Emily let the tiny, clothbound book fall open in her hands. Like a woman spreading her legs, it offered up its unique scent. Beneath the musty, sweet smell that all old books have, this one surrendered hints of pine resin, tobacco and the tart creaminess of baby’s milk. Eyes closed, she brought the open tome up to her face and inhaled it again, more deeply, then looked at the title page.
On the left was an ornate engraving, a portrait of Sir Francis Bacon. On the right, legible through a gossamer thin sheet of onionskin, which whispered a rustle as she drew it aside with one moist fingertip, was the name of the work: The Comedy of Errors, Cambridge, At the University Press, 1922.
A suitable offering. Not the best she’d ever found, but not the worst either. Better than the bag of Haribo jelly worms and the tattered retro paperback copy of Dr. No. That was before she’d become adept at reading Gabriel’s understated reactions. He threw a lot of her offerings out the minute she left his shop, she knew.
* * *
On the bus, two seats ahead of Emily, a couple bickered. The tall handsome Asian man had grown a mustache for Movember, and his girlfriend or wife with hair dyed a gorgeous cherry red- girlfriend, she guessed – didn’t like the feel of it when he kissed her. It made her nostalgic. She’d had those kind of fights. Too long ago to remember what they’d been about. Silly things. The things you fight about when you know someone loves you.
Emily had made this journey once a week for ten years. As the bus rounded Hyde Park corner, the dread came on as it always did. Perhaps he wouldn’t be there? Sometimes he closed his small framing shop and went home early. She could never know if her journey would be a wasted one. She’d never had a phone number for him, and he never called her. Then the next week, he’d be there and it was as if nothing had happened.
“Why can’t you just call me and let me know you won’t be there?”
“Life gets in the way, love. I get busy and forget. My ADD is terrible, you know,” said Gabriel with a charming smirk.
He didn’t have ADD. Emily had no choice but to accept the lie. He didn’t like having to answer to her, or to anyone. It was just the way he was. And, if she didn’t like it, she could always stop coming to see him.
He hadn’t always been that way. Early in their relationship, he’d been eager to see her. She’d walk into his little shop, and he’d look up from his work and beam. He’d pull her to him and his kisses always tasted of desire and pain and rage. The churning chaos of him was hot and bitter on her tongue. She had learned who he was by the taste of his saliva. As if he had been angry that he wanted her, but wanted her all the same.
In those days, they talked for hours and hours. He’d told her how broken he was: by his recently failed love affair, by his terrible, dark childhood. As he touched her, as he kissed her, those things seeped into her skin, then under it into her bloodstream. And she swore to herself, to him, that she’d never hurt him like any of the other people in his life had done. He had been cruel at times, back then. Dismissive and curt.
“You’re just like all the other women I’ve known. Selfish, grasping bitches, all of you.”
“No. That’s not me,” she protested through the sting of his words. “I’m a lot of things, but I’m not that. I’m me. You know me.”
“I’ve had a fuck of a week, Emily. I’m mean and I’m cold right now. You should go.”
But she hadn’t gone. Because she understood. She loved him and being with him, even in his darkest moods, seemed better than being without him. Time and a consistency of affection, Emily reasoned, were what it would take to make him feel safe with her.
“If you’re not going to leave, then I will,” he said. And he did, walking out of his own shop, slamming the door behind him. She had sat there for an hour after he’d left, like a particularly stupid bulldog, trying to decide if she had done the right thing and puzzling over how to lock the shop up when she left so it wouldn’t get robbed. Eventually she found a set of keys, locked up and slipped them through the letterbox.
Raindrops chased each other down the bus window, splaying the taillights of the traffic ahead. Safety was not what he had wanted or needed. Perhaps, in some part of his mind, he knew she was good for him, but who ever really wants what’s good for them? As the years went by, nothing progressed. After she got the courage to ask him out and he’d deflected her invitations over and over, or simply ignored them, she came to understand that she’d made a terrible mistake. Gabriel might feel affection for her, but her inability to be the selfish, grasping bitch he had accused her of being guaranteed that he would never be with her. Not really.
She should have stopped then. When it was clear what he needed and what she could not be. Still, she made pathetic excuses for herself. Rationalized and forged absurd and impossible futures in which he tired of fucking women he mistrusted and didn’t even like. But it never happened. Emily wondered if, perhaps, Gabriel needed to fuck women and break their hearts fast, like a series of revenge attacks to punish the whole gender for having the same sex organs as the few true monsters who’d hurt him so early and so profoundly.
As the years went by, it seemed as if she had figured right. The friendlier and more unguarded he became with her, the less he touched her, the less they kissed, the more lighthearted the flirting grew. These days, they talked about cooking and cats.
The traffic was terrible along Oxford Street. Emily checked her mobile for the message she knew he had not sent. Gabriel might not be the mentally healthiest person on earth, but she was far worse. Because she kept making the journey. She kept checking her phone. She kept turning up knowing, with blinding certainty, that he was never going to love her the way she loved him. She romanticized her feelings, framing them as some act of sacrificial chivalry; then she spent the rest of the day despising herself for being delusional.
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t tried to stay away. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t tried to reorient her feelings and place them firmly in the realm of friendship. The year before, with some encouragement from a girlfriend, she had attempted to convince herself that all she needed was to meet someone else. There were lots of wonderful men out there. Men who would want her – really want her. And it turned out there were. Emily ended up in a hotel room with a perfectly nice, perfectly attractive man named Geoff. She’d let him fuck her six ways from Sunday. But no matter how hard she tried, she felt absolutely nothing. It took all her self-control to wait until she heard his breath slow into sleep before she dressed quietly, slipped out of the room, called the elevator and vomited heartily into the ceramic planter to the left of it.
Most of the time, she blithely lied to herself. When she didn’t have the energy for that, she admitted her addiction and slid into days of numbed depression. Days when it seemed it was not possible to sleep enough to assuage the terrible need for him or heal the appalling rawness she felt. As if she were walking around the city with her skin reversed; with the meat and the nerves and the tendons facing outwards.
The bus stopped and the doors gasped open at Holborn. It was only two in the afternoon, but already the time of year and the rain had turned the light to a pale, aqueous mauve and the air was heavy with a cold, diesel-scented mist. Emily plunged her hand into her purse in a frantic and unnecessary effort to assure herself she hadn’t forgotten her offering at home. The slim, oilskin covered book was there, as she knew it would be.
Her mobile rang as she stood waiting at the lights. For a moment her stomach clenched and adrenalin surged through her veins, but even before she looked at the caller ID, she knew it wasn’t Gabriel. It was never Gabriel.
“Hi. Emily? Emily is it?”
“I got your name from a colleague of mine. He said you design wonderful websites. We’d very much like to talk to you about designing one for us.”
‘Oh,” she said, flustered, eyes firmly fixed on the blinking green man on the crosswalk lamppost. She turned right and picked up her pace. “Um, that would be great. Can I call you back in a about an hour? I’m just on my way to meet…” she hesitated, “a client.”
“Sure. That would be fine. We need some print work done, too,” said the man on the phone. “You can do that as well, can’t you?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll call you back.”
“Great. My number is…”
She was less than a block from Gabriel’s shop, straining through the gloom to see if the lights were on inside. Scared he’d closed up early and, at the same time, dreading the tinny ring of the bell above the door. The more she heard that little tinkle, the more she was sure it was a chime of derision. Absently, she switched off her mobile, dropped it back into her purse and stepped off the curb of the small street.
* * *
The car was one of those four-wheel drives designed for country roads. It caught her at the hips, lifting her into the air until she came down on the bonnet, crushing her ribs. It wasn’t like the way they show it in films. It was faster than that.
As she lay on the rough road surface, unable to move, Emily looked up at a sky the colour of sleep and hoped the book hadn’t gotten wet. Even as the thought took her, she knew it was pathetic. A crushing pressure bore down on her chest, and it bubbled as she tried to breathe. She coughed. Something broke and sent a shower of bloody saliva up into the cold air and spattered back down onto her face. There were voices around her. Panicked voices – she could hear them – but they were just so many vowels and consonants strung together. All she could think of was Gabriel, who was never going to change his the way he felt. Never going to love her in the way men are supposed to love women. Never going to wake with his arms around her. Never fuck her to sleep. Never let her taste his sweat. Never feel her erect nipples pressing against his back. People weren’t supposed to think about sex when they were dying. She was never going to taste the first few drops of precum on his cock. Never bite into the tendons at his neck. Never feel the roughness of his stubble on her inner thighs. Never wrap her legs around his hips and thrust upwards. Never smell the salt on the palm of his hand. How odd that now those were the things that hurt. More than the legs or spine she could not move, more than the breath she could not take, more than the dark sky getting darker. She closed her eyes and tried, instead, to feel the pain in her body.
Ten years, she thought, is enough.
* * *
*The title of this story is the last line from the Shakespeare play, The Comedy of Errors.