“Well, I don’t feel cold,” said Saskia to Sylvie. Though it wasn’t clear how. She was dressed in tight, thin T-shirt, not even wearing a bra, and here her girlfriend was, wearing three sweaters.
“It’s like five degrees in here!” Sylvie insisted. (Celcius, that is.)
“It’s like twelve degrees,” Saskia assured her.
“That’s still too cold!”
“Well, I’m not cold, I don’t know what to tell you!”
Sylvie kept thinking there must be something wrong with the heating, but they’d had it checked by three people and nobody found anything wrong with it. “I just don’t understand how it can be so cold.”
“I’ll keep you warm,” Saskia offered early on, inviting Sylvie in for a snuggle.
“No!” Sylvie soon realized. “I get even colder touching you, I mean not that I don’t want to, but you’re not exactly a space heater.”
One of their friends had joked that it might be worth investing in a boyfriend, if only for the specific purpose of keeping them both warm. He hadn’t stayed a friend of theirs for long.
This was why Saskia had gotten in the habit of taking a very hot shower just before crawling into bed with Sylvie. It was too hot—it was uncomfortably hot, to the point that it made her pale skin unnaturally red, but with the lights off, that didn’t make much difference, really.
“That’s better,” Sylvie would apologize once Saskia curled up against her, nice and warm. “I don’t mean to be such a bitch about this. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“It’s okay,” Saskia lied. “Whatever I can do that will make you more comfortable.”
They had been living together since they both graduated high school. They went to the KUL together and while they had each had their separate adventures there, they had emerged stronger than ever. Or so they thought. Now Sylvie was working as a speech therapist and Saskia was still studying for her doctorate in Physics and something seemed different. Off.
Sylvie sneezed. “I really should go to the doctor,” she said. “I really can’t go into work like this, what will people think?”
“Well, I do have to go into work,” said Saskia. “I promise I’ll be home for dinner.” But as she kissed her girlfriedn on the forehead, she couldn’t help but notice Sylvie flinch. It gave her pause. They had a moment, during which Sylvie looked embarrassed at what she’d involuntarily done, snorted and reached for the tissues, while Saskia did her best not to look too accusing or confrontational.
At work, Saskia was distracted, which wasn’t like her. She wasn’t used to being this person. If she was preoccupied, it was usually something external or specific to the environment that bothered her. She didn’t carry her emotional baggage along.
“You comign along to that frietkot?” asked one of her colleagues.
She described it.
“I don’t know if I’ve been to that one,” Saskia said.
Going to a new frietkot on her lunchbreak wasn’t supposed to be the highlight of her day, let alone a big deal, and yet as she set out with four or five other physici to go there, she found herself reeling with the sense of anticipation. It was a feeling she hadn’t gotten since… well, her first day of university, she thought. Maybe even high school.
“It’s the cute one,” Marjolein whispered at her with a grin when they got in and it didn’t take Saskia long to realize what that was about, as her eyes found the very good-looking Moroccan young man behind the counter. It’s so rare, she mused, to find service people smiling like that. Especially immigrants. Especially the young and good-looking.
But why bring it up to her, the lesbian with a girlfriend?
Then he turned and his eyes found her and
Something that… Had she ever?… If so, it was…
Suddenly, the young man looked familiar. He took her order and was polite enough, yet something lingered in his gaze. It shoudl have made her bristle, made her quip. Instead, it made her blush and smile.
“Wow,” said Marjolein at their table. “Even Saskia agrees!”
It was the only thing that could have possibly kept her mind off of Sylvie, but it was no more conducive to work. She wasn’t sure exactly why, or how she was going to justify it to herself, what good it would do or even what she was going to do when she got there, but she resolved to return to the frietkot in question after leaving work early.
When she got there, it was the middle of the afternoon and the place was deserted.
The young man was there and when she walked in, he looked at her. And she looked back.
A polite young service worker would have asked “Can I help you, ma’am?” or even “Did you forget something?” in Dutch only very slightly accented with Arabic, but there was none of that. Then again, a polite customer would tell him how he could help.
Did she even know?
“Do I know you?” she finally asked him.
The first thing he did was draw himself up, lift his chin a bit. But then his whole face changed—not his features, nothing quite that bizarre, but his expression was…
“Wait… I do know you.”
Suddenly, Saskia was transported back to a night several years ago—how many years?—back in high school. She was fifteen years old and out with friends and three of them were together—no, that wasn’t right, not till afterwards…
Two of her friends were being assaulted. And she had arrived with… with a boy she’d just met.
Some part of her had tried so hard to forget.
“So you do remember,” said the man, who couldn’t have been that young; not if he was the same man.
He got out from behind the counter and Saskia backed towards the door instinctively—except which instinct was she following?
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, as though it should have been obvious. “Don’t you remember that night?”
He had saved her. Her and her friends. She didn’t know from what, wouldn’t say. Nor how.
“There were three of us,” she said. “Liesbeth and Cathérine—“
“That’s not the night I mean.”
She looked at him. She wanted to be confused. She should have been, and she wished that she was.
That was when he called her by a name she hadn’t heard in centuries.
“No,” she said. “Stop.” She needed time, and answers. Which did she need more? “Who are you?”
“You know who I am.” But she didn’t want to. He moved even closer to her—
“Stop,” she said. “You say I know who you are, but do you even know who I am?”
“Of course,” he said, and she could see the breath steaming out of his mouth as he spoke.
“I don’t know who you think I am—“
He spoke that name again, a most familiar name—
“I don’t know who that is!” she insisted. “But whoever it is, I’m not her anymore.”
Now it was his turn to be confused, and he didn’t want to be.
“Goodbye,” she said, reaching for the door without realizing she’d just called him by a name she shouldn’t know.
Once she was outside, she realized the temperature was at least ten degrees higher.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Sylvie said when Saskia got back to her. “He said I have a cold, but my temperature’s fine and I felt fine while I was there.”
“We’ll figure it out,” said Saskia Van Sneeuwegem, knowing exactly what it was that was wrong.
“Maybe it’s this place,” said Sylvie. “Maybe I’m allergic to this house or something. Maybe we should just move.”
“Maybe,” Saskia lied.