wrong people. She had gotten diseases, and passed on diseases and lied about it. She had dated more than one person at once and had fuck buddies and affairs and been a side piece and a main piece and a friend with benefits and an enemy with benefits. She had met people online and gone to salsa dancing and morning raves and hot yoga and adventure holidays for singles. She had decided, in the end, that she had been born into wrong era.
She had left home as soon as she could and had lived all over the world. There were so many places she used to live, so many people she used to know and would never speak to again, so many friends who were strangers, so many exes who were married, so many colleagues who were left behind or who left her behind to pool and stagnate, she felt, where she was. She had said so many goodbyes, stayed up until morning for so many last nights, had taken so many final walks around the city before the taxi took her to the airport, she had said and heard, “stay in touch”, and, “I’ll come visit you”, so many times that she felt like flowing water, never settling for long in one place or with one person. She had thought, so many times in the months before she met him, that she should have stayed in the town she was born in and married young and lived—like her parents—a solid life of family and community.
Her parents at least had stopped asking whether she had met someone. She told their friends “I’m in a rut. I need a change” so she went on a long holiday and lay down on the hotel bed with him listening to Nick Drake, secretly in love like Margot and Richie Tenenbaum in their sleeping bag and tent.
After, when they showered together, she could only think in words like skin and teeth and thighs and lips and come and nose and salt and shoulders and hair and breath and stubble and bones and ribs.
They stood out on the balcony to dry under the stars. They listened to laughter below clapping around the lit-up pool and looked up at the broad stroke of the night sky and back down into the broad stroke of each other. She was silent because of the stars and because there were so many things she didn’t want to know, like how often he had hurt or been hurt, or which parts of himself were fenced off for the past or for someone else, or most importantly, how many times he had felt like that before. She asked eventually, “were you in the shit?”, and he answered, “yeah…I was in the shit”.
In the morning, the sun crawled on the white sheets and on the white parts of their skin. She wanted to say, “I think I’m in love with you”, but she was too old to say it first so she never said it at all, except over and over in her head or in a whisper while he was sleeping as they travelled across the rest of the continent together, reminding herself, as she went by bus and boat and plane and rented motorbike, that she would have to go back to reality soon, to their separate countries—Ireland for her, The Netherlands for him—and the ordinary commutes and routines, back into the torrents of work that she had climbed out of for a few weeks over there.
They spent their last day in a museum of war crimes, among pictures of death and killing and foetuses preserved by poison and captured tanks and shot down planes. His skin was beautiful to touch when back outside they took shelter from the sudden rain in the shade of a captured fighter jet. There they arranged to meet again when their schedules allowed. She made promises she knew she couldn’t keep as the static noise of traffic trapped in a shower fizzed across the courtyard. She said, as she left for her flight, “don’t say goodbye, it’s too painful, say bon voyage”, like in ‘The Life Aquatic’, but she wanted to say, “I think we’re going to have to be secretly in love with each other for the rest of our lives and leave it at that”, like in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’.
When she got home to Dublin it wasn’t home anymore. The jetlag lasted for months. She finished the book she started on the beach—which seemed like another promise broken—on a bright and rainy night in late summer where she closed the cover and tried to cry.
Autumn arrived like a kiss goodbye. He booked flight a Dublin. In other people’s bedrooms, when she told the story, it all became mixed up with holiday romance and half-remembered youth and TV finales and montages in films and the most beautiful parts of her favourite books. She slept with as many people as she could but she could never get as lost in them because she was hoping she wouldn’t.
She lost herself instead in work. She worked harder. She stayed later. She made coffee for the cleaners. She worked ten hours a day. She worked fourteen or fifteen hours a day if you included the time spent rehearsing jokes or the secret late night texts arranging the downfall of a rival, or the time spent complaining to her friends about work or listening to them complain about their work, or the hours commuting or the stress dreams or the weeks spent questioning whether she was in the right job at all, or the half an hour in the shower addressing a meeting that had finished a week or two before.
Even with all that time gone, she still got read-her-spam-emails lonely about once a week. She went day-dreaming in the rain. She thought she saw him turning down a side-street. She longed to be away from Dublin and longed for him until it became the same longing.
The time to meet again got closer. On Sundays, she lay by windows in the arc of watery sunlight and listened to ‘These Days’, like she once did with him in the summer. She whispered, “It’s just that I’ve been losing so long” out into the air he was breathing miles away.
She listened to ‘These Days’ on the way to the airport under the low, grey evening. She got there an hour early and waited in arrivals, one of the last places, she noticed, where people can’t look at their phones and have to look at faces to find who they are waiting for. She said, “stand up straight and let me get a look at you”. They kissed and the feeling rushed back in. She thought of kisses in her teens as streets swam around her and of sunlight on the hotel sheets and of the fishermen bobbing under the bulbs.
They spent the weekend together as tourists in Dublin. It was Halloween and it was nice to have the heat of someone beside her as terrifying young people ran by in costumes and fireworks went off in the damp sky. They slept together in the mornings before breakfast and in the evenings before dinner when they got home from the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Saturday and from Trinity Library on Sunday. She was relieved to be alone again when he got on the plane.
She went to visit him at the start of December. He was waiting, as agreed, by the piano in the middle of Utrecht metro station. The sound of the music pulled them together the way the tide once did. They kissed, making a knot in the stream of people on their way to the Amsterdam trains. It wasn’t as romantic as it sounds.
They walked on wintry streets as bells rang in medieval church towers. The houses were mismatched and narrow, families of red-faced cyclists pedalled by icy canals, sprinter trains whooshed in the distance, children played on all-weather football pitches. It was like the inside of a snow globe the way that part of mainland Europe can be for someone like her who first saw it in picture books or in histories of the world wars for children.
When it got dark they went to a winter market in a cobblestoned square. What started in the heat in bikinis and shorts ended under an umbrella in the drumming rain. A choir nearby sang Christmas carols. She felt as lonely as a homeless person. He asked her, as they held on to hot cups of coffee with both hands, “do you love me?”, she answered, “I do, kind of”, quoting the film.
That night they watched ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ under his blankets. A storm rattled the windows like a burglar trying to break in. They were happy then, drifting into red-wine sleep to the sound of the film, but they were never more than tourists passing through each other’s lives. She was only in Utrecht to visit that what-if world—they tend to multiply as you get older—where they could be really together.
She ended it in the traditional way, with one word texts, unanswered emails and the last desperate phone call ignored. Still, there were moments when she thought of the life with him she had lost, moments which usually came when she was moving cities or apartments or jobs or as she stood alone in a room with the ghost of the latest man’s aftershave, moments when she would have to sit down on the edge of the bed because the film of their disappeared life was so vivid and symmetrical, so full of primary colours and sad, easy wealth.
It happened once in San Francisco, a few meanders of her life later. She was sitting outside a café after work, working on her phone. The evening fog had picked up the smell of the sea as it moved across the bay, and the air around her sparkled with salt. She emailed him, “I can’t stop thinking about you, I went away for a year and it only got worse, I don’t know what to do”, and hoped he’d recognise the quote.