‘Love-life’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
How’s your love-life? my father asks. He is drunk. We are in a Chinese restaurant in London, and my brother and his wife are too sleep-deprived and hungover to be partaking in the bottle of wine that they ordered. So my father has finished it off too quickly and is now asking me this question as I laugh too loudly and look at the menu. How do you think her love-life is? he asks my brother, who takes pity on me, for once, and changes the subject.
I meet a man a few years my senior at a work party. No one likes him much—he is unabashedly ambitious, his hunger radiates with a stifling quality, like the heat off a too-hot fire.
Drinking together, he tells me about the girl he wants to fuck. So hot, he mouths, showing me a picture of her on his phone. Small, Asian, brunette. A girl I could have been, perhaps, in a parallel universe.
He emails me after I leave: Drinks soon? Xo.
The boy I sometimes think I love has come over for dinner; it’s just the two of us in my low-ceilinged apartment. He’s telling me about the break-up with his girlfriend.
Are you alright? I ask. I try to say this in a way that doesn’t sound like I am asking:
Are you alright enough to have sex with me now? But instead to sound concerned, because I am.
It was shit, he says. I feel awful.
Christ, I say. (Definitely not alright to fuck, then, I try not to think.)
Everyone says I’ve made a mistake, he adds. But he rolls his eyes, and reaches over for a piece of pizza.
Do you feel like you made a mistake? I don’t look at him as I ask, but instead peel an olive off the top of my slice, and eat it slowly.
No, he says, firmly. But I probably have. I mean, they’re right. She was amazing.
She was! I say, too emphatically.
Thanks, he answers, despondently.
One night, a week later. My jazz-player musician-man is back from Cuba, and is showing me how to rhumba. I am too drunk to have rhythm, or to control my steps, which land too heavily and a bit off the mark. But I am joyous. This is fantasy made real; three am, a candle burning, swept up and twirled and led into the beat.
I wake up to the sound of him playing a tune on his sax, the notes aimless and short and dizzying.
A group of us are in a trendy canal-side pub in East London, cramped inside a small, dark booth. A friend of the boy I sometimes think I love is being a dick. He’s high, not even on a proper drug but a synthetic rip-off: “go-kane”. His pupils are dilated, his voice is too loud, his fingers keep feeling each other, feeling his clothes, feeling the air. He tells the boy I sometimes love that he, my boy, can’t write for shit.
Your writing is shite, go-kane boy says again, in his strong Glaswegian accent, and though he is laughing, it’s unclear if this is a joke. He slams a hand on the table and takes a shot of tequila.
The boy I sometimes love laughs too, makes wide eyes at the rest of us, his friends, like, God, look at how fucked up our friend is! He’s being so silly! Isn’t this hilarious?
I smile at him but feel unsure. His friend the poet, who is also sitting with us, does not smile back.
Seriously, go-kane says. What the fuck are you doing being a journalist? You can’t fucking write a word. I write better crap than you in my sleep, pal.
My boy rolls his eyes and laughs some more, and I feel a pain in my chest that borders on disgust. Why are neither of us saying anything?
At one point, the poet sternly says to go-kane that he’s maybe had enough for the night, and my boy joins in. But this is tentative, too tentative, and he’s still laughing, but to me, his face looks pale.
I can’t tell which would be worse: saving him, or not saving him. So I am frozen, immobile.
I think about this as we finally fuck, weeks later.
The ambitious man sends another email; no subject.
The body says: Re:drinks. We should have them. Frederick’s, 8pm, next Tuesday.
And then, on a new line: This is strictly business.
Strange: the boy I sometimes think I love has lit candles for our meal, which he has made for us at his house. I can’t tell if this is romantic, or just a play at being grownup. Either way we are being filtered through their amber glow, and I find myself sinking into the dreamlike state of it. I do love him, don’t I? Look at that smile. Look at us, laughing.
When I kiss him later—it takes hours to work up the courage, in spite of the fact that we have kissed before, that I’m pretty sure we will kiss again—I am taken by surprise by his hunger. I lean towards him casually and before I know it he is on top of me, he has lunged at me, is biting me and pulling me and grabbing me. It feels as though he is relieved, finally, to have been set free with me. Where has this come from? Maybe the boy I sometimes love sometimes loves me too.
After work one day, I ask the new boy—an old friend of an old friend, just recently on the dating scene—the question I’ve been asking everyone. We are sitting in the pub below my apartment, a strategic move: I don’t know if I am motivated enough yet to cross a distance for him, but I can bring him up and to bed if the mood takes us there.
What would your five things be, I say again, cupping my pint. Come on, it’s easy.
Five key things about yourself you would tell someone about to be arrange-married to you. Like, five things someone who’s going to spend their life with you has to know from the get-go.
The new boy frowns deeply, and then looks up. I guess the first thing would be—his expression is sincere, almost pained—that I hate disappointing people.
My jazz-player musician man’s answer: I like my own space.
The boy I sometimes think I love won’t answer, of course, and instead laughs and asks me what mine would be.
For his birthday, the boy I sometimes think I love has organised a dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant he loves. I arrive late, frazzled, sweaty and with my coat bunched up under my arm. I walk in apologising and disoriented. I expect there either to be dozens of us, or else just a couple; instead, there are six seats around his table. His siblings, the poet, and two others I don’t know, but who turn out to be other school friends from the poet’s era.
They are curious to meet me, this late addition: it seems I have special status in his social circle.
I agree to meet a film producer because his messages make me laugh out loud.
When we greet each other outside the bar, though, it is clear that he is petrified. His jokes are stuttering, and he refuses to meet my eye. He tries calling me “doll”, but can’t quite follow through, leaving the word hanging in the air only half-formed.
I ready myself to leave early, but instead, after a few more drinks, end up sleeping with him. Partly to be polite—he is so very nervous—and partly out of the small hope that maybe, with sex, he will regain his humour.
Instead, his nerves intensify: his body is trembling and timid, his penis long and thin.
The perfect Saturday, two years ago: the boy I sometimes think I love meets me at the coffee shop downstairs. I have been reading a great article in the paper, my brain feels active and alive. We talk about it—the piece is about smart drugs—and drink our black coffees, as a ray of sun makes its way through the muddled sky. Then we go upstairs and lie down on my roommate’s bed, on her white duvet, and pull down the blinds of the window to our left, and set up the computer so that we can watch the new season of a show we both enjoy. It begins to pour outside, and thunder.
After episode two, we take a break: he picks up my guitar and, still lying down, he begins to strum and sings a tune. The rain comes down hard but his voice is soft, gentle, and I am warm and his body is close to mine. I long, ache to kiss him and when I finally do, it is ecstatic. My body sparks, every touch electric, as we fuck; neither of us can stand at the end, we are both shaking.
I haven’t had sober sex in… he says, shaking his head, not finishing the phrase.
He leaves me to wonder: Days? Months? Years?
This time, I agree to a coffee only. He doesn’t seem as funny, this one, though his messages are filled with pop culture references, which I like, and he knows a good café, which also gives him points.
Halfway through my latte, he tells me: You shouldn’t use a sepia filter on your photos.
Before I have a chance to think of a witty answer, he adds, with a hint of accusation: I thought you were white.
I have never finished with the boy that I sometimes love. Five years of fucking, on and off, and never once. We are both too polite, or too awkward, to mention it.
Oddly, this doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the sex, only that the endgame, for me, is different.
My heart is swooping into my stomach; I am glad that it is past eight and the office is abandoned. I can’t see straight, and I’m not hearing him, on the other end of the line:
So, the doctors aren’t sure what’s happening yet. They’re waiting on results. He’s
I’ll let you know as soon as I have any news.
The poet’s voice is brusque and serious, monotone. He sounds unlike himself: not the twenty-something friend of the boy I sometimes think I love, but an adult. A man, telling me facts.
Thanks, I manage, though I can’t tell if I’ve said this at the right juncture—has he already hung up? Was he in the middle of speaking, still? Thanks, I say again, for no reason at all, feeling as though I am speaking into a void.
My boy. My boy, my boy, my boy.
The day after, the poet suggests meeting at the pub, those of us who are close with him, for ‘a chat and a hug’. I feel as though I’ve ambled off a cliff-edge and have only just noticed the drop, so I say yes, sure, please, why not. They might catch me, be my solid ground.
When I see him, the poet squeezes me tight and I don’t want him to let go. I feel the solidness of him through the red felt-like fabric of his jumper. To my horror, I find myself close to tears within seconds, and I have to sit quickly, and look at my phone.
It’s shit, isn’t it, the poet says, giving me a half-smile.
I’ve always loved his smile.
I can’t even, I say, uselessly.
The next morning, sleep-deprived, I take a circuitous way to work. I try to avoid certain roads that remind me of him, and fail. How is he everywhere, my boy? Too many thoughts are now tender to the touch.
At the office, I gather the only items at my disposal, the only things that might be of any use: books. I pick out two I love, and then realise one is about cancer and the other is about death, so I put them back. A third is too glib, too flippant. Finally, I settle on a dreamy dystopian novel about an orchestra. I take another I haven’t yet read, about an older couple, and a non-fiction book about London. I tie the three books up with some moss-green string, add a postcard, and then mail them to his house.
Nothing to do but wait.
I go for dinner with an old friend, one I haven’t seen in years, and I expect this to be an evening of warmth and familiarity. But before the starters arrive, he says he has to tell me something.
I was fucking in love with you, he says. It is less accusatory than bewildered, but still, the directness of this makes me look away.
He says it again, more angrily, and I get a cold, hollow feeling in the base of my stomach; the panic you feel when you’ve forgotten a filled-in notebook on a train, or left a candle burning in a house you’ve locked up. The feeling of an unfixable fuckup, an ever-regrettable.
I’m sorry, I say, but neither of us finishes our too-sour lemon chicken.
An online messaging group has been created, to keep everyone updated on my boy’s progress. At least twenty people are in the group, and more are added every day. ‘They’re doing tests this morning, so the family says no visitors for the day. Hoping he’ll be up to some tomorrow xx’ they write, immediately followed by:
‘Thanks for the message!! Xx’ and ‘Good to know, thank you x’.
He is so loved by everyone, my boy. In fact, he’s not my boy at all. Really, it’s that I’m his girl.
There was a period of time, when I was maybe eight or nine years old, when I was seized with a panic at the thought of last words. What if my mother died on the way to the shop? To the kitchen? I would end every exchange with I love you, regardless of context.
Now, at the end of her week-long visit to London—a welcome distraction—she shouts it to me from across the road, several times, waving wildly and blowing me kisses, getting into the car and calling it out again: ‘I love you, my darling!’
I wave back and say ‘Bye! Bye! See you soon! Bye!’, wishing she would leave, cringing inside and hating myself.
I try to remember what I last said to my boy, but I can only see his face, red and laughing.
It is Tuesday. The ambitious man and I are in a bar I can’t afford, having the afterwork work drinks, networking (his word), but we have become distracted.
I try to explain to him what I mean when I say that I don’t think the right person will love me right now.
It’s the wrong me they’ll love, I say, a bit too earnestly, aware that this is not appropriate work-talk, that I have drunk two more beers than he has, and that his arms are very defined underneath his black tshirt. I’m going to be a better me in the future. I want the person who’ll be attracted to version 2.0, you know?
I am leaning forward too much, I am gesticulating and perhaps bordering on tears. I try to fill the space between us with more drink.
During the afternoons, my phone starts becoming epileptic; dozens of messages begin to pour into the online group as new people get added.
Anyone got any idea what kind of music he likes??? Gonna make him a playlist for when he’s better Xx someone says.
I wonder if leaving the group is too aggressive, but then spend hours listening to every song he’s ever sent me.
I think I will never be able to have sex again, that I have been completely broken, until I do.
The new boy pulls out and frantically tries to get his softening penis back up, masturbating himself with almost comic intensity.
Fuck, he says.
I try to tell him I don’t care; hard dick, soft dick, no dick, it’s all the same. I didn’t think I’d make it even this far.
Thank you for the books, really kind, the message reads. It is from an unknown number. I go into my phone’s settings and click the button to add a contact: L. It feels odd, to meet my boy’s mother over text. She tells me she is reading the dystopian one, while she sits by his bed in the hospital.
I’ll let you know how he’s doing, she promises me.
The jazz-player musician man is lying beside me in bed, playing would-you-rather.
Would you rather eat live snails for a year, or have cockroaches for nails?
Would you rather be stuck forever on a desert island, or be filmed 24/7?
Would you rather get raped, or punched in the gut?
I stop him there. That one’s not really an even choice, I say.
I dunno, he says. Punches can really hurt.
Sure, but not traumatically, I say. Not, like, a long-term damage kind of hurt.
Oh, you’re one of those, he says, sighing and rolling his eyes.
Uh, I say, shifting sideways, very aware of my nakedness, hoping that if we have sex again, I’ll want to.
The first time I sleep with my boy, we are, of course, in Paris. He is living in a tiny attic apartment, made up of one room only, in which there is just enough space for his small double-mattress, his cello and an old-school cooker. The toilet, shared by other tenants, is down the hall.
It is my first night visiting him, and we have gotten drunk on red wine in Montmartre and then drunker on tequila in some seedy student bar in the sixieme arrondissement, and we are now lying down, giggling, the sloped ceiling seemingly swaying towards us.
The conversation lags and I know the moment has come for sleep, but our bodies are too close to each other, and soon our breathing becomes synchronised, tense. It is surprisingly quick, the transition: it takes only minutes for years of friendship to give way to booze and Paris and youth.
In the morning, he says, Next time we won’t be so bloody cramped.
Next time? I ask, knocking into the stove with a clanging sound as I get out of the bed.
How’s today looking? I ask, my message a sad blue bubble to L as I wait in the small garden outside the hospital. I get no reply, but I sit there through my lunch hour just in case, inventing excuses for my lateness, the wind whipping at my hair.
In between Paris and now, there have been:
Three girlfriends (two for him, one for me)
One boyfriend (mine)
A large number of casual partners (mostly mine)
In the evening, I skulk around the hospital. I walk in and round to the lifts, then back out again. And then in and into a lift, ride it up to the top floor, back down to the ground floor, then hover by reception. I sit, for ten minutes, by the window, in the chairs belonging to the now-closed cafe. I go back to the lifts, make it to the neurology ward and stand there for a while. I catch a glimpse of an old man in a bed, his mouth stretched and open, gaping—is he screaming soundlessly? It all feels eerily quiet.
I spend two hours in the Pret across the road, my eyes on the hospital’s small windows. At least, physically, I’m close to him this way.
We are in the shower, when the new boy says it.
I can feel his heart beating through his wet chest, rivulets of water hitting my scalp and ears as I press my cheek against him. I can tell it’s coming.
I know it’s only been a little while, but…you know I love you, right? he says. His voice is shaky.
I remember feeling scared too, when I was last in love.
My boy and I became friends belatedly, by accident, after two years of living in the same house without really speaking. For my birthday, which was elaborately celebrated by the rest of the housemates, but which he had forgotten, he promised to buy me dinner. He wrote it down on a birthday card: It’s official that way, he’d said.
A month later, I’d knocked on his door, card in hand.
I can’t believe we’ve lived together this long without being friends, I’d marvelled, at the end of a five-hour meal.
We weren’t friends? He’d asked, mock-hurt.
I used to dread bumping into you in the kitchen, I’d said.
Me too, he’d admitted.
Sitting in a café, I look up and feel a sudden jolt go through me as I see my boy standing at the counter. But no, not him: just another small, brown-haired North London boy holding a copy of the Guardian.
I text L again, hoping.
There have been plenty of times my boy and I did not sleep together. In fact, most of the drunken evenings we’d spend together would end with a hug and then home.
It was only sometimes, and only in the last few months, that it had become more regular; that the evenings had gotten later, that our hugs had become more lingering.
And every time we did—every time our knees would knock, and then stay pressed against each other, or our heads would inch closer, as though magnetised—it would be surprising.
Each kiss was as nerve-racking as the first.
I have left the online group, yet my phone is making insistent vibrations. I am in a meeting, though, and my boss is in a particularly unforgiving mood. I continue to take minutes as my phone buzzes again. My boss glares in my direction. I itch to check it. What if it’s L?
I can’t hold out any longer; I excuse myself to go to the bathroom.
Even before I have reached the door, my heart is doing summersaults.
Come by for a visit?
Not from L, but from my boy.
Of course, I know that in the film version of these events, I will tell him. This is the crucial moment, the airport scene: I have nearly lost him, and so he has to know.
I sometimes think I love you, I will say.
I sometimes think I love you too, he will reply.
But then? I try to picture myself and my boy, a couple, brushing our teeth.
The new boy and I go to the movies after work, for some reason choosing a cinema in the very centre of London. Afterwards, we try to avoid crowds by going to a slightly more distant tube station, and somehow we end up beside a small, very green park.
This is quite romantic, the new boy says, squeezing my hand.
I nod absently, remembering my boy and I clambering over these fences, making out on that bench, many years before.
It is fixed: next week, after work.
Even just texting him—knowing he is awake, is himself—is enough to fill me with a relief so powerful I feel I might burst into tears.
It is not clear to me anyway, what love is. It seems, as much as anything else, to be a decision.
For instance: I ask my sister-in-law, who has been married to my brother for almost a decade, has dated him for two, how she knew that she loved him. She tells me it was never in question. Who else could it possibly be? she asks me, and this doesn’t appear to be rhetorical. Her faith in him seems almost religious, and maybe that is the answer: believe in love as you believe in God. As an atheist, this puts me in a tricky position.
The ambitious man and I are in the corner of another work party, sipping free prosecco. He tells me he is after my job.
I have the girlfriend and the apartment, now, he says, shrugging. Need the perfect job.
What girlfriend? I ask. What apartment?
Such a great apartment, he says. Prime location. Bloomsbury. You can’t find places like that.
And the girlfriend? I prod.
Oh her, he says. She comes with the apartment. Totally worth it.
I decide I need to do something special. Before the visit, I go to my boy’s favourite restaurant and order some food to takeaway, carrying it with me across London on the underground, the big box balanced on my knees.
Finally, finally, I am here.
You’re looking surprisingly perky, I say. I had expected a bandaged head, a deformity of some kind, something that made it real, but instead he looks like himself, only in a hospital gown.
Thanks babes, he says. His voice sounds thick, as though speaking through a hangover. Not sure perky’s the word.
And you’re ridiculously popular, I add.
I have pushed through to the front of the queue: two other girls are also standing at the curtains that surround his hospital bed. One is holding flowers, reading a book, the other is on the phone.
Nothing like a stroke to bring in the ladies, he says. He gives me a bleary smile.
I brought you some food, I say quietly, not wanting the other girls overhear. Ottolenghi.
Aren’t you a sweetheart, he says, looking touched. I’m afraid I haven’t got much of an appetite.
That’s okay, I say. I place it on the side.
I try to ask him how he is, if he’s in pain, but I can’t quite find the words, and anyway, I don’t have long, it turns out. A nurse pokes her head round to give us a five minute warning.
I take the chance to look at him, lying there, and feel an urge to touch him, to make physical contact with him. It seems so unlikely that only a week ago he seemed intangible, likely to disappear for ever.
Did you get my books, by the way? I ask.
I did, he says. Very lovely of you. I have them here.
I look at the shelf he’s gesturing towards, and see a whole pile.
What are the other ones? I ask, recognising a few titles.
I guess some other people had the same idea, he says, looking at the girl still on her phone.
Oh, right, I say. Of course.
Yours were the best, though, he adds kindly. I can see that this isn’t true; two books on the shelf are so clearly perfect for him that I feel a pang of embarrassment.
Hey, I say, leaning forward. My mouth opens to begin speaking, but then I pause. It is impossible to say anything in this small, sterile space, with its white brightness and many machines, surrounded by people. And what would I say, really? Nothing that isn’t already known, on some level. Nothing I mightn’t regret having to see through.
Finally, just: I’m so glad you’re okay.
He gives me another tired smile.
The nurse bustles over, wafting disinfectant, and pointedly starts to close the curtain.
Take the food, he says as I get up to leave. I won’t eat it.
No, no, I say, a bit too quickly, not able to face the idea of its weight on my knees all the way back home. Just—throw it out.
The perfect night, six years ago: my boy invites me to see a singer he loves performing at the pub down the road. Her voice is spectacular, deep and sultry, and I feel sure that she will one day be famous, which will, as it happens, turn out to be true. After her songs are done, my boy and I wander down beside the canal, which is inky and still, and find a small pop-up making savoury doughnuts; I order one that ends up being the best thing I’ve ever eaten. We order several more and continue to amble along beside the houseboats, enjoying looking through their windows as we take bites from our food, our fingers greasy. At one point, I tell him I’ve picked up on a trick of his.
What trick? he asks.
You always ask intimate questions as you roll a cigarette, I tell him. It’s ingenious, because it makes you look distracted and casual when, actually, you’re deeply invested.
Do I do that? he asks mildly. But then he grins. I don’t think anyone’s ever noticed that before, he says.
See how I know you after only a month of friendship, I say.
One month, plus two years living together, he corrects.
Those don’t count, I say. Four weeks, and I practically know you better than you know yourself. This friendship is going towards heady territory.
I think I can handle it, he says, smiling.