A Vicious Cycle


by Leon Craig

It was only now that I remembered none of this was fiction. I’d been living in third-person and I liked it better that way. This was me, with my big legs and my entrails and my thoughts inaudible to other people, sitting waiting for my delayed flight back to London and life without her.

I kept expecting reality to swing open on its hinges, from whence I would be ushered out into other bodies, other lives – lives in which I wouldn’t need the break-up script I’d written on my phone.

It had been three years. She was the one to bring that up, I’d resisted saying it. I’d also resisted going though our chat logs again to calculate how pitifully few times we’d seen each other over those three years. I’d already counted how many conversations she had initiated (two). I could not determine a rule for whether to end my missives with an ‘x’ or not. I would stop for several exchanges and then she would add one, which confused things. I had to have rules for myself, because otherwise I would be a nuisance, though I knew that even needing to have rules made me pathetic. I sometimes worried that she could feel me overthinking this kind of thing, like I was bothering her on a quantum level.

She had put me on the train at Centraal and kissed me goodbye, lightly.

We’d spent much of my visit semi-spooning in her narrow single bed. The day before my departure, I’d arranged myself so I could admire the dimples in her back, made deeper by the mid-December sunlight. She had the rangy figure of someone whose only exercise is fucking. We told each other stories about the other women we had slept with. I traded the girl with a healed-over bullet wound for her Google Translate mishaps with a muscular Brazilian. My airbnb orgy for her encounters in the toilet of an anarchist bunker bar. I had opened the window to let out the smell of sweat and frenzied negotiation. In exchange we got fresh bread and sugared cinnamon wafting up from the bakery two doors down, though by then it was late morning.

When she went to the loo, I looked for the passport photo I’d seen on her shelf the last time I visited. I had talked myself out of stealing it. Instead of stealing it, I’d taken a photo of the photo, which meant every time I plugged my phone into my laptop to charge, the photo came up fullscreen. Eventually I had to photograph a bit of patterned cloth, so that her face wasn’t first on the camera roll any more. The still-childlike mouth, the gold-rimmed glasses, the nick in her eyebrow she accentuated with pencil. It was a face that teenagers might have thought ugly and was the more fascinating now for its flirtations with ugliness.

Both of us had been friendless as adolescents. The library of my school had been designed to resemble a nautilus from above and I sat in the very smallest section of shell at the top, because I couldn’t stand for anyone to see me alone and pity me. I hid among the shelves and tried to pity them, because they were wasting their time on loom bands and Neopets, while I was making jam with serfs and hiding out in seedy motels and decoding cryptograms to find the mad pirate’s gold. My aloneness hung around me like a thick musk, as if I stank. Perhaps I did stink, though I made sure to floss and wear deodorant and fresh clothes and bathed twice a day, just in case. She was more alone than I was, and I envied her her ease with it now. I filled my calendar with events weeks in advance and then complained I didn’t have time for dating.

We had both had to relearn the selfishness men are allowed to keep from childhood.

She had run away from the final year of a Philosophy degree and sufficiently charmed a gallerist into giving her the sort of job that ten girls with Firsts would fight to the death for back home. She said she thought she would stay for a few years, then move on somewhere new. Athens perhaps, or Lebanon. Maybe even Syria, since that was where everything was happening. I thought silently of Daniel Pearl and prayed she’d get distracted. I liked to ask her about her plans, to kill off any lingering hope for a future in which we lived in neighbouring flats, carrying out our work and our affairs in parallel. I’d never cared about the fidelity of the body, but I wanted someone to be buried next to.

She was back in the bed now, drinking black tea and reading the papers on her phone. I realised that I’d duplicated the scars on her left shoulder over to her right as well, so they formed silvery epaulettes in my mental picture of her. When I told her this, she said

‘You always lie about me and misremember things. You were very unfair in your story.’

She stretched and scratched another scar under her ribs.

‘It wasn’t meant to be documentary. I’m here, after all – not walled up with those Tuscan nuns. My bones aren’t lying bleached in some olive grove between the valley and the fortress.’

She pulled me towards her by the hair and held my chin between her thumb and forefinger, so I had to look her in the eyes.

‘I can’t believe you thought I was mysterious for coming from the wrong direction, when really I was lost.’

I had made myself reread the story when she’d brought this up before and was surprised she still talked to me, let alone had me to stay.  Every time I saw the story’s url in my browser, I felt strange and guilty, like I’d been caught eating my own vomit. But I needed to refer to it if I had any hope of getting other work published. I wanted to hold the story apart from my private memories of the time we had spent together. I feared it might erase the things which I’d left out. But every time I walked myself through them to be sure they were still there, those memories would change slightly too, becoming refined into a narrative just as separate from the truth as anything I could send out on open submission. I knew too, that never thinking of them would also cause me to forget. I wanted to burn down the flat in Spura so I wouldn’t have to keep returning there without her.

‘I’ve been writing about you again. I tried to do it an epistolary format, but ventriloquising you felt wrong.’

‘I honestly don’t care, just make me sound sexy.’

She had written a personal essay about cities, cruising and Cavafy that had been published by the first place she’d sent it to. I had looked for myself in it, but it only contained a reference to Italy and how much she’d liked the sky. I longed to exist in the writing of someone who was not my mother.

Our mutual ex now worked for the same tabloid newspaper as my mother’s ex-boyfriend, the one who had sued her for libel. Thanks to this man, my mother had spent years denying any resemblance between her life and her writing, as I circled the verbatim dialogue in her proofs and tried not balk at her descriptions of the me who was not I. I had sworn to write only historical fiction, only from a man’s perspective, only in third person at the very least.

As I was attempting to put on a shirt, she took the safety pin that had been fastened into its hem and drew the point down from my neck to my navel, as if marking me out for autopsy. This would outlast the bruises that she usually left me. Every time, I had to restrain myself from putting tiger balm on them, to make them stay a little longer.

We had to walk half an hour into the centre, as I could not be trusted on a bicycle. She taught me to look for unexpected details in the modernist housing blocks on either side: the edges of a row of buildings curling round like scrolls, corners finished off with turrets, ogee-arched windows and jokey takes on the traditional gable. Details that would have been ostentatious anywhere else, but here served as evidence that the houses’ creators had wanted more than merely to put a roof over the heads of their inhabitants. As we got closer to the centre, I saw more and more houses with a sliver of window for the basement in the same style as the complete windows above, as if each house had sunk almost an entire storey into the ground.

She said ‘The houses here are crooked, thanks to the city trying to build a metro no one wants. I bet when you came here as a tourist you were so wrecked you thought they were all upright.’

On my first visit, I thought I had broken time itself, so the houses were not really a concern. I was worried I’d done something so wrong that I’d be stuck here forever, in the span of a few short days repeating. The canals were laid out to trick me and kept rerouting me back to the same spots. She said I had obviously been walking in circles.

I asked her ‘Do you ever get the feeling that somewhere hidden in the city is a room where all the most interesting things are happening, where your people are, if only you knew how to find it? And sometimes it’s close, very close in fact, just around the corner, up a flight of stairs or through a little courtyard. You could stumble in one night, next week even, if only you kept looking.’

‘I don’t have that so much, I think you get the best of cities quite quickly. But I certainly felt when I was younger that it was necessary for me to read certain things so I would be ready to meet my people. And now I am grown up, there aren’t so many of us as I thought.’

We were almost at the centre now and she stopped us on the bridge to point out city hall, which was also the opera house. I had been following her without giving any thought to navigation, but this part of the walk was familiar from the last time I had visited. I looked back along the river, at the clean streets and people in fawn-coloured coats getting on with their well-ordered lives.

For the thousandth time, I had the thought that I was mad, to stay behind in a country that had chosen to destroy itself, pursuing a bourgeois dream that I had already been given license to opt out of by my queerness. As usual, this was followed by the immediate rejoinder that there was nowhere else for me to go, unless I wanted to spend two years guarding a checkpoint in the heat and perhaps being required to shoot people who resembled my friends. Mixed in with all of this was the cold, sick fear that my impulse to run was the same atavistic thing that had continually moved my ancestors and hers out of danger, that the inherited ability to hear this call and respond to it was all that differentiated our lines from those which had come to an end in Kiev and in Dachau and countless other places. We wouldn’t be the first this time, but we wouldn’t be the last either.

We went into what was called a ‘brown café’ and ordered two thin dark beers, sweeter than I might have chosen, but unexpectedly rich and preferable to the tedious ales you would find in an equivalent pub in England. There was a roughly-glazed ceramic bowl resting on the bar, with seven boiled eggs. I watched her take one, rolling it back and forth over the table with a satisfying crackle as the shell transformed it from one smooth unitary piece into hundreds of little facets, before she tore off the shell in even strips, taking care to peel it away with just the translucent backing and not the white beneath.

I told her about a ship called the Vrouw Maria, which had set off to Russia loaded with masterpieces for Catherine the Great, only to run aground and sink. The paintings were all in lead-lined, wax-sealed tubes and quite likely to still be in a good condition after several centuries at the bottom of the ocean, but could not be brought up because four nations were locked in dispute over which one of them owned the ship.

‘I wonder if we’ll live to see them,’ she said, without any particular urgency.

She told me she was writing another essay, this time about her contempt for Stefan Zweig, who had assumed that everything would be ok and then killed himself in South America when it wasn’t.

‘Think of all the people who existed in total poverty to make his life possible, swanning around with minor aristocrats and going to concerts. The servants and the people who lived in conditions amounting to slavery. And he thought it could just keep on going forever.’

‘Who do you imagine dug up the minerals for your phone?’

‘The same people who dug up the minerals for yours, no doubt.’

Real logs were burning in the fireplace, making slightly musty woodsmoke that clung to our clothes for hours after. The brown cafe’s cat was lying in a cardboard box in front of the fire, defying anyone to trip over it. A constellation of egg fragments lay scattered across the table.

She took me to a little bar that looked like nothing from outside. They gave us a flyer that informed us we would be kicked out for heterosexual behaviour or taking photos of the other patrons on our phones. The drinks were cheap but the music was bad. I was painfully overdressed – my choice of clothes was limited to those with long sleeves thanks to the lumpy scar on my arm where another girl had cut me. There was a sort of cage at the back, with a black pleather mattress inside. Just before the entrance, one man was sitting on another’s lap, trousers pulled down to his thighs, rocking rapidly forward and back. I had not seen men have sex in this position before. It looked both very casual and like it demanded a lot of core strength. Once we were inside the cage with our drinks, she put her hand on my thigh and then up my dress. I would have given anyone else what they wanted, indeed I had done much worse on numerous occasions, but I could not do this for her. I needed to keep some of myself back, even if it was only the thinnest margin of resistance. ​

(Mother, if you’re reading this, it’s fiction)

(At least Mary Shelley’s mother had the decency to die in childbirth)

Later that night at her house, she licked the tears off my face and said ‘I like hurting you the best. You try so hard to be a real person, but I barely have to touch you for you to fall apart.’ She had taken the script we’d composed together and was now so good at riffing on it that I could no longer tell the difference between my words and her sentiments.

It was not many months since the end of the worst depression I’d had since I was fifteen. Or, more accurately, as I had not been fully clear of depression since the age of eleven, it was not many months since a period in which I’d been significantly worse than usual. l had lain in the hall of my parents’ house, knees drawn up to my chest, screaming at my mother that I was a palimpsest. That my mother had taken the consolation of suicide away from me because if I killed myself she would write about it and perhaps even win a prize. That our entire lives were just waiting for bad things to happen to us and then writing about them.

My mother paused, and said ‘Are you sure you’re a palimpsest, not a redaction?’

Everywhere I went in London, I trod upon the backs of my own heels. It was becoming impossible to cultivate nostalgia about any place, because I would be forced back there the next week, in a totally different context, unprepared for the inevitable bathos. Childhood play was crowded out by adolescent anomie was crowded out by adult disappointments. I often had the sense that I too was a ghost to the future self who strolled unseen beside me in reminiscence, who had finally left England and now re-walked the long streets and busy parks only in her mind’s eye.

She was asleep and right beside me at that very moment. The slow expansion and contraction of her ribcage against my belly. Her head weighing uncomfortably on my forearm. I was already half-gone. Every second that passed was separating me from the experience, without my being able to do anything about it.

According to all narrative logic, we should have parted ways by now. I met her at a house party in a graveyard. Our hosts’ parents were sculptors-cum-cryptkeepers and the party was Void-themed. She was the only woman I had ever seen wear a beret successfully. We went outside in the freezing cold and lay on her coat beneath a weeping angel. Her neck and shoulders were brilliant white against the dark fur of her collar. It was too tempting to traduce her into a symbol, and I was weak.

In the airport, I nursed my beer and kept an ear out for the call. To pass the time, I flicked between booking pages for return flights early next year and my friends’ engagement pictures.

About the Author:

Leon Craig’s writing has been published in/on the TLS, the White Review 3:AM Magazine, Review 31Storgy, The Frankenstein Anthology, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and others. She is the co-editor of Thousand: An Anthology of Very Short Fiction, published by Brainchild Festival. Follow her @Leon_c_c

Photograph of Amsterdam by Stephan Ohlsen.