In front of the door of her building, Maria’s male black cat Dash is waiting for Steve’s cuddles. Steve lifts Dash up and kisses him on the head. Dash allows it.
— This thing could kill me, he says, and Maria knows Steve means Dash, as usual.
Steve places Dash back on the ground. Dash disappears behind the brick wall surrounding Maria’s garden. Maria and Steve go inside. Apparently, Steve is allergic to Dash. And to his tabby sister Cuddles. Does Dash remember Steve? Hard to tell. Dash is always ready to let anyone in, always ready to let people do whatever they want to its belly. Unlike her Cuddles, who, despite her name, is very picky about whom she lets stroke her.
Steve would tell Maria stories, about his ex, and being particularly allergic to her cat of all cats out there. The first time he came to see Maria at her place, with the rest of their creative writers’ gang, he didn’t sneeze, he didn’t get a rash. A common friend commented: “Well, these are European shorthair cats, you’re safe here.” Maria didn’t want to point out that it’s actually not the cat hair, but the saliva that cats spread everywhere on their fur that give people allergies.
That one time they did it, on her birthday, Steve said, before moving away for his grad studies, he said (after they did it) that he doesn’t want a relationship. And Maria lied and said that she didn’t want one either, and then they did it again before he left town to study elsewhere. They were almost the same age, he was a little younger, but he was still studying.
Steve would also tell Maria about his cat back in Canada, now his sister’s cat, who had really bad teeth that had to be taken out. He’d tell her how he’d care for his cat and medicate himself. But now he doesn’t want to do either anymore.
Is Steve allergic to cats, or to relationships?
He goes to the washroom and washes his hands. She opens the door to the garden.
— I see that not much has changed since I left. The same old beautiful mess: books, books, more books, flowers, uncut trees.
Steve has severe OCD. Once, they were here, and he said he cannot cook before he cleans her flat. So, Maria had him clean her flat.
Cuddles sees him from the terrace, runs towards him, stares at him, through the open door, but doesn’t get closer to him. She heads to the couch.
— Could you fix my laptop? Maria asks.
— I can try.
He’s on the couch, next to her. The laptop is on the small table in front of them. They look at the almost blank screen while their thighs almost touch.
— You’ll just need to download the whole thing again. The first time you did it, the link was broken, that’s why it didn’t work. It’s actually very simple.
— Whatever you say, Mister Expert.
He types from where he sits, although the laptop is on her part of the table.
— How can you type like this? You can pull the laptop closer to you if you want.
— No, this is fine, he says. I’m a computer nerd, remember? Hm, company name?
— No company, just me.
He types: “Crazy Cats United GmbH” on the screen of her laptop. She gently slaps his arm. He deletes the text and laughs. She pulls further away from him on the couch that still remembers things.
— There you go, he says, still downloading, but almost done.
She pulls her thighs closer together.
— Awesome, what would I do without you? Would you like a book or a DVD as a reward? I’ll be moving again soon, and I might need to get rid of some of the best stuff, even though I’d wish to keep it all, but my library just isn’t big enough. But knowing that my books would end up in appreciative hands like yours…Which one would you prefer?
They stand in front of the bookshelves. There are books aligned in a disciplined manner, and then some more, in irregular patterns, on top of the others.
— Here, Steve says. Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt: writers, partners in all-things literature and life, romantically engaged intellectuals. Sometimes it works, at least for some people.
— But it didn’t work out for him and his first wife, Lydia Davis, Maria says. She writes these strange, short things; they’re not really stories, or anything like what you’ve seen before.
He picks “Various Degrees of Disturbance” from the bookshelf, looks at the back cover, and puts it back. He looks at the books on the uppermost bookshelf. Maria looks at him, her hands in the back pockets of her jeans.
— Oh, I haven’t read those yet. You can still have any book you want, but I may want it back some day. And like this we’ll just have to meet again.
— Yes, otherwise we wouldn’t need to.
They both laugh. He looks at her, the books still in his hands. She looks at him.
— Later, I’ll choose later, he says. So how did you meet him, your new guy?
— You mean Thomas. It was pretty random. We met in a bar. I wasn’t that into him. Not at first. He was cute and persistent, not exactly my type. Yet it’s been almost a year now.
They look at the books in his hands but not at each other.
— Let’s go for a walk along the river, like in the good old days, she says.
— OK, let’s go.
That river flows all the way from here to her old country. Walking along the river on the brick city walls, they look at the ducks and geese crossing the water surface, and at the drops of rain that stir it in places. Swans are rarer, but they are there too.
— Did you know that swans mate for life? They stay with their first (and thus only) partner, Maria says.
— No, I actually thought that was ducks, Steve says.
— No, no, it’s only swans. People think that about ducks, but it’s not quite true. Ducks have seasonal mates – they’re monogamous per season only – and geese, it depends, they usually mate for life. But swans, they are the ones really making choices. One choice. For life.
— Well, I assume that choice is also based on color, shape, or smell, things like that? I imagine it’s still all pheromones, biology. To me all swans look the same, but likely to swans, each swan looks and smells different.
— I used to think so too, but then I read this article. Part of it is that they don’t rush it. They wait until their third or even fourth year of life. And somehow, at that point, they just know. Divorce sometimes happens, but it’s rare. Swans are really great that way.
They leave the high city walls and walk under bridges. Their hands almost touch as the leftovers of the sun pass through the willows and their skin. Gray teenage swans follow them, drifting further apart from their parents. The sun is about to set.
— Let’s go back, or we’ll get too far, he says.
— Just one more bridge, OK? The other side is wilder. You’ll love it, I bet. And then we’ll go back to my place, I promise.
They cross the bridge. There are no more birds in sight and it’s getting dark.
— The entire year that I lived here, he says, I never made it to this side. It is indeed wilder. Look at all these branches, so close to the shore, yet growing so freely…
He takes photos of the evening light gliding across the water. She takes photos of his back, without him knowing it.
— I once read that people always take photos of the objects, places, and people that they’re afraid of losing, Maria says. What do you think?
— My girlfriend, Sara, is a photographer. Not a professional one, but she’s pretty good. Sometimes her photos sell. She takes many pictures of my hands, but rarely of my face. When she takes these photos of me, our eyes don’t meet. Sometimes…she asks me if being in a relationship is hard for me. And it is, but I do want to make it work. I mean, a relationship changes everything. Daily routines. The way you cook, the way you clean. And when you’ve been on your own for such a long time, moving and travelling all over the place, I don’t know.
— If you can settle on one person, or if you need a relationship at all? I know. It’s nice, but it takes time. Time when I’d write or read a book. And children, I can’t even begin thinking about that, Maria says, not looking at him, but looking at his hands.
Years later, he’d send her a postcard that his parents kept in their store, in his hometown, for many years before that. The postcard shows his town as it used to be. He’d point out, on the back of the postcard, how places are sometimes defined by absences, by loss.
Years later, Maria would email Steve saying how she doesn’t want to spend her life managing a man’s anxieties, being the wind that blows him forward, how she has never learned to be her own wind, how she can’t possibly do it both for herself and another person.
Soon after that, they’d stop talking, his girlfriend asking him to put an end to this “so-called friendship”.
— I know. I mean, I don’t. I really don’t.
— I don’t either. If in the long run, what we have is enough. I mean, what Thomas and I have. If it can sustain itself like it does now.
— Let’s be honest here, you don’t need a partner, Maria. You need servants, not men!
Maria laughs, and with one finger pushes Steve aside.
— Watch out, you’re dangerously close to the water. God knows what might happen!
He pretends to fall. She pretends to catch him.
He laughs too, a bitter laugh.
When they first met, Steve was the first editor of her short stories, her first reader. Sometimes, she’d write them for him to read. To give him access to her raw thoughts and feelings. It was intimate. It was dangerous but also safe. He once told her how he could picture her growing up, in her little town, in a country across the mountains, and then some more mountains, and a few rivers, where bars and pubs were never too far away from home. How he envied her for having a country with a past. Maria felt seen and understood when he’d talk like that. But then he’d also say things like, female writers would make good sluts.
They walk in silence as the moon rises. Back at her place, he chooses two books to take with him from the upper most bookshelf: “The God Delusion” and “God Is Not Great.”
— Seriously, I may want those back one day. Once I move and clear up some space, Maria says.
Her flat is always cluttered. Moving house for her new job and leaving this city that she has been so fond of for the last three years won’t be easy. Putting her life into boxes once again, filtering out what needs to stay and what needs to go.
He reaches out for his bag.
— Will he move with you?
— Oh, Thomas, you mean? He might. We still need to think things through. We haven’t fully talked about it just yet.
Steve looks right at Maria, and then he does not. He places the books in his bag and pulls the zipper. She keeps her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. Her tabby cat Cuddles, Dash’s much smaller sister, runs her long tail in an S-shape against his legs.
— She’s wilder than him, he says. Not one to go around asking for affection. She can manage just fine on her own, and then she chooses you and you are dead meat, just like that!
Steve pets Cuddles, rubbing it between its ears. Cuddles purrs, lifts its tail, and walks into the garden through the open door. There is an already half-dead mouse between her paws. Whenever the mouse tries to lift up its head, Cuddles flaps the mouse back onto the ground.
— It’s funny, though, isn’t it? Cats think they are wild beasts, and they are, Maria says; they can kill if they’re hungry or bored, but they need a lot of routine. In my garden, they are king and queen. Out on the street, they’d be lost, run over by a truck in no time.
— I need to wash my hands before I go, Steve says.
They leave her flat together. His train is waiting, already on the right track. In the middle of the crowd, they hug, briefly, casually, then simultaneously pull away. A short hug between soon-to-be strangers, but they do not know this yet. The big things remain unsaid between them for years to come. They will continue to be friends, continue to love others. Continue.
— Thank you, it was nice. I’ll see you again someday, to return your books.
— Sure, at my new place.
— Or at mine.
Steve looks at her eyes through the closed window. Maria looks at his hands resting on his bag. The same hands that his girlfriend so diligently photographs. Steve leaves the books in his bag, he doesn’t open them, not now. Maria can see it all through the glass between them, although it is scraped and dirty. His train leaves the station as planned, but she doesn’t wait for it. She walks away, in the opposite direction. The wind lifts the fallen leaves under the neon lights, but she keeps walking and doesn’t notice them. Not once does she look back, although she wants to look back, although she wants not to let go of him, not yet.