Outside it's dry, with a strong south-westerly blowing. The streets are busy with commuters, the curiously cherry-red trams of The Hague trundle by. We walk through this city that we both don't know. She on her way to visit her grandparents and with a few hours to spare for supper; I, weary from Johannesburg, with a vague sense of curiosity and dread ever since the invite. We pick a random way towards the city centre, following instinct, and we talk. Sarah exhibits caution, probing me - PhD, girlfriend, where do I stay now? Not a word about my family. I answer with a certain abandon that makes me feel reckless.
Many times after the break-up I fantasized, childishly, about a rendezvous with my first girlfriend. In those escapades I'd always grown stronger, more rugged, a little more handsome and muscled than I'll ever be. Still, almost I feel that man, wearing the snug, weatherworn leather jacket my father once wore and the cheeky cap I bought in Prague, having a few more wrinkles of laughter and sorrow. I lack the beard and, hopefully, the brooding stare my fantasy always gave my future-self.
Spui, one of the city's bigger thoroughfares. Unbeknownst to me, we're a stone's throw from the pleasant inner city brimming with cheery restaurants, but I didn't know that then. Sarah points to the neon sign that reads "Dim Sum" - a Chinese restaurant, and I'm glad to find out that it's a decent, well-visited one. The menu comes in two parts: on one card the titles, on the second unappetizing photographs of the meals in question. We struggle to decipher both cards.
Savouring my beer, I can finally study Sarah at ease. The face that had me spellbound for two years and some, that haunted for nearly one more year, has changed little. Her voice, with that gentle, dreamlike quality, likewise. It is strangely disconcerting me that Sarah restricts the conversation to safe terrains, sparse with emotion. Perhaps it's the only way for her. I've seen that face in rapture, in tears, in pain, in petty anger - and those crossed lines of intimacies have become daunting barriers. She was younger then, gods, she was young. Somehow I had forgotten about the eyes: the oceanic, captivating blue that even now makes my thoughts pause. I can still see why I fell for her, long ago, underneath a full moon in Swaziland. I too fell for the adventure but also for the adventure in which she weaved her life.
Five years. Both her parents have dangled on the edge of death - almost contemporaneously. Both have recovered, although her mother is still undergoing check-ups. I can't say I'm too interested in her father, a smart but oddly self-centred man, clumsy with emotions. Her wacky sister recently graduated, her grandfather is under treatment for cancer. But the bigger part of the time she talks about her travels. Always travelling, perpetually underway. Her stay in Alaska and a fleeting boyfriend, Iceland, Australia, Sicily, Russia, Africa. Sarah is the nomad for life, not I.
When we poke with our chopsticks at our dumplings and a dish of fried octopi, I push into risky waters, and speak out what has been increasingly bothering me: is meeting me making her uncomfortable? A nervous grin of perfect teeth flashes. Yes, you? I nod, but mostly to comfort her. The conversation halts - teetering at the edge of something bigger, a much bigger territory that still lies between us. Here There Be Monsters. Then she casts her eyes down, and the opening closes. I chew on the rubbery meat of an octopus and wonder if I should've pushed further. I suddenly recall that I always had to push Sarah in these matters.
Why have I become strangely bored, exasperated even, before we order tea? The food is pleasant and adventurous, I'm on track with Sarah's life, and she should be with mine. But its feels as if I dumped my stories on the table, sensing again and again that I had to push them onto her. Is it because after anything I tell that really matters to me, about my grandparents, my sisters, my mother, my life in Johannesburg, each story is seized as a steppingstone to another anecdote out of Sarah's life? When I tell about our dog, she catapults back about the family dog. When I talk about my work in the township, I hear about her volunteering in Africa.
Getting to learn about Sarah's life never was hard, it still isn't. For the first time I realise how Sarah is truly alike her father - too clumsy to deal with the emotional undercurrents spiralling below the conversation, too focussed on showcasing how much she has achieved in her life. It occurs to me why I'm partially bored: I am not actually having a conversation, Sarah is having an exhibition of herself - like in the old days. I realise sharply that not just her features have stayed the same.
Because I also remember how the madness seized me after my father died, my stupid desperate telephone calls, how I stacked the crockery I had borrowed from her in front of her door, a madman's mosaic. I remember Sarah, although she had already broken with me, during that one week of grief. One day before the funeral, she still needed a proper suit. Ghostlike I haunted with her through the flashy shops in Hoog Catharijne mall, the worst place in Utrecht, the worst place in the world when your father has died. She broke down in a change room, she couldn't find anything suitable, and I had to hold her, as in a dream gone wrong. And I remember how I could finally find myself, and my grief, only after I had broken all contact with her. Sarah, why can't we talk about that, that lingering well of toxicity?
Suddenly, she says: "South Africa has done you well". I say thanks, but keep silent. One time, the final evening before we would part ways for five years, Sarah gave me one of the greater gifts in my life, one I still treasure. But of all the gentle gestures or conversation openers, this is not one of them. Johannesburg bears on me, exhausts me, is throttling my mirth; since I've come back to the Netherlands, I sleep and sleep, as if under a spell of exhaustion. In Sarah's world, travelling, staying abroad, is the summit of living. I once believed that, too.
Once more, I break through the safer surface - when I ask what happened to her long-term boyfriend she had briefly mentioned. Already we're back on our way to the train-station, passing dimly lit cafeterias where solitary men hunker at the bar. Sarah and her hubby were already living together, she tells, sharing an apartment, when he went to work at another hospital. Two months later Sarah was exchanged for a nurse. She shrugs it off, but with a noticeable thrill in her voice. So you know now how it feels, I can't stop myself thinking, vindictively. Once more, I sense the breach of emotions, the tiny crack, but I am also tired of the game Sarah plays, that she has played for as long as I know her.
And I realise what has jarred me all along with her comment about South Africa. In five years, I was forced through change: I learned how to weep, becoming sensitised to death, bereavement, the finality of life, adopting values which I will stand for unashamed - but not simply because of South Africa. In fact, it may well be the reverse. South Africa has maddened me this year: a country both stumped dull by excessive violence, gripped by constant loss and tragedy, yet it harbours so little sympathy. It is partly why I'm stressed out. The week before I left, there was Nazu, sitting on the stairs before the department with a dull stare, forced to do his exams while two days prior he had buried his girlfriend, killed in traffic on her birthday. My professor had warned me for it, the stormy present had cautioned me in those early days - yet I've fallen nonetheless into the emotional traps. But the traps were already there, before I came to Jozi. Where's the empathy Sarah? You've almost lost a parent - why don't you ask yourself about my mother, my brave, beautiful mother who marshalled her life back after witnessing her true companion whither and die? You yourself have told how the baby in West Africa you cared for has died a senseless death, but you don't respond when I talk of the emaciated woman in Soweto, or of the street-kids in the alley behind the KFC that got lost one by one. Is it too hard to just write, or say, "I understand what it means," and simply leave it at that? Because these matters are not ordinary, they are not too common to keep silent about, sustaining an illusion as if they are. While I know that your heart is in the right place - you care. For as long as I live I will remember that tear dripping from your cheek after I rehearsed the eulogy for my father's funeral to you alone, that you pressed your head against my shoulder - although always in silence, the damnable silence that smothered our relationship.
I recognise the entrance of the station. The conversation has hit the one subject that is one of Sarah's golden oldies: feeling at home. She doesn't feel at home in the Netherlands, she states decisively; she wouldn't want to live here. I ask her if she already has got a place where she does feel at home - a question I know she relishes. Of course she's nowhere at home; it's an answer I remember from five years ago. But skip five years forward, and the insistence of her answer comes across particularly contrived. In Sarah's world, her experiences serve to underline her own importance, and all those experiences are fitted within the self-imposed tragedy of her endless travel, a construct she has perfected further. It got me irritated in our final summer, it still irritates - but if this is her way, I wish it brings her personal calm and peace of mind. Although I remain sceptical that such frame of delusion can in the long run.
We part, with cheek-kisses; I wait until she boards the train taking her south, turn away before the doors close. Once, I desperately wanted to learn Sarah's motivations why she tore up our relationship that sad October afternoon, when the trees in Kensington Park lit up a flaky golden in a descending sun. Perhaps my bearded future-self would have been able to find out, to needle it out amidst her renting sobs. Luckily, I am not that man. Of course I fell for Sarah when I was younger, falling for the excitement and the wildly adventurous picture she drew of her life, a life which I craved for myself. Now I can only see how things would never have worked between us: even today, Sarah is too occupied with drawing her own picture of the tragic adventurer, relishing in the reflection. Yes, I gladly admit: Sarah is the true nomad between us, yet I don't feel too arrogant wondering - is she really travelling?
Utrecht. For the past ten minutes I've been trying to read the paper in front of me, and not doing so well. Every time when the door cracks open to let inside a gust of winter air and a new customer, I look up. I have still staved off deciding what I should say first. Yet when Claudia enters, I can't help but smile even while my heart jumps - and she smiles back, nervously. She's fifteen minutes late, and radiant: an anthracite winter-coat outlines her figure, tall boots cling around her calves, her braces are gone and her haircut is daringly fresh and bushy. This time my cheek-kisses are premeditated.
For meeting Claudia, I am truly nervous; it was at my suggestion to get together here, the lunch-bar where she took me in our first weeks. I haven't seen her since we kissed goodbye on Schiphol airport, that strange beautiful goodbye, where I finally broke down in the car-park and she was strong, perhaps both of us already anticipating what was to come between us. She orders a cappuccino, I do too and add a bacon-tomato bagel. Claudia doesn't need lunch; she just rolled out of bed and had breakfast half an hour ago. I raise an eyebrow and chuckle; it's quarter past two.
So, we both say, and look at each other, smiling. I tried SMSing her, I tell her and she grins sheepishly: she has lost her Dutch SIM card. Obviously. One of Claudia's knacks is to lose everything not physically attached to her - the amber earrings I gave her in Denmark, the innumerable pairs of gloves separated from her, her keys eternally dumped at some other place than she remembered. She had already quit wearing identical socks before we met. Somehow, that natural clumsiness that resulted in milk boiling over, stacks of soap-bottles toppling, cups of tea spilling, I have always found it endearing. "Oops" was one of her more frequented words.
Today, we're both nomads. Claudia arrived the night before yesterday, hasn't even seen her parents yet. Her internship is going well although she's bored stiff with counting tissue cells. Much of what I hear from her experiences sounds familiar: most people you meet abroad are only interested to add you to their periphery - as most people already have established their own life, their own well-established circles of friends. And hence, gradually one ends up within the international community, amidst fellow temporary compatriots in an alien city, alien culture. But of course she is thriving, even when she was anxious at the start.
In her characteristically rambunctious way, she expresses her amazement how Utrecht has stayed so much the same during her absence; I love her for that. Claudia can barely wait to slot back into the life she has left. I know exactly what she means: Claudia loves her city faithfully, more than I do, although I too feel that Utrecht is part of my heritage, belonging to me. She tells there will be a new choir project when she's come back; tomorrow she will sing mass, the way she has done since she was four, five years old. Because of Claudia, I've come to love choir pieces, so often having been strained to tears by the scalloping wave of voices. Benjamin Britten, Mozart's Great Mass in C, Arvo Pärt, the Weinachtsoratorium - I would be a lesser man without knowing them; they are part of Claudia's heritage to me.
I can't tell her I recently met Sarah. Always Claudia was sensitive to the history I had shared with her, the role Sarah had played in my life. Claudia would hate me for it that I would meet her - and never mind about the finality encapsulated in that one meeting. Perhaps, I sometimes wonder, it's partly because Sarah had met my father, while Claudia never could. Perhaps because she knows that Sarah was my first true love, while I was Claudia's.
Briefly we talk about death. Also in our relationship, death was significant. But where it destroyed the fabric between Sarah and me, it bound Claudia and me together. Because with Claudia you get what you see - no nonsense. When I'd become reclusive within my grief in our first year, unable to communicate, she demanded I'd come see her. She cornered me in the kitchen of the student flat, her clothes still stained with the paint she had used to freshen up her new room, her hair a tangle. Of course I knew she was right, and I foolish. And I let go. Even in the first two months I felt, instinctively, I could let go with Claudia, I could finally talk, even when she realised only much later the immensity of it all. Because when we first met also Claudia was young, and I can see that she still is today, but even in our first year she knew instinctively what was right.
Claudia's aunt is on the brink of dying. The aunt whom so ferociously insisted that I would send her my little photo-reports out of Johannesburg, the aunt who understood what it means when your own country stifles you, when horizons need to be crossed, even when doing so is uncomfortable. I feel a twitch inside. The ease how I integrated into Claudia's family and she into mine, how Claudia unconcernedly started playing piano when visiting my mother, cuddling and walking the dog together, watching television while I rummage through her hair, admiring how her youngest sister plays the accordion - of all the things that bound Claudia and I in harmony, my restlessness was our difference, a now unbridgeable difference between us. Claudia represents safety to me, appeals to my homely side: her life is more secure and anchored than mine. It doesn't surprise me at all that she's looking forward to return to the Netherlands, but I find it impossible to tell her that I do, too.
Claudia is going back in ten days, finish her research, come back, and then start her practical experience - for which she is nervous she says. I smile and am convinced she'll be brilliant at it. At heart, Claudia is a people's person with efficiency as second name.
Her boots clack on the pavement with a thoroughly feminine style. We walk to her old room - to swap possessions, the final act of broken relationships, an act I hate, hate, hate. Years ago, I had given Claudia a silly bowl, with a dwarf and my name painted on it: it was the self-made present my aunt gave to my parents when I had been born. I'd given the bowl to Claudia when she had been bedridden by the flu and was feeling terribly miserable about herself. The bowl had stayed with her, became part of her room, especially when it became clear that South Africa was lying ahead for us. Occasionally, I'd tease her that I did fret a bit about its safety - once, when Claudia had helped me move my furniture, she had managed to drop from the stairs the one box that had held most of my crockery. Then she could look at me both apologetically and impishly, and I could only groan and love her more; I could never get real angry with her. I don't think I've ever been able to get angry with Claudia, only angry with myself.
I hand her the photo album of our journeys through Denmark, she gives me a book I had left, a rucksack, and, wrapped in a towel, that silly, stupid bowl with so much meaning. It feels strange to be back inside this gritty hallway, steeped in fluorescent light, with newspapers scattered over the floor and bikes stacked against the wall. It feels as I've left that life of student rooms behind me, and while this is untrue, I desperately want it to be true. Then we take the bus to the train station, and there we part. We turn to each other and embrace, naturally, without hesitation. I hear how she sighs in my right ear, the sweetest of sighs, the sigh that betrays exactly what connects us, what still exists between us. We move forward, because we must, but sometimes, two people can still love each other even when their relationship stopped functioning.
A few hours later, I unwrap the bowl from the towel; my breath catches and then I really feel tears sting behind my eyes. Because I look down and see Claudia's dedication and love put into wrapping the bowl protectively in endless layers of toilet paper. She, the epitome of impatience. I feel sadly forlorn for the next two days, too much reminded by what is lost.
(1) Pierre, Tom & Sharon
(2) Nina & Henri
(3) Cape Town with Dagmar & Leon - Part 1
(6) The Car
(7) Cape Town with Dagmar & Leon - Part 2
(8) Sabine & Tokolosh