We were young, and in love, and we sat high above the city as dusk fell on a freezing Sunday afternoon. Those were the days we were homeless and cold but too happy to notice, which is to say they were the days before we moved in together and started to inadvertently take our love apart. We walked around as if in a dream, that February, barely able to believe our luck for having found one another. We held our breath every time we had to be apart, afraid that any minute we were about to wake up and find we were, after all, alone in our own beds.
They were the days when I hardly knew myself, too: the days before the internet, before I’d heard most of the songs I love, before I met most of my favourite people, when I still thought that I would become what my parents expected me to become — an academic. I went to all my lectures and took copious notes, even in the archaeology ones that bored me half to death, and I had French lessons because French was thought to be the most useful language for a historian to know; and even though I never started revising for exams until it was almost too late I always did well. While I suspected my family was crazy, I had no idea quite how true that was. Unhappiness was normal in that world, and ever present. Other people’s unhappiness, that is; I wanted to be happy. But even so, the dream of a different life was still asleep in my heart, asleep and dreaming.
Except that there he was, the boy Constantin, also known as the first big miracle in the catalogue of my life; and there I was, the one who had carried the wish for this moment in her heart of hearts for months until it finally happened; and there we were, alone together, as the purple, hazy dusk fell onto the city, as the city tumbled into the sea, as the sea stretched into the sky. If you’ve ever been in love in Thessaloniki you’ll know exactly what I mean, you probably know the very spot or one very much like it, and you can picture the odd mix of careless ugliness and majestic, almost transcendental beauty that makes Thessaloniki what it is — the place that inspired us to our wildest dreams and told us they can never come true, all in one breath.
We sat looking at each other, that’s how it always was those days, and I told him about the two girls I’d been friends with at school: how I’d fallen out with both of them (on separate occasions, two years apart); how it broke my heart; and how I didn’t really understand it, which was strange — I’ve always been good at understanding. He listened, and when I finally paused at the end, he looked at it me and said, simply: “it seems to me like you loved the girls more than they loved you.” It was the truth –the most compassionate, tender version of the truth imaginable, the one that cast me in the best possible light– and so I didn’t quite believe it; I wasn’t given to being kind to myself back then. Also, it was easy to dismiss: he only said that because he was in love with me.
Oh, I was a fool. I know. But you see, I’d been told that when you’re in love you lose sight of reality, that what you see in the other person is a projection of your wishes and desires, and I’d gone and believed it. Now I wish I could sit my younger self down and tell her that she didn’t need to be cynical, not even when the whole world around her was, and that she should follow her heart, and do it with courage; and I wonder if our story would have perhaps unfolded differently had I found the strength to hold on to my dreams when things got hard. I’ll never know.
But despite my casual dismissal, and despite everything that came later, his statement stayed with me through the eleven-and-a-half years that followed, and in time it came to be something of a landmark in my life. It points the way: I am seized, intermittently, by the desire to be as tender, understated, and wise as he was in that moment; and I try, always, to be the one who looks for the love lurking in the darkest recesses of your heart, the one who points it out to you when you can’t see it. I don’t always get it right, but I learn a lot in trying, and it would be worth it just for that — and for those times when I do get it right, and I am rewarded with a perfect moment of understanding.
But that’s not the reason why this moment has been on my mind lately. It’s simply that I have come to realise that he was right, even though he was in love with me, or even because he was in love with me: he was right. I loved the girls more than they loved me; and I dare say that in the eleven-and-a-half years that followed I went on to love a significant number of other people more than they loved me. I’ve felt sad about this, and I’ve felt lonely; but mostly, oh, mostly I’ve felt foolish. I tend to fall in love –with people, with ideas, with projects, with songs– and it does inevitably end with me lying in bed, alone, looking at the ceiling and lamenting the fact that I’m so very strange and different.
As if I would ever want to be any other way.
I think it’s time to look back and say ‘thank you’ to the boy Constantin, and to the world: I love you more — and that’s just fine.