An extract from James Mildren’s new novel, Fragments of Life: Antagonism.
A day alone
The guilt nearly stopped me when I first masturbated in our apartment. But once I’d done it, there was no reason not to continue. Every day, once at least, and maybe I’ll do it twice or three times if I’m feeling really depressed. It’s become a habit, like blowing my nose.
I have my websites. If even the slightest thing is wrong, why settle for that? So much can be wrong with porn. Maybe the woman’s body is out of proportion, or she has a nice body but not a nice face, or it’s too obvious from her appearance that she’s poor and desperate for money, or the noises she makes sound fake, or she can’t hide the expressions of pain well from her face, or the video is overly cruel and guilt overwhelms my desire and I have to switch to another video if I want to come. And obviously I want to come, that’s why I’m watching.
This video looks good. The performer reminds me of Lucy. It’s the slim frame, the pale skin. I skip the trailer video. She leads two men, fully clothed, to a couch. There, she crouches in her bikini. Two massive dicks bounce out of the boxer shorts. Holding one, she sucks the other a while. Stops a moment to spit on it. Then she turns to the other. An urge to come rises and I’m not even fully erect. It would dribble out of my barely erect penis unsatisfyingly, only making a mess. With my right hand I drag the video along a bit further. Now she is kneeling, extending over the length of the sofa. At one end, the man fucks her anally. She doesn’t look his way. The other man is sitting on the sofa while she slobbers all over his fat, veiny cock. From this angle she looks less like Lucy and I click closed the tab.
I scan again, among the other posts on this forum. Scrolling and scrolling down the list –regimented by the same logic as all over the internet: likes, views. From behind me a sudden zippy clicking sound. And the apartment door cracks open, unsealing loudly and violently.
‘Coucou,’ Mia says, sweetly.
It’s not yet two thirty.
Adrenaline soaks my body, from the chest. Air catches in my stiff neck. Close the browser. Scramble to put away my flopping dick. No time to do up the belt, only the top button. Her Doc Martens are heavy on the wooden floor.
‘Is everything OK?’ she says.
My face is pulled rapidly to her, by my tense, taut neck. Will she hear how the raging blood trembles the air in my vocal cords? Or notice my stiff limbs? In front of me, the laptop screen is blank.
‘Yeah fine,’ I say. ‘I was just about to start another job application.’
‘Exciting!’ she says.
She expects me to stand and hug her, as usual. I return to the screen meaningfully. Thuds take her to the hall, where she removes her boots. Quietly, I buckle myself, although the metal bits make high-pitched clinks.
‘Shall I make some tea?’
‘That would be nice,’ I say.
Now I can stand.
‘No, it’s OK, I’ll do it. You go back to what you were doing.’
‘I don’t feel like it anymore,’ I say. ‘Let’s have it together, on the sofa.’
She brings the pot to the coffee table. It drips on the floor. She runs to get a tea towel. Her slow dabs absorb the little green-brown pools of liquid. While she cleans up, I pour the tea. She lands on the sofa with a soft thump and reaches for her mug.
‘And how was your day?’ she says, as steam rises to her face.
Her head was tipping to the tilting mug. Her eyes are aware suddenly, watch me. Then she dips to the tea. And waits there: seems more interested in her drink.
‘I mean,’ I say. ‘I want to find a job soon.’
‘I know you do,’ she says.
‘But there doesn’t seem to be much out there.’
‘There is,’ she says. ‘Don’t worry about it. Something will come up soon.’
‘I don’t know,’ I say.
‘It’s OK Jake,’ she says. ‘I believe in you. You can do whatever you want.’
This again. She doesn’t see who I am. Those feelings of hers send her somewhere else. She overestimates me. And it’s no use trying to disillusion her. The image she holds isn’t for me: it’s hers. She was so pleased, once, to tell me how in the beginning, Philippine had said to her: ‘Where can I get myself a Jake?’
‘Thank you,’ I say.
She sets down her mug. The sleeves of her jumper overreach her fingers. She scrunches the material in her clenched fist as her straightened arms beckon me. I lean into her and she holds my head in her lap for a while.
‘Shall we start cooking?’ she says, eventually.
‘Yes,’ I say childishly, turning to lie on my back and look up at her face. The skin either side of her nose looks puffy and inflamed. She seems tired, pasty, although the afternoon is early, and still bright.
‘OK, let’s go,’ she says.
I pass her my empty cup. She takes both to the dishwasher. The speed at which I stand leaves me lightheaded, off balance. In the kitchen, she bends over. The way her jeans grip her ass is pleasing.
‘Mmm,’ I say, rubbing the smooth, taut fabric with my open hand.
She backs into my crotch.
‘We have time,’ she says. Her eyes are half-open only. She twirls to me. The milk from her post-lunch cappuccino wafts, carried by her sour breath.
‘Actually, I’m not in the mood,’ I say.
She slaps my chest gently and we part ways.
The meal is all in my head. Every ingredient, every process. When exactly everything needs to happen. I know it in that comfortable and distantly submerged, dim, murky, dark way – without language. When she asks me for help, I throw her a simple task or two. Enough to keep her from distracting me. After an hour, the stages accumulate. Pots bubble, chopped vegetables lie waiting on the side. Her head is in the fridge.
‘What will we drink?’ she asks.
‘I think red goes well with a roast,’ I say.
She consults her phone.
‘Although with vegan food, it doesn’t really matter –’
‘Just a second,’ she says.
Her flurrying thumbs tap-dance on the screen. She sighs loudly, slips the phone in her pocket.
‘Yes, red, I think you were saying.’
‘What was that?’ I ask. ‘All good?’
‘Oh,’ her eyes sink, scatter across downward spaces. ‘Mitya just texted, saying he would come with Ela tonight. So I was letting Philippine know.’
‘Do you even see her anymore?’
‘Not really, but…’
‘But you hate her now, because she slept with Mitya?’
‘Hey, don’t be unfair. That was all her,’ Mia says.
‘Don’t wave that spoon at me,’ I say.
She flicks it playfully. Hot little droplets hit my face. One hits high, by the cheekbone. Close to the eye.
‘You’re annoying,’ she says.
‘You deserve it.’
The buzzer rings. Mia rushes off. In the hallway, her face is blue and ghostly from the intercom screen.
‘Who is it?’
‘Clem,’ she says. ‘Just wait there, Clem. I’ll come out.’
‘OK, bisou,’ he says.
His faraway voice sounds like an old radio programme. Her feet skid, scuff the floor. The jacket’s faux leather wipes against itself.
‘OK, in a bit,’ she says.
The door slams shut. I can settle back to my rhythm now she is out of here. The space in this kitchen is perfect for me, by myself. I prod the carrots with a knife. They are ready to drain. The vapours assault the skin on my face as the water seeps through the colander’s holes and glugs among the drain. No, I haven’t had a shower today, again. I dump the hard parsnips in the pan, fill it with water. On my way to the hob with the heavy pan, the ringing intercom gives me a fright. My fingers keep their grip on the pan, but a large slosh of water swings out of the side and splats the floor, wetting my socks slightly.
Mia and Clem stand out there, grinning at me on the miniature screen. I buzz them in, leave open the front door.
‘Forgot my key,’ she says, pouting at the camera.
It has become dark outside. The night comes so early in autumn. Past the balcony, clouds reflect light pollution. The sky is a hollow nectarine left in the shade. Their animated voices escape the lift door as it slides open.
‘Oo-ooh,’ Clem says. ‘I love it already.’
‘Wait,’ Mia says. ‘Once we’ve taken our shoes off, I’ll give you a tour. Here, I’ll take your coat.’
‘Thank you,’ he says.
He wears a black turtleneck jumper and black jeans. His stiffened, straight arm summons me for a hug although he maintains distance via a withdrawn head.
‘Salut,’ he says to me.
‘Hello Clem,’ I say as we cross cheeks.
Mia takes his hand. Their excitement fades to the background. Creaking from the bed, and then their laughter, echo from the bedroom.
‘Yeah, I love it,’ Clem says. ‘You must be so happy.’
‘Yes,’ Mia says. ‘We are.’
Faint steam rises from the carrots, in the room’s quiet.
‘And how are you settling in Berlin Jake? Do you like it?’
‘Yeah,’ I say, not looking up from the hob, until their quiet seems unnaturally long.
Clem breaks away from Mia’s poker face to meet me.
‘Yeah, it’s good,’ I say. ‘I’m glad to be here.’
‘Good!’ he says.
The corners of his mouth burrow deep into his cheeks while he winces from the eyes.
‘Anyway, I brought a little something. Just to congratulate you.’
He returns from the hallway with a bottle of crémant.
‘Aww thank you Clem,’ Mia says. ‘Let’s open it!’
I don’t want to drink during the week. But what’s the difference? When it’s open and poured I pass them their flutes and stare at the bubbles in mine.
‘Did Philippine write back?’ I ask Mia.
‘No,’ she says.
‘Ah, yeah,’ Clem says. ‘She told me she’s not coming.’
‘That’s a shame,’ I say. ‘I haven’t seen her since the picnic.’
‘No, me neither,’ he says.
‘Really?’ Mia asks.
‘Yeah,’ he says.
He reaches behind his back all of a sudden, to scratch at a place between his shoulder blades.
‘Not since she moved in with her boyfriend.’
‘They moved in together?’ Mia asks.
She hits the surface of the counter with the bottom of the flute, like a judge’s gavel. The level of golden, bubbly liquid swings unevenly before coming to rest.
‘But you still talk to her?’ Mia asks, caressing the flute again, in both hands.
‘Not really,’ he says. ‘Basile does.’
He sips slowly, closes his eyes as the liquid touches his tongue, takes some air through the nose before swallowing.
‘Don’t mention anything to Basile,’ he says, pausing. ‘About me telling you.’
‘We won’t,’ I say.
Mia shakes her head.
‘OK. Well apparently, they have gotten really into G. And now they can’t have sex without it.’
‘It’s true?’ Mia asks.
Clem blinks quickly and flutters up his eyebrows as he nods.
‘That sounds bad,’ I say, trying to confirm.
‘You know things are bad when the sex is affected,’ Mia says in my direction. She reaches for the bottle. Clem moves his glass that way. ‘Jake?’
‘No, I’m good,’ I say.
‘Anyway –’ Mia starts.
‘I thought she wouldn’t be coming because of Mitya,’ I say.
‘Huh?’ Clem says.
Mia’s chin hits her shoulder as she rounds on Clem.
‘Mitya and his girlfriend are coming tonight,’ she says.
‘Ah,’ he says, taking another big sip with shut eyes. ‘Gotcha,’ he says. His eyes shift.
I open the oven. Hot air stings the skin on my face. Instinctively, I lean away.
‘Careful,’ Clem says.
In the hot pan the oil bubbles. When I shake it, the potatoes crackle a little. Another buzz, which Mia gets.
‘Salut, ma belle,’ booms Basile’s excited voice.
‘Fifth floor,’ Mia says.
Clem’s woolly socks sweep the wooden floor. He murmurs something to Mia.
‘Don’t worry Clem,’ she says. ‘It’s fine. I won’t say anything.’
I had only just checked the vegetables, but return to them out of habit. Clem glances down at the phone he holds by his hip. The door crunches open.
‘Oh,’ Mia says.
‘Hey!’ says a woman’s voice. In French, Basile says: ‘Hello my dear, look who we picked up on the street.’ Then there is Mitya’s voice, and I listen out for his and Mia’s embrace. Hearing nothing but shuffles and shoes removed and jackets slipping off, I edge to the hall where Basile hugs me.
I see Ela over his shoulder. Instant, instinctive recognition. Hard to tell at first if it’s not that optimistic attraction to a stranger. That misplaced belief you already know the person you want. When what’s familiar is the desire, not what it attaches to. No, not that. I know her from somewhere, but where is it? I am still in Basile’s arms and he withdraws.
‘This is Ela,’ he says.
‘Have we met before?’ I say to her.
Her blue eyes disappear underneath pale, scrunched up eyelids. And her head shakes, millimetres each way only, but quickly. Her hair is blue, also. But the dye is fading as her natural blond overtakes it.
‘Are you sure?’ I say. ‘You seem really familiar to me.’
‘No,’ she says, insistently and loudly, the way German people often talk.
‘What’s this?’ Mia says, her arm drifting a few metres before hooking my waist.
Ela twists to Mitya as he enters the room. He nods up at me, raising eyebrows maximally with a wide grin and the whites of his eyes. I nod slowly, squinting at him.
‘Jake thinks he and Ela have met before,’ Basile says.
‘Are you being awkward again?’ Mia asks me playfully.
‘I guess,’ I say, looking at the floor.
‘Where’s the bathroom?’ Ela asks.
‘That way,’ Mia says.
She moves fast and dramatically.
‘Can I fix anyone a drink?’ Mia asks.
‘Ooh, yes please,’ Basile says.
I pour the bubbles for everyone.
‘Not too much for me, thanks,’ Mitya says, his palm a flat and vertical barrier in front of him. ‘We were out last night at a concert, weren’t we Ela?’ Her head turns to the group again, as she walks to our circle. The cistern refills behind her.
‘We were,’ she says.
‘Who did you see?’ Mia asks.
‘Dua Lipa,’ Mitya says.
‘Oh great!’ Mia says. ‘How was it this time?’
‘It was nice…’ he says. His face shifts to Ela, as if pulled by an invisible string. ‘I took Mia last year.’
‘Oh,’ Ela says. ‘I didn’t know you’d seen her before!’
‘What?’ he asks, defensively.
‘No, nothing,’ Ela says.
‘He gets tickets from the label,’ Mia says.
‘I know that,’ Ela says.
‘Here,’ I say, offering Ela her glass. ‘Why don’t you guys sit down in the living room while I take care of dinner?’
‘Good idea,’ Clem says.
‘I can help,’ Mia says.
‘It’s under control,’ I say.
‘You sure?’ she asks.
‘Yes, I am sure,’ I say. ‘Here, take the music.’
I remove the speakers from their position next to the hob. Still, I hear things, but the voices fade and mingle with the music. I can get lost again in the various processes. Until it’s all ready to plate up and I set plates on the counter loudly, hoping that Mia will hear. She comes when I have nearly finished. And I hear the others gathering around the table.
‘What can I do?’ she asks.
I begin pouring the gravy.
‘You can start taking plates over, I guess.’
‘OK. Who are these for?’
‘It doesn’t really matter,’ I say, preoccupied and irritated by her questions.
She shuffles them back and forth.
‘But wait. These last two are ours,’ I say. ‘I’ll bring them. You get the wine?’
They sit there, upright and expectant. Clem smiles at me warmly. Basile is on his phone. Ela looks away.
‘Thank you, Jake,’ Clem says.
‘Yes, thank you,’ Mitya says from his place opposite me.
Mia joins us with the bottle.
‘Nice story,’ Basile says to her, looking up from the screen. Mia laughs.
‘What is it?’ Clem asks, leaning over from his place next to Basile. ‘Oh cute!’
Basile shows a video of me in the kitchen, only seconds ago, serving up vegetables, immersed in what I’m doing, unaware of any other presence. It looks like a nature documentary of some animal. A banner across the video says in English and in big, bold white letters and childish typeface: ‘PERFECT HOUSEHUSBAND’ and an emoji of a smiley face whose eyes have been replaced by hearts. Then, Basile points it at Mitya and Ela, who look into their plates and say nothing.
‘Thanks Jake,’ Mia says. ‘For this meal.’
‘You’re welcome,’ – I hear a voice which sounds like mine, say. Still trying to process that video. Already uploaded, and seen by all of her friends and some of mine too, before I knew of its existence.
‘Who wants red?’ Mia asks.
‘Yes please,’ Basile says. Clem also raises his glass. When she has poured for everyone else, she says: ‘Jake?’
I nod with my mouth full.
‘Actually,’ Basile says, his eyes flitting to Clem. ‘We have an announcement to make.’
Clem’s smile is as joyful as Basile’s, then he sees Mia and it becomes a little uneasy.
‘Yes,’ he says.
‘In the new year,’ Basile says. ‘We are moving to Paris.’
‘Ah, congratulations!’ I say.
‘I knew it,’ Mia says.
‘Don’t worry, it’ll be OK,’ Basile says.
‘No, I know,’ Mia says. ‘We’ll still see each other.’
‘Why did you decide to move?’ Ela asks.
Basile exhales forcefully.
‘Ah, you know, we’ve been here five years now. I guess it’s time for a change.’
‘Yeah,’ Clem says. ‘And I just left work actually. They gave me voluntary redundancy.’
‘I’m sooo sick of work,’ says Basile.
‘I understand that,’ Ela says.
‘What do you do, Ela?’ Mia asks.
‘Oh. Uh,’ – she looks to the wall. ‘Nothing, right now.’
The scraping of cutlery seems very loud. And the taps of forks on porcelain as their prongs perforate the food.
‘It’s good to take time out,’ I say.
‘You model now and then,’ Mitya says.
‘Yeah,’ Ela says, eyes on the table.
‘Did you find a place yet, in Paris?’ I ask Basile and Clem.
‘Not yet,’ Clem says.
‘We thought about Paris, didn’t we?’ I say.
‘Yeah, but I prefer it here,’ she says. ‘And I think you do too. It feels like home.’
‘Did you grow up here as well?’ Ela asks.
‘Yes,’ Mia says. ‘Well for a while. My dad is a diplomat, so we moved around a lot.’
‘What part of the city?’ Ela asks.
‘Moabit,’ Mia says. ‘And my Dad’s family were further out in the suburbs. He’s from here too.’
‘You are all Wessis then.’
‘Uh, I guess.’
‘Ela –’ Mitya says.
‘What’s Wessis?’ I ask.
‘Like from the West,’ Mia says. ‘But it’s a bit old-fashioned to say that now.’
‘Huh!’ Clem says. ‘I never heard that.’
‘Where are you from then? Around here?’ Mia asks.
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Actually, my family have a place at the other end of this road. But before moving in with Mitya I was living in Neukölln.’
‘That’s where we live now!’ Basile says.
‘Nice,’ I say.
‘Yes, although it’s sad what’s happening here,’ Ela says.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘Just the changes in the area. Getting more expensive. What’s the word again…’
She looks at Mitya. He shrugs, arms crossed on the table now.
‘Gentrification?’ I say.
‘Yeah that, I think,’ she says. ‘I mean, no offence, this apartment is nice, but I remember what the area was like before. Rigaer Strasse has always been for me, part of East Berlin.’
‘Oh I don’t know,’ Mia says. ‘It’s going to happen anyway, right?’
‘You don’t have to be part of the problem,’ Ela says.
‘Hey!’ Mitya says.
‘No, it’s fine,’ Mia says.
She looks my way.
‘I was thinking that today,’ I say.
‘What?’ Mia says.
‘About gentrification, I guess. It’s not so different from Hackney,’ I say, adding to Ela, ‘Where I was before, in London. Or wherever in Paris these two end up.’
‘No,’ Mia says.
Clanks of crockery and metal sliding against plates. Clem extends his hand to me and Mia while Basile takes Mitya’s plates.
‘I’ll put these away,’ Basile says.
‘Thanks,’ I say.
‘You really think that, Jake?’ Mia asks.
‘I dunno, sometimes. But it’s fine,’ I say. ‘Come on. We could live anywhere. You know that. When we saw your sister in Boston, everything seemed the same there too. It’s like, where can we go anymore?’
‘I guess,’ she says.
‘Hey, what’s for dessert?’ Mitya asks.
‘Mia made vegan chocolate mousse,’ I say.
‘Great!’ Mitya says.
Then he stands up to go to the bathroom. I am about to stand too. Mia puts her hand on my shoulder.
‘Stay,’ she says. ‘And rest. I’ll handle this.’
She leaves me and Ela alone. Ela’s left elbow rests on the table and her long, pale neck sits in her left hand. She seems, unconsciously, to show it to me. My eyes rise to focus on her face and see that she too is staring. In a way that meets my longing and returns it with what might also be longing or a kind of resistance or perhaps both, which I would prefer. Because when there is that intense struggle between attraction and repulsion then we would tangle up in each other’s hair and smell and spit, like two animals. She must see it in my eyes because her heart is fluttering: I can tell from the way she breathes. And the dilation of her pupils. Behind me, our partners wash up together and chat politely. They should be married. And what would we be? Basile and Clem wander to the balcony for a cigarette.
‘Do you really not remember me?’ I ask. ‘From KitKat?’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘No, I remember, I mean.’
‘Well, what are we going to do about this, then?’ I ask calmly.
Her face contorts, to pretend she doesn’t know what I’m saying. Although I see also, in the whites of her eyes, that longing: an impulsion to go along with that feeling, whatever could happen later.
‘What do you mean?’ she asks. Her eyes roll from side to side rapidly.
‘I think you know what I’m saying, Ela,’ I say.
She sighs and looks away briefly.
‘OK,’ she says, hurriedly. ‘Whatever you want.’
A wave of pleasure pulses to my throat. And my heart beats faster.
‘OK. I am going to go into that room and I am going to write down my phone number on a slip of paper and then I am going to slip it into your jacket on my way back from the bathroom. And then it will be up to you what happens next.’
‘Fine,’ she says.
She leans back in her chair and crosses her arms. I stand and move deliberately, exaggeratedly slowly. Feel the nerves inside connect to my muscles, an exhilarating electrical sensation of movement. Clem and Basile enter the room from the balcony and I nod at them as I slip into the bedroom. I leave open the door to listen out. But no one comes. The scrap of paper folds very small in my hand. As I pass everyone, I decide to slip it in on the way.
‘Are you coming for dessert?’ Mia asks.
‘Just a second,’ I say, from the dark hall.