Originally published in ARNA, the Sydney University Arts Society Literary Journal.
I stood at his porch. I waited, unsure and un-remembering if I had already pressed the buzzer. My hands shook with my own mild irritation at my nerves; he opened the door. He laughed in an emerald button-up with the sleeves rolled just past the wrists. A strategic dash of skin, a vague promise of more to come.
He asked me in, even took my coat; it looked nice, hung up next to his.
A home cooked meal as a first date. He leads me past the hallway’s dimly yellow walls and into the living room’s autumnal scheme, a Wes Anderson-inspired IKEA set. He seemed like the kind of person who would regularly try to casually describe things as quaint, reserving the word for the most sincere of compliments.
Later, I couldn’t remember pressing the buzzer. The physicality of stretching my arm out to reach it seemed so bold. Had I pressed it? Or had my nerves vibrated out in pulsating circles, brushing weakly but consistently through the air, repeatedly hitting him like a nagging thought, until he walked, on a hunch, to the door.
He scratched his bare wrists and closed his eyes as he talked, “invited” me to sit down at the “breakfast bar.” He walked around to the other side to stir a pot. He’d always wanted to host a cooking show, he joked, choking on his words a little.
“I brought wine!” I hold it up from my bag — he smiles, possibly not catching the mistake. I poured, he stirred a pumpkin purée. His head was drooped, focusing down into the pot, looking into a distraction of autumnal colours and comforts, and away from the lack of conversation. I asked if I could help. He said that since you were busy seasoning, I should add some spice to the conversation, looking up to smile.
Were…were his hands shaking? And… was his pulse fighting against the moisturised, carefully and cleanly shaved skin of his neck? Bruising it from the inside while he tried to stay as calm and pale as possible, against the child-like tantrum of a heart pumping blood furiously. As if to create enough motion to propel itself out of his body, out of this date.
This is called projecting.
I spot a bookshelf, a carefully placed conversation starter. I walk to it, wine in hand, asked if he’d read this, that, what he thought, his favourite quotes, if any. I am calming down, he is speaking more, I am finding out things about him without being painfully routine. Unless, this is a rehearsed recipe of a night- take your home, a stranger, wine, a heater, a bookshelf. Just add water.
He’s laughing at one of my jokes, so i laugh too. Is that conceited? Am I conceited?
On the bottom shelf there are photo albums, regularly dusted, or maybe just regularly used. I stand there, unsure if I can ask. Is it too forward, or forward enough? Is this how I show commitment and interest? I can do this. I can do it in a subtle, fun way;
“As if you still have photo albums? Do you have a dark room too?”
He laughs. I am funny. He says he likes to print out his favourites — it’s nicer than scrolling through albums online. I’ve walked back, now, to the other side of the counter. He stops talking and raises the wooden spoon to his mouth, trying some. He smiles and gestures it towards me. I lean over the bench. Sorry, “breakfast bar.” He puts the spoon near my mouth — now closer than we’ve been all night — and as I try some, he says,
“It just feels more… intimate.”
He is smiling from behind glasses with warm eyes, before it — the smile — escapes across his face, tensing his muscles to prepare for a loud laugh that when it builds up, echoes a little, like it’s laughing at itself.
“The photo albums, I mean.”
I float back towards the bookcase, flicking quickly through the one I’ve picked up, each page no more than a blur of washed out tones and hues of a homely and personal space. I am hesitant to look more carefully, feeling as though I’ve accidentally chosen a particularly private, or even sad, album, but when I look at him, it seems okay.
There are captions for each photo, written in different coloured pens, organised by a code I can’t understand. ‘Moving Day, 2013’ in black. ‘Family visit’ and ‘Sunday Afternoons’ in blue. ‘A June Night In’ and ‘Nic’s Birthday Party’ in red.
In the moving day photos, there’s a constant smile on some guy’s face who I guess is Nic. This guy Nic, some stranger, stares directly up at me from a photo, resolved, exhausted, excited. He’s standing in the middle of an apartment, looking past the camera and towards the person — my date — holding it.
‘A June Night In’ has Nic centred again, looking up from a white couch with a gentle and effortless affection. My fingers flick over all the photos of ‘this guy Nic,’ who is clearly not ‘this guy’ or ‘some guy.’ Yet I still think of him with those dismissive phrases while I finish looking through a chronology of their relationship, though when I reach the last of the colour coded pages, their end remains undisclosed. Without a break-up photo shoot, it — and everything attached — is hidden and stored away somewhere I can’t casually leaf through. Maybe, hopefully, to be revealed between conversations stretching over the months to come.
But hey, it’s only our first date.
When we move to the white couch reclined out in corners, our bodies direct themselves, feet pointing like magnets towards each other. I couldn’t tell if the incense was trying to mask my senses away from the lingering expectations circling the room. It only seemed to weigh them down, adding a thickness to the air, capturing the host’s earnestness, maiming an excited timidity to a slow, awkwardly obvious crawl. Like someone learning to walk again.
His blood red socks seep out of his jeans towards me. I say they’re cute and tap his foot with mine. He smiles and taps my foot back I am sitting where Nic sat. I press my foot against his through our socks. Mine are grey for his colours to flourish against. Our socks become static-y from the friction of hesitation — they rub together with no direction. So I stand up, and he follows my lead.
My coat hangs next to his for the rest of the night and some of the morning too, until he goes to work. He talks a little in his sleep, away from me and towards the wall. But while he lay curled up with his back towards me, his murmurings are incomprehensible and irrelevant against the sincerity and obviousness of his body asking to be held. So I do.
When I wake, I pretend to sleep to let him stay in my arms, how we slept. After I feel him stir, he slowly and slyly wriggles out. I stay still and listen as he wanders back and forth, shaving, showering, dressing. Just as I go to roll over, eyes open, I feel him standing there, staring at me, uncertain of protocol.
A rustle as he picks up his keys. Nerves again, but I am unsure whose pulse I can hear bruising the skin it beats against. It is only in the continuing silence of our un-moving — me with eyes still closed on the bed, him watching over me — that I realise it is both our pulses beating anxiously at once, in sync but competing against each other. Trying to get a response beyond the mutual companionship of beating together, they quicken under the pressure of being something more. Neither of us move. One of us should say something. I should ‘wake up’, but I stay still. Our pulses cannot make the next step of talking beyond a shared beat of embarrassment at my body still being here in his bed. As I continue to lay there, all the potential sentences I could say — could be saying right now — pool in my jaw and around my tongue, soaking up any chance of speaking. My mouth too dry to make a sound.
If I rolled over a little, opened my eyes, and looked up, I might say ‘I had a really nice night.’ He could give me a kiss on the head with ‘Make yourself some coffee,’ and ’Shut the door when you leave,’ before I say ‘Let’s do this again.’ He would smile from the door in agreement, walk back for one more longer kiss. But now I am committed to not moving; I have done it for too long to stop now.
I hear him write a note, hear him leave. But my pulse is still in the same rhythm as his as I get out of bed, use his shower, pick up my coat, close the door and never see him again.
The food was nice, if not a little too homely.