Melissa and Dan were one of those couples who insisted they were happy.
Sometimes Mel would show me her Instagram feed, and it would be nothing but beaming couple-photos punctuated by brunches, as though that proved anything.
Dan would say things like, ‘Yeah it’s actually pretty great’ and ‘I’ve never been happier, actually.’
I haven’t told him that I think ‘actually’ is his tell, the chip in his windshield. I have the impression that, if I got him tipsy enough, the chip would burst into a web of cracks and the whole thing would explode out of him, the whole gut-wrenching truth of it.
The closest I got to honesty from Mel was at the messy end of a wedding party, when she slurred, ‘Well, no relationship is perfect, is it?’
They like to say it was a fairy-tale romance. We all know they met on Tinder. And this was six years ago, when Tinder was a grubby free-for-all. But, however they met, I have to admit that it’s worked well enough since. Six years. Not married yet, though.
‘You should get into it,’ Dan told me recently, with a wink. ‘Someone might finally straighten you out.’
‘Already tried online dating. Hated it. No thank you.’
‘You’re too old for clubs, mate,’ he pointed out needlessly. ‘Time to try something new.’
I knew Dan through Mel, and we soon became fast friends through our mutual love of American short stories. He was charming and friendly. It was Dan who eventually convinced me to move on and try again.
I suppose the apps were fine. I was put off by how superficial and flippant it all seemed. But in two days I remembered how brutal it could be.
Mel wasn’t very happy with me. I could tell by how she baked. Mel had two ways of coping with life. The first was self-medication, and the second was a constant schedule of activity. She’d told us we were making jam that weekend, and she stirred the hot mixture around the pan with the energy of a cement mixer. ‘We’ve been friends for how long and you didn’t ask for my advice on this?’ she said.
‘I’m doing all right, thank you very much,’ I said proudly. ‘Look – six matches in a week. This one even replied.’
‘Only six? We live in Manchester, not Guernsey. Let me see.’
Mel wiped her hands and took my phone. By the time the jam had cooled she’d summarised my wordy profile into three short sentences, then added that I was a geochemist.
‘That can’t make a difference?’ I said.
‘It’s not about the money. It’s about showing you aren’t a useless layabout who she’ll have to cook and iron for.’
‘Don’t be too choosy when you’re swiping,’ Dan instructed one Sunday, as we scoured Waterstones to find gifts for Mel’s birthday. ‘You’re dating, it’s a chance to see if there’s something out there you didn’t realise you were looking for. You don’t want to get stuck with the wrong person too soon.’
It was difficult to strike up a conversation with some of the people I matched with. The expectation seemed to be that I should be entertaining from the very first message, somehow witty and humble without coming across like a boring nerd or, worse, a dickhead. A simple ‘hi’ never got me anywhere, but an inoffensive quip about one of her photos usually got a response. There might be a formula for this, I thought out loud. There should be websites dedicated to tricking women into thinking you were dateable.
‘There already are,’ Dan laughed.
‘Oh. Should I take a look?’
‘Absolutely not,’ said Mel.
Once the ice was broken, I could be myself. If things didn’t go anywhere after that, it just wasn’t a good fit.
I went on a lot of first dates. Four out of five people were clearly just out of serious relationships. Their frailties showed through their expressions, like light through a split lampshade. The few people I was drawn to were distant, disinterested. One woman, a corporate lawyer, replied intermittently and unenthusiastically, late in the evening when I sensed she was bored. I won’t pretend it didn’t bruise my ego.
It was also plain that there were simply too few people out there who I might come to like, and who might, mind-bogglingly, like me back. The abundance provided by the apps highlighted the astronomical unlikelihood of my ever meeting someone who wasn’t broken, weird, attached or my polar opposite. I’d have settled for a few shared interests, but it was hard to even get a conversation flowing. Still, I found I was quite pragmatic about the chilly realities of online dating in your early thirties.
‘There’s something about hitting thirty-six that seems to send some people a little crazy,’ joked Emma, a copy-writing Literature grad originally from Leamington Spa, who I matched with Tuesday morning. ‘I plan to kill myself at thirty-five.’
We were on our first date that Thursday evening.
* * *
Lately, when I’m almost asleep, my brain flickers through everything that happened with Emma in weird phantasmagorical detail, a flicker-book in the neon colours of a wet Tokyo street.
For the first date, I chose a respectable bar with warm, low lighting. It served tapas and snacks, in case we got hungry; on Thursdays they held a salsa class, the energy of which I hoped would make up for my nervous quietude. But she had a quality that drew me out of myself, got us talking.
Thankfully, she didn’t ask me to dance. She liked to, but she also did many of her favourite things lying down. ‘Reading. Watching TV. I like to plan my next trip on my phone in bed. It helps me get to sleep,’ she said.
A tasteless joke came to mind. In a breezy silence that I filled with a sip of Shiraz, her eyes twinkled at me in gratitude for my grown-up restraint. By the time I set my glass back down, we were smiling at one another.
* * *
‘It went pretty well,’ I told Mel later. Emma was not only as attractive as her photos suggested, she was lively, with a sparky sense of humour. We’d joked about the brusque entitlement that seemed peculiar to online dating – ‘Have you been “hey strangered” yet?’ Emma asked me, using her little finger to stroke a strand of hair away from her mouth. ‘Nothing like being ignored after the third date and then expected to pick up where you left off two months later.’
Between us we’d been stood up, ghosted, blocked, breadcrumbed, kept in orbit and catfished. Emma had been actively dating since the start of the summer – almost eight months – but had mostly been disappointed.
‘I don’t often bother with a second date unless I really get a good vibe,’ she told me.
‘What did you say to that?’ Mel asked me, leaping off the armchair onto my back like a child. We fell onto the sofa and I extricated myself from my friend’s demanding grasp, grinning.
‘I’m seeing her again Saturday.’
‘I suppose it’s amazing…,’ I said.
‘Isn’t it? What exactly are you looking for?’ she asked, disengaging to take two beers out of the fridge. I thought she was about to offer me one, but she was pouring them down the sink. Mel was having one of her booze clear-outs to help her with her latest sobriety effort.
‘Any red flags?’ she asked, rinsing out the empty bottles.
‘She’s three years younger than me,’ I said. ‘Does that make her a different generation? Will she be all into Instagram and ironically stupid stuff?’
‘Three years is nothing, you gargantuan bore. Even Dan and I … Well, anyway. Did you say she had a Cath Kidston coat? You should take her some of our delicious strawberry jam. It’ll be quirky, she’ll love it. Trust me.’
* * *
On Saturday, I met Emma at Alessandro’s in the Northern Quarter, an Italian place Emma had suggested. Once we’d given the waiter our orders, Emma said, ‘So, I told a friend of mine about you.’
‘Oh?’ I said. ‘Is that a good sign?’
‘He asks about every date. He’s a massive gossip. He likes to spread it around our book club, which is annoying because one of the women there is obsessed with me.’
‘You’re not interested?’ I asked.
‘Her favourite novel is Fifty Shades Freed.’
Over our starters, we filled each other in on the boring stuff we hadn’t wanted to bog down the first date with: number of siblings and the details of our jobs.
The conversation turned to tentative probing for warning signs in our romantic histories. When she told me about her strained relationship with her mother, who had died after five years of Alzheimer’s in a home that Emma hadn’t once visited, I repaid her openness with the story of my once-fiancé, six years prior, who had fallen pregnant with another man’s baby.
‘Oof, that can’t have been fun,’ she said.
‘I should have been tougher, kicked her right out. She’d moved in with me about a year earlier. I was paying all the rent. I let her stay for another two months while her boyfriend decorated a room in his flat for the baby.’
How embarrassing, to reveal my pathetic weakness so soon in the relationship, and to a woman who exhibited nothing but confidence.
‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘It took me three months to muster the courage to break up with my last partner. No great loss. He thought Raymond Carver was a TV chef.’
Yep, she liked American short stories, too. It’s amazing what promising little signs you cling to after dating so many oddballs. Here was someone I could talk to, without expectations or judgements, who didn’t mind my average looks or aversion to social media. It was a relief to know that I could relax and be myself, and I sensed the same in her, too. A lowering of her shoulders, a smile that came easily to her wide, bright face.
‘Got any weird interests?’ she drawled, narrowing her eyes and raising one eyebrow in mock suspicion.
‘You brought it up, you’d better go first.’
‘Yeesh. I don’t know. I used to own two chameleons? Not anymore, they only live about three years. Now you. Quid pro quo, pal.’
‘One of my things is letting my friend Mel choose our weekend activities. She likes to wind me up by making me do stuff she knows I’d never try otherwise. This week we made jam. Um, this might be weird, but I brought you some.’
I took out the heavy jar and placed it on the table next to the unlit candle. It was exactly as the waiter came with our main courses. Emma and I looked at the jam in courteous silence as the plates of food were placed between us and the waiter asked if we wanted anything else. We said no thank-you. After he left, we burst into relieved laughter.
‘Thanks!’ she said at last. ‘I can’t turn down a good fruit conserve.’
I’d ordered chicken cacciatore, because it reminded me of a sunny afternoon I had in Rome once, on a peaceful vacation after my engagement fell through. She shared her mushroom linguine, but wouldn’t hand me the fork. She held the fork herself, forcing me to eat it off the tines, one loop after another. ‘Come on, suck it! Suck it!’ she ordered, laughing, and I got cream sauce on my face and sweater but refused to bite down on the pasta and end my torment, refused to let her win the game. Once the pasta was finally gone from her fork she put it in her mouth and said around it, like a cigar, ‘You did good, kid, real good. Now wipe yourself off.’
I attacked my stained top with a napkin, warm in my cheeks. ‘I need a shower.’
Emma shrugged. ‘I have a shower at my place.’
Full of a new confidence I hadn’t felt in a long time, I quipped, ‘No dessert first?’
‘I don’t think I could still respect you if I watch you eat another thing. We should make a move now, before it’s too late. Besides, if we get peckish, we have the jam.’
* * *
We took a taxi to her apartment in a high-rise on the edge of the city centre. We were both too shy to try anything in the back seat. Heat radiated between our palms when we held hands, faintly embarrassed by the childish intimacy. She murmured that it was unexpected to meet someone she could be herself around. Perhaps nervous, she looked out the car window. I took a deep breath and kissed her neck. She leaned into it, and when I pulled back she was smiling.
‘Oh,’ she blurted ten minutes later, with the key in the lock of her apartment on the seventh floor. ‘Um, don’t be nervous about the axe on my wall. It’s just a replica from this show I used to watch with my Dad when I was little. When he died he left it to me as a joke. Last laugh’s mine, though, ‘cause I’m not remotely embarrassed.’
We passed through the threshold into an open plan kitchen-lounge. It was a big place. There was, indeed, a twin-bladed axe mounted on the wall opposite the door, above a row of low bookcases. An L-shaped sofa reached around two sides of a whitewashed wooden coffee table. There were plants, photos and exotic ornaments on various surfaces. On a second table beside the kitchen counter was a large glass vivarium. Inside, I could see a branch and some sprays of plastic greenery. The once lamp-lit home of the deceased chameleons.
I was still looking at it, feeling a change in the atmosphere of the room – probably the moving air caused by our entry into the apartment – when Emma dropped her keys on the coffee table and whirled around to kiss me. We took our time.
With her arms still around my neck, she said, ‘Drink?’
We kissed again, separated; I uncorked a Malbec whilst she drew some clinking glasses from a cupboard. From either side of the kitchen counter, she in the kitchen and me in the lounge, we filled our glasses. We moved to the sofa and made flirtatious chatter for a while.
After I excused myself to go to the bathroom, I peered at my reflection as I washed my hands. I was taken aback by the brightness of my eyes. I looked five years younger than I had the week before. Returning to the lounge, I felt weightless and loose.
‘I’m in the bedroom,’ Emma called from behind a closed door. ‘Just give me a sec, I’ll be right out.’
I sat on the sofa and tried not to look at the axe on the wall. The wine was good. It had gone a little to my head – my third glass of the evening. Emma’s glass, resting on a bamboo coaster on the table, was already drained.
She called again from the bedroom. ‘Are you going to be good, now?’
‘Of course!’ I replied.
The bedroom door opened. She stepped onto the carpet of the lounge with bare feet. For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. It was so unexpected that it didn’t seem to imprint upon my brain. The shapes were familiar but it was like my operating system had frozen.
When I finally understood what my eyes were seeing, I realised that I was experiencing more of the sense of humour that made Emma so attractive. I laughed at the joke, but I could see in her eyes that my slightly nervous chuckle hadn’t connected with her ears. Her expression remained unchanged; she just moved her shoulders and arms languidly, looking up at the ceiling. She wasn’t trying to be funny. It wasn’t a joke.
She was dressed in a lizard costume. It had been made for adults, but was childishly cartoonish, made of luminous green Lycra except for a sequinned yellow circle over the stomach and vividly pink spines running down her head and back. Only her face was visible; the stretchy hood of the outfit circled her eyes and mouth, covering her ears. She wore a pair of green monster-claw gloves, vastly outsized. Her feet were bare and white.
‘I’m a lizard,’ she said, stroking her toes over the thick rug. She turned around and showed me her long tail, then rotated on one foot like a ballerina to face me again. The outfit was probably meant to be a non-specific dinosaur of some kind.
I stretched my lips into a neutral smile. ‘Yes you are.’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Suddenly she was beside me. Almost imperceptibly quickly, she had darted across the room in a low, hunched position, moving sinuously and with total dedication to the role. She looked willowy in the clinging bodysuit, like a shaved-headed child or a crash test dummy. One giant fluffy monster claw rested on my sternum. She smelled of talc and ever so slightly of bruschetta.
Looking intensely at me with her tunnel-like brown eyes, she licked her lips in a flash and then pushed me back a step. I felt the couch behind me and sat down hard. A stiff rustle told me that I was sitting on an open magazine. I couldn’t take my eyes of Emma, who was now backing away from me. She spun around and placed both her hands on the wall at about head height and looked over her shoulder at me, waggling her stiff foam tail.
‘I’m a lizard. If you pull off my tail then it’ll just grow back. I look slimy but I’m not. I’m not slimy at all.’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Pull it!’ she snapped, scrunching her eyes closed. ‘Pull off my tail! Pull it off!’
I swallowed something the size of a golf ball and remembered Emma telling me to suck down her linguine. I didn’t want to think about it. Or, maybe I just didn’t want to be rising from the sofa and walking gingerly across the room to take a spongy green lizard’s tail in my hands and tugging.
‘Pull it off! No predator can hold me! I want you to pull my tail off. I’m not going to beg!’
I pulled on the tail. There was a scrunchy sound. Emma, her hands still against the wall, head lowered to her chest now, thrust her backside toward me. I got a better grip on the tail and yanked. The Velcro fasteners ripped apart and Emma sighed in satisfaction.
‘I can feel my cells dividing,’ she said, writhing. ‘My cold body is regenerating.’
Despite myself, I felt a twitch of arousal at her tone of voice. We stood an inch apart, me still clutching the disengaged tail, Emma turning to look up at me. She planted both monster claws on either side of my face. The cotton mitts had no traction on my face but, heaven help me, I lowered my lips to hers and we kissed deeply. Even as the heat of her mouth and a heart-fluttering adrenaline rush hit me, I wondered if I were taking advantage of a mentally ill person. Her tongue tasted of onion and olive oil.
When I pulled away, she pressed her lips together and took a deep breath.
‘I want something sweet,’ she said.
‘The jam! Get it.’
Emma had put the jar into her handbag. Now she watched me respectfully dip my hand inside for the jar and then remove it, closing the bag afterwards.
‘Take the lid off.’
I unsealed the jar with a loud pop. She grunted at the sound and skittered towards me. With a single swift outward jerk of her arms, she divested herself of the monster claws, revealing pale human paws. Into the jar of jam she thrust her long fingers. She swiped strawberry preserve in a thick, gelatinous arc across her forehead. Then two more along the lines of her cheekbones. I looked at the smears of lumpy red jam and wondered if I’d somehow triggered this.
‘Be a wasp!’ she demanded. She clenched her eyes shut again and staggered backwards towards the sofa, dragging me by my sauce-stained top. I almost fell on top of her with my full weight before I could pull free. ‘Be a wasp, you’re a big nasty wasp!’ she screeched.
‘Um, buzz,’ I said. She was scrabbling at the hem of my sweater. I held my body aloft with one hand, gripped her ribcage with the other. I had no hands free for acting. Go with it! I heard Dan say in my head. Enjoy yourself, mate!
‘Actually…,’ I said.
‘Yes! No! Keep away from me, with your ugly face and nasty stinger!’
I can’t say I made mental note of the mad script that we were ad-libbing together. All I know is that I felt as stupid as a grown adult can possibly feel, whilst also being painfully aroused in a way that I’m not proud of. Half-leaning, half-standing over the couch, I was unsupported and unbalanced.
Meanwhile, Emma swatted at me, thrashing her head left and right, knocking cushions off the couch. She raked my bare stomach with her fingernails, which were red and sticky with the jam. Syrupy sweetness filled the air.
‘No! No!’ she barked. ‘Leave my sugar alone!’
‘I think … Actually….’
I grabbed her wrists and used the leverage to push against her and stand upright. I took two steps back and probably held up my hands, like someone about to be mugged. My sweater fell back down, sticking to the jam on my stomach.
‘Sorry, but I think I’d better go,’ I said, trying not to think about the axe on the wall.
She sat up on the sofa and looked baldly at me. In a tone of voice now nostalgically normal, she said, ‘Are you serious?’
‘Yeah, this isn’t really … Sorry.’
An expression of contempt filled the circular green boundary of her hood. ‘What? Jesus, this is nothing. So I have a thing, what’s wrong with you?’
I mumbled some excuses and retrieved my coat from the arm of the sofa. There was red jam on the back of my hand. The seeds of doubt quivered inside the gelatinous blob of my anxiety. Then I steeled myself and took off.
* * *
In the taxi, I told Mel and Dan by text to prepare themselves for a full report. ‘Come over,’ Mel replied. Dan began typing something, but changed his mind. I went to their flat in New Islington rather than going home to stew in my own disappointment.
When I got there I found Mel alone, wallowing on the couch with several empty bottles in a neat triangle on the coffee table. ‘Dan just left me,’ she announced loudly.
Was I surprised? I’d always thought of their relationship as like a battered old book. The glue binding had mostly turned to dust and it would need only one good shake to scatter the pages across the room. As soon as one of them got the flu, or was depressed, or when they were rained in on holiday, the loose leaves would start slipping out.
‘It’s because I tried to stop,’ she said, indicating the beer bottles. ‘It turns me into a bitch. But how am I supposed to tolerate him otherwise?’
We’d had this conversation many times. I would ask her why she was in the relationship in the first place, and she would say, ‘What should I do, start dating again? I mean, this is why we go through all of that, isn’t it? To get to this.’
Whatever variation of that reply she gave, I would usually wait her out in silence.
David Brookes is a writer currently living in the UK, from where he runs his editing firm The STP Literary Service. He has stories published in many magazines including Scrittura, Every Day Fiction, Electric Spec, Pantechnicon, Bewildering Stories, Whispering Spirits, Morpheus Tales, The Cynic and Aphelion.