When Jessica returned the years had changed them both. She had travelled to Australia and New Zealand, stopped at Singapore on the way. The year she spent in a flat in Bristol seemed like a dream, or a joke, or a story she had heard told. Sometimes she would stop what she was doing, not realising she had paused with her pen in the air and her eyes lost in the cold white sky, and remind herself that it had been the same lifetime.
She would remember the time she thought she was pregnant; the thrilling terror, and the relieved disappointment every woman knows. She remembers the sunny day in May when she stood on the platform at Bedminster and watched the city glint in the distance and felt gently peaceful. The night Mal told her of his love; strong and simple under darkness. The small cluster of friends, coffees and lectures, finishing essays, and Saturday nights in The Artichoke drinking vodka and Red Bull and walking home in the watery heat of the dawning sun.
They meet in a bar in town. It’s a new place, called Yates’s. She has deliberately avoided The Artichoke at the other end of the street. It would cloud her memory like pink chalk smudged with a light finger; sweet smoky colour washing over the past.
This time she is staying. She has a third floor flat overlooking a scrap of the Downs, and a job at the University, and a research grant.
Mal has grown fatter while she is almost the same. She lost a few pounds the first summer, in Sydney, trying out surfing and volleyball on the beach. But the barbeques and beers had balanced it out. Mal had loved her large, soft breasts and her steady self worth and her capacity to drink beer beside him.
He looks at her, remembering where they both were, and seeing how far she has come.
So, tell me about your research then, he says.
I’m studying illusion. The way our eyes fool our brain, the way stimuli affect our senses – she breaks off, unless he wants to hear it in detail it sounds stupid. All research does. It probably sounds self-indulgent, she says.
She’s not sure if he’s being truthful. But he had been brilliant. Then. So she tries again. ‘I was looking at ‘trompe l’oeil’ in Paris. It means trick of the eye, she adds carefully, nodding as if he knows. They’re just stunning. And it just struck me – it was the first time I’d felt anything in – well,’ she rolls her eyes because they both know she has stumbled into that territory. The silent way she left. The silent way he let her go.
The chairs and tables are a cool blonde wood, yet he feels her warmth as he sits opposite her. The atmosphere is lighter, more airy than the pub. The carpet is not yet blistered with cigarette burns. She’s grown into herself: she is excited without trying to please him. But he always knew she would be this way. It was him that would not grow up.
It goes right to the very base of philosophy and psychology, she is saying; the ability to view objective reality. What is true and real? Look. And she takes a thin stack of postcards from her large, pale grey handbag and shows him the Kanizsa Triangle and the Ponzo Illusion and Dali’s Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln. He holds the postcard close, studies the tiny insert of Abraham Lincoln, lingers on Gala’s round bottom, then moves it back – arms length – watching the entire scene turn into a portrait of the American. He smiles at it and then looks up.
But what is this supposed to tell us? He asks and she nods and laughs just a little.
You’re right, of course, she says. And she stops to look at him then. His fleshy lips. It’s good to see you.
There’s the searching in her eyes, the warmth in her voice. After the second drink she says that she has thought about him a lot recently.
He wonders if she thought about him when she left, when she took her brown leather suitcase and winked at him. Had she thought about him a lot then too? Or had new adventures beckoned? New cocks with new hair growing around the base; new eyes, and new accents, and new jokes to be made private and exclusive.
They all do this – look at him from under their plucked brows, mascared lashes and wispy fringes when they say this; showing him their soft needy nature, their kind calm warmth.
He doesn’t reply to this. He leaves them hanging, agape; smiles a little.
Another drink? he says, and heads for the bar and orders a double, wanting to tease out these confessions with a greedy masochism. Halfway through the second drink, when their eyes are so bright they are almost translucent, and their cheeks are hot and pink they say; isn’t it a shame we can’t go back? Or something similar.
They look at him when they say it, but something in his eyes makes them look down quickly, and he laughs then and says are you drunk.
She says No! but she is very warm and there’s a sense of holiday in the air. She laughs and puts her hands to her cheeks, rolls her iced glass against the right cheek, lifts the hair off her tanned neck. It’s a laugh she hasn’t felt in a long time.
What do you want to prove, he asks.
I want to find out why we see things that aren’t there.
But that’s easy, he says taking the Dali from her hand – the picture of Mala and also Lincoln. Something can be two things at once.
He says, so tell me about Mike. He sounds like a nice guy. Sometimes he’s a fiancé, or a husband. Sometimes he’s a she. He always calls them by their name so she is sliced by the dual knife; a sense of loyalty which she needs, so she can be guilty and shamed – and a sense of irritation. He is a nice guy. And she doesn’t want Mal saying that. It makes him appear kind and fair. She needs him to say something cruel so she can pull herself away indignantly. So she clears her throat and sips at her drink, sucking on a piece of Bacardi sweet ice, and tells him a few details, skimming the surface of their life; torn between divulging the boredom, and the gentle bliss.
He’s good. He’s kind. Life is settled and secure. I have things I need. Life is cleaner and calmer and less humiliating.
But he doesn’t need to know these things; these are not the secrets she came to share.
I had a dream about you she says now, which is not strictly a lie.
Oh, yes? he says, and raises his eyebrows just a little. Now he’s made her acknowledge the third party – once he’s made her bring him into the circle he can play with her; pulling at her pretty wings a little. In the summer they are teal, but when she moves they change to an electric purple.
She blushes, fans at the air like a dog, and doesn’t answer.
Did you tell Michael about this dream?
She looks in his eyes and says of course not, so he knows exactly what kind of dream it was.
He watches her until she feels hot from his eyeballs rubbing her skin.
What were we doing? he says.
He doesn’t say what happened? He knows how to question suggestively, how to guide her.
She feels herself blush against the heat, leans back against the faux leather sofa and waves her hands in front of her face; banishing the crackling ions gathering above them. Then she grins at him and says, do you think we can ever go back? And fights an urge to put her hand on some part of him – his hair, his arm.
He laughs and she forgives him in a moment, without a thought, waiting for him to say yes, but of course he doesn’t.
A girl comes over to clean the ashtray. She turns her body away and sweeps the ash into a small metal bucket with a dry paintbrush. This is how they clean ashtrays in bars now.
He says what about Michael, or Will, or whatever middle class name he has to match his job, and she shrugs and smiles coyly as though she has compassion as well as desires.
The anger he feels is reassuring. He’d like to be Michael; the car insurance on direct debit and enough in the building society for emergency repairs or a new washing machine. Inside their home the ironing board is put away, the back garden partly landscaped while they wait for spring. Michael doesn’t punch holes in the soft chipboard walls, and she doesn’t cry in the night because he stayed out til dawn.
At other times he merely feels the loss blow through him like autumn winds, signalling long dark nights.
Now he puts his hand on hers and shakes his head, readying himself for the sharp thrill of her pain. Two tears fall from her top lashes because her head is bent in shamed penitence.
Go home to Michael he says, glad to feel his reciprocal cut as he sends her away.
When she leaves she will feel drunk. The spent tears and the cold evening refresh her and there is a renewed sense of purpose as she walks home.
The single lingering kiss he gives her burns on her lips like a fading disc of black sunlight on her retina. When she is lying in bed she replays it, watches it. She blinks her lips together, searching for the negative of burning sun, checking it’s still there. Watching it fade to a spot on the horizon of memory, knowing it is not really there – that it is gone already.
Illusion of Love was first published in Burley Journal Issue Three.