‘The No Sex Thing’ was shortlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
A bride and groom stand at an altar. Jokes are made by the officiant: the congregation should prepare their knees because there will be a lot of kneeling in this next part. You are in a pew, sandwiched between a fat uncle who smells like too much wine and a small child who keeps looking up at you with wide eyes like they recognise you from somewhere—although, you assure them, they do not.
There is laughter when the officiant makes the joke about kneeling. This is what the Catholics are like, good-natured in their self-deprecation, because you can’t laugh at someone who is already laughing at themselves. And of course, they are always benevolently welcoming, albeit with conditions; you may not receive the holy communion, they say, but if you cross your chest, we can bless you. You may not join us in heaven, but please do join us in celebrating the holy matrimony of Peter and Susan. Afterwards, there will be tea and biscuits.
Amidst the sea of chuckles, you make fleeting eye contact with the groom. To anybody else, it might seem only that: a cursory glance. But you are suddenly more conscious of the way you stand, how you hold your hands by your sides, where your eyes are fixed on the floating canopy of tealights over the aisle. This instinctive appraisal you conduct of your posture, the flicker of doubt that must cross your face, are enough to give him the satisfaction of knowing he has won.
You did not want him to think that he had won.
It was a surprise, several months ago now, receiving the save-the-date in the mail. You will never let him know this, of course. He must have wondered about your reaction; your name, drawn in looped cursive across the top of the gilded invitation, could only have been written by him. Peter and Susan would like to cordially invite you, but you do not know Susan, have never known Susan. Her entry into his life, their subsequent engagement and now this, their wedding, have all occurred in such rapid succession that his family and loved ones must have whiplash. Ah, the Catholics, your friends said when you first showed them the invitation. Then: he must be horny. They expected you to laugh when they said this, a knowingness passing between you, a joke in which you are superficially included but of which, in a truer sense, you are the butt. You suppose it’s your fault, really: you have been too restrained in the expression of your emotions, clinging to wry sarcasm over sincerity, and now you are trapped in a prison of your deflections.
You fell in love with him the first month of knowing him, just turned 19. You became friends by virtue of attending the same tutorials each Tuesday, one after the other, history and then economics. The second was all the way across campus from the first, so it was only natural that you would fall into stride with one another along the walk, talking blithely about politics and philosophy in the detached terms of two young people yet to reckon with their effects on your own lives. It’s interesting, this government policy, the discourse it has prompted about welfare and the pension. On the one hand, there is the human cost, on the other, the economy.
It was along this walk, one Tuesday in early May that first year, that you came across a homeless man, sitting with a cardboard sign outside the entrance to a café known for its bad coffee and good sandwiches. Peter stopped, without saying anything to you, and went over to speak to him as though they were old friends.
You listened to him tell the man he wanted to buy him lunch. The man seemed unsurprised by this, and a discussion promptly began about whether he should try the special or go with a classic, the fish burger, which he’d had before and liked. The two of them ummed and ahhed about this, assessing the pros and cons as though evaluating the terms of a nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Tell you what, Peter said eventually, how about I get both. You try the special, and if you don’t like it, we can swap. After a moment of consideration, the homeless man decided this was a reasonable solution, so Peter went inside. You waited out on the promenade with the homeless man, pretending to be busy on your phone because you didn’t know how to talk to strangers, and besides, you needed a quiet moment to manage the revelation of having just fallen in love.
In the end, the homeless man didn’t like the special, and Peter swapped him the fish burger. As the two of you walked on together, you deliberated for several painstaking moments over the most casual way to acknowledge what you had just observed.
That was good of you, you said at last. Peter, of course, dismissed this.
Anyone else would have done the same.
I don’t think that’s true.
Oh, well. He gave a shrug. I do what I can. Love thy neighbour and all that.
You found out later, through some preliminary social media investigations, that he had a girlfriend. Someone called Alice, with whom he had just celebrated a one-year anniversary. The post about it that you found on his profile was decorated with love-heart reactions and comments that said, in some form or another, when’s the wedding? The comments that didn’t say this were variations of praise be; God is good; bless you both. It didn’t take long to figure out that all the different interlocutors belonged to the same parish. Love thy neighbour, he had said, and suddenly it made sense: he was a Catholic.
Your friends were divided in their responses to this. Vladimir said in no uncertain terms that Catholicism was a dealbreaker. Eileen said it wasn’t that simple having been raised in a family of Irish Catholics herself. Some of them are alright, she said, so Vladimir pointed her to the Church’s official stance on the same-sex marriage plebiscite, and a debate ensued about the individual versus the organisation. Maya said it doesn’t matter anyway because he has a girlfriend, and you know what the Catholics are like with their girlfriends. This was the overruling verdict, and after that, the matter was put to bed.
You’re not sure, in that case, why you felt the need so ardently to pursue his friendship. Walks between tutorials turned into lunch after lectures, which turned into weekends spent studying together in the library, sometimes quite late into the night. Your conversations always danced around the edges of his faith, your questions targeted while maintaining, at all times, an air of naïve curiosity. What did he think about the performance of gender, the idea of life starting at conception versus birth, marriage as a construct? But of course, he was always infuriatingly even mannered in his responses. It’s personal, he would say, or it depends. To each their own; I don’t think it’s really for me to say. You later learned that he abstained from voting in the plebiscite on this basis. You are still ashamed that knowing this didn’t deter you.
After exams, you sweated for 45 minutes over a text suggesting celebratory drinks at a bar. To your great relief, he agreed. Over his fourth glass of wine, you asked him why, as a Catholic, he didn’t see drinking as a vice.
The way I see it, he said with a sloping grin, God created nature for us to enjoy. Wine is just one of the many fruits of that.
That seems to be a philosophy applied rather conveniently, you observed.
In what sense?
Well, you said, in the sense of sex, for one thing.
He chuckled. I am not for a minute suggesting that we are not supposed to enjoy sex.
Is that so? At this point you leaned closer. You can’t remember whether or not it was intentional, only that he did not lean away when your knees brushed. What are you suggesting, then?
He held your gaze as he answered. Well, let’s put it this way. I wouldn’t share a glass of good wine with just anyone.
You cannot describe the thrill that ran through you when he said that. The impressive acrobatics that your mind did to spin the remark into confirmation of his reciprocated interest. Perhaps it was the wine or just the delirium of his company, but you reached out then to touch his shoulder, and he didn’t pull away. You were very close, the dim light of the booth like a veil shielding you from the eyes of the rest of the world. His hand was on your leg, his eyes on your lips. Kissing him then felt like the most natural thing in the world. Like you were crossing some invisible divide, a nonbeliever entering into the realms of faith. Because it did, in that moment, feel genuinely as though God was guiding you, St Peter welcoming you through the pearly gates with open arms.
The kiss was followed by the exchange of embarrassed smiles and Peter’s abrupt departure. He didn’t speak to you for a week afterwards. You are embarrassed to admit that you flinched at every buzz of your phone, though you prided yourself on not caving in to the desire to text yourself.
When he did finally call, it was with news. He had broken up with Alice. Oh, you said, I’m sorry to hear that. He said, thanks, and then asked if you were free to meet.
You said, sure.
You met at a bar and grill on the harbour; you can’t remember where, only that the day was grey and drizzly, despite it being October. He put a hand on the small of your back as he steered you inside. When you sat, he poured your water before his own and then laced his fingers and stared at them for a moment in silence. You held your breath until he spoke.
I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to get straight into another relationship, he said.
No, you agreed. Better to take it slow.
I would, however, very much like to stay friends.
You nodded neutrally, trying not to let your confusion show at this apparent rejection. Was there no in-between world you could inhabit together, a label that lay somewhere between devoted monogamy and purely platonic friendship? After all, he had broken up with Alice—if not for you, then what?
Oh, you said eventually.
It’s not personal, he assured you. This only made you feel like it was. Your food arrived, and you took a bite, grateful for the distraction. He was still watching you, so you looked him in the eye and just said, I wish I’d ordered chilli sauce.
Do you want me to go and ask for some? he asked.
It’s alright, you answered. I’m just saying I wish I had.
The lunch itself did not last long, and when he pulled you in for an embrace at the end, you extracted yourself like he might have something contagious. You didn’t want him to see that he had hurt you. Leaving, you made indistinct murmurs of agreement that you should do this again sometime, and then, once you were on the bus, you cried.
A few weeks later, he sent you a meme via text. You replied with a laughing face emoticon and then haha lol, even though the meme didn’t warrant it. This thread of conversation continued in much the same way over the next 36 hours, and then, out of the blue, he called you.
I’m just leaving the shops, he said, and I’ve somehow ended up with too much chilli sauce.
Imagine that, you said. You were sitting on your bed wrapped only in a towel—he had caught you on your way to take a shower. Actually, he had caught you in the middle of taking a shower, but you had stepped out quickly and rushed back to your dormitory before answering, so that you could perfect the air of having been casually available.
Anyway, he went on, since you’re such a big fan, I was wondering if you wanted me to drop some over.
You couldn’t think of a weaker excuse if you tried; the fact of this delighted you.
Sure, you said, if you want. You gave him the college’s address and then, as soon as you were off the phone, hurried back to the showers to finish washing up. By the time he arrived, you were dressed in the crisp, expensive kind of activewear that you hoped would artfully convey the full extent of your nonchalance at this spontaneous encounter.
Here you go, he said, passing over a paper bag. One jar of chilli sauce, signed and delivered.
You took the bag and invited him in. When he sat on your bed, he perched right on the edge, so much so that you suspected all the weight of his body was still being carried in his heels. So this is where the magic happens, he said, and you realised he was nervous.
You tell me, you said. He laughed and stood right up again, his cheeks pink.
I didn’t realise you were an athlete, he said, pointing to a collection of medals hanging from a hook on the bookshelf.
Those are for debating.
Yeah, so, like I said, he grinned, an athlete. He sat down again, and there was a pause. He shifted in his seat several times before meeting your eyes. Look, he said. I like you.
I like you too, you said.
I don’t feel ready for a relationship, he went on, and you nodded.
As you’ve mentioned.
But friends can visit each other, right?
Friends can, you said. He put a hand on your knee.
Friends can touch friends’ knees.
Friends can do that, yes.
He put his face very close to yours. Friends can even kiss each other, theoretically, if they wanted.
You understood this to be an invitation, so you did. He kissed you back at once, and for several hopeful minutes you believed you might actually consummate the love you had been feeling for months now, right there and then on the bed. But all his clothes stayed firmly on, and as the minutes stretched into hours, it became clear it wouldn’t progress any further than some chaste fondling of one another’s torsos. Outside, the sky grew dark, and, as your libido retreated reluctantly within itself, you offered for him to stay the night. You fell asleep fully clothed, his arm draped across your front, the air between you filled with the soothing sounds of his gentle snoring.
Just before three in the morning, you awoke to the feel of his fingers in your underwear.
In your half-asleep state, it took a moment to realise what was happening. When you stirred, he withdrew at once, his hand recoiling like a snake. You both lay perfectly still, and then, after a minute, his snoring resumed. By the morning, you were convinced you had imagined it.
He left at half-past nine to attend mass. You’re welcome to join me, he said, and you declined. When he was gone, you simulated being asleep and then touched yourself, as if to feel what he had felt. You’re not sure what drove this endeavour: the curiosity of viewing yourself from the perspective of another, perhaps, like scrolling through one’s own social media profile. The hopes that he had been impressed, the terror that instead it was repulsion.
For several weeks after that, your relationship returned to the confines of text message threads. One night, you were out at a BYO Thai restaurant in Newtown, getting wine-drunk and lamenting this fact, when Eileen suggested you invite him out. Why not, she pointed out, cheeks pink from the alcohol. In the worst case, he just says no.
This point was irrefutable, so, after another glass, you did. To your delight, Peter accepted. He showed up 52 minutes later, his hair still damp from the shower. Your friends all made airy promises about leaving, but never did, each of them as eager as the others to get to know the mystery man. Vladimir ordered a round of shots for the table and then moved his chair over, so as to be sitting directly opposite.
So, Peter, he said. I hear you’re a Catholic.
You glared at Vladimir for saying that, but Peter was unperturbed. Indeed, he said. What else have you heard, out of interest?
Oh, just that, mostly, Vladimir answered. That, and, you know, the whole no sex thing.
You felt your cheeks flame up and were grateful for the blanket that the wine placed over your internal screams, muffling them. To his credit, Peter maintained a pacific smile. Ah yes, that old chestnut.
Wow, really, Eileen said, leaning forward on folded arms. So you really aren’t going to do it until marriage, then?
Peter ducked his head. I’m afraid it is my cross to bear.
Not any of it? Maya asked. What about hand stuff?
You felt yourself freeze, though nobody noticed. You hadn’t told your friends about the underwear incident. You focused on keeping your face unchanged as Peter considered this. I suppose, he said, it all depends on your definition of sex. For me, it’s all kind of one and the same.
This was news to you. So you mean you don’t see any difference between any of it? you asked him.
Interesting, Vladimir said. He looked at you, not Peter, when he said this, and then, abruptly, he stood. Well, we’d better get going then, anyway. Eileen looked like she was about to protest, but Vladimir had a way of communicating without words that compelled her and Maya to stand, and the two of you were left alone.
Later, Peter walked you back to the college and then came inside with you. Sitting on your bed, he ran his lips against your jaw and asked if it bothered you, the whole no sex thing.
Oh, you know, you said, not looking at him. It is what it is.
If you’d rather stop seeing me…
No, no, that won’t be necessary.
You said it too eagerly, and he chuckled in a way that sent a tingling sensation through the centre of your body. When you met his eyes, your faces were very close, and you leaned in to kiss him. He gave way at once, your bodies toppling horizontally onto the mattress. Your mind was alive with questions about the conversation at dinner, the incongruence of his words, but part of you feared that if you drew attention to the fact, he might withdraw altogether, so you stayed silent. His shirt had come almost all the way undone before he extracted himself from your embrace, a groan emitting from his lips without his consent as he lay back and closed his eyes.
You asked him what was wrong.
I can’t, he said.
He looked at you and said, you know why. Your cheeks stung as though he’d slapped you, and he stood up to put on his shoes.
Do you want to stay the night? you whispered, already knowing the answer.
No, thanks, he replied.
After that, you didn’t see or hear from him for six weeks. Why don’t you text him first for a change, Eileen suggested once or twice, but you knew that was out of the question. You couldn’t let him know that his opinion of you mattered. The irony, of how much space in your thoughts was occupied by how best to make it look as if you barely thought of him at all, was not lost on you.
In the summer, Vladimir moved into a share house in the inner city, where the tenants seemed to pride themselves on their lack of hygiene and furniture, despite the fact that they had all attended private schools and were having their rent paid by their parents. They threw a housewarming party a weekend after the move and invited a strange cocktail of people from different circles—uni tutorials, high school, part-time jobs—to help them, as they called it, ‘sacrifice their bond’. As was typical at these sorts of events, you remained in a corner for most of the night with the same friends you had arrived with, drinking cider and telling each other things you already knew. Someone you and Maya had gone to high school with was engaged, and you were all marvelling at how young they were.
Do you think it’s a shotgun wedding, Vladimir wanted to know, or are they just very Christian.
Not all Christians, Eileen began, to much knowing laughter from the group. Maya shook her head. They’re both very progressive, actually, she said. For example, I don’t think she plans on wearing white.
I appreciate that, you said. White’s not even a good colour on most people.
Ah, but it symbolises purity, remember, Vladimir said.
Then really, you pointed out, the groom should be wearing it too.
The others laughed at that, Vladimir especially loudly. Well, Peter certainly should, he said. Our sweet little virgin prince.
In response to this, you delivered a performatively large, long-suffering sigh. Is it really so much to ask, you lamented, that the man I’m seeing shows some level of physical interest in me?
To be fair, you knew what you were getting into, Maya said. And you can’t make him do anything he doesn’t feel comfortable doing. That’s just the basic principle of consent.
I think it’s a bit different, you argued, if the reason he won’t have sex with me is just because his imaginary friend in the sky is telling him not to.
But Maya shook her head. A no is still a no.
At that, you felt suddenly as though you had been thrust unwillingly into a spotlight, the three of them staring at you in a way you construed to be disapproval. Abruptly, you said that you were tired and that you had just remembered you had a philosophy essay about international surrogacy due the next day at 5pm. It was such a specific excuse that nobody questioned it. You texted Peter on your way home from the party, but of course he didn’t respond.
A few nights later, by which time you were trying to convince yourself you had never texted him at all, Peter rang you. Can I come over? he asked. You said, yes. He was drunk when he arrived.
Sorry I’ve been so MIA, he said. You didn’t want it to seem as though you had been waiting around for him, so in response, you said, yes, me too; I’ve been completely snowed under.
He looked at you sideways without speaking and then put a hand on the back of your neck. There is just something about you, he whispered. You had planned to be withholding, to make him crave you so much that he gave in to his primal urges, bible be damned, but sitting here with his hand on you like that, all you could think about was kissing him again, so you did. You were careful to let him guide, not moving until he moved, never placing your hand anywhere that wasn’t directly symmetrical to where his hand was placed on you. It was excruciating. Can we take our clothes off now, you asked him, and wordlessly, he let you remove his shirt, then his trousers. You felt like you were 15 again, the same rush of adrenaline coursing through you at the sight of him laid bare. Gingerly, you touched his erection. He did nothing to stop you, so you continued. You rubbed until he came, his fingers staying firmly put on your back all the while, clenched around your skin, almost as though he were paralysed.
When he was finished, and it was clear nothing would be happening of a reciprocal nature, you lay side by side and stared at the ceiling. At a point, he stood up and said, I’m not sure how I felt about that.
You shifted onto your side to watch him get dressed. How do you mean?
I mean, I feel like that crossed a boundary.
It wasn’t apparent from the tone of his voice where the blame was being directed. Right, you said. He bent over and started putting on his shoes.
I think I should leave.
Okay, you said. He didn’t kiss you goodbye. You waited until you’d heard the distant echo of his feet down the stairwell and then pressed your face into your pillow and cried.
For the next week and a half, guilt crept slowly over you like a cold. A knot formed itself in your stomach that didn’t leave, and you found that you were sleeping badly. You didn’t tell your friends—wouldn’t have been able to face them if they knew, not after the conversation you’d had at Vladimir’s party. Whenever they asked how the Catholic was, you just made evasive jokes about prayer circles and mission camps. You grew paranoid that the story would be leaked somehow, that you’d wake up one morning with police at the college gates with a warrant for your arrest. Once or twice, you legitimately considered attending church—hoping, perhaps, that some late-stage repentance might ease the sickness inside you.
But then Peter called again. It was a Sunday evening, and you were out at a dinner. You excused yourself as soon as you saw. He picked you up and drove the two of you back to college. You hardly spoke until you were back inside your room, and then you sat on your bed and fixed your gaze on your lap, ready to accept whatever punishment might befall you.
I spoke about you in confession today, he said.
You tried to veil your surprise. Oh?
I can’t go into detail obviously, he said, but yeah, I spoke about temptation and self-restraint and the doubt that I was starting to feel about the strength of my faith.
A bubble of hope arose in your chest. You looked up. And what did the priest say?
Just that I needed to take some time to think about my relationship with Christ.
So, I think it’s best if we don’t see each other for a while.
You stared back down at your lap. For a while, you echoed.
I just think I need to get to know God a little better.
You could feel your bottom lip quivering. He touched it with his thumb. I’m sorry, he whispered. You just shook your head because if you spoke, you might cry, and then he would know how you were feeling. If he knew how you were feeling, he would win, and you did not want him to win.
Let me hold you while you sleep, he said. One last time. Would you like that?
You gave a noncommittal shrug, and then—perhaps because you were afraid he might retract his offer—lay down quickly, facing away so that he would spoon you. His fingers traced a straight line up and down your side, up and down, up and down, in such a hypnotic rhythm that, even though you weren’t tired, you soon found yourself drifting off to sleep.
When you awoke half an hour later, it was to the gentle tugging of your underwear. You kept your breath slow and heavy, giving no indication that you were conscious, afraid that any sudden movement on your part might startle him. You felt him remove his own underwear next, and then, with a firm but gentle force, he pressed himself inside you, so slowly that, had you not already been awake, you may not have felt it. For a minute, there was complete silence, no movement other than the steady heaves of your breaths—yours calm and slow, his increasingly ragged. Then, just like that, he withdrew again. You listened to the rustle of the tissue box, the sound of him finishing and cleaning himself up, then the zip of his fly as he stood.
Just before he left, he placed a warm hand on your forehead and whispered, God bless.
You only saw him once more after that before the wedding. He was standing outside a convenience store in the city, making conversation with another homeless person. You watched from across the street as he handed the person a cup of coffee and a meat pie, and the person clasped their hands together and said, thank you, I am so grateful; you are so good to me. For some reason, you were overcome then with a wave of nausea and had to retreat inside the nearest public bathroom until the feeling faded.
We are gathered here today, the officiant says now, to celebrate the love of Peter and Susan. Now, I know many of you might think it’s crazy that people as young as these two can be so sure that they want to commit the rest of their lives to one another. But hey, love is nothing if not crazy, right? Especially for us Catholics.
This is met by another chorus of laughter from the congregation, Peter and Susan both ducking their heads modestly, like he has paid them a compliment. Being teased is like a reward for them, permission for them to feel and act as though they are martyrs, which, you suppose, Peter must feel that he is.
You drop Peter’s gaze and look instead at his bride, her smiling eyes and anxious hands. You wonder what she knows, what they have done together, or might do. Whether she knows that in the pews stands a man, between a fat uncle and a child, who once loved Peter like she does, perhaps more or less or in equal, dissatisfying agony.
Watching her now, her dress is so white it’s blinding.
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