The premise of this piece was the following: I picked a sentence at random from a randomly selected book, then another. These were used as opening and closing lines of a short piece of non-fiction: ready-made brackets. The opening line – “But now, see, now, I’ve gone beyond almost” was plucked from Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches; the closing line, “certainly the tense nerves of men of action – less notorious than those of imaginative men – are not to be minimized” from Anthony Powell’s The Kindly Ones, Volume 6 of Dance to the Music of Time.
But now, see, now, I’ve gone beyond almost. Now I can honestly say that I never have a full night’s sleep, and that always, what sleep I have is disrupted by thoughts not necessarily of you any longer, but anyhow, thoughts of such a vividness, they could be dreams. In which case, it is true, I would almost certainly be, or have been for a while, asleep. The thoughts that drift in and out of focus happen to me: I am not their agent, but rather, the screen on which they are projected.
Today, returning to the beginning of love – to a time when love, being new, was uniquely mine – I find myself wandering the streets of The Hague while you make an appearance at work for several hours. It is a Monday, the end of our first weekend together. We’ll meet at 12.30 for lunch. The year is 2001, the month is June. This afternoon, I am catching a flight back to Lisbon, where I still live. It is a little while before we dare to name love. It is nine years before you die. The innocence of every state of “before” strikes me, now, as unfathomable, though that thought is self-evident, tautological even. I feel buoyant and frightened too, but with a sense – it is as light as the most fleeting caress – of being in possession of myself. I wonder whether to return to the Mauritshuis to look again at Vermeer, at Fabritius and Jan Steen, but I decide, instead, to amble with less purpose. I stop to watch a yapping dog trying to get the attention of a long-suffering horse: they seem to know each other intimately: their behaviour fitting into the well-worn grooves of a long-married couple. I try on a dress at a small boutique: it is far too long.
While the sun is still shining, I feel the first steely drops of rain on my arms, my face. Soon, the sky coagulates. I am wearing a thin shirt, no jacket; I now hasten to meet you outside de Bijenkorf, but I’m half an hour early. I saunter in, happy to find that the café is right there, at ground level, with its large windows facing out onto the street. I order a coffee and a glass of water. In time, you arrive, a little flustered, damp. You too are wearing just a shirt, loosened at the collar. No tie. I see, even at a distance, your large, able hands. Under cover of an awning, you pull out a handkerchief from your trouser pocket and mop your face. You turn right and walk a few steps, then left, disappear from view. Then you appear again, pacing, and to my astonishment, what I catch is an expression of concern – perhaps just apprehension – on your face. Can you possibly be imagining that I might have skived off to the airport without saying goodbye?
I am mesmerised as I watch you waiting for me. It does not occur to you to look through the window into the department-store café, where I am sitting, watching you, treasuring my glimpse of you without me. By temperament, and in your chosen profession, you’re a man who thinks by doing. Your sinewy body is sprung for action. In your furrowed brow, your hazel eyes, and even in the slant your august nose, I find myself witnessing myself as I’ve never done before: as the object of a waiting, the object of a wanting. I am the someone you are looking for. Unseen, I am the person anticipated, the person whose disappearance would be lamented. I understand, at this moment, that you are a person I shall have to take seriously, if I’m to let you remain in my life. You are more edgy alone than when our gaze is mutual, exchanged. Certainly the tense nerves of men of action – less notorious than those of imaginative men – are not to be minimised.