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“At the end, could you be a bit less feminine?” she said.
They were in bed. As usual, he was lying on top of her, exhausted, spent. She lay squashed beneath him, seeming, he realised at this point, barely out of breath. As she spoke, it was like she’d found a splinter already embedded in his sternum, a fine tweeze of wood, which, with the tip of her forefinger, she was starting to push further in.
“What do you mean, less feminine?” he said, wincing.
It was the era of Time’s Up. It was the era of gender fluidity. But it was also the era of Brad Pitt being interviewed for an online magazine, looking half his actual age, and saying you shouldn’t be afraid to take your woman like an animal. Did he actually say that? It was a very confusing time to be a twenty-something heterosexual, cis-gendered male. Especially when you were infatuated with someone fifteen years older.
“I just mean you always sort of… whimper. When you come. Like a hurt puppy. It’s not a good look. Couldn’t you be a bit more, you know…” She tailed off.
“No, I don’t know. What do you mean?” He was hurt, now.
“You contort your face. And then you make this… noise. It’s just a bit disappointing, that’s all. At the end.”
“I don’t mean to say the whole thing is disappointing. It’s fine. Really.” She scratched her nose, stifled a yawn, then rolled out from underneath him. He slumped onto his back and turned to the wall. “It’s just,” she continued, “I usually prefer it when men are bit more…”
The past few years of gazing at ripped gym torsos tensed in his forearms; a decade of catching his own voice like a stranger’s, shallow and childish in his throat, troubled him now like a toxic aftertaste.
“I can’t help it.” He was speaking mainly at his wallpaper. “Once it gets to that point, it’s instinctive. I don’t think you can control that sort of thing.” He turned to her. “I mean, how would you like it if I said your walk wasn’t very feminine, or your mouth was too male. You wouldn’t be able to do anything about either.”
but you wouldn’t, would you. I walk like a puma on heat. And you adore my lips.
You’ve told me.”
Both of these things were true. Why had he chosen examples of the very things he most liked about her?
“Shall we try again?” he ventured. “I’ll put in a special effort to make a better sound. If we do it now, I’m more likely to remember, to get in the habit.”
She looked at him for a full five seconds before replying.
“No, no,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll try again.”
She lifted her long legs off the sheets and slinked into the bathroom. He heard her running the tap, splashing. He lay on the bed, staring at a ladybird that clung motionless to the wall. It was sitting right on the dividing line between two strips of wallpaper.
He mulled things over for a while. Gradually he started to lose focus. Where did those things keep coming from? If he reached over right now with the tissues, and made one sudden movement, it probably wouldn’t feel a thing.