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And so it begins. You graduate university. You move back home, slotting neatly into your single bed, examining the tears in the wallpaper, the posters on the wall. You sleep in till eleven. Your mum cooks you porridge, setting it down on the kitchen table, the mealy textures of your childhood. I’ve got a good feeling about this one, she says. You were born to work in an art gallery.
You wait your turn. The room smells dusty and grand. You notice a single oat clinging to the hem of your skirt. You flick it off and it leaves behind a tiny, white ‘O’. O dear, you think. O no. You are annoyed at your mum for having made you porridge. You want to call her. If you think I am an adult, you want to say, then why are you making me meals consisting primarily of milk? A man in a black shirt with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie calls your name. You take a seat. You say you are skilled in research, you completed your dissertation on contemporary art and 19th Century literature, you have customer service experience, you are an avid gallery goer. Fantastic, he says. Great. Are you aware this is not a paid position?
You sit in front of the television stroking the cat. You are wearing pyjamas. You cannot believe you are a person who has had sex, who has driven a car. The cat massages its claws into you, it dispenses a steady purr. You go to the kitchen and make yourself a slice of toast and a gin and tonic.
You get an office job. You assimilate with business graduates, with their hearty sense of cynicism, a premature world-weariness, worn like a badge of honour. So pleased with their early resignation: their this, this is life. This marching course of spreadsheets and workflows and thin-lipped jokes in strategising brainstorms, this is all there is and we knew all along. While you were dilly-dallying with your Chaucer, frolicking with your intertextuality, we were squirrelling away the capacity to deal with this. Imagine being that lacking in idealism, you think. Imagine being that lacking in wonder, aspiring to a job in logistics or IT services, imagine never entertaining a frothy career scouting bands, imagine never picturing yourself in front of a glossy iMac. Did it make the heartbreak easier, or only earlier? You hate them, you resent their life nous; you grip your rosy ideals, your soppy security blanket.
And then you meet him. He has wintry eyes, a handsome voice and he wears smart suits. He is older than you. He shows you how to make the battery life on your phone longer by switching off the Wi-Fi. He knows stuff like that. You love everything he says. You want to write it down, to run your fingers over it, to hold it up to your face and kiss it. You think about his heart a lot, his kind heart. You imagine it a sinewy, sloppy substance, like a thick broth. You imagine it in your hands. You hold your ear to his chest to hear it beating and you don’t ever let yourself think about the day when it will stop. One day you tell him this is just a stopgap, just until you figure out what you’re supposed to do. He places three fingers in the spaces between your knuckles and you feel a contentment quite close to death. Before you know it you are wearing sensible shoes to middle management meetings and caveating website frameworks before clip-clopping home to get dinner on.
You are walking through airport security, clutching your passport. You feel like two children on an adventure. You spritz yourself with perfume in Duty Free while he browses digital cameras. This is it, you think. This is happening. He asks you on the last night of your holiday. You say yes straight away. It might as well have been written down on a piece of paper, folded in your pocket all along. You guessed the correct answer! You win a life together!
You are lying on the floor wearing a red hooded sweatshirt and grey tracksuit bottoms. You hear the front door open. I’m not well, you say. I feel sick, I think I’m dying. He drops his briefcase, wraps his arms around your waist and throws you over his shoulder. You feel giddy and light; like a fluttering, translucent piece of paper. Do you feel less sick now? he asks, spinning you around the room. How about now? You giggle and squeak, thinking: why is he back from work early?
You are drinking tea in bed. He sits on the edge of the mattress wearing his wool coat. He holds his palm to your cheek. It is cold and you flinch away. Helen in Finance says her husband is looking for a Marketing Manager so I’ve forwarded her your CV, he says. Maybe you should send out your portfolios? You take a long gulp of tea and stare straight ahead. Okay, he says. Okay, I can send them out. He kisses your knee beneath the duvet. As he leaves the room you notice his eyes. They look tired.
He comes home late. You have fallen asleep on the settee. You open your eyes, your face feels mulched. You struggle to sit up. You think maybe you’re still sleeping. After work drinks? you ask. Was she there? You hadn’t intended to sound so vitriolic. If you’re so convinced I’m fucking her, he replies, then maybe I just should.
You sit across from him in a hammy Italian bistro, winding spaghetti around your fork between sips of white wine. You look at him and suddenly he’s a stranger. You panic. You stare at his face and it is old and unfamiliar. Who are you? you think. And why are you touching my hand?
You are in a pale green room with floor-to-ceiling windows. You are sitting cross-legged. You catch the eye of a man you haven’t seen before. He is attractive. He has dark eyes and you hold his gaze. The instructor counts your breathing: In… two… three… four… Out… two… three… four… As you collect your coat he touches your shoulder. I don’t normally do this, he says. But would you like to go for a drink? You sit next to him and when his leg rests against yours you let it. It’s late and you’re drunk. Let’s get out of here, you say. You fall over and he catches you, holding your face and pressing his lips to yours. You respond. It is that easy, you think. It is already done. You tell him you’re married. I know, he replies. So what? You hail a taxi. You’re not sure if the fall was deliberate. You never see him again.
At some point it occurs to you that you will divorce. Divorce is our destiny.
He is packing his bags and you are hysterical. It doesn’t matter what her name is, he tells you. It doesn’t matter who she is. You go downstairs and find a knife in the kitchen, scraping the thin blade across your wrist. Well I suppose it doesn’t matter if I open up my veins, you think. I suppose it doesn’t matter if I bleed out right here on this floor. The door slams behind him.
You cry and sleep, a routine of sorts, performed several times daily. And yet you worry that maybe you’re not quite feeling it fully, that it hasn’t quite reached the tips of your fingers, lying dormant under a few layers of skin, when suddenly it shoots out, pouring forth from every pore, every orifice, spinning circles around the room and it is all there is. It is all there is.
You are now one of them. You have joined that special club and your initiation rites are a series of squeezed shoulders, of weak smiles. Stories of former breakups, bad boyfriends, husbands cheating, confessions offered up, little titbits of consolation, like treats. Fuck you, you think. Fuck you, this is different. This is different because this is happening to me. Your friends want you to talk about it but you cannot. There is no vocabulary for heartbreak, you say. There is no point.
You take up painting. There is something pleasingly definite about it, slicking fat strips of colour onto a canvas. You think about how strange it is to still have absolutes like this, like marriage, in this day and age. Couldn’t there be another option, leasing it out for five, maybe ten years, then reviewing it when the time comes? We are a generation of renters not buyers. Your friend Suze tells you to stop being cynical.
You have a date. You wear a tailored chiffon dress and a simple white gold pendant. He is prompt, polite, he pulls your chair out for you and asks what you would like to drink. You tilt your head back and hold the menu in front of you. He rolls up his sleeves revealing thick, hairy arms. You ask him what he does and he says he works in capital projects. You ask him if he enjoys it and he says it pays the bills. A tall blonde woman walks by and his eyes follow her past the table, past the bar and through the swinging doors and into the toilets. You wish someone had warned you about tall blonde women earlier. Sexually transmitted disease, drink driving, bar snacks and tall blonde women. The real stranger danger. Your food arrives and you feel an anxiety about eating that you have not felt in years. He says he’s glad you ordered a salad, a woman should watch her weight. He says he likes your dress and he’s looking forward to taking it off later. He says it’s good that you’re doing so well in your career, just so long as you don’t turn into a bitch, like his boss, now there’s a woman who wants it. I don’t have to listen to this shit, you think, and at once, you realise you don’t have to. You dab French dressing from your mouth and set the napkin on the table. I’m terribly sorry, you say. But I have somewhere I have to be.
You are gardening. You look at your hands as you pull knots of weeds from the dirt. You have a young woman’s hands with tapered, elegant fingers and small, square fingernails. The sun falls warmly on your face. It is nearly time for lunch.