Desire Lines is a short story written by Cara George.
Noun. Desire line (plural desire lines). A path that pedestrians or vehicles take informally rather than taking a pavement or set route, for example, a well-worn ribbon of dirt cutting across a patch of grass or a path in the snow.
Desire line: The packed Swedish-cum-brutalist café they used to go to on a Saturday in Hackney. She liked chic places that were small and too hot for him but just about warmed her skinny frame. He would buy a paper, the right kind that sat on the left wing, bulging with gloss and breeze about London pubs with fires that felt like they belonged in the Cotswolds and recipes that required avocado oil. He’d get there early and attempt to secure their favourite ply-clad seat in the corner. Spread widely enough to save her a space, which she required little of, he would wait in discomfort for her arrival. She would come straight from Bikram yoga in head-to-flexible-toe pastel Lycra or sometimes his Darth Vader t-shirt and her painting leggings. Her moods and choices followed no pattern, or one so vast he never saw it unfurl to completion to learn its repetitions. Occasionally she gave a shit about what she looked like so much they couldn’t leave the flat until she had undergone three outfit changes. Other times, she wouldn’t even glance in any of their six mirrors before exiting the building. He suspected she knew that she was too beautiful to need to verify this fact by consulting her reflection. She liked to play with the idea of being invisible because it was novel to someone who attracts so much attention. Certain elements were constant; they always had two matcha lattes and one cinnamon bun, which he felt was too small to be shared. Think of it like an atom, she said once, even more amazing once split.
Reroute: A single Pret instant-coffee to go. No, he does not have a reusable cup. He wants a fucking coffee not kudos from Extinction Rebellion. Although he does actually miss the bamboo mug for life – she christened it the Forever Cup – which she took with her in an unexpectedly selfish gesture. She left his Darth Vader t-shirt that she slept in, sweated through, painted on and shrunk-washed but she took the mug. A mistake surely, to take the Forever Cup she gave him and leave her scent on his now child-sized t-shirt? He likes to think it was an error and not a malicious move. That would turn her into the Typical Ex and that would change everything he thought he knew about her.
Desire line: An arc of bleached-blue sky in Battersea park. Wide strides over muddied puddles. Her in his wellies. Clouds of pink cherry blossom petals scattered over them – just them – as Spring flirted with summer and blew them a warm breeze. Happiness, he thought, this must look like happiness from the outside. He held her around the waist, careful not to let his hand feel her ribbiness that became impossible to skim over. Her bones shocked him like a slap. When she saw him flinch and a smile cracked across her face. She slipped her ring-finger hand into his fleeced pocket. He can’t remember when he started to buy fleece garments but he knows getting old with someone else felt less like the cliff-face drop-off he was expecting. What was scary was that she didn’t appear to age, despite the shrinking. He tried not to feel jealous and just feel proud every time she was asked for ID in the pub. He hoped she couldn’t see the very slight thinning and greying he tried to conceal with a new collection of hats bought in the same shop as the fleece. She’s short and not too affectionate. No risk of her bony hands running through his diminishing hair. An uncountable noun, she announced when he bent down to help her dislodge his wellie from a surprisingly deep puddle of mud that had spectacular suction power. Hair, like furniture, is a mass noun, she rearticulated. Uncountable.
Reroute: Peabody Estate, hopping through a scattering of used-needles and pools of stagnating piss. The ground is the most natural place to urinate. Only human animals choose to eat, sleep and defecate in separate places. The birds and other happy creatures really don’t feel the need for zoned-living. He ducks behind a communal bin and takes a piss into his emptied Pret coffee cup, smug to be reusing what was sold as a one-job only vessel. He can’t quite relax enough to relieve himself straight onto the floor in broad daylight. He thinks he might be able to next time.
Desire line: A stop-off at the antique shop by Regent’s canal. She would hunt through the new stock of glass having charmed the owner into giving her first-scavenger’s rights. She’d hurtle out with cat-sized glass vases that he would have to carry home. He had to be careful not to hold them too tightly for fear of causing a hairline crack that would become horribly apparent once water was introduced. She always picked green glass, Depression glass from the 1920s, impregnated with uranium. He would string tubes of LED dark-lights around their living room in June for the mid-summer glow parties she would throw. At 2am the room would be dipped into eerie blueness to reveal the radioactive secrets of her glass collection. Their guests would gasp. Even the ones who came every year.
Reroute: Extended journey time of ten minutes to scurry along the excrement-smeared slime paths next to the canal. He’s forced into a contorted bow to avoid contact with the seeping underbellies of the bridges he now passes below, rather than over. Something about the feral stench brings him back to the idea that he might be okay without her. Better, even. Like a weed that is jettisoned from the lowly dankness of the perirenal border to the lofty and ripe disorder of the top of the compost heap. The idea was always there: the urge to be wild and antidomestic. She never asked or enforced tameness. She hated it too. Where did that pressure to change come from? He will give the fleeces away and ditch the hats. He will rewild. He will shave the last of the uncountables off his head. Why cling to what gravity will take in the end?
Desire line: The flower shop at the end of their street [at the end of what was their street]. He would text her a colour on Friday mornings, as soon as he got into the office. Red. She would reply at lunchtime with a picture containing the shade she wanted. A zoomed-in selfie of her parted berried lips was rare – she avoided delivering the expected – but not unknown. A blurry snatched image of a colleague’s bad DIY hair re-colouring was cruelly funny. He would select flowers to match her preferred tone that day. She would arrange the stems into architectural spirals in her radioactive glassware. It was enough for a while, but he knew there are only so many times you can go through the colour spectrum before even orchids become dull.
Reroute: Uber home. Fuck it. Still cheaper than Friday flowers.
Desire line: The bench on the top of the peak of Hampstead Heath. The whole city could be devoured at a glance from that seat on a rare, smog-less day. They took in the view at dusk, when the bench was invariably empty and the city was always winking with nocturnal promises. To the rhythm of a child’s heartbeat, she said the last time, the lights flash faster than an adult heart should beat. When they had had enough of their cramped, flower-stuffed, glassy flat she would announce the need for a bench-mark moment. Without a word they would make the hour-long trip on foot, bus, foot, bike, foot. Decompressed but tired by the time they reached the bench, they’d settle into each other’s bodies under a blanket and in silence. Discreetly, they shed their clothes like snails becoming slugs. Naked, cold, hot, soft and hard they would sit still until the bench had left its mark on each of their bodies. Strips of indentations, depressing their flesh into regulated and mirrored patterns.
New route: 11 stops on the Northern Line. Zone 1, 2, 3.