London’s lights slap my face as I rest my forehead against the window. My eyes drop shut and open when filled with flickering bars of fluorescent lights and blurred reflections of myself staring back. The Uber driver hasn’t said a word, and neither of us has asked him how his night has been and if he’s been busy.
All is silent except Lana del Rey’s breathy melancholic voice on the radio. It drifts around me and lulls me into the lacy dreams of Americana. She sings of the summer, yet it makes me think of winter: frost-tipped grass cracking underneath boots, frozen lakes like steamed-up mirrors. Trucks and moonlit highways and the Americana life I could have had eating crystallised cherries and sipping Cherry Coke through a red and white straw. We’d be on Venice Beach wearing short shorts, and he’d admire how tan I was as he slipped them off against the faded red, white and blue beach huts. The flaking wood digging into my palms as he pushed himself into me. The scream of children slipping off diving boards. A lullaby from a summer long gone.
He sits next to me staring ahead, his eyes shaded by the cap’s peak. He doesn’t hold my hand. I look at him through the rearview mirror and I swallow that image of him. My eyes dilate to take in more until my own reflection is merely a fragment. His sockets fill with pools of red, white, blue from the lights outside. His eyes swim in the depths of artificial light unwavering and unblinking. Glazed like the cherries bobbing in my Cherry Coke float.
I think of stranger danger and how I used to send my hookups’ postcodes to friends in case something happened and asked them to check in on me if a guy came to mine. But the years of breathing algorithms, the turnstile and production line of bodies and unmemorable faces have eradicated any fear. The nods in the gay sauna indicating someone wants me for a moment in steamy shadows; the fucking in the park after drinks where all I feel is the scrape of bark against my hands and the grass pulling the skin from my knees; worrying more about being loaded up than viral loads; the scrolling on Grindr hoping someone would respond and be on top, under my sheets for half an hour; waiting until a club entirely emptied in case someone would sweep me up like the dregs at the bottom of a pint. I should be scared about bringing a stranger back to my flat, but I feel nothing and watch the darkness and London lights fade in and out as my eyes blur from alcohol and tiredness.
I took a screenshot of the message on my work computer. Moved it to a folder marked with his name. Alongside the screenshots of him using his work’s Instagram to message me. Block. Using his work email to contact me. Block. Using his friend’s Facebook to message me. Block. The screenshot of my bank statement where he had transferred me 1p. The countless WhatsApp messages. It’s your fucking fault. You fucked it this time. Can’t we just book another trip and forget about it? Please, I’d never do anything to destroy what we have. You mean the world to me. Block. I took a screenshot of the messages he sent to my work social media profile. He called. He called. He called. He called. 50 missed calls. Block. I filed it in the folder marked with his name documenting all his attempts to contact me for seven months. I wiped away the tears on my desk, the tears that can’t be filed away and documented as evidence.
‘How long until we’re there?’
I lift myself to sit up straight and look down at my phone squinting at the overly bright screen.
He nods without glancing over. I wipe my sleeve across the window to clean off the condensation and in the dark reflection there is a face that collides with my own. We stop at a red light. The tick, tick, tick of the indicator, the throb of my head as the alcohol settles in my body, the vibrate of my phone: WhatsApp, calls, Grindr, Hinge, Instagram. The interminable connection when I only want to disconnect.
‘Just here is fine,’ I tell the driver. Not that he cares really where he puts us. I step out the car and pull my coat around me, light up a cigarette and wait for him to catch up. He lingers behind me like an afterthought, and I wonder just for a second, what if our aftermath doesn’t add up?
I stub out the glowing cherry drop on the wall and blow coils of smoke from my open mouth. He stands in front of me by the front door. The cap pulled down so his eyes are now colourless. I leave my lips parted waiting, but he leaves them unfulfilled, full of potential, full of things unsaid. Weightless but unbearably heavy.
‘What are you thinking about?’
He turns words in his mouth, rolls them on his tongue and when he opens his lips all he speaks is breath. Vowels bitten in half, syllables in two bites, semantics swallowed whole.
Something is unfolding, running inside him. A beginning, that helixes with the past, to create some new language unknown and unspoken by him before. The morphemes and lexemes that have never come together to produce what he truly means or wants.
‘You,’ he replies after a while. Some people speak so quickly like they want to shake each sentence off, like they’re a burden. He punctuates conversation with long silences. A silence that lingers for so long it fills me with fear, the hope that anything could happen. Just for a second, I play with the thought, and remember many different faces, in many different accents and languages had said it to me many times before. All with the same result.
We kiss underneath the flashing neon sign. The taste of lime and sugar lingers on my lips and I wonder what my own kiss tastes like. He pulls away. His face lights up red from the shop sign. Snow crystals fleck his eyelashes and stubble, glowing pink like bleeding heart petals. In each flake there are millions of reflections of myself gazing back out, trapped and collapsing as they melt from his skin’s heat. He checks to make sure we are still alone before pulling me back in.
I look at him. The blue of his eyes is filled with white like clouds exploding on a stormy evening. His gaze doesn’t break. I flit mine away to the floor where cigarette butts and faded receipts litter the ground.
I tug my keys from my pocket, caught up with my tobacco pouch and wallet, and let us in. We all enter freely with a list of previous lovers. I remember the list I used to write that swelled, stalled from abstinence or a fleeting relationship, then continued to grow. The network and roots of all my lovers grew and bloomed, some with promise until they produced no fruit. After a while I gave up with keeping the list. The threesomes, the drunken one-night stands where I couldn’t remember names and had forgotten whether their eyes were blue or brown.
Once the door closes, he pushes me against the wall. His hand clutches my neck. I stop breathing, clench my body and stare at him. Blue, they’re Blue.
We danced until late and I drunk his drinks when he couldn’t drink anymore. I remember we decided to walk home. I remember us debating along the main road, supporting each other as we stumbled our way back. I remember pushing him against a fence and kissing him. His eyes half closed, like moon slits, from the alcohol. I remember us climbing into bed. I remember the bed creaking and the fear of waking my mum up. I remember passing out. I don’t remember him fucking me. Did he kiss me while he did it? I remember in the morning crying in the bath, hugging my legs and hoping that it would all be washed out somehow. I remember wishing that it would all be okay. I wasn’t given the opportunity to say, ‘no’. There is power in words and voice. I had neither in that moment. Yet he did it anyway.
He stares back. Smiles. A flash of the gap between his two front teeth. He kisses me again as we stumble into my room. Unmade and tangled like how he found me. The leftover pizza box open with the dips unopened. Under the fluorescent light in my room the streaks of black stubble across his face are like scars of shadow. I light the candles on the shelves and switch off the lights.
We strip ourselves like unraveling bandages to reveal something new and tender when all I need is to be bandaged up. He leaves on his white socks. With his tongue in my throat is where he properly speaks. The only language, the only truth, he knows is in the dark cavern of my mouth. The exclamation mark of his being punctuating my own. I put the scar on his cheek to my mouth. That mark where the edges of skin reached back out to mesh back together, whole again but never quite the same.
I trace my tongue along the spirals of his ear like a conch where I hear the sound of drowning men. He tastes like the ocean. He pushes me face down on the bed. Pants, ‘Good boy,’ as he pushes into me. As if I were his childhood dog. As if he’d never really graduated into adulthood. Sweat crisscrosses his chest, down his flanks and drips on to my body and sheets as he thrusts. My skin and the fabric absorb it willingly. I bite down on the medical amulet that always hangs around my neck. It tastes of the years of my skin, salt, rust and the countless bodies it’s rubbed against.
He mimics my body. When I’m aggressive, when I’m intimate, when I stare into his eyes, he does the same. My left arm lifts, his right copies. When I moan, his moan is the same tone. He mirrors me, my wants, mirrors what I seek. But he doesn’t believe, he sifts through what he’s supposed to do. What he’s supposed to reflect. His eyes are focused on the mirror and not focused on the reflection of our bodies coiled together like a question mark. I stare at his shadowed eyes as he gazes at nothing at all. I can see the whole of him as clear as a reflection in a mirror yet without ever seeing him clearly. I wish the mirror reflected further.
He takes his time looking at me. His eyes flicking over my face, into my eyes, the medical amulet on my bare chest, back to my eyes. He holds them there. Mouth slightly parted as if ready to say something. Something painful, something frightening. He says nothing at all. I can’t bear to keep looking at him so I lay my head on my arm and close my eyes pretending I’m tired. I’m not at all. I want to stay up and talk and fuck and pull him into me and rest my face against his back.
As he pulls out of me, he’s already thinking of the next person he’ll be putting it in. Already replacing my face with another. Just another face to reflect to his own. I stare at the ceiling with my clothes still on the floor, the sheets damp from sweat. He breathes heavily next to me. His heartbeat said yes to his body every second, yet he told his heart no every time.
‘Stay the night?’ I hear his thoughts selecting, considering, denying. He takes his time looking at me. He holds them there. His lips slightly parted as if ready to say something. Something painful, something frightening. You can see him concentrate and sort through the thoughts until he finds the right one. Selecting what he’s expected to say.
He silenced. He did the same with his body.
There is power in words and voice. My body has been fluent in all languages except this one. This terrifying silence, the mirror against my body: hard, reflective, penetrative, unforgiving. To translate is to destroy. I spent so long trying to translate love and my lovers.
I sense his eyes still lingering on me as I feel the pressure on the change bed. When I open them, he has his back to me, stretched out naked, with the bumps in his back pressing against the skin like a pearl necklace pulled tight. The candles are still alight that I lit to cover the smell of the pepperoni pizza with the cheese now hard and crisp like the sheets. The room laced with bergamot and sandalwood and him. The smell of him clings to me and I don’t know whether I want to rinse that off. The bed soaked with shadow and expectancy and two figures reflecting and never quite meeting.
I stood on the black pebbles on the shore. The black tide drenched my feet. The laughter and screams from the pier sank into the sea. He took it from me. Took what was mine. He made me a refugee from my body. I stared down into the black mirror beneath me. There was a face in the water that collided with my own. There’s a person in the water that collideed with my own. I walked deeper into the waters, the place where so many things begin, and where I wanted everything to end.
We all have ways to disappear.
I click the door shut behind him without a word from either of us. His unlaced Nikes make no noise on the carpet out in the hallway. His footprints will soon disappear under the snow flurries as quickly as he entered and left my room without any tracks to find his way back. I hope for that afterglow of his message popping up and saying, Let’s do that again, but his profile has already disappeared from my phone. We all have ways to disappear.
Introspection wasn’t detected on his taste buds as the full stop of my mouth sealed that story for good with a final kiss. I curl up on the bed and pull the throw over me. I stare in the mirror and there’s only my eyes staring back at me. In the reflection I see how he must have seen me: pieces of face without anyone to reflect it to make it whole.
About The Author
Michael Handrick was born in the UK and raised in various countries. A graduate from the Creative and Life Writing MA at Goldsmiths, University of London, his short stories have been published in various anthologies including Litro; his journalism appears in magazines such as Attitude and PYLOT, as well as academic research published by The Inter-Disciplinary Press.
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