You know how there’re things you just know are right and wrong, and things that sit in that comfortable shade of grey, meaning when they come up in conversation, if you’re that kind of person, you’re quietly thrilled, because it means sinking your teeth into the meat of a really juicy discussion.
He’s gone to the bar for another round. And that’s what you’re thinking as he goes, rearranging the pleat in your skirt just so, that there’s something sort of pressing to discuss, coming up, upon his return.
You know? In a bigger group it would be: here we go, this one’ll be really good, I can really contribute this time around. Sit up a little straighter. Phone away.
Like, oh, oh, I got this one: she’s found the ideal guy, sure, but – and this is just a sign of how old you are – he has a son (who, yes, is cute as a button, but still). Yay or nay?
Or better: infidelity is definitely a no-no, deal-breaking sort of thing, but this new boyfriend’s never quite shed his really druggy past and it’s all bound up in free love, off-your-face misbehaviour. Like, it’s not intentional. He’s not abusive but he is… shitty. You know?
Anyway, you’ve never sunk your teeth into anything, but you know the expression, and you get it. It’s an intimation of engagement and enthusiasm, which is refreshing given you spend most of the time not saying anything at all.
And feeling fine about silence. You’d like the record to state you’ve reached a pretty zen place about being quiet. You’re sort of proud, all told, that you can listen and not feel with every topic you’ve got to have your say.
Like you learnt, somehow, just as everyone else was discovering status updates and live blogs and immediate delivery of opinions the very minute they were required, that it was better to shut the fuck up, basically all the time, than actually get involved, ever, really, with anything. And that doesn’t make you an ascetic in rock-hewn lair, softly floating six inches above the ground. You know the sort? When you approach, you reckon there’s piped music from somewhere until you realise it’s the guy, he’s ooohhhhmmming as hard as he can, like life depended on the ambience, even way off in the back of beyond nowhere he’s inhabiting.
That’s not you, though. You’re patently not cut from that cloth or, more exactly, in full hiding from the realities of modern life, vis-à-vis paying rent, and keeping a job, and getting drunk when you can, and spending Sunday mornings with that nagging feeling that just maybe your drinking is sneaking into a territory that can’t quite be labelled “comfortably recreational”. And sure, you might not yet know how to use vis-à-vis correctly, but at least you’re aspirational.
Like working, too. You’re turning up to work, Monday to Friday, 8.45 to 5.30 (5.15 or so on Fridays, if you’re honest, and like anyone there has done a jot since about 3pm, every single day) and steadily, too. You’re OK with giving up the whole let’s-all-freelance-until-we-can’t-afford-to-eat you used to think was outré and spot on. In the last little while, six months or so, when you saw friends you started to talk about work with a bit more emphasis on the fact that some days you enjoyed it. Ha, yeah. Not, obviously, the idiocy of sitting in the same place for so many hours of the week, or the humdrum bullshit of office kitchen, office cutlery, office lunch breaks, office drinks. But a dash of responsibility, and the glanced vista of career progression. Even there. Even you.
Out of university, a decade earlier, if you and your friends, over drinks you didn’t feel the need to count, talked about progression or prospects or development, you’d all choke in mock horror – in real horror, sometimes – and writhe about and gag. The demonstrative in your midst would slump onto others, dead with disgust. Ick ick ick, enough, don’t even go there. What was a degree for if not for eschewing that whole adulthood bullshit?
And, let’s be honest, the collapsing thing was an easy way for those who needed it to get their physical contact. After you’d finished your degrees, limped out with the sheen already coming off the whole experience, it was like the chumminess of university – the proximity bred by house-shares and meals-on-laps and no privacy, ever, about anything – was spent in two seconds. No more easy touches, no more grasps of hands and forearms: always explicitly non-sexual, not an approach… but you knew. You all did, you realised. Some dubious moral hinterland you’d never really appreciated. And that was gone.
And you? Did you miss it? Not really. Not now.
That takes you full circle, more or less, to all the other things you started to realise you could do without: your life of this moment, days and weeks and months on, when boyfriends had come and gone, and jobs had been just about as regular and certainly more reliable; talking about everything as though it mattered. You began to feel like every time you met your old university friends, it was more of the same, and also so much much less.
Some of you had drifted away – you the group, you the person.
Who were they, anyway?
Who were you?
The right thing to do, in life, in work, in being here now, was soldier on, because there were opportunities in the city like nowhere else you knew, and you had a flat with a decent, uninvolved landlord, and a social life built upon two trips abroad a year (beach holiday, European capital), which was ammunition enough for pretty much every interaction in a six-month period. Forget the drifters, forget trying to engage the long-lost friends in meaningful conversation.
And it wasn’t like you didn’t want to talk about things, you know? You did. But you were happier and happier listening, and letting other people talk.
Your friend – a good friend, an almost-more-than-friend, once upon a time – came back from the bar. He picked up where you’d left off and said that maybe you should be careful not to fade away completely. You know? Ick, you said, because you were short of other things to say. You pinched the flesh under your upper arms. I don’t think so. Not any time soon.
Not like that, he said. I meant. Just don’t disappear, OK?
Even as he said it, you weren’t sure if it was him talking or just something in your head, like some cribbed inner voice that warned you against being a decent citizen, or a docile one, or something else.
Are you listening? he asked.
Sure, you said. It’s hard, you know?
You didn’t know, didn’t have a quick retort. Modern life, you said.
God, I don’t know. Don’t be… fucking…
What? he said. He looked amused. And not university-friend smug-amused, the I-know-something-you-don’t look pretty much everyone cultivated back then. And not work-amused, either, the I-can’t-wait-to-show-you-the-funniest-video amused. You’d learnt to set your own expression to smiling disinterest. You didn’t go over to the desks showing kittens falling over or politicians fucking up.
But not him. He was amused in a enjoying-your-company way. A way that made you feel good about you.
The thing is, you said.
Yeah? he asked.
Sometimes it’s nice to be quiet.
There’s quiet, and there’s already dead.
I think I know which I am.
He was pleased with that response, and you went back to your glass of Sauvignon Blanc and he to his IPA, content that everything was shaken out and put to rights in the best of ways. The way he had of drinking from his pint, it tickled you. It was playing at being grown up, sipping it while looking over the rim, like men in flat caps did. Like adults did, when drinking and also being present.
Except something, some little fucking thing, had been scratched there, and even as you were announcing you didn’t have anything to say and that was just fine, underneath that there was this hunger you knew was because you wanted to talk about the whole deal, for once. About superficiality and about how you’d realised the majority of things were just not worth talking about anymore. About how settling down to work hard and not sweating relationships wasn’t giving up. About how not seeing university friends was not some major life failing on your part but just how people grew apart.
It was, you realised, like you’d been practising all of that in your head, all evening, all day in preparation, all week. And you caught yourself trying to find a start, pinpoint a time when you first felt not enough. You couldn’t.
You took another sip to steady yourself, to tamp it down.
You could feel yourself, somewhere inside, you know, champing at the bit.
What? he said.
When you looked at him, sitting there at the window seat, so he had a patch of green on his cheek from the stained glass, and his collar open – ties off or switching to comfortable shoes after work was always the order of business, to show you weren’t wedded to the job, not properly – you thought he looked a picture. He was adjusting his pint, getting the base to obscure the design on the beer mat just so. In a way, he was his own monk in his own cave.
And that made you whatever a lady monk was, a monkess, because what you saw in him was that he’d got things sorted, and that was reflecting right back how you felt about you too.
You swallowed and you smiled at him.
What? he said, this time with a little sting of urgency.
Ick, you said. I was being soppy.
Soppy? He feigned disgust.
Life’s hard when you have to be ironic all the time…
You know? he said, beating you to the punch. I do know.
Ick, you said, more emphatically, more honestly. I just mean everything seems so square now, with everything.
Yeah. Stay sharp, suck it up – you screwed up your fists – and that’s a sign of being an adult and being a success.
You do that very well.
Yeah, well, sometimes I don’t want to. Sometimes I want to be passionate about something. Or something.
You’re too young to have a midlife crisis.
It’s not a crisis, you said. That’s just it. That’s just the problem with even bringing it up. You were going to say it’s not a cry for help, but there was no way you could without it sounding like, well, yeah.
He wasn’t smiling anymore. I don’t know what to say, he said.
That’s fine, you said. You’re not required to know. No one is. No one even… I don’t know.
You couldn’t shake the feeling that you’d fucked something up. You didn’t even know what, couldn’t pinpoint the precise thing, except that he didn’t look so genial in the light from the pub window. In fact, he looked unworldly, illuminated that way, translucent.
Wasn’t that the hermit life, anyway? Dipping one foot into the realm of pure thought?
Maybe you were stupid to think it was him, anyway.
Maybe you were stupid to think it was you.
How’s Anne? you said.
Annie? Oh fine.
Good, you said. Your wine was lukewarm now, the glass greasy. It’s been, what, like…
He was sort of rolling his eyes. You were looking at him and you didn’t know him one bit.
It made you think of university, the things you did, your friends did, to be seen as cool and in and value-bearing for social interaction. A girl friend of yours used to smoke and play pool and you were pretty sure she was only doing that because there were two guys who did the same. Maybe she once even mentioned to you about how she hated pool. Maybe. You couldn’t be sure.
And there he was, opposite you, a creature, a faint, failing hope.
Maybe you’d not moved on, after all. Or maybe it was just easier for him to pretend to be into you, while he was with Anne/Annie, happily, contentedly. Like, maybe he was getting a whole different thing out of spending time with you, occasionally, than you were.
Or maybe he just didn’t think about it like you did. There was that.
He said he knew. But what did he know? When had he thought about any of this?
You look peeved, he said.
You nodded. Not really, you said. Well.
And you shrugged. You’d have liked to get your teeth stuck into that one. But you didn’t. You couldn’t. There was something so distasteful about the whole thing. You’d never stuck your teeth into anything in your life. And you weren’t about to start now.
F.E. Brinkley is a writer living and working in London, dividing time between Literary Review editorial work and writing short fiction.