love in the time of Corona : part i

I think I fell in love three times during the escape. This was all unexpected. A few months ago, I was intending to go to Edinburgh, way up north from England. One harmonious night, in a local, crowded bar in London, I met this old man who had his dog outside at the entrance, almost boozed out but conscious enough to intuitively like or dislike a person.

Hey there, this is a very good-looking dog.

He is a good boy.

I agreed because the dog, though huge and jawful to bite a hu-wo-man life out of a body, was extremely sheepish and timid with loving eyes scrolling over everything coming in and out of the bar. 

I knelt and petted the dog. Faithfulness and unconditional love were carelessly floating in his eyes. I stood up and told the man it was my first time in London. 

Oh, I grew up here. I was not born here. I was born in Edinburgh, but I came down here very young. I like London. It is a nice place to be. But not better than Edinburgh. Edinburgh is special. 

I have heard good things about this special place in Scotland. 

You are a young man. He looked at me with struggling, drunken eyes, and a smile that outsmarted them. 

You are young, you should go there and find the love of your life.

Very strange. Our school is scheduled to go there in April, next month.

Oh, that is good! You should go there and meet the love of your life. I smiled because this time he was going into the bar, and the way he left the sentence in the air was as if a gentle breeze would soon take the words to the far sky or elsewhere where miracles and blessings possibly reside. 

I walked in and joined my friends. Three of them. One was a stranger but the other two were friends from high school. It was our first time behaving like aging people. We met in a strange place to discuss the past, bask in it, and promise each other the future is in its brightest shape for us. 

The circle was lit up with petty conversations. Petty simply because they were not of any value for any of us. Something about thin beer being worse than thick or how the English love their gin and tonic and how it was funny for my Kenyan friend to be addicted to it. Or how one of us put on weight and intend not to lose a single bit of it. Or how the stranger girl, taking pouty selfies, wanted to be a journalist or how many of us should not go back to our countries because nothing is waiting for us. Petty things like that. How a country that raised and fed us can suddenly not live up to our expectations. We were only in our early twenties. 

I got up to get a pint. I mentally-checked my pocket; there was £10, which meant almost two pints. I already had two. Perfect. The bar was swollen with the usual chatter and flirt. Everyone seemed in a good mood. One man even free fell from his stool. It seemed like he was in the middle of a successfully progressing date. I watched the scene just like everyone else who was waiting to be served at the bar. Sudden silence, little, crackling laughter across the room, then the haze of noise resumed. 

Oh! the old man with the dog welcomed my arrival at the balcony. 

Oh, yes you should go to Edinburgh and meet the love of your life. You are young. He patted me on my left shoulder and reassured me with a wonderful, aged, wrinkled grin. 

I will. Don’t worry. I believe you. 

He laughed. It seemed he truly liked my full acceptance of his intoxicated prophecy. Well, it was not so difficult for me. When I was a kid in Ethiopia, I often heard God finds us in unexpected ways. God likes that. God works like that. He did not seem to notice he did not say anything new once he promised me love in Edinburgh. Repetition and persistence, as I recall from those church days, is the nature of prophecies. 

Here, what do you drink? I will get you, you also take one. He gestured towards the bartender. She shamelessly took the chance to save the money rather than take a drink. The old man paid attention to this but did not seem to care. I asked for my third-pint of Guinness and thanked him for being a kind man. 

You are a young man. I had a great life. All you have to do is go to Edinburgh and meet the love of your life. 

I came back to the table and grinned boyishly saying I just got a free drink.

So lucky, always lucky. My Kenyan friend remarked, surfing her braided hair.

I repeated, grinning for the prophecy, I just got a free drink.

They shook their heads, reconfirming I was lucky.

I sipped on the pint and when the taste of thick barley simmered in me, I wished one of them had asked me how I got the free pint; how I was lucky this time; how it all came about; if there was more to it. 

But they did not. The old man was also probably gone then. I had to wait for April to accurately learn the nuances of the night for myself. 

=

Heathrow international airport was not crowded at all. Only a few passengers were trying to escape the city of London. March brought a little surprise from heaven. The air, as we know it, was not clear enough for the lungs. It was suddenly diluted with mystery. Many people were losing their breath in the process of demystification. The news was talking about a few successful stories, but mostly that people were failing in such a supernatural task. The failed were going to heaven itself to ask for further assistance. The news also talked about how the sun in England was so weak that many of these travellers were struggling to get to heaven because there was not enough light leading their way. 

I did not know where I fitted in this conundrum. It suddenly came about that I must also leave the nation. It is a different story but, a month ago, the nation’s capital had promised me the love of my life. But now I had to furtively make my way out so I continue to be a young man worthy of prophecies and promises. 

The taxi driver who brought me to the airport was a gentleman. He cared to tell me about the importance of traveling. I told him I was Ethiopian. 

Oh, I know an Ethiopian woman. She is a very, very nice woman. She trusts me a lot and gives me loads of business. 

I know that kind of Ethiopian woman. In fact, my mother is one. He smiled. He believed me. There was no room for lying or pretending. I was escaping and he was getting me to the point of the runaway. We had nothing to lose for each other. All we needed was for the moment itself to while away without the mystery sinking into our limited air in a moving automobile. 

I have seen many places but home, for me, is Devon. We love it here. We have everything we need. 

You have a family that means?

Yes. I have two grown-ups who are doing very well.

How did you meet your wife?

You never know, do you? It just comes about. 

But did you know when it happened? I asked with a flat tone that attempted to hide my naivete.

Now when I look back, it was all in the right. But when I was younger, I did not know. You never know, do you? We chuckled.

I was feeling a little tired from all the logistics that had to be crafted to make my escape as seamless as possible. I thought of all the things that were meant to have happened as opposed to what was happening. It was a time of spring here on earth, but nature was shaking us the way the trees swing their seeds to wherever. I am sure the old man will have also been dispersed back to Devon once he let me go. 

The sun was struggling behind the stubborn English clouds. What a weak sun. A kind that amuses me forever for failing to be a sun. A kind I never knew. There, the airport was in view and its gate was wide open. They had ceased to close. 

All my suitcases fitted on a trolley. The old man wished me well before he drove away. I pressed on the handle. The sound of the squeaky wheels was an end and a beginning of back-to-back chapters. My birthday was only a week ago. 

I pushed the trolley into the airport. For a moment I thought I would find the airplane parked right there waiting for me. That would be a quick escape. My right chest tightened when I found nothing but dispersed people who were rushing. I tried not to rush, so I wouldn’t perturb the air.The plan was a smooth pass-through. I joined a long queue to check-in. 

A chubby woman with dark, black, hair greeted me. Her hair was cut in short and gently tucked behind her small ears. She examined my passport and fiddled with the computer. I wondered how she was keeping her air clean. She was so exposed yet carefree amid the global escape. Everyone was on the move. She was allowing everyone to move. But she was calm and beautiful with a traceable halo of grace that made me want to ask for a hug. She looked at me while I loaded the suitcases. I suspect they weighed a little over the limit. She gave me a sincere glance, meaning she forgave me for something – something I did not know about. I stood still. I wanted to contain my eyes from showing how fondful I was feeling. She could tell, though. 

Which luggage does not have a tag? 

This one. It was the luggage with all my written things. The important luggage per se. She slipped a tag gracefully and pressed a button. Both suitcases disappeared into the escape zone. I wanted to tell her I was on a careful escape plan. I wonder how she would respond to that. She probably would have smiled burrowing her plump cheeks. She handed me my passport. 

Are you Persian?

No, I am Portuguese. she said it proudly.

A Portuguese, serving in London, at a time of escape. Perhaps she was also to escape sooner. Maybe not. She was a calm one. An anomaly to escape. I smiled and walked away thinking there was more I would have asked her, had it been a sunny day in England. 

==

Things had not changed much at the airport; they were only more efficient. There were fewer queues, checkpoints, and conversations. There was a woman insight at the checkpoint who very much looked like an older version of a girl I met a few years ago. She had her eyes, her hair, her stature, and even the aura of kindred spirit which knows how to love unconditionally. I wondered how that girl’s future years would be different from the woman standing in front of me. My right chest tightened with the thought of the love and faith that girl will always have for me.She loves me. She always waits for me to come around to love her the same way someday, someday when I will have fully shaded my lengthy boyhood. I pray for it. But now I was on the run and had not even told her about the escape. I did want to risk her worrying because even in the darkest of days when hope is the scarcest thing, she will still think of me and beam with a colourful vision that we will one day live together. With kids, perhaps. Born or adopted. Kids to whom we will exemplify the world’s capacity for compassion and kindness. Kids, we will fall in love with and through for years and years. Kids who will re-read excerpts of scriptures in our will. 

I stood partially zoned out at the scanning station. 

Honey, please take out any laptop or iPad or … she spoke softly. I am sure she called everyone honey, but that honey was for me. It was mine. 

I passed through the sensor. All clear. Too quickly. I was now on the side of the airport where everyone is meant to leave sooner or later. Where it is nobody’s home.My right chest tightened when I turned to see her once again. 

The gate was yet to be declared. I had to wait a few hours. I called my brother. He made jokes but laughing made my right chest hurt. I finished the call and sucked on a lemon to quieten things. It kind of helped. Still waiting, I began to recollect the things I was running away from. Memories from London and Exeter were coming back to me like a strange song without a chorus or a tantrum, soothing me to keep breathing enough. 

The gate was far away. It was technically in a different building. Everyone was walking faster than usual. Running without running. A kind of haste that did not want to admit fear. I tried to walk slowly. Then I tried to walk normally, which made me walk faster. There should be a better way to act in a time of escape. I slowed down. 

Everyone appeared to be going out of sight. I decided to catch up. Again, too quickly. I was acting like I was scared. I shouldn’t be. Where are we escaping to anyway? 

I emerged out of the corner to see two Ethiopian ladies dressed in bright-coloured, traditional dresses, welcoming the escapists on board. One of them gave me a timid smile. She was beautiful in that Habesha way. I thanked them both in Amharic. 

Ethiopian classical music filled the huge aircraft. So many escapists were already settled on their seats. I walked down the aisle, thinking selfishly, ah, finally, I am going home. 

===

– Birhanu T. Gessese

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