An original short story by Penny Jelly – written exclusively as an exercise in entering a writing competition.
I did not win.
THE RIGHT ANGLE
It is Winter, again. The cold is not so much oppressive as constant and wet – a chill like no other. I lie in my bed; the covers are beneath me as is the job that I have to get up for. The calico curtains that were shoddily hung on a promise of completion this Summer’s past move slowly in the whipping, whistling wind that is stirring up the day outside. They move – these clumsily hung curtains, like a chest, breathing slowly. In and out. Up and down.
The alarm is about to sound any second – but my heart has startled me by pounding out the climax of a dream and I wake without the aid of a battery-operated reminder. A reminder to get up. A reminder to go to work. A reminder to get up and go to work. I know at this stage that I will already be late. I can’t help it. It is the inevitable delay of duty that keeps me in this job, and I inevitably delay the catapult of change. Nobody likes change.
I lie on my pale pink cotton sheets that have ruffled and bunched throughout the night. I must change, the sheets at least. I can’t let the complacency of the solo life impede personal hygiene or routine. It is just me sleeping in them night after night. After night. This trend, this habit, this stance, has been going on for the past year and a half. I am alone. I am a lone person – on loan from the ‘better half’ of the couple that I once was. I am better off alone. I am better off. I miss him, my former, my groove for the past 7 years. I think of her. I try to switch off.
The alarm clock sounds and the day must begin, it must begin – it simply must. I am already late.
I look in the mirror at my crooked mouth. Not so much crooked, as my lips pull more to one side of my face more than the other. So much so that they threaten to disappear when I’m feeling nervous or upset or anxious. This happens quite a lot. Now. Sometimes I worry so much that I can’t get out of bed for tormenting my brain with the puzzle of the triangles. The three different varieties. What’s the name of the third one? I always forget. I brush my crooked smile. I’m already late.
I get to work and there is already too much to do. This is not uncommon to the job, not uncommon to me or to anyone, anywhere, anytime ever having a job. “Get a job that you like and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Nice advice.
I am filling in time. In life. At work. I am waiting for this feeling to pass.
You see – I’ve been in love before. That’s how I know. My friends tell me that it’s just a phase, a misplacement of feelings, a good friend that I think about and like to be around. But I know. I know the difference. Don’t I? But then maybe these feelings of falling, these fanciful thoughts of hugs and warmth and tea are all just a figment of the imagination. An imaginary figment of my imaginary heart. Know thy-self, is what I’m told. Only you can know the truth of who you are. But I am tired from confusion and my shoulders hunch around my ears so I don’t know the difference between hunch and lunch and love. Maybe I’m in like, maybe I’m in care. But I’m in something. Deep.
But – she is a girl. A woman. That’s the surprise, that’s the point of difference. I never thought that I would be indifferently inclined. She is a person – but her body engenders a particular response in my general demeanour despite the fact that she is of a gender not dissimilar to my own. She is a girl. I am a girl. I am a woman. I am not a woman of my own convictions. I’m slowly becoming a woman of someone else’s. Of this I am convinced.
In the height, length and breadth of this cool, collected Winter I made soup. You called me out of your blues and asked me to open up my heart – and as I opened a can of kidney beans – I complied with your wish, your desire. I complied without forethought, for once, of what the consequences might be. You admitted it too, testified against yourself, and you met me outside in the warmth of our feelings, but then you crept back inside to that safe place of denial, security, sense – the most common of intelligence in this artificial light. But I’ve since lost the key – so here I sit on the dim porch of possibility. My heart is flayed, laid upon the table, beating the steady slow beat of the rhythm that now dogs my head, the thumping in my ears, the blood pulsing through my veins, every heart beat. Fool Fool Fool. I recall that there is a dessert called lemon fool. Cowardly custard. I’m a stupid tart.
I’m not backwards in love – I’m more like an anagram in love. I’m more like a vole.
“…Meadow Voles do not hibernate, and they do not usually store food. They eat constantly. Meadow Voles are most active at night during the Summer, and during the day if it’s Winter. They are less active when there’s a full moon. Meadow Voles’ diet includes many things… These animals can eat their weight daily…” – Copyright, John White
I miss him less with the idea of another. But she is more than a replacement bulb. This I know.
The hour after my heart became an open wound I realised that I was in actual fact in love. In hurt with you. It took me an hour – the adrenaline kept me going. I used to be in denial, and now I find myself in love. This has little to do with you – you are not to ‘blame’. It is my burden to carry. My cloud to float on.
Papers cross my desk and then leave my hands – I do this correction slash editing job by rote. I want to write it all off. I am a righter – always right, I am a writer.
I realised it was love when all of the beans were spilled and the we were both laid bare on a table top of truth… the night that I’d made a half dozen soups, main ingredients: beans – no less. We’d talked on the phone for hours and hours wishing we were ours. Wishing that time and space and history and conscience could be transcended so that we could fall into each other’s arms.
What did I think I could gain from telling the truth? It is a flaw in character that I can never lie. Ironically, I am floored. You caught me off guard. You had worked very hard to catch me off guard – all of those talks and getting to know one another… and you were nice to me. How dare you be nice to me? You knew long before I did that I would fall in love with you. And now all I have is frozen dinners. And a cloud. And an equation of triangulation to navigate my course. Day by day. By day. I don’t want to be without you. With. Without. A small syllable of difference could bring about a lifetime of consequence.
I put those spilled beans on ice, the soup in the freezer. I should have traded them for a pig when I got half the chance. Who knew that those beans would lead me to a giddying magical world of dizzying heights way above the clouds, and now it leaves my head foggy and my heart frosty.
And when I taste that soup – I taste those memories.
A year and six months, an eighteen-month gap – my feet are just below my knees – I found them 30 weeks into the break-up, the breakdown.
My other, older out of date love in summary:
My boy is like quicksand and I’m to sink or to swim.
For to struggle and wriggle is to just let him win.
I ease myself slowly from the murk and his grip.
To come up for air – my slow to his quick.
We consumed one another long past our expiration date. I now need to nourish myself.
Maybe I’m under the influence of the moon or the tide? Maybe my left foot fell asleep and caused a small amount of de-oxygenated blood to pass through the frontal lobe of my grey matter and has thus given me the blues? My crooked mouth twitches with the thought. Maybe I’m sad when I hear a sad song purely because it’s sad – or maybe I’m in love with the one that I can’t have. Can’t ever have. Shall never have. To have and have not, to not hold you hurts me – ‘til death do us part. It makes me nervous, the thought of the loss of you. Without ever having you.
I look up from my work and see the flurry of you. The mere activity of you near to me is distraction enough. And we ignore the conversations, the constellations of our recent history. Out of sight, I’m out of my mind.
I walk to the train station, again, on my way house to the former home of my past. I look at the woman in front of me with great contempt. She weaves in and out of imaginary witches hats, delaying my journey – and I wonder if she notices that she has a flower petal jammed onto the stiletto of her heel like a receipt, a purple receipt mismatched against the black of a blue black outfit. I misjudge a puddle and my cuffs get soaked.
My poor sodden heart. If I could visit the local Laundromat to air it out, to wring it clean, to mend the tears and wipe clean the stains, I would. Instead I carry it around, heavy. It weighs on me like an idea. Like a memory of what happened, like a thought about what didn’t happen. All I have are clips of my past, and I can’t distinguish between the reality and the movie that I watched in some fitful state of not sleeping.
But – she’s a woman.
We’ve had conversations that would be best suited to laying back in bed, the covers tousled, hair much the same. We’ve opened up and shivered over text messages rather than cups of tea in the morning with sunbeams resting upon the drowsy and dopey eyelids from having stayed awake all night discussing the colour of socks and the importance of honey. We’ve sat across from each other in bars and cafes and countertops used at work. We’ve danced around topics and sidestepped issues. We have become well rehearsed in the ballet of time and geography. Players in our own comedy of Eros…
I don’t actually know enough about history and the long and the short of being a ‘gay person’ in today’s world. I’m not even that fussed with current affairs; my own affairs are enough to consume me at this time. With all of the time set aside for simple Math problems and trying to remember my left from my right in order to give definite responses to “which way should I turn at this street?” when you’re driving me home, I’d prefer not to clutter my mind with the problems of the Middle East.
Scalene triangle – that’s the one I always forget!
I feel untethered. I feel tangled. I feel – everything. Everything. I long to be touched. I don’t eat dinner and don’t watch television and I take myself off to bed to not sleep and then start all over again.
And then – it all changes.
The first time we kissed was in line at the supermarket deli. We were both seemingly in the same place at the same time. Right place – the rest is history. Well written. Unplanned and unrehearsed. The scruffy counter guy yelled out for the next person in line to produce their ticket for exchange. She just reached over to place something in the basket that I held at thigh height, and when she pulled her head up – we both just… connected. It was easy.
And there was no retribution. There were no scowls or people sniggering. It was that simple. It was just us. There is a ‘u’ in us. There was always was a ‘u’ in us. It seemed so simple. It was that simple. We had moved swiftly from lunch to love.
In one gentle gesture she had me, as if she knew every trick of me, every knot and tangle, every cottony piece of clothing.
She is a woman. This surprise came as no surprise.
I’m in love with love. I’m in love with literature and coffee and parking fines and music and laughter and t-shirts, in love with train travel and dreams and wine and I’m mesmerised by colour and easily dazzled by traffic lights and isn’t orange juice the most wonderful thing? And cab fares and doonas and stripes – how I’ve missed stripes! My eyes are open again and my heart is plump. And it’s silly and strange and familiar and scary. And I’m drunk on the lack of sleep and intoxicated by daydreams and small fantasies.
It is Summer. Again. I lie in my crumpled cotton bed-sheets. It is the only time I lie. I can hear her moving about in the kitchen. She must have stirred only moments earlier as her sweet scent still lingers on the pillow, within the sheets in the morning air.
In a moment or two she shall appear in the bedroom pushing the door with her toe, catching it with her knee and then nudging it gently closed with her elbow. Her hands shall perform a circus feat of balancing two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice and a bowl of freshly picked and hulled strawberries warm from the sun – and a tub of her favourite yoghurt. She loves this yoghurt; I know this as she tells me every time we have it. I love her for this. I love her conversation about yoghurt and fruit and the beauty of the day.
I trace the angles from her bent knee toward the line of the bed along her thigh, along the sheet to her heel and up her calf. The trio of angles form an acute isosceles triangle. A very cute isosceles. This to me is the definition of a love triangle. Together we found the right angle.
I’m going to be late for work. I take my time. The hours are now ours.