It was a rainy afternoon in June and I was complaining noncommittally to the ceiling. Mould pocked the grey paint like heat rash. Joan lay next to me, taking my arguments in good humour, and drinking directly from a bottle of Prosecco. We had just handed in our dissertation pieces. Education had finally released us back into the wild. But now we were here, I was vaguely aware that everything was going wrong in a way that seemed completely irreversible.
‘You can’t really believe that though,’ said Joan.
‘I do. I really really do.’
‘We have our whole lives ahead of us. This is where it all begins. You’ll see.’
We were twenty-one and believed that we knew everything about the world. We felt it fiercely in our guts.
‘That’s because you don’t understand it,’ I said. ‘You know what you want to do, your whole life is just waiting for you on the other side of your degree.’
Joan pinched my arm and I flicked her cheek sharply.
‘That is not a proportional response, Lena.’
‘I’m not a proportional person.’
I turned onto my side and accepted the bottle from her. She continued to stare at the ceiling, probably imagining the many successes that were surely going to come her way. She was one of those types of people, the ones who always reach the potential described on school report cards.
I considered Joan as I drank from the bottle. She was wearing a glittered polo-neck under vintage corduroy dungarees. Large hoop earrings balanced on her shoulders, off-setting the golden glow of her complexion, and her dark curls spilled across my pillow. Joan had what people in Norfolk called an ‘interesting’ skin colour. She was half Lebanese, half White-British. People didn’t know where to place her. The same as me after a long summer had scorched my olive skin, the most common location was Italy.
She would often say things like: I’m not really attached to any geographical location in particular so I’m not a citizen of anywhere, my tribe are borderless online nomads – or otherwise London, but not a London that’s associated with the rest of Britain.
I didn’t really understand her. I’d grown up mainly in the South but all of my family were from the same cluster of small villages in the North, Whitby and Grimsby were particular hotspots for my genes, and my parents had moved us back up there half-way through my A-levels, so these ideas were alien to me. I thought it was just the writer in her.
‘Apart from studying the wrong degree I don’t really see what has gone wrong in your life,’ she said.
I hadn’t realised she’d been taking me so seriously and that in the silence she’d been privately analysing my life to see if I had a point. The bubbles on my tongue had turned sour and I swallowed them down.
‘I’m pretty certain I messed up my dissertation,’ I said.
‘Didn’t we all.’
‘As if you would ever fail anything.’
She drained the rest of the bottle.
‘Alright, that’s enough self-deprecation for one day. We better get the house sorted out before Val gets home.’
Val rented the largest room in the house for a steeper price than me and Joan, and thought this meant she was entitled to tell us off about anything that griped her. Val had an extension for her dissertation and apparently we were being too loud so she’d gone to the library to finish it off. Joan and I had agreed that we’d clean the house as an apology-congratulations-present. Val was very obsessed with things being clean which was a bonus for me as someone who had never discovered the therapeutic relief of looking after my own home.
That evening, we cycled into the city to meet Val at a poetry reading that she was performing at. It was a bit awkward as Val wasn’t particularly gifted at poetry but she had a very effective stage presence which made up for it. I knew that she’d applied to be on the same creative writing course as Joan but didn’t get in. She hadn’t told Joan this.
We arrived just before her slot. Joan disappeared, swept off by her creative writing group, and I joined Val at the bar.
‘Are you nervous?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know, a bit.’
‘And you got your dissertation in?’
‘I’m going to have to go back to the library after.’
Val’s deadline was midnight. The clock behind the bar read eight pm. I handed her a shot. She threw back her head, slammed the small glass down on the bar, and headed to the stage.
Underneath the spotlight, Val came to life. It might’ve had something to do with her white-blonde hair and the way her translucent skin refracted the light, or maybe her larger frame, taking up more space than usually allowed for a woman, made her command everyone’s attention. It couldn’t be quite pinpointed. Either way, even though her actual poetry wasn’t very good, she was able to keep everyone’s attention. People just wanted to look at her. I had noticed that Joan had stopped performing at these nights ever since Val had started to in second year, but we’d never talked about it.
After, Val stayed for another drink and we listened to the rest of the evening’s performers. Every one was the same. They recounted their thinly-veiled sexual encounters as if being shocking were the same as being good. Sometimes I found it extremely frustrating that both of my friends belonged to this world. I’d had to endure a lot of terrible performances.
Joan detached herself from her group and found us again. She detailed the latest gossip, who was sleeping with who, who’d been cheating, who’d written a short story about it. The usual. I listened half-heartedly and when Val said she needed to head back to the library I said I’d join her.
‘No stay! Keep me company.’
Joan grabbed my hand. I forced a smile.
‘I’m feeling cranky, you know what I’m like after day-drinking. I’ll see you at home.’
She let me go and disappeared into the mass of people again. Val and I cycled side by side most of the way together. She discussed with me the inspiration for her latest poem and how she thought she might be near to finishing a collection.
‘Will you read it when I’m done?’ she asked.
‘Sure, but why don’t you ask Joan? She knows more about this stuff than me.’
We’d reached a fork in the road and we went our separate ways. Back at the house I turned on all the lights before heading to my room. I lay on the bed in my bra and tights, and tried to distract myself from the detaching feeling I was experiencing, one which implied I wasn’t actually in the scene around me. I thought about the conversation with Joan earlier. She wouldn’t have known what was wrong with my life, apart from studying politics instead of going to art school because my mother wanted me to be ‘useful’ to society, because I’d never told her. I hadn’t told anyone.
I looked down at my body and traced my finger along the seam of my tights, over my stomach, and then down between my legs. There was a slight pulse under my fingertip but then nothing else. Unresponsive and defunct. I can’t have sex: the thought was clear and monumental in my mind, even though it wasn’t new. This small fact dominated my life and was so impossible to say out-loud. There was something very very wrong with me.
The following weekend our small terrace house was full of people. They were pressed up against the walls of the hallway, hanging out of windows with their cigarettes, tumbling out into the garden. I only recognised a few faces. Everyone else stared at me as I passed by, questioning my presence. It felt like I was intruding in my own house.
The living room was packed with people making out with each other. Over by the mantlepiece I saw James, a friend of Val’s boyfriend, standing by himself, looking awkward, but with a short smile on his face like he was trying to make the best of it. I joined him and he seemed relieved to have someone to talk to.
‘Great party Lena,’ he said.
‘I know, Val will be pleased.’
Val’s social status seemed to rely on how successful her latest gathering had been. It seemed like a lot of pressure to put herself voluntarily under. The song changed and all the couples in front of us started grinding on each other.
‘It looks like we’re the last ones left,’ I said, indicating the rest of the room.
‘Looks like it.’
‘Maybe we should hook up.’
I wanted to make it clear that I was joking but he got in there first. Inclining his head towards my near-empty glass he said, ‘Want another?’
We weaved through to the kitchen. The room was so slim that we had to stand very close to each other as James made our drinks. He handed me a vodka tonic and I noticed that he’d bothered to slice a lemon. Something about that felt important. I was touched that he’d made himself the same drink as me rather than helping himself to one of the beers on the side.
We stood drinking for a long time. Late in the evening, he cut his finger as he attempted to slice another lemon, and he played down the whole thing whilst sucking on the bloodied flesh, refusing my drunken attempts to find him a plaster.
‘Are you sure?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, don’t trouble yourself Lena.’
I was kneeling on the kitchen side, my face buried in a high cupboard looking for the medical box that I was sure was there somewhere, I shut the door and swivelled so I was sat on the kitchen side. Spilt vodka soaked into the seat of my dress. Looking back at James, I noticed a softness to his face that I hadn’t seen there before, but then I hadn’t previously paid him much attention. He just seemed very ordinary, like if you opened a dictionary to find the definition of ‘boy’ there would be a picture of him, and as someone who had always envisioned themselves as being with someone extraordinary, James had never warranted my attention in that way.
The party slowly filtered of people. Val disappeared to her room with George, and Joan had acquired a new straight girl for the night, another one looking for an ‘experience’ that would make her seem interesting and adventurous. James drained the rest of his drink and said he should shoot.
‘Yeah, or you could stay,’ I said.
I watched this register on his face. I knew what he was thinking. Everyone knew that I hadn’t slept with anyone, they all assumed it was because my mother was a vicar which was a convenient excuse, but I was determined, despite my body’s reluctance, not to graduate a virgin.
We went to my room which was at the front of the house. It had emptied of people’s coats and the house grew still and quiet. James wandered in behind me and the door clicked closed. It was strange to be this alone with him. There was nowhere in my room that I couldn’t feel his presence in some way. He read my room: the peeling photos stuck on the wall that documented a weekend in Berlin with Val and Joan, the plastic flowers lying on the floor that I’d once liked as they never died but had since decided were tacky, and the pile of books under my window – some loaned from Joan, others library books that needed returning. He pointed vaguely at the stack.
‘That’s a good one.’
‘Yeah,’ I replied, though I hadn’t seen which one he was referencing.
We stared at each other. He was so unimposing, barely taking up any space, that I became convinced that he was the perfect candidate for a first time. Afterwards we could laugh about how random the whole thing was and get on with our lives. I could already imagine telling the story to future friends. I decided I’d say something like: he really was the perfect person for your first time, sweet and gentle, though it was ultimately meaningless. I was always doing things like that, imagining future conversations that would never take place.
He came over and kissed me in a way that was more forceful than I’d been expecting. On the bed we lay parallel to each other. Two neat little lines. Despite James’s soft appearance his hands were firm and guiding, pushing the exploration of our bodies on. He fumbled on the miniature buttons of my blouse. I got the gist and took it off for him. He cupped my breast and slid back the fabric, his thumb grazing the circumference of my nipple, whilst his other hand reached below my skirt. I shimmied out of my underwear. He pushed his fingers into the soft skin of my vulva, searching for the entrance in a way that was slightly amusing, then he located it and tried to push inside. The tip of his finger entered and hit a wall. I could feel him scrambling, trying to find the way in, and hoped he would be able to find it, as if it would prove that I’d just been searching in the wrong place too and that there was nothing wrong with me.
The pain was immense. His finger felt like the sharp tip of an icicle slicing into me. As he tried harder, the pain turned to a white-heat, a lit sparkler shoved into the most sensitive part of my body. How could the world hold this sort of agony? It didn’t seem possible. My entire body tensed as I willed it to relax, to just be normal for one second, but it wouldn’t and I couldn’t take it anymore.
I shifted my body so his hand came out of me and slipped my hand underneath the elasticated waistband of his boxers. ‘Lena–’ he said so quietly that I didn’t pay attention. I reached my hand down further and realised that what I was reaching for wasn’t there, or at least not in the state I was expecting it to be in. His penis was soft and doughy in my hand. The sensation came to me slowly through my drunken veins and when it reached me I dropped it sharply.
‘Sorry, shit, sorry,’ he said.
He swung his body away from mine so he was sitting on the edge of the bed. His shoulders were sloped forward in a defenceless way that made me feel achingly sad even though I didn’t know what exactly was wrong. I was too drunk to piece together the scene fast enough. I shuffled down the bed so I was sitting next to him.
‘Are you okay? Did I do something wrong?’
His face was tilted away from me.
‘I’ve got something with me.’
He rummaged in his backpack and I wondered what the hell he was doing.
He sat back up and had a packet in his hand. Slowly the word came to me: viagra.
‘Oh,’ I said, then realising properly, ‘oh!’
‘It’s only when I’ve been drinking,’ he said a little too forcefully, which told me it wasn’t only when he’d been drinking.
‘I can take one now and I’ll be good to go.’
Something about that statement made me feel so depressed that I thought I might be sick.
‘You know, really, actually, I’m quite tired.’
‘Are you sure? I–’
‘Honestly, it’s fine.’
It was true. I did feel tired. I was so glad to be in my own home; I could just lie back and go to sleep. I shuffled across the bed and lay flat on the mattress. James did up his backpack and pulled it on over his shoulder.
‘Are you going?’
‘Yeah, well I thought–’
‘You can stay if you want. I’d like you to.’
I realised that I meant it. Nothing seemed so necessary to me as to have his warm body next to mine as I slept. Usually Joan and I shared a bed on the nights she hadn’t hooked up and I was craving it. He considered my offer.
He dropped his bag to the floor and got back onto the bed. I started to wriggle so that I was underneath the duvet rather than on top of it when he rested a hand on my leg to stop me. He took off my shoes; in all the excitement I’d forgotten to remove them. Sufficiently undressed, I got under the duvet, relieved to be allowed to sleep. The room was spinning even though my eyes were closed.
‘Could you not tell anyone about this?’
I opened one eye. He was far enough away that I could see his features properly. The tender slopes of his eyebrows were dusted with concern and it occurred to me that perhaps his difficulty with sex weighed on him as much as mine did on me.
‘Of course, I wouldn’t do that,’ I said. ‘I know what it’s like.’
I closed my eyes, heavy with sleep. There was perhaps more to be said on the matter, but I really didn’t have the energy for it just then.
In the morning I woke to find my bed empty. It was conceivable that I’d dreamt the previous night; the truth didn’t feel particularly real. My head was thumping and I found it difficult to look directly at anything in the room. I sat up and forced myself to get out of bed. James’s clunky backpack was still on the floor. So it was real. I grabbed a heavy-knit jumper and headed to the kitchen.
Joan was standing in the open doorway to the garden smoking a solitary cigarette. Bea, the girl she’d hooked up with, had her head leaning against Joan’s shoulder. Val was perched on the edge of the table with George sitting on a chair beside her. Their voices were layered on top of each other, a detached cacophony of noise. Joan clocked me first.
‘Here she is!’
Val turned to face me.
‘I can’t believe you hooked up with James.’
‘Where’s the coffee?’ I said.
‘On the stove,’ said Joan.
I got myself a mug and poured a cup from the espresso pot.
Val gently kicked the back of my leg, catching the soft spot behind my knee, making me buckle. Coffee splashed across the oven-top.
‘Come on then, tell us everything.’
‘There’s not much to tell.’
James came into the room.
‘The very man,’ said Joan.
‘Lena’s just been telling us everything,’ said Val.
James looked at me above their heads and I tried to communicate that I hadn’t told them anything of what really happened. He seemed to catch on quick.
‘God, you guys are such kids. Any coffee going Lena?’
The conversation moved on and James and I drank our coffees quietly, our bodies close. It felt good, even in a fictional sense, to feel like I belonged to the scene. A Beatles song came on the radio and the early summer sunlight returned, bleaching the room in a soft glow. This was it. How life was supposed to be. It occurred to me that my generation had to rely on previous generation’s musical endeavours to find a semblance of romance in reality. These notions were out of fashion. Brutalism had won.
When James said he was heading home, I told him I’d show him out, and followed him to my room. I watched from the doorway as he gathered his things.
‘I didn’t tell them about last night,’ I said, my voice low.
From down the hall we heard a plate smash, someone apologising, and Joan insisting it was cool, it was one less thing to pack.
‘No, I know you didn’t.’
‘And they just kind of assumed something happened because, well–’
‘Why wouldn’t they?’ James’s smile created two neat little arrows in his cheeks.
‘Exactly.’ It felt good to be with someone who got it. ‘If you like I can correct them later. Val and Joan I mean.’
‘Nah, you’re good. This is easier, don’t you think?’
‘Yeah, I guess, if you’re cool with it.’
‘Yeah. It’s kind of helpful.’