20 juin 2015

Chapter 1



I hate trains. They are surely one of Man’s greatest inventions, but still, I can’t stand them. Especially long-distance trains. Try taking them for hours on end over two years, along with all the delays, and running around with your luggage gradually giving you carpal tunnel, and then being told by distracted-eyed railway agents that the only reason why you’re not reaching your destination tonight “Ma’am”, is because of a fallen tree that’s damaged the rails. Over two years, there have been around twenty-eight fallen trees. That’s some deforestation! Funny it was nowhere on the news… I hate trains. 

But I guess my real reasons go deeper than anyone else’s, considering my… condition. Or my nature. Or whatever it is I have. It took my doctors twenty years to find out what it was, and the name seems relatively banal: Acute hyper reactive skin. It’s not an illness. It just means your skin is a dramatic bitch. It reacts too violently to anything it comes in contact with – Fabrics, temperature, air quality – as well as any stimulus, like, erm… emotion. To put it plainly, if I’m mad at someone, they can see it. Literally. My whole body is suddenly covered with bright red blotches. And I’m already a redhead, so you can only imagine how obvious it can be. Strangely enough, that seems to scare people off; which comes in pretty handy when you’re mad at them. 

And trains are the perfect environment for plenty of symptoms to manifest: Carpeting inevitably means I’ll have trouble breathing soon, since the inside of the nose is skin too, and it hates dust… And an hour into the trip, when the train air-conditioning really kicks in, I know I’ll be covered from head to toe like a yeti, begging for some heat to seep back into my veins. I’m not sure what mild temperature really is; most of the time I’m so cold that my skin hurts to the touch and I can’t function, or I’m so hot that I feel like I’m melting into a puddle. And breathing isn’t the easiest thing to do in that case either. 

And so, for the past two years, the Paris-Stuttgart trip has become my most regular, yet most dreaded activity. All this because my dear parents had decided to separate. Mom naturally opted to stay in Paris – she’s in the suburbs, but don’t say that to her, it drives her nuts – while dad went back to his charming hometown of Ludwigsburg, Baden-Württemberg. 

Mom is the kind of disappointed-with-life Britton who feels she has made it just by managing to live in (the suburbs of) Paris, and keeping a certain life standard. One she couldn’t afford, no doubt. But she dreaded losing it much more than having to pay for it. And so she got into social events, and managed to collect connections from the right crowd, allowing her to suddenly discover a flair for the Modern Arts. And so she went into the elite business of exhibition planning and hosting. I’m sure this isn’t enough to explain why she and I would never get along, but that’s another story.

As for dad, the hot-blooded German police officer, well, he wanted none of that. He had come to Paris in the first place just to please mom. But when matters started going downhill, he longed for things to be simple and familiar again. It took him two and a half hours to pack everything he had, all his history with his family in one luggage case, and then he was gone. We found out he was back to Germany from my granny. My sweet, naïve granny. She argued that children always brought adults back together. However, there was only one of me, and such an enterprise was too heavy for my shoulders. I couldn’t bring them back, and I wasn’t even sure it was the best thing for them. Whenever I interfered or even talked about it, I was accused of taking sides. 

At one point it got so bad that I used the I’m-eighteen-now excuse to move out – to Paris (not the suburbs). And since then, they get one weekend a month each. 

« Excusez-moi! Vous bloquez le chemin là !! » My daydream gets interrupted by this charming French girl poking me from behind with her luggage case handle. Parisian no doubt. I blurt out an undeserved apology, then slip my carry-on luggage into the overhead compartment, and reluctantly let her pass. Blocking the way, am I? I’d like to tell her what else I could block. And just like that, in two seconds, the blotches appear, everywhere. Chest, arms, neck, face. I take a deep breath and sit down as quickly as I can. I feel my breathing become heavier as my nose starts to get congested, and I try my useless yoga concentration to calm down. I close my eyes and count the breaths. In and out…. Calm down Lily. There you go…  A few slow minutes later, the goose bumps start disappearing and the blotches go pinker, as my ginger freckles turn a lighter shade of brown… 

At that moment, my peripheral vision is disturbed by a pair of irises darting straight at me. I look up and see, across the aisle, only two rows ahead, rather huge, clear green eyes, staring. They belong to a boyish-looking passenger sitting opposite me. Ash brown hair, glasses. That’s all I could see before my usual reflex kicks in: I hide behind the seat in front of me, naturally. And I keep to the same position, for hours. If there’s anything I dread in this life, it’s to be stared at up-close by someone, especially if they might be attractive. I didn’t have a long enough look to know that for sure, but what I saw ignited this tiny, uncomfortable heart-pinch I used to feel back when I was fifteen and desperate. 
I no longer have such moments though. It only takes a second glance for me to notice the turn-off factors, and so, a few minutes later, any pinching of any sort is long gone. However, this time around, I decide not to give that second glance. I just hide behind the seat and wait for takeoff.

Surely enough, the conductor announces the departure in three languages, two of which he speaks pretty badly. And as the slow wheezing of the departing train fills the compressed coach air, I start digging for the three woolen covers I’d stuffed into my backpack, and begin the usual ritual of tucking myself into the seat by jamming the covers into every crease I could find: on both sides of my thighs and arms, behind my shoulders, between my knees, and of course, all around my feet. I hear a little girl giggle in a nearby seat, and I know it’s at my expense. I’m just happy Mr Huge Manga Green Eyes can’t see me like this. My ego would have taken a considerable blow… How pathetic am I really? Freezing in silence, just because the temperature has gone below 27 degrees Celsius, and hiding behind the back of a seat at the mere thought of a guy I barely saw, who happened to look up at me by pure reflex.  Oh what the hell… I slightly shift my weight to the left, trying to make it look as natural as possible, and suddenly…oh!! Our irises meet again, in a shockingly perfect straight line. And before I even have time to go crimson red and lose breath, Huge-Eyes suddenly seems to be struggling with something. He blinks once,  and clumsily pushes his glasses up his nose with crooked fingers, as he quickly looks down and starts scribbling something on a piece of paper. 

Wow! Have I just had an effect on a guy? Because that would be a first for me! He looked positively uncomfortable as he went on scribbling. Ha!! Take THAT! I can make a man blush anytime!... I smile at the absurd vanity of the idea, and reflect no more on it. The only thought that lingers on is that I found no deal-breakers at this second glance. I smile to myself and just tilt to the right, back to my comfortable hiding zone, and distract myself with the rhythm of my own breathing, so as to keep the air intake regular, while my mucous membranes do their best to fight the train carpet dust…   

The next thing I remember is the voice of the conductor announcing the first stop in Strasbourg. I must have fallen asleep. I swallow hard, as I feel the insides of my cheeks and my throat prickling, while my dried up lips are on the very brink of cracking. Yep, they’re skin too, and they hate it when I fall asleep with my mouth open, letting all the dust in. The train gradually slows down and finally comes to a full halt in the weird alien-ship-shaped train station. Dozens of impatient passengers rush through the aisle, bumping my elbow as they go. Parisians, I mutter. It’s a relief when the stampede has almost entirely exited the train, except that there seems to be a straggler who’s just realized he has to get off: Mr. Green Eyes abruptly stands up and reaches for his luggage, then clumsily does a full circle to find the direction of the exit. He looks so gauche and disoriented it’s comical to almost everyone. Some passengers even laugh, though he’s in too much of a hurry to pay them any attention. But I’m anything but laughing; all I could think of at that moment is how discordant his looks seem to be with his painful-to-watch awkwardness. He is gawkily rushing to get out, though his facial expression just doesn’t follow. His face seems a million miles away: impassive, relaxed, blank. He steps out at the very last second, just as the signal resounds and the doors brusquely close behind him. He then turns around, but only from the waist up, and looks back towards the coach. His eyes seem to scan the windows… and then they zero in on me.  

I’m so taken aback by his glance that I freeze, eyes fixated on him, and lips slightly parted. His expression, however, is even more undecipherable than before. It’s not flirty, it’s not neutral, it’s not inquisitive. It’s just… impossible to interpret. Why are you looking at me? Do you know me? Or are you just trying to leave an impression? He simply keeps looking at me, intently, intensely. The train starts moving again, and as it glides past him, his eyes follow mine all the way, till I can no longer see them.

A second later, I sit back straight, and shake my head as a sobering smile draws itself on my lips. It’s so refreshing to have those platonic crush looks when one hasn’t flirted for like… ever! I can’t help but imagine what my mom would have said in this case, “Why didn’t you make more effort? Why didn’t you flirt?” Well, mom: first, are you sure this is the kind of motherly advice you should be giving me? And second, I would never have managed to keep it up! Your less-than-subtle criticism throughout my youth has successfully managed to turn me into a ball of complexes. Newsflash for you: people with complexes are not exactly the best candidates for forward flirting. 

And after all, this was a perfect moment for me, just as it was. No uncomfortable talking, no discovering what’s behind the green eyes; just one perfect, untarnished, platonically fulfilling moment. The very best kind.

I actually think I’m going to catch a break when I see a woman in her seventies take the stranger’s seat, until she suddenly looks up at me, as if startled, and smiles. What is this? Stare-at-Lily day?? I quickly reach into my backpack and pull out a mirror. Hmm, no redness or marks of any sort this time; to the untrained eye, I should look normal. And yet she keeps ogling down at her hands, then back at me, and smiling, that annoying old-lady smile. I squirm in my seat, and try to look away, when she suddenly holds out her gloved hand and waves at me to come over. Um, no! I give her a tight-lipped, polite smile, and turn away. 

A while later, the ticket inspector creeps up on me, as they usually do, and while I fumble for my ticket, he suddenly bends down, as if to whisper, and says, “Ma’am, the lady across the aisle has asked me to give you this”. He then hands me what looks like half an A4 paper, with a lovely drawing on it; a drawing that would make my eyes ball out and my breathing come to a stop: It was me

Or a better version of me. The lines were so elegant, and the strokes so stylized that it felt like they were actual strokes on my very skin – but the kind that does not leave bruises. Did Mr. Green Eyes leave this?? Is this what he was scribbling? Both the inspector and the old lady smile at me as they watch my face turn from normal flesh-color, to white, to crimson red, while my mouth slacks open. It’s not just the shock of seeing a drawing of me, but that of the inhumanly accurate attention to detail! Everything was there: the exact hairdo, down to the smallest strands, the right size freckles, the tiny shine in the eyes, the self-conscious look – Am I that obvious? – the shape of the lips with even the minutest fissure… I could almost see the fabric details of my shirt collar, as well as that of the woolen cover. Damn it, he noticed that… Though how could he??  

I mean, our eyes only met twice, and very briefly. The rest of the time, I was hiding behind the back of the seat. And if I couldn’t see him, then he most likely couldn’t see me either,… could he? Because this is not the kind of drawing you could pull off out of memory. It’s rather the kind you’d make your model pause for hours for. How could he do this? I’m even flushing in the drawing, which brings the blood flow back up to my cheeks. Everything is there, down to a small mole I have on my neck, right under my ear. This is so surreal! The only thing that seems strange is a nice chain necklace he must have added out of imagination. It sort of feels like he’s offered me the necklace, which makes me smile. Some passengers start turning and looking my way, so the inspector tactfully continues his round. I look up at the old lady and mouth “Merci”. She nods once with a friendly beam, and looks away. 

I spend the remaining length of the trip contemplating the drawing, in total awe. Part of me is uncomfortable with staring at myself for so long, while the other knows that the only thing fascinating me is the execution, and the hand behind it. Suddenly it dawns on me: I will never figure out how he did it, will I? It’s not even signed! So all hopes of actually googling his name along with “sketch artist”, “painter” or any other title, has gone down the drain. Frustration starts creeping in, replacing all the curiosity and wonder. He went from Paris to Strasbourg, and that’s all I know. 



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