A Handful of Sparrow 

By Läilä Örken

Some things are meant to be in past tense before they even happen.

With P., all the signs were there. The choppy walk, as if P. was prancing on the balls of his feet, ready for takeoff at a moment’s notice. The curls glued tight to his head with an uncomfortable amount of coconut oil. The offhand familiarity with the Classics, the odd Latin phrase casually thrown into conversation. The ever-present book under his arm, as he waited for me under the big clock at the train station. All this lends itself into the ultimate past-tense, the-one-that-got-away reminiscence fodder, not a shared lifetime of vacuum cleaning, grocery shopping, his-and-hers sinks in the bathroom.

“We’re just friends, you know,” P. would say firmly, mid-shoulder rub, lounging in one of Europe’s most romantic spots on Valentine’s Day.

“We are the best of friends,” P. assured me as we slow-danced on his balcony while Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” played in the background, and a half-hearted swarm of sleepy bees couldn’t make up its mind over a crate of blooming lavender.

“We will get married and live together for the next ninety years. Platonically. As friends,” P. said, watching sunrise turn the surface of the lake into a saucerful of sparkling sequins.

We met by complete chance, at a pub quiz where I knew no one, and P. seemingly knew everyone, yet chose to spend the whole evening at my side exchanging weird jokes and nonsensical stories. By the end of the pub quiz, I was none the wiser about the 1978 album by the Bee Gees – what fossils made up the questions, I will never know – yet I had learned a great deal about P.’s family, his classical education, and his befuddling sense of humor. 

From there, we embarked upon a friendship that felt easier and more natural than anything else I had experienced. I was in a dreary relationship then, and I continued to sludge through it dutifully in the years when I hung out with P., although I do think I might have faltered if I only had reason to suspect P. had anything else in mind besides being friendly. 

Hindsight screams at me, slurring like a barefoot drunk girl with running mascara. What platonic friend invites you for a candlelit dinner and cooks chicken with pineapple chunks that float around like sweet little islands? What platonic friend gives back rubs and shoulder rubs, and walks hand-in-hand under the lilac trees, and drunkenly kisses you one night? And then again, on a tram stop, so fleetingly that you gaslight yourself into believing it never happened? 

But hindsight can fuck right off and take its mascara elsewhere. It didn’t hear a thousand times that what you have is pure platonic love, nothing more. 

As André Maurois once said, “the essence of platonic love is when she tries to guess what he wants, and he does not want anything.”

I should have known then, but I never learn my lessons. Like when P. caught a little sparrow to cheer me up, whistling softly and feeding it crumbs until it snuggled between his palms, peering at me with a beadily curious eye.

Like when I rode on P.’s shoulders, bobbing up and down in time with his skippy gait past city fountains and summer terraces.

Like when P. moved to a different town, with another girl.

It took many more years to change my verbs to past tense when I thought about P. And to this day, I am reminded of him when I listen to “Young and Beautiful” – which is not that often – or when I see a sparrow sitting perfectly still, its eyes black and beady and curious. Then I forget myself and think: me and P. are going to get married and live together for the next ninety years. You know, platonically. As friends.

                                                      *   *   *

Läilä Örken has a PhD in law and works in the field of international relations and the environment. In the evenings, she writes stories and is working on a novel. Her stories appear in the “Eunoia Review,” “Black Sheep: Unique Tales of Terror and Wonder,” and others.

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