The Only Man in the World to Feel Pain by Olivia Baume

He always fancied himself the mysterious type. Sexy. Aloof. The only man in the world to feel pain. All those little, pseudo-intellectual thoughts. All those vain attempts to be perceived as the tortured artist. How he thought himself enigmatic if he wore all black, and only smiled when he was drunk. Or that a surface level understanding of 19th century philosophers somehow ticked the intelligence box. Using these crumbs of knowledge to parade over other people, as though no one else had access to Nietzsche’s Wikipedia page. She laughed. A long, frenzied laugh. His theory that the Government had laced pop music with subconscious messages to keep the masses in check. It’s dumbing us down, he’d say. It’s killing off our brain cells. We’re living in a George Orwell novel, and Ariana Grande is the Thought Police.

She laughed even harder.

Eight long years. He wouldn’t recognise her at first. She ate what she wanted now. She cut her fingernails short. She had a voice made-up of smokes, grit and trauma. Her teeth had turned yellow from years of apathy and abandon. Her eyebrows touched. He always said he didn’t mind hair on women, but that he preferred them clean-shaven. Like a baby. Now, her armpit hair was long and straggly. Now, her pubes kept her vulva warm in the winter. Any trace of teenager had long disappeared and with it, any hint of pretty had faded and withered. There wasn’t room in her brain or energy in her bones to worry about the facade that was her appearance. She preferred it that way. Men left her alone. Men didn’t look at her if they could help it. The faintest silver lining. Instead, she spent her time dreaming. Dreaming that if she were to ever see him again, he would know exactly what he’d done. Her outside would mirror her inside, and he would see all the pain, and the grit, and the dirt. She would barely have to explain herself. She would barely have to talk. He’d recoil and wince and begin to remember. The words she said:

I want my body back.

She used to fancy herself an idealist. 

He texted her on the last night he saw her: you up?

How romantic! she thought.

She jolted awake. Banishing the tea party with Marie Antoinette back into the locked doors of her mind. Though it wasn’t without regret. She enjoyed dreaming; how pleasant it felt, deep in her subconscious, to listen to Marie whinge about her husband’s erectile dysfunction. To take another bite of the fuchsia macaroon, the chocolate éclair, the cream dripping down on her chin, trying not to say the wrong thing. Trying not to show her inexperience with these matters. The servants running to her aid. A serviette placed promptly on her lap, her hand reaching for the jam to dress her scone with, Marie teaching her German and French, then back to German.

Her hands groped the nightstand.

She replied: be there soon.

It was thirty minutes past midnight, at the park opposite his house. The same clandestine meeting they’d followed for weeks now. The days were sporadic, dependent on his mood or whether the boys had gone home early that night. She rarely had plans that went past midnight, especially on a weekday. Most days she didn’t want to go. Most days she was tired and grumpy and cold. But she was a teenager. This was the necessary step to being perceived as interesting. She needed stories. Fun, exciting, sneaking out of the house stories. She didn’t much like the boy, but he gave her the stories, and the comforting feeling that she was using the currency of her youth shrewdly and sensibly.

He was a good guy, after all.

“No, trust me,” people told her, a knowing look in their eyes. “He’s one of the nice ones.”

A good guy. Excellent news.

She didn’t need to like him if everyone else did. Though she worked hard at burying the feeling that she was a fraud, by reasoning there was nothing sinister or wrong about shifting your personality for someone. Shifting – yes, that’s the right word, she thought. Shifting implied it could be moved back. Like moving a rug underneath the TV cabinet instead of the coffee table for a day or two. Testing things out, changing things up. She worked harder at burying the feeling that this boy – this ordinary, mediocre boy – had never once had to shift a morsel of himself for anyone.

Her biggest mistake, of course, was telling him about her dream.

Marie Antoinette, erectile dysfunction, the whole, absurd affair. Why would he care about the inner workings of her subconscious? She dug her key into her leg as she talked, drawing blood. She was humiliated, watching his face turn sour, his hands inch towards his phone, bored and unmoved. He offered not the slightest indication of interest. It was a brutal blow, sure, but a most necessary lesson, she reasoned. From then on, every sentence was rehearsed in her head. Refined, edited, desperately trying to grapple with the art of reading the room. The words had to sound right. Nothing forceful, nothing dogmatic. Right, and cool, and a little bit sexy, a little bit cheeky. 

Instead, they talked about him.

“You haven’t done that stuff, though, have you?”

“No,” she’d reply.

This was the right answer. She knew this by the way he’d nod and smirk, planting a kiss on her cheek. Her reward. Her triumph. He was talking about the usual stuff. The drugs and the sex and the alcohol. It really seemed to fascinate him, which in turn fascinated her. She could tell he wanted to talk about it all the time. But only if she brought it up. It was crucial that she played the student, and him the teacher.

She knew, she always knew.

“What’s it all like?” she’d ask anyway, marvelling at how his face lit up like a child talking about their favourite kind of chocolate bar.

He’d jump up and down like a madman, unleashing his inner boy, pretending to be ironic. She suspected he had an attention deficit disorder of some kind but never dared to ask. Up and down he’d go; down the slide, on the see-saw, gestures larger-than-life, grinning wider with every passing anecdote. Always talking, always moving. He was high, obviously. He only cared to see her in the dead of night, fifty minutes past midnight, high from the stale stash he found in his father’s sock drawer. 

She justified it to herself by saying that he was happy for a moment at least, and that was more than she could say about herself. Who’s to blame a person for being happy? For taking the reins, the steering wheel, and turning the dial on their penchant for misery. That was certainly more than she could say about herself. Or most people, for that matter. She admired that about him. He never over-analysed. Or thought much at all. Every thought – if that’s what you could call it – was written across his face. He had nothing to hide, unlike all the filthy, lewd thoughts she could never dare speak aloud for fear someone would call her the dreaded word. (Slut.) He said it all. No shame. No hesitation. No second-guessing. Only go, go, go! And deal with the consequences later. Although she was certain he had never had to do that either.

“You know,” he sat down next to her. “I really hate it when girls tell me about their dreams.”

She giggled, ashamed.

“Yeah, I guess it’s a bit pointless…”

“I forgive you, though.”

She nodded, thanking him. He kissed her on the cheek. Her reward. Her triumph.

They’d moved on. Their third spot of the night. A secluded lookout. They’d walked thirty minutes to get there. He said he drew the line on driving high. Thought it was irresponsible and too risky; he didn’t want to kill or injure someone. She agreed. He paused a second, waiting. She forgot her lines. The bare minimum, she wanted to say. You’re doing the bare minimum. Instead, she showered him with praise, telling him she respected that choice, and that not many other boys care enough about the sanctity of human lives to resist the primal urge to drive high. It was two hours past midnight, but she wasn’t feeling tired. The adrenaline, she supposed, kept her going. On, on, on, she thought every time she started feeling nervous and mournful for the time she was missing at the tea party with Marie Antoinette. On, on, on.

The lookout was futile. It was night time and the bushland was enveloped in black. She watched him stand there and pretend to be profound. Lost in thoughts. Most likely thoughts about how the profound thoughts he should be having right about now. He gripped the railing tight, refusing to look at her the way men do after they kiss a girl at a party. Bored, unmoved, offering not even the slightest indication of interest. More important things on his mind. More pressing matters. Profound matters.

She asked him what he was thinking.

Big mistake. The tirade began: a lecture on his misery, sorrow and his unrivalled despair. The only man in the world to feel pain. No one understood him. No one ever could. An incoherent ramble of Radiohead lyrics and quotes by Jack Kerouac. He laughed when she said she’d never read On the Road. “Of course, you haven’t. Dumb bitch,” he muttered under his breath, then continued his tirade. Psychologists, pills, his incomparable despair – the only man in the world with depression. Numb and lifeless and only half-human. No girl understood, no girl ever could. Women are usually pretty stupid. At least the ones he knew. He paced up and down the railing, tapping the metal, his voice sounding more and more like an animalistic grumble. She racked her brains for the script. She knew she needed to say the right line, use the right intonation, with just the right rhythm and melody in her pitch.

Ah – but her knees were in the dirt.

Ah – but his hands were staining her neck.

Ah – but here comes the steady decline.

She heard her head smash against the railing like it was happening to someone else. The quick slash of her dress, the violent rush of the wind, the bestial grunting of the only man in the world to crave power. Abstract sounds. Vague, blurry movements, skeletal outlines of real life. A scene so intangible and far from reality that it became exactly that: a scene. Like a film she watched from afar, wondering if that poor girl was okay, covering her eyes when the image became too gruesome, too unbearable. Her mind and body had cracked. Cracked and splintered and ripped apart from each other – the connection broken for good. She wondered if she’d ever get her body back.

Clenching her eyes shut, she begged his forgiveness.

Sorry for talking, sorry for existing, sorry for being dirty and disposable. sorry for the nights dreaming of you, dreaming of touching you, dreaming of feeling the weight of your body against me, pushing me up against the wall, whispering in my ear, eating my body up so warm and so tender.

Though she was mostly sorry for feeling secretly superior. Even if she followed the script, he could sense it. He could sense that she knew she was smarter than him, knew she was stronger, thought he was pathetic. Look at him, she would think. Wrestling his illusory Lucifer, thinking this is as evil as evil gets. He knows nothing of life, knows nothing of sadness, knows nothing of music or poetry. How sorry she felt. Truly, she did. That in all his glorious, unbridled privilege, he was starved of something quite vital – quite primitive – a tolerance for pain.

Of course, the days continued for him. The months did too. The windows all opened, the fresh air billowed in. Time slipped and cascaded, the years would always continue. A sport game, a book, a birthday, a concert, a boring Monday. More books, a film, a trip to the museum, a nephew’s christening, a promotion, more money, another girlfriend. Talks of love, more poetry. Talks of marriage, more music. More life. The days continued for him. Unchanged, unmovable. His body on the ground. His mind still safe within it.

I want my body back.

She floats aimlessly in the night. She drifts through the ether, looking for her body silent and alone. Still tasting the mud from the ground, still hearing the violent rush of the wind, still holding her own hand on the lonely bush trail back home. Eight long years. Her eyebrows touch. Her nails short. Her teeth murky yellow. She no longer dreams of Marie Antoinette. She dreams of waving arms and running legs and a beating heart and a reflection that makes sense. She dreams of putting her head on the pillow, tracing her body with her fingers, and thinking mine, mine, mine. She dreams of reading Plath, and not feeling the deep agony of knowing in her chest. Where every word feels plucked from her consciousness, every feeling plagiarised from her chest. Mostly she dreams of some way – some miracle – to make him bear the weight. The only man in the world – but how would he cope with real pain?

About The Author

Olivia Baume is a writer from Sydney, with two previous short stories published by The Opiate and Euphony Journal. She is studying media, creative writing and gender studies at the University of Sydney. Mostly though, she watches Love Island and plays with her cat.

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