The morning after the formal, early, Sarah called and asked, ‘How are you?’
‘How are … you?’
‘I’m okay, how are you?’ she said.
‘I’m … alright, how are you?’
Neither of us had slept. She admitted she stayed up dancing all night in her house. She would consider having dinner with one of the guys she met at the formal.
She said, ‘You’re very intense. You’re not very … approachable.’
It was the closest we’d ever been to having an argument.
I left the tie at her front door a few days later so Steve could wear it to her formal the next week. Even though we played in the same football team and I was fairly encouraged by the slim prospect of their ongoing relationship – at least compared to any other guys she mentioned – Steve never spoke of the tie, and returned it by leaving it in my hotel room the next month without referring to Sarah.
School had ended by then. My shins were covered with bruises from kickboxing lessons and I had shown ‘potential’ and was surprisingly agile in the two jujitsu classes I took. During schoolies week, I was able to avoid Kevin and Larry and my other roommates who kept remarking how ‘free’ I seemed to have two long, tense conversations with Sarah. Nothing ‘happened’ at her formal. She kept asking if I’d met anyone ‘special’ in an expectant, hopeful tone I was unused to.
Once I returned I was way too hungover to continue with the martial arts lessons and did as little as possible for as long as possible without any real need to worry.
At Christmas I wrote a handwritten letter to Sarah with a corny, sexually-themed card – something I have continued every birthday and Christmas since. That year I also got her a present – the longest, thickest vibrator I could find, which, despite my considerate invitation to ‘Try it out,’ she looked at once and threw away, saying, ‘No guy is that big,’ which somehow turned into a compliment because not long after she told me, ‘You didn’t seem ... threatened.’ Obviously she will never see me naked.
I landed a mind-numbing job where I contemplated what went wrong at the formal every moment of every day. It was the common thread for everything wrong in my life. I would listen to music by Linkin Park and Papa Roach and think: I can relate to this.
So I quit.
I wasted what little money I had on alcohol, trying to be affable with the friends who chose me back at high school that were now becoming competitors, hearing about their own jobs and the careers they were forming and the girls they were fucking, and I would drunkenly stare at them and wonder how much more they could have done for Sarah, how much better her life would have been with them in my place. It occurred to me for the first time that I never thought about my future beyond finishing school. I answered personal questions with ambiguous parables that had nothing to do with my life. I wanted to tell them it was none of their business, but I still wanted them to ask. We stole shot glasses and ran from cabs without paying. The girls were attractive, they enjoyed dancing, and they were perpetually two free drinks away from being on their knees in an alleyway.
Steve went overseas for an undetermined period of time.
It’s not a coincidence that I haven’t seen Sarah since.
I required a long shower before attempting anything constructive, which occasionally included looking for a job. There was no middle ground with Sarah – she was either uncontrollably excited, or depressed for a variety of reasons that were never fully resolved. (I later found out she didn’t have her period for over two years.) She used drugs for a couple of months, one time sending me a text message with instructions to meet her that she meant to send to her dealer.
Then there was the course, which I was able to keep secret from Sarah for some time, as if to prove to myself it didn’t make a difference to her life. I watched television shows about the kind of teenagehood I never had, lots of movies about mistreated, repressed males, and revenge films. Turns out no-one likes the brooding loner in real life though.
A couple of times I aced Sarah’s school assignments. I heard her cry for the first time after a big drama with the Russian – during the day, in public, she began wailing on a city street, then sheltered herself, hyperventilating, in a random clothing store.
Sarah’s mother was by now openly encouraging Sarah to pursue a relationship with me because I had a more acceptable appearance than the other guys Sarah had mysteriously introduced to her in the past. I visited her mother at work a few times on my lunch breaks – she always insisted on spraying my wrist with an expensive perfume, and I had to remember to hold out the correct wrist; the one without any scars.
When I eventually gave Sarah my handwritten diary – leaving it at her front door, then sending her a text message to pick it up before one of her family members accidentally found it – her only advice a few days later was to ‘lighten up’; a simplification I despised. She cried when she read my tribute to her on the final page. She drew a picture of a flower on the front page, though I never saw it because I never picked it up from her. I also never gave her the sequel, which from memory was more harrowing, more depressing, more personal and, since I hadn’t seen her in so long, extremely critical of our friendship.
We would lose contact for weeks at a time – she was busy with school and I was in an office for forty hours a week, unpaid, training for a job with dire prospects and overwhelming failure rates, barely containing my rage; listening to radio commercials my only alternative to work – and when she called me again she had new stories with new guys’ names. It became clear that the thing I was appealed to most – her openness and spontaneity – was not restricted to me; every time she was in public she would receive the kind of compliments I have given maybe twice in my life, and the guys didn’t necessarily have to be drunk to do so. Sometimes she sounded happy, like she believed she was attractive. Her status as a virgin was unclear.
When she was upset I wanted to comfort her, but there was no point – my usefulness as her friend expired the day Steve went overseas.
There was no reason to mention the formal, so it was never addressed. It wasn’t like our relationship demanded we saw a lot of each other; she never meant anything by it personally. There wasn’t any reason for us to even keep in touch. Nobody else did – all the friends she used to mention, guy or girl, had disappeared long ago. She did most of the talking, she mostly spoke about guys, and we were making an exception – all because of Steve – to justify meeting in the first place.
I was taking burnt compact discs and videotapes of movies or television shows to her front door a couple of times per month by this stage – initially at her request, but increasingly for my own amusement. There were no mementos of our friendship whatsoever; no evidence we had even known each other. When I finally had the photos from our formal developed, my finger was drunkenly covering the lens in every shot, rendering them useless.
It had been almost two years since we’d seen each other. I didn’t comment that it bothered me until I sent her an unprovoked email asking hostile rhetorical questions and renouncing our friendship. She called, there was an explosive confrontation, but nothing was solved. She was assertive and unapologetic.
Soon after, she did ask, ‘Do you want to come over and watch a movie?’ but it wasn’t sincere and of course never happened.
Once I had a proper full-time job, it would legitimately bother me when contestants on televised game shows discovered more about complete strangers in a few days of living together than I had learned about Sarah in years of phone and internet conversations.
At my twenty-first birthday party, Kevin’s improvised speech included the line, ‘Girls haven’t played a big part in Nick’s life …’ and I scanned the room noting the three girls in attendance – Kevin’s girlfriend and two others I would meet for the only time that night – and let my phone continue to ring; Sarah calling, unaware of the party or even that it was my birthday.
Even twenty-one-year-old virgins have breaking points. Sarah was volatile, insecure for reasons that will never be clear to any male, and as she mentioned other guys my rages escalated and I grew to resent the friendship.
‘If you really hated the world as much as you say you do,’ I would tell her, ‘then you would become disgustingly obese. It’s practically a cliché to have an eating disorder now anyway.’
My only reactions were to compulsively start arguments – like the night I was watching a Sex and the City marathon and yelled a drunken message on her answering machine along the lines of, ‘Guess what! There’s now a TV show about four semi-attractive chicks basically talking about sex for forty straight minutes in every episode – I don’t need you anymore, bitch!’
But after a few weeks of constant disagreements she whimpered, beginning to cry, ‘Y-you sa-sound like you ha-hate me,’ which made me feel human again.
By the time Steve returned, there were other obsessions.
Every few months she’d become infatuated with a new guy, each relationship following an identical path: meeting by chance, months of build-up and postponement, then an impulsive decision to socialise. Usually it repeated, and eventually deteriorated. Sometimes the guys reappeared years later and it started all over again.
I heard about every phase in explicit detail. I also had to hear, usually a week or so after the first mention of a new guy, the same compliment about how ‘shocked’ she was, to the point where after a couple of years I just accepted that this girl may have the greatest penis karma of all time.
Any male she named became the subject of my wrath, especially since they made sexual innuendos that were weak even by my standards. But they were guys: they had dicks, they wanted to use them.
I couldn’t protect her.
She only had sex once, that I know of. She was twenty.
When progress was made, when the guy showed he actually cared about her, she lost interest. It was the same with everyone: complicated origins, mixed messages, the possibility of just a friendship, and then the loss of all hope on the part of the male. She crushed them. They never realised how limited their potential was. And through each stage it sounded like she was describing completely different human beings; even her assessment of their dicks changed.
So for five years, all she talked about was relationships … only she’s never fucking been in one.
It wasn’t like in movies where problems were solved in concise conversations with punchlines and deadpan responses. The same questions were issues for years, action was rarely taken, and nothing was answered. Insecurities, fear, anxiety – these weren’t episodes or periods, they were realities every single day.
Of course I can’t help but wonder what the wasted years could have achieved, but chances are things would have gotten worse. Chances are it wouldn’t have lasted. She’s not the kind of person who would ever go out for coffee, and neither am I. Maybe the odds were bad from the start.
By now, I’ve built her up in my mind so much I’m probably going to be disappointed when she turns out to be human, or if she has cellulite, or if her legs aren’t as long as I remember or the sparkle in her eyes not as clear.
I used to think of her and see her giggling, sitting opposite me in the crowded restaurant. I would see the way her perfect ass looked when I walked closely behind her. I saw her reaction when I silently, hopelessly offered a hug. I thought of her long, pretty hair and how it seemed to cover like half her body, and I thought of her flirty, irritating general behaviour. Then as her self-esteem worsened and I heard about it in graphic detail, I thought of her and began to see a sick animal – a dying calf, a praying mantis, a caricature, at best. And still the thought of her and the conversations and arguments we’ve had sometimes brought a smile to my face, however briefly, when in public.
I already know that if and when we finally do see each other again, something will happen that will leave me with no choice but to listen to the latest teen-angst music for a month straight. Then we’ll start our own cycle all over again. More than likely she will initiate contact, I will fuck it up, and once again we will revert to talking on the phone.
I know the risks. There’s nothing to lose. I desire not so much to enjoy her presence, but to confront her.
It’s been nearly six years now. The less attention I give her, the more she contacts me. As far as I can tell, I’m blamed for everything that goes wrong in her life, and have nothing to do with anything that goes her way. I have no idea if that’s the procedure with every girl. The last stages of becoming more confident than her have flown by in recent years; probably not all that different to the standard male-female maturation process.
She thinks our roles have reversed. According to her, she used to be happy while I was depressed, and now it’s the other way around.
‘I trust you more than anyone else. Like, I will tell you everything, even though I’m scared of getting hurt.’
She told me how, all those years ago, she sat alone, in a room in her house I’ve never seen, talking to me on the phone, which brought back a lot of good memories.
She said, ‘I used to try to pick you up when you were upset then. I guess things have changed.’
‘Quite a history,’ I said. ‘Even if we never really shared it.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘when I’m ready … we will.’
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