His sense of unreality began on that very first evening he met K. Although they had been pen-friends for years, they had never met in reality and, as he waited for her, he was nervous as a cat. It is surprising how close two people can become without ever having met or even spoken and, in those three years, they had become so very close.
He fidgetted nervously, sipped at his pint and studied again the photo of her although he already knew every line by heart. How much can you tell of someone from a photograph? You cannot tell even how they look - a real, four-dimesional person is deep and wide and high and moves through time. How can you hope to capture all this by compressing it into a flat two-dimensions? Her nose, is it crooked or is that some trick of the light? Will that flush on her cheek fade delightfully or stay like an ugly bruise? Is that reflection a sign of bright lights or a clammy skin? From a photograph you cannot even tell if someone is handsome -- and all the study in the world will tell you nothing more.
He put the photo back in his wallet and thought instead about his mental image of K, built as it was from three years of her writing. What can you tell, then, about a person from how she (or he) describes herself? Again, the answer is that you cannot tell at all how they look. K has said that she ahs red hair, but is it the red of autumn leaves as the sun sets or the red of new copper at noon in summer or is it the red of an old scourer left too long by an unloved sink? Would her blue eyes be the blue of a July sky in Italy or of a cold mountain lake in December in Switzerland or the blue of a greasy old banknote left crumpled in a pocket. Even when she said directly, "I am too fat", is this the "too fat" of a model racked with guilt over a square of chocolate or of a true slob lamenting forever the passing of good health? You can never tell what someone looks like from their description of themselves because they see themselves in a way that no other person ever can. Had he not himself agonised for hours over the childhood scar that marred his face yet which nobody else could see without him first pointing it out.
Would he even recognise her, he asked himself as he sipped again at his drink and shifted uncomfortably against the nasty fake leather of his corner seat. How ironic if this woman, who he considered one of his closest friends were to pass through the room without recognition.
Why then, in these days of cheap travel, had they never met before, these friends who were "so very close"? For many reasons: at first they were not close and did not want to meet and then they were shy and could not bear to meet and finally, when they knew each other well, it was because not meeting had become a habit and they had forgotten, perhaps, that it was even possible for them to meet.
Why then, if there were all these reasons for them not to meet did they decide that they should met? For a simpla and unromantic reason (he being rational and she being practical) - K had just taken a job in the town of Y where he had lived for many years and to not meet would seem then like they were avoiding each other, like the behaviour of foolish adolescents not grown men and women.
He sipped again at his dring and glanced nervously at the door. Why was he nervous then, meeting this "so very close" friend? What did he expect of her, this K? Everything and nothing -- he had been single for five years and she had left her partner to move to Y and yes, he admitted to himself, he hoped, in the euphamistic words of old-fashionned writers "something would come of the match." Yet he was a rational man and knew that hope dashed is worse than despair and he expected nothing from her. It is a very different thing to write to someone than it is to talk to them. In writing you can measure a phrase carefully and not blurt out a half-formed thought. Yet in speaking you can see and hear a whole array of cues to tell you more. If she simles as she says, "You are not what I expected," she is pleased not disappointed. If her voice trails off when she says, "I just don't know," then she is uninterested rather than confused. Even after this, he had then to consider the whole range of physical mannerisms which could delight or annoy. Would he be enchanted by the way she could not help but lower her head if he looked directly at her? Would she be repelled by the way he constantly fidgetted with his long typists fingers? He did not even know whether he would want to meet her again after this so how could he expect anything from her?
The door opened. A woman entered. It was K.
Afterwards, when asked to decribe her by friends, he was unusually tongue- tied for someone usually so verbose. We have already said that a person cannot describe themselves to others, for they see themselves in such a different way, and so it was with K. He saw her, perhaps not then (for after all, he was a rational man and did not believe in love at first sight), but later, with different eyes and could never, after that first evening, have hoped to describe her in such a way that anyone could recognise her.
What then could he say about K? That she was like a warm spring following a long winter. That she was like gentle rain on parched land. That she was like foreign travel and yet also like a return to a nostalgically remembered childhood home. How could he tell friends this and hope that they could understand? He could not.
Thinking back later, he could not really remember much of that first evening. They talked, slowly in the beginning, like the first stones falling which cause and avalanche, then quickly -- a torrent of talk falling between them.
They went on to a restaurant and, more calmly, like lovers holding each other tenderly after passionate sex, talked of this and that. They talked like old acquaintances, comfortable with each other and not afraid of silence. A meal, coffee, the bill and they left. He remembered little of the food and ate less of it.
After the restaurant, they went to K's flat in a strange part of Y where he had not often been before. Her flat was still chaotic with that fresh, cold feeling of a new home with treasured possessions still not unboxed. In the tradition of a thousand advertising campaigns, she offered him coffee, even though the word hung in the air between them like a sexual innuendo. Their talk grew calmer and quieter still then, like the soft, intimate caresses of lovers drifting off to sleep.
They did not stay together that night although, as they stood by the darkened door, they kissed. His arms went round her waist (not fat, despite what she had said) and after that his lips found hers as if that were the natural place that his lips had always meant to be, as if his body rebelled against the indecision of his mind and took charge. She pressed herself against him and kissed him fully as his hands moved upwards to run through her soft beautiful red hair.
In a more romantic world, perhaps, they could have stayed like that forever, but a doorway is cold in the town of Y and they were both tired. With too many lingering kisses and a promise to meet the next evening, he stepped into the night as K slowly, reluctantly closed the door behind him.
True to his word, he wandered the streets of Y and thought of K and all that had happened that evening and, in his way, tweaking events and memories so that they more perfectly fitted story forms that he knew and was comfortable with.
After that evening, it was inevitable that they became lovers and, for perhaps the first time in his life, he released himself fully to his emotions and allowed himself to truly, deeply love. After only two weeks they were living together and after four he moved in completely and left the appartment he was renting. His friends were surprised that he was so impetuous for he was, as has been said, a very rational man. He, however, was not surprised. He and K were yin-yang -- they were fated to be together. She was the missing part of him. Why did he need to wait? He would not be more sure of his love in a day or a month or a lifetime. He wanted to be with her forever and he wanted forever to start now.
Deep down, however, a rational man cannot change himself into a romantic man without something else giving and certainly something had broken inside him when he first kissed K. It was not by chance that he had turned the wrong way that evening.
As they settled into each other and began the slow, beautiful slide from new lovers into an established couple, as they gradually, marvellously, joyously, explored each other's habits and personalities, he found an unusual thing happening. As he wandered the streets of Y, a town which, you will remember, he had known for many years, he found himself more and more often taking a wrong turning here and there and ending up in the wrong part of town.
At first, he found this amousing, but soon it was worse than an irritaint. He was used to walking everywhere (having neither a car nor a bike) and how could he explain, after so many years, arriving in work late because he had got lost again.
As his mutual love for K deepened so did its magnetic effect on his internal compass. He could not navigate. He had lost his bearings. Unless she left Y for some reason, he could not even cross the road to the newsagent without having to ask for directions back home. If he needed to walk somewhere he would have to ask her to show him the way or visit the nearby city of L so that she would be far enough away not to disrupt his orientation.
All this was inconvenient in the extreme but, with maps, taxis, directions and help from K, he could overcome it. It even brought them closer together as the closest couples can be strengthened by a crisis. Alas, this was to prove his undoing and, the hands of his mind-compass already spinning madly, his internal clock was also wrenched from its solid mooring.
With time and distance lost to him, not even K could help him. At work he could not tell when a meeting was even if he could sometimes find what room it was in. He could not write a report for a deadline. He could not even bring round the tea because, before too long, he would find himself in the wrong part of the office block with a cold tea-urn wondering when and where he was supposed to be.
He lost his job and he lost his friends (for who would remain loyal to a friend who never meets you as arranged or who calls at two in the morning in the belief that it is seven at night?) She could earn enough to keep them both but to see him unable to work or even go out and to know that it was her fault was more than she could bear and, after six months together and still as in love as when they first met, she left him. She packed all her belongings and left while he was fifty yards away in an off-licence unable to find even the door to leave the shop much less the way to get home. She did not even leave him a note, fearing that with such a reminded of their strong love, a rational man could never find an anchoring point again.