It’s summer time. The car is stuffy and the smell of hot engine makes me feel sick. I ask Ben if I can open the window.
“Sure,” he says. He turns the key in the ignition and the window slides down. A breeze blows into the car, cool and sweet, but my nausea doesn’t go away.
“I hate the heat,” I say.
“It’s better than being too cold.”
“No,” I say. “I’d rather be too cold. Then I can put clothes on and warm up.”
“But in the heat you can take clothes off.”
I turn my head. His eyes meet mine and I feel sick in a different way.
“This is the last time,” I say.
He nods. “Last time.”
“I mean it, Ben.”
He extends his right hand. “So do I.”
We shake hands, and then we kiss.
He drives me back into the city and stops a street away from my house.
“You’re busy tonight, aren’t you?”
Ben slides his hands up and down the steering wheel.
“Oh,” I say. I keep my hands in my lap and try to keep them there. “Doing what?”
“Gemma’s calling from Germany.”
I stare down at my feet. My cheeks feel hot.
“I thought you had plans tonight too.”
I look up. His green eyes are watching me. “What?”
“Oh,” I say. I look back down and pick at a thread on my skirt. “That’s Wednesday.”
“Call him up and ask to go today. You’re free.”
“But he might not be. We picked a day, and we have to stick to it.”
His hands aren’t on the steering wheel any more and mine aren’t in my lap.
“I’m going to go,” I say, but his fingers feel warm in mine.
“Okay,” he says.
He doesn’t let go of my hand.
His phone vibrates. I don’t want him to look, but it’s best he does. We both know that. He reaches into his pocket.
“It’s just Gemma,” he says. He lets go of my hand starts to reply, and I decide I don’t like how after spending three years of their lives together, she’s ‘just Gemma.’
“I should go,” I say. I take off my seatbelt and place my hand on the door.
Ben puts down his phone. The text he sent is still on display; I lose count of the ‘x’s on the end.
“You can stay a bit longer if you want.”
“University starts again in two weeks. I have lots of reading to do.”
“So do I.”
I don’t look up. “I really should go.”
Just like that. ‘Okay.’
I open the door and climb out. He leans out the window.
“I’ll see you later,” he says, and then he drives away.
I go on a date on Wednesday, but the guy talks for an hour about different kinds of snake, so I knock that one on the head.
I go on a date on Friday, but the guy’s more interested in what’s playing on the pub TV than talking to me, so I knock that one on the head, too.
I go on a date on Saturday, but the guy is already drunk by the time we meet, so that one, also, is knocked on the head.
After each one, I walk myself home. They all offer me a lift, but that was what Ben offered me three weeks ago and look how that turned out. We became a mistake, a fumble on the back seat that went too far.
“We can pretend,” he had said. I had tried to kiss him because in the dark, he’d looked like Luke. “It’s okay. Pretend it isn’t me. As long as we’re here in this car, Han, you can pretend.”
I wanted to stop, but I wanted to pretend more.
I stop walking and pull out my phone.
“Did you know there are more stars in the sky than there
are grains of sand on Earth?”
“Bullshit,” Ben says. “Where did you learn that?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Somewhere.” I lift my arm and trace connections between the stars I can see through the roof window of his car. “My dad, probably.”
“Do you always believe what your parents say?”
He pulls me close. His skin is warm and I don’t want us to put our clothes back on.
“Did you know,” Ben says.
“That your feet are cold.”
I press my feet against his shins. “No way.”
We kiss again and lie on the back seat holding hands.
“Gemma said she met another guy.”
I don’t say anything and wonder why he’s talking about this with me, the girl he shags in the back of his car.
“She’s always meeting guys,” he murmurs. He stares up at the roof and falls silent.
“Well,” I say, “it probably doesn’t mean anything.”
“I know when she’s lying. She says things like ‘it doesn’t matter,’ when really it does.”
“Oh,” I say. “Does she know when you’re lying?”
Ben shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think so. If she did, I don’t think we would’ve got back together.”
“If you didn’t want to be with her, why did you go out with her again?”
“I don’t know,” he says again. His fingers are tight in mine. “Maybe being with someone is better than being alone.”
“Yeah,” I say. My voice sounds funny. “I guess.”
There’s a pause, and then Ben says: “You have to get over Luke one day.”
I can still remember how he kissed me and how he used to hold my hand.
“I want to,” I say.
“It shouldn’t be.”
I ignore him and continue to join up the stars.
“You’re not trying hard enough.”
I hit him. A surprised ‘ow’ resonates in the darkness.
“I am,” I insist.
“So that’s why you’ve turned down every guy you’ve gone out with so far. You’re not trying, Han.”
I decide I don’t want his hands on me anymore and push them away. “Shut up. You’re the one who’s in the car with me,” I say, and then I start to cry.
Ben tries to hug me, but I shove him away.
“It’s okay,” he says, “it’s okay.”
“No it’s not. You’re naked in a car with me and you have
Gemma. It’s not okay.”
“But it makes you feel better.”
“Ben, you’re my friend. We’re not… supposed to do this.”
He takes my hand and kisses my fingertips one by one. His other hand rests on my side and it feels nice.
“We’re pretending,” he says. “And if it makes you feel better, it doesn’t matter.”
Yes it does, but I don’t say that out loud and let him hold me in the dark.
“You have another date tomorrow, don’t you?”
I swallow. “Yeah.”
“Is he nice?”
“I don’t know. I just met him.”
“I was only teasing.”
I sigh. He looks sorry. I wonder if he ever looked at Gemma like that, before she decided to spend her summer wandering across Europe. I wonder how they think they can make it work when they don’t even want to try.
“I know,” I say. “I’m just… looking for someone like him.”
There’s a pause. It’s gone midnight. I sit up and start to look for my clothes.
“Hannah,” Ben says quietly. “He’s gone now.”
I don’t respond and keep looking.
When Luke was still around, he got a set of glow-in-the-dark stars. He bought them the day after we had our first fight. He put them on his ceiling and wouldn’t let me upstairs until it got dark, when the stars glowed green above his bed.
When I went to visit him, we would mess around in bed and then lie naked beneath the sheets. I would reach up and join up the stars with my fingers, and he would say that one day he would take me out and we’d sleep under the real stars. I would say don’t be stupid, we’d get cold, and he would say don’t worry, he’d keep me warm.
I go on a date on Sunday. The guy seems okay and he’s got nice eyes, but I drink too much and he tries to kiss me. He tastes like whiskey and I don’t like it. I shove him away and leave, walking off into the dark. I know I should take the main road home, but I like the quiet of the night, so I choose the back streets instead, getting lost in the quieter parts of the city. The clouds obscure the moon and I play the game I used to play when I was a kid, the one where you’re only safe when you step into puddles of light.
I look up. Everything’s swaying, moving to a rhythm I can’t hear.
I’m outside Ben’s house.
I step up to the door and ring the bell.
He’s still awake. He asks me if I want to go for a drive.
I say I don’t. I want to come inside.
We’re falling though the front door, kissing in the hall and against the wall. We’re in the living room and he tastes funny, like coffee, and I wonder why he would be drinking coffee this late at night. We’re on the sofa and his kiss is rough but his hands are soft and now they’re holding mine. He’s pulling me upright and he’s leading me upstairs, keeping me steady because I’m too drunk to walk. He takes me to his room and kisses me – we’re kissing and we’re in his room, kisses in his room, kisses, kiss me.
My aching head wakes me up the next day. Ben’s arms are warm around my waist and sunlight creeps in through the curtains, making patterns on the floor. I stare at the ceiling. The plaster is cracking around the edges, pulling away from the wall, and the white paint is starting to turn yellow.
Ben’s alarm clock starts beeping. I reach out and try to make it stop, but instead I end up knocking both it and a picture frame on the floor.
The beeping stops. Ben pushes his face into my shoulder and sighs.
I pick up the alarm clock. It doesn’t look broken, but it’s not making ticking noises any more, so I push it to the back of the bedside table just in case. I pick up the photo frame; there’s a picture of Ben and a girl inside. The girl is smiling, and Ben has his hands on her waist.
I drop the frame on the floor again and force off Ben’s arms. “Ben,” I say. “Ben.” He groans and rubs his eyes. “Yeah?” he says. He’s got stubble on his chin and shadows under his eyes. “Ben,” I repeat, sitting up. “Ben. The picture.” “What about it? Hey – are you all right?” “No,” I say, and ask him to pass me the bin. He does, and I throw up into it, a painful mess of vodka and orange juice. “Are you okay?” he asks. He rubs my back and I sit up. “We’re not in your car,” I say. Ben looks like he’s about to say something, but he stops and swallows hard. “No,” he says, “we’re not.” My stomach feels weird, like it’s folding in on itself. Ben picks up the frame and stares at the picture. “I think,” he says, “that… we should stop.” I nod numbly and grip his sheets between my fingers. “Yeah,” I say. “I think we should.”
I go on another date. We talk and laugh and he seems okay, and I let him drive me home. The stars are out, and we sit and watch them from the car.
I let him kiss me. I keep my eyes closed and pretend.