After we had been lying side by side for some time, I pulled her towards me and she responded at once by laying her head upon my chest, as if she had been waiting for permission. Details began to emerge from the darkness. I absorbed the unfamiliarity around me with all my senses, my limited sight, my smell, which picked up fresh pine and lavender. The sounds, of course, were different too, unique to her room. As traffic went by outside, shifting trapezoids of light, filtered through the top of the curtains, moved across the ceiling.
I asked her if she regretted what she had just done. After a long silence, she said that she didn’t. Not this time. So there had been other times, I asked her. She replied with silence.
I could hear her breathing. My own breathing had returned to normal, slower than normal. Hers was shallow and fast. I wanted to hear about them, I said. These stories fascinate me. We could make a trade of it, exchange anecdotes of our experiences, good and bad. But of course, like the news (I pointed out) good experiences don’t always make for good stories. So what had gone wrong before? What, in the past, had made her regret taking a man she barely knew home? For one thing, she told me, there was a reason she never stayed at anyone else’s place. Always hers, that was a rule. It was a rule she had enforced since the last time she had been an overnight guest. Right up until the event, everything seemed to be going smoothly. They’d met in a bar, got on well and chatted for several hours before deciding to leave together. She’d deliberately avoided inviting him back to her place as she felt ashamed of it. Ridiculous in retrospect, she said. What did it matter what they thought? If you see potential with somebody, she said, then you don’t sleep with them on the first night anyway. I told her I didn’t agree, but to avoid turning it into a debate, urged her to continue her story.Back at his place they had spent some time drinking wine, watching television and talking before going to bed. Later, as she was dozing off, she heard noises from the room next door, where they had been earlier. I thought you lived alone, she’d asked him. There’s somebody in your flat. Before he could answer, the bedroom door opened, and the silhouette of a man appeared.“Are you ready?” said a strange male voice. Her bedmate replied that yes, he had finished, and then turned to her. Was she ready? For what, she asked, already feeling the unpleasant sensation that something had gone very wrong. For my brother, he replied, as if it was obvious and she daft for not understanding.She didn’t even stop to look for her shoes, she told me. She got her handbag, snatched a handful of clothes from the floor, picked up her coat, and fled as quickly as she could. Luckily, she was able to hail a cab from the street almost right away.
That’s an good story, I told her. And it was true. I could not come up with one to match it. Not, at any rate, one that would have been appropriate. She asked me why I didn’t own a mobile phone, so inspired by her tale, I started to improvise, telling a story of a woman I had taken home one night who had subsequently become obsessive, calling relentlessly, leaving me dozens of messages, being abusive. Why didn’t you just get her number blocked? She asked me. I laughed, explaining that I had also thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t. Network providers, by and large, do not block telephone numbers. Luckily the abusive calls eventually stopped. But since then, I had stopped using a mobile phone altogether. Surely that was an overreaction, she said. I explained that as minor as the incident was, it had brought a bigger realisation home to me; namely, the tyranny of people being able to disturb you whenever they felt the need.
I tried to change the subject back to her anecdotes, but having apparently had enough of them for the time being, she turned her mouth to mine.
After the second encounter it seemed we both felt more energised, and far from lying in silence, we vied with each other to speak. She began telling me more about herself, her life, the details that people usually start with before getting to the point where we were. Her job, her parents, the unsurprising revelation that, like most inhabitants of this city, she was not born here, but in fact, far away. Forgive me, she said. I usually never ask as I don’t care, but in your case I’m curious. What is it that you do?
I saw no reason to lie. Had she asked me when we met, I would have spun out my favourite line about being a freelancer – a freelance anything, designer, writer. Anything but the truth. Admitting to being out of work, whilst not always a deal-breaker, was unlikely to help progress anything with a woman. Now, of course, it didn’t matter, not in this post-realm. So I told her straight, with no explanation or excuse.
That’s actually refreshing, she said. I was expecting something boring, like a banker, executive, project manager. Not that you seem boring, but men usually are. Most work is. So, she told me, this just means you’re still looking for something. You’re not satisfied, so you’re searching for something interesting, finding out who you are. I like that.
She was now talking nonsense, and it occurred to me that she was beginning to fall for me. She asked me to talk more about myself, so I began with my childhood, inventing it at first, but as I continued, I became aware of a distinctive sensation in my belly. It was something I rarely felt, but when I did, it was as if my world was changing. With her, I realised, I felt genuine potential, and it was powerful. And once again I knew I didn’t need to lie, I didn’t need to worry. I knew that I could confide in her, because I knew that she wouldn’t tell a living soul.
And so I opened up to her, and again, gave her the truth; not a doctored version, but an unabridged, uncensored account of the things which mattered to me most, the events which had affected me most profoundly, shaped the person I was, and made me the very man that lay right there beside her. I suppose it hadn’t occurred to me whether or not she might be moved or even upset by these things, so when she turned to me and began to speak, her eyes wide and moist, I gently placed my hand over her mouth.
I continued for some time, the sound of my voice alone echoing off the walls and high ceilings of her bedroom. It could have been less than an hour; it could have been several hours. Finally I decided it was time to go. I couldn’t unburden myself any more, I was emotionally and physically spent. Fully dressed and on my feet, I turned around to look at her one last time. Her eyes, glassy and lifeless, no longer met mine. I drew a long breath, turned round again, and stepped into the night.