I ordered Kirsty a white wine, and one for myself. I hated wine. Hated the way it tasted. We drank them for a few moments under the heavy lights of the restaurant. She sat opposite me wearing a black dress, her black hair, curly and long, hanging down to her shoulders, just grazing the skin there each time she moved to drink her wine.
We were immersed in this sea of awkward attractiveness. Ever since I laid eyes on her when I began working at the furniture store three years ago, I’d wanted this. I still felt the impulsion to end up here, as though this was an inevitable part of our relationship.
Kirsty was about the same height as me and always wore black as though every workday was a funeral. I wasn’t surprised to see her in black this evening. Her eyes were also dark, the sharp whites like two moons: one like light reflected on the still water of a pond, the other in the deep black of the sky. I was often taken aback by her eyes because she had the habit of staring, sometimes not realising she was doing it.
She stared at me from across the table. She smiled when I ordered white wine for us both because it’s not something I usually drink. The drinks arrived quickly, we then ordered food and I ordered for Kirsty, and so she said to me, ‘Why are you ordering for me?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I was just being polite.’
‘Well, I can order for myself,’ she said in a thick Cambridgeshire drawl. She snorted as she laughed and called the waiter back and ordered the Penne al Salmone for herself.
She brushed back her curls and they hung lightly behind one ear. A round gold earring twinkled in the warm, ambient glow. Hot baking bread and sweet butter melting on top of it. The persistent smell of salt, maybe from the salami, and the odour of bass grazed with lemon. All these smells came together into one smell in its entirety that filled my lungs and sat heavy inside of me. I knew she felt nothing for me because of the way she looked at me. It was the same look she gave everyone. She spoke more with her eyes than with her mouth, and it seemed we had a mutual agreement not to love each other.
The food arrived.
‘Do you always do that?’ she said.
‘What’s that?’ I said.
‘Talk to yourself.’
‘Was I talking to myself?’
‘Your mouth was moving,’ she said. ‘And you mumbled something. If you have something to say, say it.’
‘I don’t have anything to say.’
A couple on the next table had drunk all their wine and asked for some more. I decided to order more wine, too. I ordered white wine again. I immediately regretted this decision. I thought wine was disgusting. Tasted of acid, burned my tongue. I watched her drink it; she left red lipstick imprinted on the glass.
‘Have you had too much wine, Carl?’ she laughed. She was making fun of me.
‘It tastes like battery acid,’ I said and laughed.
Her glass sat empty and drunk, the red lip imprint on it like a rose. Her eyes now completely black and the black of her eyes, enlarged with the wine, just stared at me. It was unsettling, left me with nothing to say. I chewed on a piece of bread and looked over at the couple on the next table who were already halfway through their second bottle. Their grins, ugly upward slits. I looked at Kirsty again and she was still staring. Her slight smile caused creases at the corners of her eyes. She was 35 years old and I was 25.
When we’d finished eating, we both sat back in our chairs, full. I felt a little sick, maybe I’d eaten too much, maybe it was the wine.
She said, ‘I hope the waiter comes and clears all this away soon.’
‘We’re leaving in a bit,’ I said.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘But I don’t like mess. It’s just sitting there between us. I don’t want it.’
‘Let’s not eat, then,’ I said.
‘I will some other time, just not now,’ she said. ‘But this wine. We both enjoy it. We both want more.’ Again, she stared at me as though she had more to say but didn’t want to say it.
‘Do you know what I mean?’
‘You like the wine better than the food.’
‘I suppose,’ she said. She crossed her arms. ‘Like when my mother was pregnant with my sister. I was only a little girl, but I could read the room like a book. The mess was unbearable, I ended up tidying up after her. It surprised me how messy a pregnant woman can be. It’s called nesting. They make a nest.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
The food sat in front of us, monotone, gunmetal with the depressing dinge of grease and the revolting smell attached to it. I had to push it away so I wouldn’t have to smell it anymore. I had, in turn, pushed the plates in front of her when I hadn’t meant to, so she began to pile the plates on top of each other, throwing scrunched up napkins on top, collating the cutlery.
The waiter came to clear the table. I imagined his surprise at the tidiness, which made me laugh. We decided to order some more drinks before we left. One for the road. This time I ordered a beer.
She said to me, ‘Where in the world would you want to be other than here? And who with?’
‘Anywhere as long as I’m on my own.’
‘Why? Do you hate people?’
‘No, I’m just fed up with them.’
‘You can’t spend all your time alone, even if you wish to.’
‘It’s too sad.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’d travel across the American desert. In a car. Like Hunter Thompson. All the drugs I can eat.’
She laughed. ‘But who would you take?’
‘Do you want to come with me?’
‘Okay, I’ll take you with me.’
‘I’d go to Prague,’ she said. ‘I’d go to the beach but only when it’s bleak. I love a bleak beach. Like all grey and cloudy and miserable. But not miserable because I’d enjoy it.’
‘You enjoy it grey and cloudy?’ I said, not having the heart to tell her there are no beaches in Prague.
‘Yeah. Imagine it. When it’s sunny it’s annoying. So many people: sunbathing, coloured shorts, sweat and sunscreen. That, to me, is miserable. I’d love a beach to be grey and cloudy. A little bit of rain. Almost silent. The wind. A seagull.’
‘Who would you take?’
‘I wonder where our drinks are.’
‘Maybe he forgot,’ I said.
‘How could he forget?’ she said. ‘It was a simple order.’
‘Maybe he forgot about us.’
‘Only a terrible waiter would forget us.’
‘Maybe you’re not as memorable as you think.’
‘Thanks,’ she said, sarcastically.
Soon, the waiter came over and told us that the particular white wine Kirsty wanted was now, unfortunately, off the menu. She didn’t know what to order, then she changed her mind and she didn’t order anything. She stared at me while I drank my beer.
The other couple had gone. They left dirty plates and cutlery and glasses smudged with lipstick and there was an odour of perspiration that hovered in the place they had been. I said to Kirsty, ‘I don’t know what to make of you.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Please, whatever you do, don’t fall in love with me.’
‘I don’t want it,’ she said. ‘And you’d end up changing your mind.’
Once I’d drank my beer, we went outside. It was cold. It had got dark while we were inside which gave the sense that time had broken down and we were the last two awkward souls left in the void. We headed towards the cinema to see a film. She loved films. I’d known her for three years and I knew nothing about her except for the fact that she loved old films. Many I’d never heard of, even the actors didn’t seem real. The cinema was showing these old films, so I’d asked her to go. It was only a short walk from the restaurant, but the walk itself was long and strained with our silence and pained gestures. ‘It’s cold.’
I got the tickets for Double Indemnity, a film she said she’d seen a dozen times. We walked upstairs where there was a bar and a crowd of people. It was warm here. I felt the thick residue of body heat, a disgusting intimacy of strangers surrounding the bar. She told me to meet her at the bar while she went to the ladies to put on her face. That’s what she’d said. She was going to put on her face as if she was going to come out as someone completely different.
Of course, I felt something for Kirsty, but nothing I could put my finger on. It all ran through my head so quickly that I couldn’t quite grasp what it was I wanted, and it frightened me. I decided to leave. I walked down the stairs and through the lobby where people were still buying their Double Indemnity tickets. The warm salt smell of popcorn like the salt smell of the sea. All of us lost at sea, I thought, but just oblivious, buying cinema tickets and popcorn.
When I reached the lobby door, I changed my mind. What the hell was I doing? I couldn’t just leave her there; I didn’t want to hurt her. I felt the chill from the outside as people came in, and I turned back around and headed back upstairs, where she was. I told her I’d gone to the toilet. She smiled.
While we sat, waiting for the film to start, I said to her, ‘So is this like a black and white film?’
And she said, ‘It’s like a black and white film because it is.’ She smiled and began to rummage in her handbag. It was difficult to see what she was doing, she merged into the darkness. She was a shadow. She was my shadow. She took out a cheese sandwich and ate it during the film. She made sounds that she was deaf to. I heard the sound of her voice in a cough.
The film was about a carefully planned-out murder. An insurance salesman sells life insurance to a man and the insurance salesman and the man’s wife fall in love and plan to murder him. The insurance salesman gets too deep in the whole situation and can’t get out.
She was a fan of Edward G. Robinson. I didn’t know who that was. She showed me him when he was on screen. She told me I looked like him, but I think she was lying because I looked nothing like him. She loved everything about him. The way he spoke. The clothes he wore. He was something to her. Edward G. Robinson meant more to her than I did.
We left. We walked down the road. We walked past a poster for Jaws. It was being shown again. She told me she first saw it on VHS when she was five years old and it was a huge part of her life. She loved that film. I said I loved that film too. I wasn’t even born when Jaws first came out. She was ten years older than me. She had a beautiful face. I smelled the wine on her breath, hot and acidic, but sweet like an apple. She touched my arm as we walked. She touched my arm when other men walked past us, moving closer to me.
‘The reason I love films so much is because they aren’t real,’ she said. ‘We’re all arseholes in real life. I love Double Indemnity, seeing people in the 1940s dress well, wearing hats, and talking with the most perfect wit. Imagine we all spoke as if all our dialogue was written by Raymond Chandler.’
I liked how she thought. We had a lot in common, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. The alcohol had subdued me. We said goodbyes near a phone box. She smiled and waved to me.
She said, ‘See you Wednesday,’ and walked away. In this action, I imagined she was watching me on the big screen, as though I was a fictional character in a film; something and nothing to her at the same time.
I walked away. I turned to look at her, but she was gone.