‘Really?’ he frowns, ‘That’s your favourite song?’
‘It’s innocent,’ I explain, ‘The overwhelming emotion behind your first love.’
I hate small-talk with people I barely know, but I have somehow been drawn into conversation with this person. Actually, I had been deserted into conversation with him. Alec was here, and then suddenly wasn’t. He had this magical ability to disappear without notice. I desperately searched the sea of faces, trying to spot a familiar one.
I was perhaps being a little melodramatic. I know quite a few of the people crowded in Alec’s apartment. Most of them are from school; a couple were in some of my classes. Most of them though, like Mr. ‘All-time-favourite-song’ had very strong opinions, and as most artists, performers, authors, poets and philosophers liked to do, he wanted to discuss the matter. All I wanted was to play beer pong with my friends and eat a lot of food.
“We’re in my room. KNOCK ONCE AND WE’LL LET YOU IN.”
The very clandestine text message from Alec. I do as I’m instructed, stepping into what had apparently formed into a secret society.
‘What’s going on?’ I laugh as Alec quickly locks the door behind me, ‘Why are you all hiding in here?’
The Greatest Pop Hits of 2017 floats in the air. Noah is pouring tequila into shot glasses carefully lined up on Alec’s desk. Brandon and Ayesha are sprawled on the bed with a spread of snacks decorating the white duvet. The smell of cigarette smoke gently dusts the air from the shadows out on the landing.
‘The party’s supposed to be outside,’ I tell them.
‘Everyone’s so fucking pretentious out there,’ Alec falls on his bed, sending Cadburys flying, ‘For God’s sake, I’m not even allowed to play Zayn Malik in my own home without everyone having a fit. They don’t want their minds filled with “pop garbage”.’
‘Give me a break,’ Ayesha rolls her eyes, ‘Like most of them didn’t own every single One Direction album that ever dropped when they were fourteen.’
‘So this is your mainstream club?’
‘Exactly,’ Alec grins.
Noah hands everyone a shot glass. She pops her head out the window, ‘We’re drinking.’
The two shadows from outside step through the window. One was Noah’s girlfriend, Janey, and the other:
‘Hannah,’ she clinks her glass against mine.
‘Olive,’ I cough the tequila down.
She smiles, ‘From the gallery.’
‘Right,’ I pretend to remember although I never forgot.
‘Looks like it worked out well then,’ she points her empty glass in the direction of Ayesha with Brandon’s head in her lap.
‘Yeah,’ although I wonder if it really has.
‘I don’t understand,’ I rest my temple in the palm of my hand, facing her completely, my elbow propped on the back of the couch. The living room is empty now; only the relics of a party strewn all over in the form of empty cups, crumbs and cigarette butts. Noah and Janey had left and Ayesha, Brandon and Alec had passed out on his bed hours ago. It was now well into the morning and I was still a little drunk.
‘How do you see the things you see?’ I ask Hannah, my words coated in drunken admiration.
‘I don’t know,’ she shrugs, ‘Some things just stand out.’
‘It must be like a superpower,’ I squint, ‘because so few people have the ability.’
She laughs, ‘I don’t think I fall in the ranks of Spiderman or Batman.’
I wave her remark away, ‘Batman isn’t a real superhero. He’s just rich and sad.’
She laughs again, ‘Alright, and what about you?’
I stare up at the ceiling, ‘My superpower would probably be…’ I lick my bottom lip, ‘I can eat my body weight in ice cream.’
‘I mean your writing,’ she grins.
I frown, ‘That’s not a superpower.’
‘If my photography is, then writing definitely is,’ she says, ‘Alec once told me that your writing makes him believe in a better world.’
I feel my face flush, ‘Alec says a lot of things. Most of them are exaggerated.’
‘But he doesn’t lie,’ she rests her chin on her knees. Her sock grazes my arm.
I rest my cheek against the soft wool of the couch cushion, ‘No one is completely happy with their life. Content, sure, and we all have moments when our lives feel perfect. But then everything else happens, and you need an escape when reality gets too real. That’s why people become addicts. Alcohol, drugs, sex; it all distorts actuality. Fiction and poetry and music, all do the same. That’s why all artists are a little insane,’ I glance up at her, realising I had gone into a complete trance. These were the words I wrote on paper, not the ones I spoke aloud. Especially not to someone I had met only a few hours ago.
But she was staring at me, not saying anything, making my skin crawl. I was holding my breath. Her olive-green eyes burned my skull; right through the skin and straight to the bone.
‘Is that why you write then?’ she says finally, ‘To help people escape reality?’
I stare down at my pale fingers, ‘Such a noble statement,’ I smile, ‘but the truth is I write so that I can escape reality; so that even if no one ever reads anything my pen put on paper, I at least had the venture of living hundreds of different lives.’
My body feels funny when I look at her again. I tell myself that tequila and copious amounts of chocolate don’t sit well with the stomach.
I laugh, ‘See, this is what happens when my brain is allowed to function after 2 am. I start blabbering without thinking.’
‘If that was your blabbering,’ Hannah says, ‘then I will never again speak proper sentences in front of you.’
I remember thinking that even if she remained silent for the rest of her life, she could never stop talking through her photography. Of course, I didn’t say that. I hardly ever said anything I was actually thinking back then. With Hannah, it became easier as time went on. I told her only later that it was another reason I wrote. Growing up, I had to think and act in a certain way because there were some things you were just not allowed to have an opinion on.
‘What would the neighbours say if you went protesting with all the lesbians and gays?’ my mother once told me when I asked I could join the women’s movement for a weekend. She said to not even broach the subject with my father because it would only upset him. I asked how she thought the women felt whose health care had been revoked in order to ‘save’ the government some money.
She stared at me, clutching the laundry basket so tightly I thought her delicate fingers would snap off, ‘Olive, that is none of our business.’
And she walked away.
That was my family; trapped in their suburban bubble of well-being. They lived comfortably, so that meant the rest of the world did too. I wanted to scream at my mother that of course, it was our business! We were women. The sole fact that we had vaginas made it our business; the fact that we were human beings made it our business. Instead of saying any of that though, I let out a deep, shaky breath. My parents believed that everyone had their little cube in the world. You were born into your cube and when people stepped out of their allocated safe zone, everything fell apart.
‘Look at Donald Trump,’ my father always said.
Although I couldn’t argue with that, I pointed out that revolutionaries like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Malala Yousafzai and so many others made a very public declaration of stepping out of their cube and they had changed the world. It was at that point that he shushed me because he couldn’t hear the weather report and he had a very important golf game the next day.
When I was younger, I wrote about how I would have liked the world to be, and then I grew up and it dawned on me that no one was interested. I remember thinking how utterly disappointed I was that I could not change the world. I couldn’t even change my parents’ minds. And then I wrote because I knew I wouldn’t survive otherwise.
But when I sat on the couch that first night with Hannah, I never dreamed of it. Back then, I thought I had to start revolutions and protests. It didn’t occur to me that I could help another human being, a complete stranger, with a single phrase I had formulated. This despite the fact that this is what had saved me.