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You first meet Israel when you start as the Admin Assistant for a hot-desking company in Mayfair. He walks by you every day with a hello and disappears behind an ominous blue door. You wonder how his colleagues whittle away their time. You don’t know much about him except that he’s the head of a dating app, The Boss, The Big Man. And that he’s Danish. You mustn’t forget he’s Danish.
You’ve been working at the company for over a year now. Whirring laptop screens buzz through the day, paper prints, low conversations between desks flit by you as you flick between the different tabs on your computer. You’re supposed to be updating the Twitter account, but you’re too busy trying to decide which dress to buy on ASOS. The one with garish green sequins, or the bodycon beige? Days are spent endlessly clicking, tapping away, and answering phone calls in your sexy telephone voice. The one you’d practised over and over again for weeks before you got the interview for this place. Noura had mentioned they were looking for someone after she heard from a friend of a friend that they were looking for fresh meat, someone youthful. This boded well for you because you don’t look a day over eighteen. The benefits of having full rounded cheeks as an Arab.
Go on, it’s just a stopgap while you figure out what you want to do in life, Noura had said. You only agreed because the office was based in Shepherd’s Market, just down the tiny alleyway of Whitehorse Street, and you loved the idea of being concaved between suits and money. So you dressed up, preened yourself in front of the mirror, and set off for the start of a new life. Before they let you in, you ran your tongue over your teeth and tried to still the beating of your heart. Nervous. They asked you to answer the phone as you would if you were a receptionist. Roleplay. You leant over the desk, boobs resting gentle on the oak, and coiled your finger around the cord. Then your interviewer drew closer to you and asked to speak to Roger Filander. You noticed the speck of spinach peeking out from beneath his pink gums, but instead of pointing it out, you crawled to him and in your sexiest voice, you asked what it was regarding. It’s Israel, he replied, and I’m looking for the hottest, newest receptionist in town. Speaking, you’d replied, doing the Diana upward eye flick, the one you’d also been practising after you’d watched that interview with Diana and Martin Bashir all those years ago, with your Mum. You were fascinated with the way Diana could look so Bambi eyed, even though she was blonde.
You have gone to university, but you left the semester before you graduated. You couldn’t hack the essays and you still didn’t know what you wanted in life. So you went for this job and that job and ended up not doing anything. Then your brother left home without a word, the same way your dad did all those years ago, and left you alone with her.
Monday morning, Israel, in all his glory, asks you out for a coffee during your break.
I don’t get a break, you say.
Come on, everyone needs a break, he says.
And you want to ball up at the cheese but then you hesitate because you’ve been pining over Israel for weeks even though you know he has a girlfriend. You’ve seen her come in a few times. She’s allowed behind the solemn door of his office and you have to remove yourself from the fantasy of you and him, and go back to what your eyes see in front of you, screens and other creatives trying to make their mark in the world. His girlfriend is blonde and slim and has an accent. Israel has eyes that look like they’re about to cry even though he walks around like a Big Man, like The Boss.
What’s it for? you ask.
Business, he says and waltzes back into his office, door shutting behind him.
Coffee Break. He asks you to be the Social Media Exec for his company. You decline before he can tell you the benefits.
You won’t get these anywhere else, he says.
What makes you so sure? you ask, trying to think of all the ways you can make this about you. You are in control here.
Where else would you get to work so closely with me? he asks. He’s joking but he can also feel the chemicals being formulated atop your head as you speak, pheromones and testosterone and all chromosomes melding into a haze of energy. He feels it too.
I’m a professional, you say.
I don’t doubt that for a second, he says.
You shake hands and start the following Monday. By Friday you’re in his bed. He takes you to the flat he shares with his cousin in Chelsea and you finger his book cabinet as he fixes you a drink. You’re both too sober to commit adultery.
Rumi? you ask, picking a book from the shelf and flicking the pages so the smell of old paper fills the air, particles of dust flying and swirling beneath your nose.
My mother loved poetry, he says. Again with the clichés. But you can’t argue too much because you love Rumi too and one of your fantasies is to read to him while he does other things with his tongue in the daylight.
We shouldn’t do this, you say, taking the drink from his hand and feeling the warmth of his fingers against your own. It’s been a while since you’ve been back to a man’s house and you don’t want to start getting a reputation amongst your friends. You take a sip and his fingers climb to your thighs, pulling on your knickers. You wonder why he doesn’t just stick his fingers in, but then you realise the Danish do things differently. They have much more charm than the English boys you’ve been with. They didn’t get your exoticism, and your mother warned you about them, the English boys. Said they were cold in bed, even though you don’t know how she could possibly know that since she hadn’t been with anyone since your father left, and she only opened her legs for him on her wedding night. They were in her dad’s house and she bled for two days before they went on their honeymoon to Greece. Too rough, your father, she’d tell you. Your friends were round one day to celebrate your seventeenth birthday and Noura was talking about the time Lift Guy fingered her in the back of his mum’s car when they were fifteen and had just come back from the Cinema after watching Honey.It must have been that Jessica Alba, she said. Your mum was listening and she laughed and said that men were horny dogs and they wanted it whenever they could get it, even if it was by force. So make sure you’re always wet girls, she’d said. Your friends giggled, even if they were a little taken aback because none of their mothers spoke like that, but you’d gone red and tried to laugh it away. Your mum switched on the Arabic cable and turned the volume up, forcing you and your friends to take your girly chat to the kitchen.
I want you, he says, and you grip his head with your knees, trying to hold onto your drink before it spills over.
You avoid talking about the girlfriend. The less you know, the less you are incriminating yourself in this mortal sin.
We both want this, he says, taking your glass, placing it on the floor beside his feet. Gripping your waist, pressing hard fingers against your supple skin, he turns you around, bending you over so that your naked stomach curves around the suede of his couch. He does it, he fucks you and it feels good. Sweat droplets fall on the suede and after a minute of jagged breathing, you reach over to pull your jeans up. You don’t want to get home too late in case your mother has fallen asleep in front of the TV and you have to tuck her in again.
He kisses the back of your head and tells you that he’s not in for the rest of the week because he’s on a business trip in Geneva. You press for the lift and think about Israel on the way down. Away from the pretty views, you step out onto the lavishly adorned streets of Sloane Square. Buses loom round the corner at the traffic lights and your heart beats at the franticness of just-now’s encounter. Your fantasy of Israel has come true, and it rarely ever does, girl, savour it. Cherish it. Remember that good times don’t need to last forever, and if nothing ever comes of any moment, just know that it makes for a good story. Especially when you’re older and you’re sitting around the table at The Ivy with your girlfriends talking about your ho days.
You still have enough time to make it to Friday night drinks with the girls and you can tell them all then while it’s still fresh. As you cross the traffic lights, you laugh at your own recklessness, trying to convince yourself that what you’ve done is not against the law. Liberating, freeing, unchained happiness has come in the form of Israel.
What the fuck is wrong with you? Layla asks as you finish telling her.
What? you ask, knowing that the incredulousness in her voice is deserved.
He’s got a girlfriend! she says
Listen to yourself, Lena. For fuck’s sake, you’re not a charmouta!
Stung, your cheeks redden. You know she’s right.
Like you’re so righteous? you mutter under your breath.
Speak to your best friend please, Layla says, turning to Noura.
You need to stop messing around with these fuckboys, Noura says, taking a sip of her vodka Red Bull. You blink under the harsh red lights of the club and you think of the last time you were at Strawberry Moons. You were eighteen and throwing a birthday party for Kayleigh, the last big send-off before everyone went to uni, work, or popped out a baby or two. Three of your classmates had already had children. You spent the whole night holding back her hair as she threw up in the toilet and as you threw up beside the sanitary bin, both of you breaking down about how much you were going to miss each other.
While almost spilling her intestines out as she vomited all the vodka, Kayleigh turned to you with burning words.
Don’t die a virgin, Lena.
Jake was there, hadn’t left home yet. He and Noura had shared a snog on the dancefloor which you wish you hadn’t seen because Jake was your brother and Noura was your best friend and the whole thing made you sick.
Whatever, you say, rolling your eyes.
I’m serious Lena. What do you think you’re playing at? There’s no future between you two.
It’s just a bit of fun, it’s really not that deep.
Layla’s face flips. Fun?! Lena, you’re going to get seriously hurt, and this fuckboy has options. He doesn’t care about you!
Noura puts her hand on your knee, saying nothing. You know she thinks Layla is right, you can see it in her eyes. But she also knows not to say anything because of the whole walking in someone else’s shoes. She’s been there with you. And even if she can’t understand the decisions you make, she’s there to cry with you.
Let’s talk about something else, you say.
Layla sighs and takes a sip of her drink, bangles jangling against her bony wrist. Did you have a look at the photos I sent you? She means the photos of a flat in Camden where you both entertained the idea of living. Finally, a move towards freedom.
How much is the rent? you ask.
£700 each, including bills.
Seems decent, but I’m not sure about living in Kentish Town you know.
Oh mighty one, my apologies for having grown up in Zone Three.
You roll your eyes at her but secretly wish that you could stay in the area you grew up in. No one knows why. All that you’ve got in that area is bad memories of abandonment. Make a change, girl. It’s about time.
The following week, Israel comes back with chocolates galore for the staff. You try to maintain a veneer of normalcy. But you start to stutter when he talks to you and you can’t think of anything smart to say. Girl, don’t lose your wits, do this for us. He messages you later that night. Round at mine? Two words, yes please. Who knew you were this submissive?
The second time round you go to his, you notice different things. There are no pictures of his girlfriend even though you found out from your colleague Sarah that he’s been with her for three years and her family is like French royalty. There’s a crack in the wallpaper behind the lamp that sits beside the window. You find that odd. That there would be a lamp beside the window. But then you don’t want to think too much about what these white boys do, too many customs. Israel’s flat looks beyond the park and you rub the glass with your jumper, trying to make it shinier, so you can see out of it clearer. You smell him though, Israel. You smell him on the furniture, in between the pages of the books his cabinet holds, dribbling from the light switch, you smell his musk. And then you smell it on your skin for days, even after you’ve showered.
There’s never any traffic the time of day you go over. You only hear the engines rev outside as the light casts shadows against his ceiling. When you and your brother shared a room once, you tried to count how many light beams you caught until one of you would fall asleep, and it would usually be Jake because he was younger and your voice always lulled him to sleep. He told you that once, on that night when you all went to Strawberry Moons and the reason he told you was because he was drunk. Otherwise he wouldn’t talk to you because he thought you and Mum were conspiring against him to get him out of the house because he’d started looking to weed and white powder for love.
You and Israel go on for months. A night, a weekend, a trip to Paris, a frolic in the cloak room at the events you both go to. Colleagues start to notice. As you work the events, and welcome people in, he grabs your bum cheek and you try not to quiver at his touch. Smile, you are a professional. You start liking the idea of hanging on the end of his arm, staying over at his Chelsea flat, and going for a breakfast run in the morning like a normal couple. But then his girlfriend rings him one night when you’re both together. He answers and takes it into the other room while you circle the end of the duvet, gripping it tight to your chest.
Sorry, he says, crawling back into bed.
Who was that? you ask.
Tatiana, he says, looking at you looking at him and he can see it in your eyes, what you don’t want to tell him. He takes a strand of your hair and tucks it behind your ear. I’m sorry, he says. You don’t ask what for, because you already know. You allowed a little bit of him to creep into you so that he nestled in between your lungs and breathed the same time you did and smelt the same air and walked the same roads. You climb out of bed and put on last night’s clothes.
Don’t go, he says, grabbing your arm.
I’ve got some shopping to do, you say, buttoning your blouse. It’s true. You do have shopping to do, your mum has friends round tonight and she wants you to help. Ever since Jake left she’s been inviting everyone round all the time, and she can’t do it without you.
Are you upset? he asks. You face him and shake your head, bending low to kiss him in the space between his nose and his lips. He reaches forward, slipping his tongue whole in your mouth and you unlatch.
Don’t worry, I’m not upset, you say.
Monday will be here soon and you don’t want things to be awkward.
I think we’ve had our fun, you say.
He props himself up on his elbows and there it comes, that teary look. The one that reminds you so much of Jake.
Please don’t say that, he says.
This wasn’t going to last forever, you say. Even though a part of you had started to wish it would.
He sighs and rubs his face in his hands. Shit, I’m sorry for everything, he says, making out like he’s scrambling out of bed but you tell him not to worry, it’s fine. You’re fine. You grab your handbag, and stride to the door, wanting to get out before he says anything else that might make you turn back. At least you’re the one walking out this time.