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Rachel Mendel

Extract from a novel

She picked up a pair of nail scissors from the clutter on my desk, began worrying split ends out of her mass of blonde hair, snipping them straight onto the floorboards. I passed her a piece of paper to cut on to, which she looked at blankly, then replaced on the desk.

‘Yeah. No. I don’t know. Ollie’s so-ooo sweet,’ and her voice became a little bit louder here, a little more upper-class, even, ‘he made sure I got home safely, bless him. Paid for a black cab. He got out to walk me to the door of our block, obviously – and when he leaned in for a goodnight kiss –’ here her tone faltered, became slightly hysterical‘ – he asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend on Facebook!’

‘Wow,’ I said, straight-faced. ‘What did you say?’

‘I said – I said I wasn’t sure. So then he kind of laughed it off and ran back to the cab, and when it drove away he was still watching me –’

‘He must like you a lot.’

Beaux looked at me, uncertainly. ‘Yes, I know he does. But now, it’s like – he wants to be with me, and I’m like – I think he’s really nice, but he’s, like –’ and she cast a bitter look at me, as if it were my fault Tom Nelson had come along and reminded her what Ollie was like, when it was, in fact, entirely her own. ‘We’re not together yet. And I don’t want to just sleep with him if we’re not going out. I’m not a slag.’

I ignored the obviousness of the dig – as a matter of fact, I hadn’t had sex with Nelson, anyway. I’d wanted to, ached to, even – but every time we came close I found myself diverting him to other activities, making excuses. She’d walked in on me giving him head in the kitchen a few days before though, which, to an outsider, was probably very much the same thing.

‘That’s a strange definition of the word “slag”,’ I said, conversationally. ‘Is it better to hold out, do you think, until you’re getting something in exchange for the favour? Isn’t that itself a bit like prostitution?’

‘I don’t think it’s prostitution to want a man to be exclusive with me if I’m giving myself to him,’ Beaux snapped.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Sex isn’t a deposit which you get swindled out of if you end up changing your mind about the house. Isn’t it supposed to be about mutual attraction?’

Beaux considered my statement – I wondered if she’d ever thought about attraction at all, if she’d ever thought deeply about any man beyond simply evaluating whether or not her parents would consider him to be a ‘safe bet’.

‘Yeah,’ she said, eventually. ‘Of course it’s about that. But how do you even know for sure if you fancy a guy in the first place? Like, I’ll be sitting there with Ollie – and he’s tall, and he’s so well connected, and he takes me to such nice places – and then someone like…someone else will turn up, and then how am I supposed to  know?’

I was only half-listening to her, letting my thoughts skip to private places as I quietly formulated my own theory of attraction. I’d been rolling a joint off the tray I kept by my bed: I waited til I’d licked and sealed the rizla before answering Beaux.

‘Never fuck anyone whose arsehole you wouldn’t lick. That’s my moral code when it comes to sex. And it’s seriously the deepest and best advice which I can give anyone. Think about it –’

‘That’s completely disgusting, Alicia. I’m not going to lick his…we’re not even going out.’

‘You’re misunderstanding me. I’m qualifying the morality behind you sleeping with this guy, not telling you how to do it. What I’m saying is –’

‘What you’re saying is that it’s immoral for me to sleep with Ollie?’

‘I’m not saying that at all. You’re asking how you can know if you ought to sleep with him. You’re asking if, as you’re not officially together, that would make you a slag –’

Beaux tried to protest, but I kept talking as though she’d not spoken, ‘ – and I’m saying, no, not necessarily – not as long as theoretically, and only theoretically mind, you would voluntarily lick his arsehole.’

Beaux looked quite upset by this apparent inversion of common sense.

‘Right, so by your logic, I’m a slut and I haven’t even slept with him yet, whereas Christine Moranson and her brigade of anal fisting boyfriends are basically the Twelve Disciples of the Apostle.’

‘I’m not saying that at all. It’s a question of personal choice. And of standards. You remember Andrew, right? The Canadian guy I was seeing before the summer. Ok, so you know what he was like about women – told me straight up the second time I met him that he wouldn’t fuck a woman if she had a single hair on her body apart from on her head. Wouldn’t go down on me even though I complied. Yeah? Squeamish, selfish or immature, whatever you wanna call it. Ok, so we’re hung over on the tube, right, on our way to get a fry up at Dixon’s Cottage –’

‘Isn’t that in Borough?’

‘Yeah, well, that was Andrew for you. He wouldn’t go one inch out of his way to meet in the middle.  Anyway. So we saw this little girl – I swear she must’ve been fourteen –  she’d got those jeans on, right, the kind so tight she’d probably be three inches shorter if she took them off, and one of those clip-on blond ponytails where there’s this like, tuft of chopped hair sticking out either side of it where the real hair ends – totally gross, but she had a hard little body on her – Andrew was a complete fucking paedophile anyway – he goes, just sort of under his breath, like he’d forgotten I was there: Man I would totally lick that girl’s asshole. And then again: I would so lick that girl’s asshole.’

Beaux looked momentarily nonplussed, before responding exactly how I’d expected her to.

‘What a creep. You know, I always thought he was weird. Whenever I’d come into the kitchen he’d always look at me in my shorts…’

‘Yeah yeah.’ I said, dismissively. ‘That’s not the point. The point is, he’d look at other girls all the time, right, but what he said then – that actually upset me. I didn’t say anything – I was all hung over and looking like shit underneath the tube lights, and what he’d said had embarrassed me, somehow, I didn’t want to look at him – no, I didn’t want him to look at me – so I took my time getting out of the station as if I didn’t even notice that he wasn’t waiting for me anyway, and I sat across from him on one of those exposed uncomfortable benches in Dixon’s Cottage, and let him eat my mushrooms and sausages and thought about how he never, ever kissed me in public and how once I text him this drunk picture of myself in lingerie and he never even text me back –’

‘You never told me that – you always said he was sweet with you, that he was a bit damaged –’

‘It was complicated.’ It was your time. But Beaux couldn’t be trusted with that complex, delicate segment of information: it melted in my mouth like a sliver of French cheese. I told her a different version of the same truth instead, sticking as close to the relevancies as possible.

‘He was a very intelligent alcoholic and he’d just come out of a serious relationship. And it wasn’t as if I actually liked him as a person. He was a massive drag. Do you remember the way he used to go on about things? “I’ve fucked this and I’ve snorted that and sold them and lived there and been places, man”, and he seemed so old the way he went on about being a teenager in fucking Canada all the time. His voice, his body, his tattoo – those were the only reasons I went out with him.’

‘Yeah, I remember you saying that at the time. You’re forgetting something else –’

‘That comes under “body”.’

We laughed briefly, and then Beaux put her innocent face back on.

‘Still, I can’t believe you never told me any of this. I thought he really, you know, liked you.’

The obviousness of its execution rendered her attack harmless, almost cute, leaving her sounding like a child mimicking her mother’s voice. I watched as she shook her hair forwards, isolated a single thread and snipped it contemptuously, as though brushing away a beggar’s hand.

‘I have my pride,’ I said. ‘Imagine if your boyfriend said he’d lick some other girl’s arsehole when he’s never even licked yours. It’s pretty terrible, isn’t it?’

Beaux looked at me, and I could tell she was wondering what’s wrong with my arsehole.

‘I guess. Not that I’d let anyone anywhere near my…you know.’

‘Why not if they wanted to? And anyway, you’re still not getting my point. The point is, I went home and I thought about it, and I realised I wouldn’t want to lick that fucker’s arsehole either. I’d got near it when I was sucking his dick, and it smelled like it was on fucking fire. There I was, listening to his nonsense stories as if I believed them and letting him act big in front of his friends and letting him meddle with me and Tom, for God’s sake…’

From the way Beaux’s eyes popped when I said your name, I could tell she’d thought first of Tom Nelson, then jumped in confusion to you: I saw her face flinch and draw tight with envy, then blossom in surprise and embarrassment. She settled finally on concern – too-sweet, heavy and stiff like cold honey. I ignored her. ‘…when I didn’t even properly fancy the guy. And that was when I realised – he must’ve just been using me for sex.’

Beaux said nothing, still looking sorry for me in a way which tried the limits of my patience. It struck me as being the machinated sympathy of superiority – her trying to get one over me as a woman, rather than relate to me as a person. Despite the heavy undertones of the conversation, what it really came down to for her was this: Andrew tapping me on the shoulder in the queue to the student union, some nine months before, asking me to put my cigarette out, flirting and bantering with me, Andrew committing the crime of (as Beaux saw it) picking me. My words dressed her old wound – I could easily have torn it open, Nelson’s name alone would have cut her deeply. But I refused to be dragged into scoring points off Beaux. It wasn’t her fault that this female jousting, these tournaments, still mattered to her but no longer mattered to me. I tried to explain.

‘You see, licking arsehole – that’s the kind of attraction which goes beyond logic or disgust, the kind of attraction which makes two bodies chemically react. That’s the normal way of things. But with Andrew – I’d have done it if he’d asked me even though I wasn’t attracted to him. And that’s a dangerous relationship, a relationship of control. I thought about the guys who’ve been really crazy about me, and they’ve always been drawn towards my arsehole at some point – going a bit south when they’re eating you out, a bit north when you’re doing  it doggy style, or getting a bit over-enthusiastic with their fingers. You know what I mean?’

Beaux’s face was straining with the effort of demonstrating that she had precisely no idea what I meant, and nor did she want to. I laughed.

‘Don’t look at me like that, you know exactly what I’m talking about, you’re not a virgin. Fuck, when I was going out with Elliot, he was always trying to get his hand down there for a “laugh” – he picked me up from work one time – I’d been rushed off my feet all day working up a sweat, and when he hugged me hello he slipped his fingers right the way down my arse-crack – Jesus, I was so embarrassed – and I caught him smelling his fingers afterwards. Face it, your arse is your chemical essence, it’s the hole which leads to your soul. I think to really fancy you, to really want you, a guy needs to have that level of attraction. Andrew just wanted to fuck me, he didn’t want to connect. And for me, the relationship had already gone beyond that. So that was why I broke up with him in the end.’

‘Because you started to have feelings and he wasn’t interested?’

‘No. Because I’d have licked his arsehole for the wrong reasons and he wouldn’t have licked mine at all. And I didn’t have feelings, I had slim pickings. ’

Beaux fished a Dior lipstick up from the clutter on my desk, applied it with an expression of intense self-love and smacked her lips together disapprovingly.

‘I still don’t see what this has to do with me and Ollie…he’s obviously crazy about me and I’m sure he’d do that, if I wanted him to, which I don’t.’

I lost patience with the conversation.

‘Ollie obviously would lick your arsehole. You obviously wouldn’t lick his. Which means you’re lowering yourself if you have sex with him because you don’t really fancy him, and what’s worse is you’re using him, because you know how much he likes you. That is my point.’

‘Using him for what?’

There was a pause where neither of us said the obvious, before Beaux spoke again.

‘Would you lick Tom Nelson’s arsehole?’

A beatific smile spread across my face.

‘Beaux, I would bend that guy over and eat him out with a spoon.’

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