The next morning I can’t get the door to the dorm to lock properly, and I have a feeling in myself that wasn’t there before. I woke up before everyone else, although nothing particularly special was on the itinerary, and I felt like something had changed. Is that strange, or does everyone have this feeling? How other people feel is something I often wonder about, worry about sometimes, when I see the way the other first stream boys act during exams, unable to tear their eyes away from scraps of refill with formulae and every symbolic detail of The School of Athens, when people complain about not being invited to the cool parties, when I see someone crying in class and hear a whisper that their boyfriend broke up with them. I wonder why I don’t feel any of these ways, and how I manage to co-exist with everyone without being caught out as an impostor. Maybe other people’s parents pressure them to do well or be a certain way. My dad only cares about me being a good person, which is in some ways worse.
“Hey,” says Plan, appearing in the corridor in a grey t-shirt and black jeans, no jacket even though it’s autumn here now.
“Good morning,” I say, too formally, fumbling with the key.
“I don’t know if any time before midday can really be called good,” he says, taking his glasses off, rubbing his eyes. He tries to smooth his hair, but it doesn’t do anything. “You’re the last one to leave? I’m surprised, some of those guys were drinking rakija from the bottle.”
“No, they’re all asleep.”
“Why are you locking the door then?”
I bite my lip and put the key in my pocket of my dad’s Kathmandu jacket. He insisted that everyone would be wearing practical clothing here and I’d feel stupid freezing in a plaza in a holey cardigan, surrounded by prepared Europeans. He was right. Sometimes he’s right.
“Did you sleep okay?” I ask Plan as we walk down the corridor. I don’t ask if he had a good night. It’s different at home, at work my job is pretty much to tell people to have a good night and enjoy the show. My uncle brought my sister to Disney on Ice once and I couldn’t stop myself from saying it to them. He messaged me later to say he enjoyed my work persona. In Europe people tend to answer questions honestly, and I would feel bad if Plan said he didn’t have a good night.
“Not great,” he says, yawning. “Dumas was snoring, everyone was shouting shut up man, which didn’t help. The guy under me I can see his phone light all night, he sends his girlfriend selfies and heart emojis every few minutes, in case she forgets him while we’re away. It’s only two weeks. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No,” I say. He nods. I don’t think I have a girlfriend. Sometimes I try too hard to be nice and then things become unclear. That’s not an aspect of my life that I really enjoy thinking or talking about.
The hostel dining hall has trestle tables and floor to ceiling windows covered in peeling tinted film. People are walking past on the street and I wonder where they’re going, what it would be like to be someone on their way to work in Budapest in the autumn. The teachers in charge of us are chatting, the other students are swirling cereal around in bowls and clutching mugs of black coffee. There’s a selection of food on offer, mainly bread rolls and thin slices of meat. I ladle an enormous glob of purple yoghurt into a white bowl and for some reason scoop cornflakes on top. Thus the madness of the breakfast buffet. Plan pours two cups of coffee and balances two bread rolls with jam between his wrists. He heads for an empty table, but another group get there first. He knows them; they start speaking their own language and I don’t know what’s going on. I focus on my yoghurt and replay some of my favourite moments from last night in my head. The others from my school eventually join us as well.
“Tang, my man, how’d you get up so early?” Case asks, in shorts with his hoodie up. They all have piles of toast. The toast here is a lot smaller than our normal toast.
“I dunno,” I say, wondering if I should go all in and mix the yoghurt and cornflakes together.
“Those Spanish guys thrashed us at pool, it was brutal,” says Moses eating two pieces of toast together like a sandwich. He picks at a piece of prosciutto. “I could destroy a hashbrown right now.”
Plan’s group stop talking and look over. I can’t tell who’s Serbian, who’s Croatian and who’s from Montenegro. A tall blonde guy in a Nike tracksuit jacket looks over at the teaches and then says in a low voice, “Do you have hash?”
Plan shakes his head, “Hashbrowns, Miloš. Like latkes. Potatoes.”
The guy called Miloš and his friends laugh, “Ah, sorry, we are not drug addicts.”
The guys from my school laugh as well and Plan rolls his eyes so far back into his head that they go completely white. I wonder if he feels different from other people as well, or if I’m just projecting.
The first stop of the day is at the Hungarian National Gallery, where Plan gets told off for being too loud. I don’t know how he always seems to be slightly out of line with everyone else. After breakfast, he realised he had left his jacket and bag upstairs and left me waiting in the hostel reception, his third jam roll in my hand. I’m reading about a painting by László Paál when he comes up next to me and asks, “Can you explain this to me?”
“Um, I don’t know, it’s an Impressionist painting of a forest, I don’t know if there’s anything else I can really –”
“No, I mean this whole thing,” he says, waving his hand around in the air. “Where I’m from we don’t have this ‘art’.”
I stop looking at the plaque and look over at him. I looked up where he was from on my phone late last night and there was definitely an art museum, along with several other museums, mausoleums, and an observation deck which reviewers on TripAdvisor said was well worth the 461-step climb to get there.
He sighs and says, “The only art I know is thousands of Yugoslav workers working harmoniously towards a brighter future.” He doesn’t say this in a quiet museum voice, he says it in a normal outside voice and his teacher, a woman with spiky red hair and a pink pashmina, comes over and puts her hands on his shoulders.
“Plamen, pazi šta radiš, stop showing off in front of your new friend,” she says.
“Our thoughts were free in the Tito times,” he mutters, his face turning an interesting shade of pink.
“I’ve seen your passport, it was well before your time,” she says, winking at me. I don’t know why she does that, if that’s something that everyone’s doing where they’re from, when they aren’t visiting the Lovćen National Park, which is apparently well worth driving around the 25 terrifying hairpin bends to get to.
We walk around the less busy parts of the gallery by ourselves. Plan doesn’t say anything else, but he’s obviously dying to. At every new piece of art, every Cubo-futurist symbolisation of struggle, every marble sculpture of a wonky angel with no eyes, every Modernist painting of someone’s depressed uncle, he screws his face up more and breathes between his teeth, like we’re in a very competitive game of charades and he’s run out of ideas to make me understand. In front of a Realist painting of a man in the middle of either a yawn or a very bored scream, Plan lets out a small exasperated groan and I laugh. I never laugh in art galleries, not even at the most preposterous nudes; my dad is an art lecturer and has been dragging me around these places asking for my perspective on everything for years. But now I can’t stop, and a woman looks over and shakes her head.
Plan shakes his head as well, “I can’t believe you would act like this in such a place of respect and great honour.” He has a little smile on his face, and I think maybe he’s pleased that he made me laugh. “Let’s get a bratwurst after this,” he says.
The tiredness of the late afternoon seeps through the bus back to the hostel, after a messy bratwurst outside the parliament buildings, after a quick stop at a supermarket under a shopping mall for Plan to get a donut, which nearly made us miss the bus. We would have missed the Szoborpark where all the Communist statues had been rounded up and displayed for an entry fee of 1200 forint. Propaganda anthems blasted over a tinny loudspeaker while a bored attendant looked on and you could buy a postcard of people doing skateboard tricks in front of the sculptures. I loved it. I think Plan liked it too, he knew a lot about the history of Hungary, which I didn’t. My class at home is studying the Tudors.
Most people are asleep now on the bus, tracksuit jackets bundled up as pillows or over their faces, the teachers talking quietly at the front. Plan turns to me suddenly and asks, “What’s your favourite colour?”
“Ah, green, I guess.”
He nods, “What’s your favourite animal?”
“I don’t know, maybe lemur.”
He frowns, “What is this? An animal from Peru?”
“No, from Madagascar, with big eyes and a long tail with stripes.”
“Ah, lemur,” he says, just in a very different way from the way I said it. “I like, ah, I don’t know the name for it, it has a big flat face. It’s like a cow, it’s called mudar. It weighs 600kg. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
I shake my head and try not to laugh again, “No.”
“Hm. Well, you are missing out. It’s a great animal. When’s your birthday?”
“November 14th. Why are you asking me all these questions?”
He shrugs, “Because you are a little bit hard to know.”
“Oh,” I say. This makes me feel bad. I wish I wasn’t so detached from everything around me. At school I always feel as if I’m an observer of the scene, I’m laughing with everyone else at someone’s presentation about Lord of the Flies when it’s obvious they never read the book, but my mind feels like it’s drifting higher and higher out of my body until I’m not in class at all; I’m over the E block, above the people hanging around the tuckshop before it opens to get a pie before they run out, above the Year 9s playing lacrosse badly on the tennis courts, above the boy hiding in the D Quad, waiting for the bell to ring so he doesn’t have to go to the Dean for having incorrect shoes. But I don’t feel like this now, I haven’t felt like that all day. “My dad really likes penguins.”
He laughs, “Really?”
“Yeah, he made us, um, me, my mum and my sister, go on this really long drive to this beach where you can see them and then he just sat there for like, three hours, waiting, and my sister’s five and she kept crying because she was so bored.”
“Your sister is only five years old?”
I nod, “Yeah, we don’t have the same mum. I call her my mum but she’s, um, my dad’s partner.”
“Do you live with them all the time?”
“Yeah, I don’t know my biological mother.” I feel strange that I’ve said that out loud, that’s not something I usually tell people. I feel my neck flushing and have a low buzzing noise in my ears like a disaster warning for imparting too much personal information.
Plan nods, “I just live with my mum, but she’s very busy. She’s an engineer. My dad lives in Belgrade, I think. Maybe Novi Sad.”
“What’s your mum’s favourite animal?”
“Ah,” he smiles. “Now I have to think again. It’s… foka. He’s a grey guy, swimming around, big eyes, flat hands. I think you have it.”
“You think I have flat hands?” I didn’t mean to bring up my hands. Our hands have been touching between the bus seats the whole time and I didn’t want to draw attention to it. It might be by accident. It didn’t say on TripAdvisor whether men in his town often touch hands on the bus as a symbol of platonic friendship, the reviewers were too busy discussing whether the five-euro entry fee to Njegoš Mausoleum is well worth it or a total rip off.
“No,” he says, and pokes the back of my hand. “I think the grey water creature is living in your area. He has a funny attitude. Fun. Sorry, ah, I thought that I was good at English until I met you. Now I’m worry I…” He stops and frowns. “I have to get a good English grade so I can be accepted to a German university.”
“Oh, you’ll get it, you’re so good. Is it my accent, I can –” I have no idea what I can do, this is just what I sound like. “I could, um, try and do an English or American accent if you want, if that’s easier.”
“It’s not that, you have a nice accent. I’m just nervous around you.”
“Because I’m a native speaker?”
“No.” He looks around the bus, everyone’s still asleep or very busy with a game of Monopoly Deal down the back. Then he holds my hand properly. I feel like when you take a photo of yourself on a webcam and it automatically flips over and you’re surprised by your own face. He looks up at me and I start thinking that he has a very beautiful mouth, like a peach cut in half, but not a mottled red and orange $3 a kilo end of summer peach at Countdown, a really nice one, like in a campaign for the state of Georgia or the special kind you can buy in Japan for upwards of twenty New Zealand dollars. Could I kiss Plan right now on the bus, would that be allowed, there wasn’t anything specifically outlawing kissing during group excursions in the programme rules. I might still be wrong though, about his intentions, I think men in Sicily hold hands as a sign of respect, this could be like that.
“Why do you want to move to Germany?” I ask.
“I just have to,” he says and tilts his head at me like he expects me to understand something, but I don’t think I do. “Hm. Morski lav, sea lion, does that make sense to you? Like that but smaller.”
“Oh, right, yeah, a seal,” I say. When we walked around after lunch, Plan kept gesturing at things and saying, ‘ah, magnifico’. Not at examples of historic architecture or things of cultural significance, at a heavily armed guard outside the US embassy, a broken vending machine juddering loudly in the subway station, graffiti that said ‘nazis fuck of’, a busker singing Wonderwall who didn’t know the words. I laughed so much I thought I was going to burst into a thousand pieces and float away down the Danube, all the way through Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania until I was emptied out into the Black Sea, maybe washing up on the other side one day, like seaweed or a bag of missing cocaine.
We’re closer to the hostel and everyone starts waking up and looking for their bags. Plan puts his hand in his pocket and smiles out the window.
Everyone’s friends now, the people from my school and the drug people from this morning, they all shout ‘catch you guys then’, and ‘have a mean time’ in the stairwell as we go up to change for dinner. I wave feebly and feel bad that Plan doesn’t know any New Zealand slang because I just held his hand and told him I don’t know my real mum. For fuck’s sake. In the dorm everyone’s talking about something funny that happened at the statue park, charging their phones and looking for socks. I lock myself in the bathroom and turn the shower on, cold, I just stand there in front of it, feeling the water splashing my bare feet. I take my shirt off and look at myself in the mirror. Is my face a good face, is my body a good body? Is there such a thing? I think my nose is too big and my eyes are too prominent like a… tarsier. My legs are too long for my school shorts, I have to go around looking like I’m auditioning to be in a Wham video when I’m just on my way to Stats. I said that I felt like this to my friends late one night in a conversation about our deepest insecurities, but they called me a dumb bitch and threw their home brand Pringles at me. I wish my friends were here, you had to be taking History and a foreign language to be eligible for the programme. I don’t think I know the guys here well enough to throw open the bathroom door and ask, ‘Fellas, is it gay to hold hands with a man and stare at his beautiful fruit mouth?’ I stand under the cold water imagining what would happen if I died of hypothermia until someone starts banging on the door for the toilet.
It’s still warm when we walk back to the hostel after dinner and everyone’s in a good mood, laughing as the streetlights reflect off their faces, making their teeth look extra white and their eyes shiny. I’m behind and Plan turns around to look at me without stopping, one eyebrow raised like we have a private joke between us. He kept looking at me all through dinner; I couldn’t hear what he was saying because we were sitting at opposite sides of a table that seemed slightly too wide, but I could feel when he was looking at me. He was talking to one of the Serbian girls, he was making her laugh so much that she was doubled over the table with her thin arms holding up her head, her long blonde hair nearly falling into her wine glass. It was too much. I felt like I was in the French film I went to alone one night and didn’t tell anyone about. I told my dad I was at work and that the kapa haka finals had run three hours over time. He wasn’t surprised, he just asked if his mate Tāwhiri was there. Thank god my dad’s mate Tāwhiri was not there. Just people of all genders in berets who looked like they worked in the arts. I don’t know why my life has become so furtive and undercover all of a sudden, it’s like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole except instead of the Falklands War there’s a man with sparkly eyes and too many buttons undone to really be appropriate at a school event.
I feel strange, in this big city thousands and thousands of kilometres away from my home but still tethered to the routes set out for us to travel along as members of the programme, as teenagers in a foreign country. I’ll be eighteen next year and could technically do whatever I wanted. I feel overwhelmed by the idea of that amount of freedom. When my dad was my age, I was about to be born. He didn’t know that, though. He didn’t even know my mother’s name. In one of his many impromptu TED talks about relationships and consent, he talked a lot about how if you go home with someone you have to get their full name. For health and safety, he said. I knew why really. I’ve read the court documents. Piles and piles of official papers, in a box in his wardrobe, trying to find me, trying to prove that it would be better for me to be with him. I remember almost everything that’s ever happened to me, in a level of detail that other people find frightening or unbelievable. It’s not in perfect HD but it’s all there, like thousands of videotapes organised in a system only I can understand. But there’s nothing before I went to live with my dad. I was five, I should be able to remember something, but it’s blank. I know I was being looked after by someone, but I don’t remember their face or what the house was like. I play those tapes back but it’s just two scratchy grey lines across the screen and faint images of things I’ve made up. There are no photos of me. Why didn’t he just ask her what her name was? You should obviously ask people what their names are before you do anything else with them. Plan, Plan. Plamen Gajević. He turns around and looks at me again and I raise my eyebrow back at him.
I don’t know what I expected to happen when we got back to the hostel but we’re all playing pool in the basement. I’m playing very badly because I feel like my heart has migrated to the outside of my chest. I don’t feel like my face is the colour it usually is either, but I don’t think anyone can tell underneath the multicoloured strip lighting. Moses and the others from my school know how to do trick shots, they say a Spanish girl taught them last night. I didn’t play pool last night; I was playing a listing game with other people in the dining room. The kind of game where you go around naming things in a category and if you can’t think of something you have to drink. Sometimes I was pretending I didn’t know another American president or Asian capital city because I wanted everyone to like me and I didn’t want to come across as intense. Everyone was tired of the game by the time we got to European currencies and went off to get more drinks. Plan stayed. That was the first time we spoke. He wanted to know how I knew so much about the Transnistrian rouble and its plastic coloured coins. I wanted to know what it was like living in a country with the Euro as a de facto currency. He had a lot of opinions. He wished they could mint their own coins; he’d like one with a big sandwich and one with a guy squatting in a tracksuit, waiting for the car ferry. There’s a money museum where he lives, it’s the 16th top rated attraction according to TripAdvisor. Even though they only had their own currency from 1906 to 1918. It was called the perper. Plan told me. I told him one of our coins has the boat of the guy who came and colonised us on it, like we should be happy about that, but a few years ago we had a referendum about getting a new flag and anyone could upload whatever design they wanted to the website. He liked that a lot. I don’t know what happened to the other people from the game, I don’t think I ever saw them again.
Someone brings over another tray of beers to the pool table and while they’re distracted, Plan picks up two of the pool balls and puts them in the pocket. Everyone’s laughing and joking a lot, but he’s the quietest I’ve seen him so far. Quieter than he was in the art gallery when everyone was supposed to be quiet. He clears his throat, “I have to go after this round. It’s Fridtjof’s birthday and I said I would come upstairs for cake.”
Miloš is taking aim at the red apparently unaware there are now two less balls on the table, “Who’s Fridtjof, does he have alcohol?”
“Fridtjof Nansen, he’s one of the Norwegians.”
Everyone looks at each other. The Norwegians probably don’t have any alcohol. Their delegation is from an international school and they mostly like playing cards and talking about emissions trading. Miloš gets the red in, but the black rolls in after it and the game’s over. I try not to be disappointed that this means Plan’s going to leave.
“Tang, are you coming?” he asks me, as if this is something I know about.
I stand up and give my cue to a girl called Alice, “Yeah, yeah, I guess.” I follow him towards and the door and Miloš calls after us, “Come back when you get bored talking about NATO!”
“Who’s Fridtjof’s Nansen?” I ask as the door closes behind us, blinking in the bright light of the corridor.
“He was the first person to cross Greenland on skis in 1888,” Plan says, and kisses me right on the mouth. My mind feels very quiet for the first time, a dark vacant void and a tiny echo of a memory, she wasn’t prepared for that, but she is prepared for dinner, is that an… ad? The mum… lasers her own arm off… my hands are on Plan’s face and his hands are in my hair, and I can feel my own tongue through his cheek which is maybe disgusting and maybe… maybe it’s chill, he takes my hand and pulls me along the corridor. He opens a door to a food store with massive cans of sauerkraut and bags of flour, how did he know about this, did he conduct a location scouting mission? What if someone needs late-night sauerkraut? He bolts the door shut. It’s dark but there’s some streetlight coming through a high narrow window. I look at him, looking around the room and breathing heavily, and wonder how long he’s been thinking about this, if he woke up feeling confused like I did.
He doesn’t say anything, it’s all going on again, it’s going on a lot more than it has before, usually I just… kiss for a bit and then feel weird and say I think I can hear your mum’s car or I think that Māori Warden’s looking at us, but I like his hands on my chest, my nose pressed against his neck, I’m sitting on a bench and I don’t have time to wonder if it’s still tapū if the bench is Hungarian and has no idea what tapū is, he’s standing between my legs, what’s going to happen now? How much further can this go? I didn’t bring a condom when I came to the… cupboard. I don’t even know how… I should have taken a notebook when I went to that French film, god.
“Tang,” Plan whispers. “This topic is not in my English textbook. Ah… da li dodirujem…?”
His hand is on my belt, so I think I know what he means, yeah, yeah, I say, unless he wants me to… swap pants. I don’t think so, we’re not… the same size… oh it’s all going on. I don’t know how long I can…. Time. Time, ages and ages of time right back to the… big bang. No. The, um, The Hours. I haven’t seen it, does someone have a prosthetic nose? Or was that… Yentl? That can’t be right… I just want to… kiss Plan forever and never go on to the next stop on our trip which is Vienna, even though I really like… Billy Joel and Falco and also Conchita and I –
“Plan, I, um –”
“Oh,” he says, and looks around as if there might be a stack of paper towels but there’s just… so much sauerkraut. “I… ah,” he points to his mouth and bends down, fuck, I can’t look, I can’t believe this is happening to me and not someone I don’t really believe behind a bike shed or at the after party for the school production of The Tempest. I look up at the moon through the window and I think I’m going to accidentally kick him, but he holds my thigh down, hard. Oh. God. Things have taken a turn.
After a short period of rest and reflection we hear people walking past talking in the corridor and we both rush to put our clothes back on properly.
“I know somewhere else we can go,” he says, and picks up the smallest can of sauerkraut in the room.
“What’s that for?” I ask, as he unbolts the door.
“A souvenir,” he says. He runs his thumb over the label, “If we run into anyone, I will say Fridtjof needed a snack, he has low blood sugar.”
The hostel has a second, more underground basement where there’s a small gym, which is under renovation, and a washing machine, which doesn’t work.
“I don’t think anyone would come down here, but if we sit here, we can hear people coming and they can’t see us,” Plan says, when we’re sitting on a single duvet inner on the old turquoise carpet tiles under the stairs, drinking Pepsi Max.
“How did you know about this?”
“I looked this morning. Then I brought this blanket down here and told the reception the cleaners took it away by mistake and they gave me another one. When I was walking back upstairs, I saw you in the corridor, when you couldn’t lock the door.” He says this all very matter-of-factly and I feel… pleasantly bamboozled.
“Is that why you didn’t have a jacket or a bag?”
“Yes. I had to pretend I’m not organised; I couldn’t say I was out looking for places to be alone. That I couldn’t sleep because I was imagining what that would be like.”
“But you don’t mind saying that now.”
He looks at me, “We don’t have to have secrets now you came in the cupboard.”
I cringe, I don’t know if he realises the appalling nature of that double entendre. I feel like I should have bought him a bottle of Listerine, but the vending machine only had Pepsi Max, or something called Hell Energy Drink. He said he didn’t mind.
“How did you know I would want to go anywhere with you?” I ask.
“You said you were going downstairs to play pool and then three hours later you were still talking to me about your favourite coins and flag proposals. Like it’s hard to get a frog in water.” I should be embarrassed that I’m so transparent, but I’m pleased. This hasn’t happened to me before. People usually ask me if I’m actually listening to them and don’t invite me places because I seemed like I didn’t want to go. I always want to go; I just don’t know how to make my face look like I do.
“I wish I had somewhere else I could take you to,” I say.
“Some sort of pied-à-tierre. What would that be like?” he asks, closing his eyes and resting his head on my shoulder.
“Like how many square metres? Ninety would be good.”
“No, I want you to evoke the fantasy for me.”
I look down and stroke the back of his hand as it rests on his thigh.
“I don’t know, you said you wanted to work for the European Parliament didn’t you, or was that because you had nothing else to say to the Norwegians?”
“I do actually want to do that. I don’t care about tax rebates for carbon neutral companies though. I’m really bad in maths, I don’t understand tax.”
“Your mum is an engineer and you’re bad at maths?”
He groans, “I know, okay.”
“Okay, well if you want to be there then the apartment would be in Strasbourg. Um, it’s Sunday and we sleep in late because we’ve been at our friends’ party the night before. And maybe you’ve been in Brussels or something, and brought back something nice for me, maybe a book I like that’s hard to find. Not Manneken Pis merchandise, I think he’s creepy.”
“What’s wrong with a bronze baby pissing? This is our continental culture.”
“This morning you were trying to convince me you had never heard of the concept of sculptures, make up your mind. Okay, and it’s also spring in Strasbourg, that’s my favourite season. I open the window and I notice that there are more leaves on the trees outside than there were yesterday. There’s a shop across the street that sells expensive shoes and we never see anyone buying any, the person who runs the shop is talking to someone about where they’re going to go for the summer. They’re going to Sagres.”
“Where are we going?” he asks.
“We’re going to Utah to look at bison since they’re your favourite.”
“Is that their English name? When did you look that up?”
“At dinner, I just googled 600 kilo cow relative. In the apartment I eat a croissant off a plate, we have really nice duck egg blue plates, and wait for you to wake up. You’re tired because you’re busy all the time.” I think at home I would probably eat it over the sink because I hate doing dishes, but this is a fantasy so I can use as many plates as I want.
“What about you, what’s your job?”
“I work at KFC and everyone hates me because I can’t speak French, I just have to empty the bin all the time because I can’t serve the customers.”
“Tang, you’re very intelligent and to be honest I think some people might hire you based on looks. I don’t think you’re going to be the worst employee at KFC.”
I can almost feel the tape in my brain recording the compliment for later, as if I could put it on my CV or a website that’s just about me as a person. “Okay, I’m a translator. I write a lot of captions for plaques in museums. It’s good because I can work from home and I can come with you sometimes when you travel.”
“What happens when I wake up?”
“Well, I guess I would have to give you the rest of the croissant because you’re probably still addicted to pastry.”
“Do we love each other?”
I don’t know if he means in the fantasy or in our real lives, where we’re under some stairs in a Hungarian youth hostel and don’t even have a door anywhere we can close. I look down at him, his eyes still closed, my hand still on his, “Yeah, I think we do.”
Everything that happens over the next few days feels like an exercise in trying to cling onto time, to make it go slower by being extremely aware of it. That’s not how time works. I stop looking at my phone, which is filling up with messages about things and people that are too far away to make sense anymore; trips to Parnell Baths, a birthday dinner at Kiss Kiss, my dad updating me about the weather every day, asking me to message back when I can. The excuses after dinner are fast and make less and less sense. The Norwegians have sparkling grape juice. The Norwegians want to show us a webinar about fracking. We sit under the stairs facing each other with our heads pressed together, blankets around our shoulders ignoring everything around us, like Olympic divers afraid to look up at their scores. He tells me things that are hard to hear, things he hasn’t told anyone before. The boy who got scared and stopped showing up one day, the threats that cancel the events every year, what his uncle said at Christmas. I feel helpless and stupid. I tell him I don’t know myself, which isn’t a real problem, but he says that it is, if that’s the way I feel. The last night we don’t get much talking done at all.
The morning comes and we have to say goodbye, our eyes red and our faces scratched, and I feel like Rangi being torn apart from Papa except not by our children, but by a teacher shouting if everyone doesn’t get on the right bus this minute, and our separation doesn’t form anything as beautiful as the mountains and rivers, but just leaves me, alone. Surrounded by people at Schönbrunn and the Belvedere Schlossgarten, but alone, my body following the machinations I know are required of me but never feeling like I’m really there. Then I’m at home, my dad hugging me at the airport like he’ll never let me go again, at school, laughing along with everyone when a reliever can’t make the projector work, the smell of wet school jerseys on the radiator. I play every moment of what happened again and again in my head, trying to feel like I’m there, trying to remember the taste of the croissant on that future morning that never happened but for a second really felt like it could. Every now and then I look down at my phone and wonder why Plan never tried to track me down, if someone else is buying him Pepsi now, and if he looks at them the way he looked at me. I scan the memories harder and harder, looking for something that hinted that I didn’t really mean anything to him, something I said or did maybe, that put him off wanting to find me again, and then one day I realise that I never even told him my last name.
Rebecca K Reilly (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Wai) has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington, and won the 2019 Adam Prize. Her first novel will be published by Victoria University Press in 2021. Further reading can be found at https://rebeccakreilly.com