I didn’t like it when he touched me. The little hairs on my arms felt unusually funny. We sit next to each other at a friend’s birthday party. Our knees keep touching. So does my left elbow with his right. I remember pushing my chair backwards several times but his elbow and right knee seemed to obstinately grow in the matter of seconds. I gave up fighting after an hour.
I don’t approve this but he failed to see my objections in every way. For example, I avoided eye contact and fold both arms across the chest. These are hardly elementary body language. I meant serious business. And then when I offered my hand on the morning when we first met, I only hoped to get a firm shake in reply. I left a huge personal space in between but still, he surprised me with a hug, if I were to delicately say so myself. Strictly speaking I wouldn’t categorize it as a ‘hug’. Maybe a ‘crush’ or a ‘strangle’ would qualify as a more accurate term because I was trapped in this gigantic pair of ribcage, suffocating on his cotton shirt. Either my lungs malfunctioned or he is just a bear hugger. Turned out it was the latter. I mumbled into his chest that I couldn’t breathe (a mouthful of cloth got in) and only then he broke that trance. He seemed to forget that we were in the High Commission headquarter office with hundreds of local employees. His eyes bore a mix of deep suffering and sunbursts of glee. Somewhere in between I saw the unmistakable spark of pure madness.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but I didn’t think he meant that.
It’s weird. I only knew him about 2 days ago while he came prepare. He knew my name and my position without having bothered with any kind of introduction. This didn’t come as a surprise. The notice was sent several months ago and they probably had a little briefing concerning the logistics and renovation of my soon to be new office. We both were supposed to report to the Deputy Chief of Mission by 8.30 but I only saw him after 9 a.m. No one said anything. His secretary was overjoyed when she unwrapped the souvenir. She let out a loud gasp and then a shrill eek. It was a blue porcelain clog. Reckon something he picked up at Schipol. It looks nothing like the handcrafted ones in Ratterman’s. His eyes looked at me apologetically. Shoulders hunch, shrugging and chuckled at my disgust. As if I wanted the bloody shoe. I had enough of those to last a life time. After that, I fixed my vision on Mei Zhe’s yellow wallpaper, listening incoherently to their idle chitchats. I’m supposed to be on my training and Mei Zhe hasn’t finished telling me the country’s procedure of endorsing a new product to America when he barged in with the pretty box.
“Isn’t he just sweet?” she said. Her eyes twinkled dreamily. As if she just saw a shooting star and wished that he was her Prince Charming. I just want to finish the whole bureaucracy thing and get out of the room but the day wasn’t over.
The restaurant was not full yet. It’s a little after 5 p.m. I only found out that today’s Mei Zhe’s birthday. She looks gorgeous in a new, flowing, red dress pleated at the back. It completely transformed her. Only this morning I saw her wearing a pair of grey slacks and a simple, button down checkered short sleeve shirt in various shades of tangerine. Her long, straight hair shines under the light of the chandelier. Susan and Jeremy were waving at us. I wonder how did they got there so fast. Both were drinking. Their glass half empty.
“Theo!” they call him and hugged. I’ve never seen them so lively before. Department of Human Resources needs plenty of good vibes from him. Too bad they’re on the 19th floor.
I didn’t know how I fit in this little party. I barely knew anyone. If it weren’t for the required mail correspondence I would not have known Susan or Jeremy. They could have asked some other colleagues (though I noticed that they did not receive any gifts) or even the boss (they seemed to genuinely like him) and yet here I am sitting on a plush purple chair trying to come up with something worth mentioning.
Nothing. I’m not built for small chats.
“How was Amsterdam?” asked Susan.
“Ask her,” he jerks his head at me, “She grew up in Amsterdam. Eating hot pankoeks every morning,” he said lazily.
I don’t know what his problem was but he certainly put me in a very disruptive mood. The conversation was about him. That was unnecessary and uncalled for. I don’t need to divulge everything to strangers. Whatever private things are called ‘private’ for a reason. I clutched my skirt so that they are not able to read my face. Sometimes I bit my tongue to catch it from saying impolite things because I will mostly regret it right after. It didn’t work. Another wave of fire came when I decided to take a deep breath and drink my mint tea.
“You were going to scream, weren’t you?” he baits. The thought amuses him. The rest laughed.
Another deep breath goes in. This is hard. I don’t think I can do this. Father told me numerous times that as a representative of the President of the United States, I should learn the art of being diplomatic. Manipulate and delegate, that’s the key. Easy for him to say; he had been doing this for 30 years. I am just lucky to be accepted in the service because of good grades and mostly the reputation of the retired old man helped.
“You really don’t remember me, do you?” he finally asked when I ignored the knockings of his knees. His tone went from jovial to despair. My face contorted into a grimace. I didn’t know why I felt so angry. My chest burning with hot coals. It’s my first week at my first job and everything was not the way that I wanted. I didn’t understand Mandarin, my apartment is infested with termites, I didn’t like the food, I fucking miss home and now I have this stupid guy testing my least favourite virtue – patience.
His hand touched me again. This time on the shoulder and I push it away like a buzzing bee. The movement startled him. The table was quite; even the smiling birthday girl stopped talking. I think I should pretend that I have a headache or something. I’m not ready for sharing. Words are not my forte. They never did as they’re told and they always come out wrong. But one word was tugging at my memory.
“How did you know I grew up in Amsterdam?” I ask.
“You told me yourself,” he said, giving me a half smile.
“No. I’ve never met you before. Not before Beijing,” I am positively shaking my head. I would definitely remember him. Curly mass of blond hair, clear green eyes, twice broken nose full of freckles, deep, dimpled chin. He had a band boy quality about him. Maybe the warm smile makes for it.
“You don’t remember Kuala Lumpur?” he added with the same sad tone.
What was about K.L? My father was transferred there for 5 years before The Netherlands. I was about 4. We enjoyed the sun very much. It was nothing like Israel when scorching is the acceptable summer. What happened in Kuala Lumpur that might have to do with this guy? I didn’t know many friends. Well, there was a sick, bald boy. We used to go to the same nursery and went swimming together (he floated by me.) Half of his face was full of dark spots from too much time in the sun. Both our mothers were French so we spent most of our time together. That’s about it. I couldn’t remember anyone else. I tried to conjure him up again but the 10 year old Mateo stood in my memory. A pale, red faced boy in the Equator sun. I can’t imagine him as an adult.
Is it possible?
“He went to Amsterdam every year looking for you, girl,” said Mei Zhe, wiping a rolling tear.
I’m confused. They both looked nothing alike. The only explanation came in a song. Theo sang my favourite lullaby – the one that my mother used to sing to us. Le Loup, Le Biche et Le Chevalier.
All of a sudden, I am beginning to like China.