A Woman

The car windows fogged over from our hot breath on each other’s skin and phantom handprints appeared on the panes of glass. Ghostly palms from another plane of time pressed in. I pushed him down, watched his eyes momentarily widen and brought my mouth down to meet his. I wanted to shock him, show him what a woman could be. A woman unleashed in the violent throws of spontaneity, a woman he will forever seek but never truly obtain. Because this woman doesn’t exist at all.

I released his wrists and let his arms circle around me, more voraciously than they had before because now he knew there was a standard to be met. He understood better why something about me struck him as different. He hadn’t realized that it was me who approached him on the smoking patio at the club. When I ask someone for a cigarette I am never just asking for a cigarette. Cutting my way into his circle I introduced myself, watching his friend’s eyes burn with intrigue at my abrupt arrival. I could see them sizing me up, watching us talk, maybe even planning to approach me if I lost interest in their friend. But that wasn’t how this game worked for me. I spotted my conquest using gut instinct and followed through. It was not just attraction. Something about him was striking. Perhaps it was the way he stood slightly a part from his friends. His eyes looked off in the distance as he nodded while they spoke. Pheromones emanated off him and I sensed him before I saw him. My eyes became pulled in a mysterious direction and my feet followed behind. I pursued the sensation until I spotted him. There was an instant recognition of sexual promise when our eyes met.

I think that is why I chose Barcelona as my destination. I wanted to meet people as sexually aware as I was. And I had been bored. The rainy fog brushed against my cheeks as I walked home in the small English town of Chichester. Thin blue veins emanated from my papery white wrists and I knew I needed sunshine. Even just for a couple days. I had been living in England for nine months. It should have been more exciting being a young Canadian uprooting her life and settling in a new country where she knew no one. When I arrived at Heathrow airport I had to ask for directions to Chichester. One man cocked his head to the side and asked why I was going to such a small town. He said it was a shame I wouldn’t be staying in London, he could have shown me around. Yes – what a shame, I said.

When I arrived in Chichester I continued on to the hotel I had pre-booked, called The Ship. I was shown quickly to my room as a lobby boy straggled behind with my suitcases. The room was small, but had a pile of bright pillows adorning the bed and pages from Oscar Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Earnest, collaged onto the entirety of one wall. I didn’t unpack, simply washed the sleep and flight off my face and headed down to the bar.

The bar area was just as I imagined a British pub would look like. Everything was wood – wood bar top, wood tables, wood high-top chairs, wood wall paneling and wood benches. The wood was offset by pale arrangements of fresh flowers in the center of each table. The bar had a comfortable feeling of time having corroded it. It was empty aside from two men standing by the slot machine, inserting coins and watching the colourful reels spin to determine their luck. I approached the bartender. He looked like he belonged behind the bar with his greying temples and teeth stuck out in all different directions.

“Pint of Guinness, please,” I smiled at the bartender as he nodded and bent down to retrieve a glass. “I’m excited for this pint. My mother and I always used to talk about when we would get to drink Guinness in England together. Guess I’m getting a head start,” I laughed and he just looked at me blankly, “I wonder if she knows it’s an Irish beer,” I said, more to myself.

The bartender slid the pint over to me and I carried it to a table, careful not to allow any of the creamy head to spill over the rim of the glass. Sitting, I enjoyed a moment of stillness for the first time since the beginning of my journey from Toronto. I was finally here, in my new home with a pint of long anticipated English Guinness. I thought, too poetically, that my whole life had been leading up to this first sip. That maybe this pint represented the beginning of my next chapter. But as the malty liquid slid over my tongue I was unsure if it really tasted any different. I told myself that it was fresher, tasted less irony than the Canadian stuff, and quickly finished it.

At that moment I decided that this would be my final fresh start. This time I would do it right. Behind me lay a trail of shattered men. When I was young I never knew how weak men were. How vulnerable. They would fall for me so easily. Then they wouldn’t give up until I was forced to shred every last piece of dignity they had. What would be left at my feet was a shell of the men they once were. I never wanted to be cruel, but didn’t put up with doting men. I wanted somebody just as confident as I was.

In the end I lost most of those who were close to me by sleeping with them and it was time to move on. My mother and I always daydreamed about traveling to England together, so I picked Chichester off a map and booked my ticket. The only people I told were the people who would file me as a missing person after a couple days. My mother still didn’t know.

Within a week I had settled into a small drafty flat and found a job as a barmaid. On my second shift I was pouring a pint of lager and telling yet another customer where I was from when a guy, who I realized worked in the restaurant, walked behind the bar. He started pouring some drinks and chatting to the other barmaid. I tried to make it obvious that I wasn’t looking at him, but managed to let the beer I was pouring spill over the top.

His back was to me and he stood with his hip cocked casually while he made our co-worker laugh about something. Picking up his tray he turned to leave the bar, finally looking at me. He didn’t smile or stop to introduce himself. Rather, he winked and left the bar just as quickly as he had come. He didn’t speak to me after that, either. Sometimes his hand would slip beneath my blazer as he tried to maneuver around me. I was aware of every touch and wondered if it was accidental whenever his hand would find its way to the small of my back.

A couple weeks later I was telling one of the barmaids about this guy I was starting to see, “You know Atti Bassi, eh? Café just around the corner. Well, I’ve been going there until I can get Internet at my place and the owner asked me out.”

“Mark?”

“Yah, you know him?” Josh, the restaurant guy, was making drinks by me and he suddenly turned and said, “So you’re seeing someone then? Didn’t you just get here?” I smiled coyly, trying to force a blush.

“Well, I don’t waste time,” I laughed.

“Apparently not,” he gave me his trademark wink and left with his tray back to the restaurant.

Later that night he was sitting at the bar after his shift. The other restaurant workers were huddled in a booth, but Josh remained at the bar chatting to one of the regulars, Paul. I could feel him watching me out of the corner of his eye. I started wiping the bar top near him and caught the end of Josh’s sentence.

“… Women will ruin me,” he made Paul laugh.

“Yah, we have a habit of doing that,” I chimed in, though I didn’t know the context in which Josh spoke.

“Is that so?” He gave me his full attention.

“It’s not our fault. Men are too easy a target.”

“That’s probably true. I feel bad for that poor bloke you’re dating now then.”

“Well, we aren’t dating yet. Mark just asked me out. I don’t think it’s going to work out though.”

“Why’s that?”

“He’s taking things too slow, and I don’t have time for that. He’s been very reserved in his pursuit of me, and I like a guy who’s more confident and quick on his feet,” I was interrupted by the last call bell being rung behind me. An onslaught of customers made their way to the bar. I could hear complaints ripple through the crowd that it wasn’t quite 11:45 yet.

“Well, I’ve got to start closing up. I’ll see you later, Josh.” He said goodbye and left to join the other workers at their booth. After the last customers were served I quickly went about cleaning the bar. I dumped the ice, took off the bar mats, polished the wood, cleaned the drip trays, and emptied the garbage. By 12:15 the owner said he would finish closing up and I went downstairs to grab my purse. When I headed towards the door Josh was sitting alone at the booth.

“What are you still doing here?”

“Waiting for you. I’m walking you home,” he stood up and offered me his arm.

“I live on Leitch, is that far out of your way?”

“Nope, let’s go,” Later I learned that I actually lived thirty minutes out of his way.

We walked through the cool night and I mentioned something about being happy to be able to see the stars. I could never see them in Toronto, too many lights. Josh said he felt the same way. Then he asked how I liked England so far. The small talk filled the space as we slowly approached my door. I had never had a guy walk me home before. I didn’t know what to do at the door.

“Well, this is me. Thanks for walking me home.”

I went in for a hug, but was intersected by his lips which confidently met mine. It was surprising at first, but I quickly relaxed into the moment. I could feel him smiling as he kissed me. Then Josh took my shoulders in his hands and pulled away. He looked into my eyes, kissed my forehead and left without asking to come inside. I was shocked. For the first time in my life I found someone intriguing. Eight months later we were still dating.

The first four months were good. We fell into a natural rhythm and were comfortable enough to have sex with the lights on regularly. We could even make eye contact during. At first I liked all of the things about him that were different than me. He lacked passion, which made him consistent. He craved routine, which made him reliable. He wasn’t educated, which made me feel smart. Josh had settled into a career that he could survive on and had no ambition beyond that. He wanted to teach recreational soccer until he retired, and would be fine with staying in Chichester until he died. His life, to me, seemed utterly boring, but also unbelievably safe. Josh seemed happy with so few accomplishments. I lived in a constant state of striving to have more and be more. Maybe I could learn from Josh to expect less from life and be happy with what I had. Until now I would only stay in a place until I grew unhappy, then I’d move to a new place and try again. I couldn’t keep moving though. It wasn’t solving my unrest. I couldn’t escape the discontent because it was coming from myself. I imagined it had something to do with my attempts to cross from the life of a sexual deviant into a quiet domestic relationship. I hoped that finding a stable man would make that transition more graceful.

It didn’t work though. Eventually the jaws of time began to gnaw at me. I had been good. I was a fine girlfriend and Josh had fallen for me in a way that didn’t scare me. But the feeling of discontent and boredom were returning. The original aspects I loved about Josh became things I hated. His lack of passion became interpreted as a lack of passion towards me. His need for routine became monotonous. Sometimes I needed to do something a little out of the ordinary. One time I asked him to have sex with me in the bathroom at work, and he actually said no. He was incapable of being in the moment. For example, if we were having a desirously heated moment in the kitchen why did we then have to go all the way to bed to have sex? Why not just do it right there?

I didn’t know why I was the way I was. I was a walking breathing contradiction of female identity. Pretending to be a girl with high morals worked for a bit with Josh, but I couldn’t fight off the dark sexual streak that ran through me like a current. I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was passing up new sexual experiences every day to remain faithful to Josh. That was fine at first, but as the relationship droned on I was unsure if he was good enough for me to sacrifice my other sexual options. At least I had other options. I still had the ability to enter a bar and have all men turn to look as I passed. It was this internal confidence that radiated from me, drawing people’s attention. Years had been spent cultivating that confidence. I decided at a young age the type of woman I wanted to be, dripping with sexual prowess. And while the effect I had on men was powerful, I found it more powerful how women instantly disliked me. The same way a cat arches its back in defense was the same way women addressed me. It was visible beneath their forced smiles. I found pleasure in the fact that women felt threatened by me. It gave me that false sense of security that I needed.

Learning how to wield my feminine power was a process. High school was a learning curve. When it came to sex I always knew that I didn’t associate sex with love. Intercourse wasn’t a big deal to me. So I lost my virginity as carelessly as I thought I would. Drunk, in the woods at a camping party with the most popular guy in school. Girls at school treated me coldly afterwards. The negative reaction that people had to my promiscuity intrigued me. I thought it strange how many social constructs and shame lay around sex. I overtly enjoyed the sex, so why should I be embarrassed or bashful about it? In university I had sex with whomever I wanted, and was unapologetic about it. I always thought sex was the only moment where you truly have someone’s attention. It seemed like the only way I could connect, or wanted to connect, with people.

My lifestyle felt empowering for a while, but eventually I realized that the sex I was having was empty. There was no true connection. By the time I was getting ready to graduate I was growing anxious because the more sex I had the lonelier I was becoming. This sexual identity I had built for myself was peeling off, and underneath it was an incomplete woman who wanted more. I think part of my explosion into the sex world came from needing to prove to myself that I could get men that I thought were out of my league. Maybe my self-esteem was lower than I had thought. When I realized that as an attractive woman I could have any man I wanted (at least for the night) the game was done. The challenge I thought sex presented was non-existent. That is why I knew after I graduated I needed a radical geographical change, and wanted to see if I could conquer a relationship the same way that I had conquered men.

Josh had become an exploration into how I could domesticate myself and be satisfied. Even though he didn’t excite me the same way my past life had, I think his lack of passion balanced me out. I had always thought I was too passionate. We could build a future based on his solid structure. I knew for a fact excitement doesn’t last, so it almost made sense to settle with a man I found boring. Adventures could be found in other ways, while knowing he would always be there when I was done. What I thought I needed in him was his simple nature.

In the end I still wasn’t happy. I wasn’t sure if it was because Josh wasn’t the right man or because of something in me. Eventually the idea of cheating crossed my mind. I wondered if I even could, or if my moral compass would stop me. I had started to think about Mark as well. If maybe I should have dated him instead of Josh. Mark was still interested. He asked me if I was still with Josh every time he saw me. With that in mind I wandered up to Atti Bassi to grab a coffee.

I smiled at Mark as I made my way to my usual booth. It was my usual coffee spot, so Mark brought over a double soy latte without me having to ask. He placed it on my table and slid into the other side of the booth.

“How are you today,” he asked.

“Better now that I’m here.”

“How’s you and the boyfriend?” Mark refused to ever use Josh’s name. He would simply emphasize the word boyfriend like it left a bad taste in his mouth.

“We broke up actually,” I lied.

“Oh? What happened?”

“Nothing. It just sort of ended.”

“Well, you probably need something a bit stronger than coffee. I’ll be closing up in half an hour, want to do something after?”

“Yah, what do you have in mind?”

“Well I’ve got beer at my place, we can watch a movie.”

“Sounds good. I’ll run home and drop my stuff off then meet you back here.”

I left the café with a mixture of sensations running through me. There was the warm feeling of sexual prospect followed by the guilt of what I was maybe about to do. The wild child in me was saying to forget about Josh and sleep with this guy. Then there was the good girl I was trying to become telling me to respect the sanctity of our relationship. Telling Mark that I was single wasn’t premeditated, either. It just slid out of my mouth involuntarily when he asked about Josh. My mind must be trying to tell me something if my instant reaction was to lie. I probably wouldn’t know if I could cheat until I was in the moment. I freshened up my makeup at home and then walked back to the café with a nervous excitement brewing in my stomach. Mark was stacking chairs when I walked in.

“Almost ready to go?” I asked.

“Yep, just let me lock up.”

He took my hand and led me outside. We started walking up to his apartment on top of the café. Once inside, I kicked off my shoes and sat on his couch. My body felt rigid and I couldn’t quite relax into the cushions. I had crossed into unknown territory, and whatever happened that night I would have to live with.

“Want a beer?” He called from the kitchen.

“Yes please!” Maybe beer would take the edge off.

He joined me on the couch, handing me the bottle. We said cheers and took our first sips. I could feel my fingers already starting to pick at the label. Mark turned on a comedy film and I placed my legs over his and laid my head down. His traced his fingertips lightly along my calves.

“So, are you okay?” he turned towards me and I pushed my body back up into a sitting position.

“Yah of course. I’m always okay,” I smiled sweetly as Mark examined my face intently.

“If you could have me do anything right now, what would it be?”

This was the moment I had been waiting for and wondering about. The moment where I was supposed to kiss him. My face flushed from the pressure. At that juncture, though, it became clear why I had turned down Mark in the first place. He was always waiting for me to make the first move. Mark had already lost me once by waiting, and he was doing it again. If he would have just taken charge and kissed me right then maybe I would have cheated that night. How many signs did he need? I had jumped at the chance to spend time with him in the past. We always visited each other at our places of work. He often invited me out with his friends for drinks. And now I was there in his apartment with my legs thrown over him and he still couldn’t take the hint to just make his move.

“A foot massage, I guess.”

He looked disappointed, but went to work on my feet while I drank my beer and texted Josh to come pick me up at my place later that night.

I didn’t feel relieved after not cheating when I left Mark’s and headed home. I wished it had happened, to give a reason to end things with Josh. But, Mark wasn’t a viable replacement so it hadn’t seemed worth it. The limbo that Josh and I were caught in, the utter complacency, was tearing me apart. Now that I knew I couldn’t leave him for Mark I didn’t know what to do. For some reason, the idea of just breaking up with Josh and being alone never crossed my mind. Rather, I felt anger starting to bubble up inside me. I was mad at Josh for putting me in this situation. If he was just good or bad then the decision would be simple. He was something in between. He didn’t make me happy or unhappy.

Maybe I was too close to the situation to be able to analyze it properly. Josh had been saying he wanted to take me to Spain, but every time I brought it up to create an official plan he would make excuses.

“You have a week off work coming up. Do you want to take a trip somewhere?”

“I still have two classes I have to teach.”

“Get them covered then?”

The simple idea of asking a co-worker to teach his classes would be followed by a series of inarticulate grunting and guffawing that I couldn’t even put into words. It was the same argument we kept having. He would say he wanted to do something, take a trip or even just go to a specific restaurant, and never follow through. I was tired of waiting for him. As my key slid into my door I realized I had to go on my own. I walked upstairs, booked a ticket to Spain for the morning and started packing. Since it had been raining often I was able to reach into the back of my closet and pull out light summery clothes I hadn’t been able to wear. My suitcase became an explosion of colours and prints. I zipped up the bag and felt like my breath was lighter and the tension in my body lessened.

Josh was a bit surprised when I approached his car later that night with a suitcase.

“Moving in?”

I laughed, “Actually, going to Spain in the morning.” I kissed his cheek and climbed into the passenger seat. He seemed taken aback and looked at me intently, trying to read my face. I just smiled, briefly squeezed his leg and said, “Let’s go.”

When we got to his place we fell into our natural evening ritual, well seasoned after eight-months of being together. I sat in the kitchen while he prepared his late night meal and discussed our days.

“How was work?” I asked.

“Alright. A kid pissed himself today,” Josh pulled his chicken out of the microwave.

“Really? Did you have to clean it?”

“No, his mom was there.”

“Well that’s good,” Although I didn’t actually think it was good, I would have preferred having to hear about him cleaning up that kid’s piss.

“What did you get up to tonight?”

“I went over to Mark’s to watch a movie,” I said lightly.

“Glad you had a good night.”

With Josh’s plate of chicken and steamed peas in hand we went up to his room. He turned on the television while he ate and I sat in bed, reading. After he finished his food he told me to get naked while he brushed his teeth. Josh then crawled into bed with me and we watched an episode of whatever show he was watching before having sex and falling asleep.

He had tried to ask me, in the kitchen, about my sudden trip to Spain.

“Well, you had said you wanted to travel with me this summer, which you never followed through on, so I’m just going to go on my own. I’d love for you to come, but I won’t wait for you to take me.” That shut him down pretty quickly. I still saw the quick flash of pain cross his eyes.

The next morning Josh dropped me off at the train station on his way to work. If he was worried he didn’t say. He looked a bit concerned when I said space would be good for us. I kissed him and hopped out of the car, telling him I’d call him when I was back.

As the plane took off from Gatwick Airport I looked out the window. England was even drearier today than it had been the day before. Our nose broke through the top of the clouds and I felt I could breathe again. Sunlight flooded through the body of the plane. I looked down at the thick carpet of cloud beneath us, which made the English landscape invisible to me. I settled into my seat as the flight attendants began to bring around small snacks.

***

            He sat beside me, eyes closed, raptured by the aftermath of his pleasure. His lips were moist and parted as I listened to the rhythm of his breath. I wrote my name in the steamed up window. The next time he had sex in here maybe he would see it, alongside the other handprints pawing their way into the car.

I hadn’t expected to cheat, but I also wasn’t surprised. I had wondered if I would be capable and turned out I was. The strangest part was that I didn’t feel bad about it. I wondered what that meant. I wondered what type of woman that made me.

I lay in the crook of the guy’s arm. I could no longer remember his name as I stroked my fingers along his chest. It felt oddly right, being there with him. I suppose it was what I had always been more comfortable with. I knew that this night would end and I would be left with the residue memory of him, the exciting conquest and steamy sex I had in Barcelona. Since the sex was done I was left thinking about what was to come. I imagined I would go back to England and resume my relationship like nothing had happened. Josh would always wonder if I had cheated, but would never ask.

When was I going to grow out of this stage? I always thought that this sexual deviant part of me was something I had created because I believed that a woman who was confident in sex would be confident in all aspects of life. Now that I was trying to live a respectable life what was left of the woman beneath the sex? I no longer knew if there was a real me beneath the constructed identity, or if I had lived that lifestyle for so long it became the only me. Or maybe this was the girl that I was always going to be, I just thought that I was in control of the construction.

What I loved about Josh was that he had no sense of self-reflection. I am so analytical that I don’t know what is genuine about myself anymore. I always tried to be such a specific type of woman that I lost my own identity in the shuffle. Josh just exists in the world. He wakes up, goes to work, comes home, has sex with me, goes to bed, and then repeats. I also realized that Josh was not as dumb as I tried to think he was. I’m not as hard to figure out as I always thought. I was starting to see that Josh knew he didn’t have all of me, it would have been selfish for him to expect any different. It seemed that he accepted all the pieces I did give him and held them tight even as they tried to slip through his fingers. He was an easy man, if he was anything.

I tilted my chin towards my guy. He was quite exquisite. Tan skin with dark eyes to match his dark stubble contouring his cheekbones. I buried my fingers into his thick hair and brought his mouth down to meet mine. I ravished his lips, then started kissing and biting his neck. His skin was warm, his chest hard, and he tasted a mixture of sweet and salty. He completed this perfect moment and my mind relaxed. I was once again consumed with a want for him and his desire for me. It was the only thing simple and un-convoluted. Josh didn’t exist when I was in that car. His hands moved from my breasts and locked into my hair and I lay there, breathless, looking up at him complete in his embrace.

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