‘It’s because we love each other,’ this newest man is chanting, or rather panting, behind me, which seems an incongruous thing to say since he is screwing me in a public toilet while his wife takes something back to John Lewis.
When he sighs ‘oh, baby’, it’s so pathetic, so two-bit porno, I want to laugh, but I don’t. I say it back in a breathless echo, and I arch my back and rock my hips. I am a crowd-pleaser, an actress, and my moves are second to none.
It wasn’t always like this: assignations in toilets, on car seats, in anonymous hotel rooms. I was in love, once. I was loved, or so I thought.
Let’s call him D. D for Darling, D for Devil. How swiftly they turn. We were tight; we were soulmates. Everyone said so.
We made each other better: he loosened me up, I made him serious. We took ourselves to wild corners of the country, eager to see things with the same eyes, walked until our feet ached and we were the only people for miles, then hobbled back to cosy B&Bs for hot chocolate and board games. We laughed at the same things, but were different in the inconsequential ways that make partnerships interesting: he liked dogs and tea (hairy and milky, respectively) and I liked, still do like, cats and coffee (black, both). We talked, all the time.
When you’ve opened up all the parts of you that are bruised and dark and ugly, and someone has wrapped you in their arms and you’ve dared to feel safe there, it’s bizarre that the world expects, when they leave you, that you will shrug and say ‘OK’ and move on.
A lot of people have left me, so you’d think I would be used to it. My father, in so clichéd a routine I can’t stand to repeat it. We didn’t miss him. Many so-called friends, in a familiar pattern of shared time, shared secrets, then silence. My beloved brother – my twin – which was the worst of all, until now. It was ‘too intense’, he said. Whatever ‘it’ was. I didn’t understand what this meant.
D broke up with me – broke me – on the phone. At least my brother made his excuses to my face. This is what I’m worth, I thought, a disembodied voice down a crackly line. This is all I’m worth. A phone call. Dismissed, just like that. Not even the guts to look me in the eye.
He felt trapped, he said. I couldn’t see how this could be right; if he was trapped, he couldn’t have just left, could he? With all of the effort it takes to dial a pizza.
‘I could kill you,’ I whispered, but he’d already hung up.
When I was a child I had to make everything even. I was half of a pair, after all. Everything worked best in twos.
I don’t know when it started but I found that if I ate, walked, played, thought to the rhythm of even numbers, I felt safe. I would have to start out on any staircase with my left foot and take the last step with my right, counting down, onetwo, onetwo, onetwo, and an uneven number of steps could leave me unsettled for days. I wanted symmetry and order and instead saw chaos everywhere, but as long as I had my other half, I could manage, I could cope.
We did see each other, ten tear-stained days later, to do the obligatory handing-back of Stuff. He suggested we meet ‘on neutral ground’ – when did this become a war? I wondered. I knew when he handed me the tatty carrier bag that he had already removed me, from his heart as well as his house. I peered at the pathetic haul: my spare toothbrush, a hairband, a half-empty bottle of contact lens solution, a pair of tights plucked from underneath his bed, still balled up, unwashed.
We went for a drink, because you can’t just swap belongings in the street and then part. I sat in a crowded bar through the near-impossibility of not crying, pressure at the back of my eyes, hard knot in my throat. Feeling I could just die for the sweet relief of the outside, where I could weep, unnoticed in the crowd. Being so near him and not able to touch him, because these were the rules, now. Who makes these fucking rules anyway? The press of his arm accidental, making me ache. Unexpected, all this, the power of it. And at the hurried end, he hugged me, and I could have cried into his shoulder right there and clung to him and never left. But I smiled bravely and walked (ran) away.
All I could think about was how only two weeks before, we’d lain in tangled sheets, and when I leaned over to say good morning, he kissed my mouth and mumbled love. Words, words, into the air. Within days, a phone call made of other words that were all wrong.
In the movies, he would’ve come after me, raced down the escalator, called my name, got on a different line, a different train, gone the opposite way. Chased me, fought for me, said what the hell, I feel it, I feel it. But this wasn’t the movies.
I realised then that you can be the one they fuck, or the one they fuck over. I won’t be fucked over any more.
There’s someone else, of course. There almost always is. He hasn’t had to tell me, these things are easy to find out. When you’re tight, like we were, you know things. Passwords, secret codes, special numbers. Turns out men are astonishingly unimaginative.
This small power, of knowing and him not knowing, sustains me. They conduct so much of their business online, they are pitifully easy to track. She uses too many exclamation marks. She sends him photos of herself. She is relentlessly cheerful. For now.
There is an ocean of men fit for my purposes. Boys like girls who pick them up in bars and take them to hotels for sex. Some of them, like this one, make a feeble show of being solicitous and considerate, all ‘are you sure?’ and ‘I wouldn’t usually…’ but they soon change when the door is closed.
And when the lights are off, I can picture D fucking his new, blonde-haired girl with her excessive punctuation and her peppy talk of country walks and pub lasagnes.
I slam onto this faceless boy, over and over, make myself raw, over and over, make myself numb.
I am shrinking into myself, into the shadows. I follow them, silent and small, because I just need to see him, still in the world. One of the advantages of having no friends, no family to speak of, is there is no-one to try to talk you down. Talk sense into you. There is no sense, now. Nothing makes sense.
I will be whole again.
I won’t be left again.
There are plenty more fish in the sea.