Tiny Red Hearts

If you ever woke in your dress at 4am ever

closed your legs to someone you loved opened

them for someone you didn’t moved against

a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach

seaweed clinging to your ankles paid

good money for a bad haircut backed away

from a mirror that wanted to kill you bled

into the back seat for lack of a tampon

if you swam across a river under rain sang

using a dildo for a microphone stayed up

to watch the moon eat the sun entire

ripped out the stitches in your heart

because why not if you think nothing &

no one can / listen I love you joy is coming

Kim Addonizio, “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall”

Image of a dimly lit pub with empty tables, capturing the quiet and somewhat eerie atmosphere of an afternoon between lunch and dinner service.
Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash

Dylan is already there when she arrives. He’s sitting at a table by the toilets, looking out for her with a cool, nonchalant expression she imagines he has practised in the mirror. She feels warmth rush to her cheeks and grins down at her feet. 

They’ve chosen an odd time to meet – after Sunday lunch service but before dinner – and she notices now that the pub is emptying. Her girlish giddiness begins to fade. She hasn’t thought about this at all. Not really. What if he tries something? What if he turns out to be like–

No, she tells herself. She presses a hand to her chest and thinks of her grounding exercises. What was the one Lynne taught her? Something about the senses?

Yes. That was it. Okay, something she can hear: forks rattling on trays.

Smell: chip grease.

See: a young couple holding hands. Fingers intertwined. Thumbs rubbing lovingly over–

No. This is the wrong thing to notice. Something else instead. What about:

A father buttoning his toddler’s coat.

Better. She breathes.

Dylan waves and calls her name – a touch too loudly for the half-empty pub. He winces at his error and gives her a nervous smile.

His awkwardness calms her. A guy like Dylan is nothing to worry about, she reasons. Maybe, they’d even hit it off. He’s attractive in the tousled way that she likes – with thick curly hair and a smattering of stubble – and the conversation flowed on the app. Well, what she can remember of it, anyway.

She smiles to herself as she walks over to him, thinking about how good it feels to be just a girl meeting a guy on a Sunday afternoon, with the possibility of something or nothing happening at the end. Her choice.

He stands and greets her with a brief, loose hug. She feels the rough fabric of his jumper under her fingertips, inhales the scent of his shampoo, his sweet musky aftershave.

“Iris,” he says again, next to her ear. “Hey.”

It’s strange hearing her name from another man’s mouth. There is no history, no anger, no shame behind the sound. She tries to silence the old memories of her name, but they begin to play on loop. Softly at first, then louder. She grips her handbag tighter.

“I’m glad we’re doing this,” Dylan says. “It’s so good to meet you.”

“Definitely. You too.”

The toilet door swings open and releases the distinct air-blasting noise of a hand dryer. A bearded man struts out, zips his fly and gives Iris an odd look. She shakes herself and pulls out her chair.

“Sorry, do you want to move?” Dylan asks, looking around at the empty tables.

“No, no,” she says quickly. “It’s fine. This is fine.”

She’s sat at every other table apart from this one before. Her best friends, Nat and Cam, suggested she meet Dylan here, somewhere she felt comfortable. They’d turned up unannounced on her doorstep earlier – a flurry of tight hugs, powdery makeup brushes and are-you-sures. She still couldn’t work out whether their impromptu makeover-cum-intervention had made her feel better or worse.

Dylan places two pint glasses down with a thud. “I got you a cider,” he says. “The one you said you liked?”

She eyes the cloudy liquid in the glasses. She doesn’t remember talking to Dylan about cider. Why doesn’t she remember? Didn’t all those sessions with Lynne fix this?   

“You alright?” Dylan asks.

Iris blinks. Her eyelid is twitching again, and her vision feels blurry. She closes her eyes for a few seconds – and then she sees him.

Not Dylan – him. She cannot – will not – think his name.

She remembers now. About a month ago, she saw him coming out of that café. Only for a second. Just long enough to see his narrow, sloping shoulders, his triangular jawline. 

Since then, her mind has not felt safe. Memories either hide from her or rush to the front of her brain like speeding cars. She loses seconds, minutes, hours. Last week, she lost an entire Tuesday. Sleep is impossible, and when it finally comes it is ruined by her own unconscious. In her latest recurring dream, she puts her finger in her mouth and peels away all of her teeth, as if they are made of plasticine. She wakes up drenched in sweat.

“Iris?” Dylan’s face is a mix of concern and bewilderment.

She rubs her eye. “Sorry – hayfever. Did I mention cider?”

“Yeah, I thought it might be up your street.”

“Oh, thanks.” She tries to disguise her confusion. What else has her mind hidden from her? She goes to take a sip, then decides against it. “Actually, you know what? I don’t think I’m feeling cider right now.”

“Ah. Heavy night last night?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

Dylan gets out his wallet and stands up, but she waves him down.  

“No, I’ll get it. You have my cider.”

He reaches for her full glass and raises it to her. “Suits me,” he says, taking a sip.

Iris gets up and looks at the double doors to the pub. Fuck it, she thinks. May as well go home. No way I can turn this around now. She glances over her shoulder, checks Dylan isn’t watching, starts towards the doors and–

“No,” she whispers to herself. “Come on.”

She rolls her shoulders back, walks with purpose to the bar and asks for a lime and soda. Alcohol wouldn’t be wise. She hasn’t touched it since that night, the night after he ended it. She remembers the cold kitchen tiles against her bare legs, the room twisting and morphing like a kaleidoscope, the blood on her knee where she’d fallen and cut herself, the rumble of the glass bottle rolling away from her. Where had she got that bottle from? When had she decided to do that? Was it gin? Vodka?

The tap hisses as the bartender pours the soda. He hands it over to her and looks knowingly from her to Dylan. ‘Enjoy,’ he says.

She returns to the table and tries to maintain her renewed composure. Dylan grins at her, his lips wet and shining with cider.

“By the way, you look,” he searches for an adjective, “great. I mean, really great.”

“Ah, thanks.” She smiles, though something about the way he is looking at her makes her feel uneasy. Hot, sticky, and not quite in control of her breathing.

It’s not him, she tells herself. But the more she looks at Dylan, the more she sees him.

He used to look at her like she was a queen. He fussed over her, bought her flowers with handwritten cards, made her fancy dinners with garnishes, whisked her away on trips. That was the sort of man he was – not the man who got into moods. Besides, everybody had days like that.

And she had probably done something to set him off, anyway. She could be silly like that. She talked with people too familiarly; she smiled and made them think things.

She’d got chatting to the barista once when they were getting coffee. She recognised him from secondary school; his name was Arlo and they’d been in the same art GCSE class. They shared a few laughs about their old teacher and the rank-smelling supply cupboard while he steamed the milk. It’d felt good to laugh like that, she remembered. She’d thought about asking Arlo for his number – just to stay in touch – but as soon as Arlo put their coffees down, he snatched them up and marched her outside.

“What the hell was that?”

“We were just talking,” she said. “Can you let go of my arm, please?”

He gripped it tighter. “Right in front of me? You talk to him like that right in front of me?”

“We went to the same school, that’s all,” she said. “Please, will you let go now?”

“You need to be careful. You give people the wrong idea. I’m just looking out for you.”

“Yeah, I know. But can you please let go now? You’re hurting me.”

Something flipped in his brain. His face softened like butter, and he dropped her arm.

“Darling, I’m so sorry.” He pulled her close and stroked her back. “Forgive me.”

Now, Iris feels pins and needles trickle down her arms. She clenches and unclenches her fists. 

Dylan looks back at her expectantly, waiting for her to respond to something he must have said.

“Sorry, did you say something?”

“Yeah, so you mentioned you’re in marketing?”

“Right.” Iris nods, but she does not remember telling him this. Come to think of it, she barely remembers matching with him. She has a vague memory of swiping at her phone, watching the screen periodically explode in a flurry of tiny red hearts. Each one made her forget a little more.

“That sounds cool,” Dylan says. “More interesting than my job.”

He must have already told her what he does, but the details evade her.

“I mean, I like the travel, you know?” he continues. “But it’s finance, at the end of the day, isn’t it?”


More people file into the pub. A hum of resonant male voices, a flash of auburn hair. Is it him?

The man turns around – a stranger.

Dylan finishes his cider. A drop begins to roll down his chin, and he wipes it away with his sleeve. “So, do you get to do social media and stuff?”

“What? Oh, yeah, I write social copy and…” She tries to think of something else to pad her response. “I make videos sometimes.”

“Sounds fun.”

“It’s not bad.” She shrugs. Sometimes, she thinks about leaving her office job for bar work. She misses the people, the camaraderie, the blissful feeling of a hot shower after hours on her feet. 

 She told him this, once, on the way to a dinner with his friends. She told him about her favourite regular – a retired bus driver with a penchant for sequinned jackets. He kept the staff entertained all evening. He told terrible one-liners that got worse and worse as he became more and more inebriated. At the end of the night, he got the whole pub to join in with his tone-deaf rendition of “I Will Survive.”  

But he didn’t see the funny side. After they’d eaten, he left in an Uber with his friends while she was in the toilet.

He didn’t reply to her messages for a week. When they finally spoke again, he called her a slut, then broke down and sobbed into her shoulder. She comforted him and apologised over and over again. For what, she didn’t know.

A woman knocks into Iris’ chair, jolting her back to the present.

“Sorry, oh, so sorry,” she says in a stage whisper. Her breath smells of wine and cigarettes.

“It’s alright,” Iris says, shunting her chair back.

The woman stumbles off, calling to her friend across the pub. Dylan leans forward, puts his elbows on the table and looks deep into Iris’ face.   

“What?” She shifts in her seat, uneasy at the sudden change in mood.

“So, tell me more about you,” Dylan says.

“Like what?” 

“You know – what do you do outside of work? Got any hobbies?”

Iris jigs her knee and swills the ice around in her glass. After him, she had barely been able to go to work and make herself meals. What else was there? What did she used to do? She stopped going to her salsa classes a couple of months after they’d got together. He didn’t like the idea of her dancing with other men. Which was understandable, she reasoned. And anyway, she had two left feet.

“The usual stuff,” she says. “Running, I guess.”

She went running last week. Though it was unintentional. She thought she heard his footsteps behind her when she was walking home, so she sprinted to Sainsbury’s.

Dylan smacks his hand on the table, triumphant. “Nice! You ever do Parkrun?”

Iris flinches. “I – I’ve done it before, once, a while ago.”

“Maybe we could go together, sometime?”

“Sure, yeah.”

She notices some familiar words tattooed on his wrist – lyrics from an indie song that was all over the radio in the early 2000s. What was the name of it? Something about a bird or a machine or a something? The melody comes to her in jumbled bits and pieces, backwards and inside out. She presses her fingers to her temples and tries to make sense of it.

Dylan rolls up his sleeve and points at the tattoo. “Such a tune, right?”

“I don’t think I know it.”

A hot wave of panic travels up from her stomach, into her chest and down into her fingers. She presses her wrists to her glass. The ice has melted. How long have they been sitting here?

“Come on, you used to be an indie kid, right?” He looks her up and down.

“No.” It comes out sharper than she meant. She takes a breath and continues, “I just don’t know the song.”

“Ah, well,” Dylan waves a hand and breezes past the subject. “You into podcasts at all?”

“Not really.”

He feigns shock. “Really? God, there’s a podcast for everything these days. I’m sure there’s one you’d be into. There’s this really good conspiracy theory one, actually, and I’m not normally one for conspiracy theories, but they did this one episode about Covid, and I’m not an anti-vaxxer or anything, but it really makes you think…”

Iris zones out. She’d never had this sort of fumbling small talk with him. They had moved quickly. She woke up in his bed the night after they’d met. They said “I love you” within a week. It was exhilarating. She’d never known anything like it. She was on a high for weeks – the highest high she’d ever known.

Then she came down. Then he was cold. Then he was shouting. Then he was asking her all these questions, checking her phone, telling her not to go out for Cam’s birthday, not to wear those shorts outside. Because he loved her. He really loved her. Like nobody else ever would.

Outside, glass bottles cascade into a recycling bin. The pub is much busier now – people are seated on the tables either side of them, chatting away. The din makes Iris feel as though her ears are filled with water.  

Dylan is still talking. There’s fresh pint in front of him. When did he get that?

“…you know, like, we can’t trust the government, can we?”

Iris looks around and tries to reorientate herself. The staff have changed over, and the lights seem brighter. Some tables have a candle in the middle now.

“Uh,” she shrugs, “I guess not.”

“You think there’s something weird about it, too?”

“About what, sorry?” She taps her knee faster and faster. Everything feels too loud and too close. Happy voices. Forks scraping plates. Glasses clinking.


Something inside her snaps. “I think if we’d all just leave animals the fuck alone, things like this wouldn’t happen.”

The couple at the next table go quiet.

Iris looks down at her hands. They’re shaking so much she has to sit on them.

“Woah, okay.” Dylan holds up his hands and laughs uneasily. “Well, anyway, enough about podcasts.” He swigs his pint, puts the glass back down and frown-smiles at her, as if she is a puzzling yet pleasing exhibit. “Can I ask,” he says, “what brought you to online dating?”


“You know…” He tilts his head to one side. “Are you new to the dating scene?”

Iris stares back at him.

“I mean, what’s your – you know – story?” he asks.

She rolls his question around in her mind. There is the story that she has told Nat and Cam, of course. That she and him had been having problems. That she had booked a trip to Prague to reignite the spark. This story is somewhat true. It was a desperate scramble, on her part, to claw back his love – to find the man who used to buy her surprise flowers and call her beautiful.

But he ended it on the Charles Bridge.

Actually, he left her there, sobbing and freezing, with a dead phone.

He wasn’t in the Airbnb when she got back. He didn’t turn up at the airport. He didn’t turn up at her house. He didn’t respond to her messages.

Until he did, to tell her not to contact him again.

Now, the couple at the table next to them are laughing, their cheeks flushed and full. Iris looks around at people hanging coats on the backs of chairs, pointing at things on menus and chatting happily. A few tables over, she thinks she sees him again.

She senses it coming. That feeling. Like she’s strapped into a nosediving plane.  

She grits her teeth and digs her nails into her thighs. She feels a hand on her hair, cranking her neck back where it doesn’t want to go. No, she hears a woman say. Where is this coming from? She sees a flash of blood on white toilet paper. Is this happening?

Please, the voice says. You’re hurting me. Who is that? Tyler, stop it, please. That was his name. Tyler. Somebody is crying. Who is that?

“Iris?” Dylan places his hand on hers.

She snatches her bag and runs into the toilets. The din quiets as the door swings shut behind her.

She’s alone. One of the taps is drip drip dripping. It feels like somebody is trying to crush her skull. She wipes her cheeks, and her fingers come away black with mascara. There’s a cool breeze coming from somewhere that feels good on her face.  

The window is open, she realises. It’s a big Georgian one that looks out onto the alley behind the pub. She walks over to it, leans into the windowsill and gazes up at the cloudless, indigo sky. Then, the thought comes. She hitches up her skirt, gets one leg out and–

Someone comes in. It’s the woman who bumped into her chair earlier. Iris freezes.

The woman retouches her lipstick in the mirror, then presses her lips together with a smacking noise. She reaches for her handbag, sees Iris – and stops. Their eyes meet. Neither of them speaks.

Then, the woman nods once. “If he asks, I never saw you,” she says. She picks up her bag, turns and leaves.

Iris swings her other leg out and runs.

About Lizzie Golds

Lizzie Golds’ short stories have been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize, longlisted for the Bridport Prize, and published by Litro, Fictive Dream, Riptide, Dear Damsels and others. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Bristol, and in 2023 she was invited to participate in a six-month writing workshop with The Stinging Fly. She lives in Bristol, England and works as a copywriter.

Lizzie Golds’ short stories have been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize, longlisted for the Bridport Prize, and published by Litro, Fictive Dream, Riptide, Dear Damsels and others. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Bristol, and in 2023 she was invited to participate in a six-month writing workshop with The Stinging Fly. She lives in Bristol, England and works as a copywriter.

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