she can’t remember his face. she has never been able to. if she didn’t have the texts on her phone and the fact that he had met her friends, she could have convinced herself she had made him up completely. when he came round once, late enough for it to be completely dark outside in summer, on one of the nights when he should have kissed her, he had opened her new pack of bagels and eaten the first one. in the days afterwards, she stared at the pack, comforted by the proof of his existence via the absence of one bagel. the thought of it being in his body beneath his clothes, and then in his pipes beneath his flat made her feel connected to him. she remembered the way he looked when he smoked – or, rather, she imagined the memories she had of watching him smoke. the way he sort of appeared quite feminine sucking on the little stalk; how that made her feel strangely both repulsed and hungry in her pelvis.
she wasn’t in love with him, definitely. she hadn’t fancied him when she first saw him, in fact she felt like she had talked herself into finding him sexually appealing altogether – a feat she hadn’t previously thought herself capable of. but her desperation had made her porous in a new way: suggestion becomes fact very easily to the desperate it seems.
the third time they’d met, he’d asked her friend to read out to him what the writing on her t shirt said. it annoyed her that he hadn’t been looking at her chest enough to read it himself. she wanted his ugly carnal off-putting male desire of staring at breasts to be evident to her, but more importantly, include her. it’s the most attractive thing in the world; until it isn’t. the t shirt was read by every man in a car that drove on the road as she walked by, every man staring out of a window onto the street, every man loitering next to her as they mutually waited for the crossing to turn green. the other men they were with had made comments to her about it all day, accidentally disclosing their perfunctory tendency to stare at the front of any woman’s torso. but in this pub, with her eyes on his hands that she wanted desperately to touch her neck, the only gaze that conjured fire was consciously averted – insultingly under control. and of course, it was her brattish feeling of denial of want – that he had failed to give her what seemed to overwhelm other men enough to violate her with it – that convinced her she must be his girlfriend. ‘how special he must be, for making me feel so tangibly unwanted.’
it was difficult for her to know whether she was electrified by him, or simply what he represented. it meant so much more to her that she was chasing him; how thrilling and freeing. when the dynamic is reversed, she feels suffocated and intruded upon. to be ecstatically subjugated by the force of her own desire was what she really chased; to watch herself degrade herself for him and enjoy it. how masochistic and affirming! the first time they were alone together they had drunk water from matching glasses in her kitchen, sitting opposite each other on her countertops. her legs were dangling uselessly, too short for their suspended position. his reached all the way across to her.
the next morning, she came down and saw his glass sitting politely in the sink. this banal yet magnetic artefact of her evening. she held it up to the window, wanting the light to cast through and reveal all the smudges left by his fingers and lips. she cradled that dirty glass in her hands and licked all around the rim. inside and out. everywhere his mouth had been. she collected his litter with her tongue (wide and craving) and rubbed it against the back of her teeth, harboured it in her cheeks. she swallowed heartily. he was in her. she washed their two glasses in silence, sitting them next to the sink, matching and in love, then walked away, as if she hadn’t just cut herself open and enthusiastically atrophied her dignity. it was the most erotic thing she had ever done.
even the tepid way her heart was defeated was dignified and boring. she was not catastrophically wronged: delicious and sticky and cruel. it was all grey and wispy; timing, priorities, preoccupation. these ugly grey words that belonged in an office, weighing down someone’s clipboard, cutting neat harsh rectangles in a boardroom. he had limply pushed her and the hopeful offering of her body away, like a fussy child with a plate of vitamins. not for now. she couldn’t shake the feeling that he hadn’t thought of her since they last spoke. it clung like an unwanted smell on her fingers. the idea that he had put the phone down to her, and in that instant all knowledge of her had evaporated around him, perhaps washed down a drain later that day.
she hadn’t wanted to do it. she knew she should, but the reluctance bleached all the delightful sense of correctness into something flat and insubstantial. she pictured herself starving, on her hands and knees crawling towards a long thick table laden with food. grapes dripping over the edge on stems. she’s hunched over, elbows resting on the cool shiny wood, orange sweet potatoes mashed between her fingers, the other hand scrabbling for meat. she pushes it all into her face, to discover she can’t taste a single thing. her body’s crying out for the nourishment, and she swallows it down and her organs rejoice in hyperactive squelches. but the lurid colours are fake and teasing to her mouthful of grey. she has lived and died in his head.
he robbed her of the opportunity to show the world what her romance could be like. she is passionate and ridiculous in a way she knows would make a magnificent girlfriend. unforgettable but totally plausible. his parents would like her, but probably not continue to contact her after a breakup. she is not quite polite enough to remember that she must be invited to sit down in other people’s homes. she doesn’t like eggs – she feeds off of childish chocolatey breakfasts still into her 20’s. but she doesn’t drink and has a notable vocabulary, so adults who aren’t looking very closely tend to think she is clever. he would be important to her in a way that would be embarrassing and revealing of all her own faults, and misleading about his quality and general value as a partner.
in her mind, they meet again. in the future. when she is thinner and he is cleverer and they are both even richer. they are the couple people love to witness: strolling into a restaurant holding hands and giggling, lounging by a pool faced away from each other but limbs unconsciously bound, deftly cooking together in a kitchen, making company uncomfortable by arguing passionately in the street or in the car. they will be perfect and tragic; pitiful in all the ways relationships make people. her friends will feel that she has become smaller somehow – something about her is now quantified and knowable, contained and measured by the width of this man’s palm. they won’t tell her this. his friends will think she is pretty but will be mostly glad she isn’t their girlfriend. they won’t tell him the first part.
maybe they will be together only momentarily; long enough for one to show the other a faster way to walk to the station, long enough for one to add more salt to their pasta water for the rest of their life. long enough to close the book that has been yawning open all this time. but not long enough for a pet or a bank account or family photographs that have to be pushed into a drawer and never set on a mantlepiece. she will be fluent in Italian by then, but still clumsy. he will be braver, and want her slightly more than she wants him.