With Owen out of the room, Curt was left to brush his teeth over the kitchen sink, spitting out his toothpaste and watching the foam catch spare bits of rice on its way down the drain. He was used to doing this routine in front of a mirror, not a blank wall, and the whole situation felt a bit strange. Stranger still was the fact that he had to change in the living room, crouching in one of the many dark corners of the flat and praying that Owen (or even worse, his roommate) didn’t choose that exact moment to make an appearance.
Thankfully, Owen didn’t duck his head out from his bedroom for another few minutes, and when he did he beckoned Curt inside with a hand wave. Curt walked through the doorway, careful to not brush any part of his body against Owen’s, a desire that Owen seemed to understand, as he leaned back and gave Curt room to step past.
The lights were off but Curt could make out a single bed, a table beside it, a dresser, and a closed door that presumably led to the bathroom.
“I know, I know. It’s all a bit Spartan.” Owen said. “But I trust you’ll find it more comfortable than the settee. Like I said, the bed is fine enough, and that what’s really important.”
Curt just nodded, too busy agonizing over whether or not it would be weird to sleep with the door closed. Thankfully, that decision was made for him, as he heard of the sound of Owen closing on his way out with a soft, and ultimately unanswered, “Night”.
Now alone, Curt sat down on the edge of the bed. He sat there for a while, feeling nervous, before how tired he was fully sank in and he submitted to crawling underneath the comforter. The bed was indeed “fine enough”, the kind of comfortable that he’d be grateful to have in a hotel room. But not even the softest sheets in the world could ensure Curt rested soundly. The second he noticed the pillow smelled like Owen’s aftershave- a sterile, minty smell that used to make Curt’s nose itch but now just made his chest ache- he knew he’d be up for a little bit longer.
Owen sleeps here, when he’s not sleeping across the room from you. Owen slept- sleeps- with people here. People who aren’t you. People who you’ll never know.
You’ll only ever be in this bed alone.
Once his internal monologue was satisfied with how crappy he felt, Curt could finally close his eyes and drift into a dreamless sleep.
Curt awoke with a jolt hours later and, for a moment, forgot he had even flown to London. In his half-awake state, he clambered for one of the many water cups he always kept next to his bed at home but found the only item on the bedside table was a photo frame. Owen’s room. Right.
Even though Curt didn’t care about photographs unless they were of top secret documents, something compelled him to look at the photo. It was a posed family portrait. Owen’s family. There were only three people in frame- an tall man with wire glasses and grey-peppered hair, a woman in pearls with a slight crookedness to her jaw, and a little boy standing between them sporting a grin. Owen.
Curt found himself doubting that observation once he looked closer, as there was barely any resemblance. The boy in the picture’s hair was short, combed perfectly, and very light brown in color. The boy in the picture had a round face. The boy in the picture was missing a few teeth. Most importantly, the boy in the picture looked happy.
Curt rolled over in bed, frowning at the fresh wave of aftershave that the pillow provided. This wasn’t a good time for sentimentality. Be realistic, Mega. The boy in that picture- the man he became- still smiled that wide now. But it was usually after he shot someone.
That picture would be the first time Curt “saw” Owen that morning, and there was no sign of him when Curt exited the bedroom. There was however, someone else sitting on the couch. Owen’s voice echoed in his head. Flatmate.
She was a woman that Curt could place as vaguely middle-aged, with tanned olive skin and dark eyes peering out from underneath a pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses. Thick eyebrows with plenty of tiny hairs in the space in between spread across her upper brow, an area that was tensed in concentration as she flipped through the newspaper, movements clearly undisturbed by Curt’s presence.
“Good morning.” Curt said, feeling deeply like a stranger in this house. This home, someone’s home, not his home, not safe.
“There’s tea.” The roommate said, without looking away from the paper. She had an accent Curt couldn’t place, but her voice sounded pleasant. Soft.
And even though she didn’t ask his name, didn’t ask why he was there, Curt offered it anyway. It would feel strange not to. He already felt so strange.
“I’m Curt.” After no response, he found himself talking more, desperate to fill the silence. “And you must be, uh-”
“Shadi.” She said. There wasn’t a handshake. Nothing that formal. Curt shrugged it off and went to get some tea. There was already another cup sitting beside the kettle and he poured it carefully, still looking at Shadi.
“So, how long have you known Owen?” He said, feeling the silence start to get to him again.
“Long enough to know his friends don’t usually ask this many questions.”
Curt didn’t always know when he should shut up, but he got the message loud and clear from Shadi. He crept back in Owen’s bedroom and closed the door as quietly as possible. Time to get ready for the day.
Owen’s shower was small and had several long, stray hairs stuck to the floor, which Curt stepped around like minefields as he scrubbed the plane sweat off his achey body. He opted not to use shampoo or conditioner, intimidated by the unfamiliar European brand and the bold typed phrase “for thick hair” that appeared on both bottles. Afterwards, Curt dried himself with the single bleach-stained towel in the bathroom and realized it was damp. Owen must’ve somehow snuck a shower while he was sleeping. Typical sneaky behavior.
Owen had snuck around him again that morning, returning to the apartment while Curt was in the shower. Curt discovered this when he emerged from the bedroom again to find Owen was sitting next to Shadi on the couch. The two were talking quietly and Owen was smiling (nothing like the boy in the photo, but still carefree) when he looked over his shoulder at Curt.
“How did you sleep?”
Curt shrugged. “Good.”
“Good.” Owen repeated back. “I brought some pastries back, help yourself and then we’ll be off.”
Curt wasn’t particularly hungry but he picked up a scone anyway and ate in hunched over the sink in a few bites, flicking a few crumbs off his collar when he was done. He heard Shadi and Owen’s conversation continuing behind him, a background buzzing that brought a twitch to his eye for a reason he couldn’t place.
Jealousy wasn’t the right word for it, more like... humility. Something that reminded him of his place. He didn’t ever consider Owen had someone else to go to when he wasn’t out with Curt. Another friend. A home. A bed and a family he cared enough about to keep their photo close. And then there was Curt, orbiting on the outside. Eating a scone over the sink in silence.
After finishing breakfast, Curt was desperate for somewhere to turn his eyes towards and found the bookshelf catching his attention. All the books on the top shelf were of different sizes and condition, but there was a common theme.
“What’s up with all the books on... historical battles?”
Curt heard a laugh in response that was not Owen’s, and turned around to see Shadi smiling for the first time since they’d met. She spoke as gently as before but with a jovial edge to her voice, “Don’t let Owen fool you. He hasn’t read half of those.”
“Because I hardly have the time.” Owen said. “If you must know, I bought a case of those from some charity shop a few years ago. I thought it would help out with strategy.”
The casual way Owen alluded to his job made Curt wonder exactly how much Shadi knew about her roommate’s life, but he wasn’t about to open up that conversation.
Instead, he said, “I’ve been trying to read more books.” It was a lie, but since reading on the plane had gone so well, Curt reasoned it could become true at some point. As long as he kept those noise-cancelling earmuffs around, anything was possible.
“Ah, what a noble goal.” Owen said. He got up from the couch and Curt stiffened in anticipation of his personal space being compromised, but Owen was far more focused on the bookshelf behind him. The taller man skimmed a finger over several book spines before picking one out and handing it to Curt. “You might find this volume relevant.”
Curt looked down at the book in his hand. The Battle of Stalingrad: A Retrospective. Unlike some of the other books on the shelf, this battle was barely a historical topic, in fact it had happened recently enough that the information it the book would hardly be new, but Curt tucked it under his arm anyway.
“And that reminds me,” Owen turned around to face Shadi, pulled an envelope out of his pocket and let it drop down it on the coffee table with a slap. “The rest of this year’s rent.”
Shadi’s face fell immediately. “No, no, Owen-joon, you don’t-”
“It’s all for contingency’s sake. Khuda hafez.” Owen said, his tone weighed down with an unfamiliar tenderness. Shadi nodded, her face still clearly upset, but didn’t say anything more.
Curt shifted uncomfortably and held the book tighter against his side, wondering if this was what it was like to be a bug in the wall.
Owen didn’t seem too keen on having him remain a bug any longer, as he turned his attention back to Curt immediately, all the warmth gone from his voice. “Alright, Curt. Let’s get going.”
They packed up the backseat with Owen’s bag, Curt’s suitcase, and a sack full of pre-made sandwiches, apples, bananas and two water bottles. And just like that, they were back in transit, a state of being around Owen that Curt greatly preferred. Too long in one place, in one home, things could get personal. But the constant stream of stimuli outside the car window provided Curt with enough distraction that he didn’t even think about seeing Owen at the wedding, or dancing with him, or what happened after they danced- well, if he tried his hardest, at least.
Looking out the window was also the only source of entertainment for Curt during the first stretch of their car ride. Owen insisted on having the radio off for “concentration”, and he didn’t speak much, unless he was yelling obscenities at whatever car had pissed him off (and a lot of them seemed to). Curt didn’t mind the lack of conversation, he knew they’d be stuck together for a while, and that plenty of time would come to talk.
That time came once Owen had parked the car on a ferry that was taking them across the English Channel. They were sitting in the car, facing a row of cars that were stuck in the same liminal position. Curt almost felt like he was back in America at a drive-in, except instead of a movie there was just the huge skyline stretching in front of them. And instead of having his arm around the person next to him, he was drumming his fingers nervously on his knees. And instead of popcorn, he had an apple. In fact, the more he thought about it, he would rather be at the movies.
“It shouldn’t take more than two hours to get to Calais,” Owen said, taking a noisy bite out of his own apple. “In fact, this entire trip should be on schedule, unless we end up like Miss Victoria.”
“Never heard of her.” Curt said, and he noticed Owen roll his eyes. “And two hours? Damn, everything over here is so close together. I could drive twice that and not get out of the state back home.”
“I feel it’s almost too close together.” Owen said with a snort, and Curt didn’t know how to reply, just nodded. The lack of things to look at started to get to him, and he started to think about that morning, a smile coming to his face as he remembered something.
“So... Owen-joon, huh.”
Owen rolled his eyes for the second time since they’d boarded. “Don’t start with that, it’s a perfectly nice langua-”
“I’m not making fun! It’s just fun to say.” Curt paused to change the subject. “Your roommate, uh, she seemed, nice.”
“Nice is irrelevant to my agreement with Shadi. What’s important is that she doesn’t ask any questions.” Owen said. “But yes, she is nice, isn’t she? It’s a shame you didn’t stay longer, you could’ve met the cat.”
“There’s a cat?!” Curt said, louder than he’d spoken all day. “What is it, invisible?”
“Just keeps to himself.” Owen said. “He’s tough too. I think you two would’ve understood each other.”
“A whole night in your apartment, and I never even met your damn cat. Wanna just call the whole thing off? It’s not too late to turn around.” Curt joked. His smile faded the moment he noticed Owen didn’t seem to be amused. In fact, he was looking back with the kind of stare that Curt knew he’d feel even if his back was turned.
“Oh, Curt, don’t be a fool. It’s definitely too late to go back. You knew that when you got in this car.”
Curt felt his ears get hot, and wanted to say something, anything, but Owen cut him off with a sudden handclap. “Anyway, I’m bored. You up for a round of I Spy?”
After almost an hour and a half of a circular conversation (“I spy with my little eye-” “You know, you don’t have to say it every time.” “Yes, I do.”), the ferry finally delivered the car to France safe and sound. Once they had paid the toll and were on the open road towards Antwerp, Owen seemed to relax further, cracking jokes, pointing out models of cars they drove past and even turning on the radio. The broadcast was in French, and Curt only understood about every other sentence, but he listened anyway. He listened so intently that he didn’t bother looking out the window anymore, electing to slump his head against the door instead.
“Just gonna close my eyes for a moment,” Curt said, and then closed his eyes for a very long time. When he opened them again the sensation of the car moving jerked him back up. His neck ached and his face was almost numb and it was much darker outside than it had been a second ago. The radio was still on, but it wasn’t French, oh god, oh no, was that German?
“Hello, Curt.” Owen said casually, and Curt nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound.
“Owen?” Curt took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes, feeling a headache begin to set in. “Where the hell are-”
“Bielefield, Germany!” Owen interrupted. “The crown jewel of North Rhine-Westphalia. Just a little five hour drive from Antwerp, I won’t bore you with the details.”
“Five hours? You let me sleep for five hours?”
“Just a drop in the bucket, old chap, on a journey like this. My driving even improved without you blabbering on. We’re ahead of schedule now.”
If Curt was more awake he would’ve had a comeback, but his mouth just felt dry and empty. He struggled to get a complete thought together, ultimately deciding on, “I gotta piss.”
Owen wrinkled his nose in response. “We’re almost to the restaurant, surely you can wait until then.”
“Of course.” Owen smiled politely. “I haven’t eaten since my partner and banana-peeler went off and took a nap, so I figured dinner was in order.”
“I’m starving, let me just- let me just get my head on straight.”
“Make it quick. You have about ten minutes.”
Curt felt a little better once they had sat down. The restaurant was closer to a pub with wooden tables inside, but Curt didn’t mind, welcome for the change of scenery and the promise of warm food. Owen ordered for both, selecting currywurst for himself and sauerbraten “for the gentleman”, a dish that he assured Curt was “just like pot roast.”
Curt hadn’t been face to face with Owen all day, and he couldn’t help taking in a great deal of information from watching his partner’s face. Owen was checking out their waiter. Didn’t know he liked blondes. Owen was folding his napkin into one tiny square. Strange bird. Owen was staring down at his hands. What’s so interesting about your hands? Owen was looking straight ahead. Fuck.
“What are you thinking about?” Curt said. Owen dismissed him with a simple shake of the head, fingers still unfolding and refolding his napkin.
Even if he had been keen to reply, Owen wouldn’t have gotten the chance anyway, as their food arrived not a moment later. Noticing how Owen thanked the waiter just a bit too loudly, Curt prodded a piece of sausage with his fork and then decided to prod Owen again.
“Cmon, what’s in that steel trap? I can see your gears turning.”
Owen smirked as if he’d been caught. “Oh, it’s nothing much. I was just thinking about what I’d do with you if I give that gentleman our hotel room number.”
Curt could think of a few options, but all of them made him want to crawl into a big dark hole. He traced a bit of salt around on the table with his finger, willing himself to respond with a cool head. What he ended up saying was meant to be a joke, but as he opened his mouth to speak he realized it was the truth.
“I’d sleep in the car.”
“You’re a good friend, Mega.”
Curt just smiled back and pretended the word “friend” didn’t make the back of his neck feel warm. They ate in silence afterwards, and Curt found himself playing with his food, thoughts drifting back to Owen’s apartment. He thought about Owen’s bed that he would never sleep in again, Owen’s roommate that he would never get to know, and Owen’s cat that he would never even see, and frowned, feeling as if he was being held at a distance no matter how close he got.
Buckle up, Mega. It was going to be a long, long trip.