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She lay in his bed with her eyes open. His profile looked sharp against the lamplight, like a paper cut-out. She thought back to some long-ago summer. A birthday party. Paper chains strung through the trees. Square couples holding hands, little pastel loops. A slice of yellow cake wrapped in a napkin and squashed into the back seat of the car. The whole event sort of hazy, sepia. That was innocence. Not like here, with a plastic wine glass balanced in the folds of the duvet. A lump of hash lost in the carpet. The palm of his hand against the hot ache of her stomach; an IUD recently inserted into her uterus. How are you feeling? Frank paused the laptop, put his hand back on her belly, started kneading at the fat. Bit better, thanks. He leant over her, picked up the wine glass and took a long sip. She looked out at the moon. A hole-punch in the black window. Good. He bowed his head, kissed her shoulder. Shall we make this official then? She laughed. Yes, she said. Yes, let’s.
Frank went off downstairs to make toast. Socks on carpet, pad-pad like a child. Funny how things come together all at once. She’d been meaning to sort out her contraception for almost a year now, since they’d first started sleeping together. Condoms, a shift on the pill, one test, negative. Also been meaning to DTL. Define The Relationship. Tired of mutual acquaintances wanting to discuss it in the smoking area of various clubs. Putting an arm on her shoulder and saying, listen, I saw him leaving the pub last night with someone else. And again she started crying all of a sudden, and Frank climbed back into the bed, spilling crumbs off the plate, saying oh no oh no you poor thing that fucking coil.
got you a Kit Kat Chunky I know you like them
I’m kind of busy right now
was just passing on my way home
just a friend a new friend from my course
I’ll call you tomorrow
will you though
can I come in just for a minute
was thinking over summer you should visit stay at my mum’s
I don’t know I might be busy then
busy for the whole summer
you can come in and say hi if you really want
no it’s ok
She’d noticed him by the bins with his head pushed back. Originally. Catching the dregs of a Coke to throw the can away. University halls. Recognised him from a few nights back, a party somewhere dark. Yeasty basement filled with swaying new faces. His hands like stars in the blue light.
It was nearing the end of first week. Freshers. She was exhausted by this point, running on that excitement nervousness left over. Soft around the edges. Generous. Straining to hear him over the clattering of the dining hall behind. Whole campus warm with the smell of oil, frying. His eyes moving up, down, between hers and the cigarette he was trying to roll. Laughed and dropped his filter. Then studied the ground for a moment, before lifting his head and:
you busy tonight
shall we have a drink then
And she thinking about this for a while now. Things like this. Any sort of romance, flirting. Had never been on a date. Lost her virginity at fourteen to somebody nice enough, nameless. Barely anything to report since. Long crushes and a kind of vague, shy fear of the whole thing. Then a lift to Manchester. Lunch in a service station car park. Politely ushering her divorced parents out of the new, strange bedroom with the cardboard ceiling. Sitting on floors, chairs, countertops with girls whose names she can’t remember. Buying crisps, alcopops, crates of lager. Dancing, properly. Swapping numbers. A new kind of confidence, in this place where nobody knew her. What is confidence, anyway? A matter of liquids. Mornings missed in thick sleep, and afternoons spent stringing fairy lights, skiving fire-safety talks. Then, one evening, suddenly sort of overwhelmed by it all, she wandered off alone before dinner, and ended up mesmerised, a little, next to the cans glass plastic bottles NO CARTONS.
what did you think Frank did you like it
what would be your animal
some sort of bird
lobster isn’t a bad choice
watch that step
I hate the light out here this grey light
Manchester I guess
do you want to go for dinner
I really can’t I’ve got no money so much work
She ripped the tickets into long strips while he smoked a cigarette, standing in the freezing doorway of the arthouse cinema. They walked to the bus stop in silence. She thought about how she’d spent the whole film conscious of her thighs, pressed big against her chair. Hadn’t known what to do with her hands. So dark in there, his eyes always on the flashing screen. And still she’d felt like this. Towards the end, Frank had stretched his arm out around her shoulders and pulled her into him. He smelt of rain and white soap.
Why haven’t you asked me to be your girlfriend? He put his phone into his pocket without finishing the text he’d been writing. She bit a slice of her fingernail off and accidentally swallowed it. I didn’t think you’d want to. Do you want to? She shrugged, the nail tickling like a fish bone. No. I mean yes. But don’t ask me now. Ask me sometime nice. They were sitting at the front of the bus, top deck. A pane of scratched safety glass between them and the packed streets, the thin rain. She used to love January, season of resolutions, early dark closing in, baubles for cheap by the check out. They pulled into a bus stop. Frank stood, picked up his backpack. This is me. No, it’s not. I’m going to the library. Oh. She closed her eyes and didn’t open them until the bus started up again. Car lights reflected in the wet, black road. A man shaking his umbrella, the horrible silver skeleton of it twisted against the wind. Every passenger breathing white smoke. The seat next to her soaking up the cold.
Frank. She’d made scrambled eggs and brought them up to him, asleep in her bedroom. Going to work on an egg is no bullshit, early remark of his she’d tucked away. Stood there in the doorway saying, Frank Frank Frank. The plate steaming in her face, making beads of sweat form in her hairline. One of his feet sticking out the duvet cover. She shook it by the big toe. Merely pulled his leg back under, buried his head. Frank. Nothing. Left the eggs on the bedside table with a Post-it saying, Morning! Three kisses. Very cheery.
Sat through her whole lecture without hearing one word, taking one note. All those pens scratching around her. The strange humming semi-dark. Can we all see the projector? Then the long walk home. Bus route disrupted for weeks now. A fine mist, or perhaps her eyes still not adjusted to the daytime. Brief conversation with an old man at the crossing of a busy road, waiting for the lights to change:
if you ever want to commit suicide this is the place to do it
thanks for the tip
Then at home the eggs and the note still there. No Frank. So she sat on the floor and started eating. Squeaky. Colder that the room itself. Called up a friend who said, For fuck’s sake pull yourself together. You are not Sylvia Plath. Put them in the microwave. Then go and tell him you want to be his girlfriend. Take him to the cinema or something. Just hung up the phone and lay flat on the carpet. Watched squares of light move very slowly across the white walls. Collected lint in the scruff of her ponytail. Finished the eggs without sitting upright. Then ate the note too, chewed down the paper.
what is it
crustal material from the earth and another small planet
bits that scraped off when they collided we think
so the moon is just a little piece of Earth
pretty much yes
clever you’re so clever
She was happy having him here, the place she’d grown up in. No curtains. Marmalade. Shared baths. Her mother perched on the end of the sofa, the dog’s head in her lap, asking Frank for tips on freeing up storage on her smartphone. They’d driven down the day before. First year done. Taken a long windy route from Manchester to Devon in a borrowed car. Radio 6 Music a hum in the background. At some point, without taking his eyes off the road, he’d said, You’re really important to me you know. Sorry I took so long to realise it. And she’d smiled and smiled and bit her cheeks in to make the smiling stop. Looked out the windscreen and tried to focus on June, the long green hills, the blue blue light.
They’d arrived late and slept long, sharing her single bed. Spent the new day kissing on street corners, sucking the meat from crab claws, swimming in the cold salt. There was only one pub in the whole village. In it, everyone knew her name. So they’d taken beers to the beach and waited for dark. Now, four cans in, they lifted their clothes off and fell into each other, the wet sand shifting beneath them like memory foam.
do you love me do you think
oh yes I definitely love you