He fell for Helen the first day he met her, and she knew it. She was never rude about it; never pressed her advantage. But she knew he knew she knew, and that was enough. Despite this imbalance, they became friends. She made him watch pretentious foreign movies, and he made her watch his favourite 90s cartoons, and they discussed life and death and God and robots until she decided she had to go home.
Initially he thought that she belonged to a different era—that she should have been born in some golden age of romance and femininity and elaborate courtship. He wanted to duel for her. He wanted to tour the world together, to build fortresses in remote destinations, to paint her portrait.
He was never really sure what she wanted from him. He suspected that she wasn’t sure, either. Sometimes after a few drinks he texted her to ask—not that he ever got a satisfactory response. But they struggled along together, behaving.
One evening in August, they went swimming in the rooftop pool at his apartment. The city glittered below. She stripped down to her bathing suit proudly, aware that he was watching. Arms extended, she took her time collecting her red curls into a knot on her head. There was a tiny tattoo of a feather on her hip. He wanted to kiss it.
In the autumn she taught him to play piano, and he taught her to play chess. Her lessons were patient but patronizing, and he made diligent progress. As for chess, she lost interest once she saw her disadvantage, and became increasingly reckless. Pawns and bishops alike lay slaughtered on the living room floor.
A vague awareness of something uncomfortable nudged at him. Listening to CBC on a lazy afternoon, she laughed at him for not knowing who Rossini was. One day in a crowded shopping mall, she expressed a casual approval of eugenics. Overhearing a phone conversation with her mother, he became aware that she lied constantly and without regret.
Disillusioned, he made an effort to contact her less often. He knew she would be too proud to reach out, and so they didn’t see each other much. But she kept popping up, in ways he wasn’t expecting. He’d see someone else with her sea-grey eyes, or hear a strain of a song she loved wafting from a car window. He took walks to the seashore, where he cupped salt water in his palms and let it drain away. His mother was angry that he wasn’t dating.
In the park, a peacock had escaped its enclosure. It pecked languidly at the grass, pretending to be perfectly at home. It looked at him with a familiar, haughty gaze, then commenced a perusal of a nearby flowerbed. He almost laughed, and kept walking. He felt better, for some reason.