Arabella Argento was not, nor had she ever been, in love. For her, love was a peculiar and ungraspable shadow that trailed her everywhere she went. It seemed, to her great lament, that each of her romantic entanglements were not a result of her own intentions, but came about, and ultimately ended, due to an invisible force outside her control. It was only after a relationship had crumbled that she realized some ingredient was missing from its formulation.
The relationships were not unsatisfying, but she had the niggling feeling that her role in their inception was a very small one. She did not think of herself as attractive or particularly interesting. In truth, she did not think of herself much at all and had a difficult time imagining others doing anything but the same.
Only three men had come close to exhuming her love, each one doing so despite increasingly awkward and unexpected obstacles. The first of these suitors was a young man by the name of Nigel Wickert.
She had met Nigel Wickert during her last year of college. He had a friendly, round face with a little tuft of hair on his chin, a feature he would later, and forever, be embarrassed by. He had approached her in the awkward and unconfident way of a young school boy. His nervousness was matched only by his stumbling wit.
Young Arabella could not articulate exactly which of Nigel's unwieldy qualities struck her first. He was not unattractive, nor was he disheveled in appearance, but there seemed, under his stutters and anxious eyes to be a wild and fierce current to his thoughts. She was almost willing to call it electric.
She had the strange sense that if a light was plugged into the back of his head, his constant thinking might power it for months. Nigel was not unusually bright. If anything, his intelligence was just enough to keep him unnoticed by his professors. The notions and inklings that constantly struck him were, in many ways, profound, but his lack of mental stamina kept the ghostly ponderances from taking a fleshy form.
Perhaps it was that unherded creativity that drew Arabella to him, as if some spark in him had ignited one in her, but, at best, she could only describe her feelings as guesses.
That was, in most cases, her responses to him. "I guess," she would say. Her uncertainty was not unlike indifference. She felt, at times, like an archeologist using a ceramic bowl to define an entire civilization.
And so, with a kind of ethereal affection, the adolescent Arabella and the nervous Nigel began a relationship that belonged to a couple much younger than themselves. It was irresponsible and unrealistic, remaining stitched together only by proximity and an indiscernible impression of easiness.
Between stacks of books and half finished homework, the two gently held hands and spoke of fictionalized futures in which they were happier, richer, and more in love. The youthful yarning eventually became a game in which they tried, sometimes viciously, to outdo the other in scale and scope.
They spoke of children, and jobs, and lifestyles that seemed increasingly and impossibly impractical to young Arabella. She did not consider herself a pragmatist, but her dreams never floated too far from the reality they were tied to. Nigel's visions, on the other hand, were vast and insufferably unachievable, like a poor man hoping to explore the cosmos with a hot air balloon. His desires had no margins, and his plans needed no resources.
As the two were nearing the final days of their formal education, he spoke to her again about the nearing future, but there was no hesitation in his voice, no nervousness in his gaze. It was then that the young Arabella Argento realized the game they had been playing was never really a game to the naive Nigel Wickert.
The day after graduation, with a single suitcase and three months worth of wages, he travelled to America in pursuit of his dreams. He sent three letters to the ambivalent Arabella hoping she would change her mind. He wrote, but did not send the fourth letter for he immediately and unapologetically fell in love with a beautiful street musician, ten years his senior, who was as optimistic and unrelentlessly idealistic as the youthful Nigel Wickert.
The two were unimaginably happy and equally as poor. The dreams that drove him to America remained as ethereal as they had been in England, but they seemed somehow more tangible. He thought of Arabella only two times after meeting the beautiful street musician; once while attempting to write his memoirs (which remain in his attic unfinished), and once while comforting his heartbroken son.
Arabella did not think much of the fourth letter's absence, nor did she think much about the negligent Nigel Wickert. He was like a movie she had enjoyed, but had no interest in seeing a second time. The relationship had ended with both parties relatively unscathed with only the briefest understanding of their darker desires.
The cordial and amicable ending Arabella shared with Nigel Wickert was in no way reenacted by her second great romance.
Arabella had dedicated the several following years to her career as an accountant and financial service advisor. She had quickly climbed the ranks of a local investment firm and was eventually noticed by JP Morgan which acquired her and moved her to their Canary Wharf location.
Despite her best efforts and unwavering ambition, her aspirations had sagged into lower middle management. Her office was in a small, windowless room which she shared with a tubby, bearded man who preferred to be called Merv though his name was Melvin.
He was a friendly man, often overly kind and eager to laugh. He was good at his job, but did not have much interest in management. He had accepted every promotion due almost entirely to the encouragement of his wife. The pressure he nearly always felt was expressed through his nervous bowel, which he continually and profusely apologized for.
Arabella did not blame him for his condition, nor did she direct any ill will toward him for she thought he was a good man, but during particularly stressful months she found it impossible to work in the small, windowless room.
During such times, she took her work to the coffee shop down the block and waited for Merv's anxiety to wane. It was at the coffee shop where she met her second almost love, Ilian Datsik.
Ilian Datsik made and served coffee. He was more than capable of the task, perhaps to his own detriment. He found the position of barista both boring and trivial, and did little to hide his distaste for it.
He had arrived in London at the age of five with his widowed mother. They possessed little money and even less of a prospect for more, but after the unfortunate death of her husband, Oksana decided the only opportunity for her son resided on foreign shores.
Ilian had grown up alone, but not unloved. His mother eventually got work as a maid. She was diligent and hardworking, doing everything within her power to provide a better life for her son which, unfortunately, meant taking extra shifts and working overtime. As a result, Ilian saw his mother only a few minutes each night before he went to bed, long enough for her to kiss his forehead and say, in broken English, how much she loved him.
Ilian, left to his own devices, resorted to a style of self-governing that focused more on self and less on governing. His self-assured sense of entitlement never faltered, which is why he held such little respect for his position as barista. He offset his distaste by playing cruel jokes on customers.
On one occasion, he put laxatives in a batch of coffee and locked the bathroom door just to see the people squirm in panic and run to the restaurant across the street. Some, regrettably, never made it that far; everyone, however and unfortunately, ended the day with a little less modesty.
Arabella was not aware of Ilian's cruel tricks when she entered the coffee shop. Instead, she saw a warm, inviting smile and a pleasant demeanor. Ilian was a charming young man, learning early on how to talk his way out of, or into, nearly anything.
Perhaps it was because she found him fascinating and assertive in a way that Nigel had never been, or perhaps it was due to the long years since the prospect of romance had seemed so close; Arabella could not say for sure, but she agreed to see the intriguing Ilian Datsik later that night and ultimately for the next three years.
Their relationship was like a burning coal that had been tossed into a bucket of cold water. Ilian, having been fired from the coffee shop, began working at the docks cleaning the underbellies of boats and yachts, a job he hated even more than barista. Each month he spent a little more than he earned and began to rely on Arabella for his rent and food.
Arabella did not mind buying Ilian's groceries or occasionally paying his rent. She was successful enough at her job that it affected her finances very little, and she assumed a proper couple was meant to share such responsibilities whenever they arose.
Her kindness did not go unpunished. The more Ilian required Arabella's money, the more he felt the power slipping from his reach. He became suspicious of her generosity to the point of obsession. Even the smallest amount of money would turn his kisses into venom.
He thought that perhaps she had some secret plan to control and extort him, though his only evidence was her kindness and money.
Their intimate moments became verbal wrestling matches in which he tried to make her submit to his increasingly absurd agenda. Their lovemaking became progressively perverse tableaus of his power over her. He would bind her to the bed or a chair and penetrate her limits until her face grimaced with something he knew was not pleasure.
Arabella did not enjoy these moments, but she endured them for she knew relationships involved a certain amount of sacrifice.
Ilian wanted to break her. He wanted to shatter her spirit into one thousand tiny pieces and spend the rest of his life slowly digesting each one. When he realized she would not crumble from his demands, he left her for a younger, more impressionable girl that he felt confidently capable of abusing.
Arabella was surprised by Ilian's immediate and angry departure. She had done her best to support him and diligently suffer through his heinous acts, but somehow he did not love her, and, in truth, she did not love him.
His absence was in many ways a relief, like shaking off a heavy snow coat after stepping in from the cold. Arabella returned to work and single life more diligently then before. She was content with her solitude and accepted the uncertainty of everything else.
Merv encouraged her to keep trying. He told her that love was rare and hardly ever easy, but it was real and more than that, it was worth it. Arabella appreciated the sentiment, but she felt that love was more like an exotic vacationing spot that she might visit once in her life, and only after she had saved up for it.
She put the thought of romance out of her mind and instead focused on work and hobbies. She knit, read, and cycled when the weather allowed. It was not a bad life, even good by most standards, but her urges still remained.
The distinction she made between romance and lust was a chasm quickly filling with solitude. Even with her evenings occupied and her weekends planned, her life felt somehow vacant. She could not say exactly what was missing, only that some vital aspect of her existence was malnutritiant.
Her career was stimulating, and her living situation was comfortable. She felt no desire to change herself, nor did she want to change someone else to suit her needs, but she did feel the need for someone, a relationship of convenience perhaps, a romantic entanglement without all the knots.
She attempted to address this feeling very casually through an ambient vicariousness. After work, for several months, the slightly older and much more weary Arabella sat on the same bar stool in the same bar eavesdropping on the cacophony of couples drinking liquor and talking of sex.
The men's bravado did not shock her for she had heard worse things from Ilian Datsik, but the openness with which the desires were spoken left her feeling unaloof. The intimate bedroom details, after a few drinks, were like paintings in a museum waiting to be admired, but never taken home.
The idea was not altogether off putting Arabella thought. Such a thing would satisfy her urges without compromising her comfort, or so she assumed.
On one particularly chilly evening a man, wearing a posh suit and cocksure smile, stood beside her with a drink in each hand. Cole Cabello was his name, and she had seen him at the bar many times before almost always chatting up a different woman.
Cole was a tall, thin man. His blond hair wisped across his forehead as if with a divine purpose. His firm and smooth jaw lingered with the faintest hint of cinnamon. It was obvious his charms were well practiced, but Arabella still found them comfortably disarming.
She smiled more that evening than she had over the course of the previous five months. She could not explain the soothing sensation loosening her muscles and evaporating her indecision, but in truth, she was too occupied with Cole's detailed compliments to give it much effort.
It was not the specific words he said, but the alluring way in which he said them. His fingers gently caressed her fingers. His voice, confident and measured, was the only thing she wanted to be clothed in. She knew it was an exaggeration, but his gaze felt like a warm fire in a dark forest.
Arabella did not think highly of the women that left each night with him, but now that she was one of them she understood. Possessing someone's complete attention was a powerful aphrodisiac, and Cole could not think or look at anything or anyone except for her.
Arabella spent that night and the following five weekends at his flat in the thralls of unattached passion. Unlike Nigel, Cole was firm and assertive. Each of his movements were deliberate and reaffirming. He pushed her to new heights of pleasure without breaking her boundaries, which was a welcome relief after Ilian's aggressive disregard.
Their relationship was purely a physical one, so physical in fact that on their sixth rendezvous Arabella informed Cole that she was pregnant. Cole, usually unflustered, uncomfortably put his clothes on in a state of astonishment. He told her, with an awkward stutter, that he needed to think about what she had said, and then abruptly ushered her out the door.
She thought it best to give him a few days, but a few days quickly turned into a few weeks, and he still had not yet responded. She returned to his flat with suppressed hopes of starting a family. Cole opened the door half-naked, smelling of cinnamon and alcohol. The woman on his couch was clothed in less.
Cole was friendly and inviting, motioning her in to share a drink and sensual night.
When she attempted to speak about the baby, he immediately interrupted her, taking her by the shoulder and thrusting her into the hallway.
He was under the impression that she had taken care of that "thing," as he put it. Her expression told him otherwise. He took a breath and smiled, telling her, in the nicest way possible, that he had no interest in being a father or husband. He gave her a warm embrace and offered to pay for the operation.
Arabella left, feeling a little less intact and a lot less interested in Cole Cabello. The last time she thought about having children was with Nigel Wickert, and the idea never involved her doing it alone. The uncertainty and challenge terrified her in the best way possible like an astronaut stepping onto the surface of the moon for the first time.
She knew Cole Cabello would not provide the support she or the baby needed, and so she put him out of her thoughts. Of her brief affair with Cole Cabello, she kept only two items: one of Cole's shirts which she had worn home by accident (and still smelled of cinnamon), and a photograph of the two of them during their third entanglement.
She put the items in a box and included a brief hand-written letter explaining, with blunt truthfulness, exactly what had happened. She set the box on the top shelf of her closet planning on one day giving it to her child.
During the pregnant months that followed, Merv and his wife, Ann, helped Arabella whenever they were able. They joined her during doctor visits and lamaze classes. Arabella spent more dinners in the Merv household than her own.
When her son was born, Arabella could not explain the feeling that overtook her upon seeing him, but she knew love was not a powerful enough word to describe it. It was as if her life had been split into two pieces, one that she was living and one that she was watching.
Ethan Merv Argento.
Ethan after her departed father, and Merv after her office colleague who had become her closest friend. Merv and Ann happily agreed to be the godparents and played a vital role in the growth of the young Ethan Argento.
Arabella occasionally felt the urge to find companionship, but, fearing it might negatively impact her son, never pursued the craving. The rest of her days were far from uneventful for she was constantly occupied with the care, education, and eventual ambition of her son.
During quiet moments when she found herself alone, she thought about the romances of her youth. Love seemed like a small thing, a shadow cast by a source she had not realized until the birth of her son.