Dan Pow­ell

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

The Ideal Hus­band Ex­hi­bi­tion

The thing is, we’ve been friends since our first day at pri­mary and you sat down at my el­bow at the stick­ing ta­ble and said, What shape are you?, then dug around in the wafer-thin glue- backed paper shapes scat­tered like au­tumn leaves across the ta­ble-top be­fore us, plucked a small pink star from some­where and of­fered it to me as if you al­ways knew ex­actly who I was go­ing to be.

I’m Kate and you look like a star, you said and from then it was Kate and Elisa, all through school.

Now, we’re both in our for­ties, and I buy the tick­ets to try and make you happy. When you ask why I would want to spend two days run­ning round the Olympia star­ing at men, I prat­tle some­thing about how, in this age of equal mar­riage, it was maybe time for an Ideal Part­ner Ex­hi­bi­tion in­stead, that they’re miss­ing a trick not chas­ing the pink pound.

The thing is, we grew up to­gether, from lit­tle girls in long socks and scraped knees into awk­ward teenagers, you sprout­ing tall and stick thin, with no real chest to speak of, but such a smile, while I blos­somed with­out wish­ing to, hips and breasts bloom­ing in per­fect pro­por­tion, un­til our shar­ing clothes be­came im­pos­si­ble.

I hate my hips, you said once, sulk­ing out of a Top Shop chang­ing room, back in jeans and t-shirt, your face a storm of dis­ap­point­ment, the dress you’d been try­ing back on its hanger, and, stupidly, I swal­lowed the urge to tell you just how beau­ti­ful you looked right then.

To­day, your hair is cropped and side parted, while mine, dyed grey well

ahead of the cur­rent fash­ion, I still wear long. In your pumps and no-brand jeans and Michelle Shocked t-shirt, you look more like a les­bian than I ever have, while I’m in heels and that knee length flo­ral Paul Smith you said you liked. Be­cause.

The thing is, the lads were only in­ter­ested in me, espe­cially the boys you liked, and at first I knocked them back, let them call me frigid, let them make up sto­ries about fin­ger­ing me round be­hind the Sports Hall af­ter the school disco, un­til, that sum­mer be­tween fourth and fifth year, when I tried pre­tend­ing with Scott Fel­lows’s best mate just to get you in with a chance of a drunken snog with Scott on the steps out­side the swim­ming baths, but it never hap­pened and that was the last time I ever let a lad put his tongue in my mouth.

It’s al­right for you, all the lads fancy you, you said, but back then I couldn’t tell you just how much I wished they didn’t.

The ex­hi­bi­tion space is a white noise of con­ver­sa­tion, mu­sic and move­ment and we are pulled along by the cur­rent of the crowd. Bub­bles of recog­nis­able sound pop on the sur­face of the hub­bub. A mus­cu­lar fig­ure in pris­tine work clothes and sport­ing a lengthy but well-trimmed beard stands on a dais near the en­trance and a voice from hid­den speak­ers punches above the am­bi­ent sound, say­ing,

... brown-white slim-fit Lan­vinc heck westerns hi rt, D squared 2 Dis­tressed Cool Guy jeans, Nubuck gringo Berg­erac Para­boots. Of­ten sighted in the trendier parts of east Lon­don, the Lum­ber­sex­ual af­fects a Woods­man chic for the lady who likes a splash of rugged in her man. Just don’t ex­pect these well-groomed and thor­oughly-mois­turised guys to be sport­ing hi-vis jack­ets and felling trees any­time soon.

I look at you, you look at me, and we laugh loud enough to draw stares from the crowd.

The thing is, com­ing out to you at eigh­teen was harder even than com­ing out to my par­ents, be­cause at least my par­ents had guessed some­how, and when I fi­nally sat them down, wrenched the words up and clat­tered them onto the cof­fee ta­ble be­tween us, they were more amused than shocked, but you, your eyes trem­bled with dis­be­lief, shook with hurt and tears.

Why couldn’t you tell me? you squeaked be­tween sobs, and all I could think of was your giv­ing me that pink star that first day in pri­mary, and all I could say was, I am telling you, I’m telling you now.

Across an­other stage a pa­rade of men in beach shorts strut to a techno sound­track, their tat­tooed bod­ies toned to rigid ar­mour. They seem more CGI than flesh and blood. Their oiled mus­cles shine un­der the stage lights, and in my head I imag­ine them de­scend­ing into some mass re-en­act­ment of the fire­side wrestling in Women in Love.

I put my lips close to your ear, so you can hear me over the mu­sic. Your sort of thing?

Too gay, you say, and wink, and our laugh­ter is drowned by the techno un­til the flut­ter­ing of your lips at my ear sends shiv­ers through me.

What are they meant to be any­way? you ask. Sporno­sex­u­als. Sporno­sex­u­als? They’re all about tat­toos and pierc­ings and chis­elled bod­ies ap­par­ently. Sporno­sex­u­als though? I count the el­e­ments of the ridicu­lous in­ter­net-coined port­man­teau on my

fingers. Sport. Porn. Metero­sex­ual. So gay, you say, laugh­ing, So gay it hurts.

Ho­mo­phobe, I say and slap you on the arm and we laugh to­gether as the Sporno­sex­u­als spin and glis­ten to the beat.

The thing is, there was that time we were both home from Univer­sity, both just out of hor­ri­ble re­la­tion­ships, mine with that psy­cho-bitch with the thing for strap-ons and pulling hair, yours with the dick who ended it in the pub then said you should get tested for NSU and gen­i­tal warts, which you did and thank fuck you were all clear, and, as we shared the worst of the last few months, you poured the vod­kas and mum­bled some­thing about how life would be so much sim­pler if you were gay and we fan­cied each other, and we laughed un­til the booze and our laugh­ing brought us face to face and I tried for the kiss.

Don’t fuck about, you said, your panic-edged laugh too loud, and I pulled back, poured more vodka, said I was just mess­ing.

At the Norm­core stand we search for a model that re­sem­bles your ex­hus­band. These men are a blur of fleece jack­ets and and creased slacks that flap above no-brand trail shoes. All are clean shaven, their hair­cuts un­re­mark­able. They look like shadow cab­i­net MPs on a Bank Hol­i­day.

There, you shout, and I have to ad­mit the man you are point­ing to does look a bit like An­drew.

See? You mar­ried Mr Norm­core. No, I mar­ried Mr Fletcher. Yeah, but you’re plain old Ms. Kate La­ti­more again now.

Less of the plain old, thank you very much. And any­way, I might have kicked his name into touch along with him, but I kept the Mrs when I slipped my maiden name back on.

You’re Mrs La­ti­more now? Is that even al­lowed? You smile. That’s the one ben­e­fit of be­ing divorced, you say, I can do what I like.

The thing is, that time you were in Lon­don for work and called out of the blue, I thought we were go­ing to hit the town and have a laugh, like the old days, so your ar­riv­ing at our ta­ble at the Tate Mod­ern with a man in tow was a shock, and not just be­cause I was miles away, star­ing out across the city sky­line at the dome of St Paul’s and count­ing the months since we’d last seen each other or even spo­ken, when the re­flec­tion of you in the broad pane of the win­dow, hand in hand with a rake of a man in a bad shirt and worse hair­cut, slipped into the fore­ground of the glass, shook me sud­denly from an­tic­i­pa­tion of your ar­rival and sent me plum­met­ing into awk­ward re­al­ity.

Date’s set for this sum­mer, you said, flash­ing the ring as the waiter poured the cham­pagne I barely touched but in­sisted on pay­ing for.

We lunch at the Cen­tral Kitchen. Ranch burger, skinny fries, onion rings. Elder­flower pressé to make it feel at least a lit­tle healthy.

Seen any­thing you like to­day? I ask and you pull a face, ges­ture at your mouth full of burger, shake your head. The thing is, when you called to say you’d had your first scan, had cried as

the Dop­pler beamed your baby’s static-edged heart­beat to you as if from an­other planet, then watched baby un­furl on the grainy ul­tra­sound im­age to re­veal a pretty face and pouty lips that made you think girl, and we chat­ted about birth plans and god-par­ent­ing and me be­ing the cool aun­tie that she was sure run to when she couldn’t talk to Mum, I checked my cal­en­dar to make sure I was in the UK for the due date, and I con­grat­u­lated you, but part of me, just a tiny part of me, wished it wasn’t hap­pen­ing.

As the due date ap­proached and I heard noth­ing from you, hadn’t been able to reach you for months, I called and called, ev­ery num­ber I had, un­til, fi­nally, it was your mum who told me.

Ar­ti­fi­cial grass cov­ers a cor­ner of the ex­hi­bi­tion floor. An em­bar­rass­ment of SAHDs play foot­ball, Fris­bee, sit eat­ing pic­nics sur­rounded by kids, or stroll the space, ba­bies hang­ing from shoul­der har­nesses. These men look a lit­tle de­ranged, their eyes wide and mouths wide as they ex­ag­ger­ate their speech that way adults do when speak­ing to very young chil­dren. What­ever they are say­ing is lost be­neath the chat­ter­ing of the crowd and the mu­sic bleed from the other ex­hi­bi­tion ar­eas. You don’t stop, don’t even re­ally look, you just slip past, head down, and I fol­low be­hind.

The thing is, the first time we saw each other af­ter your first mis­car­riage was so awk­ward that, af­ter­wards, I al­most stayed away, but you were soon ex­pect­ing again, shar­ing the news cau­tiously this time, as though just say­ing the word preg­nant was enough to trig­ger cramps and bleed­ing, and I nod­ded and smiled as we toasted with or­ganic lemon­ade, you and An­drew hud­dled on the sofa, me across the cof­fee ta­ble in the arm­chair, all of us smil­ing, all of us ter­ri­fied, but it wasn’t fear that made me want to be else­where, it was the fierce or­di­nary nor­mal love that fired from An­drew’s eyes each time he looked at you.

It’ll be al­right this time, won’t it, you asked as you walked me to my car, and I nod­ded, squeezed your hand, hugged you, said Yes, yes, ev­ery­thing’ll

be fine, and the words felt like fi­nally let­ting you go, yet still weren’t enough to spare you an­other three mis­car­riages.

We spend what re­mains of the day vis­it­ing the ad­ven­tur­ers, the hip­ster­preneurs, the geeks, the bits-of-rough, the su­gar dad­dies, the cre­atives, but they do noth­ing for you. We stop in a space made up to look like a real juice bar and I or­der smooth­ies. We sit on high stools, suck on straws like school­girls and watch the women shuf­fling past. We don’t speak for a while and when we do it is you who breaks our si­lence.

They all look so des­per­ate. God, I must look so des­per­ate to you. No more des­per­ate than any­one else here. You’re sup­posed to say, no Kate, you don’t look des­per­ate at all.

Oh, you want me to lie and make you feel bet­ter? Sorry no, won’t do it. Fact is you’re no more more des­per­ate than I am. We all need some­one to be with, want some­one spe­cial.

Crowds of women pass by, one or two who look a lit­tle like us ap­pear at in­ter­vals, al­most dop­pel­gängers, all search­ing for what they think they want even as they hur­tle to­ward what­ever they will in­evitably end up set­tling for. How happy they will ever be de­pends upon the dis­tance be­tween the two.

I’m tired, you say. Ho­tel? Bar? I re­ply. You nod, al­ready on your feet.

The thing is, when your de­cree ab­so­lute ar­rived, it seemed un­real that some­thing sup­pos­edly so per­ma­nent and life­long could be wrapped up with

the is­su­ing of such a prim lit­tle doc­u­ment, and that was the mo­ment, stood in your kitchen in the early morn­ing, toast­ing the ar­rival of the bloody thing with ironic Po­magne, the mo­ment I came clos­est to telling you ev­ery­thing.

Yet still I said noth­ing.

Three drinks in, we are taken to our ta­ble. We or­der wine. I know what you will or­der be­fore you do. You eat your baked Lemon Sole slowly, break the flesh of the fish from the bone with care. Once one side is stripped, you flip it and be­gin again. I swirl pasta on my fork, swal­low my car­bonara with­out tast­ing it, gulp wine to drown down the urge to say some­thing other than small talk.

We don’t have to stay for the sec­ond day, you say as we wait for desert. It’s a waste of time.

I top up your wine. You raise your hand. No more for me, you say. Light­weight. Light­weight? How old are you? Six­teen. God. I wish. Re­ally? Why on earth would you want to re­peat all that? To do things prop­erly.

But you’ve got a great life, a great job. You travel all round the world, a girl in ev­ery port, what would you want to do any dif­fer­ently?

Just one thing, I say, but I’m not drunk enough to go fur­ther so I pour my­self more wine and desert ar­rives be­fore you can ask any­more.

The thing is, I’ve tried so many times to just be hon­est with you, years of wait­ing for the right time, know­ing that even if I should some­how find the strength to tell you what I re­ally want I’ll be un­able to speak more than three words.

So still I say noth­ing.

More drinks. Time lapses and we are stood out­side my ho­tel room. You are help­ing me find my key card. We gig­gle in whis­pers as you fish about in my bag for it.

Se­ri­ously though, you say, let’s not do an­other day of this, let’s head to a gallery or some­thing.

You open the door for me and of­fer me my key card, and I am not so drunk that I don’t re­alise I need to take it and slip it into the socket be­hind the door for the lights to come on, but my thoughts are swim­ming and I know I’m star­ing, not at the dark room be­yond the door frame but at you on the thresh­old, and I can’t stop, even when you ask,

Elisa, you okay?

can’t stop even as you take my hand, con­cern flap­ping across your face, and I want to just say I’m fine, hon­estly, but the sud­den taste of cheap ad­he­sive mud­dles my tongue and, in­stead, I find my­self say­ing,

The thing is, Short Story Com­pe­ti­tion Third Place 2016

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