The music triggers dejà vu, but rather than already seen, it’s something already felt: an emotional relapse, to the last time I fell in love.
Spring had turned in 2009, the sun staying up just late enough that I could get home and run around the park a few times, so long as I got out of work on time.
This particular evening I was walking down Pitt St to meet Emily, Gnarls Barkley looping in my headphones. My mind was distracted, looping over my Sunday lunch with Clare. I was looking for signals in my behaviour as much as in hers. We’d had fun; a nice lunch had dragged out into drinks, and we’d parted amicably, neither of us apparently willing to take it further yet. I assumed it’d become a nice friendship, and at the end of the weekend I was comfortable with that. But Monday came, and my walk to work, and all I could think about was Clare. At work I was distracted, obviously so. Monday night I ran, then drank alone, and it didn’t help.
So when Tuesday became just as distracted, I called Emily — we had to talk.
“Have you spoken to her since?” Em asked, after I’d recapped.
“No. I don’t— I don’t know what to say?”
That excuse would never fly with Em though. She had me step through Sunday’s lunch and drinks, teasing out the nuances.
And there were signs. Emily knew right away — I’d never behaved that way with a girl before, or talked about every detail. And as she drew me out I realised — nor had I felt this way before. The distraction, the head in the clouds, the butterflies in my stomach that fluttered faster and faster just talking abut her. Was this what it was like to fall in love?
“You have to tell her,” Em insisted. “She’ll see how much you like her. Or I can tell her,” she winked. “I’ve not seen you like this before.”
But it wasn’t meant to be. We went out a few more times, teased the idea of moving to the States together. Clare was planning to study; I already had a holiday booked to talk to potential employers. I visited New York on my own within weeks. When I returned it had all changed. The light around her was gone, the fluttering butterflies stilled.
Emily didn’t understand. Had I not seized hard enough on that opportunity, bared my heart? But she was equally reassuring — There’ll be another, Em was telling me, as I was wondering whether there’d even been one in the first place.
It was late in 2006, the weather turned warm early in the season. We were in the common room at uni, working over the final run-sheet for the short film we were to shoot that weekend.
Gnarls Barkley was on the radio. The few common room fans that still worked were running in overdrive, their rattle falling into sync with the music’s rhythms.
“So you’ll pick me up at 7?” Renée was asking.
I couldn’t hear her. A new girl had just walked into the room, her eyes entrancing.
Her eyes. I recognised her eyes, and there was a flash of recognition mirrored in them.
She smiled, waved.
“Hey,” I opened, my mind whirring like the fans as I tried to place her face, my heart rattling faster with recognition: Naydeen.
Naydeen and I had had many lively discussions the semester before. No topic was off-limits — religion, politics, sex and identity. Naydeen was Bengali; her family had been in Australia for the last ten years. She was curious, and strong-willed, and I loved her for it.
But I hadn’t seen her for a couple of months, and something had changed. She’d taken on the hijab. That’s why I’d struggled to recognise her — it seemed to make her invisible. It framed her deep eyes, but made it harder to look her in the eyes. Years of cultural conditioning worked against my ability to see her.
We spoke briefly; she was prepping her own short film project — on others like her who’d chosen the hijab. It was telling: she was still obviously as curious and independent as ever.
We never spoke again, to my shame. As a privileged white guy, I just didn’t have the words. I was aware both that I should respect her decision and of the cultural constructs that rendered her invisible, that made it so unlikely for her to spend time alone with me again.
So when I caught up with Emily after shooting our short that weekend, and she asked if there were any girls, I couldn’t answer. Naydeen had been desexed in my mind; I wasn’t able to consider that possibility.
“There was one,” I tried.
“There’ll be another”.
I’ve forgotten what she looked like now, her form obscured. But I’ll never forget her eyes, wrapped in shadow.
In 2010, Emily got married. She asked all the wedding guests to select a song, to be played during the party. I’d picked a Gnarls Barkley.
“We can’t play that!” Em complained. “It’s too sad.”
“It’s romantic,” I protested.
“But not for a wedding; it should be happy!”
I relented, I’d pick a more upbeat song. Em and I were catching up for dinner, her wedding a week away.
“Sorry I can’t include you in the wedding party. But you’re on the table next to us!” Em had her girlfriends in the party, and her fiancé had his own friends.
“It’s quite alright. I’m not sure I believe in weddings anyway.”
“They’re just a celebration.”
“Sure, but there’s a lot of strange conventions going into that celebration. Why is it so gendered, for one?”
Emily just sighed, shook her head at me.
“We really need to find you a girl,” Em said, perking up. “I’ve sat you next to Anita.”
My skepticism must have shown.
“You’ll like her. She’s smart and cute and funny. And so are you. It’s perfect.”
Em had given up on waiting for me to find someone, decided to take it on herself.
“Whatever happens, just make sure you have a good night. It’s my wedding, you have to be happy!”
To keep Emily happy, I was. And Anita was everything Em said. But surrounded by the signs of marriage and couple-dom, I wasn’t compelled to take it anywhere. We talked and enjoyed the party long after the bride and groom had left, but both of us were content to part without any attempt to meet again.
Last year I spent a couple of months in Paris. It was winter, the city quiet. I knew no-one, and was there for a break, wasn’t trying to get to know anyone.
But I found myself going back to this one bar, striking up a conversation with a waiter in my rusty French. Gnarls Barkley was playing over the sound system, the latest in a great selection of music. I asked him who’d chosen the music. It was his iPod, he told me with a smile. “You like it?”
“I love y— I love it,” my tongue stumbling over the pronoun. I blushed.
“You speak the French well,” he complimented me needlessly, switching to English. His English wasn’t much better than my French, but we understood each other. We talked more as the night went on, our conversation aided at first by the music, but then onto other topics. Dani was from the north of Spain, to Catalan parents. He’d grown up mostly in a small town, leaving it as soon as he could. Paris held promise of anonymity and acceptance. He’d been here eight years and not looked back.
After the bar had quietened he turned up the music and brought out the good wine. We closed the bar together.
I returned at a later time the next night, just to catch him before close. I met him at or after close a few nights a week from then.
It was the most open I’ve been in a relationship, despite the broken French and English we’d converse in.
And it was destined to end — my time in Paris was finite. It was probably only that inevitability that made it work in the first place.
I couldn’t tell Emily about him.
In Your Eyes
I break out of my reverie, the song ending. I’m walking, watching my feet. I look up and catch the eyes of a stranger, and fall into their depths.
Out from those eyes extend all the others — Clare, Naydeen, Anita, Dani. Their deep eyes, their smile. Their faces merge and there is only one, repeated again and again across my timeline, branches crossing and twisting with chance connections.
Back on the street, those eyes stare back into mine. A smile, returned. We stop.
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