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Apr/May 2006 Fiction

Eighteen Months in Eight Minutes

by Michael Hulme


Eight minutes can be a lifetime with the wrong person. Like a spent prizefighter, I was hanging on for the bell to finish my ordeal at table five: eight minutes of sloppy small talk with Carrie, a boss-eyed dental nurse. Speed dating means you can be choosy, and you can be rude. I mean, you'll never see these people again, so who cares? When the bell rang, I scraped up my dignity and moved onward.

Oh, the girl at table six! She was incredible. I sat down opposite, remembered to breathe. Drumbeats thumped ugly from the bar below, rattling empty glasses on the tabletop between us. She had the biggest eye-whites. Her pupils had room to swim.

"Evening," I said, meaning, "What are you doing here, divine creature? Me, I'm only here because all my friends are in married heaven and, despite my lineage, I don't get much action. But you, you're amazing. I want you."

She reached over and took my left hand, traced my palm idly with her fingers. Her fingers were cool, dry. She held my hand for ten seconds, time enough for her, or the kick drum, to loosen something in my ribcage.

"No," she said, and let go. "I'm sorry."

"What do you mean?"

"Isn't it obvious?" she asked. I shook my head, uber-cool.

"Well, Joe," she said. "If you really want to know, give me your hand again." I obliged her. She squeezed harder, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The stone in her necklace burned orange. "You want me to tell you our story?" she said. I gave a dumb nod. She coughed.

"Our first date's okay. You suggest somewhere chrome and glass, cool and soulless. You tell me your job's okay but you're searching for meaning. I tell you my best story, about the time in Turkey when a round sweaty man offered my ex-boyfriend six camels for me. You laugh; you feel jolted by the ex-boyfriend reference because part of you hoped I still had my hymen. Our teeth collide when we kiss. It wasn't your fault, but you apologize. I give you my number. You freak out over when to call me, or text me, or text-then-call me, call-then-text me. You become a very boring soap opera for all your friends."

"What friends?" I said. She looked at me and I shut up. She closed her eyes again, worked on my little finger.

"For our second date—optimistically--you buy trendy jet-black boxer shorts, the first underwear you buy that isn't part of a pack of five. You arrive at the restaurant five minutes late. Between starters and pasta, you talk about a film you haven't seen by a director I haven't heard of. I suspect you're pretending to be deep, but I nod and pick at the olives. Two bottles of red wine later, you're back at my flat prevaricating over when to kiss me. In the end, I reach over and maul you. Our clothes stay on.

"Third date, we have sex. Eventually. At first, despite your flashy pants, you can't get it up. You feel like a failure, an utter loser. I tell you it doesn't matter, and I mean it. Even so, you lie awake for two hours listening to me sleep. I ask you what's wrong. You say nothing. I ask you if it's the sex, but you say no. I tell you I don't believe you. You say yes, it's the sex. I say don't worry. Later, I slip my hand down there, take a hold, and le voila, you mount me and thrust. You don't ask about contraception, but I don't either. It's okay. Quick, but okay. The best part's afterwards when you hold me.

"We see each other three times a week. I have a dance class and yoga lessons, you have an evening class and a Bristol Rovers season ticket."

"How do you know all this?"

"Look," she said. "We've only got eight minutes. Do you want to know why I won't date you, or not?"

I nodded.

"Okay. Wednesday and Saturday are our guaranteed nights together. You buy erection-boosting herbal pills from the Chinese Medicine store, and yeah, they work. The sex is good. It's best when your head's between my legs, but it's all good. After two months, you fart in front of me for the first time. We laugh about it, though it stinks like you swallowed pure evil.

"We go on holiday. You ask me to move in. I say yes, I'd love to, it really feels right. Everyone's happy, except my best friend who asks isn't it too soon and will there still be room in my life for her? A month later, she meets a man via a dating agency. I don't see her for months. Oh, hey - we go and see that film you gushed about on our second date."

"Really?"

"Yeah. It's completely pretentious shit and we laugh about it. You don't laugh as much as me because you think somehow the shittiness of the film reflects badly on you.

"Anyhow, I move in. Your best friend splits with his girlfriend and sleeps on our couch. We hear him crying through our floor. You ask me if I find him attractive. I say he's good-looking but I don't find him attractive. You completely misunderstand this, even when I point out you often say your sister's beautiful. You take him out ranting and you roll home hours later, drunk, stinking of smoke. You snore and drool through the night. In the darkest hours, when your slobbering shakes me awake, I fantasise about smothering you with a pillow.

"I start a new job. We enjoy the money; you don't like me earning more than you. We argue at the supermarket cheese counter. You start working later, harder. Friday becomes takeaway night, Thai or Chinese or Indian in big foil buckets. We take it in turns to choose DVDs. One week I rent Legally Blonde and Fifty First Dates. You ask why you're with me. I apologize for not being a pretentious twat. You speak in monosyllables for the rest of the evening.

"You ask if I'll watch porn with you. I say no. You say I'm repressed. I tell you I'm not, I just don't want to watch fat pasty Germans in white socks banging some poor junkie slut. I tell you I'd rather be doing it than watching it. You shave my beaver into the shape of Harry Potter's scar, then you take pictures.

"A new guy, Dave, joins my team. We go out a couple of times. When I tell you, you say it's fine, then start asking random questions about him. Will Dave be there? Does Dave have a girlfriend? Does Dave like Legally Blonde? I introduce you to him in the pub--and Barry, his lardy boyfriend. You're mildly hurt when Dave says you're not his type. You call him 'Mincing Dave,' which is funny for five minutes. You call him 'Mincing Dave' for six months. You call him 'Dave' to his face.

"For your birthday, against my better judgment, I buy you a DVD of Illegally Blonde from a Dutch website. I get a warning from my manager after she gets a report from the weblog geek. She gets pissed at a weekend work party and tells everyone what the webserver saw. Random office males start talking to me when I make coffee. For our anniversary, we spend a weekend in Berlin. You get me drunk and ask how I feel about anal sex. I say I hate it. You ask me how I know. I tell you. You pretend you're not bothered, but if there's one thing I know about you by this point, it's that you're a crap actor.

"You get promoted, and you deserve it, and you earn more than me, and you're happy, and we're okay. Your best friend gets a girlfriend called Summer, who dresses like a colour-blind American tourist and squawks like a parrot. The four of us go out and drink ourselves dumb. One night, Summer asks if we're into swapping partners. You say not really, but Summer and I can get it on and you'll watch. I laugh; Summer doesn't. You tell me I might as well, I've done everything else. They ask what you mean by that. I close my eyes and see myself punching your teeth right down your throat.

"You start talking about changing jobs, redecorating the house, moving house, moving cities, moving countries. You buy a deck of Kama Sutra playing cards. We make it as far as the six of clubs. The woman on the cards freaks me out. She has a loose mouth and joyless eyes like she knows all about love. You don't answer when I ask you if I should lose weight.

"By now we both know we're doomed but neither of us has the guts to bail out, until Summer dumps your best friend for a karaoke singer called Ray. Your best friend stays on the couch. I lie awake listening to your beery snoring, his sobbing. One night it all crumbles. I go downstairs and give him a mercy fuck. I ride his body hard, for me, for him, for all of us. He tells you. You break his jaw. When I come home from dance class, you've bagged and boxed my things and you're standing over them with a look on your face like you're missing a torch to shine under your chin.

"You send pictures of my Harry Potter tribute to the internet, and email them to my workplace along with a bile-filled rant you don't spellcheck, in which you talk about the siez of my cnut. Your email gets bounced, so none of my colleagues receive it, but three days later the weblog geek asks me on a date."

"Do you go?"

She smiled at me. "That's none of your business."

"Shit," I said. "Hey, look. I'm really sorry."

She smiled. "That's okay. There's some good in you, at least. See that guy over there on table 8?" I saw him, smug-eyed and jowly. "When I tell him I'm pregnant, he gets me drunk and throws me down the stairs."

"Jesus." I know, I know. But what else can you say?

"Yeah. Thing is, I still remember my mother telling me, 'Daisy, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince.' I don't though, see? In a way, that makes me lucky, right? I travel around. I keep looking, town to town. One day, I'll find him."

"You never thought of settling?" I said.

She looked at me. "Knowing what I know? Would you?"

Someone rang the bell. Time to swap tables. Chairs scraped backward as people stood, shed dignity, moved on. "Can I talk to you later?"

"What's the point?" she said. "Listen - table 11. She's just your sort. Go get her."

Sure thing, I thought, moving to table seven. About thirty seconds in, just after the awkward grins and "hi" comments, just as the temperature started dropping, I heard an airy sobbing to my left. I looked back to see her standing up, her arms around the neck of a confused looking, crop-haired man. His hands were limp at his sides, but, as she clung to him, sobbing, he moved them gingerly to her back and let them rest there. Well that's charming, I thought, feeling my stomach grip. We only broke up five minutes ago.

I watched them all bundled together. I tried to smile, really I did, to find happiness for her. I looked over to the girl at table eleven, at her jaunty hat, her red painted toenails peeking from open-toed sandals. Wow, I thought, I sure hope so.

 

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