“My boy, it is desire and nothing more. You want to possess her. You do not love her.”
I thought about the old man’s words as I stared at the divorce papers.
It was after midnight and I was sitting at a cheap Ikea dining table set up in front of the window of the second bedroom in my small apartment.. My laptop was open but switched off, surrounded by spare hard drives, power supplies, papers, and pens. Over this were draped black and white cables, like vines over a ruined ancient city. A few empty beer cans stood over on one side and the waste paper basket was filled with potato chip bags and fast food containers. The light from a single desk lamp casting stark shadows across the mess.
She was moving fast. She’d only left two months ago, back to her mother’s down in Milton Keynes. It was a separation at first, but how many separations end with the people involved getting back together? It’s a way to get used to the idea that it’s over; to be used when the word “Divorce” is too raw and final. The wound needs to heal somewhat before you rip the bandage off.
The papers were marked with those little yellow sticky notes with the red hand holding a pen, indicating where I was supposed to sign. As I focused on the first one, I felt the world start to spin around it; the red icon the eye of a dizzying hurricane.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I saw the old man standing on the other side of the large, chain-link fence, his words echoing like distant thunder.
I was fourteen years old when I met him. A nerdy, awkward kid with uncontrollable hair and the unfailing ability to always say or do the most inappropriate things at entirely the wrong moments—the verbal equivalent of farting loudly in a crowded elevator—and the previous day I had just publicly confessed my undying love to a girl I barely knew.
For the last two weeks, Annie had and I had been in the same mathematics class together three times a week. The class was arranged into four rows, each row with four two-seater desks, all facing the front. I was inevitably first to class and always made my way to the back corner by the window. I liked being by the window because it provided a welcome distraction from the equations and gossip going on around me. The back corner is also the most invisible spot in any classroom—the students in front all face forward, with the backs of their heads providing some cover from the teacher’s roaming eyes.
Despite it being the best spot, no one would sit next to me unless it was the only remaining option. On that first Tuesday almost a fortnight ago, Annie had been late to class and was left with no choice but to endure ninety minutes with me.
She was blonde, with long curly hair and soft, porcelain skin. And she had breasts. Full, plump breasts that were the envy of her peers, drawing boy’s eyes to them like eager moons around dense planets.
Of course, the presence of a beautiful girl simply served to magnify my social ineptitude.
I should talk to her. I should ask her how she is. I thought as she sat down, instantly causing me to tense up and shift awkwardly in my seat. I glanced at her repeatedly, deciding whether or not she would be open to communication, preparing myself to ask a question.
But I’d left it too long: this tiny barn of confidence was no match for the tornado of my own self-loathing. Go on, then, idiot. Say something. And relax. Fuck, you’re making it weird. Stop being so nervous. She can sense it. She knows you’re a loser. And now you’re chewing your fingernails. No, don’t finger that pimple. Do you want her to know you have shitty skin? Get your hands away from your face. No, not on your lap fuckface, now it just looks like you’re touching yourself under the table.
This continued for a long and paralysing half an hour. I ended up sitting in a horribly contorted and uncomfortable position, afraid to move and staring straight at the clock above the whiteboard.
Then, incredibly, we were given an assignment that required us to work together.
She had turned to me and smiled, which I don’t think I will ever forget. It was sincere and warm and her blue eyes, flecked with green, sparkled, filled with that special kind of confidence that only the naturally beautiful have.
“We should get started,” she said and, with those words, the sumo wrestler on my chest got up and left.
“Shit,” I said, sitting bolt upright and looking terrified. “I have no idea what we’re doing.”
I guess this sudden seriousness about my lack of attention, so disproportionate to the minor nature of the assignment, was comical as, to my utter surprise, she laughed. It sparkled, bright and cheery like morning birds, and I was an instant and hopeless addict. I spent the rest of the lesson doing whatever I could to hear that song again.
I will never know what mysterious force or alignment of the stars took place that day, but for the next hour I was a gifted comedian, able to find side-splitting humour everywhere, even in advanced trigonometry.
“That was fun,” she said when the bell finally rang for the end of class.
I sat, dumbfounded, basking in the glory of my accomplishment. I spent the rest of the day and all of the next wandering around in a daze, replaying those three words over and over again. When I wasn’t mining the three syllables for all of the hidden meanings that I was certain they contained, I was concocting wilder and wilder situations in which we might find ourselves alone together and piecing together exactly what we would say and do that would end in a long and passionate kiss.
None of these fictions prepared for what happened next: the following Thursday—and every maths lesson after—she sought me out. I couldn’t believe it. She had walked in, smiled, and waved. Waved! At me!
True, none of her close friends were in the same class, but she was popular enough that she could have sat next to anyone else and yet she chose me. Repeatedly. Although I never recaptured the magic of that first lesson, our time together was never dull and my life was reduced to two states: the bliss of being with her; and the torturous countdown until I was with her again.
And then I blew it.
It wasn’t hard to convince myself that these feelings I had for her were reciprocated. Hollywood had taught me that personality always wins out; that women loved men that could make them laugh. It had also taught me that grand romantic gestures never failed. Perhaps I couldn’t afford to drive up to her house standing up through a limo sunroof, but a boom box outside a window? That was at a level I could manage.
After another hilarious maths lesson, in which I made her laugh on twenty eight separate occasions (I counted), I sought her out during lunch.
She stood with a group of three friends. As I approached, I imagined that she was telling them all about this wonderful guy in her maths class, that their laughter was from her retelling the jokes we had shared.
Without saying a word, I lowered myself onto one knee, and presented a single red rose which I had bought at the nearby Shell petrol station. Annie blushed, her friends staring at me like hungry hyenas.
“Annie,” I said. “You are the most beautiful girl I have ever known and, in the short time we have known each other, I find myself falling ever more deeply in love with you. Would you do me the honour of going out with me?”
Thinking about those words now still makes me cringe.
Her friends instantly burst into wild fits of cackling laughter. To her credit, Annie took the rose and told me I was sweet but that, no, she couldn’t go out with me. Then she, too, succumbed to the chorus of giggles.
I was suddenly aware of how idiotic I looked, kneeling on the damp concrete in my purple school sweater, and quickly stood up. I mumbled something about it being OK, about seeing her later, then turned and nearly tripped on my bag which I had left behind me, inspiring a second wave of giggling.
Needless to say, word of this act spread quickly throughout the school. Everywhere I went some joker would lower themselves onto one knee, holding out a pen or a soda can as I walked past.
Even my form tutor, Mr Short, was unable to suppress a smile when Philip shouted it out during registration the next morning. The class burst into laughter, and his attempts to make them stop were half-hearted.
I had hoped that the novelty would have faded overnight but the assault continued throughout the morning. Through many other minor embarrassments, I had learned a long time ago that any other reaction than patient acceptance would simply add another log to the bonfire of humiliation and so I would smile begrudgingly at whoever was confessing their love to me that day.
My general social inadequacy left me relatively friendless through the trying years of secondary school but even the small friendship group I did have—a mishmash of science nerds; trench coat wearing death metal heads, and video game geeks (video games, at that point, still being the singular domain of the social pariah)—joined in. What made it worse with my so-called ‘friends’ was that I was required to join in; to play the part of the beau and accept or reject their advances or else be told to “lighten up” or “get a sense of humour”.
There is a mean streak that exists in the perpetually bullied. Give them a little power and, fuelled by a long-developed sense of righteous injustice, they themselves can quickly turn into the most sadistic of bullies.
So I was grateful when the lunch bell finally rang and I could disappear for an hour.
The secondary school I attended had a large sports field surrounded by a six-foot high chain-link fence. We weren’t supposed to go out there during lunch breaks but it wasn’t hard to slip out behind the technology building. If you could make it along the fence and out to the farthest point without getting caught, there were a few trees that stood together and provided shelter from being seen.
I sat leaning against the fence, slouched down with my legs propped up against one of the trees, eating my lunch and musing upon how little the world understood me; how deep and profound and sensitive I was compared to all of their petty shallowness.
“You do not even know her,” said a voice behind me, making me drop my cheese sandwich. I jumped up and turned to see a man on the other side of the fence. He was old, older than any human I’d ever seen at that point, and completely bald. His clothes were odd, an ill-fitting pair of crimson slacks and a crimson shirt, as if someone had told him about the concept of shirts and trousers but he himself had never seen them and had simply guessed at what they should look like. He had deep lines across his face and his eyes were sunken and dark but yet full of life, lit up by the broad grin that sat underneath his long, white goatee.
“What the fuck?” I shouted.
“Your gestures, they are empty,” he continued, waving his hand vaguely. “All surface, no substance.”
“Are you…looking for someone?” I asked.
“It seems I have found someone.”
“Weirdo.” I grabbed my bag and went to leave.
“This girl. This Annie. What do you really know about her?” He said behind me.
I paused. This man was clearly insane, but he was old and frail and apparently harmless. Besides, my only other option was to head back to the yard and face the sideways glances and barely concealed snickers for the rest of the lunch break.
He stroked his goatee as he talked. “You know nothing of her. Your gestures, they are as generic as the rose you gave her. You think you know love, but you only know the idea of love.”
“I know about love,” I said, annoyed that this man presumed to know my depths. “I know what it is to feel love. I can’t get her out of my head. I think about her all the time.”
His laugh was a strange, high pitched hooting noise. “My boy, it is desire and nothing more. You want to possess her. You do not love her. I ask again: what do you really know about her?”
I thought about those breasts.
“All I need to know,” I said.
“What music does she like?” He asked. “And films? What does she watch? Does she read books? Does she paint or sing or ride horses?”
I thought about the last two weeks, about everything we’d talked about. Surely I’d asked her about all this stuff? At that moment, however, I recalled nothing.
“Come, I need to show you something,” he said, finally.
“Show me something? Where? I can’t. I’m not supposed to leave school and, anyhow, there’s no way through this fence. Vincent found a hole once, down by the goal posts, but they closed that one after he ran off.”
The man laughed his hooting laugh again.
“This is no problem,” he said. “Close your eyes.”
“Come on. There is nothing to fear. I am an old man and you could knock me down with the slightest push.”
“I never said I was scared.”
“So close your eyes.”
I sighed the defiant sigh of put-upon teenagers everywhere, and closed them.
“OK, open then.”
The old man was standing next to me. I scrambled backwards, tripping over a large tree root and ending up on my ass. More hooting.
“How the fuck did you do that?!” I asked, staring up at him wide-eyed from the floor. I felt the ground around me moving backwards and forwards, my sense of reality balanced precariously on a thin point, ready to come tumbling down one way or the other.
“Come,” he said, suddenly serious. “I have something important to show you that I think you should see.”
I pulled myself up, and found my hands were shaking.
“Relax,” he said. He smiled, his face radiating a sincere and benign warmth that I found immensely calming. I took a deep breath. “Good,” he continued. “Now, follow me. Close your eyes, and walk slowly towards the fence.”
I did as he said. The fence rang out with an enthusiastic jangle and I jumped back, more in shock than pain, as my face hit the cold metal links. I opened my eyes, seeing him on the other side again, hooting away.
“You need to relax,” he said again after regaining his composure. “Close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice.”
I closed my eyes.
“We are composed of tiny atoms, held together by minuscule forces,” his voice had dropped an octave and I felt a gentle rumble in my chest as he continued in a soothing monotone. “The solidity of reality is an illusion. Think of space, of the universe, of how easy it is to pass between the impossible spaces between planets. Keep this image in your mind and walk forward slowly. Feel like you’re floating on a cushion of air.”
He continued to talk but the words became incoherent. I felt something that like a mild electric shock, but pleasant.
“That was easy!” He said brightly.
I opened my eyes. “Holy shit,” I breathed. I was on the other side of the fence.
He nodded with approval. “Come now, we mustn’t waste time.”
He walked surprisingly quickly and I struggled to keep up. I bombarded him with questions about what just happened but he just kept walking forward, staring straight ahead, a serene smile on his face.
We walked down a winding road, past large, three bedroomed houses sitting smugly behind well-kept front lawns, the driveways next to them leading to double garages. Most of these driveways were empty, but those that weren’t featured shining, new-looking cars that glinted in the afternoon sun. Birds sang from young trees planted along boundary edges, intermingled with the joyful shouts of toddlers playing in back yards.
It looked idyllic, and yet…
“So you feel that,” said the old man suddenly, as if he had just tuned into my thoughts. “Good.”
We continued walking, an unease growing in my chest. The road was actually a cul-de-sac and, as we turned the last corner, the road opened up into a large turning circle. Three impressive houses were spaced evenly around it, with the most impressive sitting directly opposite.
Overhead, clouds were building.
The circular driveway framed a beautifully kept lawn and colourful flower bed that sat like a painters palette, reds, blues and yellows intermingling against the dark earth. Small bushes, shaped into perfect cones, were spaced evenly next to the brick drive which led up a perfectly symmetrical building. Two large bay windows flanked the white columned porch steps and imposing black door and the top half of the house was modelled on old English thatched cottages, painted white with exposed black wooden beams framing the windows. On the driveway, in front of the door, sat a brand new BMW.
I was hit by a wave of nausea as the front door opened and a striking young woman stepped out. She was immaculately dressed in a figure hugging knee length black dress and high heels; her long golden hair shining in the sun. She turned back and struggled to pull a pram out the door and down the steps.
The house grew dark and menacing. I tried to focus but felt everything shifting around me. I concentrated my attention on her and the world stretched out, like I was staring at her through a long mirrored tube. The columns around her seemed to flex and bend, warping into hideous shapes around her. The wooden beams becoming fluid, like a thick tar, morphing into horrific sticky black web around the woman. As she pushed the pram down the driveway, the lines of the car stretched out into a sneer behind her.
The nausea grew, my stomach twisting and churning like the world around her. I felt dizzy.
“We have to go,” I said, gagging. “I’m going to be sick.”
The old man nodded once and we turned. Instantly, the world snapped back to normal. I blinked and shook my head a few times. I leant over, resting on my knees, breathing deeply. Eventually, the nausea passed and we walked back the way we came. I didn’t look back.
Neither of us said anything until we reached the fence again. I stood staring at the floor for a long while, before finally looking up at him. His face had softened and he smiled at me, but it was a smile mixed with pain.
We stood in silence. Just as I was about to ask him about what we had seen, the bell rang in the distance, signalling the end of lunch.
“You must go,” he said. “Close your eyes.”
I nodded, closed my eyes and stepped forward slowly, feeling the mild electricity again. When I opened them again, he was gone.
I went back every day for weeks afterwards, hoping to see him again. I never did.
The thoughts of that afternoon distracted me from the ongoing daily torment. I barely noticed the taunts and mockery and the world grew tired of my lack of reaction until, eventually, my story was replaced by that of Daniel’s suspension after putting a chair through a window.
I never spoke to Annie again.
A car passed outside and I opened my eyes. The office was cool but comfortable. I sat for a moment, feeling the weight of the papers in my hands, the mild texture.
Finally, I picked up a pen and went through the document, signing next to the yellow stickers. I hesitated for a moment above the last one, then scribbled my signature. She was now my ex-wife, the promises I made eleven years earlier broken by the casual flick of a pen.
As I set her free from me, I realised that I had truly loved her; that I loved her still.