93. Woke

A rumour is like a tissue in a washing machine.

The description on the flyer included phrases like, “challenging preconceptions of intimacy… exploring the gaze of perpetual surveillance… sexual fluidity and modern companionship.”

How did twelve photos, taken on different nights, of my friend James and I asleep in his bed, end up in a major photography exhibition?

Simple, really. I spent a lot of time at Karen’s house and was often too wasted to go home. Someone else may have been kipping on the sofa, or I didn’t want to wake up wheezing with the cat sat on me. Karen’s bedroom was so small, her bed was pushed up against the wall. It required a limber bed mate, which I am most certainly not. When I get out of bed, I walk like I rode a horse the day before. Her housemate, James had a big bed and he never came home that first night I stayed over. I knew he would be ok with it. “Anytime. Mi casa es tu casa.”

Another night, he did come home, very late or early, depending on whose point of view you take. He was drunk enough to knock things over, but still funny enough to say “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” Slurring, he instructed me to “Move over” then flopped down onto the bed, one arm in, one arm out of his coat. A few hours of snoring later, I took off his boots and left a pint glass of water on the bedside table.

We just carried on. It was easy and  felt comfortable. Neither of us was going out with anyone, so there were no jealous lovers to worry about. We didn’t fancy each other and were mature enough to not ruin our friendship by doing something regrettable.

The contented bliss of platonic sleeping in our clothes, drunk or stoned. Cosy, trusting, familial. Synchronised breathing. I was usually the little spoon. When he snored, I’d whisper for him to “turn over”, then place my hand on his back and his breathing would quieten. He was too polite to tell me if I ever snored.

Over home-made lasagne, garlic bread pizza, untouched salad and two bottles of montepulciano d’abruzzo, Karen admitted that she’d taken photographs of us two sleeping over the last six months. They were beautiful. So pure. I cried. It never occurred to James or me that taking our pictures whilst we slept was an invasion of our privacy, so we happily signed the consent forms she provided.

We weren’t expecting so many people to be as insistent as they were in telling us their opinion about our non-sexual relationship. Our friendship was scrutinised. We were asked how long we’d been a couple. Baffled, we said we weren’t, so it was assumed we were friends with benefits or one of us was gay or asexual. He lies in bed took on different meanings. My nonchalant, blasé denial obviously meant I was clearly trying to hide something. People hinted that I had friend-zoned James and must have been leading him on all this time. They felt sorry for him as he must have been so frustrated. Others insinuated that he was a potential predator, concluding that I had been both stupid and very lucky. How could we not know we were being photographed until afterwards? That the photos were clearly staged because men and women could obviously never be friends. Did we not realise it was bad luck for our souls to take book of the dead photos? These innocent snapshot observations became everyone’s business.

I stopped sleeping over after the exhibition. That phase had passed. It no longer felt right. I didn’t like being propelled into the spotlight for the wrong reasons and people didn’t believe me when I said this was something natural. I was there. I should know. But, the truth became just one of many opinions.

89. Sunset

I’ve had chance to think about it and it wasn’t the infidelity that upset me more. I am from an bohemian family after all. It was the secrecy and deceit. The lying. No one can ever know. There was absolutely no need for it. I think I handled it quite well really.

“That’s a nice mug.” Alison had said, as I carefully washed my cup in the sink. “I saw one of those in that craft shop in The Lanes. Don’t you work there on weekends?” The way she had said it sounded weird, like this was her best shot from 100 Instagram rehearsals. We both knew where she’d seen a mug like this one before because there was only one other of them in existence.

I instantly felt as if I’d been injected with some drug that made my body speed up but my mind slow down at the same time, like something in ‘The Matrix.’ My soupy fog brain felt completely separate and was lagging behind the electric energy racing through my body. I was upside-down. Not wanting to unravel in front of this person who had so calmly attempted to manipulate a reaction, I carefully unpicked what I knew to be true.

Monday night was Michael’s gig. A few people went from the office, including Alison. I could only stay for a quick drink, to say hello, show support. He never needed me when he was surrounded by his people.

Was this her way of letting me know that she didn’t actually “miss the last bus home so stayed on a friend’s sofa?”

Just how do adults navigate relationships in the real world? I barely knew. My experiences with men had been so unsatisfactory. I have no idea how I managed to get through the rest of the afternoon. I suppose, once you’ve decided, or rather, the decision has been made for you, the hard work is done.

When I said I needed to see him after work, he didn’t make an excuse. My patience had worn thin. I had already decided that if he was going to try to continue to ignore and avoid me, then I would just let him. I too would pretend he no longer existed. But, there would never be a good time for “the talk” so we might as well do the decent thing and get it over and done with. Although he refused to come clean and admit it, he knew that I knew what he’d done. Yeah he might very well have had “a hangover from hell” but that shouldn’t stop someone from sending a text to their girlfriend for almost a day after their gig, so was this behaviour sulky revenge? I had believed him when he said he was watching the Tour de France, the World Cup, Wimbledon, having a band practice or whatever it was, every night this week.

No. I knew I was being gently and politely pushed away in favour of the shiny new toy, but of course, he was far too cowardly to do it himself. I had to be the one who officially ended it, although he actually finished us on Monday night. He just never told me. Even someone else had to do that for him.

There wasn’t enough time to do the things I wanted to do, let alone waste it on stuff I didn’t. I’d barely sipped my coke and was playing with one of the few plastic bendy straws still in existence, when the conversation was over.

I had no idea how to break up with someone, because I’d never done it before, so I just said “This isn’t fun for me any more and it’s not really working out, so I think we should call it quits.” It was the second time in a week that I’d left him with a full pint but I didn’t care. He might play guitar hero in a local band but he was nothing to me. The pub was slowly filling up with the Friday night after-work crowd, so it would appear like he was just waiting for someone and they were running late. He looked genuinely shocked when I stood up, shook his hand, and said “There we are then. Good luck mate” then left.

My parents consoled and spoiled me all weekend. My father reminded me that “as an emerging artist” I should “use this experience as an opportunity to not resist what I’m feeling and to channel those emotions into my work”, and “that if we just stayed in our studios, where would we get our inspiration from?” He was right though. I had 72 bowls and mugs to glaze and fire this weekend, and I was already bursting with new ideas for the next batch.

A massive binge of ‘The XX’, ‘The Twilight Sad’ and ‘Arab Strap’ got me through the night, along with a whole family bag of Doritos, a jar of hot salsa, almost a whole sharing pack of Maltesers, and a bottle of Pinot Noir all to myself. I wallowed and grieved for what could have been until I realised I felt relief for getting out at the beginning of something before it got messy. My new sketches slowly got sloppier that night. By 2am Saturday morning , I was jumping up and down, swinging my arms, hair flailing, punching the air, cheerfully singing “I don’t want to be around you any more. I can’t stand to be around you any more.” Music therapy indeed. I still felt humiliated, but without shame.

On Monday, I went out for coffee with June, the receptionist from the office, purely, so by the end of the week, everyone would pretty much know I was single again, and why. It was a good deal. June got a juicy story straight from the horse’s mouth, and, with my blessing, everyone got to know some true office gossip. I got sympathy. Alison got, well, whatever.

I just kept my head down, and stayed busy, planning the window display and imagining how I’d feel if/when someone bought something I’d made. After my craft stall I was taking the rest of the stock to the shop on Sunday. Things I’d made! In an actual shop! Not my online etsy shop. A proper shop with a bell on the door. A till and real people browsing. If they sold well, then who knew what would happen?

I brought half a dozen pieces into work the next day and left them on the reception desk with a few flyers, business cards and a bowl of Werther’s Originals to encourage people to get closer. June, told me later that they’d caused quite a talking point, and that Alison had taken a special interest, probably to try to talk to her, the resident sage. June then told me that she’d said to Alison, that yes they were “beautifully made, so quite expensive, but that I would probably have some seconds on my stall if she was interested.” I nearly spat out my coffee with glee when she told me that she’d said, “Seconds are cheaper because they are imperfect.” The icing on the cake was that she advised Alison to get tested for an STD because I was going to.  “These things happen” when you get together drunk with a cheater who thinks he’s a rock star.

That disgusting, greasy kitchen in his shared house. Bicycles and amps in the hallway. Piles of post for previous residents. Pizza boxes and PS4. Record covers used as skinning-up boards. Torn rizla packets and magazines about guitars. Tacit agreements to never mention the (less often than they’d like) sight of a strange girl wandering round the kitchen at 4am in her knickers and a sweaty band t-shirt. Mismatched charity shop hand-me-down plates, chipped mugs with their fading logos. Those cloned vessels reminding the user of one-off, unmemorable events. Temporary items of no value with the expectation of being discarded after use. I only brought one of my own porcelain mugs round so I’d have something decent to drink out of. Well, he can keep it. I don’t want it back.

39. Half a World Away

I have a true friend, whom I have never met. I’ve known him for 10 years but I don’t even know what he looks like. He’s an artist in Finland and I have one of his prints on my office wall. That how we got chatting in the first place. I emailed the address on the back of the print to thank him for creating something so beautiful and we just carried on corresponding. His wife died twelve years ago, but if there has been anyone else in his life since, he’s never mentioned it and I have never asked. He has a dog called Lenni and they go on walking/boating holidays.

We spend time together chatting online about the weather, or what we’re watching on Netflix. We pick a series and watch it an episode at a time. It would feel like cheating to watch another episode before we’ve discussed the last one. I win twice as often as he does when we play each other online at Scrabble. His English is perfect, so I don’t feel I have an advantage. He says the internet changed everything in everyone’s life in the remote village where he lives. He knows what I look like because he’s read a magazine that had one of my stories in.

I imagine him reading out loud the postcards from my holidays in America. He went to Iceland for his 50th birthday with his daughter, but that’s the only country outside of Finland that he has really been to. I don’t think he’d like Las Vegas or New York very much. The birthday cards he sends me are always original tiny watercolours by him or another of his artist friends. He reads my restaurant reviews on Squaremeal and he sends me pictures of fish, foraged greens, bread that looks like wood and berries as a joke. I send him samples of face cream for his dry, windchapped face, and he sends me cuttings of a cartoon he draws for the local paper. The jokes don’t translate well though but I think maybe I just don’t get them.

Without doubt he is one of my best friends. He means more to me than most people I see ‘in real life’ and I am absolutely certain we will never meet. It would break the spell.