There are some things you just don’t tell people. Like the reason behind why I don’t particularly favour the smell of tarmac, or why I stopped going to ballet class when I was seventeen. And it wasn’t that mum was disappointed, but when I told her I’d fed my ballet shoes to the creased grins of the monsters that lurked at the back of my wardrobe, the look she gave me was almost regretful. To this day, I still don’t know why. I don’t know if I want to.
September had fallen outside the window yet the apartment felt like June. There was something off about the world around me, like the colour spectrum had been dimmed, or I’d been blanketed by an old, grainy film reel. It didn’t feel right. I closed my eyes, hands huddled around my cup of coffee, relishing the scalding heat of the ceramic. None of that “Fair-trade, three-kroner shit”, as he had described it last night. Just freshly ground coffee beans. Couldn’t say I didn’t prefer the instant stuff back home.
I don’t remember much. It came from somewhere deep inside me, miles from my brain. I couldn’t even describe it as a bad idea, because there was no thought process behind it, no initial consideration. The conversation began slowly. He knew exactly what he was doing; the entire exchange was constantly under control. It was fuelled by suggestion, the electric brush of cool skin here and there and a distinct lack of names for the moment. Even now his name was a haze, blurted out between darting kisses and tantalising grabs, fingers digging and leaving pink bruises everywhere.
I ripped myself from the memory. I was wearing his t-shirt and boxers, and I must have shifted close to a hundred times in them, aggravating my pounding headache every time I did so and watching as the scarves of the passers-by below were battered to and fro by the gale. The rain from the night before had dotted the road with mirror-like pools, disturbed only by spatters of light drizzle and the odd passing car. They sped down these back roads like it was the Monaco Grand Prix.
Below, it was as if my old ballet class had decided to perform for me, a slow motion dance that would have been all the more authentic in black and white. I watched through a wall of glass, floor to ceiling. A woman stepped out from between the parked cars, tapping away on her mobile phone. The car slid with an elegant spray of torn up water, a blue Nissan swerving angrily, blasting her with a road-borne rage. She might have been killed. Arms slipped around my waist and hot lips pressed tightly against my neck.
“Good morning.” His breath skimmed along my jaw, sending involuntary shivers through me. His voice was gruff and groggy, throat dry from the alcohol the night before.
“You pull off my t-shirt much better than I do.” As he spoke, his hands found my hips. His fingertips tiptoed their way under my shirt, chasing goosebumps up my torso, eventually reaching my breasts. “I’ve never done it against a window before.” He urged me closer to the glass. I could feel his smile against my shoulder and his excitement against my thigh.
“I think I’ll need another coffee before I can even consider doing that again.” I giggled, turning my head to face him. After a pause and a twitch, he grinned, squeezed my behind and sauntered towards the open plan kitchen.
I watched him and let myself recall the way his shoulders had rolled, his chest had rose and fell, his hips had bucked. Had I been sober, I might have paused to study every part of him. Meticulously trailing soft patterns over his smooth skin, sensitise him to my touch. But by then, my dress was being coaxed from my shoulders and slipping to the ground and I had found no time for tenderness.
It didn’t have anything unexpected in store, but it was exciting. Think of being on the edge of a very high diving board, about to jump off for the first time. Or you’re sweltering hot and someone’s dripping ice down your back. Think of hearing the first few notes of your favourite song. Now put all those feelings together. That was how Nick made me feel in a nutshell.
“Aw, it’s only been one night and you’ve given me a nickname. How cute.” He laughed, shaking his head and busying himself with the cafetière. The liquid sloshed over the rim of the cup as he poured it, scalding his fingertips slightly. He cursed under his breath. I swayed over to the island, watching his hands work.
“You’re distracting me in that t-shirt. Take it off.”
“Think you’d be a little more than distracted if I did,” I said, smiling and fiddling with the edge of the granite counter. He didn’t so much as glance at the obvious points of my breasts under the white ‘Copenhagen Marathon 2012’ shirt, but I knew he was fully aware of them. “Milk, no sugar.”
“What kind of nickname is that?”
Grinning, I moved to the stool tucked neatly under the island, nudged it out with my foot and perched myself on it. Away from the beige bedspread, the irrepressible ‘o’, and the darkness, Nick could’ve passed for my senior of just five years. Now, in the early afternoon light, I could see the crow’s feet framing his brown eyes and the flecks of grey here and there in his hair that betrayed the two decades he had on me.
“So is this a habit for you? You know, picking up girls on holiday and taking them back to your place to fuck?” I held up my hands. “I won’t be offended if it is.”
He shook his head, the teaspoon clinking against the inside of my mug as he stirred in the milk.
“No, no. You just looked far too alluring last night for me to resist. And your hair… How did you get it to do that? The ‘just got out of bed but sexy as fuck’ look?”
“I had a nap before I came out. Does wonders for authenticity.” I twisted a strand between my fingers, studying the tips of my hair. It was auburn at the time. “To be honest, it could use a cut.”
“Would you like me to do it for you?”
“You a hairdresser?”
“Nope.” As he spoke, he grinned that lopsided grin of his, the one that made me forget what my hands were for and where they were supposed to go – in my pockets, not in my pockets, I don’t have pockets, in his pockets, he doesn’t have pockets either – and then suddenly remember again within a fraction of a second.
“Any experience at all?”
He shrugged and replied, “well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve been cutting my mum’s hair for years.”
“So I’ll be getting a perm then?”
“A perm isn’t a cut,” he retorted, “it’s a style.”
“Well excuse me, Nicky Clarke,” I muttered, concealing a smirk, “come on then.” I hopped down off the stool and tilted my head expectantly at him. A frown creased his brow as he joined me.
“Yeah, why not.” I shrugged after catching his incredulous expression. His frown disappeared for just a moment before returning.
His palm brushed against the small of my back and he smiled, gesturing with his other hand towards the darkened bedroom doorway. I pursed my lips to hide a smile.
“And don’t get any funny ideas,” he warned, pointing at me as I wandered towards the door, “I don’t want to come in and see you spread out over the bed with nothing on but a smile. Again. Definitely don’t want to see that.”
“Somewhere between the bar and your bedspread, you learnt how to read my mind, I swear.” I threw back over my shoulder, swaying my hips as I walked.
After the brilliant light of the kitchen, the bedroom buzzed with shadows and memories. Twisting the dimmer switch, I eased the light on, illuminating the devastation. In an almost perfect semi-circle around the bed lay the abandoned clothes we’d tossed away so haphazardly. They looked almost ashamed, my emerald dress sadly cuddled up to his belted jeans and my lace knickers nestled under his white shirt. He’d kept his socks on.
I tiptoed between the spilled change from his pockets and my discarded heels. Sitting on the dressing table was my clutch bag. Snapping it open, I rummaged through the meagre contents. I’d lost my lipstick, YSL’s Rouge Pur Couture. It didn’t matter, I had other shades back home in London. My iPhone lit up, displaying at least six texts and a couple of missed calls. A vague memory of my phone buzzing surfaced and then it was gone, swimming in amongst sweat, darkness and a murmured threat that if I reached for the phone, he wouldn’t do what he was about to do. I swiped a thumb over the unlock screen and skimmed through the messages; the voicemails could wait. They all read basically the same.
Where’d you get to, we’re at the bar!
Oi, answer your phone!
Saw you leaving with the silver fox, explains where you’ve been half the night! Nice one! Text in the morning, let us know you’re not dead please!
Each ended with two kisses, or the digital representation of them at least. I began to type back to the topmost text that I was alive and that I’d be back later. I had no intentions of over-staying my welcome, but he didn’t seem to have any reservations about me hanging around. The message sent with a soft chirp and I clicked the lock button.
Behind me, over the king size, a large photograph hung. It was of a woman. From what I could tell, she was beautiful. Despite the fact that it was in black and white, I knew her lips had been the colour of crushed berries, full and luscious, and her hair had been the colour of cocoa, curls pooling at the curve of her neck. Her eyebrows were shaped and black as ink. If there was a word for her eyes, it would have fallen somewhere between intense and expectant. She had her hands pressed against a sheet of fabric mesh, and I wasn’t quite sure if she was trying to escape or keep something out.
Nick’s footfall was almost soundless against the plush carpet. I didn’t turn. I simply let him tease his fingertips into my waist. The woman held my gaze, eyes drifting ever so slightly to the man now dipping his chin onto my collarbone.
“Do you like it?” He asked evenly.
The soft, mysterious look in her eyes had disappeared. It had been replaced with desire, for him.
“I can’t decide,” I finally replied, urging my lips into a thin line.
“It’s a Man Ray print.”
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“I guess not.”
I spun in his arms, raking the hairs at the nape of his neck and pulling him into a kiss. I was too aware of her, of her longing, and that she wished she was me when I should have been wishing I was her. She’d seen us last night, watched as we drunkenly bared all, begged to clamber out of the picture and steal him away. As I braced my body against his and ran my hands up his arms, I deepened the kiss.
“Hey you,” he whispered, easing me off his lips, “none of that. Park yourself at the dressing table.”
“Oh.” Pulling away, I masked the disappointment that panged in my chest. “I thought haircut was code for blowjob.”
“Well, maybe later.” With a subtle wink, he pecked me on the lips and led me over to the dressing table. He didn’t bother to avoid the clutter decorating the floor. I could still see her out of the corner of my eye. There was an odd quiet filling the room, unsettling and too unlike the heavy breathing, the moaning, the heavy weight of her stare –
After slipping my bare legs through the gap between the chair and the dressing table, I perched on the chair’s edge, shifting backwards and forwards in an attempt to find a semi comfortable position. Out of her line of vision. Nick appeared behind me in the mirror, smiling and squeezing my shoulder. As he placed a light green towel around my shoulders and another over my lap, I began to wonder if she would have trusted him to cut her hair. Probably, as her eyes read she’d let him do anything to her.
“It’s only going to be a trim, nothing special,” he told me. I nodded. And he started.
Had I been brave enough to tell him I’d changed my mind about the cut, booking a hair appointment would have been the first thing on my to-do list when I flew home. Perhaps it still would be. He knew enough to give the ends a feathered look, but not quite enough to cut my layers too. When he combed my fringe down over my eyes, I giggled as the ends tickled my cheeks. He returned the smile and I lost all my charm, giving in to the childish side of myself. Every so often, he’d inquire as to how I wore it normally, and I had to remind myself I didn’t know this man and that he didn’t know me.
On some level, it was more intimate than any of the positions we’d assumed the night before. Maybe she’d seen him sleep with a hundred girls in this bed, routinely changing the sheets, jealous behind her mesh prison. Yet I had to wonder how many of those girls had said yes to letting him cut their hair. He shifted round until he was in front of me, frowning slightly as he worked with my fringe. In that moment, I felt myself exposed.
“Straight across?” He asked.
“Sure,” I replied. The scissors sliced through my hair, the sound echoing through my ears. It took all I could not to move; I shook with the effort. He asked if I was cold. I told him I was fine. He said he was nearly done, and that it was looking good, if he didn’t say so himself. Right then I couldn’t have cared less if he’d cropped it short or botched the evenness. All I cared about was her and the way she was staring at me.
A fierce glare was directed at me, and I could feel the flames licking at my spine.
You think he really wants you? She spat. I’m the only permanent thing in his life, and he loves me.
I knew she wasn’t really talking, she wasn’t really saying those things. She –
You don’t deserve him. None of them do, none of them ever do.
I couldn’t –
He’ll forget about you and sleep beneath me as he does every night, will continue to do, he loves me, he loves me, he loves ME –
“Done.” Nick straightened up, pride slapped across his face.
“I need to go.” Shoving past him, I let the towels fall to the floor and scatter my old auburn hair over the carpet.
“I just do,” I snapped, scrambling around the floor and gathering my things. Nick stood by the dressing table, scissors still in hand, speechless. I crossed the room to the en suite bathroom and slammed the door shut. Dressing hurriedly, I left through the door that led to the living room. Heels in hand and clutch bag tucked hard into my armpit, I yanked the door open and left.
Count to ten. Deep breaths. I extracted my iPhone from my bag and tapped on the screen a few times. I found her number and clicked the call button. I began to walk away from his apartment, almost floating, biting my painted nails and hoping she was in. It rang two, three, four times before she picked up.
“It happened again,” I blurted out, tears threatening to fall, “I had to call, she was telling me all these things, making me feel like –”
“Shush, hush, calm down,” she cooed, “now walk out of the building. Leave it all behind. Leave him behind, leave her behind, leave your tears behind. Do you think you should come home now? Do you think I was right?”
Did I think she was right?
By Emma Kirkby