I'll leave you sick, baby
I’m always letting men infect me. Before Andrew I dated an actor. Alex. After a fortnight together he’d given me ringworm. He was a mountain-range hiker of low-range ability, and prior to our coupling he’d spent a month schlepping around the wet Hebrides. The diagnosis took a toll on his libido, and our dates would usually conclude with us sitting in my bed, me palpitating, him pantomime-yawning, delicately removing my hand from his thigh. Such was my desperation that when he told me he had ringworm, and showed me the taupe circles on his inner thighs I decided to say I didn’t care, and climbed on top of him. He always preferred it with me on top, which I think now was less an enjoying-the-view thing and a more a path-of-least-resistance thing. For the next three months we passed our ringworm back and forth like a logbook, and at the beginning of the fourth month he told me that, while he was attracted to me, he wasn’t wildly attracted to me, and he didn’t love me. We broke up three weeks later and then he moved to Portugal.
Tonight I acquiesce after weeks of badgering and go for a drink with my friend, Mark. We did our teacher training together at Strathclyde, although he abandoned the notion of teaching soon after. Now he does freelance transcription while writing his novel – he often breaks his company’s confidentiality clause by telling me about the minutiae of Hilton hotel disciplinary hearings, which he laboriously commits to paper for minimum wage. ‘A maid missed a week of work because her mother tried to murder her grandmother!’ he told me once. His novel is about American politics, and one day he let me read the first page. It opens with, ‘One day in a room of the White House,’ and when I said, ‘Do you not think it should be set somewhere you’re actually familiar with?’ he ignored me and said, ‘I think it’s going to be stylistically similar to On The Road – you know Kerouac?’ I like flirting with Mark because he has a girlfriend I’ve never met.
I get the first round in – his is a Smithwicks, mine a Carlsberg. We sit on high stools at a table that is more of a shallow ledge. I can never get Andrew to come to this pub. I guess he thinks it’s unbecoming for a man in his late 30s with an above £20k salary to drink £4.50 pints. Or maybe he’s worried someone might see us. The bar he likes us to meet in is an Irish pub in the city centre, seemingly modeled on Escher’s ‘House of Stairs.’ I don’t like it as much, because if there were a fire or if the ceiling caved in we would almost certainly be unable to get out in time. If I get him on a good day we’ll kiss in one of the booths. If it’s a bad day I’ll lean in and he’ll offer me his cheek and I’ll excuse myself to go scream in the toilets.
‘What do you think of this?’ Mark says, and there’s a picture of a black shirt with white piebald on his phone screen.
‘Cute,’ I say, ‘If you want to look like a Friesian cow.’
‘You don’t think I could pull it off?’
‘Oh, you could absolutely pull it off,’ I say, ‘It’s the putting it on that’s the problem.’
He laughs, and lets his hand land on my knee for a couple of seconds.
‘Salty wench,’ he says.
‘What do you need another shirt for anyway? You work from home.’
‘I go out sometimes, you know.’
‘So you’re going to get all dressed up like Gary Essendine for the big shop at Lidl?’
‘If I buy it I’ll have to get it delivered to yours.’
‘Jen thinks we should be saving to buy a house.’
‘Why would you want to buy a house?’
Andrew spends most nights on Property Pal, and then tells me about the houses he’s looking at like it’s not terrible for me to think about him buying a house for his wife and daughter. When we’re messaging in the evening and he disappears for long stretches I know that’s what he’s doing – searching for an affordable three bed in Shawlands. I think it’s made me preternaturally opposed to homeownership. Sometimes when I’m drunk and walking home I’ll spit at the estate agent’s on the corner.
‘Jen thinks it’s important to get on the property ladder.’
‘Jen must be a riot at dinner parties.’
I’ve gone too far, by mentioning her name, and he retreats, sheepish. ‘No, no,’ he says, ‘I mean, it makes sense, I guess. Stability and all that – better use of your money.’
‘Okay, William Welch Deloitte.’
When I was 21 I let a physicist called David take the condom off. A month later I had six weeks’ worth of antibiotics on my bedside table.
We’ve been there for fifteen minutes when I notice the man approaching us, too late to suggest any kind of evasion manoeuvre. His hand lands on the table like a falling bed sheet. The crevices on his knuckles are full of grey.
‘Sorry to disturb you both,’ he says, ‘But do you mind if I ask you a question?’
I hate this. God, I hate everything about this.
Mark is three quarters of his pint deep. ‘Go on, mate,’ he says. He never says ‘mate,’ and it might as well be pig Latin for how weird it sounds.
The man peers at me, ‘Have you ever been to the National Portrait Gallery in London?’
On the screen behind him Graham Norton is rubbing his plaid thighs assiduously in delight. I keep my eyes on Graham’s big white teeth. ‘Yes,’ I say, though I haven’t. Mark is leaning forward on his stool, and I think I can almost see him wondering if there’s any way he can siphon this interaction for his novel, if this exchange could be transposed into a bar, ‘next to the White House.’
The man thrusts an arm back and seizes a stool from another table. He whirls it like a matador’s cape and places it next to me. He clambers on and lets the phlegm slow cook in his throat for a moment.
‘There’s a painting, right?’
‘I would hope so.’
‘Just above one of the doors. Blink and you’ll miss it, right?’
He peers closer, ‘There’s a woman in it. Looks like you.’
‘Yeah! Same sad expression. Same big forehead and nose.’
There’s a brief silence, then Mark starts laughing in an excessive, slapstick way he probably saw a cartoon weasel do once. He nudges me and says, ‘There you go, Mel. You’re a classic Raphaelite sad woman.’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Thanks,’ I say to the man. I wish I was the kind of person who could tell a stranger to go away. I wish I had the audaciousness to drink the remainder of my pint and gather up my things and leave.
‘So, what are your names?’ the man says, and at this I allow myself an audible groan. A small act of alienation.
‘I’m Mark. How about yourself, mate?’
I’m embarrassed for him. I want him to hear himself and feel his ripe bravado curl up at the edges. The man says his name three times before we get it.
He says it again.
It’s Dai. He asks us what we do and Mark immediately describes himself as ‘a writer.’
‘A writer?’ Dai says, and he cracks his knuckles. I know what he’s going to say before he says it. ‘I could be a writer,’ he says, and I wish, not for the first time, that there was someone else in my brain to applaud me on my insight.
‘It’s pretty hard going, mate,’ Mark says, with an indulgent smile.
‘I bet you wouldn’t find anyone in this room with a bigger vocabulary than me,’ Dai says. He looks around with a sneer. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘Bet there’s not a soul in this place as well-read or eloquent as I am.’
‘That right?’ I say, flatly, and he nods, earnest. Now that I know my distaste is going unnoticed, the meager fun of it fades.
‘Caliban,’ he says. ‘Bet there’s not a soul in here knows who Caliban is.’
‘Maybe go find out,’ I say, meekly.
He ignores me, ‘I’ve had a hell of a life, you know. If I wrote the book of my life it would need to be in three volumes.’
‘Go on then, mate,’ Mark says, ‘Give us the main plot points.’
Dai burps. ‘In a moment, in a moment,’ he says, ‘First, some more drinks, maybe?’ He gives me a poke on the upper arm, ‘What are you having, love?’
I look at Mark. He doesn’t look at me.
‘Actually,’ I say, ‘We need to be heading on.’
‘No, we don’t,’ Mark says.
‘Well, I do,’ I say.
‘No, you don’t,’ Mark says, and I picture the skin shimmying off his bones in a drum full of acid.
‘One more won’t kill you, love,’ Dai says. ‘Give me a hand will you, mate?’
‘No bother, mate,’ Mark says, and as he gets up he grabs my phone from the table. ‘So you can’t leave,’ he says, and I picture his head and its contents being turned into pulled pork between two enclosing steel walls.
I wait until they’re out of earshot and then I let loose at myself.
‘You are weak,’ I hiss through gritted teeth. ‘You are weak and spineless and desperate for attention and that’s why you let these losers monopolise your time. You are a wallflower doormat flimsy fucking idiot. You are trash, you are absolute trash.’ The men come back.
‘Here you go, love,’ Dai sets a pint in front of me.
‘Thanks, I say.
‘Dai’s going to tell us about his childhood,’ Mark says.
‘Great.’ I drink half the pint in seconds.
‘Thirsty girl,’ Dai says, and I imagine shoving him into a swimming pool, dropping in a plugged-in toaster. ‘Well,’ he says, wiggling on his stool, ‘Well – the first story is about my pet guinea pig.’
‘Christ,’ I mutter, and Mark prods my shin with his foot.
‘She killed herself,’ Dai says.
‘What?’ Mark says.
‘Yeah. Threw herself into a fire. She lived in a little cage in my room, and sometimes I’d let her out to roam about the place. One day I took her downstairs, and get this: she runs straight into the fireplace. Little body looked like a burned brioche by the time I got it out.’
‘Jesus,’ Mark says.
‘Yeah,’ Dai says. ‘Little furry monster would rather die than have to be with me.’ There’s a crack in his voice, and I realise he’s about to start crying. ‘Just like everyone,’ he says, and I can hear the wetness happening in his nose. ‘Just like –’ he stops abruptly. He says, ‘Mind if I just go grab another?’
‘Course, mate,’ Mark says. ‘Go right on ahead.’
‘You good for one?’
‘Yeah, mate – we’re both good.’
‘Back in a tick.’ Dai smears the back of his hand over his nose and heads for the bar. Mark leans forward, puts his mouth on my ear lobe.
‘Want to go?’
Six months into dating Andrew took me to Paris. We stayed in an apartment that had an alpine feel, and every time I looked out the window I expected to see snow bunnies rather than Notre Dame. ‘Although I guess here they call them neige lapins,’ I said. On our first evening we walked for an hour and half in torrential rain trying to find the Eiffel Tower. ‘Would you believe this is the second time I’ve lost the Eiffel Tower?’ I said. He bought some cigarettes, and we huddled under my umbrella and smoked. We had dinner in a dimly lit restaurant, humid and intimate as a duvet. He had a huge bowl of mussels and I had a cauldron of roasted vegetables, and that night his vomiting started. The next day we lolloped cautiously around the place – we saw the Picassos in the Picasso museum and the Twomblys in the Pompidou Centre. Occasionally we’d stop so he could sit down and breathe, deeply and greenly. He puked in a bin off the Champs-Élysées.
The second day he stayed in bed and I went to Shakespeare & Co. and Sephora. I sat on a bench and watched a bulbous male pigeon try to rape some female pigeons. I ate a crêpe out of a cone. In the morning my alarm went off and he rolled on top of me. I was worried he might puke on my hair and face, but he didn’t. We arrived at the airport so late that I had to bargain with the beautiful woman at airport security to let us skip the queue. ‘Excusez-moi,’ I said, in my horrible accent, ‘Notre departure est à une heure.’ We slept on the flight home, my head on his shoulder, and upon landing he had a text from his wife saying she’d decided to pick him up from the airport. We had to walk into Arrivals separately.
I went home, ordered three portions of cheesy chips, ate them in bed. An hour later I was throwing up beige and yellow, and when I texted him he said that what he’d had wasn’t food poisoning, but the Norovirus his daughter had had the week before. The next day I lurched, pallid and shaking, from the flat to the subway to my 11am lecture. At 11:30, I shat myself.
The inverse of all this is that I once had a man cease all contact because I gave him a cold sore. I thought it was a combination of pre-menstrual acne and dry skin. I’d been liberally applying Sudocrem and Nivea, feeling virtuous and soft. The day after our date, I realised my error, when the lump on my lip was bigger, and flakey, and threatening. I texted him to apologise, and two days later he replied with ‘I’ve got a cold sore.’ It was the last time I heard from him.
‘Well, that was something,’ Mark says, as we walk home.
‘Yeah,’ I pause, ‘Mate.’
‘Don’t be like that.’
‘Fine.’ We don’t say anything for a moment.
‘He had a great vocabulary,’ Mark says.
‘Smartest man in the room, apparently,’ I say.
‘He could be a writer,’ Mark says.
‘Bestselling author of The Guinea Pig Suicides,’ I say.
‘Doesn’t think anyone has ever heard of the Taliban,’ Mark says.
I stop. ‘What?’
‘Remember? He said nobody in the pub would know who the Taliban is.’
‘Caliban, Mark. He said Caliban.’