How Long Is Lately

Casting long shadows. In London, I walk to work with the sunrise behind me, and I walk home with the sunset behind me. At my parents’, I walk to the train station with the sunrise behind me, and I walk back to theirs with the sunset behind me. Although travelling in the same direction as our favourite star, I am starved of its view. Always casting long shadows, shadows that I step into like a puddle. To see our celestial centre emerging, I must pause and turn. That morning I sent a picture of the sunrise to H—n. ‘Hyper tuned into them at the moment,’ I text—‘Don’t often get to see.’ The sunrise looked like the cover of a box of cornflakes. We often exchange pictures of our respective skies; hers holding better colours, dramatic, the latitude so generous; her composition; all the finesse of a professional photographer. Looking at sunrises makes me think of H—n, or, more accurately, they belong H—n, and it is my responsibility to correspond their majesty. Finding a sunrise good enough to show her. I finished my cigarette at the station and thought about her; always on my mind, whether I liked it or not. The orange of the sun reminded me of the orange she bathed in on Sunday the nineteenth of January, down by the Baltic Sea, above the carved rocks, her slender back against the railing, the muscles, nerve, the skin of her face angled perfectly; the sun setting then as it was rising now; the same sun, indifferent and infinite. It was my favourite photograph of her. It is my favourite photograph of her. Over one-third of the photograph is a finger, so close as to be blurry, ruining the photograph so that, to redeem anything, there was no choice but to crop it from 3:2 to 1:1. Just out from the edge of the station’s wooden roof, I stubbed my cigarette and pondered to myself—not for the first time—what meaning could be found in the fact that a small piece of me in that perfect photograph of her had to be removed.
    At half-ten, I was buying breakfast—notably, a cinnamon danish, because it was the closest thing in the café to a korvapuusti—when she sent me ten texts over eight minutes. I sat at my desk with the danish and read them. They were: appreciating my sunrise, the Helsinki International Film Festival and how many tickets she bought (eighteen), how she’s ‘pretty good’, a friend she met that morning, asking how I was, how little time she spends on instagram these days, what am I up to at the weekend. The longest message, in the middle of them all, read—‘There’s this thing I’ve been meaning to mention to you but haven’t really known why because it’s felt a bit, I don’t know, weird, or awkward, or unpleasant, or maybe uncalled for, but then again it’s starting to feel almost low key being secretive when being in contact with you which I also don’t like, it feels kind of shitty, so with the risk of telling you something which feels like irrelevant info to you, I just want to mention that I’ve been dating somebody lately. Just since we chat about how we’re doing etc it feels strange keeping that a secret. Sorry if it’s info uncalled for.’ I must have misread it. The text on my phone is so small it is easy for one’s eyes to get lost and pickle the sentences. I scanned the message again, slowing on the pertinence, dwelling. ‘I’ve been dating somebody lately.’ Five times I read the message and not once could I make any sense of it. There must be some mistake. For the sixth time, I went far slower and made sure to piece each word together, to abide every comma, memorise the order, hear the sound of her voice in my head. It was difficult to read, to give it as much attention as I would have liked, because every time I read it the more tears swam around my field of vision, the tighter my gut squeezed, the more my throat stiffened and my tremors shook with a fury even I, after all these years of suffering them, was unaccustomed to. The danish was nauseating, its putrid cinnamon butter polluting the tastebuds and the nostrils! I was dizzy. Who could see me cry? Surreptitiously I looked up; everyone was hard at their tasks, they could not see my position, and the gentlemen nearby were also very immersed in their work. Tears dry quickly on the back of a hand, a hand that settles in the sunshine of a bright Thursday next to the largest window in the office; a coveted desk. The phone was slammed facedown, as though having stared for minutes I had finally made out the image and been so disturbed that I was in shock and could not bear to see any more.
    ‘Why don’t you just end it then? … You make the decision, you close the book on it … you take down the barriers preventing you from moving on, from progressing…?’ I was in the car. It was the beginning of summer, still June, and June still like the car that did not move on the driveway, the birds in song beyond, so hot that I perspired just sitting there, but too afraid to lower the window lest someone hear me. I did not want anyone to hear me; she was already one too many, but she charged by the hour so she must, it was her duty. I thought for long enough that the World Service almost kicked in—‘Hope, I guess. Always hope. Hoping that one day it’ll all work out and everything will return to normal and we’ll get back together and things will be exactly the way they were.’ Although I could not see her face through the seventy-two miles of telephone lines, I could imagine it, her thinking me a right fool. Professionalism can only be pushed so far. Finally, I responded to her silence and unseen expression—‘What the fuck else do I have besides hope right now?’ During another session she asked me the same question, maybe expecting a different, more enlightened answer; her disappointment was palpable. ‘What about finding someone else?’ she asked. ‘I don’t want someone else. I don’t want a fuckin’ relationship. So many people are in a fuckin’ relationship. I don’t want a relationship, I want her. And if I can’t have her then I’m not gone just go look for someone else. That’s bollocks… I don’t want to be with someone, or anyone. I want to be with her.’ Pause. ‘And that’s why I’m fucked… Either way… I’m fucked.’
    My fingers trembled so much that typing was full of errors, marking-up a drawing took ten times as long, and all the while I felt my body trying to reject the danish, cappuccino and pot of coffee. I was trying so hard not to cry that my head was hurting. Far be it from me to concentrate! I considered my predicament. It was pitiful. I thought of many terrible things to do with myself that I do not care to write them here, but I was plagued by such thoughts that it was overwhelming. Every half hour I would go outside to the quiet street to smoke a cigarette and gaze at the passing ankles and shoes, passing sandals and wheels.
    Three hours later I text her back—‘Okay, that’s finished me off. I’m done. Take care, H—n x’ I did not mean it with any ill will, nor any bitterness. I was finished. I considered my predicament. It seemed like nothing. Although I had thought many times of this, the thoughts had always came to me at night when I lied in bed, separate from stimuli, my waking nightmares come to haunt me and I chased them away by sitting up. They had always been make-believe, imaginations. Because they were not concrete and because I was so tired, slumber swept them away, out of my ears and trickling underneath the valance. Now they were quite real. I could not sit up in bed; I was not even in bed, I was in a populated office and could not afford to cry. Who would I tell? I tried to think of someone—anyone—I could share this news with, but none came to mind. Just to tell someone may have been a relief. It would mean nothing to them. How could they understand anything? To keep it secret, to keep it confused within me. What was left?
    The reprieve of lunch did not come soon enough. From habit, I traced the same old walk. The walk is different now to how it was then, and even more different to when I strolled it with her last October. The sushi café we went to is closed; everything is dark in there, dusty. I stop, stand and stare inside. Nothing comes to life. Life brings nothing, so I buy a prawn sandwich and some strawberry diet coke at another place down the road. It is a miserable walk. It goes on forever. I am carried by my wobbly legs. For a moment I pause outside of a newsagents, contemplating entering because yesterday the gentleman behind the till was most friendly and asked how I was and I had never spoken to him before. I had told him I was good, so maybe he would not mind if I lied to him again; we could both be happy together. There is not a drop of hunger in my stomach. Trudge. Trudge is a good word, an uncommon word. Austerlitz probably liked the word ‘trudge’. Every thought that had previously been confined to the stasis of trying to fall asleep plagued me during daylight hours: what is he like? Is he more suited to her? Does he make her laugh more? Is he a better fuck? Is he talented and exciting? Is he an artist? Is he effortlessly well-dressed? Is his job interesting? How in love is she with his joie de vivre? Does he make every moment fun? Does he relate to her on so many levels? How many of his little idiosyncrasies has she already fallen head-over-heels for? All my insecurities effect on me a feeling of faintness. I am cautious not to stumble and fall. I bump into other pedestrians and apologise, I bump in bollards and do not apologise. Eventually, whether I like it or not, I will be relegated further down her consciousness until I am barely a footnote. All the hours we shared, all those times I held sacred, will become meaningless as they are repeated in a different language with someone else, and that someone else will carry those hours with greater gusto. I see them in bed. I see them in a pizzeria. I see them in galleries and next to the sea. She holds him in bed the way she held me. There is nothing she could tell me that my mind has not already conjured to taunt and torture me, it would only be confirmation. Confirmation, the third holy sacrament. Confirmation and I am destroyed, bereft of hope. In a bleach-smelling elevator I think of burning everything she has sent me. I cannot. My reflection is there, a million times, a million me’s, my eyes meeting that of the glass, the distance stretching on and on.
    At lunch I buy a bottle of wine. Foolishly, and behind a black face covering, I think that the till assistant will not recognise me. We used to discuss his sexual conquests pre-pandemic, but now I am in no mood to talk and a mask obscures my face. He served us the night she and I went in there, his rapid passcode typed to approve our red wine. Maybe he would remember her and I could divulge, in a moment of weakness, my predicament. He recognises me immediately and asks how I am. I am buying the same discounted wine as before, but at a different time of day, and in a different global predicament—the grapes unaffected—and he asks how I have been, after all this time, it is quite flattering but I could not possibly! I pretend I do not know him and walk away feeling ashamed.
    In my life, the failures always feel worse than the successes feel better. I weigh up how good she made me feel. I hold it in my hand like butter. On many occasions I have regarded how good everything about her was and how good she made everything. I saw how happy I was and I sought—I sought!—never to take a moment with her for granted. Those times with her were perfect. They outweigh anything. Only the hope of finding someone like that again keeps me going, otherwise I would cast myself out of the window next to the reception desk at work, which has had the lock removed and is high enough to kill anyone outright if they did it properly, down, splatted, on Old Broad Street, next to the ‘weird card shop’ where she would meet me on winter evenings.
    On the train I find something akin to solitude. Although, within the confines of social distancing, I am surrounded by the homebound, I feel that at last I am alone, as the presence of strangers is not presence at all but a separation. I hope I can sleep. I hope I do not nightmare on the commuter train at six o’clock. I read until Manor Park, then I regard the endless cemetery with envy; it stretches out on the flats into a vanishing point; it is immense and I have seen people buried there in the dead of winter with snow on the ground. All those figures dressed in black.
    Eventually, at twenty-five-to-one, through both situation and finding myself unable to suppress it any further, I am able to cry, and I do so whole-heartedly. Rather, I do not release but my body does. My head aches, my stomach too. The tears come and my face contorts until it is repulsive, the pain and heartbreak shivering through my body and I am bent over. Is it respite? No, more wants to come but I swallow it down. I sit up and take a hold of myself. It is no use, and how much I want to be of use!
    Tonight is the last quarter moon. Our dead white satellite caught me by surprise. Every night, as I go out for my final cigarette, I note, with drowsy eyes, its position in the sky and what that means, too lazy to look it up, left only to fecklessly marvel at the orbit, the path of our planet like my path of  lunchbreak, repetitive and unbroken. But tonight, I am caught by its colour; orange and hung low through latesummer’s slick firmament. The moon is as orange as the sunrise it echoes from this morning, but now it is a sunrise from a country-or-sea seventeen hours away. I produce a phone from my pocket—foolishly anticipating that modern technology will capture such a prehistoric view accurately, or at least with a flattering temper. I press the electronic shutter defeatedly, thinking, for a split-second, of showing it to her. It is only a split second. Who can say at which speed the brain operates, that tangle of synapses headbutting one another? It was long enough—my desire to share with H—n the orange moon—that my mind recognised its intention and abruptly admonished itself. How pleasant—amongst the dazed remembrance of a calendar and glances at the clock—to receive a picture of last night’s moon. And is she waking with him? So what so very much. I cry no longer, but I will cry again, many times, clandestine, as though it were a venial sin, in my bed at night or in the shower, sanctuaries of onanism and weeping! I move to accept things and move on, because I am told by others that it is healthy, although I am so incapable of either. Instead, I delete the picture. She told me that being in secretive contact with me makes her feel ‘kinda shitty’. No one deserves a picture of the moon first thing in the morning—when the lunar body has finally retired—to make them feel kinda shitty. I delete my poor picture of the moon, and attempt, by myself and in the chaos of my thoughts and sore cheeks, to appreciate the spectacle while it lasts, lingering there, over the red-tiled roof of my parents’ neighbour, and everything so dreadful and useless.
    I stand there in the cold garden with my thoughts. I wonder how she is and what she is doing. It is three in the morning, five by hers; she probably sleeps, although not against me but another. Maybe she is deeply, maybe she is dreaming, maybe she is between the phases, half-covered and summercold. The moon is raised now, elevated from where it was when I wept. I try to think of something to look forward to, something to hope for. My breath is short. There is beer in the fridge. I am already drunk and will become drunker. In seven hours, I will say aloud—‘“I’ve been dating someone lately.”’ And I will come crashing down. It will be the first time I have said it to anyone else and it costs me a pound-a-minute. I will not be able to talk. I sense she is measuring the first time I have cried during a session with the subject matter. The words stutter and stammer out of me, disjointed, hard-to-hear. As I strive to regain myself, in the compressed moments of silence, she says—‘Hello?’ A man-sized tissue, for the slightly salty composition of both cum and tears, is scrunched against my hungover face. ‘Sorry,’ I apologise; she tells me I needn’t. She waits. ‘I dunno,’ I tell her, over and over—‘I dunno… I really don’t.’