As the plane was reaching the top of its ascent, my seatmate turned to me.
“Visiting or returning?” she asked, smiling.
“Visiting,” I told her. “A business trip. Although I have lived in London before. That was a few years ago now.”
“Oh?” she said, but then the seatbelt lights dinged, and she stood up quickly. “Excuse me, sorry.” This was to the man on her other side, in the aisle seat. He tucked his legs in incrementally, not taking his eyes off the paperback in his hand while she squeezed past.
The drink cart trundled to a stop next to him and the flight attendant smiled at him.
“Anything to drink, sir?”
The man detached his leisurely gaze from the book and lifted it to the cart next to him.
“A red wine.”
She lowered his tray table and put a plastic cup and a miniature bottle of red wine on top, then moved to open it for him. He stopped her with a quick hand motion. “No, thank you.”
He left the wine bottle where it was, unopened.
I drifted in and out of sleep over the rest of the flight, but that deft hand movement with which he declined the attendant’s help, it stayed in my head for some reason. A firm but spare motion, relaxed and unhurried; it reminded me of him, not that this man looked anything like him. Still, there was something in that easy confidence, that total fearlessness. That was what drew me to him in the first place, I suppose, the very first time I met him.
You were only nineteen then. You scrub at a spot on the table, an island-shaped coffee mark. The edges dissipate, it is swallowed and disappears.
On busy nights like this the restaurant heaves with people. You drown in chatter, in high-pitched laughter. The sliding double doors sweep smoothly back and forth, new guests filtering in; the walls swell to accept them. A man beckons to you. You struggle to find a blank page in your notebook; he is already ordering the wine. His wife keeps her eyes on you the whole time, a shrewd, penetrating gaze. Their faces are lit from below by the soft candlelight. They are calm, polished, ethereal, and you are sweaty, skin flushed, and frantic. You have to gently shout at them to be heard over the din.
You don’t know how the other staff manage to remain collected. They are as smooth as ice skaters, here pulling out a chair for a guest with a flourish, now releasing the cork from a wine bottle with a practiced, controlled gesture. He is one of them, movements as effortless as a ballet dancer. He is relaxed, brazen; he leans his elbows on the table while he takes an order. His sleeves are rolled up to his forearms; his muscles tense as he turns the corkscrew of the wine bottle. He catches your eye from across the room, and nods once.
You are hiding from the scathing eyes of the guest in the kitchen when he comes in, scanning the dockets, catching sight of you.
His accent is like many of the patrons, the specific class of English youth that the restaurant attracts, with voices somewhere between the tart, overcooked syllables of the Royal Family and the lazy, consonant-dropping drawl of EastEnders, betraying their wealth while aggressively reminiscent of youth and carelessness.
Your skin is feverishly hot. “Yes, fine, just - where can I get some water?”
“Have mine,” he says, without hesitation. He hands you a pint glass, slippery with condensation. With one deft movement, he scoops up three plates and disappears. You bring the glass to your lips and drink.
You learn later, from other servers, that he has not worked there that much longer than you, but you never would have guessed that from the way he inhabits the place, like it is his summer home. He is careless, unhurried, lingering at tables to chat, charming and informal. He is never fazed. Somehow it seems to heighten you by contrast; you feel more frenetic in his presence, shivering, scattered. You hold the bowl of a wine glass too tightly and it shatters in your palm. The broken pieces litter the bar like a glass eggshell.
“Oh shit!” He mimics you, laughing as he scoops up the pieces quickly, heedless of the sharp edges. “Don’t worry love, I’ll take care of it for you.”
He smokes constantly, disappearing from the restaurant periodically and reappearing with the strong, acrid scent of nicotine attached to him. You don’t smoke but you like to sit in the smoking courtyard on your break and once you stumble upon him.
“Hello,” he says when he sees you. He blows out a steady stream of smoke, purposeful. “You alright?”
“Sure,” you say.
He smokes for a few seconds in silence. “Fucking madhouse, isn’t it?”
“I bet it's not like this where you’re from.”
You laugh. “No. Only in London.”
“Fucking right,” he agrees amiably.
You hated the smell of smoke until it reminded you of him; now when you walk home, stepping over the neon puddles, the clouds of smoke have a different kind of allure, recalling that image of him blowing out the smoke while he stared you down, so powerfully attractive and repulsive all at once.
It was beginning to get dark when I got to my hotel room. The taxi drive from Heathrow to the hotel had been almost an hour. It was unnervingly quiet in the room, the large windows black and anonymous. I had always loved hotel rooms, found them strangely fascinating in the way they were totally indistinguishable from each other, the oddly comforting sameness. They invited you to be anonymous, to be someone else, with the perpetual dimness, the impersonal bathrobes hanging disembodied in the wardrobe. I went to the windows, looked out at the ridged skyline. Even after three years away, even in twilight, London was suffocatingly familiar.
I turned away, taking off my shoes first and then crouching at the minibar to examine its contents, miniature bottles bathed in lurid light. There was a collection of palm-sized spirits and a row of half-bottles of wine. I pulled out a Merlot carefully. It felt like a cricket bat in the palm of my hand, weighty, full of potential.
The memory rushes back, sudden like a car crash. A smashed bottle of gin on the floor of the kitchen. It’s your birthday party, the year after you came back from London. The house is full; people loom before you like spectres in every room. You are watching your boyfriend light the candles on your cake, small flames coming to life under his cupped palms, and you are realising, with a cold, clinical certainty, that whatever is between you is coming to end, if there was even anything there to start with. That night you dream that he’s outside your window - not your boyfriend, but him - a shadow in the night, sitting on the edge of your bed, unsettling and alluring. His face feels familiar under your palm. You wake up with piercing remembrance of his lively gestures, the barely tempered unruliness, an unidentifiable feeling uncurling in your stomach.
I still held the bottle of Merlot, as heavy as a secret in my hand. I screwed the cap off, brought it to my lips and sipped experimentally. The tartness infected my mouth, like a sour berry broken on my tongue.
I walked through the maze of grimy streets without a particular destination in mind. But this area of town was so well-known to me that I felt my feet start to take over, slipping into the old habits of muscle memory, taking me past the retro cinema, the rowdy, overflowing pub. The neon glow of 24-hour convenience stores melded imperfectly with the upscale boutique shops. I felt a displaced sense of homesickness for this area of London, a familiar rush of simultaneous lust and disgust.
I passed a Starbucks, closed for the night with the stools stacked upside down on the tables, turned a corner and suddenly the restaurant was in sight. Three years since I had set foot in there and yet it was so instantly and painfully familiar. I had a half-formed idea of going inside, was in fact realising that that had been my intention since I left the hotel, maybe even since I boarded the plane. I imagined greeting my old co-workers, perching at the bar with my expensive leather purse in my lap, drinking a gin and tonic and watching the activity with a nostalgic and partly disdainful eye. I wanted them to recognise me, and I wanted to be unrecognizable, irrevocably changed. I drew closer, standing opposite the restaurant. The windows glowed like pantomime scenes against the blackness of the night and I stood, watching like a theatregoer. The patrons at the tables, faces animated, alight, gesturing widely. The servers moving around smoothly, balancing plates. The bar at the back of the room, expensive bottles of whisky and gin catching the light.
And him, selecting one carelessly, upending it neatly over a whisky glass, sliding it along the counter. He hadn’t changed. He hadn’t lost that vitality, that dynamic spark, laughing as he extended the credit card machine towards a faceless guest, delivering an order to the barback over his shoulder. He was as distant and careless as ever, closer than he had been in years and just as far away.
I was not prepared for the visceral reaction that he evoked, the sickening magnetic compulsion that both drew me towards him and drove me away. I had expected this place to be alien, the relic of another life. I saw myself, for the first time, a distant reflection in the windows, silent and set apart. No, he hadn’t changed. I was no longer sure that I had.
The pedestrian lights washed the street in a green glow. A couple swept by me, chattering spiritedly, heading towards the seductive clamour of voices that filtered out of the restaurant’s sliding door. I kept going, winding deeper into the maze of identical white terraced houses.
He loomed like a shadow, walking with me, forever turned away, never accessible. He walked beside me, he always had. He was a constant figure, a ubiquitous presence. But he was distant, just out of reach. I was always one step behind. I was constantly looking for him in the tilted jaw of a stranger, the tenor of a bartender’s voice, the easy and deft gesture of a man accepting a bottle of wine on a plane.
I turned into the first bar I recognised, a narrow and dim room squeezed behind a car shop. I took a seat at the bar and watched the bartender as he finished pouring a pair of cocktails and set them down before a couple with a practised flourish, removed, almost mechanical.
“What can I get for you?” He turned his gaze to me, wiping his hands on a rag. His eyes were glassy, oversaturated; I searched them for a reflection, trying to see what he saw when he looked at me. But his stare was neutral, declining to take judgement. I felt, with keen certainty, that my face would slip from his mind as soon as he looked away.
“Glass of house red, please.”
He grabbed a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and poured a glass almost without looking, then turned his back as a man settled into a seat on the other side of the bar.
I picked up the glass and drank without hesitation, braced for the inevitable sourness. The unmistakable acidic sting hit my tongue, but I tasted, underneath, something like sweetness.