I lick the envelope and seal my heart away, ready for the postman to collect and bring to you. The day is brighter than I expected, the breeze cooler. The blues of the world are especially vivid. I wonder if your eyes would be too. You have such beautiful eyes. Expressive, and framed with just the right kind of creases in a permanent web of cheeky humour.
I kick pebbles up the street as I walk, smiling as my girlish play ends over the bridge. The pebbles fall away into water. I feel there should be a metaphor in that. A warning perhaps.
You don’t know me, but I know you. Well. I feel that I do. I’ve watched you closely—on the stage, and on the screen. I’ve watched you find a thousand different ways to say I have hope, or I have none. Or I love you.
Don’t worry, I know the difference between the character and the person. But. Can you ever entirely separate the two? Does not the former forever become a part of the latter?
I read books, I watch films and plays, I consume fiction like tonic—those characters certainly become a part of me. What must it be like for you, to have fiction spread through your whole physicality, moulding you to the last nerve? So much control, yet such surrender. How do you discipline your craft? The twitch of a cheek, a nervous swallow before a first kiss, an involuntary blink that betrays everything. How does it feel to be so acutely aware of your own self, and yet be someone else?
The thing about fiction is that it is just so addicting. Harmless fantasies of magic and triumph, of fortune and lust—they become all consuming. The beautiful tragedies are my favourite. The desperate quest of flawed mortals reaching for greatness beyond their esteem. The intoxicating thrill of touching divinity. The inevitable downfall.
I post the letter.
I feel as though strings attach me to that letter. They unspool from the anxiety in my breast, out through my lips, the crooks of my elbows, the soft pulse in my wrists. Already I feel my heart thudding as that letter pulls on those strings. Pulling away from me, and towards you.
I weave a careless path amongst colourful, cobbled laneways, lost in the fantasy that gives me the most buoyancy. Your hands unfolding my paper, caressing my words as you smooth it down—on your desk perhaps? Dare I imagine your pillow?—so you can read the scrawling script of an unknown fan. I picture your smile. Your smile at my words. And it sustains me. This connection—ephemeral, yet personal.
I press myself through the crowds out for Sunday lunch. I feel countless bodies, countless minds and souls and hearts, brush past mine, and I wonder how many of them have reached out to touch their star. How many desperate ambitions fuel these people? How many have succeeded, how many failed? I find myself suddenly overwhelmed. I think of my drowned pebbles, awash in currents harder than quartz, and how I now feel much the same.
I need a drink.
There’s a hole-in-the-wall that feels like home, and instinct leads me there. Plush velvet and the chipped facade of an old theatre make the dark coziness feel authentic. I step out of my world and back in time as I pass through the doorway.
"Hey, Jilly! Been a little while since I’ve seen you round here." James. The man is a wink and a hug wrapped in tight jeans and ironic corduroy. I grin and sidle onto a stool. "Too long, dear." He waits patiently as I fiddle with purse straps and skirt pleats, settling in for the good conversation.
"You know, I think I’m in the mood for something a bit more mellow." James replaces the sugar syrup he’d reached for and knits his brows in question.
I shrug. "What would you suggest?" At once James moves like a windup toy put to purpose, pulling amber liquids from wooden shelves, lifting citrus from glass containers, measuring portions with alchemical instruments of steel and crystal. Mixing, shaking, stirring with movements so practiced they’ve become an inherent grace. His work is a dance between the art and the science of his craft.
It’s beautiful to watch.
He sets the final piece before me, the diamond-patterned tumbler refracting the flicker of nearby tea-lights. James looks at me expectantly, excitement, and an unexpected vulnerability, plain in the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his chin.
I lift the glass and kiss the rim as I sip. It tastes like gold and fading sunlight. It’s perfect.
James grins in delight and relief, as though there had been the possibility of his work being anything less than. I wonder at that.
We’ve known each other a while. The conversation is always easy. Flirtatious, yet grounding. Something solid that brings me back down to earth when anxiety rears its head. We’ve spent a few nights together, but we’ve never really been more than good friends.
James turns to other patrons as the post-lunch crowds come seeking their digestifs. I sit and savour my cocktail, and I picture you sitting beside me, your own drink in hand as we discuss stories, and music, and patchwork philosophies. The imagined wisp of your presence feels tangible. And I’m aware, painfully so, that it’s nothing more than a playful fiction. But the feeling is so delicious. And really, what harm can it do? I finish my drink and drift away.
"Can I come round to yours tonight?" James sounds cheerful in a tired sort of way. It’s one o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting up reading. Reading about you.
"Sure! You just get off?"
"Well, I was hoping to save that for later." I can hear his smug grin through the phone and I giggle at the crude joke.
"Don’t push your luck now-"
"It’s part of my charm. I’ll see you in a halfer, then?"
"I look forward to it."
I smile as the call ends and spring to the wardrobe.
It’s just shy of one-thirty when I hear a soft knock on the door of my flat. I finish dabbing perfume on my wrists and move to answer it.
"And just who would be calling on a lady at this late hour?" I call through the wood. I hear James chuckle on the other side and I unlatch the lock to allow him in. My flat is small, but comfortable. It reflects my inner romantic, with various knick-knacks from markets and op-shops adorning most spare surfaces.
James saunters in and picks up the floral fan resting on the entrance table, batting his eyes in a pose of coy shyness. I laugh and reach past him to push the door shut. He takes the opportunity to wrap an arm around my corseted waist and lift me in a dancer’s twirl.
"This is something different." I snatch the fan back and flutter it at my face.
"Well, a girl’s gotta have some surprises. Good shift?" James answers by pulling me close. He spins us around again and pins my back against the door. Fan still in hand, I clasp his neck and pull his mouth down onto mine in a hard kiss that tastes of late nights and bourbon chasers.
We pull apart, breathing hard. I feel the pressure of his broad chest is it expands against mine, collapsing on the exhale, allowing me to draw his breath in, my breasts swelling against him.
"This is something different," I echo. We had never kissed quite like that before. His eyes are alight with something new. Something animalistic, hungry and wanting. A same kind of something in me recognises that need, and responds with urgency.
I push him backwards, towards the bed. We bounce off furniture, tripping over items of clothing as we discard them under foot. His shirt, my bodice. His pants, my bra. We feel our way through the lust-hewn obstacle course and collapse onto the bed.
We pull and push and draw on each other’s skin, tearing away the final barriers of fabric and inhibition. We pull each other as close as two bodies can be, and it isn’t close enough. I can feel James holding me, enfolding me, inside me. His hands grasp under my thighs, up my waist, moulding my skin like clay. Making me feel solid and real.
I roam his body and catch at his softest skin with the gentlest bite. Earlobes, lips, fingertips, inner thigh, foreskin. The tease is easy. The self-restraint is anything but. I force myself to hold back, softly probing salty skin and hard muscle, feeling the length of his whole form. The noises he makes unravel me.
I imagine that it’s you beneath me. What kind of noises would you make against my teeth and lips and tongue? What would it feel like to see the control leave your eyes as you surrender to my every touch, every whisper, every breath?
James lifts me up and rolls me over, entering me again as we surrender to each other. My climax rolls through me like a deep ocean wave, building in my lower plexus, swelling up through my torso and out through my limbs. The crest rolls up and up and takes over my mind in a final, tingling crash of bliss.
"Jill." James breathes my name into my ear and drops his weight against of me. I wrap my arms and legs around him as we breathe together in a satisfied half-doze.
"Let’s do this more often." I laugh and gently roll him off. He spreads back against the mattress, reaching for the pillows we sent flying.
"I think that’s a wonderful idea."
The next morning Christy and I arrive at the coffee shop at the same time. Christy smiles at me looking vaguely hungover, her dark eyes sleepy and long hair tied back in a knot of messy elegance. She politely shoos away the small, impatient crowd impeding us to unlock the shop door.
“Sorry, we open at eleven,” Christy directs at one women who attempts to follow us in.
Door safely locked behind us once more, we set about our daily routine. I prod the coffee machine awake as Christy floats about, wiping down lacquered surfaces, setting up tables and re-homing scattered art books to their heavy shelves.
It’s eleven-oh-two when I make the first coffee of the day. The chrome of the machine reflects back my contented fatigue. Nights like the last are well worth the sleep deprivation. It becomes a kind of badge of secret pride.
The day passes in a stream of screaming froth, verbose conversation with arts students, snatched reminisces of the night before, and thoughts of you.
I wonder what you’re doing now, on the opposite side of the world. Sleeping probably. Or perhaps diligently working on your next project. Or maybe even sneaking a late nightcap. I imagine you framed against a dark window, sipping down some liquid that burns to your centre, brooding over nuances of character—movement, facial expression, vocal intonation. Every intimate detail from which a living sculpture is borne.
How I would love to crawl inside your mind and see how that works.
"Excuse me, sweetheart?" I snap back to attention to find a man with a slack suit and slick hair eyeing me over. I smile through gritted teeth. "Oh, sorry, Sweetheart doesn’t work here. My name’s Jill, how may I help you?"
A matching slack stare. "I’m looking for a book on contemporary architecture by Joseph Gajos. It was published fairly recently."
"Sure, try that shelf over there – no, the one just down – that’s the one."
"Can I get you a coffee?" Or more hair product?
"Double shot short black. No sugar."
"Coming right up."
The coffee machine wheezes in protest, spitting boiled water through the fair-trade grounds. I stretch the kinks out of my own neck in sympathy. Nearly there. I hear the sound of pages flipping in the shop’s far corner. Christy is taking an order from the benches out the front.
"So. What time do you get off." It’s not even a question, but an arrogant expectation.
"Alight, what time today?" Amusement, impatience.
"The shop closes at five."
"Drinks at six then?"
"No, thank you. Here’s your double shot."
"Well now, that’s not playing very nice. You have other plans?"
"I’m just not interested, but thanks. That’s four-fifty for the coffee, would you like to take the book, too?"
I think of you, and wonder how much you have to deal with this kind of aggressive, unsolicited attention. I briefly think of my letter and worry. Would it would make you feel this way? No, surely not… I was courteous, respectful of your agency. I kept an arm’s length. I feel a flare of unease at the thought of how much I ached to bridge that length with ink and cotton paper.
"I’m thinking about it. Tell you what, I’ll buy the book if you come out with me." He leans over the counter and rubs his thumb up my arm with a smirk. He clearly thinks he’s charming. It makes me feel ill. And angry. I pull away.
"Mate. You came in here specifically for that book. I couldn’t give a flying fuck whether you buy the damn thing or not, it makes not a lick of difference to my wage. Even if it did, the fifty bucks it’ll set you back is nowhere near enough for me to even try and tolerate your arrogant, pushy attitude for an hour. So, no. And I’d like you to leave. Now."
"You can’t speak to me like that, girl. Who’s your manager?"
"That would be me." Christy comes to stand beside me, glaring at the man with fearless disdain. She only stands to my shoulder, but if you could measure heart in inches she’d reach to the shoulders of titans.
"Did you hear the way she just spoke to me?" A sneer of petulant incredulity.
"I did. I also heard the way you spoke to her. I think it’s best you leave."
"Now. Or do I have to call the authorities?" Christy lifts the phone off its cradle and poises a finger to dial.
"Your loss, bitch." A final glare my way.
"I’m sure. Bugger off." The man leaves in a flurried huff of bruised ego. I stand in shock for a few moments before realising he never settled his coffee. At least he left the book behind.
"Are you okay?" Christy replaces the phone and wraps a reassuring hand over mine, which I only now realise is shaking.
"Yeah, I’ll be right. It’s just been a while since I’ve seen an arse of that calibre in here."
Christy steers me into a counter seat and makes us both mugs of jasmine tea.
"It’s ten-to-five. What say we close up already, I reckon we could both do with an early mark."
I call James as we close the shop. We wait inside for twenty minutes before he pulls up out front. Christy and I quickly fold ourselves into the snug Honda.
"Jesus Christ, are you okay?" James glances at me in concern after I recount the story. I nod and then shrug.
"I’ll be okay, just a bit rattled." I kiss my fingertips and press them to his cheek. "Thanks for picking us up."
James grins. "I’m glad to see you again so soon. Though, I am sorry you had to deal with that tosser."
"She was amazing actually. If words could break skin…" Christy lifts her eyebrows at me from the back seat and swipes her hand in a mock claw.
"I shouldn’t have spoken to him like that."
"What! He was being an absolute tool. He needed to be brought down a peg or three."
"Oh, he deserved the beat down. But it was stupid. He was being handsy and aggressive… It could have got ugly." I shudder to think.
"Hun, his behaviour was not okay. There need to be consequences, otherwise guys like that just get a free pass."
"Yeah." I shrug and look out the window. Where’s the line with that? Should you push back, fight for your self-respect and potentially put yourself at risk? Or is it better to sacrifice personal pride, grit your teeth and try not to antagonise them? It’s just… I was so tired of gritting my teeth.
I groan and rub my forehead with both hands. I feel a clashing pendulum of anger and shame. Emotionally speaking, these encounters are always a lose-lose.
I cling to the thought of you. Your face, your smile, your imagined words of comfort. The indignation and concern I just know that you’d feel on my behalf. I begin to feel better.
James places a hand on my knee as we pull into Christy’s drive. "Take care of her tonight, James." Christy clasps my shoulder and gives me a peck on the cheek. "I’ll see you tomorrow, hun."
James walks me inside and sits me on my sofa.
"Got anything alcoholic, Jilly?"
"Just the cheap stuff. Left cupboard, above the stove."
James sets about mixing me a calming elixir. While my kitchen, with its chipped and dated decor, is a stark contrast to James’ usual gleaming workspace, he makes fine work of my meagre stage. He spins and juggles his way through the confined space, tossing lemon and mint into the cheap tumblers for good measure.
His impromptu performance combines delicate precision with spontaneous ease. It reminds me a little of you and it cheers me. With a playful bow, James offers me his prize.
"Why, I think this may be your finest work yet." The ice clinks as I knock it back. "Perfect."
James follows suit and sputters a laugh, his features pinching against the taste. "Careful, I’ll begin to think you’ve lost your finer senses. That tasted like the wrong end of a petrol hose."
"Yes, exactly." I press the empty glass to my temple, cool and soothing against the now-subsiding ache of stress.
"Come here." I reach my hand out and beckon him to sit beside me. James readily complies and I crawl into his lap. He enfolds me with his arms and I feel safe for the first time since four-forty-five. I relax into him, his solid presence a tonic for frayed nerves, far more effective than ethanol.
He strokes my hair and hums something low and familiar. I close my eyes as he runs his hands down my neck and shoulders, brushing a thumb against my collarbone. I sigh as he rubs my shoulders, tracing light spirals down to my arms. It feels so different to the way that man had touched me in the shop. Yet, the thought of him makes me flinch back and James pulls away.
"Sorry! That wasn’t you, it’s just… that guy." I swallow and look away, but curl in closer to James to stop him moving further away. I didn’t realise how much I needed this kind of gentle touch, a compassionate sensuality I’d never seen in James, but now realise I’d been craving.
"You don’t need to apologise." I feel a kiss on the side of my neck. Warm and cool and tingling. "Just let me know, though. If you feel uncomfortable." I tilt my head around until our lips touch. We rest there for several moments, feeling the warmth and whisper thin pressure of each other’s kiss. I turn myself around until I straddle James’ lap, our lips never breaking contact, our hands gently probing now-familiar territory.
This kiss is slow and sure, the passion of last night replaced with a different kind of affection. Our kiss ends and we cuddle in close to one another until the daylight begins to fade.
James is asleep beside me, and the night feels quiet. I strain to hear traffic noises, or the scurry of small critters who thrive in the dark. The rush and thump of my heartbeat is so much louder.
I haven’t forgotten you, you know. I often think of you, dreaming of your Cupid lips, the shelf of your cheekbones, the sparkle of your eyes as you fail to suppress a burst of mirth. The way you squint when asked an insightful question. I can see the thoughts, the words, as they coalesce into reason behind those bright eyes. You are my secret benchmark, the standard that I strive for.
You shine brighter than anyone I’ve ever known. Is it any wonder you collect a tail of moths who chase you, dreaming of shining flight and glory?
I can’t sleep. I reach for my phone and squint against the accusatory glare of artificial light. I dim the screen and search for you. I look at pictures of your face, and I see glimpses of a man that I yearn to know.
Some cultures believe that photographs capture the soul, stealing away pieces of your essence. I believe they capture everything but. A photograph is the shallowest, most tantalizing of watermarks that attests to your existence. Yet they say nothing of your true presence—nothing of the way your gravity feels as you move across my small orbit, nothing of the way you smell at noon or dusk, nothing of the way your voice resonates a harmony within me that rattles up my spine and makes me feel discordant. They say nothing of the way you would feel wrapped around me, nor the unconscious movements of your skin and muscle and nerve that are the fingerprints of your spirit, the unique signature of your immediacy.
Your photographs speak to none of this, yet I feel your ghost echoing across the distance of our globe to thrum against my deepest nerves, making me feel alive and dead and desperate and unreal.
Photographs are not enough. Not by far. The rest of you is painfully absent.
Your photographs are stealing away my essence.
Have you read my letter yet? I roll onto my side and stretch out my legs, the fabric of my sheets cool against my naked skin.
I imagine your face as you scan my letter. My letter that says I love you, I need you, without actually saying the words. I slide a hand down the lines of my body as I picture you caressing the length me. I press my fingers between my legs and work soft circles to the rhythm of James’ sleeping breath.
I think of you, feeling the imagined weight of you beside me where James now lies, oblivious to the increase in my heartbeat, the fluttering tempo of my own inhalations as a molten twinge of pleasure spreads up and out. Faster, slower, I pace a balance between animal need and desire for the prolonged orgasm that only comes with measured restraint. My fingers are your fingers, and I writhe against the pressure, careful not to disturb the man beside me. I crave the feel of you, the feel of your body, the feel of your intellect and unreserved attention. I delight in the warmth and the weight of James, and fervently wish he were you. I hate myself for that.
I climax silently, clenching against the pleasure, the excruciating yearning, the thrill of guilt and shame and want and need all mixed together in a vicious cocktail of emotion that overwhelms me. I relax against the mattress, breathless at the intensity and delicious hurt of this vulnerability. I want to wake James and have him hold me, and yet a part of me desperately wishes he would leave.
Awash in confusion, I pad to the bathroom and try to rinse it all down the shower drain. Yet, while steam may cleanse skin and sinew, it doesn’t quite reach the most wretched parts of me.
There’s a new play coming to town. You’re the star. You’re coming to my town.
My friends all know I love you. But they don’t know quite how much. So when they tell me about your play, I camp up my excitement to mask just how genuinely, devastatingly excited I am. The need to see you, be near you as you work on stage, begins to eat at me. It’s toxic, this need. If I’m completely honest, it frightens me a little. How easy it is to convince myself that we match each other so perfectly. If you could only see me, watch me on my own stage for a just a moment, then you would understand. I could be yours. You could be mine. And we would love each other like they do in ancient epics.
I shake myself. Of course, I know this is ridiculous. My world is so very small, a drop of dew that shrinks to your diamond. I know. But knowing is so different from feeling.
It’s James that buys tickets for the two of us.
The day of the play I can’t keep still. I skip around the store at work, frenzied in a way that I know doesn’t suit me. Christy finds it amusing at first, but after five hours on shift I can tell she’s become weary. I don’t care. I can’t stop smiling.
I skip my way home, where I skip around my apartment trying to find the perfect things to wear. Practising the perfect things to say, the perfect way to smile when you look out into the crowd and see me two rows back and a little to the left of your centre.
I practise being still. I fail.
James picks me up and drives us to the theatre. He laughs as I begin to bounce in my seat when the building comes into view. It’s small, but decadent, with a prestigious history. A history that you and I will briefly share in, that will connect us forever.
James is my tether as I skip through the doors.
"Would you like a drink?" James asks me, already taking a half step towards the bar.
"Thanks, yeah, I’d love a white wine." I’m fanning my face with the program and James chuckles at my child-like exuberance.
James returns moments later, pressing a cold glass into my hands. "Are you alright?"
"Yes, I’m fine. Sorry, I’ve just really been looking forward to this."
"I know, Christy messaged me at lunch and told me you were driving her up the wall. She asked if I could pick you up sooner!" James playfully holds up his hands in defence as I swat him with the rolled up booklet. "Hey, don’t kill the messenger!"
We tumble into the darkened theatre room, both laughing at my absurdity. I hope James doesn’t notice the slight strain in my voice.
We find our seats and I try to calm myself. I’m going to see you. I’m finally within your orbit. James clasps my hand in his and I welcome his grounding presence. It’s almost time.
The lights go down. The lights come back up. There you are. Right there. You stand like a God before his creatures. I squeeze James’ hand and feel his head turn to look at me. But I don’t look away from the stage. I can’t. I have to drink you in. I only have two acts to commit your presence to memory.
Everything about you is different to how I had imagined, yet so familiar. Like different lyrics layered over an old melody. Here you stand, flesh and substance far exceeding the pale sketch I had created in my mind. It hurts so exquisitely to look at you, a sun blazing in a universe all your own.
I sit very still.
It’s intermission and I feel like an addict between hits. I drink more wine with James, but he’s looking at me differently. Quizzically. Warily. Like he’s seen something new in me that he can’t quite identify, but is on the cusp of understanding. I do my best to behave normally. I slow down my words. I make more eye contact. I ask more questions about his day. But the wariness in James doesn’t entirely recede. I look around the theatre’s foyer, swept up in the atmosphere of thespian grandeur, twisting my neck hoping foolishly to spy some proof of you amongst the crowd.
"Jill?" I look at James again and realise he’d asked me a question.
"Sorry, what was that?" I ask, but my gaze wanders over the crowd again. A cue sounds, signaling the end of intermission and I spring to my feet, ready to make my way back into the theatre hall.
"Nothing, it’s not important." James’ shoulders are stiff as I take his arm and we walk back into the theatre.
We reclaim our seats and I tuck my bag under my feet, fussing with clasps and bag straps. I smooth down my skirt until James grasps my hand, making me be still. I feel his thigh pressed against mine. The second act begins.
I watch you on stage and I feel submerged in your current.
James moves his hand to my knee and rubs up my thigh. I clasp his arm like a raft, to keep from drowning in the deep waters of your performance.
I feel his hand under the skirt of my dress.
Your voice compresses me as it reverberates throughout the theatre. You are so much larger than I am, and I shrink under the weight of you.
His fingers stretch aside the fabric of my underwear.
You grow louder and larger. I sink deeper.
His fingers slip easily inside me.
You reach the story’s climax and I’m washed under.
The lights come up and James leans towards me. Whispers something in my ear, but I don’t hear him. He tilts my face towards him, as if to kiss me, but I keep my eyes fixed on the stage. I crane my neck away from James, willing to see through velvet for a final glimpse of you on stage as I feel his light kiss brush my cheek.
Afterwards, I lead James out behind the theatre building. I tug on his hand, anxious to reach the backstage area first. We line up to have our programs signed, to lock eyes with stars. You’re going to see me. I can’t breath.
We wait in the cold for minutes that feel like hours. It feels as though every neuron, every nerve, every motor system within me is vibrating, anticipating your appearance.
And then there you are. You and the other actors file out through the stage door, all looking tired, but friendly, as you pass beneath the holy glow of fluorescent tubes to meet us in the night.
You begin at the other end to where I stand, bouncing on feet that won’t be still as I watch you come closer. Smiling, waving, taking pictures, clasping hands with people who adore you.
And finally, it’s my turn. I have you at an arm’s length. You’re right here. You’re looking at me. And your eyes are smiling. I hold out my program for you to sign. I feel the pressure of your grip as you pull the glossy booklet taut. It’s an awkward heartbeat before I realise that you need me to let go. James captures my hand in his own as I release my grip. I absorb the looping motion of your hand as it dances out a hurried script, before you hand it back to me.
I reach out further than I intended. I brush my hand against your forearm. I feel your skin, warm from the theatre, cooling in the chill air. I want to keep my hand there forever, but James pulls me back. I glance his way and then back to you.
But you’re stepping away. You look relieved. Relieved that it’s over. Relieved that you’re moving away from me. And I can’t breath. Please. Come back.
You saw me. Come back and look closer!
You’ve gone inside. The door closes. The crowd disperses. James takes my arm and leads me away towards the cab rank. I clutch the program to my chest like its pressure will stave away the heartbreak I feel starting to consume me. I begin to cry.
Distantly I’m aware of James speaking my name, bemused alarm in every syllable. I can’t speak and shake my head, trying to swallow back the sobs that I know betray my insanity. I try to laugh it off, like I’m just another crazed fan girl caught up in the hysterical atmosphere. And I realise. I am just another crazed fan girl. That’s all I’ll ever be to you. And it’s nowhere near enough.
I feel James holding himself apart from me, even as he curls his arm around my shoulder. We drive towards my home in silence. We walk through the door, but everything feels different now. Flat and small. The romance has leached out of my world, leaving behind a cardboard diorama.
We start the routine of making dinner. I put pasta on to boil.
"You…" James speaks, coughs, looks at me uncomfortably. "You actually love him. I mean…" There is a confused pain in his eyes that has yet to fully crystalise. I see his hope that I’ll deny it.
I consider denying it, playing it off as a harmless crush. But I’m exhausted. I tell the truth.
"More than normal, though." More than normal. Having James say it like that, voicing my hidden, unreasoning obsession so flatly, makes me angry.
"What is normal? Surely you have celebrity crushes? Everyone does!" My words are harsher than I intended, and I see James flinch.
"Sure," he says carefully. "But not like that. What happened in the theatre…" He speaks like he’s treading around a landmine, which only serves to fuel this growing rage that is reducing my insides to ash.
"Why can’t you love me like that.." He says it in the smallest voice. I’m not sure he meant to say it out loud, but he’s hit a painful truth that neither of us had yet acknowledged.
The facade that our relationship was only casual fun is broken. I feel deeply ashamed, and irrationally angry, that he dared dispel that comfortable illusion. Up until now I could convince myself that my heart had been faithful, because there was no need to be faithful to James beyond affectionate friendship.
I hate him, I hate you, I hate myself. I don’t want to be the villain while my heart is breaking.
"Because you’re not him!" I don’t think. I simply shout out in protest against the ugliness coursing through me like venom.
No one could ever be him. But. Could James be something more? I falter at the thought.
"That’s really unkind." James looks at me with an ferocity that I’ve never seen before. His lip curls in disgust and my chest falls through the floor. The truth of his words knocks the wind from me. I have been unkind. Monstrously so. How do I reply to that?
"I’m sorry." The words fall like chalk dust into the yawning gap now stretching between us. I feel heavy and helpless. A drowned pebble, beaten and cracked by the force of stronger tides.
"It’s like, you don’t even see me half the time. I mean, really see me. When all I see is you." The pain in his words, I want it to stop. But how can I stem a wound I created. Oh, I’m so sorry.
"You’re so lost in this idiot fantasy that you would love the empty thought of someone you don’t even know over someone real! Someone who actually knows you exist!" James is shouting now, tears spilling down his cheeks.
His words are cruel and sharp and true. James turns and starts walking away and I want to stop him.
"No!" Please, come back.
"Please. Come back." I’ve said them. Those words. The ones I wanted to scream after you as you walked away from me. Now I’m crying as I realise that all I want is for James to stay. For everything to be okay. To see him laughing. My vision blurs, and I see you superimposed upon this man. This beautiful, amazing man that I’ve always known I loved, but never really knew I loved. Until now. I’m so confused, so conflicted. And James can see it.
"You’re sick." He says it with such incredulity, such hateful sincerity, that it physically hurts. I move backwards, crying out as I burn my hand on the stove top where the forgotten pasta now boils over.
Despite everything, James reaches for me in concern, and I fold myself into his arms, feeling tainted and graceless. I don’t deserve to have him wrapped around me like this, nursing the burn I barely feel in comparison to the hurt of his lost faith. Holding me as if I were something fragile and precious, rather than something broken and barbed.
You. James. You. James. You, James. It’s you. It all snaps into focus now, and the final broken shards of my obsession fall away, leaving me without skin. I’m raw and hurting and bleeding from injuries I never saw coming. I can feel the damage now, in my mind and my heart. James is right. I am sick. We sink to the floor and I cry until I can’t breathe.
I’ve cast my die. And the house won.
A few months on, I still see James from time to time. Sometimes he looks in on me at the shop. I make him coffee. Sometimes I look in on him at the bar. He makes me a cocktail.
We talk, but it’s different now. I feel that we really see each other, not romanticised versions of who we wish the other were.
I told James that he deserved better. He told me to focus on getting better, and then we’d see what happened. We’re meeting this afternoon in the city.
I feel like I am doing better. Christy was my rock after I came undone. I’d called her and told her… well, not everything. But enough for her to know what I’d done to James. What I’d done to myself. She helped me sift through the pieces of my broken psyche and build something new from the remnants. Something stronger.
I still write letters. Just to myself. I was told that writing would help, and it has. I feel my world has clarity again.
The world is vivid as I cross the street to a small popup cafe. I spy James sitting angled away from me. I feel nervous, and excited, and grounded in a way that is beginning to feel like a new kind of normal. And I like that.
James looks up and sees me. He smiles. "Been a little while since I’ve seen you round here."
I smile shyly back. "Too long, dear."
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