'The Opposite of Escape' by Jordana Belaiche
Jordana Belaiche is a Politics graduate from SOAS University of London and a Masters graduate from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy. You can see more of Jordana's work on their Instagram @chronicallyuntimely.
JB: "I was inspired to write this piece after attending a grief workshop with the psychedelic society. I was contemplating what it means to consistently live with grief and looking at grief as love with nowhere to go. Living in a culture that is overwhelmingly death-denying we have few opportunities to feel our grief or express it and I wanted to investigate this in the context of living through a climate emergency."
'The Opposite of Escape'
I sat where we’d sat before on purpose. I wanted this to end exactly where it had begun and I wanted it over, fast. True, I hadn’t known it would be here I would plunge and stick the knife in until this morning, but here I was, nonetheless. Ready to slaughter. It felt right, being here. In the light of day there was no magic, no mystery or intrigue about the place that could appeal to my worn out sense of romance. There was a sweet undulating horror in the thought that he’d find me right in the spot where I’d first kissed him, first liked him. I would watch his heart shatter before my eyes right in the space where I’d asked myself, in the depths of a bitter winter, how I would ever be rid of him. I bought myself a pint, because he was late. The bartender put it in a plastic cup, not a glass one and I was annoyed about it, because fuck plastic. I had to go and order it at the bar. It was busy; I kept tapping my card on the counter to let them know I was waiting while they took the orders of everyone else but me. I was looking over at the seat in case someone took it, thought maybe I should have left my coat on it and claimed it first, but it wasn’t a problem, I swooped in and snatched it. I was looking at the barman and at myself in the mirror behind the bar to see if he thought what I thought- that I’d be devastated if someone looking like me the way I did that day was going to leave me forever and not look back.
Once I’d sat down and taken off my coat and arranged myself on the seat, a hard wooden bench covered in a thin layer of tan leather, I took an enormous glug of my over spilling beer, took out a book of restoration poetry I liked to carry around in a pocket to read while I waited for things, or people, and stayed as still as I dared. I would appear to him like a painting he’d have to step into. I hoped he’d arrive from the doors on the most western side so that the afternoon light would briefly frame me as he walked in. Imagine having the gall to leave someone who looked like they were in a painting.
I bought the book of poems after a recommendation I’d read somewhere else advising against using a phone as a distraction whilst waiting, whilst you were suspended in time or place before some other thing happened to you. A phone could make you look anxious, or self absorbed, or shallow, but a poetry book leant you an air of romantic intelligence. It gave you mystique, like you’d stepped out of a film. You could pretend to be absorbed in it, or amused by it, or deeply saddened by it, the possibilities were endless. Imagine wanting to leave someone looking both romantic and intelligent.
The book was second hand, because I never bought new books anymore and because they were so much cheaper and I couldn’t afford new books. If you knew where to go, which Oxfams to raid, you’d find last month’s bestsellers or Booker prize-winners on the shelves only a few weeks after publication anyway. I had divested from the system. My coat was second hand too, but new, and I’d already been caught in the rain with it once and it was suede. I’d never buy real new suede, because I couldn’t afford it, not because I didn’t want it. This coat was too big for me on the shoulders and sleeves and I looked waifish in it. I needed it for my big sad exit. I would flap out, the coat billowing behind me and I wouldn’t look back. He would think I was crying. He’d be devastated. Imagine not being devastated watching the back of your former lover in a terrific coat as they walked away into the wind.
I wanted to check how long I had been staring at ‘The Careless Good Fellow’, which felt fitting, but my watch had been broken for two months now. I think it just needed a new battery but I couldn’t be bothered to put it in for repair so I kept putting it on my wrist even while it was currently dormant. I should just have it repaired, I knew, but I felt wrong without it and the strap was almost the same colour as the aforementioned coat. I caved and clicked my phone screen open, it had only been 20 minutes since I’d sat down but a full 40 since the allotted time for our fatal, and though he didn’t yet know it, final meeting. A small shadow blotted the sun, my now ruptured past was eclipsing my light and there he stood, before me, saying he was sorry to be late. I hadn’t been divinely framed at all; I had been plunged into his shadow. I ignored all of it, I said
aren’t you having a drink?
He didn’t really want one and so only came back with a half pint like the meek 60s hausfrau he aspired to become and because he didn’t want to spend any money. I made fun of him for it, because I’d have made fun of anyone and because I’d been waiting 40 minutes and already downed nearly all of my pint and I’d had absolutely nothing to eat. He asked
what are you reading?
I flicked the cover up at him so he could see.
He’d seen it before. I couldn’t believe it. He looked really good. Maybe it was the light. He had a new jumper, I asked about it and he made me feel it even though I didn’t want to touch him. It was soft and that made me unnecessarily angry. He pulled my arm round across the front of his chest so that he was now essentially lying on me while I sat on the bench reluctantly embracing him. I thought if I weren’t weaker than you I’d strangle you, because, slim and slender though he was, he’d beaten me in every thumb war we’d ever had and I knew he was deceitfully strong. There was a screen on the wall across from us with lots of flickering artful images. He asked
have you ever watched A Clockwork Orange?
He knew I hadn’t. Then he started talking about Kubrick while my body was frozen and I thought about shutting him up for good but drank the rest of my beer instead. I hadn’t realised but I was holding my breath. Surely he could tell I was holding my breath. He was practically lying on my chest. I let it out slowly and forced myself to breathe properly like an unaffected person. He was still talking. I was summoning courage, not that I needed it, I’d made my decision, I’d already cried to so many people about it and it hadn’t even happened yet. I wished I’d chosen a different seat, one that would mean he wouldn’t have sat next to me. I’d wanted a cyclical narrative and now I was paying for it. It was only that when I wasn’t anywhere near him I could see how completely pitiful and wrong for me he was. I had a whole list on a page of my notebook entitled ‘The Crimes’ followed by his name. I was set. It was just that if I got anywhere near him, if I got physically close my whole mind was flooded and I forgot absolutely everything I’d made my mind up about. His hair was right by my nose and I was so annoyed. He had excellent hair. Now he was saying
i’m just a honeypot for girls with personalities
That broke the spell. I said
get up you’re hurting my arm
Even though he wasn’t. He looked like he hadn’t been taken aback and he sat up, stretching his arm along the back of the seat. He’d had only two sips of his pathetically small beer. He said
d’you want the rest of this?
why, do you not?
He shook his head no and I didn’t press him to ask why. I tipped the contents of his tiny glass into my massive empty one. He was talking about a gallery he’d been to on Thursday. I sensed emptiness there in his story, a missing person. I was going to ask whom he’d been to the gallery with but we were past this. I was past asking and this was because I knew and I knew if I asked he wouldn’t tell me. I finished his dregs. He watched me while I slung the glass back. Then said
let’s go outside.
We went outside. It was grey. It was too warm for me to be wearing my too big coat, even by the water, but I wore it anyway. There was a wind blowing. I had no idea from what direction. There’s always a wind by the river. I was thinking about how he’d dashed my plans to stalk away in my coat. I could have been sat here myself, alone and enjoying my misery. Instead we were both here. I wrapped my coat about me, the wind was up but it still wasn’t cold. He said
You look like a vintage postcard like that
Ok. Is that good?
It’s just what you look like
I looked at the water trying to envision what he was seeing, what kind of vintage postcard I might look like. I realised he’d slunk away and was sitting, hunched, on a bit of the steps we’d walked down. I trudged back up to meet him. This wasn’t going right. Why hadn’t I left yet? Why was I still here? I was supposed to be telling him how much better than him I was and making him understand how much I knew then dramatically exiting never to be seen or heard from again. I sat down next to him on his left hand side, even though my right side was not my best side. I sat with my spine very straight. He reached out like a blind man with his hand and took hold of one of mine. I hated that. I hated the warmth that was shooting straight from my hand like a burn all the way through my body. My head started to fog again. I said
This isn’t going to work
He looked at me, blankly.
I can’t keep seeing you anymore.
Why? His eyes nearly melted out of his face.
I’m like that swan
and I pointed, to a solitary swan swimming under the bridge by a stationary barge. I hoped he’d get the visual juxtaposition of beauty next to industrial, impenetrable brutality. He looked at me, still blank, still wide-eyed. I sighed, exaggeratedly for effect and said
I’m going to be alone, magnificent in my loneliness, in the middle of all this ugliness and right before I die I’ll sing the most lonesome and strange song about it and anyone who hears it will remember it for the rest of their lives. It’s just my destiny. I’ve got to stop seeing you.
He said nothing, just sat there, red-rimmed eyes in his sallow face. He hadn’t been sleeping, much. I would have laughed. I took my hand out of his because the wind came up and it was getting cold now and put on gloves I had squashed in my pocket. I was now self-conscious that the gloves made me look even more like a person on a vintage postcard but I felt stronger with them on, now that there was an extra barrier between his exposed skin and mine. I hadn’t expected the moment to make me feel so poetical. I felt almost elated, at experiencing such complete hopelessness mixed with potent relief. He gulped a little like a fish and I thought again about how sometimes he looked like a little dinosaur. He asked
This time it was softer, like he was trying to mean it. I said
You know why
With the same soft tone you’d use at a deathbed, which I suppose we were. He did know why. He looked out towards the water and took hold of my hand again even though I’d put my gloves on. I rolled my eyes without him noticing, how long was this going to go on for? I thought about flinging his hand away and storming off but I didn’t want it to look like I was having a tantrum. I slipped my hand out of his grasp and pretended I needed it for balance on the steps and turned to face him. This was much harder outside. There were people passing by a little way away from us. I didn’t want them to think this moment was romantic so I tried to adopt the expression of an adult being told an amusing story by a child at a birthday party. I said
You should tell her
He was surprised. I was surprised. Why was I saying this? This was not what I wanted; I wanted to leave him completely lost. He had gone very still. He asked
Tell her what?
Tell her you love her
We were surprised. He looked back out at the water and I looked at him. The skin on his face was always so smooth, it was unfair how smooth and soft it was. He was so soft. I had said it and I hadn’t planned it. I wanted him to deny it but he didn’t. Just sat looking at the water with his smooth skin and his soft jumper and I could see his pulse in his neck. He took out his phone. I looked out to the water. I pretended not to see but I saw. He wrote
I love you
Then sent the message. I held my breath. My phone didn’t make a sound and neither did I even though I wanted to scream. I glanced back at him. He didn’t seem to have noticed I had seen. There were tear tracks across his cheeks. I felt something burn inside of me. I wanted to snap him in two. It was all so pathetic. He said
I can’t believe I’m crying
I was crying too, and I hadn’t planned on it. I had grounds to cry and he didn’t. I had permission. I wished I’d brought a handkerchief with me so I didn’t have to wipe my face with my gloved hands but maybe I’d have looked even more like an unspecified vintage postcard so I was glad I didn’t have one. I used handkerchiefs because they were re-usable, unlike tissues. If I had had one I probably would have given it to him instead of using it myself. I said
I promised myself I wouldn’t cry
We sat with our completely useless promises between us and I thought about how I couldn’t do my dramatic walk out because it no longer fit the mood. He was saying
But we’ll still be friends
I thought about the page in my notebook with his name and crimes listed chronologically on it and about how I didn’t have a page like that for any of my friends. Instead I said
I’m not going to stop being friends with you over this
D’you you want me to give you back your jumper?
I had leant him my jumper two weeks ago. It was black and boxy with a mock neck. I told him to
Keep it. Looks better on you anyway
Now it was a custodial jumper between us that I was giving up. I could and would buy myself another jumper. I could and would find myself another one. I thought about how good he looked in my jumper and fought back jealousy. He asked
Are you walking back to the station?
I said I wasn’t. I was going to walk over the bridge because I wanted to be alone. I wanted to look out over the water and over at the buildings on either side and feel very small. I said
No, I’m going to get the bus
Oh, I can walk over the bridge with you?
His face now had a bright eagerness behind the mock sadness. It was like watching a toddler be told they can finally have a biscuit. There was still a bit of sadness there in his big dark eyes that I thought he was putting on, for my enjoyment or satisfaction maybe. I didn’t want to walk anywhere with him. I especially didn’t want to walk over the bridge with him. I had planned to pause, after the event and look out over the water from a distance and maybe throw something in it as an offering, a thank you for having been spared many more months of complete desperation. I said sharply, without looking at him
Don’t walk over the bridge with me.
I got up. My coat was bulky and flapped about me in the wind. I was moving. I don’t know where the energy to leave him siting there came from but I harnessed it and forced myself back up the steps. I could hear him scrabbling about behind me. I pushed off, I began striding through throngs of people who had appeared by the river side. I doubted he would be following but I couldn’t look round to see if he was. That would really ruin it. I was now walking with incredible speed. Even I was surprised by the speed of my stride. I reached the steps of the bridge and took them two at a time even though after about 4 steps I felt an ache in my thighs, my body begging me to stop and take them calmly one by one but I didn’t stop until I was at the top of the steps, trying to conceal the fact I was panting and had broken into a sweat. I hoped it hadn’t looked like I’d been running but at the same time I didn’t care. In a sense I had been running and now that I had put measureable distance between him and myself I began to feel a kind of elation. Maybe it was the sudden rush of dopamine from having climbed up the steps so quickly. I looked down over the hundreds of people walking along the bank. I couldn’t see him. I was short sighted so I wouldn’t have been able to see him anyway.
I turned my back and faced what should have been a stream of traffic flowing across the bridge. There was no traffic. Instead people were walking across the road lazily in all directions. I became aware of music coming from somewhere nearby. Drumming and acoustic guitar accompanied by a stringy, strained melody floated on the air from a man on a makeshift stage. I wished he would stop. The people around him didn’t seem to have the same cultivated tastes as I did because they were swaying and nodding their heads and putting arms around one another. Reams of people in colourful clothes, with little pins attached to them were waving flags and yelling all about me. I looked down. Someone had scrawled an hourglass in chalk beneath my feet. I had wandered into the middle of an occupation.
I felt a surge of annoyance. I wanted my justly deserved moment of wretched contemplation amidst the unfeeling hustle of urban life. Here I was, stranded in the middle of a just cause instead. I looked about me. Everyone was very young, around my age, or much younger. No, not everyone. I spied a couple of men in their fifties or sixties leaning against the back of the makeshift stage talking animatedly with a couple of teenage boys holding placards that had gone slack in their hands and were drooping towards the floor. There were lots of people in dungarees and boots and I wondered if there had been some kind of dress code. I decided to walk in the direction leading away from the centre of proceedings. The sides of the bridge were festooned with abandoned slogans and home-made drawings saying things like ‘There is no Planet B’ and ‘Running out of Time’ and ‘Tell the Truth’, which made me stop.
Although it had just happened, my mind, like a rewound video, vomited the scene I’d just escaped in quick recap at double speed. Lingering on pauses where something more could have been said and zooming in on the unwanted handholding. Then, as though my mind were a gigantic screen, I saw the letters being punched into a phone again
I love you
I shut my eyes and the image grew bigger. I blinked rapidly as though by blinking I could erase what I’d seen with each exaggerated movement of my eyelids. An invisible spear shot through me. I leaned on the rail of the bridge over looking the water and tried breathing, slowly. I must have looked like I was going to be sick and maybe I might have been, despite only having one and a half pints but nothing to eat because a girl dressed as a bumblebee swerved up beside me
She had a bright voice, laced with genuine concern. I looked at her. Her face was painted with yellow glitter and she had a slightly lopsided mouth. It looked like her hair had been dyed many colours many times and had been hacked off suddenly because it was short but there were strands of varying lengths. She was wearing a black tutu that stuck out and stripy socks. She didn’t ask me what was wrong, maybe she sensed the emergence of energetic black spikes that seemed to be punching into me, but she smiled and said
We’re handing out wildflower seeds; do you want to join us?
She was holding out a small brown packet that looked like it had been homemade with ‘Poppies’ written in pencil on the front and a picture of a scrawny flower. I looked over her shoulder where a few more human bees were buzzing about; one of them was jumping up and down while another one laughed. I was about to tell her emphatically to buzz off but involuntarily my hand reached out and accepted the seed packet. I said
Yeah all right. I paused
I’m not dressed as a bee though
You could be a more sophisticated bee, your coat’s kind of tan and you’re wearing black, that’s kind of bee colours
I was wearing tan and black. Was a sophisticated bee better than a vintage postcard? I considered how radically different my outfit was appearing to be by the minute. She added
I’ve got more glitter if you want, don’t worry, it’s biodegradable
As though I had been worried. It was so stupid and the situation appeared to me then as so surreal that I let out a laugh that must have sounded genuine because the girl smiled and her bee friends looked round and started walking towards us. One of them was still pretending to be a bee and came over in little bursts, flapping their hands rapidly at their sides and making a gentle zzz with their tongue between their lips.
Ok take these
She handed me a wad of seed packets passed to her from another girl
And just hand them out to anyone
I trailed them then, watching as their little group began accosting other unsuspecting pedestrians who had wandered in or were still using the bridge as a commute, thrusting seed packets at them and shouting things like ‘free wildflower seeds!’ and ‘sow them to help the bees!. Some people smiled at them. I thought that I wouldn’t have smiled at them. The girl with the lopsided mouth turned round and gave me another smile.
I stretched my arm out half-heartedly to a woman passing by on my right who was wearing a business skirt and trainers. She smiled at me and shook her head. I buzzed at her. She turned quickly around, her smile replaced by a disconcerted look of surprise. It must have been an angry buzz. I felt a jolt of satisfaction at having caused a reaction. I began a low buzzing.
I sidled up to the other bees who were dancing merrily and smiling while foisting seed packets on anyone who looked in their direction. I continued my buzz. The girl in the tutu with the lopsided mouth smiled at me again. It was a wicked little smile. Her eyes met mine. She began to copy my buzz. We were at the back of the group, buzzing menacingly. The others looked around, my complicit companion nodded her head and they too began to buzz. We were now a solid group, marching down the centre of the road, buzzing angrily. I began to stomp while I buzzed and the other bees began stomping too. People were looking at us, getting out their phones. We were making a scene. I darted out from the back of the group and buzzed aggressively at someone’s camera. The girl followed my lead. We began buzzing louder, darting out suddenly, at random, each time someone tried to take a picture. Our buzzes became less communal and more disjointed. One of the other bee girls broke away and began stomping and buzzing around in a circle, her hands clenched into little fists. We joined her. We were now buzzing and stamping about, tossing the wildflower seed packets at people with force. One of mine hit someone in the arm and I shrieked with menacing harpy joy in between buzzes. The group began to take up their slogans again. I continued yelling at random and buzzing about, my coat flapping around me. I lost all sense of myself. I was a lost bee, full of rage in my tiny fuzzy body and I had to let it out. I tossed another packet of seeds. It hit someone in the nose. It was a tall man in a sharply tailored coat. They yelled back at me and began marching towards us. As if the group sensed it, we closed ranks, hunched and buzzing ominously. Before our oncoming victim could get close enough to press charges, the girl with the lopsided mouth grabbed my arm and the arm of the bee next to her and started dragging us away, still buzzing. We all began yelling and running and buzzing back towards the many other people swarming on the bridge, throwing seed packets after us like grenades.
We rounded the side of the makeshift stage where there was now a girl reading poetry off her phone into a microphone while people sat cross-legged on the ground looking up at her with their eyes closed. I was breathless. I felt my face and it felt hot. The other bees were laughing and I realised I was smiling too. The girl with the lopsided smile came round to me and handed out a re-fillable metal flask
I drank loads of her water. It probably wasn’t very polite but I wasn’t used to running. I looked back at the skyline, now dipped in gold from evening sunshine that had appeared miraculously through the gloom and handed it back to her
That was so fun
Her eyes were shining and her cheeks were flushed. A wave of exhaustion rolled over me very slowly. My body suddenly felt very tired after experiencing such a range of emotions in such a short period of time. I said
Yeah it was. I paused then said
I actually have to go
I didn’t. I didn’t have anywhere I had to go. I just didn’t want to stay there. Now I was no longer a bee, and my rage had dissipated I felt a vague sense of shame, like I’d been caught shouting at a pet in public. Amongst the rest of the protesters I began to feel uneasy about my presence in amongst these luminous multi-coloured calm people who could watch someone reading poetry off an IPhone at a climate protest and not feel angry about blatant hypocrisy. I wasn’t going to be allowed a choice because the rest of the bees sat in front of the stage and the girl with the lopsided mouth took hold of my wrist. She noticed as she grabbed it, the presence of my watch, which she examined and said
Wow, that’s powerful
It took me a moment to register what she had decided was powerful, then I remembered I hadn’t replaced the battery and that it had effectively come to a standstill. This girl obviously thought I had meant it as some sort of gesture. I decided to blag it
Oh yeah, thanks
Sometimes it’s the understated actions that mean more
Leaving me to ponder this empty phrase, she had succeeded in confusing me to a point where I did not argue against her suggestion of sitting on the ground with the others. I was a bit annoyed and I lifted up the sides of my coat so they wouldn’t have to rest against the tarmac. Without sensing my agitation and restlessness she said
Stay to watch our friend Layla, they’re really good
No one I had seen on this stage so far had any skill I could define as good. So far the most entertaining part of this day had been releasing my rage as an angry bee and pelting unsuspecting pedestrians with seed pellets. I was about to extricate myself once again but the poet finished and the aforementioned Layla appeared with skinny legs that ended in massive boots. I sat back down. There was a lot of applause and they didn’t try to dampen it. They stood by the mic smiling like a plaster figure of a church saint until it petered out. Their face as the applause died out and changed. They looked darkly upon us as we settled into rapt silence. They began to list numbers. I looked around, everyone looked very solemn, presumably they knew what the numbers were about. They started listing animals after the numbers and again everyone looked very solemn and sad, I caught on after a bit. It was a bit about death, this was what Layla was very good at, listing death, or future deaths. They were some figure of the ecological rapture yet to come sent to give warning to a group of people who presumably already knew what was coming for them. There was no applause when they finished, just silence. Everybody sat on the tarmac or standing around in silence while the sounds of people enjoying themselves under the bridge and the rushing of the water gathered around us. I felt aggrieved. I was being asked to grieve for too many things. I decided to get up then, I’d have to poke my way through everybody else sitting behind me to get out but I would at least get out. As though my standing had been in response to the collective shift, other people who had been sitting began to stand too. Good, this would make it easier to leave. I started trying to move, slowly between them. Then someone gave a shout and the crowd joined in a lagged response. They shouted again and more voices answered them, then again and the crowd was in unison. Now everyone was shouting. I pushed my way through the crowd, muttering along to the call and response. I reached the back where the crowd was thinning out and saw the two men I’d spotted earlier now sharing a joint between them while shouting the response with vigour. I began walking swiftly in the opposite direction to the one I had initially wanted to go down. It was towards the station but it didn’t matter, it was time for me to go somewhere, somewhere else.