by Aubrie Artiano
When you draw back the curtain, morning light, grey and harsh as soot, pours in. Condensation coats your window. Outside, murky puddles dot the road, flooding entire patches of narrow sidewalk. The trees on your street dance in the wind, waving up at you. You’re weary of their bare shapes, spindly and crooked. Chattering like a band of skeletons. You don’t wave back.
There’s a pounding in your head, vibrating in the smallest nook of your skull. You feel an overwhelming, almost visceral inclination to open the window and leap out. To splatter like one of those old time-y cartoons on the sidewalk below. You imagine it: the colours of yourself shattering into a million tiny fragments. A bystander comes by and sweeps up all your bits and pieces and fit you together again. Right as rain, they say. You thank them and go about your day.
This doesn’t happen, of course. Instead, you close the curtains and recede into darkness. You climb back into bed, where the mattress is still warm from sleep. You sink beneath the duvet and wrap yourself into a false, tight hug.
You have to hold your sinewy insides close, so they don’t come tumbling out.
The pub is heaving. You fight the sensation to itch yourself, firmly, on the scalp. Instead, you occupy your right hand, fingering a dried piece of gum in your pocket. You look down at your feet. The rubber soles of your boots stick to layers of stale beer. You’ll have to remember to wash them later.
“Kate, here.” Jo reaches through the crush, her hand holds an overfilled pint.
“Cheers,” you say, accepting the glass. You withdraw from the bar and shuffle to an empty corner.
You haven’t seen Jo since your breakup with Connell. Truthfully, you’ve not seen anyone since the breakup, apart from faceless delivery drivers, the elderly tenant in the flat below you. Jo’s cut her hair and is wearing a puffer coat you’ve not seen before. She looks bright and full of health. You know, in comparison, you look unwell and hollow.
“A nightmare, this, eh? It’s just too bloody cold in London. Everyone’s gone and lost their minds.” She takes a long, measured sip.
“Maybe all this cold is affecting the frontal lobe, you know? Our cognitive functions are functioning at half mass.” Jo smiles.
“So, how’ve you been?” she asks. You shrug, opting for your beer. She stares at you. “I mean it. I’ve not seen you since, well, since that night.” You nod.
“Breakups are never particularly easy, are they? This one’s no different.” You say this with perhaps too much conviction as to be genuine. You hope she doesn’t notice.
“Yeah, of course, of course it is,” she says, “I’ve just never seen you so cut up before.” You grimace. Jo never understood your feelings for Connell – she thought the two of you were mismatched from the start.
The night things ended, you called her in a moment of desperation, hysterical. She came to your side but struggled to console you. She made you a cup of tea and kept checking her phone.
“Ah well, what’s the time-worn-adage, again? Plenty of fish, or something?” you say. Jo rolls her eyes.
“I’m delighted to see your sarcasm is still intact.”
“Right? Thank god for that.”
“You getting back out there, then? Back on the apps?” A knot forms in your throat.
“Oh, no. Not at all. The thought of a first date makes my stomach hurt.”
“Probably for the best, in that case. Can’t have you throwing up on Mr. Right.” Jo smirks.
“Actually, I thought it might be sort of charming, in a way, like ‘hi, nice to meet you, yaaaak, and what do you do for a living’?” You mock wipe your mouth for affect. Jo shakes her head. Her short black bob tickles the bottom of her chin.
“It’d be a memorable date at the very least. Vomit girl, he’d call you.”
“Vomit girl,” you say, “I’ve been called worse.”
“Haven’t we all,” she says. She tips her glass against yours. Clink.
“What about you?” you ask. “Swipe de force?” You amuse yourself with your own joke. Jo shrugs. “What? Not going well?”
“Oh, well, no, it’s . . . good, actually.” She shifts her weight.
“Well, well. Seeing anyone interesting?”
“No, er, yes. But not formally.” She scoffs, feigning enthusiasm. “I suppose I’m sort of seeing someone.”
The confession surprises you. Perhaps this is why she’s invited you out to drinks, to rub her own romantic success in your face. You shake your head.
“Oh, wow. Great. Since when?”
“Since now. It’s only been a few dates. It’s not a big deal, really.”
“Don’t downplay on my account,” you say, more curtly than you intend. She screws up her face.
“Kate, I don’t want to upset you by talking about it, is all. But if you don’t mind, then yeah, of course I’d love to tell you about Will.” You have to stop yourself from laughing, the tickle that’s been building in your throat. You take a drink.
“Please,” you say, “tell me all about lovely, lucky Will.”
You sit in the breakroom at work and eat a stale turkey and cheese sandwich. Fine crumbs tumble from your mouth to your crotch. You bat at them half-heartedly. Outside, rain pounds the lunch hour. Through the window, beyond your building, a sea of multicoloured umbrellas amass, desperate for their daily corporate reprieve. A colleague asked you to lunch, but you can’t process enthusiastic small talk. Everything feels too daunting.
A colleague comes in to use the microwave. It’s Michael, the new guy. He has a baby face that’s always clean-shaven and a closely cropped haircut. You assume this is an attempt to tame very curly ginger hair. You’ve always loved ginger hair.
“All right?” he asks. You wave your sandwich at him. He smiles. “Pissing it down, innit?” he says. He has a husky northern drawl. You wonder if this is his first job in London.
“Indeed it is,” you say in between bites. “How you finding it?”
“Well, nothing new, is it?”
“I meant the job,” you say. “How are you finding the job?”
“Oh, yeah, right.” He plops his leftovers in the microwave. “A job, I suppose, like any other. Can’t complain just yet, eh.” You smile. The microwave still has one minutes. His presence is stifling.
You examine his shirt; the armpits are stained a cloudy white; his loose-fitting trousers are covered in lint. His posture is poor and suggests a level of insecurity or awkwardness. For a short moment, before he spoke, you allowed yourself to confuse the novelty of Michael’s ‘newness’ for charm. How fascinating that mere seconds ago you managed to dream up an entirely fictitious scenario in which this person rescues you from the impending loneliness of Saturday night.
“Right you are, mate.” You force the rest of your sandwich into your mouth and make for the door. “Seeya,” you say. The word is muffled by the enormity of bread and cheese on your tongue.
You are the first to arrive at the restaurant. The reservation is under Jo’s name. The hostess asks if you’d like water while you wait, you order gin. You don’t particularly like the way it tastes, but you need something to take the edge off. It’s only been a few months, but Jo is besotted. She insisted you meet him, screen him. She’s desperate for your stamp of approval. You’re not up to the task.
You rushed to get here after work. The tube was rammed and claustrophobic. Damp clings to your back, your hairline, your underarms, in spite of the cold. You hope Will won’t try to hug you. You don’t need him knowing you’re one of those privately sweaty people.
Your purse buzzes. There’s a message from Jo.
Sorry! Mad traffic !! Be there in 10!! Xxxx
You down your drink and open your web browser. You haven’t searched his name for seven days. This is a big feat. Looking at his social media now means you’ll have to restart the countdown, like one of those ‘incident free’ monitors in factories. You tell yourself there won’t be anything new, he never was too big on social media. And if that’s the case, there’s no need to restart the clock.
You type in his name. You click on the link. You hold your breath. There it is. A new picture.
You click on it with greedy, spastic fingers, but with just enough finesse so as to not accidentally like it. The picture is of him. He’s in a pub, leaning against the bar. He smiles coquettishly at the camera, or at the person holding the camera, you can’t decide. The sight of it fills with you rage. No one is tagged in it. Forty-two people have liked it.
The caption reads: Cold weather, warm bellies.
You wake at a quarter to five drenched in sweat. Outside, weak light swells, promising to fill the chalky sky. You could try to go back to sleep, but you’re awake now. You decide to make the most of it.
You walk to the park. It’s a small diamond shaped garden tucked neatly in the middle of your neighbourhood. No one is out at this hour, in this cold. You have the benches, the lawn and the dead flower beds, all to yourself. You stand beside the fountain, its tiles dried and chipped and yearning for spring. You don’t usually come to this park. You don’t like to be reminded. Today, because of the tightness in your chest, because of the bad night’s sleep, you give in.
You circle the rose bushes and settle on the same bench you and Connell sat on, back when the trees clung to orange leaves and the air wasn’t so stony. You remember the tenderness, your hand in his. The subtle pressure of his thumb against your thigh. The sheer delight of a kiss on your cheek, warm breath at your ear. The smell of autumn, thick with wood and dirt mixed with his cologne. An odour so incredibly comforting and adoring you thought your heart might explode.
You remember the last time, the final exchange. The words that still live inside you, weighing you down: I just don’t know if I will ever love you.
A group of cyclists race past. You watch them go, mesmerized. Your tongue feels numb.
Begrudgingly, you’ve forced yourself to attend a colleagues leaving drinks. She’s off to the New York office next week. You envy her opportunity for a fresh start, but the distance, the inevitable loneliness that accompanies any sort of geographical relocation, lessens your bitterness.
“To Lindsey!” a co-worker shouts. The group raises glasses to Lindsey, who smiles uncomfortably in a nearby booth.
She’s not a close colleague of yours, but you thought it’d be good to get out and socialise. Now, you fight the uncomfortable, nagging sensation that you’ve forgotten something important. You linger at the bar, wondering if your straightener is slowly burning your building down.
“Connell!” someone calls. Every hair on your body stands tall. You almost can’t bring yourself to look. When you do, you’re both relieved and disappointed. It’s not your Connell, but someone else’s.
After a few drinks you retreat to the toilet, locking yourself in a stall. You wedge yourself into the corner, the small, dank space between the wall and the basin. You begin to cry. You need this cry, and you hope by getting it over and done with now, you won’t be taking it home with you.
“Kate, that you?” It’s Anna. She works on your team. You wipe the snot and saline from your face and clear your throat.
“I’m fine, yes.”
“Can, I, er, can you let me in?” she asks. You don’t particularly want her to see you this way, but you sit up and lift the lock.
“I’m really OK,” you say. The glaring expression on her face suggests you appear otherwise.
“Ah, come here,” Anna coos, and folds herself around you. This makes you cry harder. She pats your back in considered, circular motions.
“I’m really sorry,” you say.
“Nonsense! Tell me what’s going on, but,” she says, “let’s go out here, shall we?” Anna leads you out to the sink and hands you a tissue.
“Thanks,” you say, “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Please, if I had a quid for every time I’ve sobbed in a public toilet.” You know she only says this to make you feel better. You force a weak smile.
“I’ve just gone through a breakup, about, er, nearly three, four months ago,” you say.
“Oh no, that guy, what was his name?”
“Right. Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says.
“It’s OK,” you say. “I mean, I’m not OK, right now, not yet, but there’s nothing I can do about it, you know?”
“Oh, yes, I do know. Been there many times myself. It never gets any easier.”
Two girls rush in, stumbling over their own feet.
“Sorry,” one mutters. They go into the same stall and start giggling.
“Have you ever had a linear fracture?” Anna asks.
“A linear fracture, have you ever had one?” You stare at her. “Er, it’s when you fracture the bone rather than break it clean.”
“Yes, I know what a linear fracture is.”
“Right, sorry, well, it’s just they’re incredibly painful, you know, almost worse than a fully broken bone, in a way.” The toilet flushes and the girls emerge, red-faced. They don’t wash their hands. Anna sneers at them.
“You’ve lost me,” you say.
“I know,” she laughs, “I’m not making much sense. Too much wine.”
She brushes her hair back and takes a deep breath. “What I mean is, fractures like that are secretly painful, see? There’s not always a cast, takes ages to heal. And after it does you sort of wonder if the bone is ever as solid again, you know? It is, though.”
“OK,” you say, “but what’s that got to do with anything?”
“It’s like a fracture, is my point.”
“What is?” you ask. Anna looks at you with perturbed, dark brown eyes. She reaches out and pats the back of your hand.
“Breakups,” she says, “breakups are sort of like linear fractures.”
You help Jo move into Will’s flat. It’s newbuild in Camden overlooking the canal. It’s only been seven months, but you’re not judging. Jo’s labelled every box in perfect, tidy handwriting. Kitchen. Bedroom. Misc. Even with the writing, Will places boxes in the wrong rooms. You smile at him as you reorganize his efforts.
“And Jo said she didn’t have much,” he says, chuckling. He’s been making an effort with you. You appreciate his small talk.
“That sounds like Jo,” you say.
She elbows him on her way into the kitchen, planting a soft kiss on his cheek. It feels intimate. You and Will exchange a look. He blushes, grinning sheepishly.
You know this is the real thing; two people finding things easy. When the chemistry is so thick it’s nearly tangible. When no feels hurt or discarded or unloved.
You smile to yourself.
It’s a bank holiday and the sun is shining. You walk to the local grocers where you have first pick of the morning’s vegetable delivery. You stop at the corner café and treat yourself to a latte. It’s frothy and delicious. You sip it in the park, your park, not his park. You admire the budding roses, the vibrant colours bursting from the thicket. It’s quiet. A light breeze rustles your hair and warms your cheek. It’s gentle and friendly.
A mum with a pram strolls up the path. Behind her, a chubby toddler teeters side to side. He trips over his own feet and collapses. He giggles to himself, limbs akimbo.
“Come along, Connell,” the woman says.
The name echoes in your head as the boy stumbles past. You think about this new idea of the word, Connell. It reminds you of the time you’ve lost, the time spent gnawing on your grievances. The days and night you agonized over. Enough of that, you say. You know you’re deserving of a fresh start.
At home, you make an omelette and eat it outside on your stoop. It’s midday; melodious church bells sound in the distance. You look down at your legs, your feet. You marvel at the way your right foot fits perfectly into the arch of your left.
Summer thrives around you, full sun, high humidity. You poke around an antique shop along the high street, looking for nothing in particular. A hand connects with your arm. The body and face it belongs to is one you recognize. It’s your old friend Maddison, from uni.
“Maddy! You all right?” you ask.
“I’m fab, how are you?” You exchange a hug.
“I’m good,” you say. “What brings you up north?”
“I’m seeing this guy. He lives just ‘round the corner.” She gestures behind her.
“Oh, lovely. How’s it going?”
“Good! His name is Sean, he’s in tech. The quiet type.” She winks. “What about you, you still with that hunky guy?” You rack your brain, wondering if she’s confused you with someone else. Then it dawns on you. The last time you saw Maddy you were with Connell. Last September. You mull this over.
“Ah, that’s over. Been ages now,” you chuckle.
“Oh, no! What happened?” she asks, eagerly and without tact. You don’t mind it, though. You don’t mind much, these days. You’re not even bothered by his name or the memories unleashed behind the floodgate.
“You know,” you say. You pause to admire a chipped wine glass, smiling to yourself. “I just wasn’t sure I would ever love him.”
About the Author:
Aubrie Artiano is a doctoral candidate in the English and Comparative Literature department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she previously completed an MA in Creative and Life Writing. Her work has featured in Goldfish and Ethisphere Magazine. Originally from Washington, D.C., Aubrie lives and works in London.