Playing Stories — Chapter 31: Layla

Chapter 31: Layla
from the 1970 album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” by Derek and the Dominos
posted at 12:34, 23 June 2019

What’ll you do when you get lonely
And nobody’s waiting by your side?
You’ve been running and hiding much too long
You know it’s just your foolish pride

I used to love how every day plays out like a story. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to do that, cause fiction isn’t everything and literature isn’t the world. But if you read as much as I do, the temptation’s always there. Every day’s just another chapter, another short story in life where you’re the main character — and where everything else is out of control.

You see, there’s only three ways to tell a story: first, second and third-person narration. Me, you, and the universe. And every day we spend our lives trying to balance the three worlds: trying to make sure there’s enough of you in my life, finding a way to keep the universe at bay. Sometimes you remember that you aren’t supposed to make it all about you, that Two and Three don’t exist just so One can make it all about themselves. Sometimes you remember to tell their side of the story. But nothing cuts as deep as “I”. Nothing, except for that wonderful switch in which “I” becomes “you”. When you admit the other to become a part of you, when you allow “you” to be a substitute for “I”. That doesn’t happen often. Only with one person at a time.

She’d always talked about visiting Paris. She said she loved the place because of everything it stood for: freedom of love and love of freedom. Unending lights, undying passion. Life. Laughter. Everything that made her time on Earth worth it. And every time she mentioned it, I smiled and said that one day we’d go. Our first-year anniversary trip. She’d tease me and say that our bosses would never allow it — that they would always get in the way of us. (She rarely called anyone else “us”. It was always “the department”, “Damien”, “Olivia and the girls”. Almost always “they”.) How prescient she always was. In the 23 months we were together, we only got out of Greater London twice. And now there wasn’t going to be a Paris trip: not when she had permanently exchanged “you” for “Thomas”. The Third before the Second.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Paris after she left, though. She’d talked about it so much, I found my own wishes dovetailing with hers. The Eiffel light show, dazzling a million ways. Hiking up Montmartre to see Paris from above. Walking by the Seine in the light rain — not sopping wet like they did in the Woody Allen film, but just enough that the asphalt would be glistening and slippery. I wanted all this, and more. So I came to St. Pancras. And I bought tickets — just for myself. Just so that I could get it over with, and write her out of my story once and for all. The first cut is always the deepest, but it has to get better from there on, right?

You hope it’s true, at least.

They’re taking a long, long time to get going. I’d have thought that zipping over to Paris, and then God knows where, that would’ve been quick and easy. Just a two-hour ride under the Channel, and boom, you’re in the City of Light. But I’ve been on this train for two hours, and I can still see St. Pancras from my window. Apparently some dick jumped onto the lines at Ebbsfleet and tried to stop a train with his mind. “For a bet,” the whispers are going round the train. They’re still trying to get him off. Why do people do that? Why do people want to make such a big deal of themselves these days? It’s not like I’m going to pimp all my thoughts on a website for everyone to see.

I wonder how Charlie’s wedding is going right now. Right as I’m sitting here, waiting for a train that’ll never pull out to take me out of the country so that I can write a fricking new chapter for myself, they’re merging their stories together, making it a “we” for the foreseeable future. I wanted to go, I really did. But Layla and I breaking up meant that I’d have to answer a lot of questions, from people I just don’t feel like seeing on a bad day. “Where’s Layla?” “Have you and her broken up?” “Oh, I’m so sorry for you. Do you want her wiped from your memory?” (I’ve seen “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, I know that doesn’t work, whatever Alice might say.) I don’t want to be pitied or — or mothered by so many people. I just can’t.

You know, when I first met Layla, I thought that she was really, really going to be the one for me. “You and me, with our love, we might just save the world. One mind at a time,” she liked to say. After a while, I even believed her. She obviously didn’t mean — oh thank God, the train’s moving at last. I might still be able to make lunch over there.

It seemed easy at first. She already knew so much of what I wanted to do — she had seen through the depths of me, right from the moment we laid eyes on each other — but what had really surprised the both of us was how much we were in tandem, even without her prompting. We were like mirror images, and the stories we were writing out in each other’s lives intertwined like two strands. So much of it seemed like the same event, viewed from slightly different perspectives. But she slowly tired of the sameness. The fact that we spent so much in “we”. She wanted more. It was during one of our fights — actually just quietly murmured back-and-forths on opposite sides of the bed — that she told me that she couldn’t do it anymore. And then it happened: “we” became “Layla and Thomas”. Two people who just happened to be sharing a sentence.

I know that I’m free now. I’m going to Paris, which is more than we ever managed to do. I’m doing things that I couldn’t do with her. And you know what, I don’t need her, just as she doesn’t need me. We’ll both develop personalities, as she said that night. I can go and find things that actually interest me, and she can go on with her life. Let her do whatever she wants: if she wants to run and hide like that, give up something at the drop of a hat, then she can be my guest. I didn’t need her to be a rounded person, or whatever it was that I wanted from her. She’s right.

And yet.

She doesn’t know what she’s in for. She’s just so picky and contradictory: she says she wants to be her own self, but we got together precisely cause we were good at guessing each other’s game. Nobody can get used to that in such a short time — she always said that her previous relationships all ended really quickly and ugly — and the mind-reading! Who can get used to that? There are just so many things about her that nobody else really understands. Who else knows her body and her mind as well as I do? Who else would know when to give her the tissues? They might exist in the universe. They might exist in London. But no, even if they do, who’d want to spend all that time with her?

You think she really meant it, when she said that we were far too alike? No. She could have said that she didn’t like me, or that I had too many secrets she couldn’t help reading into. Oh, I know how many flaws I have, but she pretended she didn’t mind. How easy would it have been just to be forthright with me, to tell me that “hey, Thomas, I’m not sure about this or that”? She lied to me for weeks, months — maybe even the best part of these two years. Lord, she told me over and over that she wasn’t going to pry. How much did she know at the time? Why didn’t she say something? Why did she have to make me think — in all those years — that I was worth her time? How selfish do you have to be just to keep somebody guessing like that?

(My ticket? Here you go, how long is it till we’re in Paris? Another 90 minutes? Well, that’s good enough. Thanks, miss. No, I’m okay, I just need a breather.)

It was so easy to read her mind, actually. I saw this all coming. All that time, when “me” was “you” and Two was One, I knew her. I knew her mind like she knew mine, but mine was something that I worked for, a little repository that I built up with time and patience. And somehow… somehow I knew that we were a ticking time-bomb, that we weren’t going to last with all those secrets and my heart like an open book waiting for her to read. Yet I stayed, because I thought it’d be worth it. But she didn’t want that. In the end, she didn’t want to have me become the One.

Your decision, Layla. Not mine. How could you just shut me out like that? When she said it at last, when she admitted that she couldn’t let me in anymore, it felt like my universe had suddenly shrunk. Because I believed her: for that moment, and God knows how long afterwards, my story collapsed. One and Two just stopped for me. I couldn’t feel myself, nor could I see her and feel like I knew her. I was just a part of something big, something that didn’t care about me. It was all Three right then. So I’m going to do it. I’m going to rebuild One. To hell with Two. She’s not that anymore. She doesn’t mean anything anymore.

I can’t believe that she’ll throw away everything, just because of some stupid excuse. I have to show her what she’s — no, Thomas, you can’t call her while you’re in Paris. Be a responsible grown-up, you two agreed to keep it civil. No mud-slinging. If she asks, then you can say it. But no, you can’t go charging after her, even if she doesn’t appreciate you for who you are, even if. You have to end that chapter now, or else you’ll be dragged in. Come back to it later. Maybe work out how to be friends with her. Cause despite everything she’s still worth being friends with, you know that. Not only because she’s still working WITH you at the same office, but because she genuinely is nice. You might be in for something. The world is open for me now, a brand new chapter waiting for me to begin. And why should I wait for her to write it, when she wasn’t waiting for me? Somebody’s coming, Thomas — wipe the tears off your face.

They’re looking at me weird, all those unfamiliar faces. The universe seems to be only staring at me — why do they do that? “Are you sure you’re okay, man?”

I have to get out of here. “I’m just tired.” I can do a charming smile whenever I want to. I’m good at this kind of thing. “I just have to stretch my legs a bit.” Head off to the café, maybe there’s fewer people there, especially in this climate. The train is swaying in the tunnel, it’s hard to hold on to anything. Step out onto the partition: there’s a woman there. We’re still a few minutes away from France, but already she’s looking out of the window. Who the hell looks at blackness? I can’t help stopping right there, looking at her from the other side of the corridor. All I see is her chestnut brown hair, falling down all around her shoulders and her sky blue shirt. Then everything changes: she turns her head, just as our train breaks out of the Chunnel and the sunshine streams into the carriage once more. And in the light, I recognize her.

“Hello, Thomas,” says Morgan.


Finally, something good. 🙂

So I’ve worked out that we might go Kriesburg, Zutledorf and maybe Argels. Do you want to visit the capital, or cross the border to Wrenclia? It’s up to you. How long of a holiday have you got?

Quentin

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