Dread and longing, like two sides of a coin. Flipping inside her, back and forth.
He's going to be back soon. She longs for but also dreads him. Because when he is back, she will have to tell him.
She leans her elbows on the narrow wood ledge of the sky bar, the board splotched with clown colours: red, yellow, blue. Swallows are wheeling through a sky like torn paper and the sun is slipping away behind a long copper roof. The copper glints in the day's last light, and the sun brings out the contours of cream columns on the busts of unknown men. Five floors below people are strolling the cobblestone plaza: a pair of women in black dresses, a trio of balding men, and two ladies with long umbrellas, one twirling hers. A musician is setting up a stand, cables. An old hunched lady trundles by with a tiny dog. A fine Bucharest night. The air's warm, too.
She wonders if he'll see it. The difference in her. Probably not. He'll be the same old Henry as always. Dependable, reliable, and running like a clock. Stifling her with his sameness.
The light's faded from the pillars now. The sun has passed behind the copper roofs. Dozens of people have crossed the square and gone. Charlotte is still waiting, elbows on the table beside an empty glass. Chin resting on her hands, her back hunched. The swallows are wheeling.
She feels a light hand brush her shoulder. Her body tenses. She turns. It's him, the soft brown jacket and musty scent of him, all dimples and apologies.
'I'm sorry I kept you waiting,' he murmurs.
'It's okay, I— ' but before she can explain, he's kissing her, and she can't pull away. The lips that felt like home to her feel strange now, after those other lips. After the lips that thrilled her and tasted of whiskey.
But now Henry's coarse beard is brushing her chin and it doesn't feel right anymore and when the kiss ends, she looks away.
'Charlotte, are you alright? You seem different.'
'Oh...I...' but she doesn't know what to say and he's at the bar now, and returns with wine for both of them. Two wine glasses later she's laughing alongside him. The dread's popped like bubbles and disappeared on air.
She slips off her stool. 'Let's go for a walk.'
Henry frowns. 'Yeah… alright.'
So hesitant, thinks Charlotte.
Henry takes her arm, and they wind down five levels of stairs. Van Gogh Cafe is shut now, the umbrellas tied down like furled flowers. They step into the cobblestone square, arms linked. The musician is pouring out notes from his fingers. A song Charlotte heard once, long ago, but can barely remember.
She halts suddenly. 'Where have I heard that song before?'
Henry turns. Gives her a strange look. 'In Trafalgar Square. When we first met. Don't you remember?'
'It's like I was a different person then...'
The cream buildings loom up around them in the gold light of streetlights. How lovely, thinks Charlotte. I should feel lovely. But the unspoken words are taut like a rope stretched between them. How to voice them? Her stomach feels tense. Possible words form and separate in her mind. I don't want to spoil the mood, but...
Darling? Why is he making this harder for me?
'I need to tell you something.'
She takes a deep breath. 'You want to sit down somewhere?'
'We can sit.' He leads her to a bench.
'Look... Henry, you know it's not working out between us—'
'Yes, it is.' There it is, that stubborn set of his chin.
He squeezes her hand, but his grip feels too tight. She pulls it away.
'I can't—we can't—'
'What's wrong?' He brushes the hair from her face.
She shuts her eyes. Swallows. 'While you were away… I met someone...'
His voice hardens with anger. 'Charlotte, how could you—'
'It just—happened—I was lonely and missing you and then he was there—'
'I was only gone for two weeks. Or was it three?'
'It was three.'
'Well what do you expect me to do now? Return to London alone? This was supposed to be a trip for us—'
'And for your work.'
'—and that too, the conference was so close, I only had to nip down to Sofia. I didn't expect to get caught up.'
'You're always pushing me aside for your work.' Resentment from the last four months bubbles up in those words. 'I thought we could combine this trip, get the best of both, you know? But now—'
She's looking away, towards the amber light reflected on the cobblestones. 'Everything's changed now.'
'So, what are you going to do?'
Charlotte draws in a breath. Feels the dizzying words she can hardly believe herself.
'I'm going to live here.'
'Here—in Bucharest? What about our flat in London?'
'I suppose I'll have to go back some time and pack up. But not yet.'
'But you're still coming back to the hotel, right?'
'I've checked out. I left you the key in reception.'
'So, you've moved in with him.'
She grips the rail of the bench. 'His apartment's not far...'
‘God, Charlotte!' He smacks a hand to his forehead. Looks down at the cobblestones.
She clenches her hands. 'I can't go on pretending like nothing happened. I'm different now. He brings out… something else in me. A hidden side I thought I never had. I want to explore it. I need to… to be the fullest expression of myself. I hope you'll understand.'
He's still staring at the cobblestones.
'Henry, say something!'
He looks up, slowly. His face is composed, but she can see in his eyes there is pain. Pain that she inflicted. She feels a stab of remorse.
'No one… ever… made me feel as cared for… as you... and now... it's all... shattered.'
She stands. Her throat is like a gutter clogged with leaves. 'I—didn't know—I didn't mean to—'
He's looking away from her. 'Just go. Go off with your new man—what's his name?'
'It's better I spare you the details.'
'I want to know, dammit!'
'Dragos? What kind of name is Dragos?' He spits out the name as if he's tasted something foul. 'What does he do?'
'It’s a Romanian name. He's an artist'.
‘An artist? You've never been the creative type.'
'He's a tattoo artist.'
'Tattoos artist! Come on, Charlotte. You're really losing it now!'
'You don't know what he's like! He's so lovely. I feel so alive with him. He's designing a special tattoo for me...'
'He's stolen the heart of the woman I love. I know that's enough to hate him.'
'Oh Henry, don't. Please.' She strokes his arm. He pulls it away.
'Don't touch me, Charlotte. The damage is already done.' He stands up; starts walking.
He shakes his head, turns back, continues walking. Amber streetlights on his soft brown jacket. She watches him disappear, until he becomes just another of those figures, crisscrossing the square in ceaseless motion like clockwork.
She looks up. The swallows have gone and the copper roofs shine softly. The sky is a wreckage of cloud and star.
Like a tattoo, it cannot be undone.
She crosses the square.
(c) Malina Douglas