“Martina and I at Atlantic”
Anybody still here? You must be waiting to learn about the common denominator, that invisible glue pervading the atmosphere we share on Earth? My advice is: don’t think about it and, God forbid, don’t try to guess what it is. You won’t—not because you can’t, but because the correct answer is irrational. Remember that shrewd observation that you can’t find the right answer to an improperly formulated question? Well, here, in order to find the answer, you have to take everything that gave your life meaning and toss it into the garbage. Care to hear what you’d be chasing? A ghostly chance to get something that won’t give you any advantage in your everyday life. This is nonsense, don’t you agree: this is just crap that would make you ridiculous even before your dumb neighbor who somehow qualified for a car loan and bought a rusty piece of junk that he is now riding as smugly as though he were the master of life itself.
I must have been born with that ability, and it must also be responsible for my falling in love with Martina. Such was her essence: she constantly made me re-evaluate things I had taken for granted—and if you think you can get used to that, you are wrong. Although, certainly, the first time does remain the most memorable. A seventeen-year-old virgin who worshipped women and desired nothing more than to be intimate with one of their beautiful number, I had just covered three thousand miles shuffling planes and buses and was arriving at the United World College of the Atlantic, an international boarding school where I was to spend the next two years. Going numb from the imminent need to make myself understood in English, I nevertheless shored up my spirit and declared my name distinctly from the top stair of the bus (as per protocol). The next moment, I was drowning in a tsunami of sound, the assembled crowd roaring and hammering spoons against saucepans (also as per protocol). Little did I know that this tribute was but a prelude.
I don’t know what the others were thinking, but I for one was busy as hell. I was done scanning the crowd and now dissolved into it, noting every attractive girl. Of which there were many. I was distracted by my new roommate, one of the three other fellas I was gonna have to share my room with, a caring second-year who had come to pick me up. He reminded me that the bus’s belly still held my luggage, something I’d totally forgotten about while greedily breathing in the humid Welsh evening wind. The driver was already diving after the suitcases with an agility remarkable for someone his age, possibly looking to escape the cadent cacophony. He hadn’t made it to mine yet, although I could already see its green side looming from behind someone’s purple monster, and, celebrating the fact that it had not been lost during the long journey, I took another deep breath and turned back to the door … only to all but freeze, go dumb and deaf, and liquify into something incredibly, inextricably, and simply sublime.
The half a second that I watched her before she said her name was like a punch in the solar plexus. When I heard the timbre of her voice, it was akin to the slash of a razor to the throat. And when, a second later, I registered that her name was Martina, I could compare it only to having been shot in the heart.
After yet another explosion of saucepans, my roomie delicately enquired whether any of the extracted bags belonged to me, but he might as well have been interrogating a corpse. I was in a parallel universe, staring at her exchanging kisses with a brassy bad gal, a likely equivalent of my own roommate, who merrily grabbed her as soon as her shoes hit the ground. The color of those shoes blew me away, and not because any detail of the image of their owner would: I truly had never seen such a perfect shade of blue anywhere, let alone on someone’s feet. But I had no time to think about that because, being led by her brassy companion, my angel was walking toward me, her shoes glowing in the slightly overgrown emerald grass over which her light gray pants were gliding gracefully.
Stumbling, I nevertheless conjured up the strength to produce a friendly smile. Imagine my surprise when this feat slipped by not only unappreciated but entirely unnoticed: she passed by as if a concrete column stood in my place. Stunned, I gaped at her back, her stately shoulder almost touching mine with the edge of her burgundy cardigan while she waited for her two orange suitcases to be set in front of her; each of those guys had an even brighter orange tag bearing a single word—“Heavy”—which looked gorgeous to me. I was almost done formulating a phrase with which I was going to offer to help carry those bags to her house (wherever, goddamn it, it was!) when the brassy girl produced two sprightly, handsome boys, each built noticeably stronger than I. With an authoritative sweep of her finger, the nail extravagantly painted, she pointed at the bags and took off. And when Martina followed, leaving a whiff of her perfume behind, a sudden gust raised a tendril of her hair, and, as if to mock me, brushed it under my nose like a match against the box: subtly, yet insidiously, enough to make me sneeze.
The sneeze woke me up: I was alone in a foreign country and had no idea what to do. So, I grabbed my suitcase and prepared for anything. Alas, the roomie led me in the opposite direction from that taken by my love (yes, it was love: and at first sight, too), leaving me with no hope that we’d be sharing a house. I was trying to persuade myself that it was alright—even advantageous on a tiny campus like this—but something didn’t sit well, gnawing at my consciousness, which was already bruised from my inability to understand most of the speech pouring in from every direction. It was only when I reached my new house, a shabby two-story construction named Sunley—which, as I was proudly told on reaching the doorstep, was the newest on campus—I realized that I had spent three and a half hours on the bus with Molly without noticing her once.
While seemingly implausible, this was an implacable fact. Naturally, it wasn’t on the campus that I had begun girl-spotting: I had done so as soon as I’d reached Heathrow’s Terminal 3, where the first-years like myself were meeting their chaperones. This being my default behavioral program, I was convinced I could not have missed her during the two hours of waiting for the bus itself, which meant she must have hopped on right before departure. But I had deliberately sat on the side of the luggage compartment and looked around later, so I could not fathom how she had managed, one, to slip in unnoticed, and two, to remain so throughout the entire ride.
Perhaps my confusion may seem orchestrated by the fantasy of a naive boy finding himself alone in unusual circumstances, but this story, like a drop of water, is a microcosm of our entire relationship—one in which Molly invariably had me beat, pulling off what I deemed impossible. Crushing my aspirations time after time, she did it as if it were natural, oblivious to how profoundly I was altered as a result. Alas, those changes were hurtful much more often than not.
When, after long, exhausting attempts to orchestrate a meeting with her, a friend of mine who dug the politics of our student society told me that my low social status left her with only a couple of ways to treat me, of which ignoring me was the most humane, I was stunned. First of all, personally, I rank people by their personal qualities; secondly, the college had brainwashed us about tolerance from day one, and I’d completely bought it; thirdly, I thought the others saw me as I saw myself: as a great guy. Lacking a better explanation, I assumed I was not expressing myself clearly enough. I had reason to suspect so: I still lacked confidence when speaking English, so I spent most of my free time in my room with a dictionary. Then, when I thought I was ready, I threw myself into the vortex of campus life, which culminated in weekend nights at the so-called Sosh, a shabby disco bar with perennially mediocre music. The others might have gone there to have fun, but I was working my ass off, studying body language, learning to understand English despite the loud music, and keeping myself entertained during utterly pointless conversations. I won’t dwell on what it cost me, but at some point I thought that I’d improved enough, and that the image I was presenting to the world was more or less reflective of the truth. Imagine my surprise when, having serendipitously ended up in the right place at the right time, I caught Molly spitefully parodying all the manners that I’d believed reflected my best qualities.
The more, the worse. After the campus had become fully acquainted with me (during some international cultural symposium I’d recited a poem in my mother tongue, which of course no one had understood), I was given an audience at my paramour’s. Despite taking place in the dining hall in view of a multitude of unnecessary witnesses, it culminated in an obnoxiously intellectual discussion of literature and art, eventually extending to her house’s day room. But what I had expected to culminate in my triumphant rise to prominence as a connoisseur of fine matters morphed into a cruel battering. With a haughty smile, she heard me out before declaring that the value of a book is determined not by its quality but by the opinions of its readers, and that the most worthy novel, if it doesn’t sell, might as well not exist.
I was shocked: so much so, in fact, that I had to spend several nights on the cliffs listening to the waves crashing onto the shore just to offset the storm raging in me. Naturally, I wouldn’t have agreed with her even if she had offered to take my virginity, but it was clear that her lickspittle suite weren’t trying to win her favor or put more pressure on me, but genuinely agreed with her opinions. This meant that the world I inhabited was even more different from my own than I’d feared, and my prospects were akin to those of the waves being dashed against the cliffs a few yards below.
I don’t want to dredge up more examples of her prickly conduct because I don’t want to relive that nightmare again. If you only knew how many times she’d struck me dumb by meeting a gesture or a phrase I’d dropped as a paragon of elegance with arctic sarcasm. And closely as I watched her, I saw no artifice. Yet one occasion demands mention: when she kissed me after the graduation ball, a minute before I was to board the bus to leave AC for the next ten years. At that moment, I was in a state best described as catatonic, and I was not looking for her in the crowd, knowing that hers was the morning bus; this is why I was stunned when I saw her nearby, right at the entrance of the bus: fresh, majestic, and absolutely incongruent with the whiny mess we found ourselves in. When our eyes met, she didn’t say a word but came up and kissed me, putting more tenderness into that kiss than I had expected her to have for anyone, let alone me, before letting me go and walking away with an impenetrable indifference, as if returning home from the fish store. A minute later, when I ascended the top stair to turn and scan the still-thick crowd, she was gone, and I realized that Martina was a woman so impossible that she simply could not exist.