It was a Sunday morning, the morning after the night before. I was lying in my girlfriend’s bed, next to me her slow breathing serenaded the slowly brightening sky outside the bedroom window. While she floated through her subconscious I was busy formulating an exit strategy from the relationship I was about to torpedo with the truth.
When the taxi deposited me outside her apartment I entered the building and made way up to her place on the fifth floor. I took the stairs, the elevator would deliver me to my fate too quickly. I needed time to think. I could not decide whether to own up to what I had done immediately or postpone judgment until much later when the truth, as it is wont to do, finally came out. Part of me felt as though I should hold out; another part said I should circumvent inevitability, get ahead of the narrative and, hopefully, steer it towards an outcome not too unfortunate for me.
Too soon my pensive steps brought me outside my girlfriend’s place; decisions were still scattered all over my mind. I was not prepared. I stood outside her door for a while and then took a deep breath. I sent her a text message.
It’s me. I’m outside.
It was late, going to one. Perhaps I should have gone back to my place and taken some time to think about…whatever it was I had to think about. The irony of sleeping on the thought of having just slept with someone else did not escape me. I silently hoped my girlfriend would be asleep. That the door would not open. That after a few minutes of waiting I would be permitted to take leave of her ominous door knob and go home.
We were in the early phase of our relationship. Our conversations meandered over numerous topics, we found strange delight in each others’ obscure film tastes, and we showed healthy interest in each other’s friends—her friends were polite, accepting, boring; mine fell short of many standards but she was polite to them, she accepted the oddity of my company with a courteous curiosity. Other people, including my parents, ex-girlfriends, and long-term acquaintances, never failed to communicate the dissonance between my personality and the company I kept within two hours of meeting them: why do you hang around these assholes?
I had my reasons. They are discussions for another time.
You knew our relationship was still in its nascence because we had not yet looked over the personal attributes of our separate beings and began corralling the traits we considered most desirable, choosing the things we considered the most beneficial to the gene pool of our fledgling union; the culling of annoying habits, tastes, and people which made up the unchecked herds of our personalities had not yet commenced. When the time came for things to become serious I knew, from past experience, that a few of my friends would be taken to the knackers. To ensure the scales of justice were balanced she would have to lose the horrible paisley decorations around her apartment, and the Daredevil poster which hung in a corner of the lounge—a vestige of an ex-boyfriend with poor taste in superheroes.
We were still enjoying the newfangled sensation of “we” and “us.” Expectations were kept to a minimum, responsibilities were avoided. In me she found a patient and observant—but disturbingly blunt—listener, my sense of humour found a victim. Fun was the only thing on our minds. Every day had to be fun.
I guess it is a necessary phase in a relationship. There has to be a little bit of magic before the curtain comes down otherwise people in the audience start demanding refunds. There has to be magic, there must be a show. So we made out in public; we held hands; I indulged her fondness for insipid romance novels where love on the high seas, and lust in Amazonian jungles between landed gentry and poor, lonely, but curvaceous working-class women were the order of the day. The newness of our relationship diffused through our social circles. We were caught up in the madness of reinvention, falling in love with the illusions of our better selves.
The lunacy of our attraction is why, for example, I was standing outside her apartment at such a late hour. The show had to go on. We had to have quality time. Even if it was at the witching hour we were going to be goddamn romantic.
I heard a sound on the other side of her door. A key clicked.
One o’clock in the night is not a time when human beings are at their prettiest, kindest, or most sensible. Ties are usually undone and slung around necks, symbols of stylish nooses worn proudly during the day; makeup is tired and in need of master painters to restore it to its powdery beauty. Heels are regretted, unused condoms burn holes in pockets. At this time of the night people are fatigued from the effort of being human.
They look like…death.
But not my girlfriend. Emma. When she opened the door to her rent-controlled one-bedroom she looked like my arrival was the highlight of her night. She wore a sheer night slip which allowed the imagination to feast on whatever scraps the eyes were not devouring. Underneath the suggestion of clothing I could see her figure, demure in the daylight camouflage she wore to an anonymous non-profit job in the city, but deviant and petite in its nocturnal and nude habitats. Toned legs gave way to round hips and a smooth, flat stomach, topped with small breasts. A constellation of freckles clouded some of the space on her nose, her auburn blaze cascaded around her small face, hiding a pair of elfin ears. A shy smile slid its way across her small mouth and reached up to her dark, brown eyes.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I replied. It came out much softer than I had anticipated. I could feel my higher faculties relegating rational decision-making duties to their lower-placed subordinates beneath my belt line.
I walked into her lounge. It was ordered, the aforementioned paisley harassed my eyes from various cushions, a tablecloth, and one lampshade. She came up behind me and hugged me, her arms circling my stomach, her face pressed into my back.
“Missed you,” she said.
“Hmm…” I replied.
She circled me and pulled me down to kiss her. Her softness made contact with my body, prompting firing synapses to reciprocate her touch with a certain hardness. The night shift was on duty. We parted and looked at each other briefly before I found myself tuning into the frequencies of lust and turning up the volume knob. The familiar melodies of her body made us stagger to her bedroom where we fell into heated entanglement. The mandatory awkward fumbling with belt buckles commenced, shirt buttons whose duty it is to add giggling frustration to the proceedings promptly posed detached obstacles to her wandering hands. We finally managed to free me from my clothing and dumped it in a heap on the floor. I reached into the drawer on the bedside table and fumbled around for a latex safeguard and expertly slipped it on without losing momentum. She rolled on top of me and pressed me into the sheets with her weight.
I shifted my body a little to make myself comfortable and, for the second time in the same night, I found myself playing the orgasm lottery, albeit with a different machine.
The male orgasm, in case you did not know, is a game of luck—you never know when the game will end, or how it will end. It is incorrectly assumed that it is a pleasurable certainty, inexorable by its purported simplicity and gratuitous occurrence in the male species. It is not. It is tricky. As soon as the coin is inserted and the handle is pulled the mind sieves through memories and thoughts, trying to settle on a winning combination. Mine raced through vignettes of the past couple of hours: the unforced laughter; the teasing; the ease with which I had forgotten about Emma when Leila became a possibility and more than a part-time infatuation. For a long moment I dwelt on the rapid evacuation of guilt during the adventure, and the slight tinge of regret in the immediate aftermath.
Despite the anatomical excitement and thrill of the moment I was multitasking—I thought of work; the unpacked boxes in my apartment; my annoying roommate; an email from my mother in desperate need of a response; an ex-girlfriend’s figure. Death’s taxi ride and his parting words suffused my thoughts.
What makes you sleep at night should also make you get up in the morning.
I thought of Emma. Romance, flowers, conversation. Labels, hastily applied, stuck on each other—little apostrophes.
What makes you sleep at night should also make you get up in the morning.
As I looked at my girlfriend rhythmically squirming on top of me I felt my toes tickle with a familiar heat.
What makes you sleep at night…
I thought of the sensation of guilt which had rushed out of me when I was with Leila.
…should also make you get up in the morning.
My mind snatched at images. I could feel my part in this story reach its climax. All that remained was the conclusion. I felt my numbers come up.
The second unlucky draw of the night. With Leila I had drawn Not Your Girlfriend. The warmth and fuzz rushed through me and shot upward into Emma, eliciting a quiet moan from her, leaving me cold, decided.
For the romantic effect and polite duty, but also for the arrogance of it, I kept her poised on top of me. She reached down to kiss me and pull me close to her and to the moment not knowing that I had already moved on.
After a few heated seconds I broke off the contact. She slipped onto the bed and lay next to me, her breath still coming quickly. Her arm was draped across my chest. There was some pillow talk about mundane things, like how the party was and who had been there (I gave a severely edited version, of course) and what she had done with her evening (she had started a new romance novel).
The plot: Distinguished gentleman explorer and maiden countess aboard a ship to India have a tense introduction. She is a fierce feminist; he is a little obstinate in his judgment of the opposite sex. It is a long trip to India, filled with tea, servants, and conversations which ignite an attraction and predictable longings. Would she quell her feminist fires in time to impress the tall, handsome, racist, misogynist with the colonial moustache and penchant for isolating himself from dinner parties to thoughtfully look at fading horizons while, of course, being careful enough to be observed by the countess from a careful but loin-burning distance?
In case anyone is asking it was called the Seas of Love.
We mumbled at each for a few minutes before she fell asleep. I was awake for a little while longer before I, too, drifted off for a while. I woke up a bit later and lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, perusing my thoughts. It was still dark, but I could feel the world spinning towards the new day.
My epiphanic orgasm might have softened the instrument of my criminality but it had hardened my resolve about what I had to do: I could not continue with my girlfriend. I was not ready for the joined routines; I was not surrendering my solitude. While most people my age were magnetically drawn to conformity, minutely adjusting their poles towards settling down and progeny, I was not. I wanted my recklessness. I was quite happy with making selfish decisions.
Even though Emma and I had had three blissful weeks together I could not see myself going through the motions of deciding where to go for supper, what to do for a weekend, whose friends to spend time with. I did not want to put in the effort. These thoughts, of course, hounded me at the onset of our relationship; I could have voiced them and acted accordingly, but, hey, come on, sometimes you have to just let a story play out and see where it takes you—that is what the books say, after all.
Sadly, lying in her bed, it became clear that today I would be the villain in my story. I was going to be the person who returned a hasty purchase to the store and asked for my money back, prepared to cause a scene if my sober moment of foolish consumerism was not rectified.
Is it broken, sir?
Did it not perform as advertised?
Well…um…is there anything we can do to make sure you are happy with this model? Can we exchange it with another, perhaps?
Okay…err…you see…the thing is that you did buy it, sir, and if it is not broken and there is no sign of malperformance then…err…the store policy is—
—to take it back. Here’s the receipt. And the original packaging. I just don’t want it anymore.
Uhm…okay. Sure. Of course, sir.
The trick is not to flinch, to say everything with a finality which puts the matter beyond reconsideration. I prepared for my upcoming villainy by quickly putting away any feelings of guilt, arranging the cold facts of my infidelity as accurately as possible. I rehearsed my lines.
The sun’s rays spread themselves across the morning sky. I felt Emma stir next to me. She woke up and seeing me awake greeted me with sleep-laden contentment.
“Mmm….morning,” she said.
“Morning,” I replied. I looked at her and smiled. Then I looked at the ceiling, took a deep breath, and counted to three.
“I cannot be in this relationship anymore,” I said.
Next to me, I felt a silence suck the noise out of the room. The first salvo had been fired, the enemy was reeling, wondering which direction the attack had come from. It was probably around six o’clock, her mind was still fuzzy from sleep, I was wide awake. Somewhere I had read about pre-dawn hours being the best time to attack. She had probably expected breakfast in bed, the kitchen was serving up a breakup.
This was going to be a massacre.
She raised herself onto her elbow. “What?” she asked.
“I said I—,” I began.
“I heard what you said.” She was fully awake now. She sat up, quickly. “Can I ask why?”
I pulled myself up and rested my back against the headboard. “You just did,” I responded.
A cold stare was her response. “Why?” she asked.
“Because I don’t want to be in this relationship,” I began, saying everything slowly, maintaining eye contact, my peripheral vision noted her chest heaving quickly as the emotion inside her started to build, “and I did something which you will not be happy with.”
That was a bit cruel of me, baiting her with the truth. Because I knew she would go for it. Everyone does. Nobody can ever accept a half-truth, they have to hear the whole damn thing.
“W—what did you do?”
“Do you really want to know?” Again, an asshole move—but necessary.
“Yes.” It was small, meek, faltering.
So I began to give her the truth and watched the freckles crinkle and become wet with moisture.
I had considered not giving her the whole truth, to be fair. People never really know how much truth they want or need in their lives. I mean, would you like enough truth to help you get through the day or the whole poisonous truth which would bring the joy ride to an abrupt end? Do people really need the truth about their friends? Do they really want to know what their partners think about at the moment of climax?
I never ask for the whole truth. I ask for just enough to get me to whatever goal I want. The whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is murder. Sometimes you need just a bit of lying to carry on living.
But she had asked for the truth so I told her about Leila. I waited.
“And…,” she said, her voice breaking, “you slept with her?”
“Last night,” I said—her eyes flared open, she gasped, “after the office party.”
Villainy is found not in the denial or mutation of the truth, but in the honest presentation of unyielding facts.
I slept with someone else just before I slept with you.
We were naked, which is an even more compromising situation in which to be confronted with the truth. I can understand why Eve and Adam scrambled for the bushes after the truth came out. It is awkward to be naked with all your disappointments on display. They even had it worse, they only had each other—all of their disappointments were in one basket. While Emma cried on the bed I was lost in these musings. A gentle hand in my mind patted me on the shoulder and reminded me I had to be present for these proceedings.
Emma had her head in her hands. She clambered off the bed and rushed to the bathroom, closing the door behind her. I could hear the sobbing through the door.
I sighed and then got out of the bed. I fetched my clothing, wriggled into my trousers, leaving my belt undone. Quickly, I put on my socks and shoes. I picked up my shirt and slid my arms through the sleeves as I walked into the lounge, buttoning it up as I entered the paisley-infected room. I tucked in my shirt and tied my belt; I checked my pockets for my keys, wallet, and phone. The blind hero and I made eye contact. He was drawn in mid-flight, jumping off a building of height unknown, heading toward heroism. His milky eyes bore into me, his duty was so certain. I looked back, empty.
I sat on the couch for twenty minutes, waiting for Emma to come out of the bathroom. I heard the washing basin tap open and water splash into the porcelain bowl. Then I heard her muffled steps walk into the bedroom. A cupboard opened and closed. I heard her make her way to the sitting room.
I stood up from the couch and faced Death.
She was wearing a bath robe, her figure hidden beneath its thick white fabric. Her hair was tied in quick and loose knot. There was redness around her eyes and nose. When she spoke her voice was surprisingly even.
“You are fucked up,” Death said.
I remained silent. When Death is talking you have to pay attention.
“I know you feel like you did nothing wrong but I want to let you know that you’re fucked up and what you did was fucking wrong.”
Again, I chose to remain silent.
There is a pattern to be followed after the truth comes out. First it is aired, and then it is acknowledged. Then there is some anger and swearing, followed by a small period of doubt which could blossom into forgiveness depending on the severity of the trespass, and then more anger. I looked at my watch. I wanted to condense all of those stages into one and get this chapter over quickly.
“Do you even feel guilty?” she asked.
Herein was the possible doubt; the requisite quantity of guilt could probably be traded for a small measure of forgiveness, a cross I was not prepared to carry—eventually you get crucified by the forgiveness.
I took a deep breath. I felt tired, probably from all the exertions of the past couple of hours; I was hungry. I felt a bit irritated that the ripped off bandage had not had the desired effect. The wound was asking questions. I also knew I had to leave the apartment. The sun was up, the new day was calling. I did not, however, feel guilty. I felt guilty about that.
“No,” I said, “not directly.”
“That’s fucked up, Oz,” Death said. More anger.
We stared silently at each other. I broke the eye contact and made my way to the door.
“So, what? That’s it?” Death said behind me.
I stopped, my hand on the doorknob. Death’s keys were still in the lock, for the first time I noted the small scythe swinging on the key chain. I understood this stage to be the much sought after moment of closure, when the truth is supposed to become the panacea to its own contagions.
I turned around and looked at Death again. I could sense a desperate question hanging in the air.
Why won’t you apologise?
I would not apologise because an apology would be a binding contract between me and the universe, a tacit acknowledgment to do better, to be better. There is a reason why governments rarely issue apologies. It makes it impossible to commit the same wrong again.
Oh, hey, third-world, we would really like to say sorry for that bad bit of history when we nearly wiped all of you out…but we can’t because we might need to drop some bombs on you in a couple of years when the oil starts running out. You know how these things go. Here are some drought relief funds, though. And a McDonald’s.
I looked around the room again. Paisley, paisley, paisley. The blind hero again. The determined heroism in his pale eyes, the confident policing of all crimes.
“I won’t apologise,” I said. “My only crime is youth.”
I turned back to the door and turned the key in the lock. I stepped through the exit, making my escape.
“Oh, Oscar,” Death said behind me, her voice breaking again, “that’s the worst one.”
I felt a small competitive twinge bristle inside me—the famous last word, snatched from me. Worst of all, by someone who read something called Seas Of Love. I contemplated reaching for my words and spraying her apartment with scars and hurts and venom and everything else sticks and stones could never hope to achieve. But no weapons came to mind. Death had won that one.
I closed the door behind me, took the stairs again, and made my way home.
An excerpt from diaries chronicling the laughs and times of Oscar Q. whose life is based on a semi- true story and who, during many small moments his of life, met Death. His diaries were discovered, as it were, posthumorously, proving, unequivocally, that there is more to life than just living.
You can read about Oscar’s first meeting with Death: Posthumorous.
You can read about Oscar’s second meeting with Death here: Rooftops.
You can read about Oscar’s third meeting with Death here: Apostrophes.