‘White Tablecloths’ by Emily Prince

During our last week in Europe, we spent all our money. We were in Paris, the City of Love and Light, drunk on the feverish adrenaline that comes with knowing it’s about to end. Our flight home to Australia was booked for Friday evening. Back to the share house and the call centre and the university course that I was failing impressively. 

We sought out the fanciest-looking restaurants. We ordered dishes from menus written in French, guessing at the translation and hoping they’d be palatable. Creamy pastas with seafood and dainty serving sizes were plated up before us. We drowned the taste of escargot in red wine. Drops of crimson flecked the white tablecloths and we snorted into our serviettes, afraid of drawing attention. Our nicest traveling clothes were not so fancy, but the staff saw our handfuls of euro and that was enough. Jason put his nose in the glass. 

Fruity,’ he confirmed, and I kicked him beneath the table, knowing that if I laughed, it would be the braying, drunken laughter of a tourist. 

Pastries for breakfast, chocolate in our coffees. Baguettes stuffed with soft cheeses and pricey meat bought from the delicatessen and assembled in the street outside using a blunted pocketknife. We ate them by the Seine, dodging the dog shit and leaning over to stickybeak in the windows of the boats. 

The taxi from the airport smells like stale bread and carsickness. Jet lag makes us ill. I sweat despite the Melbourne winter and my muscles clench like teeth as I drag my bags up the front step. Our room is musty, the house empty of housemates. Traffic chugs through our street, a bird sings and the rubbish needs to be put out. Jason puts his hands inside my top and I don’t stop him despite feeling like my brain has been distilled in time. Afterwards, we fall asleep without changing our clothes and wake up at 2am, hankering for grilled cheese sandwiches. 

The call centre is the same. My classes are the same. Our housemates are the same, and we continue swimming through the day around each other. We meet occasionally, an itchy-rehearsed tradition, to converse, share food if there’s extra going, ask about the day. Jason comes home late, smelling of cigarettes, and we share red wine on the balcony and pretend the tablecloth is white. I sit up after he is in bed, reading heavy textbooks I’ve borrowed from the library. The overdue fines increase with my lack of comprehension. 

The morning of our departure, we took the train to Versailles. The crowds were thick and slow. We went for a walk instead. We bought more food, more wine, and stuffed our aching bellies with overpriced macarons that tasted of clouds and roses. We grabbed our bags from the hostel before rushing to the airport, almost too late for check-in. 

‘Let’s just stay.’ Jason was hassled. I pulled out my last ten euros and bought us coffees while we waited for the plane. It tasted bitter and rich, like Melbourne. I missed the taste of chocolate. Two months of backpacking, the result of a years scrimping and saving. I was ready for my own bed, the familiarity of routine. 

I get my results back from the first semester, subjects I can barely remember the names of. A chasm of experience lies between then and now. My marks are paltry, my care for them more so. I return the library books and duck away from the building with the anticipation of discovery, hoping the massive fines I have incurred are not written across my face. I walk faster as I leave the university and wonder if I go fast enough, will it disappear? There is another pub night, another set of going away drinks for a co-worker leaving the call centre. We drink too much and stop for hot chips on the way home, spewing into the gutter at 3am. I wipe my mouth. Jason throws his head back and shouts at the sky, unintelligible roaring. 

I count my money obsessively. I take extra shifts. I have not been to a class in five weeks and the house needs a vacuum. The housemates have complained about the roster (which was my idea in the first place) and how Jason and I have not been keeping up with our agreed chores. I am woken one morning at 5am, the sound of passive-aggressive vacuuming being completed outside our door. Jason rolls over and goes back to sleep. I lie awake until I hear the shower start. Then I get up, reach for my purse, and leave the house. 

Berlin by day was sobering, the memorials and monuments stealing the air from my lungs. Berlin by night was electric. A pinwheel of colour and music and texture. Amsterdam was the same, the women in their red painted windows and the smell of weak pot making for a sensory circus, one I could lie down in the middle of and absorb. The early morning train stations, with coffee breath and messily folded maps, sleep-soft eyes and moving so slowly we were almost somnambulant. 

Trains in Italy running late, sipping limoncello out of the bottle. A man in Florence asked us for money and lunged for my purse when I opened it. Racing each other up dark streets when we’d missed the late night bus and eating Pot Noodle for breakfast the next day, our stomachs surrendering in defeat. Sitting up by myself while Jason slept, crying without knowing why. 

The traffic to the airport is thick and tight. Halfway there I realise I’ve left my passport at home and what I’m doing is stupid anyway. I’m still in the clothes I fell asleep in, and my old t-shirt is no help against the wind chill when I leave the taxi. Breakfast has all the decadence a credit card can buy. The cappuccino is strong. I wish for creamy pasta and red wine.

Emily Prince is a writer and librarian from Australia, currently living in Scotland. She came runner-up in the 2017 Emerging Writer Award facilitated by Moniack Mhor and The Bridge Awards and her short fiction has appeared in GutterSonder, and Voiceworks among others. She tweets at @miss_e_prince

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