Published in Helicon Magazine, 2006
‘I have problems with being that close to another body’.
‘I don’t know. Maybe something about the heat, the skin, the thump of a heart so similar to mine. I want to get inside you, really inside you. This is as close as I can get and it’s not nearly enough. It’s infuriating.’
‘But maybe intimacy isn’t about being that invasive. It’s not a competition; you don’t have to come away with a prize to prove you went there. You know me as well as you could ever know anyone. Most people don’t even get that close’.
‘You’re right, I know you are. Shit, I have to get back to work’.
‘I’ll be expecting you’.
‘I’ll be there.’
Henry is, for all intents and purposes, a very good boy. He does very well in his course at university, he works hard at his part-time job, he washes his sheets and his clothes regularly and never uses his overdraft. What he doesn’t say is that mostly, it feels like he only does these things by default. He doesn’t have many friends and the few times he goes out, he’ll stay out of the way and try to figure out what that song is they’re playing (last night: Pink Floyd's 'Another Brick in The Wall') and because he isn’t really there, nobody really wants to know him. Nobody wants to talk to a ghost and that is how he lives his life, always above it but never fully in it, like that will save him from all the bad things.
He rides his bike everywhere like a school-boy because his driving is shit and he likes being able to dodge traffic and being alone. Riding a bike is the ultimate refuge for the introverted. No one will interrupt you. Tonight is the middle of a very cold winter and the stars are full and sick in their fullness and it all feels like some kind of tableau we’re in. He barely dares to breathe as he leans his bike against the wall of her house and knocks once.
It didn’t occur to him until now just how much he wanted to be saved from this virus he couldn’t shake, this thing he dared to call a life.
She likes to smoke in bed. Her husband hates it, she says. But you don’t mind, do you? He doesn’t even through the cancer in the air is thick and he knows he’ll smell it on his skin for days to come. He likes that she has bad habits, vices because she wears them so well. She can slide them on like jewellery and in that moment you would forgive her all her trespasses.
But this isn’t love, not really, because what he’s really in love with is the idea of her he has in his head. If he really loved her, he’d open his eyes to the ugliness she possesses; the bad breath and the stubbly armpits and the fear, the fear that she’s really old and stupid and old and lonely and old. She knows all this but she would never say it, never ruin any of those silly juvenile visions he has going on up there. She likes that he comes here when he should be studying, that he calls her when he should be working. He’ll call her different names: ‘Mrs. Russell/ Ms. O’Conner/ Mr. Jameson, would it be possible to take up just two minutes of your time?’ Cold calling they call it. And they’ll have their little snatches of conversation where they can. Beautiful crazy moments like signposts to remind them both that things don’t always have to be so fucking awful.
He sleeps on his side, curled up like a baby. She’ll have to wake him up soon. But god, she loves that wiry body of his, the one he’s always so fucking self-conscious of, she loves that it loves her too, responds to her in kind.
And of course- there’s really nothing wrong with being someone’s fantasy. Nothing wrong with being a kind of concept rather than an actual person. People die along with the flesh-and-blood love they inspire. That’s just a cold hard fact. But concepts- concepts get to smoke as much as they want and they get to stay perfect.
‘Why is it that I find it easier to talk to you here rather than when we’re actually together?’
‘You’re braver here. You ask a lot more fucking questions too’.
‘Sorry; does that annoy you?
‘If it did, I wouldn’t be here. I thought that-‘
‘Hang on…….great. Supervisor’s coming over for a chat. Maybe I’m finally getting fired’.
‘Hah. I’ll cross my fingers for you’.
‘And toes. Fuck, I hate my life. Speak later’.
It’s coming up to that time when the sky is just starting to let colour bleed into it, when they say goodbye. It’s nothing big, she’s not sentimental and neither is he although they have their different reasons. For him, it’s that cool detached affectation/ fear because there’s so much he hasn’t felt yet, so much he can’t feel properly. But for her, it’s just that she’s too tired for that kind of thing, she’s done it, been there and the fucking t-shirt too.
She stays on the landing in her dressing gown while he lets himself out. The cold hits him like a slap to the head and he pulls his scarf on tighter around his neck. Out here, he will go home and go to work and go to school and be the same sad character. Sometimes we just can’t rise above circumstances. Sometimes that isn’t weakness, sometimes that’s just the way things happen. And when it does, those left trapped deserve to have something, anything make them forget for just a while. That is what this whole thing is. They both take it on the chin and she’ll go back upstairs and he’ll cycle out and away, white-knuckled, orange light bouncing off the cereal box reflectors his Dad put in for him when he was twelve.
They’ll stop seeing each other eventually.
One day they’ll learn to forget each other.
We do what we have to.
© 2006 Emma Mould