One Night

I met her as she was just about to leave. One arm in her jacket, the other holding a plastic cup full of gin. She scanned through the smug mass of partygoers for a table to rest her drink, when she couldn’t find one she looked for a friend but she couldn’t find one of those either. I saw the look of quiet rage on her face and she saw the same look on mine. So she chose me.

“Hold this.” She demanded. No hello. No please. Just an exasperated command barked out under duress. I had my hand out at once. She thrust the gin into it while I tried to think of something clever to say. She swung her jacket onto her shoulder like a matador and jabbed her arm into the remaining sleeve. I caught a glimpse of an old book curled over her jacket pocket. I got a little thrill when I recognised the title.

“I read On The Road last year.” She looked at me like I’d just shat in her garden. “How far along are you?”

“About halfway, Kerouac is so boring.” She had an enticing hint of an accent. “What did you think of it?”

Her eyes were the colour of golden toffee. Haunting, almost wolf yellow. I couldn’t remember anything about the book and it was one of my favourites, I’d read it twice. It sounds like a cliché but I couldn’t even remember my own name. I only knew her eyes.

Those bright and uncanny eyes sized me up while a smile curled up the corners of her mouth . Her lips were unpainted and soft. Something about the book popped into my head. My one solitary observation.

“I think that Sal Paradise just needs to come out to Dean Morarity and get it over with. He’d be a lot happier.” I said, drawing from the ignorant reading that I’d chiselled into there for my first year essay back when I thought coming out would be easy.

She laughed. Not the polite society titters that whispered all around us but a real genuine laugh right up from her belly. She probably didn’t expect such bluntness from somebody so obviously nervous. Something inside me broke its chain and soared to the sky.

“Although the forties were a weird time to be gay, no?” She studied me with her wolf eyes.

“Probably, but I’d much rather be lynched while I’m young and happy than live in misery.”

“That’s so quaint.” There was a hint of vague mockery in her voice, but her expression was still kind. I wasn’t sure what I thought of her. All I knew was that I wanted to capture this moment forever. “What’s your name?”

I told her. She told me hers.

We sat out on the rocky steps by the garden in our respective leather jackets, passing her bottle of gin between us and drinking it straight up. She’d been invited by Liz and didn’t know anyone. Neither did I. I was the first person apart from Liz that’d spoken to her all night and vice versa. She smoked thin cigarillos you could only get from France. They were cherry flavoured, she explained as she offered me one. It had a drizzly sweetness to it, like it’d been doused in expensive liqueurs.

She was Russian but had lived in London for years. She said she learned English by watching American cartoons – her speeches were coloured by Ren And Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead.  Her accent flowed like good cognac. I drank in her every word. I rarely had much to say in those days, so it was good for me to have someone who I could listen to without feeling awkward.

We drifted closer together as she talked. Closer, until the leather on our shoulders squeaked. The warmth flowing out of her was as exciting as it was terrifying. She put a hand full of chewed fingernails high up on my leg and stared at me. I knew what she wanted, but I’d never kissed a girl before, I was nervous. She wasn’t. Her lips tasted of gin, but flavoured by those sweet cherry cigarillos. Her wet tongue was as cool and refreshing as a cocktail.

“Let’s go somewhere,” she said. And that was all I needed, I only lived a bus journey away.

She was the first woman I’d ever been to bed with. I used to spend nights dreaming what it’d be like, wondering. Reality was much better.

It was as awkward and clumsy as my first year interpretation of Kerouac, but she guided me with loving patience. We collapsed against one another, arms and hands entwined into one fragile sugar sculpture that could be knocked to the ground by the changing of the weather.

The next day we said goodbye at a train station. She had to go back to her husband and I had an explanation to give to mine. We were surrounded by the stagnant flow of early morning office traffic. She pulled me close and her lips clamped down on mine like a scuba mask. Her kiss exploded into my mouth. I sucked in her breath, warm and tangy like cigarette smoke. Fire ruffled the thin skin in my heart like the nylon of a hot air balloon. I hope her husband knew how lucky he was.

The voices and trampling feet of the city crowd departed and diminished around us, like music in another person’s headphones. She squeezed me in a tight hug as I clung to her, still soft and bed warm. We were a loving obstruction in everyone else’s commute and we didn’t care.

Not enough time passed and we came apart. Her smile sultry under the squinting yellow green of her eyes. She still had her hands on my shoulders and traced light, symmetrical circles with her thumb until my knees buckled.

“Don’t forget me,” she said.

I told her I never would. We said our goodbyes and I watched her walk around the corner to catch her train. She blew one final kiss at me as the train doors sealed closed. My cheeks reddened as the train rushed off and took her out of my life.

I went back home. My husband would be back from his business trip that afternoon, and I think I had a lot to explain to him.

— Matt Holland 28/10/17

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