“Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you are withholding from the world”.
It was almost immediately after entering the birthday party of a friend on his course at university that Freddie realised his ex-girlfriend was present.
It took little more than a seemingly careless but actually anxious glance about the large, Victorian sitting room to notice that familiar bob of brilliant blonde hair, swaying in layers behind the face his lips had previously been so known to, and that was in the habit of glowing. And although she did not see him and there were bodies of people blocking his view, he could tell she was standing beside a boy, and that they were involved with one another.
Freddie immediately retreated to the kitchen, where he began to roll a cigarette to keep his attention off whomever else might be in the room. His housemate Ben followed him.
‘You alright, mate?’ asked Ben, following suit on the cigarette.
‘Oh…’ Ben paused, waiting for Freddie’s face to tell him what to say. Freddie stared down at his tobacco. ‘I mean – do you want to stay?’
‘Yeah, yeah I’ll stay, I mean – I’ll just avoid her. No point in letting your night get ruined just because there’s someone you don’t like there.’
But facts are rarely as simple as statements, and as Freddie smoked his cigarette he slipped quietly but uncomfortably into the busy spots of his mind.
After a few minutes-
‘I might have another cigarette actually-‘
‘Alright man, I’m heading inside. See you in there.’
There were scores of people around him, a wash of bright young faces beating in swirls and eddies in the small, square excuse for a garden. In between them there was a cheap flow of conversation, a dead-weighted collection of symbols, and it spurted and limped out of their mouths like so much fodder for a bored mind. Beyond the pool of poorly lit humans and circling cigarette ends, up in the fringe before the earth gave way to the immense mystery of the night sky, there was a collection of lights embedded in the shady silhouettes of houses, watching bleakly down on the disinterested.
Freddie stared into the night as he dragged on his cigarette.
What was it that was so bothersome about seeing an old girlfriend with another boy? All of a sudden the flames of fancy had caught him again as he stared despondently at his imagination. It made him feel inadequate somehow; it was as if he had been replaced by someone who could do the job better.
And what did he do, this new man? Did he touch her better than he did? Did his fingers excite more static when they brushed down her arm? Did he make her feel more secure than him? Did he produce a brighter spark when he struck against stone?
He hadn’t even been that into Izzy when they were seeing each other.
Remember that!? You didn’t even like her that much! All she had been was the latest stop-gap in the series of dispassionate hook-ups that had punctuated his life up til now; she hadn’t been much more than another girl to have sex and coffee with. It wasn’t necessarily that he wanted it to be that way, but that was always how it seemed to turn out. Certainly at the beginning he had posed those absurd questions that every new romance asks: ‘Will this be love?’ ‘Could this be a family?’ ‘Will she be the person who understands me?’
Nonsensical, ridiculous questions. Of course they were. And yet somehow, by some stupid fault of the mind, they ended up being asked anyway. And now as Freddie lit up his second cigarette, he found himself wondering about them again. Had he missed something about her? Why was she coming back to haunt him now?
There was a window to his right hand side, and after a quick check to make sure there was no one he knew about him, he subtly leant against the wall and peaked into the sitting room full of people.
At first he could see nothing, but then – aha! – there she was! Exactly where he had left her. She was still talking to this new man, whom Freddie now narrowed a precise eye on. He was definitely a student, no doubt about that; he was no older than twenty-one or two, wearing a purple and turquoise adidas jacket and black jeans and holding a can of cheap beer in his large, noticeably hairy hands. In fact he seemed to exude hair; there was something about him that was just so incredibly hairy. His hair wasn’t long, and his facial hair, if you looked closely, was only stubble, but somehow he seemed so much hairier than he actually was. Why did he seem so hairy? Freddie stared acutely at his face, which was leaned over, half-beaming down into Izzy’s backwards smile, a grin punctuated by moments that could have been laughter.
An explosion of fury happened in Freddie’s chest – 1, 2, 3! – he caught himself and counted his breaths to keep it in.
What was so great about this hairy bastard? Yes he was tall and dark, and (he supposed) quite handsome in a vagrant sort of way – but he was no Freddie was he?
Rather than get caught up in that train of thought he now swung his eyes to look at the girl, though there was someone in front of her, got to wait for her to move, then they’re gone and AH FUCK she looked beautiful!
He tore himself away and caught his breath once more. His cigarette had gone out – no, it had been smoked – so he set about rolling himself another. Then, paranoid someone would speak to him, he pretended to be on his phone as he slipped himself into the darkest corner of the garden, where he could look over the wall onto the train line on the other side.
Oh no, why did she have to look so beautiful? He swore she’d never looked that good the whole time they’d been going out.
But had they really been ‘going out’? It hadn’t really been a proper relationship, had it? It was four months long – which, he supposed, is a reasonable amount of time – but it had never been official, as such. They had never met one another’s parents, or been introduced as ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’. It was one of those relationships that goes unlabelled so long that you don’t notice it until it ends.
And it really hadn’t been special at all… That was the thing. He was so ambivalent about her at the time that he had never even been certain whether to spend his evenings alone or with her. Yes, she had performed everything as best a masculine boy could hope: she was entertaining, beautiful, good in bed and perfect for showing off to his friends; but she wasn’t engaging. Very few things in the world engaged Freddie any more, even at the age of twenty-one, and Izzy was one of the many things that, until now, did not.
But she was definitely something a bit special, he could see that much. She was the kind of girl who smiled at strangers and walked through doors first; a veritable symbol of a girl, the kind of image any boy of taste would like to pin on his wall. But had he wasted her?
As he rolled his third cigarette, it occurred to him what it was he had enjoyed most from being with Izzy. It had been showing her off. He adored the way his friend’s faces piqued at the sight of her, how men would sometimes turn in the street for her, how she seemed to raise him up in the eyes of the world. He wore her like a medal around his neck.
For Freddie, you see, was one of these unfortunate young men who do what all young men are trained to do: turn women into the yard sticks for measuring their own worth.
And as such he thought that, as a woman, as a thing that he had won with his handsomeness, his charm, his perfectly performed masculinity, she ought to offer him something more than she did. He felt like she ought to have given him some kind of revelation, some kind of fundamental insight into life that no other thing could possibly give him; but by the end of the four months all he had experienced was distance and frustration, and the relationship ended silently, without so much as a word said between them.
And now he wondered, as he saw this girl, this newly beautified thing in the gaze of another man, where was the revelation she offered him?
He hadn’t found it on her when she had been naked. It sometimes seemed as though she was carrying it when she was clothed, but then the clothes came off and, after a half hour of intense, orgastic excitement, he once again saw her with naked eyes. And even when he remembered that touch, the febrile clarity of her body beating beside him, he was not transported anywhere but his own mind. He wondered if perhaps the right combination of drink, drugs and setting would grant him access to it –
he often envisaged a warm summer evening, some kind of party – a festival or a wedding – with promising spots of amber light playing with the colourful decorations about wherever they were; the girl, any girl, walking towards him excitedly, her barely containable smile hinting at the mountainous ecstasy they could both feel pulsing in their faces. In her very look was everything he desired from the world outside him: pure, total, loving understanding, the sort of gorgeous intuition that allowed her to know him as well as a mind can, and that told him over and over again that everything, everywhere, forever, was alright.
Women carried the potential for revelation, he was certain of that. But it infuriated him that he had been unable to find this thing in any of the girls he had known intimacy with, who had shared with him their dark, secret nakedness, and yet whom he had been uninterested in thereafter. Why hadn’t he been able to find something in these women?
It must be his own inadequacy.
His third cigarette at an end, Freddie glanced over his shoulder to see who was there; then he quickly made his way back inside, through the kitchen and back to the sitting room to find Ben. Ben was standing with a group of their mates, and after a quick round of greetings, he flicked his eyes over the crowd to look once again, agonisingly, at the couple.
They were still in the same place. The boy put a hand on her arm and she immediately, almost flinchingly, put her hand on his; and she looked at him with this rosy smile, so goddamn rosy, in fact the very same smile that must have looked at him a thousand bloody times but that he had never been able to understand.
Well now he understood!
He wanted to scream from his chest, or communicate through some silent way, that he could see it now, he had the perspective, the right angle, he had found the correct window, and now he could see the girl he wanted. She wasn’t there before, but now she was, in all her guilt-laden beauty. She was now the girl he might once have imagined her to be. But fantasies are like a flower: you pick it because it is beautiful, and throw it away because it has died.
Freddie’s mind fell silent for a few seconds. All his dreams wilting before him, he experienced one of those rare moments in which you can see what is actually there before you. And all he saw was a human. No special glaze, no romantic screen; no beauty on top of what was really there. She was just a human, and so was Freddie. There was no difference between them. And that was just about the moment that Freddie realised –
‘Screw this,’ he said all of a sudden. ‘I don’t need other people to make me happy.’
And he left, very, very swiftly.