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Continuums

 

I have never believed in fate when it comes to love, but a while back I went out with someone who claimed it was vital to her emotional life, and she almost persuaded me that it was vital to mine as well. Yet I am not so sure after convincing me of cosmic possibilities in the realm of feeling, that after a certain incident I assumed she was perhaps more given to pragmatic self-justification above all else – and even the Cosmos can be utilised to justify our actions when we need to look far and wide to find alibis for our behaviour. But equally, perhaps, so can one’s own inverse assumptions – a certain human cynicism – be used no less self-protectively.

Anabella told me one afternoon that she reckoned her marriage was over when she was walking along a Milanese street on New Year’s Eve and that shortly after taking her glove off she realised her wedding ring was missing. It would always fit too loosely on her finger, and she sometimes wondered whether much of the anxiety in her marriage resided in her losing the very ring that symbolized the matrimonial match. Yet what most shocked her was her husband’s reaction. As she looked all around her for the ring, he merely said he would buy her another. She felt he could as readily have said I will get a new wife. Anabella never did find the ring, and the next day her husband, who worked for a Credit Agency, bought her a new one: more expensive still, and that fitted perfectly. Yet within six months they had parted, and it was only the previous week, she said, that the divorce had come through. I looked at her ringless hand and asked where the ring was; she said in a cupboard drawer at her parents’ place in Mexico City.

I said to her that the story chimed with a similar incident in my own life. It was a few years ago and I was running round Hyde Park in London one evening when the string to the hippie beads I had been wearing broke and the beads tumbled along the path. It was getting dark and I probably wouldn’t have been able to find them all even if I had tried. They were beads given to me six months earlier by my girlfriend, shortly after we had started seeing each other. At the time I lost the beads she was in Turkey working on an organic farm in the south of the country. When Marianne got back, a few weeks after I had lost the beads, she said that she had met someone else while working abroad. I fancifully wondered whether their first kiss coincided with the loss of the beads, but stopped short of asking her on which day and date did she first get close to her new lover. It was a thought curiously balanced between Cosmic significance and despondent cynicism.

Anabella and I were walking round Hyde Park as we talked about these incidents, and she said would I have been more inclined to believe in fate if the date of the kiss and the date of the lost beads were the same. I replied that I didn’t really believe in fate; but not through an especially strong belief in science – more through a weak belief in cause and effect. Things happen and they contain within them their own mysteries. Is it partly our scientific minds, acting pseudo-scientifically, which gives so much cause and effectual weight to certain incidents in our lives? She said perhaps I was right, but added that losing her ring that day in Milan was only half the story. Five months later, back in Mexico City, where she worked as a Foreign Language teacher, teaching Spanish to foreigners, she fell almost instantly in love with an Italian student who was from Milan. She left her husband, moved back in with her parents, but would often stay over at Paolo’s, in a flat he shared with three other people in the Rosa district of the city, near where she worked. They would often sit in the park not far from where he lived, and muse over the coincidence of her losing her wedding ring in the very city that he was from. They would wonder whether they may have passed each other on the busy Milanese streets that evening. Anabella said that they might not have been fated to meet; but she believed both of them believed at the time in its possibility, and it gave their six month love affair a frisson of fatalistic inevitability that made it not easy to leave her husband, but somehow justifiable.

At that moment I wanted to kiss Anabella, as I saw her looking wistfully at the couples rowing in the pond. I wanted to kiss her for what I thought was wistful naivety (rather than cynical self-justification) and yet I wondered if I did not do see for fear of once again ensnaring her in a notion of fate. Was it not in this very park that I had lost my beads, and was it not, as she had said, in another park, Chapultepec in Mexico City, that she and Paolo had first kissed? And was it not true also that I was now the teacher, and Anabella the student? She was in London for three months trying to master the English language that she already spoke so well. Did I avoiding kissing her that day for no better, or worse, a reason than that I didn’t want to be caught by fate, and would I have been better to have kissed her instead out of cynicism?

I suppose at the time I might have described this failure as a sort of metaphysical cowardice. If I believed that the world should be dictated by personal motivations and rational cause and effect, then somehow by kissing her there and then I felt I would be conceding that certain situations, carrying refrains, must also contain a wider or higher purpose.

We were together for the rest of the afternoon, then ate back at my place, not far from the park, and, after that, went out for a film at a cinema in the centre called The Prince Charles. It was just as the film ended, as Anabella wiped away a tear at an ending she found sad, though the film was hardly a weepie, that I kissed her. She kissed me back, pushing my long hair out of my eyes, and with a sadness I thought was not only due to the emotion extracted by the film. Retrospectively I would be inclined to say during our time together that if her relationship with her husband was to be her normal life; and Paolo her fate, I became her mentor: someone with whom she wanted to conjoin a real life and a deterministic one. She had tried both and neither worked. That night, after we had made love, she said the brief belief in fate with Paolo almost destroyed her. Not, she insisted, that he had destroyed her; no, it was the belief in thefatalistic aspect that proved so damaging.

What happened was after about four months together  Paolo returned to Italy, and she missed him so much she flew over there a couple of weeks later and they spent a month going round the country, staying at various friends of his, and also a month at his parents’ holiday home on the Adriatic coast. By the end of the month, though, she started to feel anxious and even began missing the husband she thought she had left inevitably. She had noticed over that month with Paolo that he seemed to be less a fatalist than an opportunist. She was sure he was never unfaithful to her during her stay in Europe, but his body language, how he looked at other women, his flirtatious behaviour with waitresses in restaurants in which they ate, all indicated someone for whom the future is not only contingent but full of opportunities. She began to feel like she had been one of those encounters. This was exacerbated by his friends who would allude to Paolo’s past womanizing, his reckless, sometimes illegal behaviour, and his need always to escape. She was strong enough at the end of the summer to leave, taking her return flight that had, when she booked it, been only a precautionary measure: she was sure that she would live in Italy, marry Paolo and have his children.

I didn’t want to ask her any more questions that night; though she had obviously only told me half the tale, but over the next few days, as we would go to Hyde Park after the classes which would finish at twelve thirty, she told me more; or rather explained herself in more detail. Usually the weather was fine and if it wasn’t we would instead walk into Kensington or up to Notting Hill. She wanted to talk about how to negotiate a place between a conventional life and fatalistic existence. If she possessed the former with her husband and the latter with her lover, then she knew she needed another form of existence to live. The conventional life with her husband lasted five years; the fatalistic life several months – what could sustain her for a lifetime she wondered?

Later, after kissing her goodnight outside the door of her accommodation, I wondered again why a few days earlier I hadn’t kissed her that afternoon in the park. Was it metaphysical cowardice or was it that I wanted to protect my own belief system rather than succumb to hers, and to succumb to one that had failed her already?

Soon the three months were over, it was mid-September and autumn arrived: the temperature dropped several degrees, the trees were beginning to turn, and Anabella realized she didn’t have the clothing for the season. If she had wanted to stay longer, she would have to buy a winter wardrobe, and she had spent most of her savings on the language course. She had no job awaiting her in Mexico City: she had left the language school to come over to Europe. Was the relationship going to end so prosaically, through the absence of winter clothing? Her ticket was valid for up to six months, but if she wanted to change the date from the 20th of September she would have to pay a high surcharge.

What we decided upon was that she would go back to Mexico on the due date; that she would find a flat and also enquire about possible English language teaching jobs for me over there. As we parted at the airport, her tears making my own eyes water, I wondered whether we both created a plan of action not because we both believed we would be together in Mexico City, but to try and cope without being together for the next few months. Perhaps by the time it was feasible for me to go over, our feelings for each other would have faded, our own self-containment would have returned, or our feelings have moved on to someone else.

However, before parting at the airport we gave each other a small gift: she gave me a set of beads and I gave her a Celtic ring. It was obvious as we did so that each of us was wondering whether the beads might break and the ring get lost, almost as if it were, as they say, tempting fate after so much time talking about it.

Over the next couple of months we spoke on the phone several times a week. She said she was still looking for job opportunities for me out there and I would constantly ask friends if they knew of any opening here for her. She said that she had applied for a job with Iberia as an air hostess, and that she would canvass friends, asking if they knew of any language schools that might be interested in employing me. Usually they expected a reasonable amount of Spanish, and I knew only a few words. Over those few months I didn’t quite feel like I was living in London; she hadn’t settled back into Mexico City. I had a couple of one night stands but they were pleasurably purposeless. I started a Spanish language course and she said she was regularly meeting up with someone in a language exchange to perfect her English, as well as going along to the occasional class. She had begun once again teaching in the language school in which she was previously employed.

It would have been about four months after Anabella had left, and on a cold, late January morning, when I decided to go for a run and couldn’t find the headband I would usually wear to keep my hair from falling into my eyes. I looked all over the flat I shared with three others, or rather all over my room and the kitchen. A flatmate’s friend had been staying for several days and had commandeered the living room. It was early in the morning, still quite dark, and I tiptoed around the room with only the hall light coming through the door to help me, and couldn’t find it. I went back up the stairs and saw the beads sitting on my desk, and realized I could use them as a head band. Of course what happened was that whilst out running, after about fifteen minutes, the string holding the beads together snapped, and scattered them all over the Hyde Park path.

By then Anabella and I were talking on the phone a little less, maybe twice week, and it was a couple of days after losing the beads that I got a call from her. I prepared to say the beads had been lost. Before I got the chance to do so she said that she had some good news; that she thought she may have found me a job in Mexico City, teaching English at a school for about twenty hours a week: the teacher announced that day he was giving up the post, and wanted to return home. My more rational self might have said he was happy that I would no longer need to do temping work: since my summer teaching ran out at the end of September, I had been doing data input through a temping agency. But was I not also relieved because I had been despondent since that run, believing whether I liked it or not that I did believe in fate? When Anabella told me about the job I felt the relief not only of someone who was happy that I would see her again, not only that I would have the chance to live in a part of the world so much less gloomy than London, and not only that I would be doing work I much preferred to data entry, but also that the incident with the beads meant nothing at all: my sceptical relationship with fate was justified.

I booked a flight for two weeks’ later, and a week after that I started the job. For the first month in the city I slept on the sofa of a friend of Anabella’s, paying a tiny rent, while Anabella continued staying at her parents as we searched for a flat of our own. I found it an ugly city with beautiful spaces, but was London so wonderful, no matter if I had always been lucky to have resided in pleasant parts of it? My parents lived in Islington, and I had shared flats in Camden and Kensington. But London and Mexico City were both cities of enormous sprawl, so any criticism could easily be countered by numerous examples of each city’s special places. Anabella managed to rent us an apartment in the district Rosa, near of  course to Chapultepec Park. The flat was near enough to the teaching school for travelling back and forth to be of no great inconvenience, for me, while the school where Anabella worked was in the commercial zone, which wasn’t very from where I taught.

I suppose I adjusted to the city quickly. Though my Spanish improved very slowly, a number of Anabella’s friends spoke English quite well, and enjoyed practising it on me, some of whom were in fact students of mine and from the very course Anabella had attended and which she stopped attending shortly before my arrival. As we joked: why attend classes when she could get them every day for free? I would sometimes wonder what her friends thought about my presence in Anabella’s life, and whether they believed Anabella was right to have left her husband, some of whom presumably knew him quite well. There were no signs of resentment towards me, however, perhaps because they were non-judgemental, perhaps because if they were going to apply judgement it would be towards Paolo rather than towards me. Yet sometimes I would feel her friends looking at me as though they possessed knowledge to which I was oblivious.

I hadn’t told Anabella about the beads she gave me breaking in Hyde Park. When she said on the phone a job had become available and that I could move over to Mexico, it seemed trivial to mention my fears when they seemed to have been countered by the reality of a job, and a chance to live with Anabella. Yet when I got to Mexico City, Anabella never once mentioned the beads she had given me (never asked why I never wore the beads she gave me) and the looks her friends would sometimes give added to this sense that something wasn’t quite right.

Yet Anabella would talk about her need to be not only loved but to have someone help make sense of her life, and thought this was possible with me.  She reckoned the life she wanted she could never have had with her husband due to the sort of man he was: he would have always been faithful to her, she believed, but she was always an appendage to his busy life in finance. With Paolo she thought she could have the life she wanted, but Paolo was so capricious, so interested in the moment, that it wouldn’t be a life, but no more than a series of intermittent encounters. With me, she said, she thought she could have the security and the life she desired.

Within the first month in our flat we had settled in, buying items from junk shops, building up a small collection of books, buying a couple of rugs. We had a regular café we would go to for brunch on Saturday mornings, and another one where we would read and meet people on Sunday afternoon, usually ones from the language course. She said she was happy; that she felt it vindicated her decision to leave her husband, to leave Paolo in Italy…Her voice trailed off and I wondered what she was thinking about; her life with her ex, her stay in Italy with Paolo, her time with me. But the hug she gave me after this brief moment of recollection was so tight, so full of love and affection, that any doubts were, at least temporarily, assuaged.

However, a couple of weeks later we were in the café with a number of her friends when one of them said that she had photos from a party a while back. As they were handed around, I leafed through them at first casually and then with some scrutiny, and I noticed Anabella was not wearing the Celtic ring that I had given her in London, and that she had worn every day since I had arrived. The pictures were from a party several months ago, and I recognized from the picture the teacher who was my predecessor in the job. I’d seen a picture of him before in the staff book where all the teachers were listed, alongside their qualifications and their photos. He was, especially in the pictures from the party, attractive, compact and resembled Paolo in the photos Anabella had shown me, which made me momentarily wonder whether I much more resembled her ex-husband, though, perhaps strangely, I had never seen pictures of him. Numerous thoughts went through my mind as a chasmic feeling went through my body.

I said I was going to pop out for some air, and Anabella looked at me with a fretful look on her face. Had she guessed that I had noticed the missing ring, and was she wondering whether I believed that not only had I moved into her life, but also that I had moved into the job of someone to whom I suspected she had been at the very least attracted?

I walked for a little while, and then stopped at a café a few blocks from where Anabella and the others were. I ordered a black tea and tried to make sense of my feelings. I really didn’t believe Anabella slept with the teacher, and even if she did what right did I have to be indignant about it? But if anything had happened between my predecessor and Anabella, she could have told me before I accepted the job, and I could have easily turned it down, and her in the process. When we had parted at Heathrow airport months earlier, though, we agreed we could not expect fidelity from each other when we were on different sides of the world, and didn’t I have a couple of indifferent one night stands after she had left in an attempt to get her out of my mind and my body?

Now while I suspected whatever had happened between them was minor or nothing at all, and that when my predecessor moved back to France, that Anabella was less thinking of his leaving than my coming, there still seemed to be much that was uncanny about the situation; not the least of which was that, shortly before leaving the café, I had turned over one of the photos I was looking at, and noticed the date on it was exactly the same as the date as the one where I had lost the beads in Hyde Park. However insistently I refused to see this a fatalistic touch, I couldn’t quite convince myself it was just another example of the prosaic.

As I was dwelling on all this, Anabella came into the café, and breathlessly said she had been looking in all the cafes in the district, and that she wanted to explain everything. As she sat down and said she so badly wanted to hug me, I said that might be easier than an explanation. Maybe it isn’t always in our power to claim self-motivation for all the acts in our life, I thought. There are some that must remain, if not acts of fate, then certainly mysteries; yet for all the coincidences I also thought that there was nothing mysterious beyond perhaps how Anabella had convinced me, in ways that I wouldn’t easily be able to explain, in believing that the world is ruled by cosmic forces, when I suspect it is more that I had allowed her to rule me by capricious ones. At that moment in the cafe I did not feel like hugging Anabella but instead wanted to ask whether if the teacher whom I had replaced professionally was actually somebody she would have been willing to replace me with emotionally if he had decided to stay in Mexico. It was a feeling that grew over the next few months, and why I returned to London near the end of the year, aware that love, whatever it might be, is often more practical than we may wish. It is true that the date on the photo was the same as the day I lost my beads running in the park, but it was also true that maybe that was the moment where if my predecessor in the picture hadn’t announced he was returning to France, Anabella would have been sharing a flat with him rather than with me. During the remaining months in Mexico City I didn’t feel fated to be with Anabella at all; more conveniently located. On returning to the UK, I wondered in which way love, if that is the word, would come to me next. I also mused over whether I would be able to notice the difference between convenience and the cosmic, or whether perhaps all love affairs are on a continuum between the two.

 

©Tony McKibbin