1,626 words – approx. 6 minutes
Clare had sex four and a half times before she decided it wasn’t for her. The final time, she pushed off the man – a floppy-haired art student two years younger than her, who said things like ‘What’s the damage?’ when the bill arrived – and said she wanted him to go. To her surprise he did. Who knew it was so simple, so much like demanding to see the manager?
Since then she’d spent the night with a few men, out of kindness. (They looked so happy! And so relieved when she insisted that no, really, it was fine!) She was sure to keep her contact with any individual man irregular and infrequent, as she only had one excuse – otherwise they would start to wonder about the amount of blood she must be losing. She worried sometimes that they would realise that her mind was elsewhere, and that she was pretending to shake the ketchup out of a particularly obstinate bottle, or that she was counting each stroke and calculating its factors or whether it was a prime number. But telepathy was an inexact science, and embarrassment a powerful silencer of questions.
Eventually she stopped seeing men altogether. The decision was liberating, and led to further lifestyle changes. She signed up to yoga, and started buying her lunches at night. In the bright excitement of the midday markets she could easily spend five pounds, even seven, whereas the tiredness of the evening lent itself more to limp-crusted sandwiches and crisps.
She told none of her friends about any of this, except for Barbara. “Do you think you’re a lesbian?” she asked, as specks of vinaigrette-drizzled tomato fell from her bruschetta.
Clare thought for a moment then pulled a face and shook her head. “None of it appeals.”
Barbara shrugged and tipped three sachets of sweetener into her coffee. She was studying to be a lawyer, so needed to look after her teeth.
Clare hoped that her newfound sexlessness would communicate itself to men in some way, perhaps through pheromones. To make sure, she started to spend time in the independent bookshop on Martin Street and pretend to read Proust. The only men who came in were older, or else bloodless in some undefinable way, and for a while she thought she’d found a way to avoid the routine exhaustions of their attention.
She had not.
The sound that roused her from her book was more of a cough than a greeting. The man was much taller than Clare, who was short and squat, forever being offered seats on the tube that she took gratefully (hey, she was tired). He wore a t-shirt that said Rules are for fools. “You like Proust?” he asked.
“Not really.” She nodded to his t-shirt. “Do you think that’s true?” He made a noise. “If rules are for fools, we shouldn’t follow any of the rules. But wouldn’t that be a rule in itself? The inescapable conclusion is that we’re all fools.”
He smiled with his teeth, as you would at an unfamiliar dog. “Are you a student?”
They met for coffee the next day. In a spirit of openness that seemed like it should accompany new friends she told him about her recent decisions, about yoga, then the lunches, then the sex. He didn’t appear to mind, although in hindsight he had begun to stir his latte more vigorously. In the evening as they drank beer from mismatched glasses he slid his hand up her leg.
“Hey!” she shouted, and then when neither he nor anyone else reacted, “That’s my leg!” as if perhaps he hadn’t realised.
There were similar encounters with two different men in the coming weeks. Each time she was sure she’d been clearer than ever, but it was no use. They were shiny apples that when you turned them were cavernous, grinning like a skull, with a worm for a tongue. She began to scowl at any man in the bookshop, and tut “Men,” during lulls in conversation with her friends.
“It’s not their fault,” said Barbara from the next cubicle. “It’s the pressure society puts them under.” Clare rolled her eyes. It seemed to her that the problem wasn’t that men were under pressure from society, it was that there wasn’t enough pressure, and that they were capable of interpreting whatever she did as meaning whatever they wanted. This felt like an important discovery that could explain a lot of things, although she hadn’t a clue what to do about it.
It would be easier, she decided, if she had a boyfriend. At university she’d reached a deal with her housemate Niall that if men started to dance with her (an awkward, concealing preposition – it was never with her but at her, to her), he would come over and place a hand on her shoulder. “Sorry mate,” the men would say, and wander off, buttoning up their shirts, even though Niall was five foot four and thin as a ryvita. She’d still had to be careful; she wanted a boyfriend for practical reasons, not as a pet. She knew those men, the ones who said “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” then let the next sentence hang there unsaid and the obligation steal over her like nightfall, or the flu.
Barbara was nonplussed. “You want a boyfriend, but you don’t want sex?”
“Exactly,” Clare almost shouted, then apologised as the couple in the row behind hushed her.
“I don’t get it,” said Barbara, and reached for the popcorn.
Her first idea was to try the Rainbow Bar. But they were out and proud now, which she was mostly happy about, although couldn’t help thinking it was little selfish. She endured an awkward night of platonic, sympathetic rejection, before returning despondent to her flat. In truth it had been her only idea. Out of desperation she called her mother. “You should be aloof with men, they’re easily bored,” her mother said after faking a heart attack that Clare had called at all. “Like bears.” She’d moved to Canada when Clare was at university, and now related everything to North American wildlife.
She practiced her ice-queen look in front of the mirror until she made herself uncomfortable. She knew that at first men would see her as a challenge, but she just had to trust in the process, like therapy. Her first opportunity to practice was at dinner with Barbara. “Are you constipated?” Barbara asked, loudly.
“I’m trying to be aloof,” Clare snapped. It was difficult to be aloof when the entire restaurant thought you had recalcitrant bowels.
Nonetheless, she was keen to try her new tactic out for real. There was a new bar in town, and on its first Friday night it was offering a free cocktail to everyone who came. Mojito in hand, she danced.
After a few songs and another mojito she started to get into it, closing her eyes. When she opened them a tall, muscular man was accommodating her moves with his, loosely outlining her body with his hands. Not unattractive, she thought, in the same way a chair could be handsome. She went along with it for a bit, but then felt his hands large and warm on her waist. She moved them away, firmly.
His demeanour changed. He stopped suddenly in front of her, his body like a brick wall. “Cock tease,” he said. Clare ignored him, but he blocked her way.
“Excuse me,” she said, not meeting his eye. She knew he was looking at her; heat radiated from him.
Then another voice: “Are you alright?” It was another man, young and slim, but confident in a way you couldn’t teach. He was looking directly at the man.
The first man looked from him to her, shifting his weight. “She started dancing with me,” he said. Like he was apologising, only not to her, thought a part of Clare that had kept its distance from the scene. Then he did address her: “You want to be careful. People might think you’re a slut.”
“There’s no need for that,” the second man said, but the first man had already gone, the crowds parting briefly then closing behind him like vertical waves.
“Thanks,” she said.
He waved her away. “I hate guys like him. Enjoy your night.”
Later, Clare called Barbara from the nightbus. “You should have got his number!” Barbara screeched when Clare recounted the evening. She’d put Clare on speakerphone, and her voice distorted with volume.
Clare sighed. “That’s not-” But Barbara was drunk, almost certainly on wine (white, of course – less risk of staining), and already starting to build a case.
“You just need to meet the right guy,” she said. “I’ll ask around on Monday, I think one of the guys in accounts just broke up with his girlfriend.”
How could she explain that there was no right guy, or girl? It would sound defeatist, a problem to be solved, when it was just a fact. She sat the phone on the seat next to her and listened to the rhythm of Barbara’s oblivious voice, her head juddering against the window. Eventually the indistinct sounds rose to a climax then stopped, as if waiting for applause.
“Clare?” She could just about make out words if they were separated by beats of silence. “Clare?” Her stop was coming up, but nothing was stopping her from staying on until it reached the end of its route and turned around to do it all again. She could use the money she’d been saving on lunch to pay each day’s fare. She might get in the paper.
“Clare?” There was a rustle as Barbara brought the phone to her ear. “Are you there? Hello? Hello? Hello?”