I was lying on the bed, studying the grooves and bumps of plaster on the ceiling, the patterns like little rock formations you see in a cave, only artificial and white. James was on his desktop, scrolling through Facebook. I had been rereading a book about Pre-Raphaelite artists and their work when I came to a page that had a pen line cut across the printed words, and seeing the page like that jarred me in such a thumb pressing against temple sort of way, I had to put the book down, splaying its pages open.
It must’ve been a year ago when me and James were coming back from his art exhibition at UAL. I’d been sitting in the window seat of the train, the grey oblong skyscrapers and rectangle flats altering into crouching greens and browns, everything flattening to the point where you couldn’t imagine life beyond the horizon, and voices broke through the carriage which had, until then, been silent. I looked out at the squat homes and fields. The London bubble had popped and we’d come out onto the other side, remembering who we were. We were nearing Margate and James had been watching me underline the pages of a book I was reading.
‘Graffitiing a book?’ he’d said, tutting, ‘What are you underlining?’
I was reading a chapter about the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and his series of oil paintings illustrating the Greek Myth of Pygmalion. On that occasion, I was underlining a section that spoke about the story he was depicting, how his first two panels showed Pygmalion in his art studio, lost in his own thoughts, trying to envision the perfect woman to create, repulsed by the local women outside. Believing these women were whores and undeserving of him, he sculptured his perfect woman and fell hopelessly in love with it. He named his sculpture, Galatea, meaning “she who is white like milk”. As nights and days passed staring at her, the third and fourth panels showed the Goddess Aphrodite, generously bringing the statue to life. Pygmalion noticed a flush on the cheeks of the sculpture as life breathed into the cold marble. With Aphrodite’s blessing, they lived happily ever after. I underlined all of this and thought how beautiful it all was, imagining the mad fluttering of their hearts as they slowly began to beat together.
I didn’t tell James any of this. Instead, I told him I underlined anything that took my interest. Anything I wanted. He’d nodded slowly, his mouth pulling down. As I looked back down at my book, his elbow nudged my arm and the pen flew up the page like a trail of clouds left behind a plane. It soared through the letters and I gasped, furious, but when I looked at him, he was laughing into his scarf. I shoved him, both of us laughing.
That moment had worked then, but now, turning to that page, I couldn’t focus on the words; I saw only the trail of cloud breaking up the blackbirds.
‘Did you get that dress in the end?’ James said, not turning from his computer screen.
I looked at the back of his head. ‘What?’
‘The green one?’
‘Oh… uh, no, I thought it looked… unflattering on me. The cut was too low.’
‘What’s wrong with a low cut?’
‘… Nothing, just my own insecurity I guess.’
‘That my boobs are too small.’
‘Oh yeah, that’s fair… But I suppose you’re competing with the beauty that is Amy Adams. Who needs that kind of pressure?’ He typed Nocturnal Animals into google and Amy Adams wearing a verdant dress appeared, a bow tying the fabric together created a slit, exposing her cleavage. ‘Cor, Amy Adams in that dress though.’ He pressed his index finger to his thumb and brought it to his lips, a single kiss. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, ‘we’ll try and find you something similar, don’t want you turning up to the family-do in those potato sacks you wear.’
‘That’s what I said.’
I picked the book back up off my chest and followed the pen line with my finger.
‘It’s our anniversary today.’ His screen became still, but his head hadn’t turned. ‘Did you know?’
His screen resumed scrolling up. ‘Sure… but you didn’t say anything, so I figured you wanted a chill one this year… Plus, anniversaries…valentines… it’s all meaningless in the end.’
‘It is, but… I guess it would’ve been nice if you had wanted to do something.’
‘I never said I didn’t.’
He turned away from the computer and came over, lying down on the bed next to me. He placed his hand on my breast. It felt cold and hard.
‘I’m not sure,’ I said, shirking his hand off me. ‘I’m kinda tired.’
He groaned and rolled onto his back, both of us staring up at the ceiling for some time. After a while, he rolled back to me and started running his finger up my arm, stroking its way along my neck and down my arm again.
Slowly, he took the book out of my hands, dropping it down beside the bed and then placed his hand on my breast, kissing my neck and cheek, and then my lips until he was on top of me. I let him pull down my underwear, let him find my cracked formation. Arid and tight. He sighed and took out the lube from his drawer. Cold, I thought of alien placenta being rubbed around the mouth, the lilt of a probing finger splitting the lips apart, sealing in a hiss. He ripped a condom open and rolled it over his cock. He tried to drive himself into me but kept missing the opening, so I took hold of him and led it towards me, but even the tip met resistance. Nothing was getting through.
‘Hold on,’ I said. With speed and some discomfort, I slid one finger, and then eventually, two fingers into my vagina. He leant back and ran his hand through his hair. ‘Sorry.’
‘Okay… shall we try again?’
‘We can, but my erection’s gone.’
He pulled me up and turned me around. I sat on his lap with my back to him, while he clasped my breasts and kissed my neck. Finally, he pushed me down on my back and spread my knees wide, slowly pushing himself into me.
I didn’t feel anything, never had, but it was the performance I loved. The widening of eyes when his change in rhythm altered and I reacted differently – sometimes loudly, sometimes gasping, sometimes burying my nails into his back to puncture his skin. The sharper the reaction, the heavier his body pressed, and I felt anchored, unable to drift.
But after ten minutes of the rocking, the cliff crumbling, everything reassembled as it always did and became boring again. There’s Freud’s Death Drive, but really, it should be called the Sex Drive, the moment of disassembling in order to be saved. To have someone witness that liminal state, the act of being taken apart, made you believe you could be. I thought about the oil paintings of Pygmalion – wasn’t that what sex promised? Salvation?
Twenty or so minutes passed when he finally gave up and pulled out. I reached for a glass of water I’d been thinking about amidst the heavy panting. He sat up and watched me guzzle down the entire glass. I wanted him to kiss me, but he turned away, looking towards his computer screen so I got off the bed.
‘Oh, I’ll just wank myself off then.’
‘What?’ he said quickly, his face smooth.
‘What did you say?’
‘Nothing. I was joking.’ And after a beat, ‘How’s the internship going?’
I suddenly wanted the book back in my hand.
‘Last week we had to do peer reviews, and everyone laid into my article and gave the most scathing review. They said it read as though I’d never left my house or had spoken to another human before. It was so personal and unnecessary. I just felt like—’
‘I mean, isn’t it always personal?’
I turned towards the window, but I could only see clouds. Beneath it, I noticed cracks of white paint like salt flats from the sun baking it every day. There was a harsh blue layer of paint underneath the white.
‘So, you don’t like anyone then? Not even Chloe? She was nice.’
A smile crept on my face despite myself. I looked at my phone. ‘Yeah she is. She’s actually become a really close friend.’
‘She seemed really cool when you introduced us.’ He looked down at himself, like he was suddenly aware he was naked. ‘Do you want to come to bed?’
I glanced between his door and the bed and laid down by his side. He touched me where he wanted, and when he was hard, I cupped his cock in my hand. He closed his eyes as my hand rubbed back and forth, slowly at first, while my head lay on his shoulder and thought of Anteros, our friend. His dark, half-Greek arms, leaning over the counter, excited, telling me about how great his mate James was. He brushed the long strands of fringe from his eyes and brought his hands together, as if in prayer, pleading for me to go on a date with him. He said James was depressed and had been having a hard time with women and relationships in general and was convinced I was his match.
‘Faster,’ James said.
I increased my speed, squeezing tighter.
‘Faster,’ James said. He was breathing harder now. The tip of his cock darkening to a grapefruit-colour. My arm throbbed. Forget the Sex Drive, Freud was right, it’s the Death Drive because this sort of sex was enough to kill anyone.
James tensed and trembled suddenly, a deep sigh, and a warm wetness clotted on my hand. His purple cock looked angry on his thigh, a salted slug, swollen and bloated. I grabbed a tissue from his nightstand and began wiping him off. He thanked me without meeting my eye. When he began to reach for me, I reached for him, and he flinched.
‘No, I was reaching for the duvet.’
‘Oh… Oh, okay.’ I pulled the duvet around me, my grip tight.
‘I mean we can cuddle if you want, but I was reaching for the duvet.’
‘No, it’s fine. I don’t want to.’
I turned away from him and looked on my phone. I’d been sent a message from Chloe. I opened her message and noticed she’d changed her profile picture.
‘Wow,’ James said. He was looking over my shoulder.
‘Nothing,’ he said. His face was devoid of any lines, eyebrows too high, eyes too wide. He shifted his gaze onto me – no, not me, my fingers, fiddling with the beads on my choker necklace. I dropped my hand. ‘You shouldn’t wear something like that, it’s what women who are fucked up wear.’
‘Well maybe I’m fucked up.’ The words felt thick and heavy as soup. Chloe bought me this beaded choker; she liked how it contrasted with the bright pearl that hung from her own. Although, James might’ve had a point; Chole hadn’t worn that pearl choker in the last year, she reckoned a guy she slept with had taken it.
‘I’m not saying you are. I’m just saying that’s what fucked up women wear.’
It was 10:21 A.M., low tide, and I was looking out from Margate’s beach. I didn’t know too much about Antony Gormley’s statues, only the one about the Angel of the North, but I’d been staring at the statue facing out to sea, the water knocking against it.
It was hot, though the white sun was nothing to go by, curtained between heavy cloud and teasing a peek every so often, you could smell salt and fish and suncream from all around. Laughing children ran up to the sea and tried jumping the waves. Fat dads with balding heads and sun-burnt stomachs lay asleep on the sand, their hands resting on their chests, feet crossed, and faces covered by their wives’ large wicker sunhats, who sat next to them, rubbing more sun cream up their arms, or reading from tabloid magazines with their sunglasses over their reading glasses. One heading that caught my eye in the same bright red shade of the woman’s nails: Pink Elephants on Parade: Celebrities Shocking Weight Gain!
‘Come on, we still haven’t found your dress,’ I heard James say.
We had spent most of the day weaving through Margate’s streets in search of a dress. More than once, we’d go into one shop and James would point toward a dress and I’d try it on, and then come out of the changing room to find him shaking his head, ‘No, it’s not quite right on you. It’s not what I imagined.’ And when I tried on something I picked out, a neon pink dress with daisies, James said, ‘Sure, you can buy it if you want…’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘Nothing – buy it, it’s nice, it’s something Lady Gaga would wear.’
I’d left the shop, the door slamming behind me before James could catch it. ‘I don’t think I’ll bother with the dress. Your family won’t dislike me because of what I’m wearing.’
He’d regarded me thoughtfully, ‘Of course not, my family didn’t dislike my last girlfriend because of what she was wearing, they already didn’t like her to begin with.’
Now, staring off to sea, I watched as the waves tried to pull apart from each other, and in the process, throw bodies under. One little girl with armbands was refusing to get out of the water no matter how much her mother told her to.
‘You think I should keep looking.’
‘If that’s what you want,’ he said behind me.
‘Fine,’ I said, ‘let’s take five and get some brunch.’
James suggested Dreamland as it was a theme park that both of us had never been before. We paid for our tickets and found a burger and hotdog stand not far from the entrance. He doused his hotdog in ketchup, while he found a wooden bench-table nearby, two women sitting at the other end, cutting up their burgers with wooden knives and forks.
I sat down opposite James, studying the neat grille of ketchup he made, the sausage barely visible.
‘I forget how much you love ketchup,’ I said, looking down at my plain burger.
He nodded, pleased with himself. ‘How can you have no sauce?’
‘What can I say, I like my burgers how I like my men, bland.’
He didn’t laugh. ‘What are you saying?’
‘I was joking… like how you sometimes joke with me.’
His eyes flickered between the two women watching us. He smiled at them, embarrassed, and cleared his throat. ‘I just think it’s weird not to have sauce, but that’s just me.’
‘Well, it’s a good thing you’re not the one eating it then.’ I took the burger in both my hands and took a large bite. James watched me chew, watched me swallow. ‘I didn’t think it was going to be easy to eat this without cutting it up first, but I guess I have mad skills.’
‘You should get a knife and fork.’
One of the women at the other end of the table stood up, ‘Oh, I’m going up to get a napkin, I can grab you a knife and fork if you like?’
‘Oh, no,’ I said, ‘that’s okay, don’t worry.’
‘Are you sure? It’s no trouble, really.’
‘No, honestly, I prefer eating—’
‘Get her a fork,’ James said, his voice loud. We all paused. People from nearby tables turned their heads briefly, and James let out a forced laugh.
‘I’ll just get you a knife and fork – so you have the option,’ she said, hastily leaving.
‘What the fuck, James?’
He kept the smile pinned in place. Nothing to say. The woman came back and offered me a mollifying smile, along with the wooden knife and fork.
There was no give when I cut into my burger; the knife driving into the tough meat made me think of tires stuck in mud. I sighed, frustrated, but when I looked up, James was watching someone over my shoulder. I turned my head and saw a woman with buxom lips and a button nose and long mermaid hair reaching past her curved bottom – the three B’s – and she was sucking on an ice lolly, scrolling on her phone. When I turned back, James was already looking at me, smiling.
‘Who’d have thought that when Ant set us up, we’d be together for two long ass years,’ he said.
I breathed in, ‘I’m actually going to see him this weekend. I haven’t seen him since he set us up. I haven’t really seen any of my friends, not properly, for a long time now.’
‘But what about me?’
‘What about you?’
‘You didn’t check if we had plans.’
‘I knew that we didn’t.’
He picked up his cup of water, took a sip, as if clearing his palate of something unpleasant, and placed it back down, his eyes drifting from me, looking past my shoulder.
‘Have you thought any more about joining the gym by the way?’
‘No, not really – what’s prompted that?’
He placed his hand on my shoulder and gave me a little squeeze. ‘I just want you to look and feel at your best.’
‘I felt at my best when you first met me and I’m pretty sure I haven’t changed since then, not physically. I look and weigh the same.’
‘I never said you didn’t. It was you that said how bloated you look, how your legs and arms are too podgy.’
‘I said they were doughy, not podgy.’
‘Exactly,’ he said.
The knife in my hand sawed back-and-forth. On the last saw, the burger split in two and half of it rolled off the plate and onto the floor. In a great rush, my eyes blinked back tears, clambering out of the bench – it was too awful, everyone watching me, with him and my plain burger, half of it on the floor.
‘What are you doing?’ James said, ‘Don’t pick it up, you can’t eat that.’
I dropped the half burger from my hands, everyone exchanging looks as I sat back down.
‘It’s funny…’ I said, watching his bludgeoned, ketchup fingers lift the hotdog to his mouth, ‘I wasn’t going to see you again after our first valentines, but Anteros insisted I give you another try.’ When he swallowed, his eyebrows were high on his forehead. A dollop of ketchup dangled from the corner of his mouth.
‘What?’ he said.
‘He said he had handpicked me from his friends and said we were perfect and that not to see you again would be ungrateful, so I did.’
‘But…’ The glob of ketchup wiggled, inching towards his beard. ‘I remembered you having a good time.’
‘I wasn’t, not after you rated me out of ten.’
He shook his head, ‘How many times—’
‘—Butt amazing, tits alright, virgin, seven out of ten.’
‘I didn’t say that. If I had, which I didn’t, it would’ve been a joke.’
‘That’s exactly what you said back then.’
‘I didn’t say that.’ He held out his hands imploringly with his ketchup stained fingers. ‘That’s not something I’d say, it doesn’t sound like me.’
I looked down at the remaining half of my burger, not a single bite taken out of it. I’d been picking at the bun, shredding the smaller flurries of bread until they were no more than granite-size crumbs.
‘I don’t think I can eat this.’
He looked at my bald burger and what was left of the bun.
‘Are you not hungry?’
I couldn’t look away from the dollop of ketchup dangling in the corner of his mouth.
‘You’ve got ketchup there.’ I pointed to his mouth.
He wiped his face with the back of his hand, smearing the ketchup dry into his skin, a red stain, like dried blood.
I nodded my head slowly, ‘Sure.’
‘Righty,’ he said, moving my plate towards him, ‘now to douse this bitch in ketchup.’
We were walking through Dreamland, tinny beats bouncing all around our feet like coins spilling onto the floor as we passed each ride. James was trying to make me feel better about before, saying I wasn’t like other women, that other women lacked values and were all sluts, making me a little dizzy. It wasn’t enough not to date these women, he had to fill his mouth with it, talk about them obsessively, turning the words over until they were chewed up and flavourless. After a while, I didn’t really register what he was saying, just the rhythmic squeal of laughter from children on the rides around us.
Eventually, he seemed to notice my silence and said, ‘Look, I know I let the ball drop on our anniversary, but let’s make the most out of today and go on some of the rides. The Mirror Maze is right there.’ He pointed towards what appeared to be a metal container with a curtained doorway, a dark slit between the velvet. Ladies first,’ he said, ‘And don’t worry, I’ll lead the way.’
Inside the mirror maze, a chisel crack of light waited at the end of the corridor.
‘Oh God,’ James said, ‘look at the girl in front of us – see? This is exactly what I’m talking about, she’s wearing shorts that might as well be underwear, I can literally see her arse hanging out. I know it’s not cool to say it, but it’s like these sorts of women are asking for trouble.’
‘That’s not fair.’
‘I’m not saying they deserve it,’ he said, whipping his head around, spit hitting my cheek, ‘But you can’t say they’re not after attention wearing something like that.’ He started fumbling in his pockets, in search of something, and not finding it he took his hands out. ‘I’m scared to have kids because if one them’s a girl, she’ll probably grow up a slut.’
I saw something shimmer in the mirror, something dangling out of his pocket, a pearl hanging on the end of a black thread – a choker necklace.
My foot struck against a mirror and I stumbled back.
‘Oops, careful,’ he said.
The mirror trembled, and with it, a face of shock.
‘Is that… Chloe’s?’ I was suddenly aware I was split in three, as though the retina of my vision had sharpened, and I had until now, been seeing the world through a smudged lens, each version of me slightly off centre but standing far too close, moments from blocking me. ‘Why… do you have that?’ My voice sounded strange, resonating in my ears.
I turned away from my mirrored selves to find two more emerging from the dark behind me. I sauntered on between pillars and prisms, the lights shifting from green to blue to red. I could hear someone’s breath deepening. I’d walk one direction and find her heading straight towards me. Wherever I turned, she followed, multiple versions of her surrounding me, her slow crawl closing the gap between us, her moon face, imminent.
Through the thick, fishnet dark, a voice cried, ‘James? James, are you there?’ But I couldn’t even see his reflections anymore. I could only see a moon; the craters of pores to trip up, craters of nostril to fall down in, craters of mouth to swallow whole. Ugly. Deformed.
I sank down onto the floor, not caring if anyone stepped on me, but the long warble of music whisked my mind up into the floodlights, and the world was flashing all around me like blue and green and red bursts of lightning.
I heard James call my name, but it sounded like marbles smacking together in someone’s pocket, click-clack-click, step after step.
‘Are you alright?’ A girl loomed over me. I flinched away from her, burying my face into my arm. ‘Do you want me to get someone?’
‘Oh shit,’ James’ voice was closer now. ‘What happened?’
‘Should we go get someone?’ A different girl asked.
I peeked through the gap in my arm. There was a group of younger girls now, all friends huddled together, the space too compact between the mirrors to move. They watched me with mouths agape and eyes wide with gross fascination. James was standing over me, legs bent, trying to see my face.
‘I thought you were behind me.’ And then turning back to the group of girls, ‘I think some fresh air will do her some good.’ I didn’t say anything as he took hold of my arms and helped me to my feet. I kept my eyes on the floor, my arm hooked through his as he led me out through the entrance. ‘I didn’t realise how far back you were – I thought it would be a bit of kiddish fun,’ he was saying, ‘Let’s go to the beach, the salt air might help.’
The sun was deep in the blue now, the sky stripped bare of clouds. The beach was teeming with people and windbreakers, fat pink and dark bodies bobbing up and down on the water like jellyfish. It was hard trying to keep my face down; no matter what family we manoeuvred around, I felt their eyes and saw their mouths. I wondered if James felt embarrassed being with me, whether he even wanted me to meet his family after all – how had I never met them after two years?
‘Woah, what happened to you?’ James’ eyes were appraising me. He reached for me, holding my arm to stop me, but I pulled away, walking out towards the sea, towards the edge of the world. He kept in close stride to mine, studying my face under the sunlight. ‘If you’re not feeling well, maybe you should sit down.’ I pressed on towards the sea, and he grabbed my arms and turned me towards him. ‘Stop, people are looking.’
I stared up at him. ‘You… James, earlier you interrupted me and spoke to that woman as if I was a child, as if I wasn’t there.’
‘Well I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘But that’s what happened. What always happens.’
‘C’mon, what’s this really about? Is it about the dress? Don’t worry, we’re gonna find you the perfect dress. I have complete faith.’
He looked past me, past my shoulders at something behind me. I tried to re-enter his line of sight, but his eyes seemed to move with me.
I turned around and a slender figure, wrapped tightly in a green towel, bent down to pick something up from the sand. When she straightened, I knew it was the same women with the three B’s by the way she moved, supple and slight, the way her ankle curved before the rest of her and then a gentle turn of her head and the soft slant of her shoulders as they followed. The ends of her hair dripped down the exposed parts of her body, her chest and shoulders and arms lustrous and bright, like the first bite of an apple.
I felt the lip of a white wave lick over my feet, the chill gripping my ankles, bone deep.
Something about the way he looked at her made me think of the statue from this morning. I looked over the woman’s shoulders, over to where the statue had been, only to find nothing but broken shards of sun glinting on the water.
‘I thought – wasn’t there a statue over there?’
He followed my eyes, the tendon from his collarbone raised. ‘Yeah, there is, but it’s high tide. You won’t be able to see it; it’s under the water. You can only see it during low tide.’
A coldness had been creeping over me for a while, a coldness that was now melding into the creases of my fingers and elbows, pressing on my back and against my neck. My skin looked cold, too, chalk white, but there were no hairs on my arms, no freckles or moles, just smooth like milk and I had never seen my skin so pale, so poreless, so bare. There was also something hard about my skin, hard like marble, all heavy and tight, I felt like I might sink into the sand. My skin was hardening like nothing else, spreading through my skin, my blood, joints stiffening. There was this feeling, a feeling of too much and not enough, a feeling of my insides, all my insides numbing around the pillars of bone.
and all my craters were going
there were no more craters and
no craters for breath
no breath and his eyes all wide
wide eyes and lips
i couldn’t move
i couldn’t move any part of me.
© 2020 H.S. Phypers
H.S. Phypers began writing at fifteen and graduated from Kent University with an MA in Creative Writing.