Whitey — Chapter 3
Over the next few days, I was working at the bar and drinking in the kind of cycle that doesn’t engender good relations with one’s partner, because when you finally appear at home, you’re generally disgusting or temperamental. I would just stay at the bar after work, drinking until I just couldn’t any more, and then I’d hop on the night tram, trying to keep my eyes open, and finally get into bed beside Sara shivering for all sorts of reasons when she was all warm and sleepy and smelly and generally unhappy to be disturbed. I couldn’t help but notice the sleeping pills on the dresser. I thought that was a sign that our relations had sunk to the the level of parents waiting for their children to move out so that they can divorce.
It was Friday evening when I broached the topic of the party with Sara.
‘Oh, are you coming to this house party tomorrow?’
‘Rachel told me about it. Whose house is it?’
‘This Genevieve girl who was at the gig last week.’
‘Is she cool?’
‘Yeah, she seems alright. Anyways, I wanted something to do before we go dance.’
‘I’m not going to a club tomorrow. Not a chance. I told you, I’m going to spend Sunday at my father’s.’
‘You said you wanted to, Sara.’
‘That’s because people were listening. I don’t want your friends to see me as this miserable old hexe who doesn’t do anything.’
‘God forbid,’ I said.
Ten hours later, Saturday rolled through my shadeless bedroom window too bright, too cold and too loud for me to be able to get out of bed. I tried to get back to sleep but Sara had started cleaning things noisily and this after a rational debate about the sharing of the chores which fell to me (as my employment was part-time and therefore I had time to spare maintaining the flat) and why was I always so unreasonable?
I like to think that I am reasonable, but the fact remains that I can only clean the apartment to her exacting standards if I have some debt to pay or some work to do, something that I can avoid thinking about through ritual cleaning. Perhaps I like to paint Sara in a bad light to justify what happened with Gen, but she was genuinely quite grumpy and unhappy and seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in pointing out my failings. Hers was a campaign to help me climb out of my dead-end life and into being the kind of motivated father-figure partner that she wanted. I just wanted to stay working at a bar until I could work it out on my own, nothing more.
I felt awful from the previous night; physically and morally sick. I pulled on yesterday’s clothes and, leaving the apartment without warning, went to the supermarket so I could make breakfast. The supermarket was dizzying, bright lights and American pop music and shuffling, judgmental elderly women eyeing me contemptously over the vegetable display. I felt the pressure of being expected home imminently as though I’d left the gas on. As I uselessly went back and forth, back and forth, trying to compose my thoughts for even five minutes to be able to imagine the meal I’d make for Sara, I worried that I’d be so late home that Sara would have left the house hungry, and I was tempted to look up something off the internet and make some last-minute, half-hearted attempt at impressing her. As I picked up a box of eggs, I thought: No, she doesn’t deserve it and wouldn’t appreciate it.
So I bought eggs and bread and almost forgot the wine because that’s the only place I know where the wine is three euros and worthy.
At home, Sara wasn’t so impressed by the eggs, bread or wine. The wine was incongruous, I know, but I could guess her thoughts:
“If the trip was worth making, why did you only buy some fucking eggs?”
‘But we already have bread,’ she complained.
‘That’s not bread, that’s a cake made of sour wheat kernels and hatred. This, my friend, is bread.’
I knocked on the white loaf to demonstrate. I wanted to knock on her shiny forehead. She was defending her national loaf, I get it. But also she was defending the fact that she had bought it and that my buying a white crusty loaf was a sideswipe at her impenetrable logic. I sensed another argument looming and excused myself thus:
‘Speaking of loaves, I gotta go pinch one off.’
‘What does that even mean? You’re horrible.’
Between wipes, I wondered why I had been waiting so long for Sara to leave the flat. There had been a time when the only reason I wanted her to leave the flat was so that I could crap in peace and leave the windows open long enough to keep the magic alive. Then I realised, upon flushing, that I was thinking about killing time without the impositions of Sara’s commentary because I would be seeing this Genevieve girl later. Maybe I’d get to meet this rich arsehole boyfriend of hers and he could take me on a tour of his tasteless apartment and tell me about his famous friends and educate me about how little I could possibly offer the French firecracker he lived with. I didn’t want to hate whoever this guy was. Already I kind of pitied him, as though he was trapped into being an arsehole for the rest of his life and I was superior to him in some oblique societal way. I hadn’t really seen Phase Three coming, although I’d already made myself come three times at the thought of fucking Genevieve, while Sara slept oblivious beside me.
During the day I called and messaged a few of my inner circle of friends, though a bunch of them were going to a birthday dinner for this irritating really-cool-guy I had never met who they all loved. I am unabashedly jealous of these people who steal my righteous thunder without making themselves known to me. I made a mental note to find this person and try to bond with him, or else throw him in the canal while no-one was looking.
I needed an alternative plan, otherwise I’d turn up to Genevieve’s alone with Sara, who clearly had no intention of inviting any of her girlfriends to the party. I texted Rachel and told her to come over for dinner, knowing that she’d be able to get Sara in the mood for going out. Sara had migrated over to my social circle and had become closer to Rachel than I was comfortable with, but at least she could act as a buffer, a relay of unspoken truths, a confidante. However, Rachel is the kind of girl who drinks with us boys and hears most of the disgusting inner monologue the alcohol disinhibits us from sharing. I thought: God forbid she unloads all of my filthy secrets when Sara and I break up. At least they might be able to bond over how much of an arsehole I am.
Around eight, Rachel came over with a bottle of Rottkäppchen and we settled around the wobbly kitchen table with one of the stove rings on to get some heat in the place. Rachel kept her shiny polyester puffer jacket on, but she’d been well trained by Sara enough to leave her shoes in the hallway so she had her stocking feet tucked under her cat-like on the chair. I got sent out for smokes and more prosecco an hour or so later and I found myself smiling as I wove through gangs of tourists to the shop. I’m such an idiot, I told myself.
The three of us were energised by the time the girls had swapped clothes and occupied the bathroom and played god knows how many Kanye tunes on my laptop which means I’m going to get bombarded with brainless shite the next time I open YouTube, and we were all chatting happily at the tram stop where other little groups of people were talking through their scarves and stamping their feet on the wet gritted pavement. Winter was another kind of terror, one that had us all scurrying door-to-door, accepting faulty relationships just to keep our beds warm, taking taxis and staying in bars so blue with smoke that our eyes stung, simply because outside the door lay deep-frozen reality.
Genevieve buzzed us into the building through the polished brass buzzer board and we stamped grit over the granite floor and scraped our shoes off on the staircase, our blue plastic bags of booze clinking and bashing against one another. We entered the warm apartment and already there were about twenty people in exclusive clutches around the place. Thankfully Gen was cool enough to let people leave their shoes on, and the biggest group was in the kitchen, the ersatz smoking room, with a bunch of French guys with denim fleece jackets making sloppy Negronis with booze from Lidl’s.
Genevieve was holding court with a smaller group in the living room who were all older, possibly friends of her nameless boyfriend. In fact, I think the moment I realised the she’d never mentioned him to me was when I asked the group how they knew Genevieve.
‘We all work with Marco, actually,’ one said.
I didn’t need them to explain who Marco was. I was submerged in a whole fucking tank of Marco. If I was going to tolerate these people and these brief snatches of light within dull conversations, I would need to get drunk and more people would have to turn up so that I could hide in plain view. I finished my beer and walked towards the kitchen to get the next, and I hung around in the doorway trying to get a handle on what people were talking about to assess the social situation. Rachel and Sara were talking to the French guys and I knew Sara would be cruel about their height the moment they left the kitchen so I was happy not to have to sail over and kiss her on the forehead as I was getting a beer out of the fridge. I just stared with the empty beer in my hand when I felt a tug on my elbow.
Genevieve said to me, ‘Do you want a line?’ as though it was planned, and we snuck unseen to the bathroom. My last glimpse was of Sara listening to whatever the French prick with a moustache was saying. I watched Genevieve’s ass tilting in her high-waisted jeans and her tight white top with the hair falling down her back and I wondered if I’d even make it to the bathroom door without falling down. But she waited for me like a sentry and pulled the door closed behind me and locked it assiduously.
‘You look so bored.’
‘I’m alright,’ I said, ‘Just waiting for things to get started. How are you?’
She said she was fine as she pulled her jeans down her legs, sat on the toilet and started to piss with a sound like a wildly flailing garden hose that has flown out of your hand. I realise this act is more about friendly bonding than any kind of sexual advance, but then she continued to talk to me as she wiped, stood up and pulled up her panties, ever so who-fucking-cares about it. She turned and shut the toilet lid and bent over, racking up two lines on the face of her phone while pointing her ass at me. I am a sucker for promiscuous, adventurous French girls who have cool tattoos and high-waisted jeans and who offer me drugs when I’m looking sad without inviting my bitter girlfriend to get involved or even her close friend who is my close friend and I began to realise that this whole thing was a casual yet calculated attempt to make sure I liked her.
‘Where’s Marco?’ I asked, innocently as I could.
‘I told you, he’s in Sweden. You don’t remember a sing I tell you, uh.’
‘I do, it’s just that I’ve never seen him. He’s an abstract concept to me, like time.’
‘I don’t see ‘im much. Maybe ‘e buys me a ticket to visit ‘im in Sweden next week.’
She was scraping the lines with her health insurance card and I was about to remark upon the irony of that when she held out a rolled note to me and lifted her phone up so I could sniff myself happy. She bent into her lap and sniffed and when she sat up I could make out the darkness of her nipples behind the white cotton top.
‘We should get out of here,’ I said, and as she rubbed her finger over her phone and teeth and put away her things, I let the bathroom door swing open into the hallway as though it wouldn’t look suspect for someone who merely needed to piss to find our odd couple hanging out in there. Genevieve pressed the flush and pushed me out of the door. Sara met us at the kitchen door.
‘Where’ve you been?’
‘I took him on the tour. Have you seen the place?’ she said to my girlfriend, diplomatically. I wiped white crumbs from my nostril and discreetly deposited them on the tip of my tongue. As a child, I’d always wondered what laundry detergent tasted like. Sara looked at me.
‘I’m gonna get a beer. You got a drink?’ I said.
I’m not about to say that Sara was always blindly trusting of me, nor was she always suspicious of me, but that look she gave me was deep into my eyes. Thinking about it, if Genevieve and I were mirroring one another’s body language we’d have been unaware of it, but Sara would’ve clocked. We were stood next to each other flat, instead of the three of us forming a loose circle, so that Genevieve and I must have presented some kind of symmetrical double-act that Sara hated, because she followed me into the kitchen and glued herself onto my side as we sat on a bench along the wall.
Genevieve disappeared as the party filled up. I kept an eye on the door, but as Sara and I didn’t want to lose our seat, the glut of people standing smoking in the kitchen had us shut into our little corner, and no-one was talking to us. I grabbed Sara’s hand at maybe one o’clock and told her we should go and mingle, but I could see the resistance in her eyes.
‘I’m kinda tired,’ she said, ‘I think I want to go. Can we?’
‘The party’s just getting started,’ I said, ‘Come on, live a little.’
‘If you want to stay, then stay. I can just get a taxi.’
‘Please? Can you not do this again? Can we meet people as a couple and have a good time?’ I whispered. I knew there was little use in trying to persuade her, seeing as this was an identical conversation to the last six times she’d succumbed to social fatigue.
‘Can you not be selfish and just call the taxi?’ she replied.
This one again. I’m a monster, I thought. I am a monster, and she knows it, and without being able to say why I’m a monster, she’s undermining my ability to make it all worse.
‘Well, do you want me to come with you?’ I said weakly, pretending not to notice her insinuation of yes, I want to be looked after in spite of your supposed social needs. You’re supposed to run to my aid the moment I say I need it. But we’d played this game before, and I found it as dull as chess, if slightly less strategic. The fact that she’d done this to me — yes, to me, rather than genuinely needing my support but demanding it as some kind of obsessive’s test of my commitment — and me stood here with an armful of full beers trying to make myself sound less selfish than I really was because we all, perhaps Sara as well, knew that at the first flash of blue denim and tattoos, I was absolutely staying put. And so it was that with a heart burdened with guilt that I sought out the taxi number on my phone and ordered the cab, feeling like a child hearing his friends play outside during detention:
Everyone else’s life just streams fluidly and mine just trickles down the wall like thick piss.
The music was up loud which made the polar bear’s glass coffin vibrate and the roar of chatter made it hard to isolate any one sound, particularly the doorbell which kept going off to let people from the night shop back in or else the next herd of black-clad club kids. The cigarettes had migrated out of the kitchen and butts appeared everywhere on the wooden floor and it took a couple of minutes to cross from your seat to the fridge and back. And this was the point at which Sara wanted to leave.
‘You can stay, if you want.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Look, I don’t really care any more. Is the taxi booked?’
‘It’ll be downstairs in…four minutes. Why don’t you see if Rachel wants to go with you?’
‘Why? Why would she?’
‘Just so, you know, you’re not alone.’
‘Bye, John. You really are a selfish bastard, do you know that?’
Sara would rather steam alone in the freezing air outside the building than spend another minute with people she was bound to refer to ‘all cunts’ the next day, what with her anglicised German extending to my liberal use of the c-word. I followed her into the stairwell and grabbed her arm.
‘Hey,’ I said, ‘I’ll see you later, okay?’
She just raised her brow at me and pulled away when I tried to kiss her on the lips. I didn’t know if she even knew why I was being punished, but I’m not stupid enough to ignore the fact that I wasn’t being the man she expected me to be.
‘Keep it open,’ I said to a guy at the door. I followed her down.
‘Sara!’ I whisper-shouted.
I stopped on the third floor and listened to Sara’s steps retreat down to the street. I had a hundred reasons to stay and one huge purple reason to run downstairs and force my way back into Sara’s good books, to be this gallant man she unrealistically expected me to be. Pathetically, I felt that if I did everything she told me to, I would just become her little poodle and she’d cheat on me with the first wilful fucked-up artsy guy that came across her. So my tactic was to always retain an element of the guy she’d cheat on me with, and make her wish she was married to an accountant. For the most part, this attitude seems to work until The Future rears its head, and once she realises you’re not bothered about the future, she hates you for making her fall for you because it was supposed to be the last time she’d have to tear out another loser embedded in her heart.
It never feels good to hear, ‘But you’re not a loser, darling, I never meant that!’ from your woman while she’s stroking your hair. You’re waiting for the next time she yells it at you, because now you’ve made the word into a sword to eviscerate you with every time she knows you’re vulnerable. I guess that explains a lot of cheating away. If your partner complains about the thing you’ll never be, you can go find a woman that thinks you’re great or sexy or exotic or a gentleman or wise — all the things that she will work out, all too late, are projections.
I sound cynical. The danger is when the new girl genuinely believes in you, and refuses to see your flaws, even when you sketch them out for her. You’d better like her right back, because otherwise you’re just in over your head with two women or at least two successive relationships without at any point taking a whale’s breath on the surface before diving back in. Besides, you need time out to become a whole person again. People forget that.
I pushed the apartment door back open and in the kitchen the French guys were helping themselves to my beers. I told them to save some for me.
‘Ah, sorry guy,’ said the moustache one who’d tried to talk to Sara.
‘Keep them. Santé!’ I said, keeping a cool head. I actually didn’t care. I knew Rachel and Sara had more drink down the side of the Chesterfield and I just wanted a minute to try to ferment my anger at Sara into something else, maybe a benevolent warm feeling towards all of humanity, I don’t know.
I didn’t really know anyone and I felt like a spare prick haunting the place until another ghost stopped me for small talk about their architecture course and I was just going to have to resort to self-destructive drinking of the sort one always regrets later. I did not care: I did care.
Bitch. I hate the word, I do, and I stop short of calling Sara names unless she’s done something to deliberately hurt me and even then it’s the kind of verbal aggression that I’d like to pretend doesn’t exist in the world. So I stood there and I breathed out of my nose saying the word while I reached into the blue bags down the back of the Chesterfield to get the little bottle of green peppermint schnapps that Sara bought, and then I told a couple in a rude yet joking yet clearly not joking voice to move down the sofa so that I could stare silently at people from behind my bottle. When I was stubbing out my cigarette in a bottle cap jammed into a dimple on the arm of the Chesterfield, Rachel found me and said she and Gen had been chatting in the bedroom for ages and so I followed her to the bathroom. She made me turn around and gave me her stash to chop out two lines from and so I set to on a space on the top of the washing machine that I rubbed clean with the sleeve of my jumper.
‘How’s your night going, Rach?’
‘Pretty chilled, yeah. Florian turned up about half an hour ago.’
‘Great. Is he on your case yet?’
‘No, I’m waiting for it, though.’
‘Well when your new guy — whatsisname — turns up, you can make Florian disappear. You know you’re the one that won. He can’t stand the fact that you turned him down before he got a chance to dump you.’
‘New guy’s got another party to go to. Besides, I’m not taking advice from you, John.’
Rachel took the straw out of my hands and took her line.
‘Where’s Sara hiding?’
‘She’s gone home,’ I said.
‘What? What did you say to her this time?’
‘It’s not me! You know she just gets in a mood after midnight and wants us all to stop having fun.’
‘That’s not fair, man. She’s not happy.’
‘Well anyway, I had to ring the taxi for her. She’s only been gone about twenty minutes. She didn’t say bye, I take it,’ I said, while sniffing hard on the tip of my thumb.
‘Let’s just grab the rest of our booze and get comfy.’
Rachel took my hand and led me to the bedroom and we found space on the floor on the other side of the queen-size bed. I don’t want to write that there was mirror on the ceiling but actually there was and I was simply trying not to form an unfair bad impression of this Marco douche before I’d had a chance for him to present and defend himself. He really couldn’t be a decent person, could he?
At this point Genevieve stalked over the crossed knees of people sat on the floor like a flamingo and lowered herself to the floor on my left side with a crack of both knees. She casually laid her arm across my shoulders while talking to Rachel about something I can’t remember because Gen’s fingernails were scratching the back of my neck and I tried to ignore this discreetly by pretending to follow their conversation about whichever one of Rachel’s disastrous men but really the blood was pulsing in my ears and I knew I was totally doomed. Rachel was so wrapped up in her anecdote that she didn’t even notice that I was looking into Genevieve’s eyes the whole time.
My mind wandered, as I sat cross-legged between Rachel and Genevieve, thinking about how vulnerable I was, about how Rachel could smell my attraction to Gen a mile off, and how busted I was. At the same time, thinking about the slender French fingers playing with a curl of my hair, I was mere putty in her hands and she knew she could do whatever she wanted with me. Because she’d probably spent a lifetime getting what she wanted from worshipers, I thought.
Florian stalked over to us still wearing a wool cape even though the windows were all steamed up and insisted on sitting on the edge of the bed with his knees in my right shoulder until I nudged round beside Genevieve. Florian was this pale-skinned guy with big glasses and he was a creep. He had sat on the bed just to dominate Rachel. I knew she’d been ignoring his messages, and he didn’t know that I knew about the time he was outside her building sending her texts.
She stood up and walked out and he followed her. She could fight her own battles. I was actually proud to see her sloughing off this creep, but mostly because now Rachel had left, I was sat down the side of Marco’s bed with his girlfriend’s hand splayed around the base of my skull. She took her hand away. My phone buzzed and I wrestled it out of my tight jeans pocket. It was a message from Sara to say that she’d got home and sorry and I clicked the screen off without replying. Perhaps she thought I would have offered to spend the day with her and her father out by the lakes if she conceded fault.
‘What are you doing after zis?’ Genevieve said.
The use of ‘you’ rather than ‘we’ caused me to realise that I was at her house party full of her friends and I probably wouldn’t have the chance to get her alone again, especially not with any kind of privacy, and she wouldn’t be free to get up to any trouble lest her friends or her boyfriend’s friends saw. I didn’t want to chase her forlornly around her own apartment like a fool, and now that Rachel would be tied up with repelling that Florian freak, I’d be forced into small talk with the French guys from the kitchen or someone else.
‘I dunno. I’m supposed to be doing something tomorrow morning, I should probably go in a bit.’
‘Ok, so we say bye now, then. But I’ll see you in the next days, uh?’
‘I’ll hang around to make sure Rachel is OK first.’
‘OK. See you later, Johnny.’
Her legs stretch up and up underneath her like hydraulics and she wraps her hand around me for balance and bends and kisses me on the edge of the mouth and pads away leaving me with a trace of her vanilla perfume lingering in my nose. I looked at the half-empty beer in my hand and swigged it, and licked my lips dry. I was suddenly alone. I had to find Rachel, so I waded through the cross-legged groups on the floor and a bovine group of British FOBs by the bedroom door until I saw Rachel at the far end of the living room making out violently with Florian in the corner.
I had no reason to stay so I just headed straight out of the door.
The cooler air of the stairwell and the footsteps jolting my whole body made me realise that I was fairly drunk. The cold outside the huge front door of the building gripped me instantly and made the skin on my face tight but nonetheless I wasn’t going to get a cab so I walked underneath the suspended train line to the brightly-lit train station, past the drunks, the punks and the homeless waving dodgy tickets at uptight tourists queueing for the machines. Bottle glass crunched under my soles as I mounted the stairs and waited between the groups drinking beers along the platform for whom the night was just beginning.
I cursed myself for being so predictable, so weak: I could have just left with Sara instead of waiting around for Genevieve like some fan at the stage door of a theatre.