The Big Other
Extract from a novel
Men hate condoms but can’t admit why. Usually our excuse is the extra pressure they bring into the room, that half a minute interval to cordon everything off before the moment deflates. Although in this respect we don’t help ourselves, the precursory ‘just a sec’ imposing the expectations, most of us have learnt to deal with it. Sometimes we’ll say some crap about their sobering effect, that their creepy, synthetic feel is a timely reminder of why you should never think about what you’re doing while you’re having sex (it produces one of two outcomes, both an unsatisfactory and early finish). Justifications like these aren’t right and I’m big enough to face the real reason: it’s because they convert our efforts into something tangible, something comparable: data ready for analysis. It’s because they renew the questions in the back of our minds: did we do enough? Did we win? Invariably the answer is no. But the truth is we could never drown out these phantom voices because all men fall short of what’s asked of them, of the tasks we set ourselves. This is what the condom means to us.
Victoria reached into her bedside drawer and I knelt behind, desperate to annihilate the memory of her affair. They’d probably fucked loads and I hoped they had, ‘just once’ was always worse. ‘Just once’ played on the minds of all involved because a single, spectacular job left fantasies unharmed and desire unquenched. I needed to smooth out every wrinkle and obliterate her memory of the guy.
Folded over on her side with an unnaturally tanned leg jolted out, Victoria moaned as she strained her right hand and scratched through the drawer for a condom. The sounds jeered at me, stinging my groin. She grimaced and kicked out at the duvet for balance. That generously freckled face had never shown me anything but mild satisfaction, so the more discomfort she displayed, the more I was sure the whole situation was my failing.
She was taking too long in her drawer. That fucking drawer. I hated that drawer. I’d never once seen inside it, and if I was honest I was thankful for this; her college pencil case of contraceptives, marked by Tipp-Ex of teenage fumbles, was enough additional anxiety on a normal evening. Whatever lurked beneath the rattling strips of pills and bottles of lotion would only demonstrate new inadequacies – ignorance I was in no shape to explore.
A droop-on isn’t normally a big deal as long as it is approached with confidence, dealt with up front. But as I felt weakness creep up my thighs, I tried to counteract gravity by tensing my arse cheeks.
‘No,’ I said.
‘Take your time won’t you?’ I tried to joke but it came out sharper than I’d intended.
She turned round, and without looking directly at me, tossed the pen-purse between my cold thighs. ‘What’s wrong?’
Well the answer was obvious: some guy had wedged his way into my love life, attaining that sought after accolade of balls deep. Congratulations pal, you’ve fucked me too.
I swallowed at the air. ‘Nothing. Just tired.’
In business-like silence she lurched over, laid me back (which only added to my frustration) and went to work. I tried to stop Victoria by gently pulling her up but this movement was counterintuitive – men are brought up with the image of fellatio basically being a push south against a certain amount of resistance, so my effort was rather half-arsed. Like most being fucked over, to protect the ego, I presumed I was up against some Greek god, a ripped and bronzed Adonis tearing his way through my girlfriend behind my back. Now this was quite natural. I told myself there was nothing I could have done to prevent it and I calmed down. This was until I realised that such a guy wouldn’t be getting sucked off so passively.
Even if Victoria resuscitated me, in my eyes I’d already failed – I wasn’t supposed to need her help. Quite the opposite. It was clear from the way she went on wincing in disgust that she very much agreed with me: our relationship was dead. Ejaculation educates the mind to fear death, each petite mort teaches us in real life to hold off just a little longer. With my own expiration (in both senses) anywhere but near, what seemed worse to me was being forgotten. You can have a relationship go to shit as long as you’re the one they think of each night some paunchy estate agent red-faces from behind. You’ve got to admire those old men whose wives hold out for years long after they’ve croaked it. Maybe that’s the ultimate goal, fuck off early but leave a hole so gaping it can’t be fixed by anyone else. But this would never happen with Victoria and this realisation cut like hell. When I died I wanted Victoria at my funeral reading my eulogy to a hall of friends and family, to a full room of faceless grey blurs, because that’s how you measure someone’s worth: by how crowded and sad it is at the end, by how long after you’ve gone people speak your name. Victoria gagged and swept hair from her mouth, and I figured my buffet had better be a good one.
‘Listen, I can’t do this,’ she said.
‘Well, look you don’t have to, we’ll just put on a film or something.’
‘No, Edward. This.’ She stuck out her neck, and with her hand gestured back and forth at the space between us. ‘Me and you.’
I couldn’t believe it; she’d got in there before me. Fucking somebody else I could have dealt with (albeit eventually); be the bigger man, open my arms and say, ‘come home, get back to me, I’ll make you forget him’, but for stripping me of all ammunition I’d never forgive her. To add to the insult I felt my dick getting predictably hard.
‘What? Why?’ These questions were as stupid as her one earlier.
Victoria leaned over to switch on the bedside lamp and I smelt her warm hair as the curls shook against her right cheek, sparking a memory I couldn’t place.
‘Look, Edward –’
‘Is there someone else?’
‘Jesus. I think you should go.’
I wanted to grab the face of the Adonis and push my thumbs into his sockets until he cried for me to stop. I wanted to smash it. To shatter it and roll Victoria’s arching back across the shards. I wanted to cause her some damage if I had to leave.
‘There’s someone else, isn’t there?’ I knew this insecurity was unattractive but I couldn’t help myself.
‘Look, just go will you?’
‘It’s someone else.’
‘There’s no one else.’
‘Can’t I stay, it’s nearly one?’ I figured if I could hang around, I’d be able to change her mind.
She pulled on a t-shirt I didn’t recognise. ‘You’re on the couch out there if you stay.’
Kingsland High Street was pissed-up and I hailed a black cab; I was still partially asleep or maybe half-cut from the wine at dinner, either way too tired and ashamed for public transport. The cab winked orange to pull in while fag ash from the dank pavement burnt my nose.
‘Crouch End, mate.’
Thankfully the cabbie started talking on his phone so I dozed in the back. Victoria had eventually kicked me out because I’d tried to sneak back into her room after a strategic (and agonising) half an hour wait. I’d tried playing the sympathy card – crying as I walked in. Shit, what had led me to think this was the quality play I’ll never know. But I shuffled in saying her name as meekly as I could. In fact that wasn’t the hard part, the whole act came surprisingly easy to me, to the point I began to doubt whether it was an act at all. Was I actually this upset about the whole thing? I’d decided that this couldn’t be confirmed either way, and that it was probably best for me to just nip the whole thing in the bud there and then by any means possible. Obviously it hadn’t worked, it had just pissed her off, and this was why I was in a cab on my own.
The Adonis was probably round there, fucking her awake right this second. It amazed me just how quickly you could be forgotten when you were alive. I smeared the condensation on the window to look at the metronomic passing of the streetlights thrusting by. I’d done really well tonight; I’d failed tremendously. Undoubtedly my behaviour would get around. Victoria would be vlogging tomorrow and it was a matter of time until her friends (my friends) knew all about my behaviour. It would spread through work. Any chance of rebound poon was simply off the cards. My only hope would be that the Adonis would fix her so well that she’d forget the whole evening. I swallowed the taste of salt. Go on son.