He had a slight pot belly I’d never guessed at underneath his ragged tees. Sweat slicked down the dark, thick hairs of his chest and-- His hand was sketching a movement towards me. I watched it hover, leaden, above me for a moment, before landing on my stomach. A heavy thump, dead weight. I swallowed hard, clenched my fists. Flat on our backs, the covers pushed onto the floor. The not-unpleasant co-mingling of our bodies: he wore too much Lynx, and I washed my hair using this weird herbal concoction, back then. The lingering scent of cigs imperfectly covered by Febreeze. That stuffy dark room, the curtains blocking the midday sun, was so familiar to me, that I could close my eyes and reconstruct it. Still, I can place exactly each pile of laundry, see the curling edges of the OK Computer poster on the far wall. The corkboard over his desk, where he’d pinned the reading list we’d agreed on the summer before, but never got through, and the gig tickets he’d lovingly tacked up in chronological order. Mine had all disintegrated at the bottom of bags, months before.
I remember wondering why the room felt so familiar, when as far as I knew everything was meant to be different now, after what we had done. Wasn’t there some kind of transformation that happened after you did it with your best friend in his narrow single bed? I’d thought there would be an entire shift in my perception of reality. Mostly I was just worried about whether I could wriggle my sagging grey knickers up from round my ankles and back to firmly protecting my modesty without him noticing.
Ten years later and I’m standing in front of his mother, at the wake following his funeral. I’m searching for something, anything to say, when my eye lights on the buffet table.
“These vol-au-vents are lovely,” and as soon as I’ve said it I remember this isn’t the right line.
You don’t compliment the catering at a wake, you talk about the service. It was a beautiful service: that’s the phrase. Except: I’d found it interminably long, alternately boring me with a roll call of facts I already knew, and shocking me without how little I recognized the portrait of the man Ant had become. Would Ant really be seen dead at an Amnesty International local group? Be seen dead at-- even my thoughts don’t seem in line with the solemnity of the day.
In my memory he was so politically apathetic that he was practically allergic to discussions of what he dismissed as “big issues,” refusing to debate the ins and outs of Kosovo with me, or let me read him the darkly underlined passages of The Beauty Myth I thought it was particularly important that he hear. And now some wet-cardigan type had described him as a “dedicated community organizer” at his funeral for chrissakes, which doesn’t seem like the type of venue where you’d wholesale make things up about people, but then – who knows? I’m so overwhelmed by the discrepancies between the specificity of my memory of a moment (his hot palm against my belly in a teenager’s hastily darkened room, the summer of ‘98) and these bland generalizations that for a bleak moment I wonder if I’ve made some kind of sitcom-style mistake and ended up at the wrong funeral.
His mother moves away. I’m left on my own, still by the buffet table. A wake is the worst kind of party not to know anyone at. You’re exposed for not having been a good enough friend in life to know the people who mattered to the deceased. So I stand here trying to look pensive and self-contained, and worrying I look like I’m waiting for more food. I’m trying to untangle my memories into something I can use to describe our friendship, to validate my presence here should I be challenged. But nothing surfaces that I can take out and pass around, to check against other people’s recollections, to make sure I’ve got him right.
It is summer now and my funeral dress, the only black thing I own that isn’t woolen, is glaringly inappropriate: a sun dress, spaghetti straps snaking down my spine. Mark, my fiancée murmured,
“Mmm, sexy,” his voice still laced with sleep, before he remembered where I was going and groaned, “Oh crap.”
I told him not to worry, I didn’t mind, I’d see him in the evening. The problem is, you see, is that I never thought I’d have to be prepared for this.
It was during the summer of the reading list that the subject of sex was first raised.
“How many of them do you think have actually done it?”
I rolled onto my stomach. We’d taken up smoking in the local park as one of our major hobbies, convinced it was a shortcut to edgy cosmopolitanism. I had a stack of books from the library in a CND tote bag, and a bottle of White Lightning I’d blagged from a newsagent. It was a smallish municipal park, more a neat square of green space that separated the tower blocks of the local estate from the main road than a landscape. It was crammed with people who’d spilled out of the blocks and into the sunshine. Three days of weak sun in the midst of a dreary summer and we called it a heatwave, men exposing their lobstered bellys as they meandered across the park, teenage girls dressed in bikini tops and shorts. A group of teenagers were staging a stand-off against flustered mothers in sensible sandals, who were trying to reclaim the swing sets for their kids. An ice cream van did a lazy circuit of the block, only bothering to blast a few seconds of Greensleeves as it reached one of the gates.
Ant looked over towards a group from our school, what you might think of as the popular crowd, if you’d spent too much time watching John Hughes films and trying to fit your own experiences to them (we had). They had that indefinable teenage sheen of brash over-confidence and sexual bravado, which we’d staked our fragile egos on mocking while secretly wondering what the trick of it was. Over the course of the last year they’d ark-like coupled up. School was rife with rumours over who had done it, and how far, exactly, had it gone?
I took a swig of the overheated cider, considering the carefully entwined collection of bodies on the other side of the park.
“I heard Tina Martin went down on Jack Linton round the back of the DT block.”
“Well, we’ve all heard,” Ant said.
“I couldn’t possibly disclose my sources – but I’d say my information is accurate.”
Ant considered this for a moment, before rolling on to his back, staring up at me.
“Have you ever wondered why we’re not doing it, Caro?”
“Who says I’m not?”
Ant barely bothered to dignify this with a roll of his eyes.
“Fine… But I still don’t get your point.”
“Well,” he said sitting up so that he was sat across from me, cross-legged. “Are we, or are we not, the ones who are always talking about cutting ourselves off from this bloody suburban moral circus?”
This was the way we spoke that then, our words clogged with an ironic detachment that barely concealed our insecurities.
“And if this is the case, why aren’t we, like, having some amazing libertine sexual antics of our own?”
“Well, I don’t know about you Ant, but maybe as a feminist I don’t feel the need to define myself solely as a sexual object just yet, yeah?”
This met with a crashing sigh of frustration, the acknowledgment that he knew I was deliberately misreading the subtext.
“You’re daft, you are,” he said, affectionate, as he flopped back into the grass.
The topic was closed. And yet… In retrospect it seems as if all our conversations that summer, even the most mundane, were somehow about sex. And then, there we were, finally in the upper sixth, the biggest kids at school, the people we’d spent seven years waiting to be. Somewhere between filling out our university application forms and groaning over the German case system, we came to the conclusion that it would actually be just unbearable to go to university still not having done it. Just too totally and utterly embarrassing to have to admit to prospective lovers (a word which, with its somehow French sounding sophistication, frightened us) that we’d failed to achieve the most basic aim of teenagers the world over.
Before we knew it, we’d done all we could do: work handed in, exams sat, and five months to kill before we’d move off to university. We felt pretty sure we’d passed our A Levels, but our other shared problem remained stubbornly unresolved. So in between playing video games and watching TV commercials, making a Diet Coke at Burger King last two hours, smoking endless packs of cigs and drinking booze that was no longer illicit, we debated. Where in this dead-end town would we find people cool enough for us to want to sleep with, but desperate enough to want to sleep with us in return?
Eventually, we took matters into our own hands.
At the wake, I’m accosted by a fat man with red hands claiming he was Ant’s best friend at uni. I don’t remember having met him, and feel sure he must have given himself quite the promotion. When I offer that I’m a friend from school he says,
“Oh... You’re Caro. Of course,” in a way that makes me wonder if Ant confided our secret to this oaf.
I’m halfway to being really pissed off with Ant, when I remember that he’s dead.
“Think I’ll just get a breath of fresh air,” I excuse myself, fully intending to head to the garden, but instead drawn up the narrow stairs and back into his bedroom.
I’m shocked at how little has changed, everything still here. And yet, it doesn’t feel real, like a TV-set for a mid-nineties teenager’s room. It smells clean. Like grown-ups. The clothes are all in the cupboard. The bed is hotel-neat. A photo frame of his graduation sits in the centre of his impossibly tidy desk. I slip off my high black courts, seeking relief for my punished feet. I’m half expecting him to come in through the door muttering something like,
“Bloody hell, I keep telling her not to clean in here, she keeps moving all my stuff, it’s a nightmare...”
Knowing that it’s wrong, and that I’ll never be able to if should anyone comes in, I clamber onto his bed, lay back and close my eyes, just for a moment.
“I’m uh... sorry about the um...” he’d said.
“Oh, no, don’t...”
The silence filled the gap between our bodies.
“Did you, uh...?”
The hope and fear in his voice was unmistakable.
“Um. I’m not sure. I dunno...”
“I think you’d know if...”
“Do you want me to...?”
The question lingered there, unfinished, and I felt panicked because I wasn’t sure what he was offering.
“Oh. Oh, no, that won’t be necessary. Thank you.”
I resorted to spouting the words of some prim fifties housewife to conclude our transaction. He swung himself up and round, his back to me.
“It’s probably just, uh... a practice thing” I said, eventually. The moment the words escaped my mouth I realized the implication of what I’d just said, the implicit promise I’d made of more occasions on which we’d be able to practice.
There had been only one thing for it. I pushed everything from my mind, my anxiety about my body, the tightness of a lingering pain, and the ongoing embarrassment that the event itself had been meant to erase. I let it all go. I rolled across the narrow distance of the bed, tickled the soft skin of his sides.
“Well, what was all that anyway? You should’ve seen your face, mate”
He tensed and for a moment I thought I’d got it horribly wrong. But then he laughed and collapsed back tugging me into a hug, close to his chest, contact re-established as our misshapen bodies trembled with uncontrollable laughter.
“What about you? All that breathy stuff! Off-putting much...”
“I - I - I” stammering, I could barely catch my breath through my giggles, “I was doing, my best... Meg.... Ryan!”
And he kissed me lightly on the forehead, and in that simple chaste gesture I knew we were going to be ok. We were best friends.
I’m woken with a shock, a sharp crack of light. My lips are dry, my mouth gluey and tongue stuck. I open my eyes confused and disorientated, when I hear his mum’s voice,
“Oh Caro, I’m so sorry, we thought you’d gone home love.”
I blink up at her, and in the dim light I can see the wreckage of this woman who is not old yet, but has acquired the papery skin and gaunt look of those who have lost too much.
“Oh no, it’s my fault, Mrs. Wolton…I just wanted to feel close to him, I guess.”
She comes and sits down on the bed beside me, places a limp cold palm in my too-warm hand.
“I haven’t cried yet,” I blurt out.
She doesn’t say anything but her grip tightens. We sit like that, clinging on to each other, staring straight ahead, adrift in our own thoughts but anchored together.
Finally, she lets go and stands up, her signal that maybe it’s time for me to leave. She walks me to the door where, hovering on the threshold, she makes contact one last time. The light touch of her hand on my bare arm.
“He missed you, you know, these last few years. He didn’t say it but I knew.”
I think about everything that had passed between us, and everything that hadn’t. Like the gig tickets in my teenage handbag, something that had once seemed so precious had just disintegrated. I’ve never quite got the hang of preserving things. I’d always assumed it would be Ant who would put us right, eventually.
“I miss him too,” I say.
“But you’re happy?”
“Yes...and really Mrs. Wolton I...we would be so happy if you could make it to the wedding...”
“Oh, no. I don’t think that’d be right. But I do hope you’ll stay in touch, love.”
And I say I will, and I know I won’t, and as I walk to my car I wonder if everything should feel different, if I will be different now that Ant – a part of my childhood - is gone, but mostly I’m checking my watch and thinking about how I’ll explain my lateness to the man I share my bed with and what I will and won’t tell him about today.
I drive fast. I do not think about death.
About the author:
Ailsa Bristow is a British writer currently living in Toronto, Canada. With a Masters degree in something called "Issues in Modern Culture," she considers herself in-recovery from academia, and is relearning how to read and write for pleasure. Her fiction has previously appeared in (parenthetical), untethered, and still and still moving. She also contributes TV reviews to the F Word. She can be found online here.