By Jade Hayden
Every now and then headlights would appear and saturate both of us in somebody else’s light. The road ahead would be winding and placid, and his car would drive steadily until flooded with a strict illumination, reminding me for the eighth time that we weren’t completely alone. Descending into darkness, he would chuckle and mention again how he hoped the two glasses of sauvignon blanc from 4pm had worn off. My common association with drinking cheap wine in the afternoon before class assured him that it had.
What I could see of the sky was starless. They probably hid behind the streetlamps and porch lights and various neon signs that accompanied the usual late-night fast-food joint on the edge of town. Maybe they weren’t there at all. The weed the rest of us had smoked around the back of the bar had succeeded only in making me dizzy. It clung to my clothes and I hoped he wouldn’t smell it. Somehow, he didn’t seem like the type. Earlier that evening, he had leaned in toward me, glass in hand, and whispered that my paper on E.M Forster’s preoccupation with the overt hypocrisy of the middle class was one of the best he had read this semester. Impeccable was the word he had used.
“You can turn right just past here, I think it’s faster,” I said, my voice wavering slightly from the four rum and cokes I had managed to consume in the past two hours.
He nodded and swiftly slid the steering wheel in a clockwise motion, setting us adrift towards a row of slumbering houses and the shadowed, inevitable birches of the terraced home cluster. He was still grinning from when I had told him his glasses sometimes made him look like a pensive Buddy Holly moments before. I was slightly drunk, but they did.
He was wearing them now as he drove me home. If he hadn’t, I knew he would squint along the vast lengths of the narrow laneways, like he always tended to while struggling to make out the hazy outlines of the words he had written, or my eyes as they trailed his movements across a room. Eventually, he would find them and I would be unsure whether he was looking at me or not.
When I had asked about them earlier, he had confessed that he absolutely loathed wearing them as much as he hated the sensation of contacts against his eyes. He thought they made him appear as studious and dull as he secretly was, and so, partial blindness had emerged as a misshapen compromise. I was quick to refute this, and as my gaze travelled along bare skin where the polished frames should be, he had laughed and told me that I was too kind.
They slid down his nose as we drove, and the engine hummed beneath us.
“You didn’t have to do this, you know. I could have walked.”
He glanced at me sideways, his eyebrow half cocked in amusement that suggested even the patterns of glowing glare above us could do little to protect from the unknown presage of a hundred unlit homes under the late night sky.
“There was no way I was letting you walk this road, at this time, alone.”
Through the window, features of buildings passed with the same urgency I refused to acknowledge. I smiled.
“You don’t trust me to take care of myself?”
“I don’t trust other people around you.”
I watched as his gaze drifted steadily from the empty road downwards, to a vista clouded in contingency and obscure designation. His breath seemed to catch in his throat in a clumped mass of disorganisation, almost visible through too white flesh, despite the flushed redness of his features. He cleared his throat, glancing briefly to his left where my eyes bore into his.
I turned and stared ahead as the road passed silently beneath us, disappearing past a vacant dashboard and a clutter of drunken considerations. For the remainder of the journey he was as silent as he had been when I told him he was the reason I looked forward to Friday mornings. His glass had remained suspended, hovering in the liminal space between appropriate relational exchanges and the words that had just slipped out of my mouth. I recognised that I was leaning closer and closer towards him, our legs touching vaguely, our faces mere centimetres apart; until I corrected myself, tilting my body backwards and away from what could have been deemed as inappropriate by the others who surrounded us. Others who saw this night as nothing more than a casual novelty.
We arrived at a crossroads and the car began to slow. I refused to break my gaze.
“It’s right again here. Second house on the left,” I said, studying him as he lifted his head towards the road again. He had wanted to seem expressionless, but an apparent sense of demanded affirmation had cloaked his face, and as his jaw clamped shut he appeared ever more composed than he had seconds before.
We hovered for a moment before he nodded and sent us curving in the direction of the duly beige-painted, less than admirable, mostly overgrown gardens of the undergraduate accommodation strip of affordable housing. He squinted into the gloom as if trying to discern one house from the other until I pointed to the inconsequential square building nearest to us, differentiated only by its flickering porch light that remained constantly lit despite being empty most of the time.
The car rolled to a stop, and as I expressed my sincere thanks for his consideration of my well-being, his gaze lingered for a second too long until my mouth found itself unceremoniously planted against his slightly parted, yet non-opposing lips.
I probably still tasted like poor rum and cheap cigarettes but he didn’t seem to mind. His lips were broken and cracked, as if he’d spent his whole life pulling at the fragile skin on top just to see what was underneath, and as I dragged my tongue across them I could feel the ragged hollows that would have been invisible to the naked eye, reserved only for those who came close enough to experience them first hand. His fingers rose, carefully caressing my cheek in a gesture that I found almost too intimate for the prevailing situation. For some reason, I reached up to intertwine them in my own, only to replace them on his lap again.
I pushed myself forward in a highly inelegant, inebriated fashion that could have probably been disguised as urgency as his head bent lower and he produced a wet trail of kisses leading from the corner of my mouth to my collarbone. As he sucked softly on my skin, I thought of how difficult it must be for some people to distinguish between an abusive relationship and a love bite.
In a manner that seemed contradictory of his usual disposition, he slid his arm across my waist and undid my seatbelt, pausing only to fumble at his own before I shifted my weight onto his lap and locked my thighs either side of his. We regarded each other briefly before resuming, and as his hands pushed their way under fabric to find the flushed skin of my hips, I could feel his kiss become more urgent, as if the absoluteness of the moment had finally confronted him, and he lacked any form of agency to stop it.
His nails dug into the flesh of my back and I knew that on inspection the following morning I would find small indentations there. They would be tiny and pink, and they would mark the chaos and neglect of some form of boarder that had been dismantled when we left the bar together. Stubble scratched against the smoothness of my cheek, and I remembered him telling someone else about a trip he and his wife had taken to Santa Barbara the year before, and how the beach house they had rented was infested with vermin, and that even after the extermination had taken place he hadn’t been able to sleep properly because he imagined thousands of flies and louse and ants crawling over his body every night, polluting and consuming him. Somewhere nearby, a front door slammed, and as he fumbled at the buttons on my shirt, I pictured the two of us covered in insects, as they feasted on our bodies, rotting from the inside out.
Clumsily repositioning myself in the darkness, I groped for the glint of his belt buckle and pulled carelessly at the latch until it came undone. Amid the effort, the frames of his glasses bumped against the bridge of my nose, and I wondered whether or not the porch light would ever stop flickering.
He had stripped my shirt from my chest and held it stiffly with both hands around my shoulders. He peered at me, and in the quiver of the brightness I could see his eyes glisten and his lips shake.
“God, you’re so pretty”, he said.
I considered him for a moment, allowing the rise and fall of my chest and the harshness of our breathing be the singular disruptions of the motionless night. His eyes were wide and I couldn’t seem to look at them. My head was sore and my legs were stiff and in a haze of mismanaged grappling, I had groped my way across the passenger seat, grabbed my bag and flung the door open, letting the iciness of the air attack my lungs as I stumbled onto the footpath towards the porch, clutching my shirt closed with my free hand.
I failed to hear anything past the gasping of my own breath while I stood in the blinding divergence of the light, until I had located my keys and shoved my way through the stiffness of the front door. It creaked closed behind me, engulfing the house in a blackness that had probably been waiting all night for me to return.
There was silence until I heard the muffled din of a car door slamming. The engine sounded and the dim roar as it drove away reminded me of being a child afraid of cars on the streets at night time, when the noises of their engines would appear out of nowhere, and disappear into nothing again as they seemed to vanish into thin air.
I sat down on the floor and grasped at my bare chest, in some form of attempt to claw out the hollowness that resided there. Outside, the light flickered on and on.