Summer was officially here, the likes of which I had never seen before. Every night I’d lie in bed battling the insomnia I’d struggled with for seven years, while the sky turned from black to ink to the palest peach. The days were bright and soft, and the gloaming cool, blue, and languid. Blistering tropical summers were all I had known, summers in apocalyptic dusty urban sprawls when the mere thought of existing outside of a temperature-controlled room was torture. Short, blazing days were occasionally relieved by the pyrotechnics of an evening thunderstorm. But this summer was different. Summer in England awakened in me half-forgotten memories—a picture in a book, a fragment of a poem, a phrase that I might have scribbled on the back of a journal when I was 15. The daffodils and the daisies, the warm yellow sun, and the wayward summer breezes conspired to suspend me in a permanent dream—one that every Indian has had at least once in their lives, ever since England colonized our consciousness hundreds of years ago. English summers, in all their mythic charm, are perfectly designed to make you fall in love.
And I was in love, deliriously, desperately in love. The not-so-obscure object of my affection was Alex, a shy, blue-haired games developer who lived all the way across the country. I was in love as only a madwoman could be. I spent my weekdays in bed hiding from school and work, having anxiety attacks while the dishes piled up on the floor, but on the weekends I was a different person. Every other Friday, I’d board the southbound afternoon train from York and spend the next two and a half hours Instagramming pictures of my face to pass the time while I raced toward him shedding like old skin the sadness I had accumulated since our last visit. The crushing darkness of insanity, the misery of loneliness, the heartache of being away from your lover—I sloughed them off in layers along the way. By the time the train pulled in at Cambridge station, I felt like I had never known sorrow.
When people talk about the most romantic places in the world, they usually think of Paris or the Mediterranean, but no one thinks of sleepy university towns in England. Cambridge will always be the backdrop to everything I know of love. It’s a city composed almost entirely of parks, old churches, colleges, and—my favorite—huge rambling townhouses we’d see on our way to the city center. I was enamored of those homes, with their basements and their steps leading up to brightly painted doors, their gleaming kitchens and somber libraries tucked away deep inside.
“Someday you and I will have a house just like this! With a basement and a bright red door and flowers and a back garden,” I would burble as we walked through town arm in arm. Alex’s mouth would twist upward wryly. I loved winding him up, I loved the funny faces he pulled to amuse me. I especially loved it when he went into full-on dork mode, making sad-puppy sounds or breaking out into an impromptu chicken dance. Sometimes when he was playing video games I would give it a go, and, frustrated by my ineptitude, he sit behind me and wrap his arms around me, place his hands on mine, and guide my clumsy hands on the controller. He was perpetually delighted with my body, and I was fascinated by his. My fat rolls molded perfectly around his bony spine when we spooned; in sleep our bodies together and my head burrowed in the soft hair that fell around his neck. I got a thrill from how frail he felt in my arms, how utterly breakable. He was my first, and I was his. We were good together. That was five years ago.
Sometimes I lie on my bed and dream I am back there, spending a sweltering summer afternoon with Alex, listening to the songs off his iPod. I can feel the grass of Jesus Green beneath me as I recline under the trees, lazily dragging at a cigarette, my feet propped up in his lap as he plays a game on his shiny new handheld console. I’m cooking him a real Indian meal when he comes up behind me and kisses my shoulder where the strap of my cami has fallen away. I’m sprawled in bed, and he laughs watching me try to figure out the controller to play Mass Effect. Later that night we watch a film and eat dinner, and he falls asleep cuddling me.
Memories hit like waves until I’m curled up fetally on the floor, struggling to breathe—and then the image of Alex’s body, pale and lifeless, flutters into frame. His features are blurred beyond recognition, his torso and limbs are bloated, his skin turned fish-belly white by the river water. That was Alex—my baby, my love—as he looked the last time I saw him.
I started drifting away—from him, from everything—about a year in. I grasped at him in desperation, which made him withdraw. I suggested we go to my shrink together; he said he had to work on his music and stopped showing up online. I proposed we take a vacation together; he went home to Scotland without me. One muggy Friday in August, after a full day of nonstop crying, I found him on TK. I said “What’s up” and he said “I can’t do it anymore” and then he logged off.
Somehow I found myself on the train to Cambridge that afternoon. He came to the station to pick me up. He hugged me perfunctorily then retreated into a stony silence for 20 minutes or so on the cab ride to his place.
“How was your day?” I finally offered.
“It was fine. Nothing much happened.” He fixed his gaze out the car window, never meeting my eye.
“You need to color your hair, the blue has gone green again.”
Every single detail of that evening is etched in my mind. I remember what he was wearing—a Dinosaur Comics T-shirt and his oldest flares. I remember our last meal together, sitting by the water at the Boathouse in silence while I pushed my roast chicken around on its plate and he picked at a burger. I would be remember that detail later, when I was hysterical with grief. At least his last meal was his favorite food.
It started raining as we walked back home, and soon we were both drenched. I peeled off my wet clothes in his room and thought that a few weeks ago we would have been each other’s wet clothes off in the shower, kissing and giggling as the warm water ran over our bodies. I wrapped myself in a baggy cardigan and found Alex in the kitchen with a half-full bottle of whiskey, sloshing it carelessly into a glass.
“Doesn’t that belong to Barry?” I said.
“I guess,” he said, focused on the bottle.
“You never drink alcohol, though.”
“Sometimes you need to get drunk.”
“My parents thought the same thing.”
“Your parents were alcoholics, I’m having a whiskey and coke. Your problem is that you always make everything out to be about how your life sucks.”
I decided to go back to bed and try to sleep, but somehow I found myself instead snatching the glass from his hand and throwing it against the wall, yelling, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” I slammed my open palms against his chest and he staggered back a few steps, bumping into the kitchen counter. I was screaming and crying; I wanted to rip apart my skin to let out all the pain. The next thing I remember was crouching on the floor, my bloody hands clutching shards of broken glass, and the sound of a door slamming downstairs.
No one knows what went on between that moment and when his body was found in the river two days later. He would never have done that to himself, I thought. It was an accident, a stupid, pointless accident. “It was your fault,” I tell the drowned woman in the mirror. Her hair streams out like seaweed behind her; her skin is scaly. She floats in a blue swimming pool in the sun, turning round and round in the water like a seal while heat waves radiate around her. She stretches out, bobbing in the cool water, looking up at the blue summer sky and the tree that sprinkles leaves on her with every breeze. She floats to the shallow end and stretches her legs on the steps, playing a Smiths song in her head. Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head, oh oh oh.
I remember his face like it was yesterday—his wonky grin, his gray-blue eyes that matched his hair, the scruffy beard I loved running my hands over. I love him as much as I ever did. The mad girl in love with the dead man. I watch the sky fade into pinks and peaches in the western sky and the moon rise in the east, a swollen yellow sphere, almost too large to be real.♦