The left wheel of your suitcase rolled straight into a grey blotch of spit. You didn’t see it. The wheel kept turning. It turned as you walked down the alley, as you made your way towards the grey-brick house, among so many other red-brick houses. That sound of the wheel, dissonant, when you went two or maybe three steps back the moment you realized you’d dropped something from your hand.
When you picked it up, you saw that the wild-looking bluebells next to the entrance had wilted.
That small wheel stopped when you stopped, at the threshold, when you were searching for your keys in the deep pocket of your jacket, then in the tight pocket of your jeans, before finally realizing you’d not taken them out of your hand luggage all that time. They’d been there for over a week. Unneeded.
The wheel started rolling again, over the threshold and into the house, into the cold and unlit corridor that ended with a steep flight of steps. It was cold and damp and summer seemed ages away, even if it was almost May.
You pulled the luggage up the steep stairs, tilting it a little to the left. It felt heavy, heavier than the first one you’d brought up the same narrow staircase one year before, when you’d thought those steps would be the end of you. But you never tripped on them. Everybody else did. Christoph did, two times. Shreya, over a dozen, and Sam, just once. But once was enough to leave a mark – a stain of tomato soup all over the third stair, and a few drops of the same on the fourth step. That reddish stain like dried blood that would not disappear. It was still there when you came back. You instinctively stepped over it, though it was nothing more than an old stain on an old carpet.
You opened the door to your room, then your suitcase, but you felt too jaded to unpack. You left them both as they were, an empty room and a full suitcase, and went downstairs to see her again, and let her know that you were back.
She was in the kitchen, same place as you’d left her when you’d said goodbye, wearing the same clothes. She was facing the wide window above the sink, her back towards you. That window, like a plasma screen, an opening to a back yard where nothing grew, nothing but a wide patch of bright green grass. She was doing the washing-up, her head was bowed as if she were about to swirl down the drain herself, along with the dish soap and the colored water. All those things surrounding her, a spectrum, a mosaic of all that you’d left behind; only that its pieces did not seem to fit together anymore. Perhaps they never had.
‘When did you come back?’ she asked. She knew that it was you behind her, and not Sam or the others.
‘Yesterday evening,’ you replied.
‘How was home?’
‘Good. Just as we left it.’
‘You know. The same.’
She finished washing the dishes in silence. She put them to dry by the window, next to the landlord’s forgotten porcelain figurines, close to Christoph’s cup, but not too close, careful not to move it, not even one inch. It was so easy to upset him, make him angry over nothing. She was always so careful not to make anybody angry, always overcompensating. Her next question was no surprise:
‘Are they still afraid of us? Mum, Dad?’
‘So they keep saying. Although it was Mum who said it this time, not Dad.’
‘It’s always Mum who says it.’
‘Yes, but I think it’s Dad who feels it more.’
She nodded in agreement to your words:
‘I suppose that’s how it will always be. That’s how they will always be.’
‘It’s a good thing we are not there anymore. Though we did give them quite a scare, no…? When we were teenagers…I swear, you can almost feel your DNA hurt at that age– ’
‘Really? Well, then I guess I haven’t grown that much since then. I can still feel the hurt,’ she said, leaning against the sink, arms spread wide, gazing out of the window. Her voice changed:
‘It’s alright, you know – you don’t have to say that we gave Mum and Dad quite a scare. Not when it was me who tried to…‘
And so you simply had to interrupt her, since you wouldn’t allow that slip again:
‘What have you been up to since I left?’
There was no reason to think of the past, you’d always tell her that. She had the habit of mentioning those things again, walking backwards down the same suffocating path. Sometimes, it was maddening for both.
‘Nothing much. Resting.’
‘Oh…watching the grass grow, you mean. How exciting.’
She laughed in a soft voice, you smiled. You’d missed hearing her laugh. Then you both gazed out of the window and it almost felt right.
‘Have you danced in the grass outside yet?’ you asked and hoped that your question would keep the smile on her tired face.
‘Why? You said you couldn’t wait. You said you’d do it as soon as I left home and the others were away.’
There was no answer. She didn’t move. You could see her eyes, reflected in the dusk grey glass of the window, peering at you. Those eyes again, that look, reminding you why you’d gone away in the first place. Why you always felt the need to run away, and then the guilt that came with all that.
‘Please – tell me you left the house these days, while I was away,’ you said, trying hard to keep calm and not to ask for different answers, for a different reality. ’Tell me you went out.’
‘…more than once?’
‘I did leave the house, alright? I told you when we spoke on the phone, I went shopping and – ’
Her head lowered again, sinking between her shoulders. You took a few steps towards her. It was all so still inside that kitchen. All movement, all life was outside the big window, beyond the window-screen: rustling leaves, small bunches of wilting bluebells swaying or shivering in the wind. You couldn’t help but wonder which side of the glass was more real. They both felt so unfamiliar.
‘Shreya told me she shopped for you . . . have you been out of the house at all while I was away?’
She spoke before you could get any closer, blocking you again:
‘What do you care, anyway? It’s always about coming and going with you.’
‘And I always take you with me.’
‘No. Not always.’
Her eyes flickered as she stared at your distant reflection in the window, the only place where your eyes could bare to meet. Her face was an amalgamation of lines and contours, expressionless. You continued, weighing every single word that came out of your mouth, as always:
‘When we left home, we did so together. When I moved here, to another country, you came with me, so that we could start over again. Both of us.’
She finally turned towards you, and faced you. Time had not passed the same for both. She looked transfigured. Those dark circles around her eyes, dusty violet. That same old beast again, colouring the skin under her grey irises the same shade as the bluebells withering everywhere around that old house.
‘I’m like your heavy unbearable hand luggage, right? Can’t quite pack light – ever…can you?’ she whispered.
You took one step closer. She was so skinny, but looked as heavy as lead. She leaned against the sink again, like she couldn’t bear the weight of her own body.
‘Nothing ever grows in our garden,’ her voice faded to lower tones, ‘If this were St. Remy, there would be irises outside and I could paint them . . . ’
‘You’re not Van Gogh.’
‘I could never be, no,’ she murmured. ‘But I guess I feel just as ill.’
‘You’re as talented as he was…not ill…’
She dropped to the floor before you could finish, hiding her eyes with her palms, curling up in a corner next to the cupboard:
‘I also want to go away. By myself…I want to be free. Like you. Not – a burden, not hand-luggage.’
‘But you are free. You are, believe me. You’ll travel by yourself, too, and soon. You’ll see, just have patience. It’ll get better…lighter.’
Your voice softened the moment you approached her. You took her hand in yours and it felt like a leaf, a tiny tuft of grass you’d picked from your simple garden.
‘Let’s go out,’ you said and tried to gently pull her up from the cold floor. Her eyes were wild and grey, darker as she responded the way you knew she would:
So you got closer, put your arms around her.
‘Come on,’ you grabbed her hand again, pulling her up. She’d lost weight.
You took her out the back door, gently, step by step, allowing her to set the pace.
There was wind outside. Two green chairs, like plastic grass grown from the earth in geometric shapes right next to the tall square fence. Nobody had moved them in over a year. You took her to the middle of the thick grass patch, put one arm around her waist, firmly holding her hand and started to dance slowly.
She grew lighter and lighter. You pulled her closer, in an embrace as soft as she was while she swayed barefoot through the grass. She laid her head on your shoulder as you led, but the tighter you tried to hold her, the more unreal, small and frail she felt.
And when she climbed on your feet, you could barely feel her, even though now she seemed a bit taller than you.
That wind, blowing forcefully, then gently. Her body, calm. Breath, calm. She was falling asleep.
The tighter you held her, the more it felt like trying to hold on to air.
‘Hand luggage,’ you smiled and kissed her cheek. ‘Almost weightless . . . See? I can pack light.’