A new short story by Heather Pearson
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‘Let’s start again’, I say.
‘Let’s start again, again, you mean?’, he says, filling the air between us with sarcasm as he crosses his arms and leans back defiantly in his chair. His feet jut out from beneath the small circular table and, as usual, he takes up more space than anyone else. He’s not large, or tall, or muscular. It’s just his sense of entitlement that’s huge.
We’re sitting in a cafe, wasting time while we wait for a boat to a small island to visit one of his friends. Once there, we’ll have a supportive land reform themed piss up then chase that with a couple of hungover interviews with neighbours. I’ll take some photos – a mix of high contrast black and white portraits, colour shots of manmade island details and a couple of decent landscapes. Then we’ll go home with the voice of the people oppressed by the feudal system in our bags. We’ll carry the sentiments of the underdogs on tiny memory cards (and backed up to the cloud if there’s decent Wi-Fi) before folding them out into something bigger and glossier, concertina style, ready for print in ten days time. That’s the plan, anyway.
The boat is late. It’ll arrive in about an hour from now. The girl at the ferry ticket shop told us not to worry, go and have a coffee and head over when we see the boat coming in.
‘Don’t be arsey’, I say as I reach for a sugar sachet and once again read the hands of the clock on the wall. Then I hear it. God, I even see it. I’ve corrected him, we’re not even at the beginning of being started again and I’m correcting him, telling him how not to be. We are young. We’re pretty much free. We can each make the same tweed waistcoat look cool on different days. We can play slightly sexy, unpredictable and aloof hipsters to a tee, if enough folk are watching. But Jesus, the truth of it? Write down our exchange in a script and we’re just some short-changed from happiness couple in their sixties with simmering resentments, death by boredom comments and round and round the garden centre arguments.
Then, right then, the reality hits me like lightning. It strikes through the cafe window and attaches, sucker like, silent and bright electron blue, welded to my forehead, boring into my skull and I find I can’t talk, I can only try to keep breathing as slight panic ups my heartbeat and dries my throat.
I don’t want to grow old with this person.
I don’t want to share my secrets with this person.
I’m not sure I could manage to paint a room with this person never mind birth a dream, a child or a future.
This person is not my person.
This person is not the one I’m meant to be with.
This person is not the one that’s meant for me.
The feeling of not starting again cloaks and floods me and my spine feels like a freshly oiled bike chain as I sit up in the chair. My neck unlocks. My brow lifts back to where it should be. A light, tickling, searching shiver runs from my sternum to my ankles. It’s the closest thing I’ve felt to a guilt free orgasm since I met him.
We’re one guy and one girl. We’re not a couple. We’ve been mucking about trying to make this humour impoverished farce look cohesive. We’ve been avoiding doing anything with any substance with our own lives because we’re so busy being tied up in the angst of being together. We’ve been so busy being the zeitgeist that we’ve become the cliché. We’ve found a useful diversion from creating meaning and journey by being too busy with narcissistic distraction. Fuck me. It really is that simple, that stupid. Is this what it is to grow up? Does wisdom arrive in these down the rabbit hole packets of mental head-banging realisation and clarity?
He’s talking (again). His eyes are half shut and he’s pressing home the importance of his words by nodding his head lightly and tapping his forefinger on the table for emphasis. I tune out, distance myself from his monologue and I watch. He reminds me of that politician who looks like a corpse and never has any ideas about what to do but hates everything. I know even without the audio that he’s pretending he’s talking about how both of us should behave but he means just me. In his head he is ‘there’ already. I most definitely am not ‘there’, apparently. Unexpectedly, he pauses and cocks his head, mildly and momentarily more interested in something in my face than in the sound of his own voice. It’s been a long time since that happened. Can he see where the lightning struck? The confusion in his expression makes me want to laugh. He is 27. We are 27, for Christ’s sake. When was the last time we giggled? Fuck. Did we ever?
He rubs his beard absent mindedly. I hate his beard. I hate the way his upper lip has become someone else’s, within that bloody beard. I hate that we now kiss like budgies, because of that beard. We peck at each other. Old people pecking. Pursed up lips and whipped away intentions. God I hate that beard with its statement and its same as every other beard like it predictability. He’s such an arse. I’ve been shagging such an arse.
I look at the clock again. It can’t be long now, till the boat. There’s a new panic rising in me: if I catch the boat will I miss my life? I splurt my coffee and grab for a napkin to blot my chin. He frowns and rolls his eyes, pushing his napkin across the table towards me too. He all but wags his finger reproachfully before his lecture starts up again. In-between sips of coffee I hold my mug in two hands and rest my elbows on the table. I anchor myself to the moment because now I know.
I’m not getting on the boat.
I think the thought is beginning to sparkle in my eyes because he’s tilting his head and seeing something again and he can’t quite figure it out. I’ve gone off the track and he’s still in gear. I lean towards him as my mind breaks away – like I need to test the resolve of the muscle. A break up never felt so comfortable. I notice that a woman two tables behind him has a denim shirt that is the most beautiful blue I’ve seen in a long time. She has dark brown eyes, like mine, and her hair falls in that effortlessly sexy way around her intelligent face. I look out of the window to the sky and the sea and notice that each blue is more distinct than before. Denim shirt lady looks up at us and I wonder if she sees a couple, or two individuals. We smile at each other. She knows.
I look at him and remember the sleeping together. We used to do that a lot. A yearning for a man who lies on top of me and has hips that are wider than mine flushes my cheeks and denim shirt lady smiles at me again. God, I want the weight of a man to almost crush me. I want to be overwhelmed by the bulk of this fantasy man looking down at me. Wouldn’t that be more like passion? I think denim shirt lady has that passion, that fulfilment. He’s still going on, while he tightens his backpack straps and adjusts the zips to all line up on the same side. Is passion ever ethical and organic, I wonder, watching his fingers turn into those of a stranger. Passion surely isn’t underweight because of too many lentils and half limp because of fair trade hopps? My memory flicks back to the night he sprung out of bed at midnight to check if the hessian shopping bags in his bike basket had been nicked. His panic pressed out in muttering questions; are they in the bike basket? The hall cupboard? I had lain on my back, staring through the darkness to the ceiling and I’d wanted to add my own question – who gives a fuck? Come to bed and fuck me, for fucks sake. I’d wanted to say. I’d imagined saying these things out loud and hearing a bag based uproar in reply. I should have said it. An uproar had been overdue, of any variety.
Now I have another urge. Now I want to do everything and anything that’s consumable, disposable and geared to the masses. I want to eat MacDonald’s, stay in a Travel Inn and queue up for my chance to sing on X-Factor. I want to buy vest tops in every conceivable unnatural hue from Primark. Jesus, I want to scream with the relief of the realisation that I don’t yet know who I am but I know I am not the girlfriend of the guy who is sitting opposite me. There is definitely more that makes us different than that which makes us similar. I think that’s why I wanted to be with him in the first place; that and his intelligence which, on reflection, has just turned out to be an ability to articulately play devil’s advocate. He can neither start nor finish an argument but Jesus, he sure can keep one going. I want to wash him off like wet mud. I want to see my skin again. I remember being on holiday in Portugal, before I met him. I was looking at my feet after a shower, my nails were bleachey clean from swimming in the sea, and my skin was light golden and sand-kissed soft. I want to see my feet like that again. I want to rack up air miles and not offset my guilt on anything but cocktails. I want to feel free and beautiful with urgency.
My coffee is finished. Three years. It’s been three years of this. Holy shit. I tune back in. I clear my throat to speak and we look at one another across the table. ‘Ok. So…. let’s start again’, he says, with a gracious smile that I guess is meant to say something about patience but speaks a lot more of patronisation. I smile back and I can’t stop it, I’m feeling happy in a way that’s been unregistered as missing for a while. He smiles more widely, anticipating my gratitude and our conversational waltz that I’ll do better, try harder and care more about his causes then he’ll agree to be more patient and to care less about his causes. Well, the smaller ones anyway. Then we’ll go for the boat and perhaps share an embarrassed peck in each other’s direction.
‘No thanks’, I say. ‘Not this time’. He laughs and begins to agree with me and then catches the words for what they are. I watch as he matches them to the things he saw in my face a few minutes ago. He goes to speak and flounders, stutters and slightly gapes. I stand up, move to his side of the table and pick up my bag from beside his feet. ‘No thanks’, I say again before making to the door. I half wave while he starts up again but I don’t hear a word. He’s white noise. Or maybe khaki.
Denim shirt lady mouthes a goodbye.
I smile and say it back.