It was one of those nights that made you want to dissolve into the air. It wasn’t hot, mind you, but misty. It was a misty night where a cloak of vapour hung above the park benches we were sitting at.
“Let’s sit at those swings instead,” she said, tugging at my arm.
I had no choice but to agree. Besides, it was quite a while since I last sat at a swing.
We soon got into a rhythm, her up, me down, me up, her down. It stayed like that for quite a while.
“How do you think it’s going to be like in New York?” I asked. Our voices fluctuated in volume according to our positions on the swing.
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to find out.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“You do know, that this is the last time I’ll see you for the next six months?”
I heard her laugh. “Of course, I’m the one going. I know all too well.”
We swung in silence. The air hit my face, the momentum made my stomach drop at times. Maybe it wasn’t just the momentum.
“You seem to be thinking about something.”
“I am,” I admitted. “Aren’t you?”
“What’s there to think about? Bright lights, big city. They write songs about it all the time, and I can see from afar that it’s a scary place. That, we all know. If I start thinking about my life there now, I won’t hear the end of it. I’ll probably go crazy.”
“I know what you mean. But haven’t you thought about anything at all?”
The swings creaked under our weight.
“No, not particularly.”
“That’s strange. I’ve been thinking a lot,” I conceded.
“Thinking about what?”
“How sometimes being there for someone isn’t the toughest thing to do.”
“Then what is?” She asked.
“Giving them distance when they really need it. That’s the toughest thing. To care for someone is too easy, it’s what the heart desires anyway. Care and concern is pretty intrinsic if you ask me. A given.”
The night seemed dead still as she shuffled my words in her head. I could almost hear her think.
“But how would someone know that you care?” She questioned. “I mean, think about it. Distance can mean a lot of things. It gives so much space for ambiguity.”
“Can’t you see what I’m trying to say?”
She looked at me as we swung past each other for the fifty-third time.
“No, enlighten me.”
I relented. “I’m talking about us,”
She scoffed. “Was there ever an ‘us’ though?”
“I told you I’d be there for you.”
“And I’ve told you that you don’t have to. I’m leaving for the next four years, and I have a lot of my own shit to settle. You can’t be there for me, even if you really want to. There are a lot of things out there that Skype can’t solve. There’s too much that distance can’t offer. What if I’m hungry for supper, but it’s one AM and New York is fucking dangerous at night? What if a gunman walks into my apartment and I WhatsApped you about it and you freak out and realise you can’t do a single thing half a world away? Do you ever think of the pain it’ll cause me? Worst of all, do you ever think of the pain it will cause you?”
I kept quiet. Soon our bodies melded into the cool night, and our swings finally started to get in sync. It would be best to get into a deep conversation about why we exist in this universe, or about why males can pee standing up and females can’t (well technically they can), but we just kept quiet. There was a wall between us that hell couldn’t tear down.
“Let’s go. My mom is going to shout at me soon.”
We both dismounted the swings, and continued walking. I reached out for her hand, but she crossed her arms. I could hardly breathe, but I kept myself composed. In front of her, I had to.
She spoke first.
“I really want things to be okay between us, I really do. But it’s just very difficult right now. I’m still discovering who I am; this crazy journey that I’m about to embark on is testament to that. It’s film school, don’t you see? It has been my dream since you knew me. Since forever. You can’t stop this from happening. Even if it’s a nightmare for you, it has to run its course.”
You make these nightmares sound like anti-biotics. What do you mean by run its course? So you pursue your dreams and I stay here in a perpetual nightmare? Is that what you’re trying to say? Was this ever fair for me?
But of course I didn’t say that. It was three months of us going out, and she was finally talking about it. About us. I couldn’t risk an argument, even if it meant putting my ego aside.
“You’re right. It has to be like this.” I forced myself to say.
We stood at the bus stop in silence. I forced myself to read the bus numbers and the bus stops they went to front to back, then back to front. Only two buses passed this particular stop near my house, so it wasn’t too hard. She, on the other hand, was looking out anxiously for her bus, making sure she wouldn’t miss it.
Her bus came, and I didn’t even bother trying to hug her. There was no point.
She waved at me and I waved back. All I remembered from that last moment was her small hands. I might as well have been a palm tree in the breeze.
The bus pulled away from the station, and disappeared around the bend, first out of sight, before even the sound of its engine faded.
Walking back home I saw two foreign construction workers resting at a discarded sofa, left outside their quarters under a flyover.
They both used their phones and smiled to themselves as they scrolled through. My heart ached with ferocity.
I walked a few more steps and sat at an empty park bench. The air was so still you could hear a snail slide across the ground. Home was no more than a ten-minute stroll away. I sat there and imagined how it would be like for things to run their course, for my nightmare to play out like water rushing to the terrifying drop of a waterfall. How it ever came to this, I couldn’t have guessed. All I knew was that each day before she left had been a silent hell, going through the motions like it was all I could do. It was like cutting a terminal patient’s fingernails or scrubbing the deck of a sinking ship. You did it merely to pretend that everything would be okay. But how stupid was I to assume that it was going to be okay, that distance would ever afford an intangible closeness? How stupid was I to assume that things were ever mutual?
It was at that realisation that I felt a stinging pain on my right ankle. It was a snake.
I looked down and I saw it, as long as a wine bottle and no thicker than a pencil. It was brown with black spots, and looked harmless as far as snakes go. But it had bit me, the damn thing.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t afraid. I stepped on its body with my other foot, pulling its fangs out of my ankle. The snake then began to writhe as it was pinned down with my left foot, and I promptly delivered the finishing blow by stomping down in its head. I could hear its skull crack between sole and pavement.
I didn’t bring my phone from home, and so couldn’t take any pictures of the snake, nor identify its species. I had no choice but to pick it up and hold in in my hand. It was tiny, this snake. But it had quite a sting. They’d need to identify it if they were to inject me with any anti-venom. Deciding against rushing home in fear of the potential venom in the snake, I decided to get to the hospital immediately.
I hailed a cab, hiding the dead snake behind my back.
It turned out that the snake wasn’t venomous. The doctor did a quick google search and confirmed it. After all, he wasn’t a snake expert.
“You probably trampled on it and it bit you in self-defence. It’s just a common garden snake.”
“Like a garden salad,” I remarked.
“Yeah, something like that. Very generic and safe,” patronised the doctor, though I was quite sure it was nothing like that.
“That’s good to hear.”
“Bet you were quite scared back there,” chuckled the doctor.
“Of course. Who wouldn’t be? I didn’t even know the damn species. We’re always scared of what we don’t know, right?”
“Well, but now you do know, so you’ll be okay. I made sure to apply some alcohol on your wound in case of infection.”
But now you do know.
I later asked if I could use the hospital phone to contact my family, and the doctor told me to use the one at the reception.
I walked over and dialled her number. She picked up after five rings.
“Hello,” came her voice.
“I’m ending things,” I started.
“I’m running away this time. I know now that it’s for the best. I am putting distance between us, once and for all.”
“What’s with the sudden…”
“There’s no reason for this; it’s just how I feel, and I’m entitled to go with that. I’m so sick of thinking about you and putting you first all the time. I realise now that it doesn’t matter. It never mattered, not to us, and especially not to you. Have fun out there in New York. Make some new friends and create a legacy. You’ll be great out there, alright? I won’t bother you anymore because clearly that’s not what you want. So bye, and please. Take care of yourself.”
The breathing on the other end of the line was slow but heavy, and I was breathing pretty hard too. The alcohol they rubbed on my wound made my ankle feel warm. My heart beat uncontrollably within my chest.
Stay, I wanted so badly to say. Don’t go to the big apple. You don’t need to go so far from home to find yourself.
But after thirty seconds of silence, I hung up.