Our first official date was at the cinema, where I fainted in the lobby. We already knew each other because he’d dated my best friend when we were still at school, though I hadn’t spoken to him for a long time. I’d recently broken up with my first serious boyfriend. I probably wasn’t over it, but I was trying very hard to appear as though I was. We’d been together for a few years, I was studying up North while he worked in London. There’d been a growing distance between us for a while, and we’d stopped calling as much as we’d used to, made excuses not to see each other at the weekends. Sometimes I’d find myself forgetting that I had a boyfriend, his presence only floating back if someone asked about him. I’d kept a photo of the two of us on my bedside table, and as the months went on it’d become more absurd to look at this image of the two of us together; teeth bared, eyes manic and searching.
We broke up over dinner, where he agreed very quickly that we weren’t compatible. We didn’t say much for the rest of the evening, ate quietly and tried not to look at each other. It was unclear to me if I felt sad or relieved. At one point he excused himself to go to the bathroom, and I hoped he was going there to cry. There were other couples seated near us. Dressed smart, talking and gesticulating with their forks. I wondered if to them we looked like a couple who’d just decided not to be together anymore, or if we looked like the kind of people who enjoyed going out to chain restaurants to eat in amicable silence. It would look bad either way.
Soon afterwards, I contacted James. I’d had a brief crush on him while he’d dated my friend, though I’d never told anyone about it. He’d been in one of the more successful bands at school, regular gigs at pubs that stamped your hand on entry and served alcohol to pretty much anyone. My friend and I would drink cherry shots while they played and ask people for cigarettes outside. Sometimes he would talk to her after they’d finished playing, but they mostly interacted online, and at school they pretended not to know each other. We discussed their sort-of relationship on her bed after school; why he never liked her Myspace photos, why he didn’t say hi in the cafeteria. He has issues, we decided, making quotation marks with our fingers when we said issues. After a while he began to distance himself, stopped messaging her so much, and then she got a real boyfriend and we started talking about him instead. I’d known then he probably wasn’t a great person, but secretly I’d been pleased nothing ever came of their relationship. He’d sent me messages too. Long emails that I sensed were more personal than the ones he sent to her. He told me he was terrible with girls, which I found endearing because boys never said stuff like that. You’re different, I said one evening. I got a feeling he would like it if I told him that, and on some level it was true. He didn’t smoke weed in the park at the weekends, hadn’t tried to get girls to sleep with him at parties like other guys at school had. That means a lot, he replied, though I’d wanted him to say the same of me. He only called me pretty once, and I saved the conversation on to my phone so I wouldn’t have to keep scrolling up to read it again. His parents had separated when he was young, and my parents were just about to. I told him about the night I found my father sleeping in his car. He wasn’t as sympathetic as I’d wanted him to be, but I still imagined myself weeping in his arms as though I was his girlfriend.
Then he went to university and his replies became blunt and scarce. I assumed the whole thing was done and didn’t bother to open the last message he sent me. Then I went to university myself and got together with my boyfriend. I didn’t think about James again until my boyfriend and I broke up three years later. I was listening to a band that I remembered James liking, and I felt an intense urge to tell him, an urge that I would later claim was symbolic, almost biblical. I searched for him on Facebook and saw he hadn’t updated his profile picture in over a year, that he had a beard. He’d whittled his list of friends down to thirty, deleted most of the people we’d known from school, even my friend. I started writing him a message, held on to the dim memory of the late-night emails we used to send each other as I typed. I apologised for my silence over the years, as though it’d been something I’d chosen to do. Then I told him about listening to the band we both liked, how it’d made me think of him and isn’t that weird? Then I sent the message and felt that it had been a good, spontaneous thing to do.
He replied within thirty minutes. Emma, wow! It’s been so long! He said he was a teacher now at the school we’d both attended, and not much else had changed for him. I’ve been single for a very long time, he added, and I felt an immediate shift in our conversation, like a space had been opened up for me. We started messaging back and forth, as frequently as we had as teenagers, and I felt as though our conversation had a new meaning, like we were supposed to find each other again. We talked about the books I was studying, the big and banal things that had happened to us. I operated automatically, as if my brain wasn’t fully aware of what my body was doing. My knees bounced as I waited for his replies. Then he asked if we could meet up when I was next home, and I replied, sure, I’d like that.
He hadn’t mentioned that he still lived with his mother, but there were neat flowers and plants with glossy leaves lining the driveway outside his house, a pair of jewelled sandals by the door that I noticed as I took off my shoes. He hung my coat up for me and a small dog barrelled out from another room and started to bark at us. On the wall was a photograph of him as a child in a baggy football shirt and flappy white shorts. I pointed it out and said it was cute, and he ushered the dog into the kitchen, said that he’d only recently moved home after a stint in London that hadn’t worked out. Why’s that? I asked, and he said it was a story for later, waved his hand for me to follow him upstairs.
His room looked as though he’d tried to tease it out of his teenage years, shirts and ties hanging outside of the wardrobe and on the back of the door like a statement, I work now. There was a widescreen TV balanced on a small coffee table that shuddered as I entered the room. He asked me if I wanted to play Xbox and started turning it on before I answered. Then he sat down on the floor and I joined him, our legs stretched out in front of us, feet nearly touching. He played a game that I didn’t really understand, something about fairy tales that he thought I’d like, and once in a while a character would say something and he would laugh and turn to me to see if I was laughing too. Every now and then the dog would bark downstairs and he would ignore it, even when it started to make a sad whiney noise. I felt the afternoon slipping away, pulled out tiny hairs from the carpet and looked at the photos in shiny wooden frames on his desk. The pictures were more recent, him standing at a lake with a big fish in his hands. Him next to a field full of yellow flowers, holding a long tree branch like a staff. The sheen of the glass was new and clean, as though they’d been bought specifically for my visit.
After a while, we moved from the floor to the bed, and I sat with my back against the wall while he laid down, his head on the pillows. The sheets were rough to touch, little balls of cotton coming away in my fingers, and I wondered if his mother still did his washing for him. We were quiet for a moment, and I listened to the buzz of someone mowing their lawn outside. Then, unprompted, he started talking about his ex-girlfriend, a girl he’d met at university. He said she was crazy. So crazy, Emma, and I liked the way he said my name, as though he wasn’t afraid to say it, in the way I was too nervous to say his. He’d had to have therapy after they broke up. She had problems. He told me she would lie awake at night weeping hysterically for no real reason, and he couldn’t help her, couldn’t tell what was wrong. I agreed that it was strange, even though I could recall several occasions where I had done the same thing. He went on, said she’d once gotten so drunk she’d thrown up over his carpet, that she’d come round to his house in the middle of the night even though he hadn’t asked her to, and he’d had to clean it all up himself. With my bare hands, he said gravely, and he turned to look at me while he said it, his expression so intense I wasn’t sure how to arrange my face. Then he stared up at the ceiling and let out a deep, agitated breath, as though he hadn’t really wanted to talk about any of it. I tried to change the subject, told him about an ex-boyfriend who’d cheated on me. Twice! I said, as though it was a big joke. He didn’t react to this, just closed his eyes and sighed in a loud, dramatic way. She was awful, he said after a pause.
I tried to talk more about my ex-boyfriend, tried to mash our experiences together in a way that would make us seem as though we were suited to each other. I thought that he might pick up on this, but I could see he was distracted, his face blank. I started babbling, answering questions that I wanted him to ask me. Talked about an eating disorder I’d had when I was younger, rambling about diet pills and starving myself. I didn’t normally tell people this stuff, but I felt compelled to talk about it, as though he’d been the one to tease it out of me, reeling it in like the big fish in the photo. When I finished, he was unmoved, still blinking up at the ceiling. He cleared his throat, like a teacher, I thought, then told me my problems were the product of being young, naïve, that everyone experienced these kinds of issues at some point in their life. He spoke in a mild voice, like he was listing the ingredients off the back of a packet, and didn’t look at me. I remember looking at my hands in my lap and thinking about how ugly they were. Then I said something like, I guess I worry too much about what people think of me, and he turned to sit up on his elbow and faced me. You shouldn’t care so much, no one goes home at night and thinks about other people, you know? He said this gently, and I thought for a second that he might take my hand. Then he changed the subject and I felt my body go heavy, like it was full of thick, oily water, as though what he really meant to say was that no one ever thought about me, not even in a bad way, not in any way at all.
We met up a few more times while I was home. We played chess in his garden and built a new hutch for his guinea pigs. On Friday nights he would travel up to London with a group of Christians to give out soup and tea to homeless people, and he talked about this a lot. I wanted to do it too and asked if I could come with him, and he’d said, sure, of course, but he didn’t invite me. Sometimes he would call on his way home and sound distant, as though he didn’t really want to call me at all, and when I asked him what was up he’d say that he was overwhelmed, that he couldn’t speak about the things he’d seen. I’d never been with someone who was selfless enough to actually go and do something about the things we agreed were bad, who didn’t just talk about how sad it was to see people sleeping on the pavement. I found myself tripping up over what I wanted to tell him, realising how selfish and narcissistic it sounded in comparison. I began to lie awake at night thinking about all the terrible things I’d ever done, listing them quietly in my head, each selfish little thing, my body numb with guilt. I came to the conclusion that I’d never done anything that wasn’t ultimately for myself. James spent his weekends hauling flasks of soup and coffee up to London, giving his old clothes away to people that needed them. Everything he did began to take on a noble quality, as though reading in the evenings instead of going out to bars was a selfless thing to do. The more time I spent with him, the more I resolved to do better. When I wrote about this to him in a message he seemed pleased, told me that it was never too late to change, that I could still be a good person if I wanted to.
After the holidays I went back to Durham, and James arranged to visit me for our first official date. He said that he’d felt bad for not offering to take me anywhere while I was home, and I was flattered by how quickly he booked a hotel and a train ticket. I asked if he wouldn’t rather stay in my room at the college to save money, and he said that my single bed would probably be too uncomfortable for the both of us. I hadn’t envisioned us sleeping together, and learning that he had gave the trip a different meaning, an ambivalence I wasn’t quite ready to wade back into. I’d envisioned him staying at the college with me, meeting my friends and drinking with us in the bar, but when I asked him if he wanted to do this he said that he didn’t like drinking, and I felt bad for assuming that he did. I knew there was an underlying expectance for me to stay with him at the hotel, that he’d paid a lot of money to travel up to see me. But it’d still only been less than a month since I’d broken up with my boyfriend, and I couldn’t quite imagine the shape of someone else’s body lying next to mine. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t ready for that yet, but when he asked me to stay with him, I agreed without hesitation.
In the week leading up to our date, I began to worry about what I should wear. He’d told me that his ex-girlfriend had been very thin, painfully thin, and I’d started to imagine her when I sat down to eat, twiggy limbs and pale cheeks. I spent the evenings trying on clothes, watching myself in the mirror, sometimes staring at myself for so long I couldn’t tell if I looked good or bad. I even walked over to my reflection from the other side of the room to inspect the rattle of my thighs. I tried to look at myself the way James might look at me, which made me feel embarrassed, as though I could already sense his discomfort at my attempts to be pretty for him. He’d told me the crazy ex had walked towards him on campus once, waving her hands and calling his name, and he hadn’t recognised her because she was wearing so much fake tan. Honestly, he’d said, it looked terrible, I felt so bad for her. People were staring. I decided on a plain top and skirt that I hadn’t worn for so long the elastic had gone slack, and baggy cotton pants that I only wore when I was on my period.
On the day of James’ arrival I decided not to put any make-up on, and I didn’t pack any either. To some degree I felt liberated, as I would’ve normally spent at least an hour putting on foundation, concealer and powder until my face took on a texture like icing. This is better, I thought, though when I took a final glance in the mirror I saw a tired version of myself that did not equate with ‘better’. I left the college, lied to my friends, saying that we’d try and see them at some point over the weekend. At the train station, I tried to evoke the same excitement I’d felt when my old boyfriend would visit. Sometimes I’d feel so nervous I couldn’t eat all day, but it was a good kind of nervous, the flustered kind that made the muscles in my stomach clench over and over. As James’ train pulled in I was hit by how strange it was to be meeting him instead. It felt as though my life was happening to someone else, and I was another person watching it from the other side of the platform. I spotted him in the crowd, he was smiling, and I can’t remember if I was smiling too, but it didn’t feel like the moment it was supposed to be. He held out his arms to embrace me, and I pressed myself to him briefly. We started walking, he reached for my hand and I let him carry it along with him, my fingers limp. He started complaining about his journey, how cramped the seats were, how a wheezy man had sat next to him for the last two hours. I couldn’t seem to locate the feelings that I’d thought were developing between us. The urgency in which I had replied to his messages, the way my voice started to speed up when I talked about him to my friends. But now I couldn’t look at him. I didn’t like the way he carried his umbrella, and I was becoming acutely aware of how little I cared about his comments. The wheezy man was disgusting, his cough absolutely foul. I thought of the night ahead and felt my body grow heavy, as though I was wading through water with all my clothes on. We were walking down the hill towards town, and he stopped to look up at the sky. It’s such nice night, he said. Truthfully, it was an okay night, a couple of stars just about visible beneath the cloud, a sliver of moon. It wasn’t warm enough to be out without a jacket. Then he said, I’m so happy to be here and squeezed my hand. His palm felt clammy, but he carried on staring up at the sky with a serene expression, as though everything in his life had slotted into place.
The bed in the hotel room was larger than expected, and there wasn’t much space around it. James started unpacking his bag as soon as we closed the door, lining up his miniature bottles of shampoo and shower gel in a row on the sink in the bathroom. I kicked my bag into the corner where it looked imposing and out of place. We didn’t say much. He folded his T-shirts, too many for a weekend trip, while I picked at the sachets of tea and instant coffee. Then he started telling me a story about a kid he’d been teaching at work and I pretended to listen, laughed when he finished talking, even though it turned out he’d asked me a question. I was uncomfortable, and it was obvious. I stood awkwardly by the bed, worried that it might look too assuming if I sat down. But he remained casual, folding his T-shirts like nothing was out of the ordinary. Then he filled up the little kettle with water and made us each a coffee, and we sat on the huge bed with a gaping distance between us that I did not want to fill. He took a loud sip and said we should get into our pyjamas, to get super comfy. I hadn’t taken my shoes off yet, but I said, sure, why not, and made a clumsy fuss about changing in the bathroom, grabbing my bag and shutting the door without making any eye contact with him.
The light inside was harsh and made my skin look oddly green, and as I inspected my cheeks for blemishes I could hear James taking his clothes off, the hurried clink of his belt unbuckling, a spray of deodorant. I counted to one hundred and took in deep breaths before putting on the old T-shirt and jogging bottoms I’d brought with me. When I came out he was already back on the bed wearing the kind of shorts and T-shirt set teenage boys wear. He seemed jerky, removing his hands from behind his head and folding them in his lap. As I walked to my side of the bed, I started to become very aware of my body and the weight of it, the space it took up when I sat down. I could feel him assessing me, and I started apologising for my pyjamas, they’re hideous, and I laughed even though I’d chosen them specifically for that reason. I asked him some more questions about the school, what it was like now, and as we talked the strangeness of the situation started to fade to a dull noise heard faintly in the background. When we got tired he suggested turning out the light, then we got under the covers and he didn’t huddle up to me or touch me, and I held myself in a rigid ball until he fell asleep. I could hear rain falling outside, and I lay awake listening to the sounds of doors opening and closing elsewhere in the building, counting up all the things I might’ve done wrong.
It was still raining when we woke up in the morning. I asked if he wanted to go and explore the city, but he told me that he’d been to Durham before and had already seen most of it, which surprised me as he hadn’t previously mentioned this. How about a film? I asked. There was a showing of a Russian war film that he’d quite wanted to see, and though I thought it looked pretty bad, I said that it sounded great, and he booked the tickets on his phone and we went out into the rain hunched under his umbrella. We bought food from the supermarket, orange juice and a cold, wet-looking wrap that I pulled apart into little pieces. All I’d eaten was a bowl of cereal the day before. I was hungry, had been hungry all night, but I didn’t want to eat in front of him. I thought that now I’d told him about my problems with food, I would have to somewhat live up to them in case he thought I’d been lying.
My stomach began to cramp in the film. It started with a sharp ache that felt like trapped wind, and I had to keep shifting in my seat to ease the discomfort. I thought about going to the bathroom, but it was too awful to imagine myself squeezing past him. I decided to wait until the end. The film was long and boring and I didn’t think it was very good, but whenever he looked at me with an amazed expression after something mildly interesting happened I nodded back in wild agreement, like it was the best film I’d ever seen. After two and a half hours, the credits began to roll and people started to get up out of their seats. I breathed out, though it had started to hurt to breathe. There was sweat on my back and my legs shook as I stood up. I was wearing a turtleneck and the room was stuffy. My stomach felt bloated, and I began to rub it, unable to concentrate on all the things James was saying as we picked our way through the crowd. He asked me something and I nodded without registering what he’d actually said. It was the opening weekend for a new superhero film, and the lobby was crowded with teenagers and families and big cut-out figures of the characters. We had to push through the people queuing up for the next showing and he walked ahead of me, reaching out his hand for me to take, but it was loud and the pain in my stomach had accelerated so much that I was doubled over and the room began to take on a fuzzy quality. I grabbed his arm to steady myself, and said something like, hey, wait, I’m going to faint, I’m going to faint, but my mouth was very dry, and I remember thinking it was like eating cotton wool. People talk about it but no one really knows. Then I looked up and saw white from the overhead lights and a heaviness descended on me like a big thick blanket, and I felt calm, like I’d been enjoying the best sleep of my life.
I came around to his face hanging above mine, and my immediate reaction was to laugh because it was like I was in a film, and hey, we’re at the cinema! But he looked very scared, and then other people’s faces were hanging over me too and I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t realise that I was on the floor until someone was handing me a plastic cup of water and I sat up and someone said okay, okay, easy now, and there were hands on my shoulders and I could feel the carpet under my fingers, sticky beads of dirt. I remembered that I was wearing a skirt and I didn’t want anyone to see my underwear so I started scrabbling to get up and they all leapt away like I was an animal. James put his arm around me and asked if I was okay, lots of people were asking if I was okay, and I nodded a lot and waved my hands as if this happened to me on a weekly basis. Oh no, I’m fine, I said, and I laughed, my face burning hot. I asked if we could leave, and he started to lead me away through the crowd that had formed. I looked at the floor as we slowly made our way up the stairs and hoped no one I knew had been there to see it.
Outside, we sat on a bench that was wet from all the rain. He said that I needed food, and I agreed. I’d never fainted before. It was scary, but kind of like an achievement. I bit my nails as he stared out at the square. We didn’t say anything for a while, just sat and watched people walking through the high street. When we got up to go to the supermarket, I tried to make light of the situation. I laughed at myself, said something along the lines of, what a great first date, but he didn’t laugh. He shook his head and looked at me with a hard, serious expression. If you don’t mind, he said, I’d rather not talk about it. It was quite a traumatising thing for me to go through, a sharpness that I hadn’t heard him use before. Sorry, I said, I didn’t realise, of course it must’ve been pretty bad for you. We walked in silence for a few moments, and I wondered if we were arguing now. It was, he said, it was really bad for me, and I nodded and looked down at the chewing gum ground into the pavement because I didn’t know where else to look.
At the supermarket we bought a big bag of crisps and a pack of shortbread biscuits. My favourite, he said, and once we were back in the hotel room I tried to be nicer to him, asked him more questions about himself and his life. I told him that he was a good person, and he seemed pleased with this. Thanks, he said, looking up at the ceiling with a contented look on his face, as though it were something that, deep down, he already knew to be true. I held my breath and waited, but he didn’t say anything else.
Image © Simone Lovati