Written ten years ago. Written, more precisely, upon the twenty-sixth October 2013.

The trip’s adopted purpose was for me to cure myself of my infatuation for her, though not as painfully as doing so turned out to be.
    I left the house at my usual time with my backpack for five nights away and excitement in me. I had not been excited until the last moment. Two days prior she had told me she was in love with someone. For two nights I got drunk and tried to forget. It was too late; I couldn’t pull out. ‘Besides,’ I thought—‘It doesn’t matter: you can have fun and fall out of love (or infatuation) and see a new city and maybe everything’ll be easier.’
    She was at the arrivals gate, looking down at her phone. She looked up, smiled. I hugged her tightly, elated to see her again. So it goes.[1]
    The movement through the city on a Friday afternoon, when the schools are kicking out, the train sliding between colourful graffiti which I complimented, a new underground map to familiarise myself with. Seven months it had been—seven months and one day—and the sun was pasted on our faces as we ran up through the city to her flat on the fifth floor of a converted sanatorium. The window looked out on an upside-down triangle of roads, cluttered with bikes and parked cars, bins green and labelled, the routes of cyclists and children holding hands, always the sound of children in the air, shops that never seemed to be open, and opposite, a dazzling duplex of fantasy people living fantasy lives.
    Yet there I was, in her room; a phantom brought to life, appropriately decorated in mementos (wine from a past visit, postcards, flyers, unsold portfolios), her mainly black wardrobe, dark-rimmed teacups, uncountable balls of fluff, empty lamp sockets, a mattress lying on the floor, light coming in from three windows, octagonal, a desk with more clothes stacked underneath it.
    When was the last time I had been in a girl’s room?
    We slunk down on her bed and she showed me a map of the city, listing everything out with a velocity I could not follow, all dizzy and hung-up and trying to catch up.
    It was her.
    It was her, again.
    It was her who I thought I would not see again.
    She smelled the same as she had in London, as in my relentless nostalgia and as in the coffee queue girl from a month back. The smell of her hungry breath was the node where my hungry affection was anchored.
    To me, at least, Vienna was steeped in couples.[2] Couples old and new, forever and flitting, holding hands and detached, couples swinging through town like newly released birds. And, with her, I felt like one-half of a couple. She was every bit as charming as I remembered. It was her childish delight at a great many things—a quality so absent from my own personality—that enthralled me. Her addiction a-quiver, we went to an ice cream parlour and walked down the street with overflowing scoops of colour, licking and sharing and commenting and the warm Viennese night smoothing us all over.
    Much later on, we went to a gig on the opposite side of town in a small, worn-out venue poetically dressed in young people arming their Friday night with something wonderfully careless. She reunited with some artists and students and I looked on, the speechless partner, shaking hands when necessary. She bumped against me in the throb of the punks’ set. ‘So this is life,’ I thought—‘I’m in a foreign city and all things alive and well and things I’ve never done before and new experiences and her and her and her company and her bumping against me and I am happy just leave me here wake me up in the morning and before you go give me more money for another tequila.’ I spoke to an Austrian and shared cigarettes; I spoke to the lead singer; I blended in as best I could. I even maintained my tradition of, in punk clubs, asking the d.j. to play B-52’s; politely unable. She disappeared to dance, then returned.
    The u-bahn was open all night. We got home safely. Drunk and patiently happy, I put my lips on hers, my fingers finding her dry fold, and was shooed away with—‘I’m too tired.’ All smiles, I receded.
    That first night was the parent of four others just like it: sleep was an enemy I didn’t know I had made. It evaded me on every possible corner. The heat, her heat, brought me out in thick sweats; her hair tickled my nose; her movements woke me; I was never comfortable. In the deep dawn, I slept a few hours but everything else was stabbed with waking up in ten-minute intervals. What I had was tired love. Every time I woke up, I pulled myself closer to her unconscious body. She sleepily entwined our legs together. I was dazed, prancing through a dream that was not quite mine to have; the hammock of her perfect skin between two small shoulder blades. With her back to me in spoons, I put my lips on her. I was adopting the affectionate sucker. She slept through it; part of me felt pathetic, the other thrilled to have the privilege. Still, sleep evaded me and in the morning I awoke tired and with vinegar swilling around my brain.
    Exhaustion, already.
    And so it began, my recession.
    It was during this time that he began to creep into my thoughts, this stranger I had no idea about. If I stumbled, he was there! Oh, I was hounded! I barely knew his name but I could not stop to compare myself against him; after all, he had been here just before me and what sort of time had she had with him? Had they had so much fun? He was—so sure—much more fun to be around than I. There I was: fumbling around the paths of the Saturday market comparing myself to another young man. She spoke of him very fondly! She was in love with him! What was I? In the evening I tried to cut some bread but my shakes and my tiredness were so that I almost drove the knife into my finger. A sliver of blood. And then she would talk to him on the internet and I would read my book (which she had sneered at when I pulled it out of my bag) and I wondered when I became so boring.
    I am a most boring person, preferring to observe than to perform, and there I was, suffering for it. He must have delighted her when he was around. I felt nauseous just thinking about it so I drank some wine. She fell asleep first. I listened to her snoring. I thought. I thought. I thought. My brain worked away. It was a perverted bastard and I could not bear it. Who was this stranger and why was I so obsessed by him? After the first night and all the signs I had received from her, my sex disappeared. I became a eunuch and simply lay beside her. I had no desire for sex because my esteem would not allow it, yet when I pressed myself against her sleepiness my sturdy prick dribbled. It pulsed and fed my underwear spiderwebs of the most rainbow precum! My crotch grew sloppy.
    Morning brought better spirits, but only a loosening that allowed me to control my envy for some young man whom I did not know. We had a good day: We had a cooked breakfast. We ate and afterwards she asked to take photographs of me before I had showered or brushed my teeth. My hair was a mess and my repulsive self was even more lacking. She pleaded with me. I posed for her and once more she was nothing but the most wonderful girl I had known. She sat, legs crossed, on the floor, wrestling her Mamiya, talking to me, listening to me, relaxing me. It was just her and me, hot and unwashed for the sun to see. All the joy I ever found in her was brought to the fore. We walked around town and went for a meal in the evening. Nothing was better. I was happy. She was a rain-dance, an apricot stone, a full moon. We stopped at a restaurant with posters of Dylan on the wall and Laurel & Hardy playing on a big screen with German subtitles. When we got home that Sunday evening she got to talking to this other young man. I sat there, reading my book, trying hard to ignore her. ‘She will be off in a moment,’ I assumed wrongly. I had not known hurt like it since secondary school when, my infatuation shown to girls, they shunned me. My chest hurt! I waited and waited for her to cease talking to him, for her to acknowledge me again, for her to let me back into her magnificent circle. Her face was all shone in the glow of her computer. I waited. Eventually, they stopped talking.
    We went to a bar. I did not wish to talk to her. As much as I didn’t wish to talk to her, she was oblivious and she was her and I was powerless against her and my sulk just became an abruptness.
    The bar was dark and I was happy to be in it. I could not get enough beer. ‘So this is her olive branch?’ I thought—‘Taking me to a bar?’ I swallowed my beer in long draughts and submitted myself to drunkenness. It was all I wanted to do. If I could just be ruined by drink and not her, I could be happy. But it did not last, when we got into bed I admitted everything in a long stream of stuttering and stifled tears. I crouched myself into a ball so that, even in the dim darkness of her dwelling, the stretchered streetlights hung in rows down the road poking through her windows, she could not see my face. When I felt myself start to cry, I froze and waited for them to stop. ‘You are most pathetic,’ I thought. I was not helping myself but I no longer cared. In the morning I could not remember what I had said, other than I had let it all out. I thought I should apologise but she didn’t mention it so I wouldn’t either.
    Any hopes that things would be better were squashed by the time we went to bed on Monday. We had cooked together and laughed together and she told me—‘I have a skype date with a friend, but it shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes.’ She went into another room, leaving me with a cup of tea and a chance to catch up on my reading.
    Twenty minutes. I could live with that.
    An hour and a half later, she returned. ‘It’s funny how all the girls I know are insecure, and all of the guys—most of the guys (she spotted me!) are secure about themselves.’ I cast a glance at her. By this time, my teeth were brushed and I was getting into bed. I had grown tired of waiting for her. She said she would take me to a bar in the seventh district but it was too late for that now.
    And again the night—oh, how I had so often relied upon it!—failed me. Night failed me! I lied on the edge of the bed. I am a patient person. I am sexless. I am wanting. I do not fit in anywhere. I am a shape without a hole. Her snoring clarified the tip of the church spire. It was true: I didn’t fit in anywhere. All my adolescent inadequacies and dissatisfactions returned. Where was Weston[3] to kick me when I was down? I was rendered a miserable wreck. I wished to be home. I turned and gazed at her sleeping face; her mouth slightly open, the crooked teeth beneath, the unmade-up eyes that looked so gorgeous in glasses, the trembling hairline, the smell that emanated from her and stiffened my prick enough so that it could cry for me. I, who rely on my genitals to weep when I am fixated on someone in the distance. I wished to be home. Throughout the night I awoke and awoke and woke. If I was awake then I could pull myself closer to her and make believe. There was nothing left for me that night. However much I wished I were drunk, I eventually fell asleep in the noxious gases of sobriety and got up in the morning feeling better.
    We had a delicious breakfast in a bookshop cafe. In the u-bahn she spied a c.c.t.v. camera and said—‘I took a selfie in that!’ She showed me: her and this young man, their heads just in the camera shown in the camera captured in the camera the camera unwilling and compliant and her and the young man and all of my misery echoing on for generations. I was not he and she was with I and that camera will sometimes check someone falling to their electric death.
    She left me to my own devices that afternoon because of her classes so, desperate to sample some of the culture we had somehow avoided, I went to the Klimt Museum. How at ease I was. Taking my time and everything I could (a photograph where a middle-aged man posed for me in front of an uninteresting installation), I ventured at last into the hall where Beethoven’s Frieze was stood up:
    I was in awe.
    This was it.
    In the conflict of infatuation and love and things that cost the heart dearly, was the beauty I could not breathe in without starting to tremble.
    I gawped at each panel, taking them in as much as I could.
    The regular tourists came and went, fingering their mobiles, but I was flabbergasted: what I had studied in books was finally presented to me in the eternal hand of the artist!
    I was all frightened by wonder!
    It was the prelude to my afternoon alone. I went to a café and ordered a coffee and a white russian. Sitting there. Staring out. The cocky cockney sparrows darting about my feet to feed upon crumbs; the diners a wonderful spectacle; the passing crowds; the schoolchildren; the memories, only days old, giving themselves back to me. Two young women came and sat in front of me; when I had finally summoned up the courage to photograph them, the nearest turned around and caught me, sending me into nervousness, so that I paid up and got out of there. I went to the photobooth and took four pictures of myself. What was I doing? Why was I taking portraits of myself at such a time? Five minutes later my face came out all black and white and contrasted and conflicted and unamused and undecided.
    We rendezvoused and I had no more to lose. My flight was in less than twenty-four hours. I would be out of there soon and I could stop comparing myself to someone else. We went to a bar in a fashionable district of young people and good looks. She was the same; unbending in her appeal. As strongly as I wanted to flee I wanted to stay. She dragged me to a gallery opening and I found it all tiresome and repulsive. I used the toilet. I even made a sufficient shadow for her. A last night meal of noodles. One last time of sitting opposite and the shade of Vienna’s clouds and night. Her white unmade eyelids and the shock of brown eyes when, for some reason, I always expected blue. The slim prim cows next to us made me uncomfortable. They would not stop staring.
    The ragged cloth of a skyline; the last scene she showed me was from the sixth-floor balcony of a popular bar. I was at peace with the spectre over my shoulder because it was simple: I was not him and she was not his nor would she ever be his or anybody’s. It was algebra of the most unromantic kind. It pissed between my joints and let me see things—skewered against the Viennese lip—reasonably and fatalistically. This was my lot as it had always been my lot. Girls were other planets and love was alien. The final journey home and the final recline in bed and the final sisterly affection she endowed upon me. She slept right away, her conscious clean, but I lingered on the edge of the bed, sleepless. One last torment. She would stir, start to stroke me and then I would return the favour, long after her snores christened the room. She removed her knickers and when she spooned into me I felt the heat of her cunt. I was not rigid to it. So it goes.
    We said good-bye.
    I felt something.
    I don’t know what I felt.
    I felt like an accordion being stretched, perhaps.
    When I turned away I thought that it was for good … then I swung and searched for her in the crowd but could not see her. ‘Good-bye…’ I walked around the block to ease my mind. On the train back to the airport—unaccompanied this time—I let my eyes water and my sadness follow. When the plane rose its nose to heaven I did not look out of the window. A blonde with unforgettable lips sat next to me. She rested against my shoulder as though I deserved pity but I knew that I deserved none. I got home and unpacked my things. I could not smell her. I heated up some soup. I opened a bottle of wine and sat down to write. Why couldn’t I smell her? I wrote about her. I couldn’t smell her.

Six years later I welcomed her back into my life. It was probably the happiest I had ever been, until COVID struck and, in all the chaos, she taught me to bear grudges.

[1] I was reading a lot of Vonnegut at the time. I bought the books with a voracious appetite, which Penguin were republishing, for the first time, wondering why I never got round to him earlier.

[2] Frankly, every city is full of couples. Perhaps it is my loneliness, but it seems city people fall in love, town people raise children, country people die.

[3] A kid who bullied me 1996-1998.