“...and I think it’s a problem with our idea of innocence,” she said, and it was clear by the changeable volume of her voice we were having one of the most engaged conversations at 37B Powerscroft Road. My wife, Garthene, was not at the party. She was not in the bathroom and about to burst in as her husband reached a windy philosophical plateau with an unmarried woman who, from a distance, seemed to be wearing a lot of -poorly applied lipstick but in reality just had an unusual lip–upper lip transition.
“You should speak to my wife,” I said. “Garthene loves this kind of thing.”
It is terrific to have a partner with the name Garthene. Just the mention of it brings decorum to a conversation.
“Funny,” she said, “you don’t look married.”
I spotted Dave Finlay and waved him over. Dave, one of the top focus pullers in the UK film industry, was traveling back from the kitchen with three spring rolls on a paper napkin in his left hand, a full glass of wine in his right. The accuracy of movement required by a focus puller is incredible. Garthene and I reckon Dave Finlay for a very precise lover. It is okay for us to joke about this -because I do not think Garthene would ever find Dave attractive on -account of one of his habits. When he drinks wine, small beads of it become trapped in the thick hairs of his mustache and Dave is aware this happens, so after each sip, he draws his bottom lip up over his top lip and pulls down remnants of, in this instance, Picpoul de Pinet. What I’m fairly certain Dave doesn’t know is that this creates a flick-back where his mustache, as it regains its shape, spritzes a very fine, near-imperceptible mist of what we can now safely -assume is a mix of wine and mouth juices. The spray does not so much land on anyone as just become one with the atmosphere in the room, reminding us that the air we breathe is full of each others’ fluids and innards and skin. In the abstract, I have no problem with knowing this. When we smell something we absorb tiny bits of that smell’s source. Fine. But Garthene and I agree that, in the moment of a conversation with Dave Finlay, becoming aware that your next in-breath will be, to a larger than normal extent, rich in his DNA, is a pretty profound turnoff. The situation would be easier if Dave kept a neater beard, but for that to happen, he would need to have the self-respect engendered by an active love life, and for that to happen, he’d need a neater beard, and so on.
The unmarried woman shook the raised pinky of Dave’s wine-holding hand, introduced herself, then touched his elbow, which was my cue to drift away. I sat on the toilet and composed a message for my wife. The stench of death, Garthene. The stench of death overwhelming this whole charade. Every clinked glass, every hollow laugh, every rewind—the more noise we make, the easier the black wing finds us in the dark. The canapés also, bullshit. 6/10.
We don’t have friends who make canapés. The gap in meaning would be implicit to my wife. It is a given that we married couples struggle to host parties that live up to the intimidatingly nihilistic standards of our single friends. Garthene would want me to have a good time but would appreciate my pretending not to, since she was working nights. She texted back: Drink more xxx
In the corridor, Richard Bonner was dabbing at his phone, waiting to go into the toilet after me. Nobody resented Richard for still being into cocaine, but there was definitely a sense that the bathroom, for him, was a kind of time machine. He would come out a few minutes later looking startled, having visited himself at a house party five years ago. I knew from experience to avoid Richard until much later on in the evening, when his drugs had run out and he hated himself a little. Then he became quite likable.
Taking my wife’s advice, I drank a large glass of wine. In the lounge, Lee was mixing drinks on the mantelpiece. In the kitchen, I found his wife, Marie—very beautiful, with a high forehead and good wrinkles—lighting a cigarette off the hob. It has never been a problem with Garthene, my talking to Marie. Marie and Lee give off an air of tremendous financial-sexual security. It’s also clear Marie has spent her whole adult life being the attractive person and finds it not exactly boring, just unworthy of comment. She waved away the smoke as I came in.
“Ray,” she said. “You’re here.”
I made an exaggerated play of sucking in the secondhand smoke and she laughed silently, which made what was left in her lungs come out. Strange how different it felt, taking in Marie’s exhalations compared to the mouth juices of Dave Finlay. She hopped up onto the counter to blow smoke more accurately out the narrow window. Her bare calves on the white handle-free cabinet were pretty special. I knew that Garthene would think it weird for me not to notice them. Not registering them would be a signpost that I was too frightened to look at them for fear of combusting with repressed lust. Her legs were outstanding. That was no problem. She had a semicircle-shaped scar that made her left kneecap look cheerful.
“I’ve been the pace car this evening, Ray.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“My husband sent me here to take a long, tall drink of delicious water.”
“You seem sober. I’d put you in charge of heavy machinery.”
“Lee says I’m too old for this. Too old to make it work.”
“You have one of those faces that never looks drunk. Try slurring something.”
She looked down at her lap. “Gnsh um chuffly.”
“There you go,” I said.
“Great. Now you’re more convincing.”
She squinted at me through the smoke. “You are starting to seem good-looking,” she said.
This was fine, by the way. Garthene could have been in the room with us and it would not have been an issue.
“But the wine has probably compromised an authentic sense of your own agency,” I said. “So it’s morally impossible for us to sleep together.”
“But what if the wine has just allowed me access to my true feelings?”
“As a modern man, I make no assumptions. I’d need very clear signals. I will literally never assume anything about anyone, that’s how modern I am.”
“What if I dragged you upstairs?”
“Well, I’d lie completely still on the bed, make no movements whatsoever, and if you chose of your own volition—”
“Then you’d let me feed on you?”
“Then I would facilitate your needs.”
The mention of my wife’s name was proof, if any were needed, that she had been implicitly in the room throughout the preceding exchange. Marie handed me her cigarette because she knows that, after a few drinks, I have a fondness for the third quarter. There was lipstick on the filter. She did not wear lipstick that looked like she was wearing any, but here it was.
Lee came in with two drinks. “Is the pace car on blocks yet?” he said.
Marie pulled a used pint glass from the sink, filled it with tap water and necked the lot, her throat pulsing, a dribble running into the hollow of her left collarbone. She was breathing hard by the time she brought the pint down. They had a little stare-off, then he put a tall glass of a clear, fizzy drink next to her thigh on the counter and I watched it release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. He handed me one, too.
“You’re a gent,” I said.
I’d enjoyed our conversation so much I felt like staying in the kitchen and talking more. Lee leaned against the cooker. We could hear Richard Bonner in the next room making a strong case for something. Lee watched me hand the cigarette back to his wife, then he looked at me.
“Where’s Garthene?” he said.
“On nights,” I said. “She won’t finish till six.”
“We’ll probably still be going,” Lee said.
“But she has a thing about the way she smells after a night shift. The toxin sweat. I try to tell her it’s the scent of dedicating one’s life to the care of others, but she says that’s exactly the sort of thing someone who’s not spent time in a hospital would say.”
Neither of them was listening. Lee watched Marie have another cigarette. She was usually just a social smoker but tonight she’d upgraded. I could hear one of the hobs hissing as Lee’s cushiony backside pressed against the dials. Lee’s head changed color as he drank. He was a few shades shy of full ripeness now. Marie blew smoke at him and he stared at her through it, then turned to me and said, “Please look after her,” before shouldering back into the lounge. I leaned over and turned off the hob. I couldn’t smell gas.
“He’s a good man, your man,” I said.
In the lounge, I could see Lee picking up beer cans on the coffee table until he found one he liked the weight of. Marie had stopped bothering to aim her cigarette smoke out the window, and the room was changing color.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she said.
At Marie and Lee’s parties, the spare room tended to be an overflow space, but tonight it was empty. There was a prince-size bed in the middle of the room, a dresser to one side, and a winged armchair to the other. Marie propped up the pillows and got under the duvet, sitting up against the -padded headboard. She lifted the edge of the covers and I got in beside her. We didn’t take our shoes off, which made a difference, morally. The room was well lit, and the mirrored, built-in wardrobe allowed us to observe ourselves. It was an amusing sight, Marie smoking luxuriously, fully clothed in bed. I enjoyed the situation. There were text imperatives in clip frames on one wall. The other wall slanted with the roof. Marie’s right hand held the cigarette while her left hand rested under the covers, next to my leg.
I made an attempt to imagine Garthene in the room with us. Garthene, sober and returning from the night shift, smelling of bacterial secretions, putting one hand on the wall for balance as she took off her shoes. Her husband and her oldest friend’s wife smoking in a small double bed. I realized that the situation was defined by my feelings about it. If I regarded this moment as sexually meaningful, that’s what it became. But if I worried about how my wife would interpret these circumstances, then it was just that—a situation that was worrying only because of how it might be misconstrued, rather than an inherently hurtful one. I was able to disarm the whole enterprise with the power of clear thinking.
Marie passed me her cigarette as it got toward the good bit. In the mirror, we looked postcoital but sad, as though we’d started having sex but one of us had encountered a problem—“I just can’t do this, sorry . . . ”—so we’d given up and were now merely running through our private neuroses in silence.
Through the floorboards there came the bark of Richard Bonner laughing.
The door opened a fraction, Dave Finlay’s head appeared, then he apologized, retreated.
Marie looked into my eyes via the mirror. It was more comfortable this way; we could look at each other with only the slightest adjustment of our normal sight line. It meant that we weren’t turned toward each other in bed, which would have crossed a line, I decided, since our eyes and mouths would have been too close together. Even with clothes and shoes on, turning -toward each other in a prince-size bed was a definite line. The duvet cover’s pattern was the flag of Japan, a country famous for youth suicide. When I passed the cigarette back to Marie, she reached for it awkwardly with her right hand. She kept her left hand where it was, gently knuckling my thigh under the duvet.
I looked into her eyes in the mirror and she blew smoke out, and for a moment we both looked black-and-white. We traveled through time. When Marie first arrived in our friendship group, there had been a little jousting among the single men, until she and Lee got together. I was not one of the guys involved. I just can’t get excited about someone who doesn’t have some pretty prominent flaws.
From downstairs, we could hear the gush of someone inflating nitrous balloons. The evening was transitioning to its next stage. When I first met Garthene, she used to steal bottles of medical-grade Entonox from work and bring them to parties. There was the thrill of the drug itself but, more powerful than that, the thrill of wasting public-health resources.
We heard Lee come up the stairs. He was talking to the unmarried woman. She was saying, “I’m getting a whiff of aspiration from your art collection, Lee.”
“Glad to hear it. Wouldn’t want Marie to have spent all that money and have nobody notice.”
Lee paid Marie rent. He was a tenant husband. Marie was the only one of our friends who owned property, though Garthene and I were trying. We’d offered above asking price on a horrible little maisonette in the dead land beyond the Lea Bridge Roundabout.
I felt the mattress shift as Marie yelled for her husband. “Leebo!” she said. “Leebo!”
“Yes, dear,” he called through the door.
“Ray and I are in bed here and absolutely parched.”
I thought it was important to be part of the joke. Some jokes only carry if everyone gets behind them. “It’s true, big man. Me and your wife have got a major thirst on.”
“I’m just showing my new friend the flat,” he said. “She wants to judge us and it can’t wait.”
The woman spoke through the door: “Lee’s right, Marie. I’ve been putting off these generalizations for quite long enough.”
It was good that everyone was getting on board.
As we heard them go upstairs, Marie’s hand moved on top of my thigh and nudged the edge of my crotch. She blew smoke up toward the paper lampshade. As long as I did not turn toward her, it was fine. I was helping Marie and Lee through a difficult moment in their marriage. If Garthene was here, I would fully expect her to be in the upstairs room, letting Lee cry on her shoulder and put his lips against her neck. And with that thought, I brought Garthene into the room. Garthene, who knows more than most about putting herself in challenging situations for the health and happiness of others, was in the room with us and gave a solemn nod. Neither Marie nor Lee was a bad person and they would survive this and thank us for being fluid in our conception of our selves. Garthene’s purple nurse’s tunic was taut around her waist, and she was squinting.
You cannot blame a body. That was one thing her job had taught her. You cannot blame a body for its response. Marie was looking at me without use of the mirror—she had turned her head. Her hand was on my crotch which had responded without my say-so.
“You dream about me, don’t you?” she said.
“I do,” I said, “absolutely.” It was important to work through this.
“You dream about me.”
My sex dreams were unique because if I made love to a woman who was not my wife, I would usually experience in-dream remorse. I would seek to apologize, in the dream. I felt Marie’s hand tighten and she yelled up at the ceiling. “Lee,” she said. “Lee. Thirsty work down here.”
We listened to the conversation upstairs stop. Their voices lowered then carried on.
“Where’s Garth?” Marie said.
It was good to know we could still bring my wife into the conversation.
“I bet she looks great naked right now, doesn’t she?”
Then the door opened and Lee came in. His face was fully ripe and he had a bottle of rum in his hand. I let my right leg slip out from under the cover just so he could see I had my shoes on. It was too deliberate, I now realize.
“He-ey, party in here,” he said, and he walked up to the bed and unstopped the bottle. He handed the rum to his wife, then his face came swooping down and he kissed me on the lips and laughed. “We’re lucky you’ve got things -under control,” he said, then he kissed me with tongues but my mouth wasn’t open properly so his tongue hit my teeth. Then he laughed harder, with his head thrown back. I tasted rum. His neck was bright pink and showing the cords beneath.
“Wahey!” he said and took the bottle off his wife and drank.
I slipped out of bed sideways and moved toward where the ceiling of the room slanted down. I had to crouch slightly, which was a useful position for me. Lee crawled on the bed in the warm patch where I had been and kissed his wife. His shirt rode up and I was reminded of his body. We were not the kind of friendship group who valued muscles, which made his commitment to them all the more impressive. He twisted his body to kiss Marie and reached under the covers between her legs. Then he came over to where I was crouching and put his hand toward my face and I thought he might hit me so I winced. He just dragged the side of his finger which was wet on my -upper lip. I breathed through my mouth. I understood that to take in the smell would be to receive fluids. The line would be long gone if I inhaled through my nose. I slid along the wall, my back hunched over.
Lee knelt down and prodded the lump in the crotch of my trousers. He pressed it like a doorbell. “Ding-dong!” he said.
If Garthene were here.
“Ding-dong!” He poked my crotch-lump then laughed.
Marie was watching herself in the mirror.
I maneuvered along the built-in wardrobe toward the door. In all likelihood I was absorbing tiny Marie particles anyway, becoming minutely contaminated, so I wiped my upper lip with my sleeve. Lee saw that and his expression changed. I thought he was going to hit me which he did. The first was in the mouth, and, although he punched in a way that didn’t seem -specially powerful—because Lee was standing a little far back, had to take two steps as he swung, had to carry his fist across the room—he still connected and my mouth filled with the taste of money. Then it made sense that Lee, having felt, I think justifiably, that the first punch had not been satisfying, took a wide stance, set his feet, bent his knees, and—with his wife behind him saying something along the lines of oh come on, as though his -behavior were nothing more than a little impolite, like hogging the binoculars at the opera—had another go. I believe the phrase is “I saw it coming from last week.” Time slowed or, to be more accurate, it thickened. We -retain more detail about traumatic events. No surprise that those few seconds -between the first punch and the second have come to stand in for probably six months of my thirties. I had never been facially punched -before, and that seemed faintly ridiculous: How could I claim full maturity without ever having jumped through that life hoop? There were the obvious things you’d expect—pain, shock, fear that my average looks could not carry off a -characterful nose—but also pride that I would no longer hold this naïveté, this virgin face, and relief at being damaged, because that was realistic, that was something to build on, and so I hoped for minor disfigurement—not anything massive but a cute little scimitar-shaped blue-white ridge of scar tissue working with the shape of my cheekbone, something to mark my -arrival in adulthood, and I remember thinking I could have dodged the second punch, could have ducked or weaved so that he would hit the mirror, which would have cracked, and he would have been left looking at a fractured vision of his wife and himself, sliced into thirds by a knife so sharp they could not feel its blade pass through and it might have been the kind of metaphor that can save a marriage—seeing himself with bleeding knuckles, Marie trapped in a web of shattered glass—and things might have ended -differently. But he connected sweetly, and in that moment before I blacked out, I knew there must have been great satisfaction in finding my left eye socket, which I should say was a tremendous home, shapewise, for the adult male fist.
If you have ever walked in public covered in blood you will know it is a wonderful feeling. I drank from the bottle of rum and texted my wife in the bluegrass style: Walkin’ the street / taste o’ blood in my mouth / on my way to see my wo-man.
I entered Homerton hospital with the bottle in my sock.
“Head wounds,” I said, stepping up to the reception desk, “always look worse than they are.”
I knew because Garthene had told me that from the moment I registered with the receptionist a communal file would be created with notes on my condition (query: drunk?), and if her colleagues recognized my name, they might contact her, and if she found me in A&E, I would have to -explain myself in public, which would invoke her terrifying professional voice. I knew that in order to give my wife a fair and nuanced picture of why I was bleeding from the face, I would need the full range of irony, theater, special pleading. That meant visiting her ward and speaking to her alone. Much of the hospital, I knew, was empty at this time, and security understaffed. A few weeks ago they found students on temazepam riding tricycles through the diabetes center.
The hospital was busy. In the waiting room, I watched a young couple crying and holding hands on the easy-wipe chairs. He was so tall and she so tiny I couldn’t help feel they had got together from an instinct for the perverse. Everyone else was sitting politely with their avoidable injuries for a free dose of medium-grade health care.
At the edge of the room I located an ethanol-gel dispenser to nuke the last of the Marie microbes. Garthene had taught me the correct way to clean one’s hands—concentrating on the tips of fingers, not the palms—and I felt this motion leant me a certain authority among the staff. I moved toward the double doors that lead into the hospital proper, pretending to take interest in the painting hanging nearby. Local artists donated their work, and this one was a sunny acrylic of the Mare Street bus depot. There was a clear sense the artist had enjoyed creating it, which I found embarrassing. In the reflection in the plastic glass, my bloody lip and half-closed eye brought a needed sense of conflict to the work.
Omar Badi. Carla Montemaggiore. Nurses kept calling unusual names.
The receptionists turned to look as there was a sharp cry of agony from the woman in the mismatched couple—and I took my chance, pushing through the rubber-edged doors into the corridor beyond. I walked with purpose over the pale linoleum following the signs to ITU. I know it’s not a competition, but I like to tell people that my wife works on the scariest ward. Heart attacks, pneumonias, road accidents, suicides. ITU makes A&E look like a fucking wellness spa is the sort of thing I say. When I got there, I looked into the long ward through the strip of reinforced glass at two nurses on a low-lit island desk, like a dinner date in the middle of the room, their heads turned away from me. I buzzed the intercom and positioned myself so the camera would only see the good half of my face, the unswollen zone.
“Who’s that?” the nurse whispered.
“It’s Ray. Garthene’s husband.”
“Oh, Ray. The man of the moment. To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“A spontaneous act of romance,” I said.
“Young love,” the nurse said. “But you know she’s on her sleep break.”
“Oh, darn it,” I said. “I’ll just wait.”
“That’s sweet,” the nurse said, sounding impressed, then presumably talking to one of her colleagues: “He’ll wait.”
I went down the corridor and stood outside the staff coffee room, put my ear to the door but could hear nothing. It was bad form to interrupt her sleep break, but it felt vital to deliver the news now while the wounds were still bleeding. I ran my tongue around the hatch of split flesh on the inside of my lower lip—everything in there seemed massive. I became conscious that there was still probably some residual traces of Marie on my upper lip, too. I went to another ethanol dispenser and smeared a little across my upper lip.
I turned the staff room’s door handle fully so that the bolt did not clip the escutcheon. I was careful in that loud way of drunk people trying to be quiet. I slipped through narrowly, closed the door, then stood in the warmth, listening to the sound of their breathing, the chimney-ish hoot of my wife’s congested sinuses. There was the scent of bad coffee and hot shoes and, deeper than that, ill people’s night sweats and particulates being exhaled, death gusts swirling the room.
As I stood there, waiting for my eyes to adjust, a phone lit up in the darkness. It was Garthene’s, vibrating silently. I had told her many times to keep the handset’s microwave radiation away from our unborn child. But there it was, peeking out of the pocket of her tabard. I could read a backlog of texts, all from Lee: need to speak to you / in a bad way please call / i’m fucked up. There was a voice mail, too. In the diffuse blue glow, I could now see the special U-shaped pillow supporting Garthene’s belly as she lay across three low, padded chairs.
I wanted to wake Garthene in a peaceful way. If her body produced adrenaline it would travel down the umbilicus and create panic in the womb. So I got out my phone and rang her, at the risk of increasing local radiation. One of those moral compromises for which parenthood is famous.
Her phone lit up, vibrated against her stomach, and she shifted in her sleep. I rang again and watched her shoulders stiffen, her fingers contract. She was swimming up through layers of consciousness. I rang again and watched her pull the phone from her pocket, look at it, her eyes half closed, puffy and fluorescent in the electric light. It was a unique experience, to watch her -unguarded expression at receiving my call at three in the morning. She watched the phone ring four, five times, before placing it on the floor, facedown.
“Garthene,” I whispered. “Garthene.”