Let's Start Again
To sleep with someone but not sleep with them. To lie together in a tangle of limbs, barely remembered dreams and muted snores. His hips pressing into my back, or worse, my drink-filled bladder. My arm across his chest and under his t-shirt, idly flicking a nipple, until I half-woke to the knowledge that I wasn’t supposed to do that anymore and stopped. The party had chased on into morning and, instead of braving the daytime streets, we had sought the comfort of a bed we shouldn’t have been in and the warmth of someone we should no longer have been sleeping with.
Roll over, away from that dead-leg-thought, stretch and get comfier, blood moves back to the crushed parts. Falling asleep, the dreams crowd in, bringing a feeling somewhere between vaguely horny and vaguely guilty. Lying in clothes under the heavy covers on that early summer’s day was like swimming in a warm sea, floating past dimly envisaged islands, adrift in the tide. That night would be one of the last for our extended family of friends, the ties unravelling although we hadn’t realised it yet. As we slept, he and I held each other but not too tight, able to show a degree of tenderness that we often shunned when conscious. It can never work between us, I know now. I want him to be the boy in the photographs taken of us laughing, looking beautiful together, not the damaged, difficult reality.
Again I half-awoke, lay watching the sun stream across the floorboards, the twisted bed and us. Kicking my feet, sweltering in clothes I had decided to keep on for some unimaginable reason, trying to free them from the quilt, before wrapping them through his and unwrapping again. I tried to recall what we had talked about for so many hours that had kept us from heading to our own beds, wondered idly if his latest girl would care where he was. If I squinted one eye upwards I could see flakes fall from his nose as he breathed and realised that they must be floating down from mine too. I pulled the covers over my head to block the light and drifted again. A last thought of how I love sleeping with him as much as I once loved sleeping with him, and that was a lot. Then my head falls back on his shoulder and I am gone.
Two summers before, we met in a sweltering city where friends-of-friends gathered anywhere with a ledge large enough to pass off as a balcony. The kitchen fridge full of bottles and cans, the freezer a mass of ice cubes, with mint on the windowsill because the only herbs we grow are for cocktails. The music loud, but not enough to drown talk of office bitchery and games of holiday one-upmanship. He and I climbed a precarious ladder to escape the crowds, watched fireworks burst over the rooftops, talked of Easton Ellis and felt invincible. As I checked my phone for the umpteenth time, looking for messages that would never come, he said I should stop moping.
‘He’s thick and badly dressed’, came the verdict, which I had to admit contained more than a semblance of truth, ‘you could do better, so much better’.
Probably also true. There was a question I should have asked but, before I got a chance to, we headed for safer ground, our eyrie invaded by other revellers.
With that lifeless romance finally mourned, I began to look around and it was perhaps due to laziness that my eye didn’t rove too far. If someone knows you are involved in something, sees it is lacklustre and says that, they aren’t intending you to. A last, vague instinct for self-preservation kicked in, perhaps due to the memory of clambering down from that roof with a head full of booze. Swinging my leg around, searching for a toe-hold on the shaking ladder, four storeys of air below, as a metaphor for us it was enough to keep anyone wary. Of his fearsome reputation. Of his face, too pretty by half. I was already bruised. Lacking confidence, low on courage, I tried to put him out of mind, determined to keep it friendly.
The summer turned Indian, we headed to the park. Some guys we didn’t know came over and he took his shirt off to run around playing football with them, while we heckled from a blanket. He was looking fit in all senses of the word, until needing someone’s inhaler, followed by a ciggie. His cardigan a vivid red against a white dress shirt. Good shoes. I could even convince myself it would be a harmless piece of fun with a cute, funny boy, despite being held back by knowing all I knew. Still, in spite of the wariness, the film of that summer loops through my daydreams, repeating carefree scenes. It recalls a happiness that couldn’t be guaranteed to last, our laughter and teasing ringing through celebration after celebration. After a birthday ended back at a friend’s flat, he strummed a guitar and I took a picture, trying to preserve a moment when we were relaxed and free – the good times rolling – as if I knew they couldn’t always.
As happens, autumn chased summer but we tried to stick with the same programme. Drinks and music on another balcony, him looking extra sharp in a checked shirt he boasted he had picked up at a vintage sale for a couple of quid. When he got cold, we wrapped him in a girl’s pashmina but he carried it off with rakish charm. He had a row over the phone with a mate who called him a cunt, leaving him so angry that I had to work to calm him down and get him back to effortless again. Everyone told me how great we were together and in response I laughed, and professed that it was not like that at all, he was a good friend. I couldn’t be sure that I was not lying. But when the morning light intruded and we shared a cab together, he made less of an attempt to stay and I made less of an effort to encourage it or not, and we parted. He headed off I know not where and I fell asleep alone.
A day off work, my new shoes arrived, he called in for a drink. We couldn’t decide where to go but I headed off to change anyway, and when I came back, gave a twirl and asked how do I look, joking, he looked serious and said, ‘you look fantastic, you always do’.
Our inability to make a decision drew people to us and it turned into a party. Crossing paths in the bathroom created an opportunity, our arms stole around each other and we kissed. It should have been out of this world, should have had us flying, instead it was not great, my brain was whirring with too many unasked and unanswerable questions. Knowing I had disappointed, unable to explain why, made it so hard to look in his direction. When I headed to bed, he followed but I tried to fall asleep quickly enough to forestall any advance. It shouldn’t be like this – when it couldn’t live up to the long-imagined version. So what should have been an embrace became a push away, something so longed for sabotaged by the lonely person’s fear of letting go. When I woke up he was gone.
By the time we met again we had missed another summer and the leaves had long since fallen in the park. We escaped a braying drinks party, raged at the eternal brash awfulness of other people and headed to his with a bottle of whiskey. I still wasn’t sure of all I wanted to say, rewinding and editing speeches in my head trying to make certain they would capture everything this time, after so many missed chances. ‘There’s something about us’, as the song I played over and over went. But the drink sent the words out of my control, sentences clutching like vines around my throat until I thought I would choke before I got to say them. So instead I threw them to the wind, discovered there is little need for words when you lure a boy into a bedroom to watch a favourite film and use the chill winter air as an excuse to climb under the covers.
Weeks later, I heard him say that if we were together and he had money, we could lie in bed every weekend, listening to records. I said I would be all right, that he could only hurt me if I let him. He told me not to always be such a poet. So I laughed when I whispered ‘run away with me’, to show I wasn’t. We stayed there for hours, moving slowly then quicker, biting and smacking as if we wanted to leave a mark on the other that wouldn’t heal. Allowing our shattered bodies a breather, we looked at an old picture and wondered if it could be of us, before I said it was maybe the people we could be, if we were lucky. He was hating his life, but arrogantly I believed he could be happier with me, my cowardice having fled to such an extent that I could imagine taking on all our demons and winning. I had looked great that night, he said, he always thought I did. Drifting back towards sleep, I told him I couldn’t save him, I couldn’t even save myself, but looking back I wonder if I had that wrong.
After it was supposed to be over, friends again, we drank on a rainy night and talked sardonically of our hopes. Running a bar might prove to be the only viable future, as no matter how bad things got people would always find money for booze. The mood was summer-style light until he mentioned something about his new girl and I winced.
‘Can’t you be happy for me?’ he asked and in response I mimed pulling a knife out of my heart and handed it back to him.
‘I think this is yours.’ Laughing it off again. All the way back to mine we talked about the people we looked down on and how our lives were going to be, before making a failed attempt to fall asleep chastely in the same bed. We woke in the light grey dawn wrapped around each other, worn out but wanting more. It was a drag to get up when the alarm intruded. I left him asleep and got back from work to find, of all things, before going he had made my bed.
As that last summer glowed, we sat on my balcony in sunshine with beers and he mocked my flowers for their campness. We ate and went out. He went for a piss up an alley but a marauding Rottweiler put paid to that idea. He came back around the corner to the sound of barking, ashen-faced, having nearly lost vital bits of himself to its jaws and we laughed manically all the way up the road. Into the gig and the band were rubbish but we stayed anyway and cackled behind our hands. Feeling suddenly bold, I told him we should work it out and he told me he needed psychotherapy. Suppose I should take that as a no then. Yet still we talked. I could never tell him at the time, without getting accused of poetry, how much I loved our conversations. Hate, films, lust, history, music – all covered with the same conviction, the same belief in our ability to reach the other, even when all the evidence was showing that we were missing the basics. I hung from his every word and all he got in return from me was the same five anecdotes.
The last time I saw him was through the back window of a taxi as he walked away up the hill, it was raining again, but all my best memories of him are in sunshine. Lithe, tanned in a way I hardly ever get to be, on his way back from a swim, in a park or a beer garden. If I could make it right, I would take him somewhere it was always summer, where there would permanently be a sweat on our backs as we lay curled up together. We should have been everything to each other but, one short weekend aside, we never were. All the times before and after, when I lay with my nose to his back repeating it in my head, couldn’t make it so. All the times he pulled me nearer to him as he slept didn’t either. The boy I couldn’t keep, the one who always twisted out of reach.
He thought he led me a dance but I was mostly afraid of loving him, scared to give away too much, worried that we would drag the other one down. After that first clumsy kiss, when he asked why not, I said that I was looking for someone to lean on, did that sound like him and he looked at the floor and said no. It was fear that choked us, each one so worried about scoring points and not losing face to throw ourselves into it with abandon. Both terrified of how happy the other one could make us and that it would one day be the end. He accused me once of mentally taking notes, writing it all down so I could turn it into material, but I didn’t as much as he thought I did and so here I am, getting it wrong, having to rely on failing memories and inconclusive fragments. I write emails in my head, where every word is loaded with significance, or not. I think I would give up all the safety and sanity if I could wake to the sight of him asleep next to me one more time. And I am musing on this and much more besides, as the bus turns up the road that leads past the market. The singer in my ears repeats a plaintive ‘I don’t want to get over you, I don’t want to get over you’. I wonder what he looks like now, if his hair is long or short, is he happier. Finally deciding not to wonder anymore I pull my phone out of my pocket and scroll through the phonebook until I get to his number.
Let’s meet for a drink, let’s see if it can be fixed. Let’s start again?