Two days before Bel’s flight.
Ougth she to be grief-stricken? And ought I to be empathetically distressed, reminded of my own tragic loss of a child? Why aren’t we clinging to each other and wailing?
She has taken to wearing her anti-pollution mask even indoors. I think it’s partly about privacy. Like doing a long pose. A retreat inside yourself. Or behind – literally – a mask.
It’s not just the air that’s poisoning Bel. Something in the atmosphere of this alien land is polluting her mind with dark thoughts, nightmare scenarios, apocalyptic visions. She’s made me feel afraid too. A sense of foreboding. A creeping anxiety. Are her fears irrational?
‘Bel, I think it’s good your contract finishes at the end of this semester. It forces a decision about moving on. For both of us.’
I turn to finishing off a thank-you email to Fei Mo Di for the photos he sent from our “skills exchange” session.
… my amateurish, unskilled, gauche behaviour when being photographed. Having read about and watched the actual process of Helmut Newton‘s shoots with his models, and seen his contact sheets and the amount of trial and error, i.e. how long it took to get the one shot where the model was – at last – doing the ‘right’ thing that ‘made’ the photo, I feel a bit better about my own shortcomings as a photographic model. But I have come to realise and appreciate how patient you have been.
Bel’s laptop is emitting a gentle Chopin nocturne. Above her mask her eyes are on the colour-adjustment tool in Photoshop, very slowly sliding the cursor along the spectrum. The mask puffs in and out when she speaks. Like a surgical mask. A brain surgeon asking to be handed the next sterile tool.
Again she wuffles the words. ‘Do you love me?‘
Aagh – panic!
Bel pulls off her mask but remains studiously focused on her monitor.
Have I made Bel love me? Have I misled her by coming to Shanghai? And does that make me – oh god – responsible for her? For her unhappiness?
Do I love Bel? What does that mean? How do I feel?
I don’t need to conscientiously examine my feelings because instinct is instantaneous and honest.
I care about you. But I don’t fancy you.
I say, ‘You know what Prince Charles said when Lady Di assured reporters upon their engagement that they were “in love”? He goes “Whatever that means…”
Bel‘s dead stare remains focused on her monitor.
I reach and give her shoulder a swift squeeze. ‘I mean, what does “I love you” mean?’ I do a sunny grin. ‘You’re amazing. I’ll make us a cup of tea.’
The Delightful Peony beckons. The incessant mournful whine of the erhu in the upstairs flat is the joking reason I give for going out for the rest of the afternoon. But I am running away. I feel like running for my life.
Can Bel reasonably expect my love?
Ought I reasonably to love her? As in, for once be a kind, generous-spirited person first and foremost, rather than a career-focused writer?
It’s just, depression is so unsexy.
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