There were hundreds of men like you; middle aged, dark suit with a swick of colour at the neck. Manicured hands, hair more grey than the dark brown I now know it was until you were divorced at 38 from the mother of your two children.
I don’t know why I sat near you. Maybe because of the small black suitcase at your feet, exactly the same as mine, or the quick way you ate while keeping an eye on the announcements board. You weren’t reading. You hadn’t snapped open your laptop the way I had. You didn’t have a magazine.
There were hundreds of men like you that day, with small black suitcases, weary of anything a train station could possibly offer. Why did I sit near you?
The knife sharpener arrived. Alright guys, he said to the sushi chefs, pulling shining metal from a cardboard box. We stared. The blades shuddered in a burst of sun that crashed through the glass dome. When we looked away, we looked at each other. You smiled.
We were people used to rain and grey, both of us. Much later I learned you’d lived for five years in Madrid with the mother of your two children and had suffered from the heat. I burned, you told me much later, like an insect under a magnifying glass.
First, a hotel. Manchester. I’d like to forget the name of that hotel, but I see it in every city centre, on every motorway. They still send me emails. Twenty-nine pounds for a double room in Dundee on the second weekend in May. I stepped across the border of the room into a landscape of brown carpet and hard white sheets that never fell right. You switched on the light; I walked to the bed and pulled the cord of the bedside lamp. You switched off the light.
My grey tights. Your white shirt. My black dress. Your grey suit. We littered the room with our colourless selves, while we moved warm and sly through the white sheets. Under the clothes you were fatter, I was thinner, except for my bum which was fatter and your arms which were thinner. Your hand arched my back my thigh moved your hip. Later, we smelled of each other and washed the hours away in the blank white shower.
Give me the shampoo. Let me. Your voice was different underwater.
I went to your city to interview a woman. She was a scientist and I was writing an article about a sea mammal she’d found who never stopped moving, even while asleep. If the animal stopped moving it would die. She lived in a suburban house with a long, flowerless garden, and a photograph of the sea mammal above the mantelpiece. The animal was named after her brother, who died in a car crash when they were teenagers.
I couldn’t go to your flat because it was your week with the kids, and though you would have liked me to meet them it might have caused difficulties with the mother of your two children. I went to your office after I’d interviewed the scientist. I met your colleague, who came from my city and whose name was Jo. We had lunch in a café so loud with bankers’ predictions and waiters’ exhaustion we couldn’t hear one another. Under the table, you slipped your hand around my knee while I showed you drawings of the sea mammal.
Another hotel. Birmingham. I lay back on the bed while you unzipped my boots. You tried to unbutton my blouse with your teeth. Later, we drank coffee from the machine in the lobby and read a newspaper neither of us would usually buy. Front-page photo of a woman who claimed to have slept with three politicians for money. You wrapped the blankets around us. I set my phone alarm so you wouldn’t be late to pick up the kids from the home of the mother of your two children. Then we slept a perfect sleep, in hard white sheets that never fell right.
I’ve never been able to sleep. I woke before dawn in my childhood bedrooms, a different one every few months. Unglazed windows rattling with wind, rain leaking under the sills, debt collectors rattling the letterbox. A caravan with windows held shut by wire. Someone broke into my bedroom, stole nothing but left dirty footprints on my bed. Stole nothing but left the smell of stale flesh on my pillow. Now, two years after I saw you in a train station, I sleep even less than before.
Now I sit awake in my bed in my flat, a novel and a cup of mint tea on the polished wooden table, soft sheets settling against my skin. I rarely bring men here; I don’t want them leaving their scent.
You came to my flat. By then there had been several hotel rooms. Carlisle, Bristol, Newcastle. It was the first time you’d come to my city. You took a taxi from the conference centre and arrived after dark, umbrella dripping. I answered the door in jeans and a vest, lamplight behind me. You looked startled and I realised you thought, for just a moment, you were at the wrong place. We laughed, and you stepped over my welcome mat.
You stayed all weekend. We made coffee in the pot my ex-boyfriend left behind, fried eggs in the beautiful pan I bought on sale in a designer shop. We walked to my favourite pub, with old booths and stained glass. We drank beer and ate pizza. You said you couldn’t understand the accents of my city. You lifted me onto my kitchen counter and put my legs on your shoulders.
On Sunday, I woke to sun. You weren’t in my bed. I found you in the shower, scrubbing with my Dead Sea sponge. You turned, looking smaller than usual. You smiled a smile that made the light too bright, my skin too dull.
Your flat, the flat you’d shared with the mother of your two children until you were divorced at 38, was bigger than I expected. The furniture was gathered, collected, not bought. I smoothed my hand along a green dressing table, warped with years. Where did you find it?
In the garden you shared with the upstairs neighbours, a swingset rotted in the grass. I woke during the night from a dream of a room thick with dirty sheets and broken toys. I saw my own leg tangled in your soft striped sheets, a different shape, shorter from knee to ankle and warped at the thigh, like a piano leg.
In your wardrobe mirror, I dried my hair with a hairdryer which was neither yours nor mine. Standing behind me, you were taller than usual, I was smaller, except for my breasts which had grown obscenely. The silk nightdress I’d hung over the headboard looked cheap and the small black suitcase I’d left by the door had scratched the floorboards.
I kept something of you, which was neither yours nor mine. A hotel glass with the imprint of both our mouths, which smells of stale malt. I never drink from it.
Miriam is a Stuttgart-based writer and teacher who freelances for publications in Scotland, Canada, England, India, Russia and the US. She comes from Atlantic Canada and lived in Glasgow long enough to be considered a local. She’s worked in the Scottish 3rd sector (specialising in abuse prevention legislation), and taught in Burma and Russia. She has travelled widely, lived next to the Babayevsky chocolate factory in Moscow, driven a rickshaw in Kerala and is known for having strange encounters with border guards. She blogs at http://miriam-littlebones.blogspot.com and tweets as @miriamvaswani