I’m writing again. Been a while since things have been a little odd in my personal life.
To the readers;
While this story does have sex eventually, there is a fairly long build up with a focus on the characters and the narrative in general; just so you’re warned. It’ll take a while to get there, but hopefully it’s worth it to many of you.
A note about the names. Lyssa is meant to be pronounced like the “lis” in “list;” “Lis-sah,” rather than “lee-sa.” As for the actual protagonist, Arun is pronounced “ah-rune,” but with short “ah.” So perhaps “a-rune” is more accurate.
I’ll be trying to write more now.
I hope you all enjoy this. It’s the first story I’ve managed to complete in a while, even though there are several others unfinished but waiting for me.
Thanks for reading.
— — — — —
It was about an hour into the party and it took me about a minute to figure out why Gabrielle had left me to join the group by myself. I managed to catch her sigh and the eye roll first; then she wished me luck with following the conversation.
When it came to the conversation itself, I couldn’t quite figure out if I was too stoned, or not stoned enough. However, I was thankful that the painkilling effects were active. The pain that usually accompanied the scar running down the left side of my back was almost unnoticeable.
There were three of them in the group in front of me, all stoned and standing with relaxed postures, discussing consciousness. I couldn’t work out what they were trying to say; something about what it was or whether it could be transferred or shared with someone else. I hadn’t ever given it much thought before this. There was mention of the mind/body discussion and Cartesian dualism, at which point I started feeling as though maybe I didn’t want to be standing here after all. It wasn’t that I didn’t like philosophical discussions; it was more that I never felt I had a proper grip on anything like that. I always felt like there was something missing in what was being said.
When I looked around to see if Gabrielle was anywhere nearby, I caught her glancing at me and flashing a grin. She was eating out of a crisps packet, talking to a couple that I hadn’t seen since secondary school. I knew I’d have to go greet them at some point, even if it was something I didn’t particularly want to do.
Actually, I only came to the party with the hope of seeing four people; Gabrielle, Grain and Amelia, but most of all, Alice.
I heard my name and looked back to see all three of the others looking at me.
“I said, what do you think?” Alan asked me. He was plump, dark haired and had one of the most confident grins I’d ever seen on anyone; helped by the years of wearing braces in school. I could still remember a time when Alan refused to smile because he was too self-conscious about his left incisor looking prominent.
“About what?” I asked, realising I’d completely lost track of the conversation.
Alan, James and Gordon glanced at each other. Then Alan raised an eyebrow at me and said, “About what we’ve been discussing!”
“Maybe he’s too stoned to follow,” James commented.
I didn’t bother to contradict this notion because I didn’t really care about the discussion. Yet, somehow, I could not find a way to escape them in a manner with which I was comfortable. They might have noticed I clearly didn’t want to be near them and as stupid as I thought it was, I felt a little guilty about this.
“I just don’t quite get what you’re discussing,” I told them.
“What do you mean?” James asked with that famous look of his; the one that was designed to make you feel stupid when you couldn’t join in with him. It never worked on me.
I considered carrying on with the discussion but the truth was, I had never really felt fully comfortable around any of them, even when we were all in school and I realised all I really wanted to do now was leave them to it. A tiny bit of the Dread kicked in and I felt it in my stomach. I had to think of a way to extricate myself from this without feeling too anxious.
I said, “To be honest, I stopped listening. I started thinking about something else related to what you guys were saying.”
“What’s that?” James asked.
“I was just thinking about whether there are different cultural definitions of ‘consciousness.’ I mean, I figured since you all were looking at it from a Western point of view, maybe there’s a totally different way of looking at it all. Maybe something that’d make more sense to me.”
“Or maybe you just don’t get it,” James said, that look of his getting worse.
Amazingly, that was all it took to make me say more. “That’s possible. But you realise all of you just made a bunch of assumptions while you were talking about it?”
“What do you mean?” Alan asked.
“Well, first of all, the whole thing about transferring your consciousness to someone else’s body. I think that’s sort of impossible unless you rewire someone else’s brain.”
“Why would it be impossible?”
“Well, no one knows what consciousness really is. I mean, no one knows what makes it manifest, but there are things that happen that shut it down so I’m guessing it has a biological basis; that it’s somehow tethered to the brain or something, you know? Like, when people get anaesthetised, their consciousness gets shut down until they wake up again. And I guess since a person is their memories and all of that depends on their experiences and how those experiences wire their brains, then their consciousness must be different to anyone else’s, right? And maybe if you tried to transfer it, or share it, it’d mean having to rewire someone else’s brain too so they could actually experience it the way it’s meant to… or something. Or maybe it just wouldn’t be compatible with another brain. Like it’d cause a total meltdown in that other brain.”
I wasn’t even sure if I’d gone off on a tangent somewhere. Part of me wished that Grain was there. He had a habit of being quiet and thinking through concepts and ideas before he tried articulating them in a manner which was much easier to understand.
“Anyway, all I heard from any of you is that you’re talking about things which just involve having to assume a lot about the mechanisms involved in what makes anyone conscious. And, I don’t know… I just don’t get it. Because I don’t even know what makes someone conscious, let alone ideas about what you can do with that.”
Alan, James and Gordon were looking at me, clearly a little annoyed at what I’d said. I wasn’t sure what to do in this situation and the Dread started creeping in again.
“Well… I guess he has a point,” Gordon said quietly.
“We know we’re conscious,” James said, but this time his voice was slightly less sure.
“I’m not disputing that,” I said. “I’m just talking about the whole transferring and sharing thing. We know we’re conscious, but what does that even mean? What makes us conscious? What makes us look at ourselves and know we’re looking at ourselves?” I asked.
No one said anything.
Then I saw her.
I noticed straight away that she had heavy eye make up on and dark, dark lipstick. The best way I could have described the colour was some sort of midnight red, when really it was probably just a shade with a name with which I was unfamiliar. She told me she wore her make up like that as a sort of defence against people; a mask, I suppose. I never told her I loved the look of dark lipstick on a woman, especially on someone like her, who had porcelain skin.
I hadn’t seen Alice for about five years or so. She was holding a bottle of beer, barely suppressing a smile while looking at me, leaned up against the wall just a few feet away. I had no idea when she had arrived. I smiled lightly because it was all I could think of to do. Alice smiled back and seeing that made me smile inside, and that inside smile was uncommon.
I suddenly thought about the last time I’d seen her, in her small flat, lying on the floor after having smoked a joint and staring at both the light bulbs in her living room ceiling, imagining they were both opposite poles with lines of attraction drawn between them. Somewhere in between listening to her voice talking about her upcoming modelling jobs, I somehow managed to replace the light bulbs with an image of me and one of her, with lines in between but never touching. Later, the image became her stretching her hand out to me.
When she’d asked me what I was thinking about that night, I’d just closed my eyes and told her nothing. She was just a friend then; she was just a friend now. Even being in her flat that night was a first time event which had only occurred because she was leaving town soon after.
The way Alice and I had got to know each other was unusual, to say the least. We were at the same school together and one year we’d had one major shared experience which I suppose imprinted a bond in us, though my mind spent ages downplaying it. The intermittent muscle pain in my back had a specific cause; when Alice and I were around thirteen, she was almost hit by a car. I saw it coming and reacted immediately without thinking. I pushed her out of the way and got hit instead. The car sent me flying into a pile of left out rubbish from a construction site. The things had overflowed from a skip onto the ground and I found myself getting hurled into a pile of metal, glass and hard brick. The pain was horrible. Thankfully I passed out.
Alice came to see me in the hospital often. I never let it be known how much I was hurting or how bad it was. It had fucked up my back, but more than that, it had affected my neurological system. My spinal cord had been a little bruised and some of the surrounding nerves were also affected. The scar tissue was unpleasant to look at; lots of deep ones and a few scars which stretched easily half a foot or so. My back was a criss-cross of pain.
It wasn’t as bad now but I still didn’t like to see it. I had never allowed anyone to look at me topless, except for my mother and sister. Not even Alice, from whom I hid the truth about the pain. I think sometimes Grain and Amelia suspected something was physically wrong, but they never asked or said anything. Gabrielle had figured it out early, though, and I only knew because she let it slip once when she was drunk. She never mentioned it after that because she was following my lead in keeping silent.
Alice had felt so guilty about her carelessness that I couldn’t really deal with making things awkward by showing her how much it had really affected me. Somehow, that ended up extending to being silent about it to everyone else I knew.
For a while after I left hospital and went back to school, Alice would often be near me and speak to me as much as she could. She was one of the more popular kids at school and it meant that I got attention from other kids I didn’t want to know. She did notice that eventually and made an effort to make sure I got space from them.
The problem was, along with the physical pain, it seemed as though the accident had left a bit of psychological trauma. This would seem obvious in hindsight, but at the time, I wasn’t really aware of that particular consequence. I found myself withdrawing from her and everyone else until one day I apparently had some sort of breakdown. At least that’s what people called it. To me, it was simply me moving away from the world a little and quite honestly, I don’t have much of a memory of that period of my life.
Sometimes I wonder if the breakdown was inevitable. I never associated what happened with the word ‘trauma,’ and I often found myself wondering whether I would’ve lost sense of who I was if I’d never had that association presented to me. That thing about self-fulfilling prophecies and all.
I was jerked back to the present by the sound of Gordon’s voice. He was shaking his head and saying, “Fuck this. I don’t know what you’re on about. I’m getting another drink.”
The others suddenly agreed and walked away, leaving Alice alone with me and letting me breathe in relief from finally being free of them. She quickly turned her head and moved out of the way so they wouldn’t see her face. I watched them go without much interest, though now I was wondering why they’d suddenly decided to stop the discussion.
“Maybe you got too deep for them,” Alice said in her low voice, as if she’d known what I was thinking.
I looked at her. “You think so? I wasn’t even sure what I was trying to say. I think I might have smoked too much weed.”
“I have no idea, Arun, but it’s nice to see you haven’t locked up your brain.”
“I don’t think I could, even if I wanted to.”
She smiled and came up close to me. Then suddenly she put her arms around me and squeezed. It was a real hug and it made me feel a twinge of pain in my upper back but I ignored that because I was more in awe of how warm and firm her hug felt. I was usually awkward with hugs so I settled for putting my arms around her and lightly pressing before letting go after a few seconds, which felt a little more perfunctory. She held on for a bit more and let go finally, smiling as she faced me properly.
“It’s so good to see you.” I could hear the emotion in her voice.
“Yeah. And things are going pretty well for you.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m already over it.”
“I just want to go back to uni. Isn’t that weird? I thought it was what I wanted, you know, modelling and all. Now, I’m just sick of it.”
“At least you did it. You went for it and tried it out. Got something out of it.”
“Yeah. I suppose.”
She’d been discovered through an agency and somehow managed to shoot to prominence within a few months in the more specialist model scene involving pin up idols, burlesque and Goth-themed magazines. Alice had always had model looks for as long as I could remember, even though I didn’t really notice until I was around eighteen or so. That was nearer the time we were going to be leaving school for university and the reality of all that time apart was becoming more tangible.
Her hair seemed even more voluminous now. It was dark and straight. Her eyes were smouldering and light grey. She had a long neck and a curvy body. In fact, it seemed now she had gained weight since I’d last seen a picture of her on a poster; though it was probable that the poster had been a manipulated image. She was about my height too, and I wasn’t very tall at all. I used to wonder if that would work against her, but obviously not.
It’d been five years and she looked even more beautiful than ever.
“What you thinking about?” She asked suddenly.
“Hmm? Oh. Nothing.”
“I see that hasn’t changed either.”
She smiled and shook her head at me. “Nothing.” The tone of voice was almost mocking.
It felt familiar. I never had quite figured out why she bothered to call me every six months or so for a talk, despite the fact we were only close initially after the accident. Even then, I’d drifted away from her afterwards. She just took my number one day and started using it. She never expected me to reciprocate, though I did try when I remembered now and then. Occasionally I even got lucky enough to speak to her for a lengthy amount of time, given how busy she was.
I suppose in some ways she didn’t want to lose touch and had realised the best way to maintain it would be in a relatively impersonal way, like phone or email. I was glad she’d done that.
“Come on, time to get a drink for you.” She took hold of my arm and pulled me with her toward the kitchen.
A couple of hours later I was watching them all interact. More people had turned up, which meant that Gabrielle kept close to me. If it was her way of keeping an eye on me, she wasn’t very subtle about it. Sometimes I still wondered if it had been a good idea to mention the Dread to her but at least it was more comfortable to have her there and not have to face dealing with most of the others.
Enough people had turned up that everyone felt obligated to mingle and talk to people they hadn’t seen for a while in some cases. It also meant that Alice had soon attracted attention from a myriad of different people, mostly the men, who one by one re-acquainted themselves with her. She seemed to be taking it in her stride from what I could see and not for the first time, I wondered if it was something that happened to her often.
Despite my initial misgivings about coming, I was actually enjoying myself. Seeing some people had filled me with some kind of emotional warmth.
After all that, though, I ended up staring at the way the light hit Alice’s creamy skin on the shoulder. She was wearing a string strap tank top that just about showed off her midriff. It meant I could see some of her back too. I had always liked the curve of it. In the dim light, there was a shadow going across her back which accentuated the contours of her flesh.
She seemed to be taking the attention politely from a group of men that included James and Gordon. I could tell she probably wanted to be left alone but Alice had always been quite polite about things like that. I made the assumption that this was something she was used to; it didn’t once occur to me to go and rescue her from them. After a little more talking to different people, it was around midnight that I decided it was getting too rowdy for me and I told Gabrielle I was leaving.
She took me to the hallway and then next to her front door, shutting the door to the party room behind her so the sound was dimmed.
“Why are you going already?” She asked. I heard the concern in her voice.
“I’m tired. And… it’s midnight.”
“I tried to tell Jean not to invite so many people, but you know what she’s like,” Gabrielle said, correctly guessing yet another reason why I felt I wanted to leave.
“It’s your cousin’s party, Gab. She can invite as many people as she likes.”
“Hey, it was supposed to be my party too. Well, sort of.”
“You didn’t invite that many people.”
“Hence the ‘sort of.'” She narrowed her eyes at me. Then she asked, “You sure you have to go?”
“Well. Hmm.” There was something she wasn’t saying. I raised my eyebrows in a question. She did the same in reply, almost mockingly, and then relaxed her face and shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
“Okay. Well, I’ll speak to you soon, okay?”
“Hey, did you at least say goodbye to her?” She asked.
“Alice. Did you say goodbye to her?”
“Well, no. She’s pretty busy with all the guys around her. I didn’t want to disturb her. Besides, it probably would’ve taken ages.”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at me and closed her mouth in a thin line for a moment.
“What’s with the disapproving look?” I asked, suddenly nervous at seeing it. I thought I’d said or done something wrong without knowing it.
“She’d love it if you disturbed her right now.”
I shrugged. “If you say so… but she still looks busy. And I want to leave.”
Gabrielle turned to look back at the party room and then looked at me with a resolute expression. “Go wait outside.”
“Wait. Outside. Please. Simple enough to understand, no?”
“… Okay, fine. I’ll be outside.”
Outside was balmy. It was a few weeks into summer and already the temperatures were reaching the heights that most people couldn’t tolerate. I didn’t mind at all, but even I had my limits. I suspected by August, I would be tired of the weather even if I preferred it to the cold. I waited for a few minutes before I started thinking about leaving, whether or not Gabrielle was coming back and just around the time I was thinking of calling her on her phone instead, Alice appeared at the door. She turned to look at someone inside I couldn’t see and then waved briefly before shutting the door behind her as she stepped out into the warm night.
“So, you were going to go without even saying goodbye to anyone?” She asked with an amused look.
“I said bye to Gabrielle. Everyone else was um… busy. I guess,” I said. For some reason, it seemed a very flimsy excuse now that she stood in front of me. For a moment, I stared because of the way her skin was being lit up by the strong moonlight.
“I’ll give you a lift home,” She said. “Or a lift wherever you’re going.”
“Oh, it’s okay, you don’t have to–“
“I’d like to, Arun. I’d like to spend some time with you, if that’s okay?”
It sounded like a serious question. I faltered, wondering whether I really wanted company at that point, especially because of the way she was looking at me. There was no smile or amusement; just a touch of nerves. It seemed out of place.
“Yeah, that’s fine. Uh, where’s your car?”
She smiled lightly and jerked her head towards the left. “I parked it up on a side road over there. Come on.”
“You have fun tonight?” I asked her as we walked down the road.
“It was nice seeing some people. Been ages. Shame about the cloud of testosterone.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at that description.
“Took me forever to kind of say my round of goodbyes. That’s why you had to wait so long. Sorry about that. I should have just taken a leaf out of your book and vanished like a mysterious stranger of the night!” She said with a theatrical flourish involving her hands waving off into the distance.
“It’s okay. Does that happen a lot?”
“What? A bunch of men wanting to hang around me in a big circle?” She asked, flashing a grin as we turned the corner. “That sounds incredibly dirty, doesn’t it?” She laughed. “It doesn’t happen a lot, no. But… tonight, I don’t know. Must be something in the air.”
“My car’s just up there. Where do you want to go?”
“I was just thinking of home.”
“Ah,” She nodded. Then, “You hungry?”
It wasn’t until she asked that I realised it’d been hours since I ate. “Actually, a little bit, yeah.”
“I know a 24-hour diner if you want to get a bite to eat?”
“Sure. If you’re okay with driving us there.”
Alice gave me a look. “I have no plans for tomorrow. If you wanted to, I’d drive halfway across England with you right now.”
She looked so serious that I couldn’t really think of any reply. I nodded instead and thankfully she finally stopped in front of a car. I stared down at it.
“That’s your car?”
“Beautiful, isn’t he?”
“She. Cars are female,” I said automatically. Years of listening to my uncle rave on about cars had obviously had an effect.
“He. My car is ALL MAN!” She said loudly. Then she looked around in case someone had heard. “I forgot how late it is.”
“He’s beautiful. A BMW i8? You are clearly making more money than I realised.”
She grinned and unlocked the doors. We sat inside and got comfortable.
“Actually, an uncle of mine is an investment banker or… I don’t know. Something like that. One of those arseholes that everyone hates because they’re making money for rich people who don’t need it. He gave me some good advice on investments after I made my first year of money.”
“I just hope none of it was dodgy money. I don’t think it was. I don’t think he’d do that to me.”
“But he would to others?” I asked, looking around at the interior. The car was ridiculously comfortable and the dashboard had clean lines with rows of buttons and a couple of screens. The area behind the steering wheel was all digital, something I had no idea about and was surprised to see a screen light up with the speedometer on display as she started up the car.
“Who knows with people who worship money?” Alice shrugged.
I gave her a dubious look.
She caught it and smiled. “Relax, will you? I can promise you this car was not bought with dirty money. My uncle’s not that kind of person. His brother-in-law was, though. He’s in prison for fraud.”
“It’s one of those family things no one talks about but it gets awkward at reunions. His wife didn’t show up for a couple of years in a row until my mother had a go at her and told her it wasn’t her fault. It was a shock to everyone, really.”
“That’s unfortunate,” I said, unsure of what else to say. I still couldn’t quite believe I was sitting there with Alice of all people. The seat was even okay on my back, which was feeling a little tired. I wondered how long we would be out. Having said that, the car was so comfortable once she started driving, that the desire to go home had nearly disappeared altogether.
“Did you have a good time?” She asked, turning onto the main street.
“It was okay.”
“You still have that thing about not wanting to be around people?”
“… It’s a lot better now than it was before.”
She must’ve sensed I didn’t really want to talk about this, because she turned the focus on herself. “I feel like that occasionally these days. There’s nothing like being exposed to the camera in nearly your entire birthday suit that makes you want space sometimes.”
“Uh… I wouldn’t know.”
She gave me a sheepish look. “Sorry. Too much information, huh?”
“It’s okay. It wasn’t too much. I just… I’d never thought about it before, I guess. Sometimes I forget you’ve even done nude work.”
“I always figure that’s most of the reason I end up with men trying to have a go.” She paused briefly and then slowly said, “Um… I’m kind of curious about something.”
“Have you ever actually seen any of, you know, those kinds of pictures of me? The nude photo-sets and all.”
“Actually, no. I’ve seen the first few pictures of some of the photo-sets but never anything nude. In fact, not even underwear.”
“… Wow. I’m kind of shocked.”
For some reason that seemed like an odd thing to say to me. “Why?”
“Well, I don’t know… I just… Actually,” She grinned, “I don’t know whether to be offended or not.” Then she laughed somewhat shyly.
I had no idea how to react to this, so I didn’t say anything.
“So, what stopped you looking?” Alice asked.
“I…” Good question. I had no real answer to it. Why did I never look? Did I just not want to see her? Be reminded of her? Or was it just because it seemed like I’d be invading her privacy? Then again, how many people must’ve seen her nude in those poses?
“I don’t know. I think maybe I felt like it was too intrusive. Like I was doing something wrong.”
“That’s actually kind of sweet.”
“Yeah. But you are aware that thousands of people have probably seen those pictures?”
“Sure, but most of them aren’t your friends.”
She turned her head briefly and glanced at me with an odd expression I couldn’t decipher. Then she was looking forward again, looking deep in thought. I felt like asking her what she was thinking about but this was a conversation I’d never had with anyone and I didn’t quite know which way to go with it.
“You make a good point,” She said eventually. “I suppose maybe some of my friends have seen it. Maybe that doesn’t really matter though. Well… just so you know, I really don’t mind if you look.”
“… I will keep that in mind.”
She gave me a grin which was slightly unsettling after what she’d said, but in a good way. If that is possible. I found myself forcing my eyes to look out at the houses and high street shops we were passing.
“Did you have a favourite?” She asked.
“You said you’d seen the first few pictures of a few shoots I’d done. I wondered if you had a favourite.”
I felt too embarrassed to meet her eyes. “Did you really just ask me that?”
“Yes, Arun, I most certainly did. Judging from that reaction I’d say I touched a nerve or something,” She said in a playful tone.
“A nerve? No, I just… I mean… most of your photo-sets were kind of… I mean they had a sexual focus.”
“Didn’t stop you from looking at a few.”
“I feel like I’ve just put myself into a huge dark room and I can’t see the exit.”
She laughed. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. I’m just curious. It just occurred to me that we’ve never really spoken about that kinda thing.”
“Well, just your sexual side, I mean. Or mine, for that matter.”
She was right. It wasn’t something we ever really touched on. That made sense though. After all, we were friends, not anything else. So, we wouldn’t talk about things like that, would we? Unless, of course, this was another social convention that had flown over my head.
“I wasn’t aware we were talking about our sexuality…” I ventured carefully. “Just your pictures.”
“Well, I happen to think whatever you tell me, it’ll reveal a bit about yours.”
This was something I agreed with to an extent. After all, if I’d seen pictures of her that involved her expressing her sexual side to an audience of voyeurs and I’d preferred some over others, it wouldn’t be a hard leap to judge that I had certain preferences where it came to what women wore in sexual contexts.
Alice was stunning. In part, I think I’d never bothered looking beyond the first few pictures of any of her photo-sets because not only did it feel intrusive but I was also certain that I wouldn’t ever really get the images out of my head. Without even realising it, I was already rifling through my memories of the ones I had seen and what she’d been wearing in them.
There was a set where her curves were covered by a short red dress with straps and a hem that came down to just above her knees, including a fair amount of cleavage that had made me realise that she was more well-endowed now than she had been before she left. Another where she wore a black dress that hugged her figure all the way from collarbone to thighs; seemed to be made of a stretchy cotton blend. Another where she wore a corset and a pair of jeans. She’d done over three hundred shoots in the past five years and I had only briefly seen the beginning of perhaps twenty at most.
“Let me guess, now you just can’t stop thinking about me naked,” Alice said. I could practically hear the smile in her voice.
That made me so nervous that I immediately tensed up as I looked at her and felt a shock of pain shoot across my mid back. I just about managed to stop myself from crying out but I couldn’t stop the wince that creased my face. Thankfully, she was focused on the road in front of us and didn’t see anything.
Then, for some reason I could not fathom, I told her. “There was one you did about two years ago where you wore a black dress that was almost like a second skin. Exposed your shoulders. Neckline went across the collarbones and it ended mid-thigh. Looked like stretchy cotton.”
I was sure she was looking at me when I finished but I didn’t meet her eyes. I was still surprised I’d even told her.
“I liked that dress too,” She said eventually. “I still have it.”
“Had to wear nipple coverings in the shoot, though. Otherwise the dress made some things… kinda obvious. And we weren’t really going for that in that particular shoot. Besides, I guess a lot of guys like the slow reveal.”
I didn’t ask what she meant but I could guess. There’d been another set where I’d seen briefly that she had prominent nipples that cast little shadows in contrast to the bright red of the tight top she was wearing at the time. I tried to force the image out of my mind and tried to replace it with something else. I didn’t really need to go down this road; it was inappropriate.
We were both silent for nearly a minute and it felt like forever in the small space of the car. I suppose that meant it was an awkward silence, but I didn’t feel awkward within myself. I wasn’t sure about her. I didn’t know whether to bring it up at the risk of actually making the atmosphere awkward.
Alice broke the silence. Maybe she’d been thinking the same things.
“I need to come up with some kind of strategy to extricate myself from situations like that. I mean, usually I can, you know? But I mean at a party or something, because there isn’t really anywhere to go when you’re at someone’s place.”
It took me a few seconds to realise she was talking about earlier in the night when she’d been surrounded by those men. “You could’ve told them to just leave you alone?” I suggested.
“Nah… That feels too rude. For some reason, I’m still too polite for my own good. Amazing considering the complete wankers I’ve met in the last few years.”
“Oh?” My curiosity was now alive. “Like?”
“Oh, just a few agents and directors and photographers. Some of them are arrogant fuckers. That doesn’t even include the couple of boyfriends I had.”
“I thought you got on with both of them.”
“I did before I broke up with them.”
“They turned into a couple of twats. It’s amazing what breaking up will do to people.”
I shrugged. I’d only had two relationships so far in my life and both had ended more or less on amicable terms. I stared at the glow of the lights from the radio, mesmerised by the brightness, while she glanced at me a few times. I could just about see her doing that, but could not think of a way to react. It’d been so long since I last saw her, I was actually beginning to feel a little nervous in her company. It’d been fine at the party because there were so many other people around. The frequency of her glances made me wonder if she was feeling nervous too.
“Are you okay, Arun?”
“Okay. You just looked deep in thought.”
“What do I look like when I’m deep in thought?”
She opened her mouth and then shut it. She focused on the road momentarily, then glanced at me and said, “Like you’re deep in thought.”
I raised my eyebrow at that and she laughed. Somehow it lessened the nerves.
Several minutes later, we were at an all-night American style diner on an A road just outside of London.
She’d ordered herself a burger and fries and was happily munching away on them. She always picked up one fry at a time and always took at least two bites to eat each one, no matter how short it was. I found it fascinating. I wondered if it was a habit she’d picked up from watching her weight during her modelling career.
I was about to ask her about this, but she spoke first. “Arun, how have you been? Seriously.”
I paused at this question. There seemed to be a depth to it I couldn’t quite figure out. “Fine. Why do you ask?”
“Gabby was acting a little funny about you when you left.”
I was reminded of the feeling I had that Gabrielle had wanted to say something to me. I shook my head. “I wouldn’t know what that’s about.”
“Hmm. So, I have several weeks of doing nothing before I figure out what I want to study and so on.”
“Several weeks of doing nothing sounds great,” I said, looking at the dessert menu.
“It does. I bet it’ll get old after a couple of weeks though. Maybe I need a year out from everything and I can just spend it messing about. Arun, how often do you work?”
“Part-time; five days a week at most, few hours a day. Why?”
“Oh, just wondering. Now that I’m back, I was thinking maybe it’s likely we’d see each other often.” She said this in a slightly quieter voice and when I looked up from the menu I could see she was keeping eye contact to a minimum.
She had a look on her face that I didn’t quite recognise. Then again, I figured there was probably a lot of things about her I had to learn, since I hadn’t seen her for so long. I mean things you couldn’t learn from talking to someone on the phone; the way their body moved, their mannerisms and any little quirks they might express sometimes. Things that can change over time.
“Where do you live, by the way, Arun?”
“Ealing. I’m sure I’ve told you this before.”
“You have, but I’ve never seen your flat. Gonna have to rectify that.”
As much as I wanted her to visit and see my flat, the prospect of it made me anxious. I was very protective of my space. It was the one place where I could completely relax and not have to worry about how I might come across to someone in terms of my pain and body.
“That’d be cool,” I said, settling on the ice cream and looking around for the waitress.
“She’s gone into the back,” Alice told me.
I looked at her. “I’m feeling like ice cream.”
“The ice cream here isn’t that great. I know another place a few minutes from here.”
“Sounds good. How is it you know all these places to go and eat?”
Alice grinned. “Some of us do go out sometimes, you know? It’s called ‘having a life.'”
I couldn’t help but smile at that. “Yeah. Okay, fair enough. I should try that sometime; having a life.”
She nodded. “It’s something that can get interesting quite quickly. You know, if you want, I can show you a few places in the city and even around north-west London that I bet you’d like a lot.”
There it was again; the desire she had to spend her time with me. It seemed strange to me that she would be so intent on it. It appeared she was trying to be nonchalant about it but that look I’d seen earlier on her face had appeared again; the one I didn’t recognise. Of course, it’d been so long since I regularly met up with people that maybe this was perfectly normal and I was simply being paranoid or over-thinking. Or something along the lines anyway.
“Don’t count on me being willing all of the time,” I warned her. I figured it’d be at least prudent to let her know I was reluctant. “I’m not a very going out person.”
She shrugged and smiled. “Maybe I can find some way to convince you to be.”
“I’m sure I can think of a few things,” Alice replied with a strange smile. There was something else to the smile and I don’t know if it was deliberate, but she leaned forward a little. Either I was getting good at noticing body language or I was over-thinking her movement; the latter was more likely. Maybe she was flirting? I don’t know but I said nothing to that in return. I just gave her a nod and tried to think of something else other than suddenly noticing the hint of cleavage showing above the neckline.
We left that place a few minutes later. I insisted on paying, since she was giving me a lift everywhere and she let me do it. When we got to the ice cream place, I ordered a few scoops of chocolate while she stared at the menu, sighing.
“I think I ate too much,” She said, putting the menu down.
“You only had half your burger.”
“I know, but I’m not used to it. I wish I’d just had none of it now. Then I could have some ice cream.”
I suddenly felt guilty about the idea of eating in front of her, despite having had very little in the diner.
She caught the look on my face and laughed. “It’s fine. Just eat the ice cream when it comes and enjoy. I don’t mind at all.”
“If you’re sure…”
“It’s fine. Honestly.”
The ice cream arrived a couple of minutes later and I started eating, enjoying the cool chocolate in contrast to the warmth around me. Alice simply watched me eat, occasionally grinning and shrugging at me every time I looked at her and asked what she was thinking.
“I know you’re thinking about something,” I said eventually.
“Because usually you’re the one who keeps talking while I listen.”
“I know, I know! But… this feels different, don’t you think?”
“In a bad way?”
“No. Just different. I’m so used to just hearing your voice and not actually seeing you. I feel like I have to be hyper aware of how you use your body or something.”
That made me feel wary. The last thing I wanted was her hyper-awareness noticing anything off about the way I was moving. So far though, she had said nothing and I felt reasonably relaxed, though I knew pretty soon I would want to be on my own and lying down.
“Do you have a girlfriend, Arun?” She asked suddenly. Maybe to fill in the silence.
“What happened with that girl you told me about?”
“You mean the one I mentioned last year? Whose name I can’t even remember right now?”