Nowadays, and he wasn’t sure how or when this had started, he always reached for his phone first thing, simply to see if she’d messaged. And every few minutes or so after that. And when he wasn’t reading her messages or typing nonsense back, he spent the time wondering about her. Neglecting his work and friends to stare into space and daydream and worry. He found his phone under his pillow. Nothing yet.
Now she’d be catching her train. Now screwing up her face before her tiny handbag mirror, checking her skin an inch at a time, because, she’d admitted half-laughing, staring at her entire fizzog all in one scary strip-lit blast was too much for a girl to endure, at least before coffee. She’d be settling back in her seat now, if she’d managed to find a seat, and how the thought of her having to stand the whole way made his guts dart and twist. Perhaps she’d pull out a book, the one he’d got her for Christmas, because he’d brought it to their first date, in case she was late, he’d claimed, although he knew perfectly well she wouldn’t be late; really he wanted to be seen straight off as the sort of man who might casually carry a difficult book, and then if conversation flagged they’d have something to talk about. And she’d seemed interested, so he’d bought it for her, then worried it looked like he was imposing his tastes, and anyway she was probably only being polite and feigning interest, she was a sweetheart like that, and he loved it, but it made it tricky to know how best to please her, even when he spent hours trying. She’d be sipping at one of those vile creamy lattes she loved, looking like a sort of satisfied cat, and maybe the book would slip and she’d stare dreamily out of the window at the racing green landscape, and maybe think of him, maybe even send him a message. Morning handsome, it might say. Thinking of you. And he’d hear the ping and snatch up his phone and feel his shoulders sag with relief. Thinking of you too, he’d type back, after a moment, for Christ spare him from looking too eager. Then: I woke up thinking of you. No. Too much. Delete. How are you? But that was too boring, too impersonal, a bored distant relative doing his duty. Delete.
There was so much he wanted to say. He wanted to know what she was wearing, tights or stockings, heels or boots, that pale green jacket he loved that clashed so horribly with her hair, and if she’d slept properly, or if she needed a little doze on that awful long commute, and if she’d seen the weather and packed a brolly and what she’d got planned for lunch, but he was aware, now his sister Fiona had warned him, that he mustn’t make her feel crowded out with his concern. That’s absolutely the very first rule. Are you listening, Jim? Don’t crowd her. Let her breathe, let her worry a bit, sometimes. It made sense, and he tried, but, God, it was hard. The new shoes she’d been so delighted to find had left a blister, the thought of which could make him sob with rage if he dwelled upon it. Was she wearing them again? Soft pretty feet bleeding as she tottered through the streets to work, all vulnerable and sleepy. The thought was unbearable. He shook his head to send it scarpering.
He hadn’t told her he loved her. The words kept jumping and twisting on his tongue, when she reached for his hand, or when he stroked her long, soft back, fingertips tracing her ribs like braille. He was too frightened she might laugh, or look baffled, then frightened. His cowardice exasperated him. And if she said it first he’d look like a damn fool parroting it back to her. Still the words clawed at his throat, then withered on his lips. He couldn’t force them free. Early days yet, eh? Don’t crowd her.
He scrolled to a picture of her ex, his fingers finding their own way, a tongue to a bad tooth. The one before him. Six months ago it ended. Said former squeeze was hardly, as Fiona would put it, the answer to a maiden’s prayer. The post-break up picture he’d posted showed a snarling, sweaty, flabby face, something like an alien abortion, and no, he really wasn’t being a brute because he’d got to his girl first and treated her terribly. The man was ugly. Ugly and sinister, like a lone stranger circling a playground. Something about those piggy eyes and flabby damp lips that said: I’ll hurt you if I can for kicks. Not a man you’d trust with your daughter or sister or goldfish.
And yet this was the man who’d once received her Morning handsome messages; this the man whose skin had smelled of her, musky and faintly sweet, damp from the shower; the man who’d brought her breakfast, mint tea and clementines. He stared at the face and tried to imagine it. We are, all of us, it seems, merely substitutes, one for the other. How swiftly they’d slotted into their pattern, the spare toothbrush standing by his for the rare precious nights she could stay, the gifts of food, the well-lit, over-filtered nudes she sent. Because it wasn’t their pattern at all, was it? It was the pattern. Morning handsome. As if it were simply something she had to do, and the recipient didn’t matter. And the smell of her on him soured, since formerly it had lingered on that monster’s skin, and who knows, maybe made him briefly happy, if he were capable of it. The ex had been shagging about. She’d always suspected it, then a friend confirmed it, and she’d cried for months. Imagine having all that soft sweetness to yourself, lingering on your skin, years of unimagined joy, then working to destroy it.
They were of an age when they’d done it all before, him and her both. We all just need to love and be loved, one man or another, what did it matter, really? As long as she had someone. Someone who was kind to her. That was what counted.
And yet the idea he was merely a substitute for that! He stared once more at the man who’d spent five years being everything to her, little in-jokes, holidays, Sunday roasts. Morning handsome. If she’d said it to him, it meant nothing. She’d never really seen either of them. Blinded, panicking with fear, we stumble about, latching on to the first thing that smiles at us. Anyone will do. Someone to message first thing, someone whose feelings you could agonise over and dissect at lunch. A distraction from your pointless job and swelling midriff, a pellet to a caged, tumorous rat. Stupid and shallow and nothing after all to worry about. If not her, then another. If not him, maybe that flabby, dough-limbed, bug-eyed foetus who’d smashed her heart. Someone to message. Might as well be a cyborg. It couldn’t matter less. He flicked listlessly through his phone and the Morning handsome, when it came, squared his shoulders and stiffened his chest, as if in readiness for a bullet.
© 2020 Melissa Todd
Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.