Jonathan Tham; Joy

I had been stuck in the mud. Legs akimbo and arms outstretched, I felt the wind sting my cracked skin. James was panting hysterically as he fell to his knees and scrambled between my legs – I was finally free! I tumbled after my friend’s flailing orange locks and we caught our breath at the other side of the playground. That was the first time I saw you – the new girl. You had a knitted brown teddy bear tucked into your blazer, its domed eyes peeking inquisitively out at me. You paced silently by the school gates, casually kicking a rock across the tarmac with your white plimsolls. You smiled at me; I turned away and darted between an older kid’s flabby thighs.

You were laughing. I felt my face melt red and saw you bobbling with delight at the back of the bus. I picked up the jagged ball of paper and hurled it back, grimacing as it struck the roof and landed next to my rucksack. Raptures of laughter. I unfurled the projectile, noting a blot of colour. I knew you had drawn it – my large nose, my rounded stomach, my spotty complexion. Only one year in and already they had turned you into a bitch.

I trudged onwards. Snowflakes tumbled down from the chandelier skies; they fell smartly upon my glasses, causing blindness and frustration. I took them off and scrubbed them aggressively on my sleeve. When I replaced them I saw you pressed up against the window of your parents’ Toyota. It was dark but your face was perfectly lit; those furtive, cerulean eyes glanced up at me before snapping back down. Revulsion crept from the corner of your smirk – I would always be disgusting to you. As you sped away into the fog I scratched my backside and plugged myself into my Walkman.

You were always much smarter than them. I looked around at the shuffling factory line of pupils, capillaries bursting through tired eyes after sleepless nights of anticipation. As you tore your envelope open, I saw a flicker of a grin before you pursed your lips and rolled those eyes. Within your group of friends, mediocrity was always a competition – one you never seemed to win. I smelt sweet cinnamon as you brushed past and I felt you actively ignoring my smile. I took my results home and hissed my parents quiet. After opening it, I feigned a whimper, enjoying the vulnerability on their shocked faces. I screamed laughter and launched the envelope into the air. I was out of there.

I asked them if I could eat baked beans raw. They burst into laughter. One punched me playfully. Another poured me a beer. Somehow, everything was different now. We raced around in stolen shopping trolleys. We spent hours watching dysfunctional families on daytime TV. I attended a few lectures – Locke preached structure, Hobbes talked discipline. For the first time in my life, I chose neither. I was aimless, I was stupid but I was happy.

You were on campus somewhere. Your name flitted through the clamour of union corridors, out of sight but a lingering presence. It was almost a year before I caught another glimpse of you; dancing alone in a black sequin dress that shimmered violently in the strobe lights.  After further intoxication, I dared to make an approach and watched the recognition seep through the seams of your smile. We chatted the superficial fresher chat – mutual friends? Halls? Lectures? Coffee tomorrow? I almost spat out my drink when you agreed. You couldn’t find your friends but I don’t think there were many to find. You kissed me goodnight. The next morning I dismissed our encounter as blissful reverie. But then you texted and became real.

We were both nervous. There was a loud creak as you slid the door open. The walls were fuchsia and your bed was white and tidy. There was a poster of pot smoking hipsters and a canvas of San Francisco – the tragic hangings of a girl striving for identity. It was my first time and it showed; my sweating fingers struggled with the straps of your bra and you unclipped it yourself. After the exasperating tangle of limbs and awkward eye contact, you smiled at me and I cradled your head upon my chest. When we finally rose, I saw a brown bear perched upon a pile of textbooks, gazing curiously in my direction. I was sure I’d seen him before. You said her name was Joy. We laughed.

We were silenced by the waiter’s arrival. After much discussion, we deigned that nine courses were just about enough. Through the early hours of the morning we staggered through the streets of Rome, marvelling at the mighty structures and statues. Even the omnipotent are reduced to stone and sand one day. We are all gods in the chrysalis. You were so upset when you spilt thick gelato on your dress, looking around frantically for a napkin. When I licked it off you were in hysterics.  We held hands by the river. It was a starless night and we watched the moon’s solitary ballet on the black water.

We sat our guests down. I scrambled to the kitchen to grab the canapés. You had always spoken fondly of your colleagues – apart from that chubby blonde girl who invited herself. I knew which one she was at once. Cackling like a goose, her chest swelled as she drawled over mediocre anecdotes. Why was she averse to using coasters? Why did her freakishly thick eyebrows bounce when she spoke? In fact, why did you sit me next to her? At the other end of the table I saw you leaning forwards, legs crossed, gazing deeply into his eyes. I watched as you placed your hand gently on his knee, giggling into your chardonnay. I allowed the beast to talk at me for the rest of the evening, responding intermittently. As they left, you gave him an uncomfortably long hug, I thought. The door closed and you scampered away into the living room, leaving the dishes to me.

We ordered cocktails. It had been our favourite bar. The hum of jazz barely penetrated the crashing silence and we stared at our glasses, collecting condensation on our fingertips. There was a disinterest in the events of the day, current affairs were a bore, even poking fun at the couple on the next table seemed distasteful. You hated the radio but on the drive home you turned it on anyway, adjusting the volume constantly and complaining about the music. When I opened the front door you threw off your heels and trampled upstairs. Vacant, you pressed dry lips against me and pretended to sleep.

I watched you leave from our bedroom window. He had the nerve to pick you up in his convertible; he had rolled up his sleeves and his forearms bulged as he lifted your cases into his trunk. I saw purpose in your stride. You placed your hand tenderly on his neck before kissing him. I looked on as the car pulled away – you looked straight ahead, resolute. I wandered downstairs and turned on the kettle. Hours of anxiety had been spent gazing at our cream ceiling, wondering when the dream would end. I sipped my coffee, reality was bitter.

You had left it behind. My wife was spring cleaning and found a damp, mould crusted teddy bear under the stairs. I carried it outside and the sun shimmered off its pebbled eyes as they examined me with suspicion. In their reflection I saw the beaming girl in the playground, clutching her bear. As she removed her school blazer, legs and arms sprouted impossibly long and she loomed over me, her smile dissolving into that long forgotten smirk, her flawless blue eyes penetrating me with disapproval. With sudden vigour, I stuffed that derelict abomination into the depths of the bin.

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Jonathan completed an Economics degree before moving to London to work in a bank. He finds writing a creative outlet from busy city life. Jonathan maintains a short story blog which you can follow at: https://distractedbanker.wordpress.com

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