Cynicism and Hope were entwined. They’d just made love. Cynicism lay a hand upon Hope’s breastplate, feeling the delicate web of nerve and bone that cage a heart. Each placid thump sent a wave of terrifying euphoria up Cynicism’s arm, pumping not blood but life through strange osmotic channels. I don’t want to hurt you, Cynicism said. Hope lay a hand to Cynicism’s cheek, grounding a circuit that fed warmth and light to each of them. ‘You could never hurt me,’ Hope said, ‘even with pain.’ They saw each other as though seeing themselves and said, ‘I need you.’
At some point in the night she finds a frown and pulls it over her face. It doesn’t sit right in sleep. Lain like that, with her arms above her head and her breasts exposed in Venus pose, the scowl seems a Janus dream. There are lies the mind won’t tell the body, they simmer in subconscious and tic away. Her expression is a pocket of this fight, gloriously honest and more marvellous for its telling presence than the supine splendour of her body and its beauty rendered limp. How I long to kiss her there, beyond the veil.
She catches my smile upon her face and lets it melt without movement. ‘You make me sad,’ she says. ‘Not for you but because of you.’ She takes me into her eyes and blinks slowly. ‘Your misery is contagious,’ she says, shuttered. ‘It’s an infection.’ We breathe in turns and the air grows thick and warm. ‘It will kill love,’ she says. ‘It will spread its tendrils into my affection and strangle it dead.’ I will find a cure, I tell her, I can be well. ‘I know that’s true,’ she says, ‘but I’m not sure that you do.’
The cold realities have started seeping in and scare me more than the nightmares ever did. I see her now, looking sometimes at the mask hung in the closet and wondering if she didn’t like me better that way. ‘Do you have to be sad?’ Syllables soft and sharp. ‘Can’t you just… can’t you be happy?’ I tell her it’s not about joy or despair but honesty measured empirically, I won’t hide anymore. We go to sleep with the monster under the bed half discussed and wake in fragmentation. I tell her I’m trying and she nods, ‘I know.’
I’m not cold until she goes, then my heart slows, the blood I’d grown used to gushing pumps a flaccid pace. I leave the lights out and wrap the dark around my skin in honorific absence, telling the night that light has left with her. Outside, the clouds muster, obscuring the stars and severing our celestial connection. Muddied by the river’s black eddy, the city’s busy sheen gloats with life. The wind whips past me on its way to the horizon and leaves me frigid in its passing. I’m not cold until she goes, then I burn with longing.
I woke up moaning in despair, separated from you by inches, infinite neurons, and the wilds of sleep. I’d dreamt I was a cuckoo’s cuckold. Another shape moved in my place to drink my fill of you. I begged, pleaded, and performed the menial while your love for me evaporated. ‘Don’t do this,’ you said, regret and contempt so vivid and visceral it tore the dreams from my head. Brutally aware of mixed realities, I lay in the dark listening to the night birds sing the world awake, weeping for myself and a life that is and never was.
Everybody always asks after Arris. Not a soul seems to go unimpressed in her presence. Even my parents call to ask after her now, saying, so charming—what an absolute pleasure. They all think she’s the best thing about me. It makes me want to want to argue sometimes but they’re probably right, and honestly, what a delight to be on this side of that. Knowing their subject objectifies me is a solipsistic bliss. Still, as much as I love her love, I do find I side with the world, it’s in my devotion to her that I’m happiest.
We’re different ends of a watch spring. Where she coils tighter with actions and purpose, I grow slack to yield tension. I tick away and she tocks towards, holding taut equilibrium in the void. Calculated to equalise flaws, wound precisely together, we are honed to count on each other. It’s a wonderful way to spend time and oddly efficient, flying fast in the way of these things. No matter how much has passed it always feels fuller, flowing with the potential of a bottomless hourglass. We go on this way forever, forging past and future while enjoying our present.
I fell for her first in a darkened driveway, drunk on hard cider and the prospects of life. We chatted briskly in broad stroke motifs with incidental familiarity. For five minutes we’d known each other for years, shared space with an ease that tends only to come after erosion is done with defence. When she left I fell hardest, like watching sunlight pass across prison bars, I felt burgled and bereft. I stood in that darkened drive with the shape of love depressed in my hand and the knowledge that nothing felt so right as her by my side.
Arris lives at a mayfly pace, breakneck into life unto death. We fell in love within days, as is her way, married in spirit scarce weeks after, thereupon mated soul to soul. Now I watch her flit to task at a ferocious clip, my mind in the slovenly slow motion of an astute sloth awed at progress. I sometimes struggle to keep up, making my way sluggishly to her markers to pause and comment while she calls from the next. ‘Keep up,’ she shouts from the future, patience stretched far as ambition, ‘I can’t wait to have you here.’
I’m lonely the instant she leaves and beat myself about the head with all the things I should have done or said. Like shouting, I love you, louder in increments, a dozen times or more. Like sweeping her in my arms, lifting her high as I can and making the sun jealous with her shine. Like shedding my armour, being truly vulnerable beneath it all and saying, I need you, really need not want, require, or desire. All the things I should have done and nothing wasn’t one of them, like seeing your own shadow and turning it away.
Both of us wear splinters shaped by other people in the layers of our skin. We take turns removing some, examining others, and guarding the rest. This one, I say, goes pretty deep, it’s shaped like a betrayal of trust. ‘Fascinating,’ she says, pulling it gingerly from my heart. ‘I got this one when realising they didn’t see the world like me.’ I pluck it tenderly from her eye and toss it on the pile. When we are done we talk about the absence of pain, wondering how we could have lived for so long with such prickling discomfort.
When the nightmares wake me I turn to Arris and place my hand on her chest, falling into the space between breaths. Sleeping still, she lays her hand over mine and mewls softly at the dark, unconscious signals that need no dream reader to untangle. No light and no life show beyond the bounds of our room. We are all that there is. I move closer for my skin to know hers. Chest to toe my body warms with an inner glow. I turn to face sleep again, knowing whatever waits beyond, I will be safe when I return.
‘Tenderly but with a firm sense of ownership,’ she says, when I lay my hands upon her. I play my fingers down her spine and beneath the panty line, there I trade my tenderness, pound for pound per square inch upon her buttocks. ‘My body is yours,’ she says, but it’s my skin on fire, my lips melting upon contact, my senses subsumed, my heart quickening her veins. I place my tongue upon her neck and eat her pulse, soft chewing toffee relished for its texture. You are everything to me, I say, and her body says, I know.
Just in case, she keeps a catalogue of smiles at the corners of her mouth. I break the seal with my lunacy and unleash them regularly. She says, ‘I love you,’ through her laughter and it takes the corrugated cadence of a car on cattle bars. So I fling myself again and again at the furthest reaches of mania, wondering how much joy I can inject in her life. The answer is infinite, the industry of amusement set to pace with the manufacture of happiness. We have become a self-feeding machine, the product of the product of pleasure.