I Would Never Give It Back

Content Warning

The following piece may contain themes that might be difficult to read or triggering. Readers in need can seek support from the following services 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or Lifeline (13 11 14) or visit Creating a Safe Space.

Words by Oumaima (any/all) 24 France

We bumped into each other at midnight like two champagne flutes on New Year’s Eve. By the time our eyes met my bleach-stained scrubs had already inhaled half of the 90-cent coffee I held. The other half found the ground and hugged your neon-green Crocs as if they were forgotten islands. My skin moaned at the heat, swelled with the promise of first-degree burns. I didn’t wince. We lost ourselves in each other until your eyes deserted mine. You reached your hands out–to steady me, to check my wrist–and I flinched. I didn’t mean to.

“It’s okay. I can clean myself up.” You stepped back and held me with your gaze, your head bobbing to the rhythm of my words. A napkin made its way to my hand–muted pink with crochet edges, felt like a satin cloud. I smiled in thanks, and you left.

I cradled your napkin all around the hospital that night.

The earth pivoted around itself five more times before you made a comeback. You floated to the cafeteria with a laboratory-made bouquet of poppies; living flowers scared you with their threat of hidden insects. The heat stains faded at the sight of you. You apologized about our fated Big Bang and I grinned like an idiot while caressing your initials on the napkin.

Washed-out honeycomb yellows rained on us from the naked ceiling, and we breathed in the murmurs and howls of trembling fathers and grieving friends. We shared asphalt coffees and choked on laughter and wilting lettuce sandwiches.

My break always ended before yours. That graffitied table with the broken limb was now ours, we pilgrimaged there every week.

We high-fived the loud sun at the park one month into our meeting–being buried in the cafeteria no longer satiated us. I pointed out living poppies and you scrunched up your nose. I orphaned a family to give you one and you took it with a dimpled smile. We devoured caramel eclairs and stained your cashmere shirt with crème patissière while watching pigeons battle-royale over a grain of rice.

I made a nest in your industrial loft apartment and flocked to it every other week because my shower broke down, and then because it was 10 minutes closer to the hospital, and then because all my clothes were there anyway. You didn’t mind. I told you I hated chicken, so you cooked Korean beef stew, boeuf à la bourguignonne, goulash. I hated beef too. I ate everything.

It’d been five months, but we never went back to the cafeteria together. You had many patients to fix, and I did too. Our table greeted me like a grieving widow. I mopped spilled coffee with the napkin–mine now, I would never give it back to you–and watched people flow.

It was fine, I would see you at home.

We had take-out–Pad Thai–and watched The Office without subtitles until you fell asleep. The next day we bumped shoulders in front of your double-door fridge, and you ignored my call for a dinner date. I finger-counted the weeks since our last date: five. You said you were tired when I parroted it later in bed.

I saw your face every day, but you never smiled. I craved your signature steaks. Your sighs bloated, soaked up the silence of our home. I caught my reflection in you at night and shuddered. I made burgers for your birthday. You left yours untouched. I set my tears free and you groaned like I was a tattooed malediction. I grabbed your hand and you yelled me away.

It hurt to sleep alone that night.

Finally, our skins touched again, and I rejoiced at the feeling. Your slap cut through my chapped lips and into me. I fell against the flowery wallpaper of our room.

“Clean yourself up.” Your lip curled and I arced into myself.

You shut the bedroom. I dug into the pockets of my hoodie. My napkin greeted me and I relaxed as it flirted with my mouth.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio