Maartje Wortel

Maartje Wortel © Michiel van Nieuwkerk

Maartje Wortel © Michiel van Nieuwkerk

In the middle

The streets are buzzing at this time of evening, people are going out, raising their glasses to life, health, a new-born child. The sun went down, surprisingly fast, a few minutes ago. Shubar and I are walking down an alleyway near the Centre Pompidou. We’ve been drinking, and he’s laughing. ‘Pompidou,’ he says. ‘Sounds like a comic book character.’
‘Well,’ I say, ‘you look like a comic book character.’
I give him a fraternal bump on the shoulder with my shoulder – we’re walking close together. I can smell his sweat, aftershave, a whiff of sweet onion. We stick close to each other, passing a waiter shouting out today’s dinner deals – fresh fish, lasagne, and hand-cut fries (‘special for you, monsieur’) – and passing two gypsy girls holding out their sandy hands and asking for a euro, passing boisterous tourists and a square where black men on colourful rectangles of carpet are selling friendship bracelets and plastic puppies. Then Shubar grasps my hand, and I feel his fingers stroking my palm. It seems to last forever, but really it’s only three or four seconds before he lets go.

We met in Stockholm, at an engagement party for a gay couple who happened to be friends with both of us. That’s what the Internet has brought us: a small world, getting smaller every day. Our friends wrote on the invitation, ‘It’s sure to be a great event’ and ‘Europe’s not such a big place.’ They threw an amazing party, but hardly anyone showed up.
‘I’m staying home,’ my boyfriend said. ‘Why should I trek all the way out there? Stockholm’s closer to Russia than to the Netherlands. But if you want to go, you should go. Don’t let me stop you.’
I wanted to go. So I went on my own. On the very cheapest flight.

The party was in an apartment on the south side of the city. There wasn’t a lot of conversation, the music was much too loud. I wandered out onto the balcony to grab a beer from the crate, and there was Shubar. He had one hand thrust casually into his pocket and was holding a cigarette in the other. Slowly exhaling smoke, he stared into the distance, across the water, at the lights on the far shore. When I stood beside him, so I could see what he was seeing, he said, ‘We’re close to the Northern Lights. That must look incredible, all those different layers of light, like a fairy tale.’
Shubar took a final drag, blew smoke, tossed his cigarette to the floor, and turned to face me. I could see his face, his stubbly beard, the thin chain around his neck, his ink-black eyes.
‘I’m Shubar,’ he said.
‘Philip,’ I said.
‘Hi, Philip,’ he said softly, and he gave me a shy smile, biting his lip.

We drank too much beer and talked about Italo Calvino, seals, and Leonardo De Vinci. A little later we danced (out of rhythm) with a few other partygoers, and early in the morning we fell asleep on the couch – seated, but side by side. I saw his delicate rib cage moving up and down under his shirt, so calmly. I ran my eyes over his body and examined his bare feet under his jeans. There were a few downy hairs on his big toe. Shubar, asleep, was a prince, a sculpture from the ancient world. His long lashes quivered like an insect, I didn’t dare touch him. If all I do is look, I thought, then nothing can break.

We arranged to meet in Paris two weeks later. That was the centre, Shubar said. ‘That’s where we’ll find our middle ground.’

We’re walking along the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. There’s a replica of a beach on the riverside: sand, folding chairs all over, ice cream carts and bars. ‘I’d like to live in this city,’ Shubar says. ‘There’s something special about it.’
‘Not me,’ I say. ‘I don’t care so much for the French.’
Shubar laughs. ‘Oh, it’s like that, is it?’ he asks.
Now I laugh too. ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘I just don’t care so much for certain groups.’
‘Fortunately, you don’t have to care for any group in particular, because we’re all the same,’ Shubar says.
‘Not you,’ I say.
We come to a stop, a tour boat passes by, water sloshes against the riverbank. I take Shubar’s hand. ‘I mean it,’ I say. ‘You’re different.’ Our eyes meet, and I feel his thin pink lips pressing against mine, his beard scraping against my cheek, his warm tongue making slow circles around my tongue, and his teeth biting my lip, almost hesitantly. In the background I hear children’s cries, the French language, a siren, receding into the distance. Suddenly the sound is closer than ever. Someone’s shouting something. We let go of each other instinctively, and then comes the blow. Unexpected and hard, right between my eyes.

In the hospital I say, ‘This is just what I meant. A thing like that would never happen in a place like Berlin.’
‘Things like that happen all over the world. We can count ourselves lucky.’ He runs his fingers over the stitches and says, ‘At least we saw the Northern Lights. It really was a fairy tale.’
Then he leans in close and whispers in my ear, ‘Don’t you think?’

Translation by David McKay.