Like a Trapped Nerve in an Eyelid
Late at night she’d stay up playing Geoguessr and not even really look for clues, just click and lurch, click and lurch past airless cornfields and foreign billboards until this rhythm souped into a kind of comfort, where the occasional apparition of a truck, warped and shredded into glinting strips under wide sky, prompted a feeling of almost unbearable tenderness. In a fantasy life she’d be a leggy, androgynous painter taking screenshots of these scenes to make huge, moody paintings with the glossy precision and hyper-realism of luxury tech adverts. She’d post instagram stories of a dusk-lit studio scattered with paint-smeared socks, stacks of books and used matches, rarely photographing either the paintings themselves or her own face, but accruing nonetheless a large following of similarly androgynous painters painting similarly banal imagery with the same half-ironic devotion.
G is much better at Geoguessr than she is. They slouch parallel against the cafe counter above the MacBook Air while his fingertips brush softly at the touchpad. Japan, Kenya, Estonia, Brazil. Because of those road markings, because they’re driving on that side, because of the accents on the letters in that shop sign. It only takes him about a minute to guess each time. His voice is even in pitch and affect; it barely rises or falls. His eyelashes maintain their long, slow curve. Argentina. Myanmar. Sweden. She feels a little ashamed at her comparative ignorance, but it’s okay, because he isn’t testing her. At each of his successful guesses, she finds herself emitting a high-pitched, frilly enthusiasm. It is a tone that skips readily out of her, without effort or conscious intent, but one that she does not associate with her ‘true’ self.
There is a vague want. A faint but urgent fluttering like
a trapped nerve in an eyelid. Like a trapped nerve in an
eyelid, you’re never quite sure whether the want is
perceptible to others. When you try to close in
on a clearer impression of the want’s object,
the sensation softens to a loose shrug.
At the bus stop you thumb patiently through the carousel of last night's parties, gallery openings, political infographics, adverts for period-absorbing underwear. You type in the name of an artist you like. There are no new posts, but you scroll anyway. It is something like soothing, to return to this account over and over, like a template or scaffold, a structure you could pour yourself into. There is a sense of understated or incidental glamour; a slinky irony in the banality of her stories, which tend to feature close-ups of tacky shop windows, bruised fruit, strangers hands on the chrome rails of public transport. Sometimes you wonder about the life surrounding the images, but mostly you feel a sort of glum longing towards the images themselves: the velvety grain of zoomed-in pixels, the way they sit in the smudgy glow of your screen - the immutability and availability of their surfaces. A friend once told you that in long distance relationships, the phone often replaces the lover as the object of desire. You become aware that one of the reasons you like this artist so much is because you once read that the artist didn’t start making artwork until her thirties. You turn this thought in your mind, hoping it will sharpen into a direction for today.
It arrives folded in a reused tesco bag, bound with brown plastic tape which skids in her teeth as she tries to tear it open. The listing had described it as a super cute corset style top with funky iridescent colour. A unique vintage piece. A subversive basic.
It is not technically a corset - no whalebone structure or lace-up back - just soft panels tapered to follow the inward slope of her ribs; a neat, concealed zip. Its iridescent colour slips around a little in the light but doesn’t split or falter - it is resolutely monochrome: a deep, self-certain navy. There is a tiny v-shaped cut-out in the centre of its square neckline; like a single, reluctant concession to femininity. She ignores the flood of sickly, girlish perfume from its previous owner. When she folds an arm back to zip it up, it fits close to her skin without squeezing it. Her body feels contained, organised, unanimous, portable. She faces the mirror with a sense of purpose.
The cafe is thick with faces which turn as you clamber through chair legs to a free table. M speaks loudly and confidently as if you’re alone. You bind your thighs under the table in a tight, narrow X. He asks what kind of work you make, and you watch yourself fumbling, meandering, sentences softening into themselves like old fruit. You tell him you’ve tried various bits, you’re still figuring it out, you’re keen to learn. He starts talking about his new film.
You rub at the back of your neck while he speaks, nodding and humming in agreement and curiosity at his ruthless assessments of film-world names mostly revered by you. You encounter a small scab at the finely furred base of your nape, and pick compulsively at it until a thin disc of skin comes loose. Manoeuvring your fingernail free from the hairline, you’re careful not to crush the disc but to slot it gently under the nail so it may be snugly transported over your shoulder, down into your lap and deposited discreetly under the table. But as M is describing the climactic reunion of his film’s father-son protagonists, the disc escapes and glitters across your chest; pale translucence framed by dark navy. His eyes follow its descent, then rise to meet yours. He starts talking about his new novel.
You think of the artist you like on instagram, trying to picture what she is doing at this exact moment. When M goes to the bathroom, you take out your phone and search the artist’s name, but nothing comes up. You reel through the list of accounts you follow, but it simply isn’t there anymore. As he reapproaches, you straighten, unclench your jaw, take a sip of water. Light in the glass spalls at this disturbance.
She is at the gallerist’s dinner
She is wearing black angora
She is reapplying a lipstick named
‘blushing fawn’ or ‘dusk rose’ or ‘naughty plum’
without a mirror
She is taking a photo of the langoustines
The more she tells people that her memory blacked out, the more those gaps solidify around their edges. There is a drop of amber licked from the top of her hand, pipetted in the back of an uber, the driver’s pressed silence. Then grit and dust and white clean flashes of light - liquid leaping against her - plastic softening in loose fist - glittering beads on mohair cuff. Had she stumbled or was she stumbled into? Soft flicks of ash and hair, and then, the sudden fact of a mouth against hers in the centre of a crowded room.
But these are only images; a series of neat, short clips: She can’t get behind their surfaces. It’s like watching cctv: all she can do is infer meaning from the gestures she observes. She can’t recall the content of their late-night dialogue, though she hears distinctly the husky sound of her own voice, wandering around outside of her like a separate person. In the café, at breakfast, it had felt good to be seen with him, but when he left for his train she realised she could not picture his face.
She had, on more than one occasion, imagined, or discovered herself imagining, the images she would post from a hospital bed after being hit by a car. Bruised and stitched but endearingly so - a muddy violet under the eyes, dotted gown crumpled asymmetrically around her collarbones. Half-grinning, a little macabre - messages of love and shock would pour. There wasn’t any denial about the lonely vanity of this daydream, in fact she walked around with it gladly - like a stolen sweet enclosed in a palm, curled in its pocket, glowing a little.
You can sit wherever you want - says the woman to the girl. Girl is about 9, floppy hair, red knee socks, a school blazer, boyish still. Pale eyes scan the room. Where would you like to sit? Her question makes you think about the ways adults forfeit their own desires for their kids’. What kind of pizza shall we have? What shall we do next? Choosing as a learning exercise. Being taught how to want.
The woman is explaining to the girl something about Steve Bannon.
Bad man, she says. Really bad. The woman’s sentences are simplified, though not dumbed down. The girl considers, nods, and clarifies a few details with short, precise questions. They don’t smile at each other, but there is a warmth and ease between them. The woman is possibly the girl’s grandmother. The woman asks questions about the girl’s school - questions she probably already knows the answer to - because she wants to hear the girl answer them. The girl is playing a game on an old phone, something like snake or brick, deeply absorbed by the little screen, her hair falling in blunt strands over it. There are long pauses before she answers, sometimes no hint she’ll reply at all. She’s not ashamed to ignore her grandmother like this, isn’t performing politeness. And the woman allows her this space; doesn’t perform offence or impatience.
Later, having been invited to the curator’s girlfriend’s apartment, she will happily accept the offer of a beer from the fridge, even though she has several bottles with her in her bag. She packed them to drink during the performance, but was too self-conscious to open one there, in the quiet intensity; an endless looping hum, the sparse day-light, eyes of others swivelling critically towards each disturbant noise. Her bag is noticeably stuffed fat and heavy, propped against the leg of a wicker armchair. She is afraid that the bag will give out a glassy sound, a sound undeniably like bottles, and someone will ask: what’s in the bag? The beers in her bag are exactly the same kind as the bottle she has just been offered from the curator’s girlfriend’s fridge. She’s not sure why she didn’t mention the beers in her bag before, didn’t offer them out as a gift, like a good guest - but she decides that this clumsy explanation will not be part of her introduction to the room. She is in their home, she accepts their hospitality, they like to host, to be generous; this will draw everyone closer. She finds herself laughing easily, warmly, making the others laugh too, slipping into the role of charming newcomer with a fluency that surprises her. Everyone is relaxed, bodies held softly by the furniture, cheeks propped against palms, conversation drifting easily and evenly between them, their heads turning smoothly back and forth.
What is expected of me,
what I offer,
and what is taken regardless -
are slipping moodily across each other
with a soft but undeniable friction
She meets a friend for a drink. She describe to him a part of a book she likes. He says he likes the sound of it. She asks him if he has ever read anything by this author. ‘Oh probably’ he says, ‘but I can’t be sure. Last summer I decided to read loads of women writers so they all kinda blended into one. I get them mixed up’.
You have a recurring daydream in which there is the image or sensation (hard to distinguish) of a hand, your hand, crashing through a table loaded with crockery: tea-cups, saucers, cutlery, glass, the sound of this ringing through you over and over. You cannot stop yourself doing it - the daydream - your arm crashing through all this stuff on the table - porcelain smashing, pools spreading, flicks of sauce, a fork glittering to the floor, this awful sound, always precisely at the moment you are beginning to speak.
When you sit down, you receive a text from M saying he won’t make it. He is just having breakfast, he has reading he wants to do. There is barely any feeling in his words. You think about how much you don’t like him; picture him in the café the previous afternoon, eating his goujons so delicately, cleanly, unselfconsciously, the silver knife moving through moist white flesh. He speaks almost only about himself. You want to throw yourself at something. You are ashamed of how quickly you have begun to shape yourself around his attention.
After almost three weeks of nothing, the artist’s account is back.
Updates arrive slowly at first, then quicken to an almost hourly stream. The content is much the same as before: murky skylines, wine-stained tablecloths, 2 tanned hands around an iphone raised to a scuffed U-bahn window.
You cannot move. Propped up in your narrow bed, the surfaces and textiles of your room feel close and watchful. Your fingertips navigate carefully, moving systematically through the grid, pausing for a long time on each image. Their familiarity is sometimes so total it unnerves you. You are overcome by a shapeless urgency. Your body starts to hurt with cold from being so still. You’re not sure whether the stillness comes from within - whether it is something you are doing - or if it is an external force that you are submitting to. The distinction becomes unimportant. You hear the train coming towards the house again; its bruisey cadence shuttling over a break in the tracks, and wait for it to pass through you.