A Place a Single Woman Should Never Go
It all happened in a swimming pool. I could breathe perfectly but the experience wasn’t like breathing air. It was much easier. The water was so clear it was impossible. The clarity was magnified by what wasn’t there; there was no chlorine or sediment – it was like the first water ever to form – and the fear that has always kept me away from pools and oceans and baths and basins was gone too. The water touched my skin and my heart stayed steady. I looked ahead, I looked around, but I wasn’t looking for a way out. I was at home there, in that water. Not at all like waking life.
I was training to be a diver. The light was bright yet cool, the colours muted. I moved through, sometimes brushing my breasts or my knees against the concrete bottom, but against my body it yielded like sand. Smooth, clean water slid along my arms and through my lungs. Appearing at the end of the pool were a pair of slender white legs. As I got closer I could even make out the light playing against the cornsilk hairs that covered them. Her toenails were painted blue. For the first time I wanted to come up above the surface and breathe air. It burned a little at first.
The blonde was sitting on the steps in a modest black bikini. Her hair was dry.
A noise sounded and I woke up reluctantly, trying to fight my way back to sleep. I had just said something to her, but I couldn’t remember what. The thought of never hearing her reply made me feel sick.
I sat up and looked out the window opposite. The snow that started before we went to bed seems not to have stopped. My feet are cold – he always rolls over and pulls the blankets off my feet. There is no way to resist seeing this as a metaphor.
I might have been able to get back to sleep, but his snoring sounds like a thousand doors slamming. Nervous of moving, I stare at his body, one leg where it escapes the covers, his arms that clutch them to his chest. I might think it was ugly if only it looked finished. The male form looks so incomplete that it makes the notion of intelligent design seem laughable. The male body is the aesthetic equivalent of truck stop food or a half-plagiarised book report.
Or maybe I just hate him. I must have seen better before, done better for myself. There must have been a time when I touched some man’s side, traced my fingers down his ribs, explored his navel, appreciated a soft-downed pubic mound and thought, dear God, I love this.
Last night was the fifth time, the fifth and last time, I slept with him. Had sex with him, fucked, got fucked, let him fuck me. Because I wasn’t ready to deal with the break up, not another one, not just yet. But I’ll have to do it tomorrow. Over coffee? When he walks me to the station? I know that the longer I leave it, the more despicable he’ll become, and that seems to be the cruelest thing I could do to him. Looking at someone you don’t love as they fall harder for you, loving you so much that they can’t hear the fatigue in your sigh when they tell a joke, see the way your face tilts away from kisses in public. I’ve left it too long, and when I leave him he’ll be thrown.
I dress quickly and leave via the path I’d mapped the night before through the minefield of creaking floorboards in his bedroom – my invisible trail of breadcrumbs. It’s important to figure out the quietest way out in case escape is necessary. So I step lightly into the footprints I’d pressed into the carpet, knowing I wouldn’t be staying for morning cuddles and toast in bed, knowing I’d be slinking out on him before I admitted it to myself.
Outside the snow keeps falling hard. The night drains back and exposes morning as I wait at the bus stop. I’m there for an hour before a woman walking her dog tells me she’s heard on the radio that the buses aren’t running. I thank her and start walking. My toes huddle together against the cold and I lose my balance and slide along the icy street. No one sees.
I’ll never fuck anyone in west London again.
The morning passes heavily, a huge white beast with dirty feet that would swallow me whole if it could see me at all past the snow falling, now in determined parallel lines, now in frenzied helixes. On and on towards home, surrounded by snow, saturated by it. I find Bayswater Road and then make my way down to the river and east along it. A little family is making snow-people sitting on a bench. They’re puffy and clumsy in parkas and mittens. I want to join them, but even approaching would be an assault, a breach of etiquette. I’d never want someone to be so impolite to me, so I pass, looking without appearing to be looking, wondering if my shabby form makes them nervous. The buildings that line the riverbank look squat and powerful like boxers made by a family of giants out of city snow.
I pass the Millennium Bridge and I want so badly to go back in time to a day just after it opened when it used to sway dangerously in the wind, before they fixed it and took away its particularity. I never went across it when it swayed. The phenomenon was on the news, and I kept meaning to go and swing between St Paul’s and the Tate, but I kept putting it off and I missed it. Now it’s just a metal thoroughfare and I walk past without stopping to consider it, lest regret slows me down too much and I drown in the freezing day.
A sheet of black ice shatters under me and sends my feet into a freezing puddle as I reach the alley, a shortcut home that I’ve always called the ‘murder shortcut’. Secluded, badly lit at night, a place a single woman should never go. But I’m more lazy than wise.
Freezing, soaked, my thoughts turn back to my dream where I was totally immersed and I feel that little has changed. I know that I’ll have to face my fear of water when I get home. A hot bath is the only way I’ll be able to get warm again. I’ll turn on the heating and fill up the tub, but I’m so cold that when I step into the water I’ll burst into flames.
Sometimes in my dreams I can breathe under water…