It isn’t a first kiss. It isn’t even their first kiss. But it feels like one.
Not because it is fumbling or awkward. Not because she doesn’t know where to put her hand, or he doesn’t know where to put his nose. None of those. They slot together like puzzle pieces. As Allyson and Willem kiss for the first time in a year, both are thinking the same thing: This feels new.
Though perhaps thinking is not the right term, because with a kiss like this, thinking goes out the window and something more instinctual takes over: inner voices, gut instincts. “Knowing it in your kishkes” is how Willem’s saba would’ve described it.
In his kishkes, Willem is marveling that Allyson found him, as Yael found Bram. He doesn’t know how it happened, only that it did happen and that it means something.
Allyson is doing a mental fist pump and an I told you so. She’d spent a year looking for him, looking for the girl she was with him. And then last night, watching Willem perform Orlando in Vondelpark, she’d been certain she’d found them both, certain the words he was speaking were meant for her. Forever and a day. She’d felt it. Right in her gut. But listening to that inner voice was new to Allyson. She’d spent nineteen years of her life ignoring it, listening to pretty much everything but it. So when she’d seen Willem with another woman, looking luminously happy with another woman, she’d gone away.
Only not really. Because here she is, at his flat, where he is kissing her, and she is kissing him right back. And the kiss feels like something completely new. But it also feels like something deeply known. Which would seem to be a contradiction. Only it’s not. The truth and its opposite are flip sides of the same coin, Saba always said.
• • •
Nothing goes on forever. Not even second first kisses. Not even those as hard-won as this. Outside the window, a tram bell chimes. It is like an alarm clock, crystallizing the moment from fuzzy to real. Allyson and Willem break apart.
Allyson isn’t quite sure what to do next. She is supposed to be catching a flight to Croatia. This stop at Willem’s flat was a detour, the kiss a happy surprise. But now what?
Willem takes her backpack, as if answering the question, as if completing the transaction. Then he offers her a coffee.
He would like to kick himself. This girl he has not seen in a year, this girl he’s thought about, dreamed about, looked for, for a year, this girl he just kissed (he’s still a bit dazed from that kiss) . . . and his first words to her are those of a waiter.
But then he remembers something. “Or a tea. You like tea, don’t you?”
It is the smallest thing. She likes tea. She drank tea on the train to London, when they’d first started talking, about hagelslag of all things. She drank it again on the train they’d taken to Paris together, later that morning.
Tea. One day. A year ago. He remembered.
A little voice in Allyson’s gut (it’s her kishkes, only she doesn’t know that word yet) is yelling: See?
“Yes,” Allyson says. “I would love some tea.” She’s not really thirsty. Five minutes ago, nerves had left her with a mouth as dry as paper, but the kiss has taken care of that. But this feels like more than a beverage being offered.
“Tea,” Willem says. He can see that the offer has unfastened something in her face, as when she’d jokingly solicited a compliment from him last year, and he’d told her she was brave and generous and openhearted. Back then he’d been guessing. Now he is remembering. He remembers it all. He wants to tell her. He will tell her.
But first, tea.
Willem starts toward the kitchen. Allyson isn’t sure whether to follow him, but then he turns around and says, “Wait here,” and then a few steps later adds, “Don’t go anywhere.”
She sits down on the low leather couch. It is a nice apartment, all bright and sunny and modern. Does he live here? She hasn’t thought about where he might live. About him living anywhere. When she’d met him, he’d lived out of a backpack.
In the kitchen, Willem tries to collect himself as he makes drinks. (He watches the kettle; the adage is true, it refuses to boil.) He digs through the cabinets for the tea that he recalls his uncle Daniel saying he kept for Fabiola, his soon-to-be wife, the soon-to-be mother of his child, whom he is now with in Brazil. Willem makes himself a coffee—using the instant because it is faster and it has already taken too long for the water to boil.
He puts it all on a tray and returns to the lounge. Allyson is sitting on the sofa, her sandals off, neatly placed under the coffee table. (The sight of her bare feet. What this is doing to Willem’s blood pressure. She might as well have taken off all her clothes.)
He puts the tray down on the coffee table and sits on the couch, but on the opposite side from Allyson. “I hope chamomile is okay,” he says. “It’s all my uncle has.”
“It’s fine,” Allyson says. Then, “Your uncle?”
“Daniel. This is his flat. I’m staying here while he’s in Brazil.”
Allyson almost tells him she thought he lived in Utrecht, that was where she’d tracked him down before the trail went cold. Or she’d thought it went cold. Until she’d accidentally heard about As You Like It being performed in Vondelpark last night and she somehow knew that Willem would be in it.
Accidents. All about the accidents. She wants to tell Willem this, is working out how to start without sounding like a complete lunatic, when he says: “Daniel used to share this flat with my father, Bram. When they were young. And then my father met a girl while he was traveling. They spent a day together. Not even a day, a few hours, and a year later, she showed up here. She knocked on the door.”
Like you just did, Willem thinks, but he doesn’t say that. He doesn’t want to sound like a complete lunatic.
“Your mother,” Allyson says.
“Yes. My mother. She’s in India right now.” He thinks of her. He cannot wait to tell her this. He takes a small moment to savor that, being eager to tell his mother something. Then he goes back to savoring Allyson, and her bare feet, which are right here. He never thought he had a thing for feet, but he is beginning to reconsider.
Allyson remembers Willem talking about his mother and father. It was during their conversation—argument? debate?—about love when Willem had smeared the Nutella on her wrist and licked it off. Allyson had challenged Willem to name one couple who hadn’t just fallen in love but had remained in love, had stayed stained. Yael and Bram, he had said.
“Yael and Bram,” Allyson says now, not even having to reach for the names.
She remembers Willem’s sadness last summer. And immediately she knows, maybe she knew then, that there is no more Bram. Which isn’t to say there is no more stain.
Yael and Bram. Something in Willem’s chest catches. He’d been right. He is known to this person. Has been from the very start.
He looks at her. She looks at him. “I told you I would remember,” Allyson says.
Before he’d kissed her that night in the art squat, she had told him that she’d remember everything about their day in Paris. That she would remember him.
Willem had made no such promises. But he can taste, touch, hear, and smell every last detail of that day together. “I remember, too,” he says.
• • •