I’m in love with Mary.
Her boyfriend Nathan has wide, muscular forearms. A few minutes ago he stretched and revealed a sliver of toned stomach that made me want to lick the crevices of his six-pack. Nathan is a special needs carer. He is excitedly regaling us with a story about one of his charges: a 35-year-old, perennially-wanking ‘mountain-of-a-man,’ who earlier today came up behind Nathan and wrapped him in a sticky bear hug. He mimes the nightmare for our entertainment, standing erect, arms glued to his side as if still bound by the massive masturbator, face contorted with an approximation of the horror it had worn during the act.
A second later his voice is dripping with compassion for the same man – no hint of malice or disgust or even pity. Just an earnestness that makes me want to stay up until four in the morning talking to him about the failings of my parents and the cultural impact of the Arctic Monkeys and What to Do About Gaza.
He is not worthy of Mary.
She has regal purple hair, like a Cadbury’s chocolate bar wrapper. She is an artist, trapped in a hospitality worker’s body, trapped in this not-quite-house-party like the rest of us. When I met her for the first time a couple of weeks ago she made an erudite, offhand comment about how a particular class of men are obsessed with Fight Club, which made me laugh so hard I had to bend over and clasp my hands on my knees, as if recovering from a beating administered by Brad Pitt. After, she showed me snaps of her artwork, and I realized she could paint feelings better than I can feel them.
I indulge, for a moment, the thought of another life – where I was one of those people who lived up to the amorous, adventurous, mostly-unfounded stereotype of bi-women. I would saunter up to Mary – or Nathan, or Mary, probably, because I think she’d be more open to the idea of a threesome based on nothing but my own preconceptions about artists – and whisper something seductive to her. I’d let my lip brush the helix of her ear, use my tongue to flick the hoop that’s looping from her cartilage. She’d pull back a little. Her jasmine perfume, which I huffed in when we hugged hello, would float past me. She’d have a grin on her face at my suggestion, half-hidden by a smooth, delicate hand, and her eyes would be teeming with excitement at the prospect of something new.
I think about what I’d have to say to get that reaction, and even contemplating it makes embarrassment spurt through me. I take a drink to drown the feeling, tipping my head back at an awkward angle so she remains in my line of vision. The green bottle clinks uncomfortably against my teeth, but it’s worth it for the camouflaged, lingering gaze, which allows me to play the game of separating desire from jealousy. I can’t untangle them before beer starts to pool in my throat. I veer dangerously close to coughing up a scene. Hops and bubbles scrape harshly down my gullet, but I swallow the soreness and tune back into the room.
Mary and Nathan are telling a well-practiced story about the time they went to Thorpe Park and Nathan fell asleep in the toilets because he was hungover. I laugh when everyone else laughs, but then toy with the idea of becoming one of those people who says outrageous things masquerading as jokes, like, ‘What if you had kids and he did that?’
Then, maybe on the way home from the gathering something would ebb at Mary, and she’d think, ‘What if he did do that?’ Maybe that thought would start a process of erosion in their seemingly solid relationship, so other nasty thoughts had room to fester. Maybe at the next gathering Mary would be flying-solo and we’d get to talking. Maybe I’d make her laugh, not bringing up Nathan until she did.
Mary gets up. Her movement draws me back into the present. She puts on a Talking Heads vinyl. I stare as she addresses the record player, hands clasped onto hips, one leg straight in front of her, the other beneath her and a little bent, like how I describe my orientation to strangers when I’m drunk enough to try and be funny. As I gaze, all I can think is that I want to hear her thoughts on Stop Making Sense. I want to deliberate with her about whether I should get the avocado toast or the pancakes at Sunday brunch. I want to run my fingertips along the curve of her waist, digits swooping up and down like those rides at Thorpe Park Nathan didn’t get to go on because he was asleep on the toilet. I desperately want to have an unadulterated texting relationship with her.
She glides back to Nathan and ignores her old seat, instead sitting on his lap. I think about becoming one of those people who says exactly what they’re feeling to the people they have feelings for. About an existence where I use words to attack life instead of hiding behind silence and warm beer in green bottles. About stupid Nathan who is absentmindedly stroking Mary’s leg while talking to his stupid friend, while his not-stupid girlfriend’s smile disappears, and a combination of boredom and tipsiness massages a thousand-mile-stare out of her.
I momentarily wonder what it would be like to be one of those people who catches someone’s eye from across the room and doesn’t automatically shirk, fearful of being seen as weird (women) or open to unwanted advances (men). As the thought passes, I join Mary in gazing into the nothingness, maybe in solidarity, maybe because of infatuation, maybe in imitation. Maybe because of all three.
As I stare, time starts to blur and warp, ensconcing me in a momentless bubble. Suddenly I’m living endless lives, where I’m one of those people who does this, or that, or this-and-that – it doesn’t matter exactly what, because all roads lead to Mary. All the while I steal glances at my now-dancing love, trying to devour her with my eyes like men do, but only managing to caress her with my stares. Her body is the only thing anchoring me in the now, so I don’t want to scare her off with the sort of look that reveals the endless loops of her and I together in my head: snuggled up on a cozy couch listening to David Byrne, sharing knowing glances when some dumb boy tells us his favorite film is Fight Club, holding hands and screaming together on The Detonator at Thorpe Park. Throughout this glasses clink and muffled music wafts past, there but mostly unobtrusive, like the sound of traffic when you’re lying in bed with someone you love on a lazy Sunday morning.
Before I know it people are slapping their legs and elongating the words ‘well’ and ‘right’. I instinctively follow the flood of those leaving and am cast out onto the street. The others speed off to tube stations and wait for Uber drivers and, suddenly, I’m alone. I know Mary is still inside and I consider hanging back for a few moments, getting my phone out so I can pretend to fiddle on it. Beer tells me if I linger anything could happen, that chance encounters can lead to all sorts of fortuitous events, even if they’re not really chance.
A one-two punch of a siren wailing and gust of wind cuts through the last of my reverie. In front of me there’s nothing but refulgent, rain-coated brickwork under yellow lamplight. Reality kicks in and I realize hanging around will likely lead to nothing but the increasing loss of sensation in my fingers and a bad feeling in my stomach when I see her leave with her boyfriend. I decide I’m fine being one of those people who orders a taxi home instead of searching for something unattainable, like an endless party or a heterosexual girl in a committed relationship. So, I do just that.
Sandeep Sanhu is a writer based in London. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including the Daily Drunk Mag and the Cleveland Review of Books. He recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a Masters in Creative Writing, where he was also a prose editor at ‘From Arthur’s Seat’, an anthology of poetry and prose. He was longlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2021.
image: “We’re Trying:” M. Roanoke is a queer folk artist based in Kansas City, Missouri. They are on Twitter @Roanokeoke.