She finds herself single, twenty-nine, partially-employed and about a half a stone overweight. Roller dexter of eligible friends rattling thin. Thirties breathing down her neck like an inappropriate uncle. She jogs. Looks good in turquoise. Finds herself punctuating gas "better out than in!" patting her stomach like a department store Santa.
She mopes, watches television, develops a taste for medjool dates, shoving handfuls into her mouth, sticking to her gums like toffee. This is who I am, she thinks. Mouth full of brown. Cackling into the night.
She starts making people uncomfortable. The sarcasm, the cynicism, the general aura of malaise, heck even the gas, were alright on somebody engaged, cute even, but on a single woman who it must be said is not getting any younger. Well.
"You'll meet someone," her friends tell her. "The right guy's out there I just don't know where!" They say this exasperated. Some old fuddy duddy searching for their glasses.
She notices less invitations. Her iCal yawns blank. She wonders what she ever did before. How the hell did she spend her time? She runs into people. Into her old gangs. "Oh, you're all here!" she says, hurrying out like a diseased thing, her gaze darting around the spaces at the sides of the walls.
She resolves to do dating websites. Dating websites are something she does now. She doesn't like them. The romantic ones anyhow. The ones with cupid or soulmates in the URL. Those are not the ones for her. But the fish one she likes. She enjoys its willful cynicism. All just fish we are. Sling enough shit at the wall and something's got to stick.
A few days in she starts to get messages. Men message her. All kinds of men! Though mainly tights fetishists, role-players and one time a Tory. It is hard to imagine which is worse. "How are you?" they begin.
They can't help but notice she likes Murakami. Has she heard of This AmericanLife? They bet she'd get a real kick out of that. And what about tights? Does she wear tights? What about fishnet tights? What about two pairs of tights? Has she got any photographs of herself wearing tights or could she perhaps take some? She did not realize there were so many sub-genres to tights fetishism. If nothing else she has gained this.
"Hey," says some guy, fringe flopping in front of his eyes. He seems promising. Better looking than the others. Hey yourself she thinks, tilting back her head, angling forward her laptop, concluding what she likes about him is how he stands. She looks at his photos like they are a really nice meal.
They meet ostensibly for coffee knowing they'll have sex if the opportunity arises. But they do have coffee. Icelandic coffee! They also have cake. The cake makes her feel sick but then a lot of things do.
"You wouldn't believe the weirdos I have messaging me," she tells him, cutting through the sponge and buttercream with the side of her fork. He is flattered. He is flattered not to be one of the weirdos. She gets drunk and laughs a lot. She laughs the sort of laugh that gets away from you. One that needs to be lassoed back.
They go back to hers. She has an HDMI cable and Netflix and two thirds of a bottle of wine. She fixes him a drink. They sit on opposite ends of the sofa. Neither turns on the television. They inch closer and he rests his head on her shoulder. It is a bit awkward but aside from anything it is logistically awkward and uncomfortable. She lifts his head and turns it round like the prop skull from Hamlet, kissing him with a straightforward matter-of-factness while he pushes his hand up her skirt. After, he fetches tissue paper from the bathroom, wiping her stomach like he is nursing a wound.
He meets her friends. He is polite. He places a hand on her shoulder when they make fun of her for having never seen Chinatown. He buys them a round of drinks. He talks to Kate about the guy she is seeing. "That guy's a jerk," she hears him say. She smiles. Lying in bed she thinks: he likes me. She rests her head on his chest, listening to his heart contract and expand, pumping out what was left, making room for her. In the morning they have sex. He looks like he wants to say something. "What?" she asks.
"Nothing," he says. Red faced. Breathless.
"What?" she asks again. "Am I doing something wrong? Would you like me to do something else?"
He kisses her forehead, untangles her hair. "Everything you're doing is fine."
They go to an art gallery. She wears a backpack and jeans. She looks at him. He is wearing a backpack and jeans. She looks at the other couples in the art gallery. They are all wearing backpacks and jeans.
"Come on," she says. "Let's get a drink."
A lot of being in a relationship, she realizes, is negotiating what you are going to have for tea.
One night he prods her shoulder. "I love you," he says, like he is polishing off a truth. Just saying what he sees. Handing her a heart shaped box and now she has to figure out its compartments, learn how to flip the lid. A house she has to furnish, to keep clean. "I love you too," she says, regretting adding too. A cop out. A disgrace.
"Would you like to meet my parents?" he asks. "And we should go away." There is a long inventory of things to do. They dine with other couples, touring their friends. They take turns to make food. A lot of being in a relationship, she realizes, is negotiating what you are going to have for tea.
"I have something to ask you," he tells her, one night, sat on the settee. They eat curry with coconut rice. Couple of posh yoghurts waiting for afters. She nods and chews.
"It's about. Um. Sex." She begins to worry. She is not as limber as she once was. What she likes now is when it's over soon.
"Ok," he says. "Here goes."
"I would like you to dress up like a penguin and incubate some eggs."
She recalls something she read about improv. Yes. And. That was the ethos. She realizes how heavily this has informed her worldview.
"Yes," she says. "And lets us eat this yogurt."
She researches. Obviously, she researches. "You know it is typically the male penguin who incubates the egg though they often take turns," she tells him at the self-checkout in Asda.
"Jesus," he says. "Can this not wait until we're outside?"
"Ok," she replies, adding quietly under her breath, "Do you want me to be the male penguin or the female one?" He pretends not to hear. She wonders if it is just the one egg that needs incubating or multiple eggs. She watches him walk out the shop door.
"I love you!" she yells, the automatic doors snapping shut. She has a lot of questions.
At his flat they wash the dishes and he tells her it is more of an abstract fantasy. The detail is not of importance. She disagrees. In this situation perhaps more so than in any other situation she has ever encountered in her life the detail seems to be of absolute importance.
"Let's just drop it," he says. "Let's pretend I never brought it up." He is wearing marigolds. They are not attractive.
At work she obsessively Googles penguins. She tries to find them erotic. They are handsome, she supposes, though handsome like a smart drinks cabinet as opposed to a really strong jaw. She wonders if the whole world has lost its mind.
She pulls on her pajamas while he scrolls through his phone. "What if I paint my face?" she suggests. "What if I paint my face black? Or would that be too racial?"
This sort of thing, she believes, is about compromise. He exhales loudly leaving the room. He does not say no.
Walking through town she watches a teenager spit at a middle-aged man outside Argos.
"Did you see that?" she asks, fingernails digging into his arms, face urgently over his shoulder.
"People are absolutely awful to each other. To a person they are horrible twats."
"You," he says, rolling his eyes. "You can be so cynical."
"It's not being cynical," she replies, "if you're constantly being proven right."
In the evenings they watch documentaries. Music documentaries. Serial killer documentaries. Documentaries about the state of the automobile industry in Detroit. They make Thai food. They make Mexican. They take it in turns to stir the soup. Gradually, they stop mentioning the penguins.
The lease runs out on his flat and so they move in. It makes sense. Her flat is much bigger than his and it's cheaper that way. He has a lot more stuff than she does. She throws out all her CDs and most of her books.
Makes room in her drawers. Empties her cupboards. When she looks through her wardrobe for something to wear his pressed and dry-cleaned tuxedo stares at her like a joke.
She starts going to bed earlier than him. She needs more sleep than he does. At night, in bed, she takes to wondering things. Why it is the male penguin that incubates the eggs. Why a teenager would spit at a man. Why he even owns a tuxedo. Why every time she says I love you it is with an upward inflection.
From A Selfie As Big As the Ritz by Lara Williams. Copyright (c) 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.