I think I've met the one
The little kitchen glows against the darkness, candles flickering, the rain drumming its wild rhythms on thin windows.
Rahi sits on his chair, digging his spoon energetically into his bowl of muesli. Milk and oats spray upwards and, mostly, fall back into the bowl. Sometimes, he shovels some of it into his mouth and says “lecker!”, which means tasty in German (and also in Afrikaans and Dutch, I think, but I would have to check with Rahi before I can confirm).
His tone as he says lecker! is very emphatic, full of the boisterous exuberance of a fat-cheeked almost-2-year old, and in this tone I can discern the hooligan he will certainly become. I kiss his mother goodbye. He watches us. For a few moments his eye is genial and benevolent. Then he bursts out, in a voice that is firm but not unkind, “No-no!”
Hard man to figure out sometimes. Just yesterday he offered me his mother’s breast and told me to drink (we declined, for the record). From this one might reasonably conclude that he approves of a certain rather high level of intimacy between his mum and me. But today a chaste kiss is off-limits. Go figure, as they say.
And so, for no reason other than the love that lives inside me, and what could be a better reason than that, today I want to tell you the story of how Annika and I met.
I want to get to the juicy stuff as quickly as I can, so I’ll very briefly set the scene. Annika applied for a job at the place where I worked. We met at her job interview. Then she gave a talk and finally she was taken out to dinner with a bunch of people. Eventually, and quite early in the evening, people finished their dinner and left. By around 8 p.m., it was just Annika and me left.
Up until that point, Annika had made no particular impression on me. She had a slightly mad haircut at the time and during her talk she had clambered up onto the table, sitting cross-legged as she thought, pulling at her hair and making it madder. This had amused me. But that was about it, really. I had even been on the verge of not coming to dinner.
I slid up a few chairs. I asked for permission to smoke. It was granted. I lit up. The evening began.
I don’t remember very much of what we talked about. But I remember my increasing sense of disorder. My heart began to beat quicker and quicker. My mouth grew drier. My mind tumbled over itself and my heart began to spin and whirl.
She was beautiful. Eyes lit with life, soft with pain, a grin that grew increasingly mischievous as the night wore on.
Something in me opened and kept opening, something in me yearned to receive her, to meet her, to experience her; and the very same thing yearned to be received by her, to be met by her, to be experienced by her.
I didn’t understand it. I had had electric evenings before, conversations and encounters that crackled and glittered, that lit up the night sky, that exploded against the stars and inside my soul. This was not that. This was something else.
I lit another cigarette. I was using a lurid pink lighter that I had recently picked up in some nightclub. It was branded with the legend “Häfele - Detektiv” and it had a number for Mr. Häfele’s detective agency.
A bit later, I don’t know under what provocation, Annika dialled the number. It went to answerphone. “Herr Häfele?” She said. “We have an urgent need for a detective. Please call back.”
I found this extraordinary behaviour for a job interview.
I wanted to kiss her.
We tumbled out of the restaurant. I asked her where her Airbnb was. She told me. At least a couple of kilometres out of my way.
I’ll walk you, I said. Don’t want you walking through the park alone at night.
Is it dangerous?
(Editor’s Note: The park in question is dangerous in the same way that a stuffed toy is dangerous.)
It’s not inner-city London or the badlands of New York, I said. But, it is a park, and it is dark. Let’s not take any chances.
We walked silently for a while, my heart pounding next to her.
I saw you writing in a notebook, I said. Do you like notebooks?
Yes, she said, and I think she may have laughed.
Good, I said. That’s really good. I like notebooks too.
We walked in more silence for a bit.
What pens do you like, I asked.
Fountain pens, she said.
Oh! I said. I love fountain pens. I always think, those are the only real pens. Yes! Fountain pens!
We walked on a bit more.
That’s good, I said. That’s really good. Fountain pens. I like them.
I sighed in the darkness, satisfaction spreading through my entire body. Fountain pens! What were the odds that she liked them too?
The conversation moved on.
I love hikes, she said. I love going off into the mountains and walking for days. Do you like walking?
(Editor’s Note: He does not like walking.)
Yes, I said. But more urban, you know? I like aimless wandering, no destination, just walking through the streets. But yeah, no, the main point is, yes, definitely, I love walking. It’s really great.
We walked on, and I said ridiculous things about how my philosophical expertise lay in trees, and that I had a series of papers on trees that I had submitted to Ethics, that more were in the pipeline, dealing with subsidiary aspects of trees, such as branches, and I was applying for research funding for a project on essential tree-ness, and that if she played her cards right I might be able to give her some work on twigs and roots.
As she laughed next to me, I thought, give me more of this, please. Give me a lifetime of making you laugh.
We said goodbye. She was laughing. I think she found me somewhat strange. I didn’t care. I was like the man in Kubla Khan who on honey-dew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise. I cycled off, lighter than the air, soaring into the heavens, light and love and fire.
When I got home, my flatmate Philippe was sitting at the kitchen table eating his dinner. At the time, he ate the same dinner every night. He made this dinner by first throwing vegetables and tofu into a steamer. After a decent amount of time had elapsed, he threw them out of the steamer and onto a bowl. Then he squirted roughly 100ml of Sriracha chilli sauce into the bowl. Then he ate it up while watching people on YouTube being angry about Trump.
Hey man, he said.
Hi, I said.
What’s up? He asked. You look strange.
I stared at him.
I think I’ve met the one, I said.
I think I’ve met the one.
I used exactly those words to Philippe. They are burned onto my memory because of how absurd they were to say.
I think I’ve met the one.
About six months later, Annika returned to Graz. We had two long dates (I thought they were dates, she thought they were just hanging out). On our second date, I gave her a present - the lurid pink lighter from Herr Häfele that I had carefully preserved for six months. I walked her home afterwards and, at the bottom of the stairs of her Airbnb, in ambient temperates of around -20°C, with lips that were drier than a smoker’s hacking cough, we kissed.
The kiss, I am sorry to report, was less than ideal.
I am not sure how much kissing was going on in Graz that night. I am also unsure about its quality. But even without this data, I'm very comfortable with placing our kiss in the three worst kisses happening in Graz that night. And if you wanted to say three worst in Austria, I wouldn’t really object.
We didn't kiss again for more than a year .
Let us not go into the question of blame here. At this distance, with so much time gone, with so much water now under the bridge, who could that possibly benefit? Far better, I feel, to let sleeping kisses lie.
A few days after the kiss, Annika left to go back to England. Her bus to the airport was leaving at 6 a.m. I couldn’t really sleep, I woke up at 4 a.m. without an alarm, I talked to myself at length about whether I would go to the bus-stop or not.
I went to the bus-stop. I was there at 5 so had a long time to wait. I walked around the park where we had talked of notebooks and fountain pens and walking and trees. Then I went to a bakery and bought a pretzel and a bottle of water. Then I went to the bus-stop. I gave her the pretzel and the water. We hugged, she got on, and the bus drove off to the airport.
I walked homewards and went to the cafe around the corner from my flat, the Kaffeehaus des Vertrauens. Eliza said there was a package for me. It was from Annika. A few books she wanted me to keep, and a little note. She had dropped it off on her way to the bus-stop. We could have walked there together.
I sat at my table in the corner and wrote her a little love letter. One thing I wrote was: “It sounds crazy, but I don’t think either of us can fuck this up.”
It’s now 5 years since that letter. In that time, we've definitely tried to fuck it up. But somehow, so far, and here I cross my fingers and toes, I pray to the Gods and ask them to spare me from the sin of hubris, so far, thanks to Annika, thanks to me, thanks to Rahi, thanks to the mysterious blessings of a benevolent world, thanks to the less mysterious but equally benevolent help of people around us … so far, we haven’t fucked it up.
The rain beats, the kitchen glows.
I think I’ve met the one.