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The Art of Getting By

The man sitting across from me – Gabe – has asked me a strange question,

“you always been this beautiful?” he says.

I laugh to myself, a montage of my week plays in my head like a movie reel. Unwashed clothes scattered across the floor; my long pale fingers sifting through them, checking for stains. Unkempt hair, and the collection of used mugs organised in a straight line across my coffee table.

“Yes”, I laugh. “I’ve always been beautiful.”

He looks at me, shocked. “You have your own style, that’s for sure.”

I don’t know what he could mean. I glance around the restaurant. There is a woman by the bar to my left, dressed in a burgundy slip, her mousy-brown hair curling to the moisture. My hair is like hers; I think. I hear a woman laugh; she crumples her nose, and I notice a small bump down the bridge. My face is like hers. She lifts a glass of wine to her lips. I force myself to speak.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well, everyone has their type.”

I’m startled. I place down my glass with measured ease and hold his gaze. His eyelashes are pretty, but a sourness resides in those pursed lips and purple stains beneath his lower lash-line. His face slackens, and he attempts casualness.

“And you’re just my type,” he teases.

“And you, mine.”

I don’t know if it is true, but his smile returns as I say so, and he launches himself into easy conversation.

I’d met him at his roommate’s house party last week. I’d noticed him leering as I made my way up the gravel driveway, so I watched him back with curious eyes. “We’re like fire” he’d told me, later that night as he took my hand. I didn’t feel like fire. I suppose that made me his oxygen.

I didn’t usually say yes to dates. I thought, there will be a time where I’m slimmer, a time when my curls sit smoother, or a time when I know how often you should change bed sheets or dust the skirting boards. That’s when I’ll say yes. But those things didn’t matter to Gabe, “a beautiful mess” he’d called me. And so, this evening I’d pulled out an old black dress that I knew he’d like and slipped into some stockings.

I’d caught the last melting shafts of sunlight as I decorated my face and sipped generously from a glass of wine. A friend of mine had told me to always apply makeup in natural light, so I used the last of it to dust some shimmer on my nose and colour my lips red. I hated how girlish the lipstick made me feel – like a heart-shaped candy or a tween magazine, so I washed it off, taking the powder on my chin with it.

When I’d checked the time, I’d been running late. I grabbed some glossy black heels and zipped them as I stumbled into the loungeroom. As I hopped across the carpet, my heel tapped the glass of wine I’d left by the lounge. I watched as the glass teetered and fell, spilling maroon liquid that languidly shimmied its way into the carpet. Gabe didn’t seem to realise that I’d arrived late.

I watched him now across the restaurant table, his hands gesturing enthusiastically.

“I just love love,” He says, his big eyes earnest.

“Sorry?” I ask, not following his tangent.

“I just love love” he repeats. “It’s my biggest flaw.” He looks proud of himself as he shrugs his shoulders, but I’m not sure why. I nod back at him, attempting to mirror his earnestness, but I can’t keep myself from smiling inwardly. I just love love. The smile sneaks its way onto my lips.

He pauses, “…I don’t suppose you’d know what that feels like.”

He’s taken my smile as a sign of mockery. I don’t know what he means.

“I do”, I exclaim. I’ve loved before, I think. I conjure images of faces I used to know. Men who dazzled from a distance and those I let close enough for just one touch. They wait at the mantle of my mind but disappear – phantoms whisked away – when I can’t find it in myself to speak their names.

“I like to keep a piece of all my past Lovers” – That’s what Gabe had said to me on the night we met. We sat beneath the pulsing fairy lights strung lazily through the garden. As they shifted from green to gold from gold to purple the hazy glow had tugged at my inhibitions, so I was already one foot through the door when I felt his hot breath at my ear, “Would you like to see?” Yes, yes, yes… I followed him into his bedroom, where he showed me a hair ribbon from a girl named Sophie, and a sketch from a movie still, drawn by a girl he wouldn’t name.

I didn’t collect memories the way he did. I didn’t love the way he did. Perhaps he was right.

I look outward to the room.

Woman by the bar. Burgundy dress. Mousy-hair.

She knows love, I think to myself. She smiles at the man across from her as he plucks a Dahlia from her finished cocktail. She swats him away playfully, and there is a lightness to her that I wish I could carry. “See how they love each other,” I offer.

He turns over his shoulder and watches the man as he pushes a curl behind the woman’s ear, leaving the dahlia in it’s wake. He turns back to me, smirking. “He probably fucks her best friend.”

I hear the scrape of a chair pulling out as someone leaves, the laugh of a man three tables down, and the clink of two glasses toasting. I think of the wine seeping into my carpet. The tendrils of liquid forming the shape of limbs; a tail like a genie’s, three legs, and the horn of a rhinoceros. It’d have reached beneath the sofa by now.

“And what makes you think that?” I ask, my tone harsher than intended.

“A man like that, he wouldn’t just have one girl if he could.”

I look back at the man. I don’t see what he means.

“It’s just how we are” he lets out a long sigh. “Doomed to roam this world, forever searching… looking for our next thrill. We’re never satisfied”. His eyes meet mine and travel down like a slick of grease through water. He’s daring me to prove him wrong. I trace a finger along the brim of my glass.

“And what would satisfy you then?” I play along.

His smile is practiced, and I feel the skin crawl on my back, “wouldn’t you like to know?”

I considered it. The veins in his forearms protrude in a way that never shows on a woman; they draw a pattern like a river splitting in two, and his Adams Apple creates a dune in his neck that has me wanting to run my fingers along warm skin.

Wouldn’t you like to know…

I answer,

“Yes.”

His response is curt but practiced again. “Well, you’ll just have to wait.”

I’m not sure what he wants me to say. I pause and pretend to be intrigued by a waiter passing by. A serving plate is propped on his upturned hand. “The food here is good,” I say, catching a waft of garlic and thyme. “Should we eat?”

“Sure,” he looks down at the menu. “There aren’t many options besides Italian. Are you sure you’re okay with that?”

I frown in confusion.

I remember once – a while ago – that I’d dropped a string of linguine down the side of my couch. I’d reached my hand between the cushions, but I couldn’t find it. When I’d lifted the couch to look underneath, it hadn’t been there. I’d been terrified of roaches for weeks after. “Cockroaches aren’t all that bad”, a friend had said, “the worst parasites are the ones you don’t know are there”.

Don’t think about cockroaches at a restaurant.

“Do you not like Italian food?” I ask him.

“Oh, I love it,” he enthuses. “I just know girls like you – that figure doesn’t come from nowhere”. He says it like a compliment. It takes all of my will not to peek down at my stomach, my thighs.

“Weight would be unforgiving on your body” he continues “wouldn’t it?” He’s oblivious to the waves crashing in my ears, muffling the sound of his voice. “But you’re beautiful anyway”. The words pierce like a voice through radio static. I stare at him, mute, and he watches me.

I pick up my purse with a clammy hand and slip it over my shoulder. There’s a bed of marigolds behind him, standing strong on their stalks like a bouquet of tiny suns.

“Yes,” I say as I stretch my legs down from the stool. I don’t know which bit I’m agreeing with. Weight would be unforgiving on your body… but you’re beautiful anyway.

My legs shake.

The slick of grease now coats my throat. It leaks into my stomach, making it churn. We’re like fire – I keep a piece of all my past lovers. His words linger on my palate like bitter candy. I step away from him. He thinks I’m walking toward the waiter, to ask them to place our order. Instead, I walk past, and towards the Marigolds. I pluck one from the garden.

I feel his eyes following my movements, it makes me feel like stale bread. I spin the marigold in my palm.

“Hey!” He calls.

I pause – I don’t turn to face him. Suddenly, the thought of scrubbing the stain on my loungeroom floor has become infinitely appealing. I breathe in… I breathe out. And I find myself breezing past him.

He’s behind me now, like a cardboard cut-out; an empty husk of a man filled with fanciful words. I will say yes to a date when he’s more interesting than a stain on my floor, I think. I will not be his oxygen – I set a damp finger to the flame, and walk out of the restaurant, placing the marigold behind my ear.

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Contemporary Fiction, Drama, Fiction, Young Adult (YA)

Responses

  1. Masterfully crafted. I love how you have details mirroring the situation in the background.

    “I remember once – a while ago – that I’d dropped a string of linguine down the side of my couch. I’d reached my hand between the cushions, but I couldn’t find it. When I’d lifted the couch to look underneath, it hadn’t been there.”

    That feeling of something delicious just out of reach. That feeling of missing something that is important, that there will be consequences, harm, even dirtiness, if you can’t quite grasp it. The feeling of letting go and accepting that something is out of your reach.

    I think I’ve experienced love like that. I’ve also experienced the lock step of hearing practiced words, of feeling I’m immersed in a choreographed dance without having ever been taught the moves, of being a memory before I got the chance to feel like I was a present tense experience.

    Anyway, your fiction rings true. 💙🔥

    1. Logan this is such a lovely comment, I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am!

      I think the best fiction comes from writing about real experiences, and I find it so interesting that you picked up on the linguine detail. I didn’t even know why I included it in the story at the time, I just knew it felt relevant. It’s so fascinating that a reader can find that missing link when I didn’t quite know why I felt compelled to add it.

      You also describe that type of love very elegantly – that’s exactly how it felt.