Like all great love stories, it started in the pub. Jonathan snaked his arm around me in a quiet corner and I stared at him like I’d die if I stopped. He told me he loved me on the bridge and he was drunk, then he told me he loved me in the form of a song, and then he really told me he loved me as he was getting dressed and going home.
Jonathan and I were always covered in bruises; my neck would sting to the touch from his midnight chewing. Little pink kisses stained all over our skin, all over his face the smugness of someone who is loved. He would tell people: it’s her! That’s my girlfriend! He’d kiss me until the bell rang and the bouncer told us it was time to go home.
My friends told me about their boyfriends, how they cheat and scorn and batter, and I comforted them, safe in my belief that I had found a love to last forever – and he was nice, too.
* * *
The first time, the house shook slowly at the absence of a kiss. The photo frames rattled and a picture of us landed on the floor, the glass chipped. I looked at you for a little while, and you shrugged, picked it up and put it back on the wall. Every time I walked past it, I stared at the crack. Once, I reached out and rubbed my fingertip along it. I wanted to see if I would bleed.
Sometimes it was more subtle: I was alone and all of my walls turned blank. I lost time. After four hours I heard a beep on my phone and your name, and I didn’t know what had happened. Used tissues surrounded me. My skin was pink. I had a headache and I talked to you and cried.
In your house the cat acted up, or the food burned, or the cans of cider were emptied and I was sick everywhere. You wouldn’t talk to me and you were always doing the dishes or putting the washing out. The air often felt hot, like there was something else in it. Sometimes we caught glimpses of a shadow. We ignored it.
* * *
After a year, the house was cluttered and I couldn’t breathe. Jonathan used to make fun of my claustrophobia. How I couldn’t even manage the cellar in the pub without panicking. He went in for me, bringing extra bottles of pink wine with a wink. I sneaked them into my bag and we got drunk by the football pitch.
I thought the space me and Jonathan had built for each other would always be something sacred and soft. I never expected it to close up my chest and twist my stomach. I couldn’t get out. Jonathan would swallow and ask if I wanted drugs or rum or to watch true crime on TV. His eyes would glaze over, the clear blue flickering with grey, and he’d focus on a spot above my head. I wondered if he felt what I did, but if he did, he never said.
Even when we felt the eyes in the ceiling, when the surfaces of our skin started bubbling, we would lie closer to each other and ignore it. Jonathan would tell me he loves me and that he misses me even when I’m with him, and I told him it was because it didn’t feel like I was really there.
* * *
You stopped shaving your face every other day and I stopped shaving all together. I forgot how to put on makeup, how to talk to others, how to write. When I woke up I thought about you and I thought about us, and I thought about the shadows in the corners of my eyes. The black dots hadn’t started showing yet, but I could feel the itch underneath my skin: something was always wrong. I went to the doctor over and over again, and begged them to give me blood tests and antibiotics. They told me it was fine, it was fine! And I should start taking my meds again.
It wasn’t my meds and I knew it wasn’t anything the doctor could fix. It was something inside of me. I’m still not sure if it was inside of you. I haven’t asked, and you would brush it off anyway, tell me you didn’t believe in stuff like that. I always wondered how someone so rational could love me, a person as much obsessed with the fantastic as I was with myself.
In those days I was a mess, Jonathan, I really was. My body was morphing and breaking and it all felt dizzy. I’m sorry for all the crying, and not noticing that you were fading away like a little memory. I stare at you now, this man I love and yet do not know, and I ache. All of me wants it back, but I can’t.
* * *
You start to live in the shadow of this man; this gorgeous, lovely man, who is no more than a spectre himself. You disappeared one day into a little hole and when you returned you said you’d seen it all: you knew it and it was bad and you said it was always going to keep on happening. The bricks were coming undone, the wallpaper peeling, the plates getting smashed over and over again by no one. Our heads hurt by how much we were putting them together to think of a plan and coming up with nothing.
By now we were in ruins. The black spots were covering my arms and they burnt. I spoke to no one but you, and you spoke to me and your father; a man who had hidden his own spots by drinking. I never saw the black spots on you, but I often knew it had taken over when you went vacant. I am sorry, Jonathan; I feel I ruined you by bringing you into this cursed house. You let me into your world of little wonders, and I dragged the grit and the needles and the thorns into it with me. You tell me it was always like this: long hallways of darkness and a sick feeling in your stomach. You tell me you used to be covered in black dots, all over your arms and your thighs, and they went away once you met me. I said you were just being nice. You looked slightly annoyed and upset.
* * *
What changed? I ask myself and the sky and the street cats. I carry my ghost love like a handful of pins.
* * *
“What is that?” You ask me, staring at the small black blob tussling with itself on the ground. “Is that our love?”
When we finally see it – when it finally exists, has flesh – it is smaller and uglier than we think. It is a shadow with meat and thickness, I can touch it. We look at each other and laugh, like we always have done. It is person-shaped, but the size of a small dog, and it moves like it lives without gravity; or maybe a weed blowing in the wind. It doesn’t have a face but if you look long enough you can see the outline of a mouth. I ask you if you still love me.
“I’ll always love you,” you say, holding me close.
“Then it’s not our love,” I say.
After it left my body the black dots stopped coming, but I felt drained and dead and empty and worse.
“I think it’s my loneliness.”
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