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I first saw her at a book burning. It was her eyes. That wild orange they reflected. She had this mischievous half-smile, as if she was doing something naughty. I guess book burnings awaken the child in all of us. Just like with snow, you become someone else, playful, carefree. You can finally relax and enjoy the moment. I was in that mood too, otherwise I’d never find the courage to decide to talk to her. Before I realised it I was walking towards her through the floating black soot. It was a beautiful moment, just like a movie. I stood next to her and checked the badges on her arm to make sure we were compatible. Same social class, education, health, race and targets. Alright! It was fate! The only concern was the black dot tattoo on her wrist that meant there was a traitor in her family. I shouldn’t judge her for that though, I thought. I was not raised to be biased. I should get to know her first.
“Hey,” I said. “Nice fire, huh?” It was not the smartest thing to say, I know. I realised it straight away, so I carried on immediately. “Are you new around here? I haven’t seen you before.”
She looked at me, then at my arm badges, then back to me and smiled.
“We just moved here a few days ago. I’m Lillian.”
“Great name,” I said. “First Lilian I ever met. I’m just Tom. Boring, I know. So I guess we’ll be neighbours? Umm, wanna go eat something after this? Fires make me hungry. And I’ll tell you all about the ’hood.”
She gave me a big smile and nodded. I watched her as she threw books in the fire and cheered. I blew a flying black page on her and she laughed. Very soon, we were giggling and making funny faces as if we had known each other for ages. There was some flirting too, some touching. I picked up small pieces of burned paper from her gorgeous blonde hair and she held on my arm when the excited crowd pushed us (I made sure to flex my muscles every time). When we got bored of it we walked to a nearby fast food restaurant and ordered cheeseburgers, fries and soft drinks. I paid for all of it with my newly installed wrist chip. I have to admit I was totally showing off and it worked big time.
“Whoa,” she said. “You have your own chip? How old are you?”
“Just turned sixteen,” I said casually. “You? Not too young, I hope, I don’t want to get in trouble!”
“Nah, don’t worry, I’m fifteen. And three months. I’m sooo jealous. I can’t wait to have my own pay chip. It’s not fair! We have every right to buy stuff, no matter how young we are. I mean if we can go to war and die for our country why not also support its economy while we’re here?”
“Totally. They do say they’ll lower the chip age again though and we’ll get to take loans younger.”
“That’d be nice,” she said. “But by the time it will go through parliament I’ll be 16 anyway. That’s politics for you!” She nibbled the edge of a pickle like a rabbit and I laughed. It was so easy to talk to her. We moved from silly to serious topics and back to silly again just like that. I was excited and didn’t even try to hide it from her. We talked about movies, music, everything. She loved all the things I loved. Same bands, same comedians, same generals, same TV shows. We almost shrieked with excitement every time we discovered another thing we had in common. The bond was real. I couldn’t go on without knowing about the black dot. So I asked.
She took the straw out of her cup and wrapped it around her finger nervously, trying to find the right words. She knew I had every right to know. People like her are supposed to explain to anyone who asks.
“Actually,” she said, “that’s why we moved away and came here. To get away from the stigma. The dot is for my father. He was the traitor. It was a terrible thing. Don’t worry, he’s been executed. Long story that I’ll tell you some other time. Just rest assured that I wear it with pride. I want to prove I’m nothing like him.”
“Oh, I know,” I said, “don’t worry. Traitors’ families often make the best patriots because they have so much to compensate for.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Thanks for being so cool. Some people are weird about this.”
“Yeah, well, those people are old farts and who cares what they say. Our generation is more progressive.”
I held her hand over the table and she smiled with relief. We talked a bit more. I wanted to lighten the mood so I told her about the cool spots in the area, the square with the fountain, the cute cafes, the Youth Cadets centre, the rally grounds, the vintage cinema, the forced-labour camp, and so on, and offered to take her to all of them. We would probably stay at that table all night like that if it wasn’t for the curfew. I walked her home, a cute little terraced house newly marked as a nine-member household. Her mother should be proud, helping out her race with the right amount of children, despite the traitor husband of hers. “She’s still young,” Lillian explained, showing me the family sign, “she can have more kids when she marries someone else, which will be sooner rather than later. Many eligible widowers out there.”
She leaned towards me as if to kiss me on the cheek for goodbye but then changed her mind. It was too soon, I understood. But she gave me this long and meaningful look that made my insides tickle. Then she turned around and walked in. I waved stupidly at the closed door, in case she saw me from the camera.
I ran all the way home because I was a bit late to find my mum waiting for me at the entrance.
“I’m sorry!” I said, preparing for a fight. “Come on! I’m never late. And you know what? I met a girl. So there.”
To my surprise, my mum smiled. She didn’t look worried, just amused.
“I know, you silly-goose. I saw it all on CCTV. It made me happy. She’s really pretty. You look cute together!”
“Ha! I knew it! We’re made for each other! It’s gonna happen, you know. And then we’ll be the best couple in school. Thanks, Mum!” I gave her a quick hug and ran to my room to think about my new love in privacy.
I invited Lillian to the cinema two days later. I agreed to see some boring romantic comedy but I was rewarded because she rested her head on my shoulder and half way through the movie we were already kissing. It was awesome! I mean, I had kissed girls before – it’s not like I was a complete virgin or anything – but this was by far the most beautiful girl I had ever kissed. I wished my classmates were watching us on the cinema’s CCTV, they’d be all dying from envy.
We still had two weeks until school but by that time we were seriously in love. We even went to declare our relationship to the authorities together. I mean, how romantic is that! It was the first time for both of us, so we kept looking at the forms giggling while the administrator rolled his eyes. The permit took a full week to come back but hey, bureaucracy eventually works!
At school we quickly became the most popular couple, as predicted. We were the first to be invited to everything, parties, book burnings, excursions, public executions. If we didn’t go, nobody else would. It felt good. I can tell you now, whoever says they don’t care about popularity in school, they are liars.
It also helped that my parents were so understanding, especially considering the traitor thing. They showed a lot of respect for what these people had been through because of her father’s deviance. A few weeks after we started dating she finally told me the full story. I mean, who even cares about her stupid father? Her oldest brother fought in two of our wars, sixteen years straight, so yeah, this makes up for everything else in my book! I’d give anything to have a war veteran in my family, but none of us have been selected so far. It’s a bit embarrassing, to be honest, although my father and older brothers are guards at the extermination camp, so they contribute in other ways, cleaning up our country, which is also an important duty.
The most incredible thing is that this was the reason her father ended up being arrested and executed: he didn’t want his son to return to duty after he came back injured. I mean, talk about selfish and ungrateful! Anyway, the rest of her family was pretty nice, real patriots, so we ended up having big, loud barbeques together, talking half-jokingly about our future children’s names.
For our six-month anniversary I wanted to do something super romantic, so I took her back to the place we first met. There had been another book burning recently and some pages were still left here and there. We started picking them up to make our own little romantic pyre under the stars and read passages in mocking voices. It was a huge adrenaline rush to read forbidden texts, and sceptical resistance is taught in school anyway so we were old enough to handle it, or at least that’s what we thought.
“Listen to this,” she said at some point, crouching with a half burned page in her hands. “I think it’s some kind of ‘poetry’ thing. Once the colours change, once the sun has a new face, words won’t matter, and there will be no return. Gauges broken are gauges fixed, for those who come next. True slaves don’t know they’re slaves.”
Her voice had lowered so much by the end of the last sentence I could hardly hear her. She read a few more words to herself, her lips moving silently, tracing forbidden phrases.
“Ew, stop that, I’m gonna throw up,” I said.
“It’s gross,” she agreed and crumbling the paper, she threw it in the fire. She came close and put her arms around me. The fire sparkled and glowed in the dark street. It felt even better to burn the pages after we had read them. Like when we are taken to school clean-ups at the beach, getting rid of all the dirt, making everything pure and clean again. And after you pick up all the trash, you look at the sand and the sea and it’s prettier than it has ever been, prettier for having been ugly before.
I held her close to me as the fire warmed our bodies and I smelt her hair, a mix of coconut shampoo and smoke. It was the perfect moment, the perfect anniversary. I should have known it then – once you reach the perfect moment it’s all downhill from there.
Soon after that, she started to change. She became more distant, she wouldn’t laugh with my jokes as much and she didn’t seem excited to see me anymore. She would arrange things with her new friends and would not include me. She’d see my messages and reply hours later, or not reply at all. It drove me crazy but I was too proud to show it. I started doing the same to her and the distance between us grew more by the day.
Everyone at school was asking us what’s going on and I had no idea what to say. I felt like we would break up sooner or later but I didn’t have the heart to do it first. And when eventually I went to her place one day in order to do the “talk” I was on the verge of crying.
“I just need some time,” she said.
“Wow, how original,” was my bitter reply. “I think I deserve at least an explanation.”
She crossed her arms and bit her lip, looking at me as if I was a stranger she just saw in front of her, a stranger she couldn’t be bothered to meet and wished she could just pass by.
“I don’t know what to say, Tom. It’s like … don’t you ever feel that there is a bigger picture than all of this?”
She waved her arms around, as if she was showing me the world, even though we were stuck in her tiny room. I looked at her posters, her magazines, her gun collection.
“Than what?” I said, feeling already exasperated.
“Than everything. Look, when we are together I feel like are wearing rose-coloured glasses. Like the rest of the world doesn’t exist and we are oblivious to other stuff happening right in front of our eyes. Like a part of my freedom and clarity of mind has been taken away without me realising. Like there is something toxic hidden in my joy.”
I looked at her as if she was speaking one of those foreign, banned languages that no sane man understands. She seemed desperate to find the right words.
“Listen. Remember that line from that stupid poem we read on our anniversary? About the true slaves?”
“I guess?” I said. “Is this about it? I knew we shouldn’t be looking at forbidden texts. They mess with your mind like that. That’s why they’re forbidden.”
“I know,” she said. “They really do. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I feel really guilty, I mean what if they knew? I don’t want to get in trouble. But it’s been on my mind since. I think I know what it means.”
I became tense and looked at the camera in the corner of the room. The bedroom ones are not supposed to activate unless something illegal is happening, it’s a privacy concern. One of those amendments to please the hippies in the opposition, god knows why. Was it activated now? If Lillian said something dangerous they had to know I disapproved. But she didn’t and she went on talking about our relationship.
“The poem was about us,” she said. “I believe it means you shouldn’t become a slave to just one thing, even your first love. The world is much bigger and we’re limiting ourselves to only a tiny corner of it. I like you, I want to stay friends, but I need to spend time with myself too. Have fun. We are only young once.”
I grunted because I had nothing to say.
“There you go, Tom,” she snapped. “This just proves I’m right. You don’t understand because you are too self-centred, I’m sorry but it’s true. You think the world revolves around you but I’m more open-minded. I want to explore, myself more than anything. I have some great self-help books that could help you too. Breathing techniques and all that. Don’t laugh! See, I can’t tell you anything. You know how these stress exercises help all adults. We are almost adults. You should think about that.”
“I just don’t see how I prevent you from doing all this … whatever it is you’re talking about.”
“Look, I don’t have much time, right? You can still go to uni and have adventures and stuff while I’ll need to be a homekeeper and raise kids soon. So let me have some fun for the time being, date other people, whatever. You know many other girls at school feel the same way. It’s a girl-power thing. Get it out of our system before our real duties start. And if we’re still compatible in a couple of years, who knows? Maybe we’ll get back together. But let’s not be slaves to each other right now.”
She held my arm in an awkward way, like she was a mother and I was a kid ready to run away and then she pulled me close and gave me a side hug. I wanted to push her away but I was thinking that this might be the last time we touch each other. It lasted about five seconds and then I broke free and left the room, without turning back once.
I walked around the city for hours, trying to make some sense of it. I had done everything by the book, I was the perfect boyfriend and then she reads one banned line and loses her mind. I could so easily hate her right now, the way I hate these books that ruin people’s lives. Embrace your hatred, feed it, it turns you into a man, isn’t that what they teach you in school? But I felt more sad than hateful, no matter what technique I tried. I fought back tears, waving my hand close to my face to pretend they were from the smoke, in case anyone saw. In the central square they were beating up some illegals and I didn’t even feel like throwing one rock, that’s how miserable I was. I got home and, I’m ashamed to admit, I cried that night, silently, well hidden under my blanket. I thought I’d never feel good again.
I couldn’t face her at school, let alone going through the breakup declarations at the authorities together. Many awkward silences there, the administrators shaking their heads knowingly. They’re probably used to stupid teenagers like us falling in and out of love all the time. It’s all a process of growing up, isn’t it? The first time is the hardest and then you’re wiser. At least that’s what my mum said. Mums are almost always right, but you only realise that when you’re a bit older. You realise many things when you’re older.
So that’s it, pretty much. Mum was right, writing down everything makes me feel slightly better. Sure, it will take me some time before I can go to another book burning without thinking of her. But I know I’ll get over it. I know I’ll see things more clearly sooner or later and everything will make sense. Maybe one day I’ll appreciate my first and short-lived romance. I’ll see the whole picture. Why not? I’m still so young. The world is a beautiful place and I’m only starting to discover it.
Dimitra Rizou is a writer, translator and cartoonist and also works as a storytelling mentor for kids. Her work has been published on daCunha, the Croydon Citizen and Parallaxi, shortlisted in the Signo Novella Prize competition and the London Short Film challenge and performed in various events.