James watches Fran lying beside him, half asleep, half awake. He’s so horny in the morning, but she’s not a morning person, so she says. He tells her he wants her but sleepily she tells him no.
‘Why would you?’ she says. ‘I smell of bad breath, old sex, and sweat’.
That gets James so hot. The way she yawns and rubs her eyes gets him even hotter. He pushes his face close to hers, but she pushes him away. She looks at him kind of sadly and asks if it’s always going to be like this. He tells her he’s sorry, but in the silence that follows he doesn’t feel sorry at all, just that disturbingly familiar frustration.
He has a tremendous, almost over powering urge to tell her he loves her. Not as a show of affection, he just wants to make a statement, get her to notice him. He’s old enough to know that true love is something rare, something to be cherished. It happened to him once before, only once. Harper. She gave him his most beautiful memory, and for all the pain she gave him too, that memory makes her worth it.
He can’t be sure if it happened like this, or if over time his mind has sculpted it into a moment more perfect than it actually was. He doesn’t really care either. But as he recalls it now, they were on an island, Harper and he. It was morning and it was already hot outside. The curtains were open and all he could see were the tops of trees and beyond them, the sea. The room was small and their kitchen was in the same space as their bed. He was up and making coffee. Harper was still asleep. God she looked so lovely. He watched her till she woke, smoking and drinking coffee. That’s it. That’s his memory. His happy place. Where he goes to when he needs to remember that once he was truly content. When she woke, perhaps they argued or she told him not to smoke inside, or whatever, he doesn’t recall. But watching Harper sleeping, with all the day’s promise still ahead of them, life was good right then.
Does he love Fran now, like he loved Harper then? It’s hard to tell. Harper was a while ago and who knows how much he’s overly romanticized their time together. What he does know is that with Fran now, like Harper then, he’s spending a hell of a lot of time imagining their break up. It’s his quiet obsession. They’re together, and all he can think of is how it’s going to end. And it’s always Fran who walks out on him. He’s never the one who leaves her.
It was the same with Harper. He knew they’d break up. He didn’t want to at all, but he knew at some point they would. It was her kisses that forewarned the terrible moment. When they’d meet they’d kiss on the lips, but as they neared their end, her lips would push him away rather than welcome him in. Harper had this little wooden box that she showed him once. It was filled with her past, trinkets from her childhood, but also memories of old boyfriends. It seemed that every time something ended in her life, a memento of it would go into that box. James always knew he’d end up in there. What part of him she put in it, he can only guess.
‘You’re thinking’, Fran says.
‘No’, James says, adamantly.
‘Ok’, she says, defensively.
And this annoys him, because she should press him more, she should really want to know what he’s thinking, she should care more.
‘Do you even like me Fran?’ he asks. To which she groans. ‘What?’ he says.
‘Are we going to have this conversation every morning?’
‘It’s not every morning’.
He lies there, angrily. He wants her to tell him what she thinks of him, when in his heart he already knows. And this scares him so much. He doesn’t want to lose this woman. He wants her to be his forever. How can he possess her?
‘Will you marry me?’ he says.
‘Are you kidding me?’
‘You’re seriously asking me to marry you?’
‘A million reasons’.
‘A million? There are a million reasons why you won’t marry me?’
‘Jesus’, she says.
She rolls over. They lie in silence, their bodies far apart. After a while he looks at her. His anger is tempered by the curve of her neck, how it sweeps into her shoulders, and the soft promise of what lies beneath the duvet. He’s so fucking horny in the morning. Why the hell isn’t she? He tries a different approach.
‘Will you teach me how you like to be touched?’
‘How you like it’.
‘How I like you to touch it?’
‘What are you talking about, James?’
‘You always push me away’. She doesn’t reply. ‘Fran?’ he says.
‘It’s not just you’.
This is supposed to reassure him, but firstly it confirms that he’s a terrible lover, and secondly it reminds him of all the old lovers she’s had. She can tell he’s angry and she rolls over and smiles at him.
‘A vagina is complicated. It helps if you have one’.
‘You mean it helps if you’re a woman?’
‘Mainly it’s women who have vaginas. Look’, she says, ‘I know how I like to be touched. And it’s hard to teach. It’s not the same every time. It depends on the moment. It’s spontaneous. I don’t like being touched down there because I haven’t met a man who can touch me right’.
‘And what about a woman?’
‘No. But I think it’s more likely a woman would get it right’.
James feels slightly less insecure, now that men as a whole are sexually inadequate, not just him.
‘Have you ever been with a woman?’ he asks her.
And to his surprise she tells him she has. When she was younger she worked in a smart hotel, and one night, she got with one of the other receptionists.
‘How far did you go?’ he asks her.
She tells him they’d kissed and touched each other’s breasts, but they hadn’t had sex.
‘Did you want to?’ he says.
‘I don’t know’, she says.
Five seconds ago he only had the men of this world to worry about, now it’s all the women too. She looks at him, smiling a mischievous smile.
‘If I had sex with a woman, would you like to be involved?’
He says yes because it’s what a man should say, but really the thought of it terrifies him. Inevitably Marie comes to mind. And before he can stop himself, he’s told Fran how he knows this bisexual girl.
‘Yeah?’ Fran says.
‘I could give her a call’, he says, regretting it as soon as he’s spoken. ‘Maybe she could come over?’
‘Are you serious?’
It’s hard to tell whether Fran is offended or excited. And he likes that because he knows he has her attention. She’s looking at him curiously, and he likes that too. He likes that she’s now wondering if he’s really as predictable as she thought he was.
‘So you’re saying you’ll call this bisexual girl, and she’ll come over?’
‘That’s right’, he says.
‘What is she? A prostitute?’
‘No’, he says. ‘An old girlfriend’.
For the next hour or so James tells Fran about Marie. How she was very beautiful, and how it had been highly sexual between them. But she was so aggressive, always after sex. She’d become surly with him, and they’d argue. One night she told him a secret. Marie had slept with her two older cousins. She was fifteen and they were around nineteen, and they came into her room and touched her, and she let them. The next morning when she went downstairs she saw her cousins being beaten by their father, and she realised that everyone knew. There was a wedge between her and her family, and also between her and her god.
‘I feel like the damned’, she told him.
And this, James surmised, was why Marie was such a voracious lover, and why post coital she became so difficult. He tried to comfort her, to make it better, to tell her she was a good person, but she never believed him. Marie was so much darker than anyone he’d ever met. They spent nights together, not days; she rarely wanted to go outside with him. They spent nights in her tiny flat, fucking and arguing and crying. In the end, it all became too much.
The memory of his time with Marie sends a cold shiver down his spine. This part he does not tell Fran. How he became a doormat for Marie. He thought that was what she needed, but of course nobody needs that. His spark was gone, her darkness had beaten him. She was cruel, so cruel, and he allowed her to be, thinking he was helping. He had wanted to leave for months before eventually Marie got rid of him. They remained in touch, or rather James remained in touch with her, unlike he had with Harper – probably because Harper was true love, and Marie, in hindsight, was nothing more than a terrible obsession.
Fran and James get up and spend the day together. They have to go to B&Q to pick up some paint for her to paint the kitchen. All day she is distracted. He catches her staring thoughtfully into space. He asks her what she’s thinking about, but she just says nothing. She says it in a curt way and he knows she wants him to stop in this line of questioning. He is to leave her alone. She doesn’t want him. He is an irritant to her right now. She is in her own little world and James is no part of it, however desperately he wants to be. Sometimes she is so distant from him. Other times she needs him, and cries on his shoulder, telling him her fears, and suddenly he has a purpose, suddenly he feels strong, like a man. But in B&Q, buying paint, she does not need him at all, and all he feels is lonely.
When they get home he picks up his book and hides behind it, pretending he doesn’t need Fran either. The telephone rings and Fran answers. With her hand over the receiver, she mouths that it’s his father.
‘He sounds drunk again’, she mouths.
It’s almost twenty years since his father’s affair with a younger woman. He’s never got over losing his wife, and still calls James most days, asking him to ask her to come back to him. But she never will. She’s in France now, with a new family. James doesn’t speak to his mother much; she has a new life and he isn’t really a part of it. He resents her for leaving him to deal with his father. And he resents his father for still being broken.
James can’t deal with his father’s tears right now, and mouths to Fran that he isn’t in. Fran rolls her eyes.
‘He’s not in Alex, bye’. She quickly puts down the receiver. ‘God your family’s fucked up’, she says.
James lights a cigarette and pretends to read again, but really he’s watching Fran in the kitchen, as she opens the paint pot and dabs at the wall with the brush. She groans.
‘Too light’, she says.
He asks if she wants to go back to the shop. He asks her desperately, as if her discovery that the paint is too light is literally the end of the world. He asks immediately and sincerely and he can tell Fran is sickened by him, by his constant availability.
‘It’s fine’, she says.
She doesn’t even look at him, and he feels so angry. He’s always there for her and she’s never there for him. It’s his kitchen as much as it is hers. Has she asked him what he thinks of the colour? It’s always all about her. She never asks him anything. He’s on the verge of telling her this, when she comes and sits beside him.
‘Have you got a photo of Marie?’ she asks.
So they decide to call Marie. He asks Fran if she’s sure, and she asks him what will happen, and he tells her to relax, and he feels in control. But as soon as he speaks to Marie, and tells her the situation, and she says ok, his control is smashed, like a sheet of glass falling from a hundred-storey building.
Marie is so intimidatingly beautiful; being with her was like making love with a goddess. He always felt she was doing him such a favour letting him rub his unworthy body up against her. And as he lay on the bed and touched her, his fingers looked so ugly as they traced her Renaissance curves.
Fran asks if he’s all right, apparently he’s turned white as a sheet. He says he’s fine. She comes over and kisses him on the lips, not sexual, more like a mother, and as she walks out of the room, he realises with utter horror, how much he loves and needs her.
Fran has had a shower now, she’s dressed in casual clothes. They sit drinking wine, waiting. She’s giggly and slightly drunk and saying how weird this is. It’s like a game for her, but for James it’s deadly serious. He doesn’t want Marie to come into his home and contaminate all he loves. She’ll ruin Fran; he knows she will, it’s what she does. He says to Fran that they can still cancel if she wants, but she says no, she wants to meet Marie at least. He nods and says ok, but what he really wants is to ask her to marry him, this time for real. But he’s afraid he’d only annoy her.
When the doorbell rings, and Marie walks in, she says hi to James but her interest is all on Fran, who looks so cute with her hair tied up. They sit and have a glass of wine, and they get on and laugh. Marie is smiley and good-natured but James knows it’s all a front. He wishes he’d told Fran everything now; of Marie’s darkest moods, of her screaming fits, of the time she hit him when she’d just slammed the phone down on her father; it wasn’t James’ fault her father would never forgive her. James hates Marie more than anything he’s ever hated. She glances at him, then slowly walks over and sits down next to Fran.
Marie kisses Fran. Fran looks shy but then kisses her back. She says how she’s never made love with a woman, and Marie says she will look after her. She leads Fran into their bedroom. James follows. He watches as Marie takes off her clothes to reveal the extraordinary array of tattoos that cover her back and arms. They make her look like a painting; she’s literally a work of art. Fran is fascinated, and strokes them, just as James once did.
They don’t look at James. He’s not a part of their experience. His role is now as protector for Fran, a security blanket should she need one. For Marie, he’s a joke; someone she can humiliate all over again. He stands there, sometimes watching, but mostly looking at his feet and smoking.
Fran asks James why he didn’t join in, and he says he thought he would let her experience another woman for the first time on her own, and she thanks him and says she loved it.
‘I liked you watching’, she says. ‘Did you like it too?’
He lies and tells her he did. Then she says she wants to go for a drink. So they go out. She hasn’t even showered. She always showers after sex with him. He’s experiencing tremendous sensations of dread and angst, like he’s opened Pandora’s Box. Fran’s so confident as they sit at the bar. She smiles at people when usually she’d look away. Marie’s freed her, and now she’s further away from him than ever.
All he wants to do is leave. It’s not that he hates Fran for what just happened, he doesn’t, he loves her more than ever, but there’s no doubt in his mind now, she is never going to be his. He wants to walk away, to get the hell out of there, to run away as far as he can; because the longer he stays the more painful their inevitable end will be. But he can’t leave Fran. He has to stay for her, and then, when she is ready, she can discard of him, just like Marie and Harper. God he misses Harper. Harper; she’s still the one.
Dominic Price currently lives in Lisbon, writing for the vibrant Startup scene that is occurring there right now. A few years back he won the Young Writers’ Competition at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and had his short play staged there as part of the festival. Whilst the experience was extremely rewarding, what it taught him most of all was that he wanted to write prose fiction. Since then he’s written a number of short stories concerning the complexities of human relationships, and has just finished his first novel on the same theme.
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