Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Last Time, by Jack Stephens

They were young and in love, of that no-one had any doubt. But when a relationship this intimate begins to turn sour, you can't always predict what will come out of the box. 


She looks into her lover's eyes for the last time, thinking about where it all went wrong...
That first summer had been amazing, at least, a halcyon jumble of lust and sound. They had met through a friend, at a springtime gathering in a pub, or a messy party somewhere, hard to say now. The mutual attraction had been energizing, restorative, she had thought she was too far out of teen age to fall so hard for someone again. During long days between the sheets, he called her his Zooey Deschanel, she couldn't think of an analogue for him, but there they were together for hours on end, ignoring the sun, listening to the rain. They talked about their lives, their hard times, her world-view, his feminist values, he seemed to just get it immediately. The nights were even longer: in the pub with his friends, wine for him, her on beer, endless electric debates about worldly topics. Some of his friends were a little weird, a couple more of them liked the sound of their own voice a little too much, but everyone had their saving graces, everyone had a story, and they had gone through a lot together, an excellent cast of semi-reprobates all told, trying to negotiate their 20s together. Or on the beach with her friends, the chat a bit lighter, usually, and then other times not, the friendships a bit less gladiatorial, lots of grand plans for exciting trips, and ambitious projects up in smoke and forgotten by the end of the night. And occasionally massive blow-outs, a Berlin DJ in some warehouse, a festival somewhere in the countryside that could have done with being slightly less middle-class, everyone agreed, to really go off. Or ketamine and Youtube parties in dingy flats, or after-work drinks in over-priced wine bars, or maybe early furtive attempts at posh dinner parties which always descended into something else. They tried to integrate their groups a bit, and it worked, but never as much as they'd hoped. But nonetheless everyone who knew them agreed that they were great for each other, the famous “cute couple”, if not yet graduated to “power couple”. And laughing, always laughing, never a cross word, nor a sharp word, nor even a disagreement.

It started in the autumn. She couldn't say how, or when, or why, just that suddenly now his moods were a factor. And his indifference. Things he used to find cute now met with no reaction, even her arrival at his place now less of interest than internet news he had already read six times today. Good days were as they had always been, that feeling of falling more in love with every word someone says, and sometimes she had to pinch herself to stay on the earth. But the bad days.. why were they having bad days after five months? On the bad days he seemed to be growing another persona, critical, narky, impatient. Some days he made her feel stupid. She was not stupid.

In November she came out of the bathroom at his house to find him reading her messages. “Who's Jason?” You know who Jason is, he's my colleague... “Why is he sending you so many messages?” Because we're friends, that's what friends do, no?... “Something about his tone.. doesn't seem right to me.. He wants to fuck you.” Well, I don't want to fuck him, I'm taken.. don't you trust me? “Of course I trust you, I just don't trust this fucking guy.” They could have discussed why he was reading her messages, but the argument went somewhere else. The abuse of her privacy didn't seem to cross his mind, but it certainly crossed hers. Not that they ended up discussing much but his feelings, and Jason's.

He apologised that night. Of course he did. When they fucked afterwards he was more into it than he had been for a while, which made one of them. For the first time she felt scared of him.

They moved in together after New Year. Sometimes financial reasons overpower all the others. She told herself that it was the only sensible course of action, that despite her hesitations, she really loved him. He had gone back to stay with family without her for a few days over Christmas and they had missed each other terribly. So it was for the best. He pointed out that they were both struggling to pay for single rooms. He was right, as usual, he joked.

They were seeing their friends a bit less now. The gleeful tornado of socialising and meeting new people from last summer had disappeared. She guessed that was standard in winter; people hibernate, that's normal; a film and a bottle of wine at home, the most normal thing in the world. But her best friend was complaining that they never hung out these days.. “Where have you been hiding?” I'm not hiding, just trying to save money. “Where have you been hiding?” I'm not hiding, just trying to go easy on the booze after Christmas. “Where have you been hiding?” Oh no, I've just been busy at work. Were those things really true? When they ended up on the sofa until midnight watching another shitty American serial, wouldn't that time be better spent surviving the winter with friends in a bar? He didn't seem interested.. the bad days were more frequent now.. he would criticise what she wore, even when she was visiting her parents. Too ugly, too short, not ugly enough.. “who are you showing off for?” The good days were.. well, when the weather improved maybe.

Months passed. The weather improved, but everything else stayed the same. He was stressed at work, could never be arsed with anything else. They stayed in all the time, every weekend, sometimes he went for a drink with work friends, or something, but if she wasn't home on time she knew how he would react, the questions, the suspicion, the unbearable tension. She knew he still read her messages, the difference was that he had stopped apologising. “Can you come round on Saturday, we haven't seen you for ages? Haven't seen your young man for much longer!” I can't Mum, we're busy. “You're always busy!” Yeah..  

She got home in May, exhausted from all the wankers at the office, the many thousands more on the train, and the endless pissing rain. He was spitting with rage. “WHY IS THAT CUNT STILL MESSAGING YOU?” Which cunt? “THAT CUNT JASON!” I haven't seen him for months, since he got a new job. Jason's infraction had been to send a Facebook message: “hey, how's u? We should grab a pint sometime.”

“HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO BELIEVE THAT?” She had never seen this side of him before. Well, almost never. Not that she tried to think about. The fear started first, then the tears. “STOP CRYING YOU BITCH, I'M THE ONE WHO'S BEING CHEATED ON.” When he hit her it felt unreal, like it was happening to someone else. You know it happens to people, but it's always someone else. It couldn't possibly be me, it could never be me, I'm strong, I'm independent, I've got a support network, any guy would know better than to...

Afterwards he was sobbing. Inconsolable. “That's not who I am.. I am so sorry.. You need to believe me... Everything will be different from now on.. I know I've been a prick.. I'll get help.. I'll do anything you want.” Still in shock, she had no idea what to do, or say. Maybe a thousand times she had run this thought experiment through in her head, most with an anonymous perpetrator in the starring role but occasionally with him too. First I'd call my mum, or maybe my best friend, get out of there immediately, get support. Then later the police. Everyone would find out what a piece of shit he is. But a thought experiment is just a thought. And she stayed.

His remorse had seemed sincere, but here's the thing. Just like cheating, the first time you get caught, and all seems forgiven, it dulls the stigma for the next time, the stigma which had been the main safety valve. What comes out of the box comes out forever. For a few days he was contrite, brought her flowers, made her favourite meals, they watched the films she loved that he hated. She was still in shock, but within two weeks his contrition had been replaced by the same moods as previously, just now with no illusions. The second time it happened it was not shock she felt, just so powerless and afraid. Afterwards he sat in silence in the dark for a long time, this time no sobbing, no apology. They didn't speak again until the next day. Another argument started again immediately, and she withdrew from the conversation, withdrawing from him and from herself.

Months passed again. “Girl, where have you been all my life! Miss u!” No response. “Mate, you guys up for the pub on Sat? Been ages!” No response. They were in stasis, at home almost always, watching TV, or online, alone together. Their conversation had run dry, she knew better by now than to disagree with him. They talked sometimes, about plans, trips, neither of their hearts really in it.. certain topics were off limits, because it always ended the same way. Meeting friends was out of the question, how could he be sure who she was with, despite monitoring her messages more closely than his own? So after a while she stopped trying. At work she became more withdrawn, let friendly relationships with colleagues both male and female become distant, in case of awkward questions. She spent hours wondering about his self-awareness: how did he understand what was happening to them? Did he understand it? Did he think about it? How could he reconcile this with his professed beliefs? With his outward image, the “nice guy”? Did he reconcile it? Did he care? And she questioned her own.. how did I get here? How can this be happening to me? TO ME? What have I done to deserve this? And why can't I leave?

Months passed. “Really worried about you babe, would love to see ya and catch up, please get back to me when u can” A contrived response. “Hey! Nah I'm all good, just been so busy with work and all that, feel like I never have time for anything any more!” A team effort, that one. Life was like a cage now, claustrophobic and devoid of air. If no transgression had occurred today he demonstrated a keen imagination for inventing them, so there was always a pre-text, always. Her work suffered, there's a limit to how distant and withdrawn you can be in an open-plan office, and questions were asked at her appraisal. The bosses weren't monsters, but not people she could talk to, and when she went to the doctor it was very much the same story. Signed off with depression, her last remaining excuse for leaving the house was extinguished, and he couldn't disguise his happiness at that, if happiness is the right word. He controlled her every action, her every word. He blamed her for what he was doing, said it was necessary to keep them together, to make the relationship work, that it was out of love. He told her only he would ever understand her, and she him, and he couldn't risk losing her. Would do anything to stop that happening.

She lived in a constant state of fear. Now no day passed without physical violence, and barely an hour passed without emotional violence. Sometimes she would reflect on the person she had been before this started, wondered where that person was, and whether she would come back to save her. Sometimes she would reflect on the person he had been before, who she had fallen in love with so mercurially that summer. Was he gone? Had that person even existed? Was he a weak man who got led astray by the feeling of making someone else's life hell? Or was he always this? What had she missed? How could she have missed it? What made it worst were the embers of love that still burned for him, when he did something cute while sleeping, when he used that funny turn of phrase that no-one else uses quite the same. When her heart still flutters with pleasure at the words “I love you”, despite being bookended by... no.
He gets home from work at about the same time as most days. There's never much socialising for him either now.. working late once a week and that's about it. He's in much the same mood as usual, swearing about colleagues, fellow commuters, anyone and everything. She's sitting on the sofa with a glass of wine, watching some old bullshit on TV. Not really watching.. staring straight ahead. He goes to get changed. “IS THERE ANY WINE LEFT?” Same question as every day.

She goes to pour him a glass, but the wine she pours was prepared earlier. An afternoon trip to the hardware store for a secret ingredient, for a special occasion. Returning to the lounge she hands him the glass and they sit back down on the sofa. She leans on him and pulls his arm around her, snuggling into his side. It's not usual, and he seems surprised, but pleasantly so, and wonders what he's done to deserve it. He takes a long swig on the wine, always a luscious feeling at the end of the day. He reflects that, all things considered, life could be worse. Definitely worse without her. “Does this wine taste alright to you? Got a bit of a weird twang to it.” Nah, should be fine, it's just out of the box..

It's not long before he feels his throat constricting. As he begins to convulse against her body she straightens up and their eyes meet. He's panicking, desperate for her help, and then growing comprehension flickers slowly across his face as she remains calm.

As she looks into her lover's eyes for the last time, thinking about where it all went wrong, she feels that person she was before, sitting beside her, whispering “It's gonna be okay”.

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