Aanya needed to escape from Castiglioncello. Yes, she did take her flight after Mikhail left, but she did not find any solace in Dubai, and within a year of not hearing from him, not being able to locate him despite their mutual friends, Aanya packed up her commuter life, and left Arabian lands.
She got as far as Amsterdam, where a Dutch man, stereotypically tall, blonde, and blue-eyed, distracted her by night, and she sold enough paintings to be able to supply the substances that numbed her by day.
After five years, however, even these painstaking steps she had taken to distance herself crumbled, and she started to have flashbacks- firstly of the color blue, of a silk dress she had discarded quite hurriedly, and then of the screams, those endless screams, that endless night which had cracked every little shred of decency she had held as important, as possible.
Aanya began to ride her bicycle into the most touristy parts of town in response to the recurring nightmares- the areas she avoided normally because too much exposure to people had previously always made her cringe.
Now these foreigners comforted her. In their multilingual chatter, she felt safer and more unknown than in my sparse and damp white studio apartment on Maasstraat, devoid even, of a canal on the straat, but that she had taken up, precisely because the realtor had guaranteed the neighbourhood was discreet, and it was safe.
Aanya began to lurk around the Van Gogh Museum, going to the top floor to see the exhibit of the Japanese prints which influenced Van Gogh’s work.
Then she would go back down the stairs, the cream walls comforting her, and she would stare at a “Japanese” inspired painting that Van Gogh had done. Aanya went exactly one hour before closing every other day, and stared at the same painting, a pastel screen of two birds sitting on a branch, with bright red Japanese looking scripts the guidebooks suggested was actually gibberish. One of the guards pulled her aside one day after three months, and gently reminded her that there were several other museums, and indeed, several other floors in that very museum, which she could spend my time exploring, should she ever get bored of looking at the same painting.
The guard’s reminder, spoken in Dutch, was a good one, a jolt of reality because whilst she had been busy trying to blend in with the other foreigners, she had not realized that the sheer fact that she came back repeatedly gave her away as a settler.
There was something about the softness that lay on the left side of the painting, and the violent red on the right, which had previously engaged her interest, and which had made her feel safe, unashamed because life was all meaningless anyway.
It was after the reprieve, as she bundled up underneath her white muffler, that she allowed herself to think back to Mikhail, about the night when she had last seen him.
You see, their story was hardly original.
You’ve heard it all before, I am sure: starry-eyed teenagers running high on adrenaline and opinions, with angst for all things political and apolitical, aggrandizing issues that had been handed to them, fighting and agreeing about nothing in particular, falling into a pattern of lying in his tiny dormitory bed and discussing everything under the sun, from Kant to ant hills.
They never dated, however. You see, the timing was never convenient, and always, one or the other was in relationships. Yes there was that one night, that only night, where after a bottle of absinthe shared amongst friends, they found themselves hugging and kissing awkwardly at first, and then with the fervor and desperation that was their age. In the background Nine Inch Nails screamed about the story of girl who cried a river and drowned the whole world, but there would be no tears. The next day, they had apologized profusely, muddled by their thoughts of how incredible the awkwardness had been, and decided that friendship was in the cards.
Hence, when Mikhail had suggested to Aanya that they should engage in another coupling, the night that he had disappeared, she was left with the mixed feelings repressed by a decade of stifling any rising sexual tension.
In short though, as she now walked towards her house, she had known that they were very happy, and as naïve as it sounded, she truly believed that she and Mikhail had figured out the “right” time for them to be together, as though frivolous things like time and space coincide very simply with ideals.
Yes, there was nothing particularly unusual about Mikhail or Aanya’s friendship, except for the way it ended.
There is no happy way to end an encounter that has become poisonous, but what of one when the only possibility is happiness? Aanya had been troubled with the answers to such a question for ages, unable to accept the reality that she did not have any easy, comfortable truths. Had she been a religious woman, she would have turned to religion, but she had long ago discarded such comforts, and instead found herself unravelling slowly, surely, and indefinitely, inspired by alcohol and inebriation.
Three of the four stages of grief came upon her, all except for the letting go.
Perhaps this really was what love was, the fact that she could never discard memories of her friend, but at the same time, she realized that between the ever increasing array of self- medication that she perpetually engaged with, he had been the only link to a world Aanya had found out about quite by accident.
Aanya had never been back to Kishmish, where both she and Mikhail had been born, and this stolen youth that would have been their shared one, was one which tore at her. She often wondered whether she had actually ever been in love with Mikhail, or whether she had been in love with the stories he wove of a reality which seemed so alien, so uncommon, to the world that they had shared, hopping between places as they drove home the realities of their lives. Perhaps, in her memory, she had made him into a spectacle, and all that remained of the reality which he had once occupied, was the fragmented memories which sometimes crept up at night, when substances had not numbed her enough.
Which was why, when the letter from Mikhail arrived the same night that she had been given her rude awakening by the guard at the Van Gogh museum, she first believed that she was imagining it all, but there it was, Aanya Shireen, it said, in his beautiful cursive handwriting.
After about a minute of staring at it, she tore the envelope open.
To be continued…