Jess and I are at the pub. It is Halloween in 2013. We are feeling the light mellow drunk that falls between pints three and four. We are at the stage of Big Opinions About Books. At pint four, we’ll be at politics. At five, we’ll start drinking tequila and we’ll talk about sex. At pint six, I stop remembering. But we are at pint three. I am in love with the power of my own coherence.
‘I am so over people being writers in novels,’ says Jess.
Her nails are three inches long, fire-engine red, honed to a sharp point that would be ideal for scooping out an eyeball. We are sitting in the pub opposite our university. It is 5 pm. We are bitching. We are the bitches of the creative writing workshop. We catch each other’s eyes when the others read, a glint of malice and ego and envy, thinking that even our shittiest work will be read more than theirs. Maybe. Jess is good, and I’ve read enough to pretend to be. I’m eighteen, she is twenty-five. She’s smart in an old way. When she sat down next to me the first day of university, I felt the same kind of heat I did in Year 9 when Georgia May Cooper picked me as the girl to go with her to get sunbeds on Wednesdays after school, or in Year 10 when Laura Nottingham drew her eyeliner on me in the toilets during lunch, or in sixth form when Amy Palamartschuk told me to skip school with her for the first time to roll cigarettes and turn our backs on boys. The brightening effects. Hot, cool girls paying attention to me is the strongest of my many weaknesses, and they’ve never been that hard to attract. I am small, brunette, and round. I crouch next to beauties like a full stop. I accentuate.
‘Yeah, I hate reading about writers,’ I agree.
‘It’s the self-awareness of it,’ she says. ‘Also, like, you just know they’re really boring and have nothing better to write about except themselves. It’s like, get a life, you know.’
‘Yeah,’ I say, pointlessly.
We look around the pub. Terrible prints are fitted puzzle-like around the walls: a reprint of the Southern Gothic; a small photograph of a kitten in a milk jug; a framed photo of Cilla Black. The purple velvet of the seats is scratched and balding, with tiny black age spots of indeterminable origin. We have discussed the décor at length. The only other occupant of the pub is an old man with his hand gnarled around a pint gone flat. His nose is humped. He looks like a drawing in a Roahl Dahl book. I think about saying this to Jess but I have learned she prefers silences to what she calls my pixie dreamgirl shit.
‘Hey,’ she says. She snaps her fingers and I snap to attention. We are back to bitching.
‘What did you think of Delilah’s poem?’ she says. She jabs one of her long nails down her throat, far enough back that any unpractised girl would gag. She pulls it out cleanly. ‘Am I right or am I right?’ she says.
Delilah is a girl in our class who is writing a long sequence of poems about a group of girls in a mental hospital. At first, the girls are normal and just seem to sleep and cry a lot, but then the poems get weird. The girls start growing. They float around the ward, never flying, but hovering on the walls, stuck like flies when they sense a swatting. They sound creepy, the girls, like they are about to do something terrible. The poems make me feel sick, like I want to plug my ears, especially when Delilah reads them out loud, slowly, like she is convinced of their importance. She has given all the girls curly pastel- coloured hair. She calls their white, uniform pyjamas wedding dresses.
Jess asked her during workshop: ‘Why do you keep calling them wedding dresses? I think you should call them what they are. Like, they’re in a hospital, right? Why don’t you just say that?’
The rest of us politely pretend that the creator of whoever’s work we are discussing has evaporated when we speak, offering up vague comparisons and saying things like, ‘I liked it but I don’t know if I got it completely’. Jess always stares directly at the writer and asks them questions even though they aren’t allowed to talk. Today, Delilah continued to furiously doodle over her manuscript, refusing to look to her left at Jess, who was getting closer and closer to talking directly in her ear. I could see why Delilah was pissed. Delilah is a large girl, spotty, with thick hair that sticks out of her head like two book ends. She’s been dealt the card of hard adjectives from God. Jess is beautiful, the kind of beauty that didn’t require Accutane or braces.
Still, Jess told me drunk once that she had had an eating disorder bad enough that she was in the kind of hospital Delilah was now lyrically describing.
‘Were you starving or making yourself sick or both?’ I asked her. She poked me hard in the chest with one of her nails. It hurt. She said, ‘That’s what I like about you. You don’t sympathise, you just ask what you want to know.’
I didn’t know what to say so I just nodded. I figured she was making herself sick. Halfway through nights at the pub when we drank so much we couldn’t talk, we’d go eat cheesy chips and then throw up together in the alley behind the shop. She did it with the precision and grace of routine, while I retched and shuddered my way to release. We called it purging. In our drunken state, sometimes we yelled ‘Amen!’ after, or ‘Praise Jesus!’ in Southern drawls. Then we’d go back to the pub.
‘Do you think Teach liked it?’ asks Jess now.
‘He likes all the poets,’ I say. ‘He knows they need all the luck they can get.’ She laughs and I feel the pleasantness of her admiration. Jess likes when I am mean.
Our creative writing teacher is a terrified twenty-something with glasses thick enough that his eyes seem to be a long distance away. He always seems certain and scared that one of us is about to seduce him against his will. We are all girls in the creative writing class and we all seem to love him in the same starved and disappointed way. I have worked very hard this month following Jess around to parties but there don’t seem to be any upcoming tumultuous love affairs for me. There are just the boys, the ones who wait up in kitchens and gardens, freezing, until it is just the two of you, mumbling drunken inanities, and then there is hope and sweat and holding, and then you talk about what you’re scared of, how you don’t think your parents ever loved you, really. You ask each other what your bodies look like, in whispers you remember later with a vague sense of shame. Either this is enough, or you have the disappointed bored streak in you that makes you spiteful, makes you want to fuck the teacher or your boss or the married guy, because you’ve read the books and seen the movies and listened to the music, and you know love is a lot of things, but it isn’t supposed to be easy. I am going to be one of those, I guess. In my teacher’s office hours, I lean further over the desk while he builds a wall of books between us. Then he hands me my story and says something lacking in passion but ultimately pretty useful, like not to use so many similes and to end the story halfway through.
‘I think that’ll help give it a bit of life,’ he says, peering at me over his glasses and his books. Then I take my dead foetus of a story in the crook of my arm until I’m out on the college green, where I enjoy screwing it up dramatically into the bin and rolling a fat loose cigarette, relighting it every five seconds against the wind of the day, and thinking fuck you, in the way Jess says it, like it is affection, a gift, an admiring I love you, fuuuuck you, babe. Then I go back to my sad little room to see one of the few boys I have managed to take home from parties, and he’ll offer me his armpit, ask if I want to watch Peep Show or eat a fishcake. This is my life so far at university.
‘Delilah’s poem would be good if she didn’t say everything three times,’ I say. I feel the beer stirring in my gut, as if to chastise me, tell me what I already know. You are full of shit. It’s true. What do I know about being in a mental hospital? What do I know about anything? All my stories are dead.
Jess laughs and I watch her eat the last of the chilli crisps, nails scrawling in the plastic packet for the crumbs. Jess writes stories about hot girls loving each other, hating each other, hot girls turning into old, lukewarm girls. They are good, everyone knows it. When she speaks, we all perk up our ears to listen. She is also the only hot girl in the class. The rest of us aren’t bad, but we’re tepid, tap water. Jess is tequila, sour lemon, oil-spit in the hot frying pan. Jess never has boyfriends or girlfriends. The rest of us have someone who comes and gets us from the pub eventually, or someone we try to get off with at the end of the night. Jess doesn’t seem to like anyone except me and even me she tires of. When the pubs close, I imagine she stalks the streets like a real writer, her hands raised, her nails deathly pointed warnings, to think her wild hot girl thoughts, hissing away the night.
‘There’s a party,’ Jess says.
‘Okay,’ I say. She smiles at me with deranged crisp-crumbed teeth.
‘We need to pick up for this,’ she says.
Jess grew up around here so she has a local drug dealer’s number. The first time I saw her pick up and get into the car and drive away, I ran after her, drunk, down the street, waving my arms and calling, ‘Where are you taking her?’ Then, terror-struck, I spent five minutes convincing myself she was kidnapped, tied up somewhere with jumper cables, my fingers hovering over 999 before she swung back round the corner, her red nails forking the breeze and Flo Rida blasting out onto the streetlight-pocked road.
This time I know what to do. We stand shivering on the street corner where the driver can slide in easily. We smoke cigarettes because there isn’t anything else to do. Tiny silver arrows of rain dart down past the streetlight and we stand beneath it like we’re standing in a sunbeam. Jess huddles into me, holding my arm with both of hers and leaning her dark spongey hair into my shoulder so I get a blast of fruit shampoo—orange or raspberry, I’ve never been good with scents. It makes me feel like a man even though when Jess is standing up normally she is half a foot taller than me. I try to solidify. I push my weight towards my feet, hoping she’ll sense my stableness, and I clench my upper arms, hoping they’ll feel less sloppy, and more like boys’ arms, or at least the boys’ arms I have liked in the mornings since I have started university, the kind that fit easily around my neck so that my head sort of rests on them, like a hat on a stand, or a watermelon the same size as the fruit bowl.
‘Where is this fuckhead?’ says Jess.
As if in answer, the drug dealer’s car swings up and Jess leaps away from my shoulder and in two swift steps has ducked into the passenger side and he has driven away. Jess has explained that the drivers are paranoid about being picked up on the cameras so they must always circulate while the deal is struck. I have never seen the drivers up close but I have got flashes as Jess dips into the car, and she has described them to me. There is more than one driver but they are all Chinese, and they are not the man who answers the phone when Jess rings. No one knows who he is. The drivers are nice: one has a son and takes a long time showing Jess pictures; the others do not have sons but sometimes they talk about cars or the business of the night or traffic. One of them asked Jess for her number the first time we went out but she said no, even though after, when we had taken all the drugs and it was six am and we were in the park on our backs under the grey-streaked sky, she said she wished she had just done it because we could’ve got some free shit.
‘And that,’ she said, ‘is the only reason to flirt!’
I shrugged. Normally I wouldn’t have spoken but all that powder was forming unstoppable words in my throat.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘What about getting people to like you?’
‘Oh, sweets,’ she said.
She put her arms around me but I was feeling uncomfortable so I just let her lie there, stretching over me. I started to hate myself so much for not being able to be normal and be hugged by a friend that I started to talk to explain, even though I wasn’t even sure I had a good reason. It was most likely just my personality, that I wanted to be touched so badly and then didn’t know how to be, that I tried so hard with the boys from the parties and their armpits but that I spent most of the time willing them to leave and that mostly I had to close my eyes and clench my fists when they were on top of me, that all sorts of horror flashed through my head, horror I couldn’t even begin to start detailing because I deserved to be buried alive for thinking such things.
Normally I felt better bitching than talking but I was high for the first time and felt invincible with self-knowledge. I told Jess that the first time I got drunk I was fourteen and had just started at a new school, and we were all in the park on a Tuesday, one of those winter days when the lights switch off in the sky around four. We were drinking cider and it was sweet enough to drink quickly and I was going through a phase of feeling fat so I was only eating carrot sticks—anyway, what does it matter, it’s just I was drunk because I didn’t eat the sandwich that my mother had put in my bag.
Jess sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. I looked at her beneath all the lumpy grey clouds, and she looked beautiful and concerned, like the face you would see when you come out of a coma, except her pupils were penny-sized and she seemed to be chewing gum ferociously.
‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘this girl who I did sunbeds with told me this boy liked me, and I was talking to him in the park, well, not really talking. He was a bit older. Anyway, when I went to pee in the bushes he followed me in, and it was really embarrassing because I’d just peed and my tights were all stuck round my ankles and I think I got a bit on my skirt and it smelt and was steaming in the cold. I really remember that, Jess, this little steamy path through my feet and I was trying to hide it, kind of crouch-dancing over it, but I was drunk so I don’t know what it looked like I was doing. I thought he’d think I was really gross for peeing so then when he kissed me I was so pleased because I thought I’d managed to do something right.’
‘Okay,’ said Jess.
‘Anyway, it was kind of hard to stay balanced and I fell over, and then he was on top of me, and I was lying in the pee and it really stank like cider, but I didn’t want him to know that I’d peed, and he didn’t seem to notice, and he was still kissing me and I hadn’t kissed anyone so I didn’t know what it was meant to be like, even though I didn’t like it. Anyway, the only way I could cover the pee was if I lay down over it so I did.’
There was a bit of silence. It had started to rain in the park, and it smelt so pure and lovely, like water from some ancient fountain, and so different from the stinging shameful scent of the memory of my fourteen-year-old pee that I forgot my story. Jess lay back down next to me and put her head on my boobs, which squished a little sensitively beneath her. I tried to be boy-like and still like a hat stand or a fruit bowl and I patted her hair.
‘Did he rape you?’ she asked.
The rain tinkled down and for some reason it seemed funny to hear that word, the word I’d hidden because it was like a bomb you had to dance around, because even hearing the hint of its ticking would explode a whole horrible load of wreckage. And wreckage that wasn’t inside anymore but outside for everyone to see and that you couldn’t cover up with make-up or drinking or nice boys who wanted to know what your favourite tree was.
I said, ‘Yeah, I guess.’
I left the ‘I guess’ there because I thought she could tell me that I guessed wrong and that him shoving himself into me while my own piss ran in a line down my spine wasn’t anything unusual and shouldn’t make me sad. I did lie down there, after all, my body doing the thing where it unknits itself and I freeze, freeze and don’t kick or scream, although I did whisper, said please stop, which, after, I hated myself for doing because it meant I couldn’t believe that I had wanted it the way everyone told me I had. It meant I hadn’t wanted it, because I had asked him to stop, and worst was that I had said that tiny little desperate word, the word my mother always taught me to say like a nice little girl: please.
‘That sucks,’ said Jess, after a while. ‘That shouldn’t have happened to you, that’s really fucking shitty.’ She paused. ‘I’d kill him if I could.’
My whole body felt alight in that moment. I imagined it must be like how when people believe in those miracle preachers and get touched on the head and fall over, flop, because I felt so relieved, in a way, and on fire with it, I’d never thought relief could be a burning feeling before, like love or shame or rage, but there it was, burning, just for a second. Then the second turned into another and the feeling was gone again.
Jess is taking ages. I’m nervous because the thing is I know one of the boys who lives in the house who is having the party tonight and he is not a nice boy. I met him at one of the nights during Freshers’ Week. I went alone because I hadn’t met Jess yet. There were only fifty people or so, most of us acne-scarred, craterous and lost as lonely white moons. We drifted around the dance floor, occasionally capturing the glance of a green strobe light that cast everyone in an alien hue, made the sillier of us look monstrous, which included me. I was wearing a white baby doll dress I’d got from a charity shop that may have been a child’s nightie, but I thought it made me look somewhat attractive in a naïve way, with all my eyeliner and the song lyrics scrunched into tiny font on my trainers, penned in perfectionist straight lines with the help of an old protractor.
I ordered one of the fruit ciders you have over ice and it cost six pounds, which was half my budget for the night because my loan didn’t cover my rent. I hadn’t got a job yet, but I figured fuck it, thought maybe it made me look fancy, and it tasted good, like the colour pink slipping easily through my teeth. I hadn’t eaten anything but toast since I’d moved two days ago and I hadn’t spoken to anyone apart from the one girl I’d met on my floor who looked at me in my baby doll dress in such a horrified way I thought maybe she thought I was a ghost. I felt like a ghost so it didn’t seem surprising to me. I finished off the whole ensemble with the leather jacket I got from Primark early last winter. I loved this jacket, loved the way it looked, the way it cut my waist in a thick way and the way my long dark hair blended in and caught the collar, the way the silver buckles near the neck flashed. So I felt like a ghost in a leather jacket and so I was invincible and invisible in the best way until the boy whose party it is tonight crashed into me. My pink strawberry cider blossomed across my boobs in the most clichéd of murder looks.
‘Oh shit sorry, sorry, sorry,’ he said, but it didn’t sound the way sorry looks on a page—two distinct sounds, so and ree—he said it in a way that it all blended together like sweeeeeeee. I found it kind of funny, he looked like an actor on a TV show, but a funny TV show, playing drunk badly so you know it’s pretend.
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘I was going to leave anyway.’
He looked me up and down and I looked at him looking me up and down. He had brown eyes but they looked all cracked up like when a mud puddle freezes over. It reminded me of jumping into those mud puddles and cracking them under my boots when I was child and this made me happy and trust him even though he hadn’t done anything.
‘You should stay,’ he said. ‘Do you want a drink?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Okay, can you get them? I’ll be right back,’ he said and walked off towards the toilets. The line stretched back onto the edge of the dance floor. I watched him join the line obediently. Then I wandered back up to the bar and replenished my pink drink and got him a beer. I zipped up my jacket over my boobs and felt pleasantly in control and strapped in like when they pull the guard down before the rollercoaster takes off. By the time he’d got back I’d finished my drink, so he got me another and we did a shot that came in a green plastic glass and tasted like apples. We said where we lived, what we were studying. We danced a little around each other, not touching at all. I was still feeling okay and when he put his hand on my back it felt good.
‘Do you still want to go? I’ll walk you to your stop, if you want,’ he said.
‘Okay, thanks,’ I said. He didn’t seem to be with anyone else and when we left he didn’t say goodbye to anyone but by this time his hand was starting to feel weird on my back, because he didn’t move it, just sort of manoeuvred me around to keep it there, and it started to feel less tender and more like his hand had got stuck there.
When we were outside I twisted away from him. My bus stop was behind the university and it was dark but not raining, just a dry dark cold. I guess he still wanted to touch me because he grabbed my neck while we were walking, this time with his thumb and one of his fingers, but it was hard and hurt and made me jerk my neck to the side and away but then he did it again, grabbed it. I thought of a nature documentary I saw once where they showed a man knee-deep in a swamp holding a baby alligator between two hands, how he had two fingers held like this boy’s, this boy whose party it is tonight, and when he held the alligator’s jaw in this way it had to open it, but it was frozen, its jaw locked and all its teeth, for all their scariness and sharpness, were useless and still in this man’s enthusiastic grasp.
When we got to the bus stop I said very firmly and pleasantly, like I was talking to a child, ‘I’m going home now, thanks for walking me.’ I screwed my head from his grasp like a particularly hard lid pried free from the bottle.
I was just getting my phone out to see when the next bus was when he came up behind me and put his head on the right side of my neck. He breathed on me a bit. I moved away again but he pulled my right shoulder back towards him and kissed me. I pushed him away and sort of patted him in a way I thought was kind. I tried to raise the blue searching light of my phone between us but he grabbed my wrist and pushed his head underneath it until, in an odd turn of events, he was hunched over and I was the one who appeared to have him in a headlock, his hand still latched on hard to my wrist. He stuck his head back into my neck again and moved his mouth around. I wriggled a bit, but I couldn’t move. It reminded me of playing a game with my father, one of my only memories of him, where he’d put his hand flat on my forehead and tell me to ‘take a swing’, and then laugh and laugh as my short arms flailed in the air between us, trying to please him as he pushed me to arm’s length.
With his free hand the boy grabbed my right boob and gave it a rough, strange spin. I felt another rush of love for the jacket, that half-centimetre of leather like a bulletproof vest. He rubbed his palm around, his breath heavy with beer. I felt bile bobbing in my throat. I pushed my head to the side to avoid his breath and in a moment of clarity, I remembered an episode of Oprah I watched once with my mother. It was an educational episode on what to do if you were being raped. Oprah did an experiment in which an actress on the street, being dragged away by a man, yelled ‘Help, I don’t know this man! Help!’ Everyone ignored her. I particularly remembered Oprah’s serene and comforting face when she told everyone watching to always yell, ‘FIRE’ instead. When the rape actress yelled ‘FIRE!’, everyone looked at her with concern, as if they could at last see her flaming.
So I took a breath and shouted, ‘FIRE’, but my voice didn’t come out, it was more of a strangled whisper, and none of the lights in any of the windows turned on but the boy did drop my boob and dip out from under my arm and say, ‘What?’
I opened and closed my mouth.
He took a step back.
‘You know, you just have to say if you don’t like me,’ he said.
‘I don’t like you,’ I said, quickly.
He turned around and punched the plastic wall of the bus stop so the whole thing shuddered. I felt the tremor of it like it was happening within my own heart. Then he shouted much louder than I did and a light in the block of flats switched on above us. A shadow-head popped up like a puppet in the high yellow square. We both looked at it together, now politely side-by-side as though we had never touched.
‘Fucking bitch,’ he said, softly, before walking off into the dark. The yellow light stayed on in an angelic way, until I was on the bus. I stared at it as the bus wound down the road. As we turned the corner, it switched off like a breath being let go.
Jess spins back round the corner and triumphantly clambers out of the dealer’s car. She holds my hand, the plastic packet between our palms like a sticker. We hide in the doorway of the real estate office. My stomach tightens like my intestines have gone in for an impressive handshake with each other. Jess seems fine. She does a couple of bumps with her house key and then hands it to me, and I copy her, two for two, and then she does another two and puts the keys in her pocket, pats it sweetly and then pats my head. ‘Let’s go,’ she says.
I don’t see who opens the door. Two rows of people in the hallway face each other, breathing furiously in and out of multi-coloured balloons. Jess sneaks her hand into mine and we wait a little awkwardly for the balloons to deflate. The hand Jess doesn’t hold is starting to hurt, the handle of the plastic bag grooves into my skin, weighed down with its cans. The balloons shrink up. The blowers laugh maniacally, fall onto each other. The bus-stop boy is not in the hallway. The laughs drain out of all their faces as we watch.
‘Let’s go smoke,’ says Jess. Her nails dig into my palm. The hallway is very narrow. We march through, pressed between bodies. On the stairs a girl is holding her phone to her ear and crying, eyeliner cracking and melting down her cheeks. She stares at us and bares her teeth. We push through the hallway. In the kitchen, another girl is perched on the counter, wearing a gold leotard, her hair gelled back and her ponytail so high as to be horizontal. She grips a boy between her bare legs and swings his head from side to side.
Another boy films them on his phone. The two boys are laughing but she is not. She looks at us, too. We walk past. The kitchen joins onto a living room, where maybe a dozen people are dancing. Four of them gyrate back and forth along each other, three girls behind a boy, the three girls dancing much more extravagantly. The boy looks a little crumpled by them, like he has gained an unwieldy hunchback. A few others swing around each other, their arms bound around necks and waists. ‘I know you want it!’ sings the song. ‘I know you want it!’ everyone goes. We walk through them with difficulty. Someone’s hand strokes under my ass. I grip Jess’s hand. There are big glass doors leading to the garden.
We open the doors and someone yells, ‘Shut the door!’ I shut the door behind me.
The garden is dark. From the light falling out of the living room I can make out some bins, a girl pushing a boy against the far fence on the other side of the overgrown grass. The grass is blackened in the dark. Delilah sits cross- legged in a patch of light. She is wearing a white baby doll dress. I am thrilled I threw mine swiftly away after the bus stop night. She hasn’t got a coat on. Her arms and face are the same colour as the dress, but her black tights and ballet slippers blend into the black grass, so she looks as though she has grown straight out of the ground.
‘Delilah!’ says Jess, who immediately sits down beside her, throws an arm around her. I stand stupidly. I take a can out of the bag and it spits froth everywhere. I take a stroppy gulp. I don’t understand why she is being nice to Delilah. We are the bitches! I remind her, telepathically. I am drunk, I remind myself, proudly.
‘Don’t be greedy,’ says Jess. She takes her arm from around Delilah to take a can. I can’t remember which one we are on. When do I stop remembering?
‘You okay, Dee?’ says Jess. ‘You want a beer?’
Delilah looks at me. I slowly hand her one of the precious four we have left. ‘Thanks,’ she says.
‘You okay?’ says Jess. ‘Listen, I’m sorry if I was kind of a bitch in that workshop today. I think your stuff is really good. Genuine. Like, you’ve actually been through shit, unlike all these idiots.’
When she says ‘all these idiots’, she waves her hand towards the house at large, me included. I take another long gulp of beer. The bumps have worn off. I can feel my lips scabbing.
The glass doors open again. The bus-stop boy comes out into the dark, holding a huge Sports Direct mug.
‘Oh, woah, hey,’ he says. He looks at Delilah. ‘Introduce me, Didi!’
I fold my arms over my boobs, but the feel of my own arms on them makes me shake. Delilah makes a folded-up noise. Jess looks between us, then narrows her eyes at the boy.
‘Whose this fuckhead?’ she says. Some small part of me cheers. Delilah is shaking in her silly white dress.
The boy smiles at Jess.
‘Who are you?’ he says.
Jess ignores him. She gets out the little white bag and does a key. I’m relieved when she hands it to me. Then she makes a key and hands it to Delilah who stares at her, terrified. Jess takes it.
‘Got one of those for me?’ says the boy.
‘No,’ says Jess.
‘Why?’ His voice tightens up a little. ‘What, you don’t like me? How come You been saying something?’
He looks at Delilah, who stares at her white lap. Jess raises up one of her taloned hands and wriggles her fingers at him as though to dismiss him. He looks between Delilah and Jess and then turns to me. I raise my beer can to my face hoping the bottom eclipses it, not wanting him to recognise me, not wanting him to tell Jess. I wish I’d never told her anything. I wish I never said any words ever. Someone starts playing the same song again. The can’s empty. I have to put it down to get another.
‘Hey, I recognise you,’ says the bus-stop boy, and smiles. He puts a hand on my arm, as if to turn me a little more towards him, not hard. I raise my eyebrows hard and try to make an apathetic face, biting both rows of my teeth together. I try to separate myself from my body, imagine myself quickly as someone else. Jess? She is staring at us, her eyes narrowed. Delilah? She is saying something in Jess’s ear. The dancers in the living room? Are they happy? Are they winning? Is anyone? The girl pushes the boy against the fence with another slam. I don’t want to be anyone. I feel the fingers of bus- stop boy on my arm. I think how underneath our skins we are all ridiculous- looking skeletons, just bony jokes. I’d like to be bone. Would I like to be dead? Not in a morose way, just for the peace. I’d like to sleep. I’d like to be held and not be horrified. Maybe that happens when you’re dead.
‘Just let me liberate you!’ sings the man in the song.
Jess stands up and carefully takes the bus-stop boy’s hand off my arm. She holds it in hers. She is at least three inches taller than him. Her nails stick out between his fingers like claws.
‘Let’s dance,’ she says, and marches him off into the living room.
‘Shut the door!’ the room yells.
The door is shut.
I sit down beside Delilah and start to roll a cigarette. Her head is still lowered.
‘I’d never kissed a boy before,’ she whispers.
I think of the wedding dresses. I don’t know what to say. I can’t hug her and I don’t want to tell her I’m the same because I don’t want to be the same as Delilah. But I take her hand. I feel it tense up so I stop holding it, give no pressure at all, just let my hand flop on hers. I give it a little stroke. With my free hand I take a long slug of beer, ready to stop remembering.
‘Look,’ says Delilah.
I look up. The air has tightened with silence, and I realise someone has stopped playing the song at last. In the living room, the dancers are clearing the floor. Two people crouch on the armchair as if they have just leaped there. One boy is flattening himself further against the wall. In the centre, Jess and the bus-stop boy are circling each other slowly, the circles getting wider as the dancers give them room.
‘What are they doing?’ Delilah asks. ‘Are they dancing?’
An image of the future blows out before me then. Delilah, married, teaching, will win a poetry prize in her sixties. The cover will have a raven with a rose stem in its mouth. I will give up writing completely, fall into a job writing copy for a weekly vegetable box delivery service, admired for my produce- based puns. I’ll end up with someone nice, and I’ll betray them carefully with someone horrible. At the end of my life I’ll curl up like a dried leaf and blow away, leaving no trace, and this will be a comfort.
Jess stops circling. She holds up three fingers, folds one down, then another. The bus-stop boy laughs, looks around the room, but no one else is laughing. Jess folds down the last finger, then immediately darts in at the boy with one arm raised as if to punch him. The boy ducks under her fast, spins back and catches her round the waist. He bends her over, gets her in a headlock. Delilah lets out a little gasp. The boy is still laughing, looking around the room as if to find someone to give the laugh to. Jess flails her arms madly upwards like tentacles. The boy stops laughing, his face tightening as he tries to keep his balance, hold her still. Slaps and breaths travel muffled through the window. The crowd around are blank-faced, staring. One girl silently holds up a phone.
Jess kicks her feet back and with her right foot she manages to crack one of the boy’s knees. It sounds wonderful, the crack. It slides right through the glass to us. His mouth buds upwards, and he must soften his grip because Jess pulls his arm off her neck and throws him off with such force that he spins away. He lands against the counter that separates the living room from the kitchen, gripping it with both knuckles. She marches over behind him before he has a chance to get away, grabs him by his right shoulder and flips him over to face her like she’s opening a book. Then she puts both of her hands on his shoulders, pushing him down firmly. He wriggles a little, and then she lifts him up by both shoulders before throwing his whole weight back against the counter, where his head clips the edge. He slithers down to the floor, his eyes still open. I look for blood but none arrives. Still, he stops trying to move. He watches her like the rest of us. Like she has become inevitable, which is what I have always known. She kneels down over him, locking his arms to his sides with her long legs. Then she raises one arm towards the ceiling, her red nails catching the light as she lowers one perfect scalloped point towards the boy’s eyeball.
Beside me, Delilah makes a sound, like a breath is being torn out of her. I think she is crying, and I’m about to force myself to hug her, but when I turn to look at her, she is grinning, shaking with laughter, the kind of laughter that is so hard it hurts. Looking at her makes me start too. I feel the laugh brew in my stomach, stretch my lungs apart and skip up my throat. I stop watching the fight. I throw my head back to the empty-starred sky instead, take a breath to prepare. The cackle that comes is as long as a howl, as sharp as a scream.