by Xanthi Barker
Second Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2016
This is how it happens.
She said, “Let’s have a chat. Why don’t we have a chat? You can walk me home and we can chat.”
She was teasing him.
He said, “What a coincidence. This is such a coincidence. I’ll walk with you a little bit, OK.”
It was the small hours of the night, a smooth cobalt, early April one, with stars pointing straight through the street lights. She was walking home alone and she bumped into him on the high street, just past the chicken shop. They both grinned when they met because they were drunk and it was a surprise. They had not spoken in months.
After the surprise had worn off he asked her why she never replied to his last message. She said it was because what happened between them never meant anything. Then watching him out of the corner of her eye she added, “It never meant anything, did it?”
“No,” he said. “I guess not.” He exhaled. “Well it’s nice to see you, anyway.”
He sounded so mournful that she wanted to laugh. She jostled him. “We weren’t exactly going to get married and have babies, were we?” she said.
He said, “Well don’t be honest or anything.” They laughed. Then he said, “Let’s get a street beer. Do you want to get a street beer?”
She said, “There’s a shop.”
The shop was about thirty metres up the road on the left. They went inside and bought two Coronas. Then outside they stood on the kerb. He opened the bottles with his lighter and handed one to her. They tilted their bottles at each other. They sipped.
She said, “You ignored me first. Anyway.”
He coughed a kind of laugh.
He asked where she’d been and she told him. Then she asked him and he told her. Neither felt they had been anywhere interesting. But it was nice, that they felt the same like that. They sipped and watched the traffic. It was warm, for April.
After a while he said, “Look it’s so nice to see you, we might as well go back to my flat.” He looked at his shoes. “There’s no one there. I mean.”
She frowned. It sounded better than walking home alone. The party she had come from had been excruciating. It had left her with a profound craving for conversation. The kind that was only possible between two people in a room, alone.
“Nothing has to happen,” he said. “Just friends.”
She thought about asking him if he ever felt like that about conversation.
“OK,” she said.
“Yeah?” he said. “All right?”
She thought that she liked the way his shoulders hooked up behind his ears when he wasn’t sure of something he was saying and the way he smoked a cigarette like it was too hot for his fingers and the way she knew he would never fall in love with her. She said, “Yeah, all right.”
They went back into the shop and bought six more Coronas. Then he hailed a cab. When it stopped, they climbed in.
Ten minutes later they pulled up at his house. He carried the beers and she thought about how she’d thought she was saying goodbye to this giant blockade of a metal door last time she was here. It had been clearly over back then, between them, but there were situations a person could not anticipate. And here she was. The door winked at her. She smiled back, thinking how life had its little jokes.
They climbed the concrete stairs that smelled like beach salt and he unlocked his door and they stepped into the hall. It was warm and buzzed with electricity and the smell of washing that had been recently hung. He took two glasses from the kitchen and led the way to his room, where they sat down on a broad black leather sofa and he put his tattered Vans trainers on the coffee table, pulled a heart-shaped bottle opener from a shelf, popped the lids off two more Coronas, poured them into the glasses and handed one to her. They tapped their glasses together, once, for, Cheers! Then placed them down and each rolled a cigarette.
This had happened before, the three other times she had been here. The memory leant a ritualistic element to the scene, like they were the sole two members of a floundering club. She wondered if he could see that. Anyway they smoked.
He talked about his job and how it had been difficult, the last few months, because he had been interviewing high-security prisoners — he worked as a journalist for an international news and culture magazine who were working on a film about private detention services. These men, he said, had raped and murdered people, robbed, assaulted and smuggled drugs, had been tried and charged with incontestable evidence, and still they protested their innocence. She said it must have been upsetting, traumatic even. He said, “No, no, no — it was so cool.”
But later she asked again because his face clouded and he said, “Yeah I don’t know, I haven’t been sleeping at all.”
She said, “You need to take care of yourself.”
He said, “How?”
She told him she hadn’t had an easy month either. Her step-dad had been in hospital. They didn’t know yet what exactly was wrong, only that it was probably terminal, and she was finding it difficult to go to work, thinking about him, because he wasn’t her dad but he’d been much more of a dad to her than her real dad had been. She wanted to ask him some things and, you know, her mother.
He was looking at her like she was something, like there was something about her and he didn’t know what. It was an unexpected look with warmth she had not felt from him before, and it made her self-conscious. She stopped talking and shrugged, thinking how usually it was so hard to talk to people about what mattered, how she had felt almost constipated all week with all the things she could not say, how at the party she felt gagged, and then somehow at five a.m., full of beer and empty of everything, she could tell a man she barely knew what she needed most to tell anyone.
“I hate my real dad, you know,” she said. “I mean, my step-dad was pretty much the one who saved us from him.”
He turned against the arm of the sofa so that he was facing her. He said, “Did you really hate me?”
“No,” she said. “Of course not, no.”
Then they talked like old, close personal friends about their families and friends and housemates and past relationships, cursing and laughing at people who they each would never meet and he began lamenting his nomadic lifestyle, the nights he’d spent in identical hotels with his boss on the phone talking champagne and strippers while all he wanted to do was go home and sleep or play Mario Kart, but he was stuck there, waiting for the twelve o’clock meeting and the after-work drinks and the schmoozing, all the schmoozing. How he took coke every weekend and sometimes in the week too, because otherwise he’d never stay awake, never stay in line to get his contract renewed.
And she said she understood, because at quarter to six in the morning, another beer, another smoke, a deep laziness, she did. She said, “I used to drink myself to sleep every night, you know, I couldn’t sleep without it, and I felt sick all the time, so I kept stopping, or trying to, but every time I did I ended up addicted to something worse like weed or cigarettes or sex or self-harm or those little sweetener tabs, it was terrible.”
He said, “What’s worse again?” and she laughed.
“Well now I never drink in the week,” she said, “and never more than one night at the weekend, the rest of the time it’s smoothies and juice for me, no caffeine, no booze, no self-harm — ha ha.” She laughed more because her first laugh was so tinny.
He dipped his head. “Maybe I could just take coke once at the weekend,” he said, “would that be all right?”
She smiled and then he said, “Do you want some?”
“No,” she said.
“I guess I don’t want any either.”
It was getting light outside.
“It’s funny,” he said, “to see you again. I didn’t expect that at all.”
She said, “It’s funny, I always expect to bump into someone. Or, I always want to.”
He said, “You wanted to bump into me?”
“Not you specifically. I mean, anyone. It’s good, isn’t it? the surprise. To see someone you know lit up in the dark and suddenly save you from all those potential rapists or enemies or just I don’t know, loneliness.”
He blinked once as though she’d said more than he expected and then said, “So I was better than a rapist?”
“I’m just saying,” she said.
He said, “I know, I know.”
She could read on his lips that he wanted to kiss her. She thought, Well so what? She could tell he felt no different, and neither did she. They both knew they wouldn’t see each other again. They both knew that they weren’t what was wanted.
Anyway she kissed him.
Or: they kissed. On the sofa, lips through cigarette mouths and beers held up, they kissed. He pulled her onto his lap and they kissed harder. Then he stood up and pulled her up and they walked to the bed and sat down.
Their kissing was urgent, exhausted, commentated by embarrassing sucking sounds. They took their clothes off. She stroked his arm and he licked her neck. He pulled her on top of him. They were drunk, beyond caring, both knowing there was nothing now to prove and so they kissed and tugged and licked and sucked each other and so on and then she said, “Fuck me,” and he said, “OK.”
And she said, “Do you have a condom?”
And he said, “No.”
He was holding her down and she pushed him off. “No?”
He pushed her on the bed and put his mouth on her instead and she said, “Let’s get a condom.”
But he kept his mouth there until she said, “Come here.”
And then he was hurting her, too rough and she said, “Stop.”
And he didn’t.
And then he did.
And she was hurting a bit but she pulled him up and kissed him, said, “What?” but he shook his head.
He said, “I can’t have sex with a condom. I just can’t.”
“Oh,” she said.
He shrugged and stared at his navel. “So if you can’t have sex without a condom then.” He sighed. “Then I guess we just can’t.”
He was pouting. She pushed him back and took him in her mouth for a while then looked at him and he said, “It’s the booze.”
She sat up. “Let’s sleep,” she said. “It’s getting light.”
Then she flopped backwards onto the pillow and pulled the duvet up to her chin and pulled him down so that he lay behind her.
“Come on,” she said, with laughter in her voice, “we can pretend we’re in love, just for the night.”
So he snuggled into her neck and inhaled her hair. She closed her eyes.
She had been awake almost twenty-four hours by that point and she was warm, very cosy and warm. As she began to sleep, she thought how it was a nice thing, an all right thing, how probably it had helped her. It was at least better than walking the unlit part of Brick Lane at five in the morning and —
then she was asleep.
Then she was dreaming.
Then she was deep, deep sleep-dreaming.
And then something was gripping her. In her dream her body constricted, struggling against solid ropes, against motion, against breath. She twisted and yanked at her limbs. The ropes were at her shoulders, her throat. She pulled and twisted. Something was being forced against her. She couldn’t breathe or move. She opened her eyes.
His hands were on her. He was pulling her towards him. Pulling her then pushing her away.
He was inside her.
She couldn’t open her mouth. She tried to pull away but his arms were wrapped around her chest. He was breathing into her neck. The slick sick motion of it, she pulled and twisted.
Still, her mouth jammed. He was pushing into her, his hand on her naked waist, pulling skin, pressing flesh into the bed, it was muffled, sweat-hot, his thick arm, his breath on her neck, his leg. Between her legs. Pushing into her. She was stuck on dream-time, struggling to move or run or scream or — he was pinning her, moving in and out of her, her body like a dead thing, doll thing.
At last, through a fog-mouth she said, “No.” Then, “Please stop.” Then, “Please, don’t, please.”
He groaned and mumbled, kissed her neck. Finally her limbs came back to her and she turned and shoved and kicked and shoved until his grip on her slipped and he slunk back like a crab into the sea.
Her heart was pounding. She ordered it to stop. It did not.
He groaned and rolled over beside her. One hand flung up to rub his forehead.
She sat up and looked around the room, remembered the beer, the cigarettes, the stuffed ashtrays. Her head pounded. Her heart thumped, stretched, overfilled itself. Her stomach churned. A gravelly foot stamped on her skull.
She reached over him and found her pants on the floor and pulled them on and a t-shirt too and then curled up on the far side of the bed. He was not snoring. His breath was uneven. He was too still, it made her feel sick. She lay down, curled tiny and fell asleep.
When she woke up it was past twelve p.m.. She sat up and hugged her knees. Outside was bright. Her head was cloudy.
She thought, What I want is a cappuccino. Strong and short with plenty of froth and chocolate. She could almost smell it, the dense milky froth. When she’d stayed here before she’d never known how long to stay or if she should ask him to have breakfast. But today there was no decision — she wanted a cappuccino, a good cappuccino and to drink it on her own. She rolled over, nudged him awake. She said, “I’m going.”
“Don’t go,” he said, “why are you going?”
She said, “I’m going to find a cappuccino.”
“Huh? Wait a minute, wait a bit.”
He pulled her towards him and held his arms around her and kissed her neck and face and pressed her to his chest like she was precious to him, like he had strong feelings for her and this was the only way to transmit them. He pressed her against him like he meant it.
And she smiled.
She tried to get up and he pulled her on top of him.
He was smiling too.
Then she got up and collected her things from his table: keys, tobacco, rizla, lighter.
“I’ll walk you to the door,” he said. He got up and pulled on some blue pants. At the door he said, “What are you doing tonight? Let’s do something.”
She shrugged and said, “Well call me then.”
They said goodbye etcetera.
She found a place to buy a cappuccino and bought one, drank it walking along the street, the so-bright Sunday sun all over everything, and tiny buds on the city trees and people with their Sunday faces on, their weekend strides, and her feeling free and good in her second-day clothes and her cold skin underneath them, an empty afternoon and exhaustion, and yet.
The next time she sleeps with a man it is like having her skin ripped off.
And when she sees his name, or hears it, casually tossed across the day like a cigarette butt, it is like her heart will climb out of her throat and wrap its veins around her neck and kill her.
What she cannot forget is her smile.
There is not supposed to be a smile, after.
It is not what anyone believes.
It isn’t how it happens.