The kitchen is surprisingly airy with big glass doors opening up to a backyard patio and a garden that looks good enough to feature in Architectural Digest. You find your eyes drifting to the people out there, glancing at their glasses, trying to guess what they contain so you don't embarrass yourself by how bad you are at making alcohol drinkable. There's an assortment of spirits along the kitchen counter and nothing else. Bottles of all shapes and sizes stare back at you, daring you to mess up. You pick up a bottle of vodka, seeing as it's the only liquid you can tell apart from the others. And then you're standing there, debating whether to drink it straight. Is that something people do? When you try, you almost dry heave. You need to dilute it, but with what?
You're looking around for something suitable when you notice someone's left behind their drink on the counter. You know you shouldn't, but you have a horrible habit of stealing people's drinks. Yes, it's bad, but it's convenient. Just a taste, you tell yourself. At least then you'll have some idea to spring off of. With your back to the people on the patio, you take a sip. The alcohol burns your tongue but is immediately soothed by something sweet and refreshingly zesty. Okay, not bad. You take another sip—
"Wow, déja vu." It travels down the wrong pipe and you're coughing, eyes burning, sinuses stinging, hunched over. You're in literal hell. He doesn't touch you so much as hovers until you turn to face him. Even with eyes welling with tears you can tell something's different about him. You've never seen a year's time passing on someone's face before. He's let his stubble grow, grown broader, cut his hair, changed up his style to something more form-fitting and darker. You've thought about him so often you're now realising you've inadvertently frozen him in time. Given his shadows a fixed nature when in fact they'd always been these malleable, living things with a mind of their own. Reminded, you take a step back, hitting the counter loudly and awkwardly enough to wipe the shy smile off his lips.
"Hi." It sounds meek even to your ears.
He takes a step back, giving you space, then nods to the drink in your hand. "Still using the excuse that you suck at making drinks?"
"I swear, I didn't know it was yours." You can't tell what expression you're wearing but it does something to his demeanour.
He looks away, glances back again, says, "It's not, but I saw you swiping it. It's a pretty well-lit kitchen."
His eyes don't stay fixed on you for long. He's glancing at the ceiling, at the appliances, behind him at the doors leading out to the garden. You see the people he came with standing around looking at the two of you. He rubs his neck.
"I wanted to—"
You—" you both begin at the same time.
"You probably need to get back to your friends," you say, having no qualms about seizing the lull, not if it means he leaves faster and you can go back to breathing again.
"Ehm no, it's—" he shakes his head. "I told them I knew you and they didn't believe me." His skin is reddening and he's gesturing with his hands trying to get the words out faster. "They're the Americans—I mean, they're my friends, of course, but like from New York—they're in town for Gregor's bash."
"Yeah," he continues, "they're fans."
"Massive fans of yours." He just stares, his cheeks colouring alarmingly fast. You glance over his shoulder to get a better look at them; two women and a man, standing pretty much in the same position as last time, but unlike before they're no longer preoccupied with you. They're dressed in retro-futuristic clothes that look made for first matrix film. Your frown is very visible because what the fuck. Why would he say that? There's no way these people wouldn't bark out laughing at the thought of sitting through a ballet.
"Are you here alone?" he asks before you can get a word in edgewise.
"I take it they're as hopeless as you are in making a drink?"
"No, Tara's definitely better, but she left me for...maybe Gregor, I don't know. I honestly have no idea who—"
"You came with a girl?"
"A friend." You hate that you have to qualify. Hate seeing his relief. Hate that you've spent months rehearsing this moment; what you would say, how you'd say it, how you'd look while saying it, and that after all that time, that he's allowed to do this. To completely ruin the script.
You watch, frozen in place, as months of dreading and carefully planning your life around avoiding him goes down the drain the moment he reaches for the glass in your hand and raises it to his mouth.
"So you like this, then?" He takes a sip. Your mind has never been this disconnected from your mouth. You feel the words forming only to wash away, again and again, each time by a wave of emotion larger than the one before.
"A bit too sweet."
"Uhm, how's your sister?" That can't be your voice.
"Which one?" he asks, and despite yourself, you're smiling. God, what's happening to you. Was he always this... overwhelming?
"Foy. I haven't met the other."
"Billie. I would count my blessings. I love her, but Billie's," he shakes his head as he grabs a clean tumbler from the cupboard overhead, "she's one of a kind, let's just leave it at that."
"Crazier than you and Foy?"
"I'm not crazy."
"Are you avoiding my question on purpose?"
"Sorry." He doesn't look it one bit. "I'm a bit distracted." He glances at you, each time in longer increments that feel more like aeons than seconds. Your whole body feels feverish, lethargic, weighed down by the realisation that you're not alone in wanting to stop this small talk, to stop time altogether, to just to look at him.
You shouldn't want to, not when his shadows are already sucking you in; the music around you growing fainter, the smell of weed and strawberry flavoured tobacco falling away, replaced by the woods from his past.
You felt him die. But how can that be? He's there in the flesh, making you a drink. Once again you feel your two worlds colliding and you're desperate—desperate—to cling to normalcy. You force your spine to soften, your shoulders to relax, your hip to support your weight by leaning deeper against the counter.
"Here, taste this." He hands you the drink he's mixed. You take it from him, watching as he watches you bring it to your lips.
"You sure this'll be good?" But you're closing your eyes all the same and taking a blind swig. You wince as it goes down. "Ugh, no. Nope." You push the glass to his chest as if physically distancing yourself from it will stop your throat from burning.
"Okay, let me find something to soften the blow." He walks over to the fridge and grabs a two-litre coke. Fills the glass to the brim.
"Excuse you," you're bringing it to your mouth even as you clumsily spill some of it on your hand. He watches where you've spilt the liquor, intently. So intently you lose your focus and don't take a sip.
"Was that always there?" he asks. Your stomach hallows at his caress over your sun tattoo. And suddenly you must drink. You gulp down the content, not even tasting it.
"I got a tattoo, too." His gaze softens.
You show him your other hand, the moon inked between your thumb and forefinger. "Got them ages ago when I moved to Spain," you say.
"A changeling tattoo, that's what Ricky," he throws a glance over his shoulder at his friends on the garden patio, "calls them. When you get one to mark the end or the beginning of an experience."
"Is he your tattooist or something?"
"God no. But it has a name, kinda cool."
The way he's looking at you draws the inevitability of asking about his tattoo to the forefront of your mind. You feel yourself fighting it for a few seconds before asking, "Why did it take you so long?"
He chuckles. "I finally knew what I wanted and I wasn't afraid of getting it. Why the moon and the sun?"
"To tell the time when I'm dancing." Nobody has ever asked before and even if they did, you wouldn't have told them the real reason. For some reason, with him, you come awfully close to the truth. His stare bores into you and you wish you could pry open his mind and dissect his thoughts. "Where?" you ask. Maybe you mean to embarrass him, to watch him redden, to feel your heart beat uncomfortably close to painful. Maybe that's why you ask. Maybe this is exactly what you want; for him to grab the drink from you, for your heart to squeeze as he takes your hand and spins around to face the garden.
"Here." You're hardly breathing as he guides your hand to his lower back. "A bit higher up." That's as far as his arm twists, but yours is climbing. Feeling the expanse of moving muscle under his polo shirt.
"Here?" You surprise yourself by how detached you sound.
"Almost, bit higher up."
"Here?" you ask flattening your palm between his shoulder blades. His head hangs, leaving the nape of his neck exposed. You feel yourself stepping closer. What is wrong with you? His scent is overwhelming this close: summer grass and Lynx body spray. You could bite him. Sink your teeth into his meaty shoulder. God, you're depraved. "Here?" you repeat again when he doesn't answer.
"Yes." But he doesn't move an inch and you don't either for what feels like an eternity. He turns around slowly, "I can't wait till my dad sees it."
"A revenge tattoo, how boring."
"Oh, but only the best revenge tattoo."
"A naked guy?" You don't know why you're doing it. He's frowning, looking as if you've sprouted an extra head. It's your voice, the mean way you've arranged your face to deflect the way your heart is beating erratically in your chest—over a guy. Over a guy who's dead.
You feel sick.
"That's....that's actually brilliant, but, yeah, maybe not as a permanent mark on my skin for the rest of my life. My dad's religious." He's smiling. "I mean religious in the most phoney way possible. I'm talking about cheating on your wife with a mistress for ten odd years religious. Never attends mass religious. Anyway, my grandma on my mum's side always used to tell us these macabre stories about the Norse gods when I was younger. Stories he's always hated and used to make a big fuss about." He laughs. "I can just see the face he'll pull so clearly, eight hours of getting poked with a needle is worth it just for that mental image."
"He hasn't seen it yet?"
"He lives in Connecticut."
"Well, technically he lives here and over there, but he's over there now."
"Okay, so what's this tattoo that'll get him so riled up when you see him years from now?"
"Not years. We run the London Marathon together and he hasn't missed one, ever."
"Still, my point."
"It's Odin's raven," he says it like it explains everything, "holding his eye in its beak."
"A raven." A bird associated with death. You don't believe in coincidences and too many are piling up. Your stomach revolts. Get out. Get out now.
You don't. You're schooling your face as he says, "The description really doesn't do it justice. I would show you, but..." he grows shy, but you can hardly concentrate over the fear so strong it has you mapping the quickest escape route around his body. You've just about found the words to excuse yourself when his friends step inside the kitchen.
"We're heading upstairs," one of the girls says, her drawl distinctly American. They don't wait around for him to answer, but he does anyway, "Yeah, this is, uhm, Yashar." They all turn to you, mid-stride.
"The Hispanic heritage museum." The guy—Ricky—says nodding knowingly.
"Yeah," Frans replies, shifting from one foot to the other. Glancing at you he says, "Long story."
"Well, Gregor's probably upstairs," the first girl says, "we should say hi, considering. She makes an effortless gesture to nothing in particular that somehow makes sense, "and then we're leaving."
"Okay." Her gaze lingers for a beat longer before they leave. Watching them go you're struck by two things simultaneously: the mention of the Hispanic heritage museum —there's a story there and it has something to do with you—and secondly that these friends of his, with their shiny, tight-fitting black clothes and pale exaggerated make-up, are very different from the ones you've seen him with before.