We were in bed when I broke the news.
The house was quiet, foliage from my houseplants drifting in the breeze from the open window. You propped yourself up on one elbow, watching while I stared at the ceiling, my hair spilling across the pillow. On the
other side of the room, the brass Jesus figurine nailed to the drywall splayed debaucherously on the cross, watching us with lidded eyes.
“His name is Brett,” I said. “We’ve been seeing each other for a few months now. My mom just loves him. He makes me feel safe, you know? Like I don’t have to worry about anything.”
No response. You reached for your glasses on the bedside table and settled them onto your nose, I turned my head, taking in the sullen shape of your mouth.
Irritation rose. “Can’t you be happy for me? Just this one time?”
“Oh, I’m happy for you,” you said, sliding out of bed and grabbing your underwear off the floor. “It must be awesome having two of us on the go at once.”
“Don’t make this into something it’s not. You’re my best friend, and I love you – but this –” I gestured between the two of us “– is not a relationship. We’re friends, that’s all.”
“Right, I forgot,” you said bitterly as you yanked your t-shirt over your head. “You’re not allowed to be in love with a woman, but it’s still okay for you to fuck one.”
I flinched. It sounded so dirty, a single staccato syllable dripping with malice. You folded your arms across your chest, totally aware of the effect your words had on me.
This wasn’t the first time we’d stood on a precipice while you kicked kernels of anger into empty air. Nor was it the first time I’d talked you away from the edge.
“I need you to understand,” I said. “This is what I’ve always wanted – marriage, kids… all of that – but it doesn’t have to change things between us. It doesn’t mean I love you any less.”
My phone buzzed. I reached for it automatically and discovered a text from Brett. For a moment I lost myself as I tapped at the screen, relishing in the pleasurable back and forth of flirtation. When I looked up again, you were watching me with this weird, bitter smile on your face.
“Seems like you’ve got it all figured out, huh?”
“Yes,” I said, with the idiocy of conviction. “I do.”
I hear the news in church, of all places. They claim that you’re famous on the internet. Wrote a book that’s getting all kinds of buzz. The room is bloated with gossip, everyone busily discussing your success story, but they grow bored of it in less than the time it takes to finish their watery coffees. For all my careful probing, I can’t get any more information out of any of them. Not one of them has read it, their assumptions all passed around by word of mouth. No one reads poetry nowadays.
Your sales figures suggest the opposite: Amazon bestseller. Go figure.
I shouldn’t buy it; I know it’s a terrible idea. But there’s a sick kind of pleasure that comes from checking up on your exes. Like picking at a scab, watching blood welling from a wound that should’ve long since closed over.
I order it on an impulse, one glass of wine down, and it arrives on the doorstep almost before I’ve had the chance to regret it. God damn expedited shipping.
I pick off the tape with my nails and slide it out. Your first published book, the cover butter smooth. I crack it open, flipping through the pages with quiet reverence. Even after everything, I’m proud of you. You’ve accomplished everything you ever wanted to.
That feeling doesn’t last long after I start reading it. My heart starts beating when I read the dedication; every page a palpitation. It feels like holding a raw steak, cold blood running down to my elbows. Your broken heart battered beyond recognition; every stanza still so bitter that it chokes me.
You always said you weren’t mad about the hiding; I thought you understood that part. It was my faith, not my fear, that you couldn’t bring yourself to swallow. To put your pen to paper and speak our sins into the open air… that strikes me as far crueler than anything I had ever thought you capable of.
But as I sit numbly turning pages, it occurs to me that you aren’t as artful as all that. You hadn’t meant to haul me out of hiding; never meant for this to hurt me.
You never even thought about it. I think that’s worse.
Calm down, I tell myself later, lying awake in the dark. There’s no reason to think that the book could ruin me. You might have laid me bare for the whole world to read about, but at least you had the decency to leave out my name. The book contains a thousand private moments that you never should have shared, but there’s nothing that can be traced back to me.
Famous last words.
When I get home from work the next day, I’m worn out and ready to relax. All I want is to crack open a bottle of wine and cuddle on the couch, but I quickly discover I’m not going to get my quiet evening.
All the lights are off, the house in darkness as I unwind my scarf from around my neck and hang it on the rail. Confused, I walk into the kitchen, where Brett is sat at the table with a horribly familiar book in his hand.
“Honey, what the hell is this?”
I knew I should’ve taken the damn thing to Goodwill.
“It’s nothing,” I say. “Just some poetry book.”
“Since when do you read poetry?” I shrug.
“Your friend wrote this, right?
I thought I recognized her name. Haven’t seen her in a while.” His tone is deceptively pleasant, but there’s an edge to it. One wrong step and I’ll lose my footing.
Acting nonchalant, I go to the cupboard and open it, reaching for a bottle. “We don’t talk anymore.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“We just grew apart, I guess.”
Brett gets out of his chair and slams the cupboard door shut, narrowly missing my fingers. Startled, I jerk back.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“This book is sick,” he says. “And do you want to know the sickest part? It’s about you.”
My heart skips like a stone across the pond.
“Yes,” I say. “We were friends, that’s all.”
“Okay,” he says. “If it’s not about you, and you don’t talk any more, why do you even have it?”
“Because…” Because I’m a sucker. Because I was drunk and nostalgic and couldn’t stop thinking about your mouth. “She was my friend.”
He interrupts, his voice climbing to override mine. “Your friend? She was clearly in love with you –”
“And that’s my fault? Brett, she was crazy! She wrote an entire fucking book about me –”
“More like she wrote an entire book about fucking you,” he says coldly. “So you’re a lesbian now?”
“No,” I say.
“You’re sick,” he repeats, shaking his head.
With one last look of disgust, he turns and walks away from me like I always knew he would. Grabbing the table for support, I feel the floor fall out from underneath my feet. There won’t be any coming back from this; Brett won’t just tell strangers on the internet. He’ll tell everyone we know. My dad. My mom, who loves Brett like the son she never had.
I imagine the look on her face – the same look I see in the mirror every god damn day – and I can’t stand it.
“Wait!” I say desperately.
He stops with his hand on the doorknob.
“We fooled around a couple of times,” I say. “That’s all.”
Brett looks back at me, wavering. “… Like an experiment?”
It sounds so clinical. Me in latex gloves and a lab coat. You laid out on a slide for my inspection.
“Yes,” I say. “Exactly.” He thinks about this for a while. “That’s hot,” he says decisively. The rush of relief is so immediate that my knees go weak. I collapse into a chair at the kitchen island and pray he doesn’t see the way my hands shake.
Brett walks over to the cabinet and pulls out a bottle of red and two glasses. He twirls them as he turns them right- side-up, a charming trick from his days waiting tables that never fails to make me smile – but today I’m too anxious to acknowledge it, my fingers twisting together.
Pouring two glasses, he joins me at the island. He gives me a tentative smile that I return, hands curling around my glass.
“You never told me you two got hot and heavy,” he says, nudging me. There’s delight in his expression; a strange camaraderie. The frat boy mentality seeping through.
I make myself smile coyly, toying with the rim of the glass as I circle it with my finger. “Why would I? It was silly; it didn’t mean anything.”
“Seems like your friend didn’t get the memo,” says Brett.
We both glance at the book, an interloper at the table. I force myself
to look away from it, focusing on the ghostly smears that my hands have left on the glass. “Yeah, well. She got weird about it.”
“Man, for a second there I thought…” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
My tone stays light. “You know I don’t believe in any of that stuff. It’s Adam and Eve, right?”
“Yeah,” says Brett, taking my hand and rubbing his thumb over the ring on my finger. “Right.”
The storm-clouds are already clearing. He never could hold a grudge. Not like you.
Brett reaches for the book again and I tense, but he simply flicks through the pages like a flipbook, as if you might be moving through the pages. “She seems pretty fucked up over you, though.”
“Yeah, well,” I say, folding my arms. “Like I said. She was a freak.”
That night, I see you splayed against the cross. You’re a taxidermy butterfly pinned to a card: naked, vulnerable, all your softness on show. The gentle trajectory of belly curve, the swell of your breasts. A coronet of thorns nestles among your dark curls, while rivulets of wine trickle down your temples, dripping into the hollows of your collarbones. You look at me with hungry eyes while I run my tongue over the trails, the rich taste of you flooding my mouth. Like Eve, I’m helpless in the face of temptation.
Like Eve, I cannot bring myself to stop.
I burst out of the dream like a drowning person coming up for air.
Gasping, I push sweaty hair off my forehead. The old nightmare again. I used to have it every night, thrashing and sweating while you slept beside me. How many times did you wake up and find me on my knees in the moonlight, begging for forgiveness into the empty dark? Closing my eyes, I can still hear your whispers. “Come back to bed, baby, come back to bed…”
Nowadays I have Brett, steady, dependable and ready to comfort me – but when I turn on my side and reach out, my fingers find only cool sheets. The bed is empty, covers thrown back in the wake of an evacuation.
Peeling myself out of bed, I make for the kitchen. Halfway down the hallway, I hear voices; Brett’s unmistakable rumble, heavy with sleep, and a second, sharper voice leaking through a speaker with a crackle. Creeping closer, I ease open the door.
He’s sat at the kitchen island with his back to me, swivelling back and forth on one of the stools, pushing himself with his foot. As I stand watching, he raises a half-empty tumbler crammed with ice and the final dregs of whiskey, tossing back the last drop. Ice cubes rustle against his teeth.
“You know she doesn’t love you, right?” he says, voice thick with drink. “She’s mine now. I won.”
Your laughter crackles out of his phone where it lies on the countertop; the same sound, but with a new edge, like a kitchen knife sliding between
ribs. It makes me dizzy, tackled by an onslaught of memories so sudden that I grab the doorframe for support. I remember long nights that melted into lazy mornings; days spent sharing straws and swapping secrets, our kisses tasting of chocolate milkshake. All those summer afternoons when I had thought we could do this forever and the bad things would never catch up.
“She’s all yours,” you say, and then there is nothing but the warble of the dial tone.
I close my eyes and remember.
One time, after an argument late at night, I had stormed out of your house with the spaghetti strap of my shirt sliding down my bare shoulder. You followed me halfway down the street, shouting words like ‘God’ and ‘cheat’ and ‘coward’. All the things I didn’t want to hear.
At the last second, you grabbed my wrist and yanked me back, snapping the breath out of me. We stood in the middle of the road with our breath misting the night, both on the brink of something we couldn’t come back from. “God might forgive you,” you said, sharp as a cut. “But I won’t.”
It was freezing the last time we saw each other, so cold that my lungs pinched with every breath. You texted me to meet you at the bridge, and I’d picked my way through the darkness with a grey cardigan swamping my shoulders. We’d been on the rocks for a while by then – when I saw you, I never knew what to expect.
You were waiting for me in the middle of the highway, the road behind you stretching away into the distance. I came to a stop a few feet away, hugging myself. Water rustled beneath the brickwork. The look on your face warned me this wasn’t going to be the kind of visit that left me feeling lighter.
I looked at your woolly bobble-hat, the suitcase you were dragging behind you like a body.
“Leaving?” I said. “For how long?”
You looked at me as if I’d misunderstood the point. Not just of your confession, but of everything.
I stood there for a moment, taking it in. The tip of your nose was bright pink from the cold, dark hair tangled around your shoulders.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“So you’re giving me an ultimatum,” I said bitterly. “Lose you, or lose everything else?”
“I’m not asking you to give up everything,” you said. “Just him.”
Such a simple request on the surface – but what you were asking was for me to skydive without no parachute. To unclip my harness and freefall; to trust that you’d catch me instead of leaving me to the rocks at the bottom.
I shook my head. “You don’t love him,” you said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No,” you said softly. “Guess not.” You wrapped your fingers around the handle of your suitcase, luggage labels dangling like dog-tags.
“Well. Have a nice life, I guess.”
I wanted to shake you and scream in your face. To remind you that not everyone had it in them to be a fighter.
“Yeah,” I said. “You too.”
On the night before the wedding, I sit alone and in the dark. Brett’s staying with a friend, making sure he doesn’t see me before the big day: bad luck is something I’m determined to avoid. Everything has to be perfect.
I hunch over the countertop like Miss Havisham, drowning in rotting memories. One hand mechanically stirs vodka and lemonade around in a tall glass while the other clutchesthe receiver of my old rotary phone – a thrift-store bargain, its creamy plastic cool against my cheek. With the cord making a noose around my finger, I listen to the dial tone; the low, emotionless whine of a stopped heartbeat.
My finger dips into the dial one last time, spinning the numbers like a wheel of fortune. I close my eyes and think about your hair slipping through my fingers; the wicked pink twist of your lips.
The phone rings out over and over – and then comes the click. No answerphone message, just the sound of empty airwaves, so conclusive I think the whole world must be listening to the silence.
After everything you’ve written, you can’t even pick up the phone.
Taking one last deep breath, I tip the last dregs of lemonade down my throat, the dirty aftertaste of the vodka trickling down my throat. Then I grab the book.
It’s tougher than I expected, resisting my assault – but the buttery cover splits, tearing jaggedly down the middle and leaving me with two separate halves, the bindings dangling. I head for the door, grabbing my keys off the hall table on the way out.
The book hangs from my hand like a dead butterfly, pages loose and fluttering as I head out into the dark. Cars whoosh past, the breeze kissing the back of my neck.
By the time I reach the bridge, the night is still. Closing my eyes, I stand at the edge, listening to the bubble of water under the bridge while memories come tugging at my hand. We used to sit here with our shorts on every summer, the brickwork chewing our skin and leaving ridged red patterns on the backs of our thighs. You always looked away from the water, gazing down the road and out of town… whilst I was always looking back.
I open my eyes again. Holding the book out over the river, I watch the wind from the current toying with the pages, listening to them rustle. Then I let go.
The sound of their fall is almost obscured by the water, wings whispering as loose leaves scatter into empty air. I listen for the splash, but wherever it falls, it doesn’t make a sound. I imagine the water pooling over the pages, each poem reduced to an inky smear. Then I hold up my head and walk away.
“Are you nervous?”
Mom and I stand in front of a big gilt mirror, light dancing off it from every angle. The whole room is filled with flowers, celebratory bouquets with congratulation note necklaces, filling the room with an almost overwhelming fragrance. Carefully moving around me, Mom straightens my dress. I look like a princess, my hair entwined around the silver trellis of my tiara. I’m just one short ceremony away from everything I’ve always wanted… and I feel absolutely nothing.
“I’m not nervous,” I tell her. “This is how things are supposed to be.”
She beams at me, tears almost spilling over, and squeezes my hand.
I look myself in the eye and take it all in. The crown of steel, my dress the color of a perfect picket fence.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m ready.”
I walk down the aisle with Daddy’s arm looped in mine. It’s hard to tell who’s leading who; he’s crying so hard that I’m surprised he can see where he’s going. Meanwhile, I am a paper doll.
I rustle with every step, with nothing beneath the surface of my smile. Every step feels like walking on quicksand, the church carpet sinking underneath my feet.
Taking a deep breath, I focus on Brett, sure and solid as always – six feet of handsome former football played pressed neatly into a pale grey suit
and grinning fit to burst. The pews are crammed to almost overflowing, filled with the smiling faces of everyone I’ve ever cared about.
“You look beautiful,” Brett whispers as I reach him, taking my hand and laying a reverent kiss on my knuckles.
I squeeze his fingers and turn to face the front, smile fixed as carefully as my tiara.
The service passes, vows falling discordantly from my lips. It all feels somewhat like a dream, and when Brett eases the ring onto my finger in one smooth glide, the warm nudge of metal against my knuckle makes me jump. When I push a golden band onto his finger in return, completing the wholesome picture, my hands are steady. His grin is big and genuine.
“You may kiss the bride,” the pastor says.
Ever the showman, Brett sweeps me off my feet and dips me like we’re characters in a movie. I cling to him as he kisses me, trusting him not to let me fall.
He whips me upright in a dizzy whirl, just in time for the congregation to erupt into applause. Smile back in place, I stare out into the crowd, straightening my tiara.
For a moment, I think I see you in the front row, clapping with all the rest; a tangle of dark hair with the sun dancing off your glasses, smiling that wicked smile the way you used to. But then I blink. The vision is gone, and there is nothing but the hollow toll of the church bells.