There were seven of us sat around the table. Seven grown adults, sat around the table. It was late. We had eaten, and we had drunk, and now were drinking more. The table, the heavy oak table, was if you will a beach from which the tide of a long and boozy dinner had receded, leaving its surface strewn with a tideline detritus of cork, crumb and ash. Among which, on the table, having first cleared a space, with his hand, the side of his hand, Matt, a bottle. An empty wine bottle, laid on its side. Upon which, Matt’s hand rested, like a spider, fingers braced and knuckles up, as if to make a bridge in snooker.
He wafted the bottle casually this way and that, the way a hoodlum sweeps a machine gun from side to side to cover his cowering targets, its malevolent arsehole neck-hole eyeing us each in turn.
Come on, he said. How about it?
God, people said. I mean, come on, please.
Grinning, he went to do it, coiling his wrist right round on itself to gain maximum torque, but Cath gave something like a snort of disgust and said, You’ve got to say what it is first. You can’t just spin it.
Okay, said Matt. What was your most unusual sexual experience? And bang! he set it off, the bottle, sent it twirling on its axis in a spookily smooth, almost wobbly motion, as if it were moving above rather than on the surface of the table.
I watched it spin, all my attention drained to my peripheral vision, to gauge the others’ reactions, their levels of dismay, acceptance, keenness. As I did so I tipped my chair onto its two back legs, to signify insouciance, or ambivalence. I wondered, in my tilting, about Matt’s choice of tense. What was, he had said. What was our most unusual sexual experience. Were we that old that our most unusual sexual experience was, necessarily, behind us? Possibly, even, all of our sexual experiences?
Certainly we were too old for this game. Spin the bottle is for students, a celebration of the fact that at long last you have enough history, enough life behind you, to actually have stories to tell, and dirty ones at that. You have, if not whole skeletons, then at least a few choice bones to pick out and fling to the dogs.
Spin the bottle is for students, as strip poker is for teenagers.
Teenagers, having no dirty exploits to tell of, must engineer them.
Thus the enforced lewdness of strip poker.
Truth or dare is the halfway house, that allows for either possibility.
Tell, if you have stories to tell. Do, if you don’t, and you shall.
But by the time you reach our age – the age of the seven of us sat around the table, ashing our cigarettes into saucers, the few that still smoked, and considering each other, sat variously in our seats around the wide oak table, sipping abstractedly at our glasses of wine as we each of us dredged or trawled around in our memory or imagination for an episode, or misadventure, that might be shone up to make an acceptably amusing or titillating anecdote, or gag, or shaggy dog story, to act as a meeting place for or bridge between our own private and secret pasts and this public or semi-public present – although it was quite possible, bearing in the mind the shared history of the seven of us, or six at least, that some part of those pasts might not be secret at all, but be known to at least some of the others present; might even involve them as actors, or bystanders, or accessories before or after the fact. For although we were all old enough, I guess, to have a certain number of sexual experiences to draw on, that might qualify as unusual, the number was unlikely to be all that large, and games of spin the bottle are not the only context for their telling: you might tell them of your own free will, late at night (later than this), drunkenly – in your cups, as the slightly mystifying phrase has it, your tongue loosened by drink – or otherwise, even: lightly, offhandedly, with no sense of drama or occasion, perhaps in response to something someone has said, or something seen on television, or in a film, or read in a book, or a newspaper, or on Twitter: I did that once, you might say, or: that happened to me, if you can believe it, no word of a lie.
(The bottle spins, and if I’m not concentrating on searching my memory or imagination for a story for if I am chosen by the bottle, when it stops its spinning, if I can or could allow myself all these thoughts, even if at the time they didn’t reach this level of development… this being perhaps the unfurling and fulfilment or coming-to-fruition of what was only sketched out in my mind, at the time, the thoughts I sensed, or hypothesised, or posited, rather than actually physically thought… my point is that I was able to think, or delineate, even these provisional, contentless thoughts during the time of the bottle’s spin, there on the table, precisely because I already had in my mind the story I would tell, should the bottle fall to me as victim, or scapegoat, or king of the hour.)
Which is to say that, by the time you reach this age, the age of us seven, or six at least, sat around the table, the recounting of sexual exploits in games like this has lost some of its lustre, or edge, or point, which is the production of further sexual encounters; you use escapades from the past as collateral for more in the future, making the whole thing even more like a game of strip poker, in which the supposed forfeits are in fact investments. And while this is no zero sum game – by which I mean that everyone can be a winner – it’s true that it’s more fun if there’s a loser; the idea of a night that starts out with a game of spin the bottle ending up with everyone round the table happily paired off and shagging away is so perfect, so pristine, so decent and fair as to be positively incestuous. You want there to be someone, don’t you? left downstairs, morosely and disgustedly, and self-disgustedly, reaching for the dregs of the wine… or, even better, two people – and who’s to say, in that situation, which is best: that they’re sexual rivals, in the broadest sense, or that they’re actually sexually compatible, but unable or unwilling, both or only one of them, to take that final step free of the bounds of humiliation and into mindless, meaningless luxury.
Yes, I thought – or pre-thought, para-thought – candour and self-deprecation in the choice of tale and the manner of telling are potent forms of self-promotion, or oblique seduction, even if the episode in question shades or escalates into farce or disaster – for though you tell your story to the group at large, sometimes or even quite often you intend your words for one pair of ears in particular, or maybe more than one pair, if you’re not fixed on one person as your target, but are only using the story as a way of, let us say, raising your stock in general, advertising and promoting yourself as a sexual agent – or a romantic one, I don’t want to get bogged down in the sex. It’s strange how such conversations can operate on two levels, with two purposes: one, to entertain the group as a whole – to keep things rolling along, help the evening along towards whichever one of its inevitable ends it will choose; and the other, to seduce, or impress, or interest a particular person, or people. Or rather it’s not strange at all. And also not strange is that the people who aren’t included in that second, secret, covert or encoded conversation are quite happy to play along. You listen to your friend sounding off about themselves, about their previous boyfriend or girlfriend, or some strange encounter they had, a one-night stand or a kneetrembler or quickie or something even more contingent and unclassifiable, and you know they’re doing it specifically for the benefit, or rather for the sake of one other person in the room, around the table, in the pub or in the car; you know, in fact, that you’re – not superfluous, no, quite the contrary: your presence is essential, you’re a witness, a corroborator or collaborator, clear concrete evidence of the fact that he or she isn’t pitching this line one-to-one, privately and intimately, where it would carry so much more weight, and so much more danger, but at large, without prejudice or shame.
The fact is, I think, that we were only doing this because of Craig.
(The bottle was spinning still.)
Craig, who is one of the six of us here who go back to times when we used to do this stuff for real. Craig, who has split up from his partner of five or so years. It is, I think – or I am sure – because of him that we have regressed in this manner, or rather that Matt has forced this regression upon us, a regression that, if we play along with it at all, we do so with some ironic affect, some sense of silently marking the distance travelled, of being there and here at the same time, then and now, this and that version of the same person.
It was Craig’s kitchen table we were sat around.
Craig’s lamb shanks and/or lentil bake we had eaten.
His olives. His dauphinoise. His bought-in chocolate dessert.
(We’d, variously, brought the wine.)
The kitchen we were sat in, that was Craig’s kitchen, had been until six months ago his and his partner’s: Kiera. The absent guest. The one person on whom the bottle, still spinning, would never come to rest, whose stories would not be told.
I was hoping, I was really hoping (and I was also hoping that Matt has thought this through) that the bottle wouldn’t land on Craig. For it was pretty obvious, to anyone who knew the sad, sad story (and don’t worry, I’m not going to tell it to you now), that Craig had no unusual sexual stories to tell, that didn’t involve Kiera – and neither we nor he, surely, was going to want to offer up something from his time with her as his down-payment, his ante, his song for his supper. That would have been, at best, in poor taste, and at worst, exquisitely embarrassing for us, and distressing and possibly even degrading for him.
The one person who didn’t belong to the group – or to the group as was, as we were when we were a group: younger and more dependent on membership of groups like this, for now we had our partners, our lives, our children (some of us), our book groups and our opera-going and gig-going – but gigs of a certain type, a certain tenor – our holidays and conferences and our ageing parents and our early starts and late homes; our friendships were splintered and dispersed, and our identities less bound up in them; being part of a gang didn’t interest us, why would it? We didn’t need a stage, an arena, a safe zone in which to establish and play out our emotional and social development. And that person, that one person of seven, was Angela, Matt’s partner. She’s been around for a few years, though she was a few years’ younger than us (younger than she should have been), nevertheless she was established, and we liked her (at least I did, and do) but when it came to something like spin the bottle she was an outsider. None of us had heard her stories, beyond one or two essentially vanilla anecdotes – except for Matt, obviously, and even he wouldn’t have heard them all. In fact, now that I came to think of it, this would have been the perfect opportunity, should the bottle fall to her, for her to use us as witnesses or corroborators to their relationship, by shocking or surprising him with a story, an exploit or adventure that he’d not heard before; that way we’d learn something not only about her, but about him, too, especially if she tipped him over into a genuine show of shock or surprise: we’d learn that she had placed limits on the knowledge she had allowed him of her; we’d learn that he thought he knew her better than he did; and we’d learn that their intimacy was incomplete and evolving.
And as the bottle is still spinning I have the time to think that the story that has allowed me to think all these thoughts – precisely because I didn’t have to think of it, I had already settled on it as my potential offering or down-payment on the evening, should the gun barrel arsehole neck-hole of the bottle decide to finally, definitively, take a bead on me – and that I turned over in mind, the story, as I watched the bottle start, almost imperceptibly, to lose velocity – like when you’re in the cinema and the lights start to dim before the film, such that you notice it and disbelieve it in the same moment… the story was one from seven, or more likely eight or nine years ago, when we were still a group, though already in the first, perhaps equally imperceptible, stages of dissipation, or disintegration – in the true, beautiful meaning of that word: to dismantle or disband oneself, take oneself apart. I was working in Paris, in an outpost of the company where I had worked since leaving college: it was a delicate time, I wasn’t sure if the move (officially, a secondment) was a promotion or a classic kick sideways, and this unease affected my confidence; I was less fully myself than I had been before, among friends, my friends, the group. There was a group, of sorts, at the French office , but I was, like Angela here, the incomer, and didn’t want to rush in, to try and dictate how and where I would fit in. The boss there was a man called Laslo, and he was, in the manner of the people in that business, an easy extrovert, a swaggerer and slacker both, an absolute master of exhilarating insouciance. If I tilt myself backwards in my chair, if I throw an arm along the back of a sofa, if I ever somewhat elegantly stoop when standing, or slyly drop a shoulder or raise my chin and turn my head to the side, if I ever raise my hand in farewell and hold it there, entirely neutrally, as much as if in resignation in the face of your leave-taking as in blessing of it, then I am echoing Laslo, consciously or unconsciously (for my noting it now doesn’t mean I note it each time I do it).
His face was clean shaven, his hair long, though not long enough to seem it (imperceptibly so, you might say), he wore leather jackets and unironed shirts left open at the neck to the tune of two of three buttons, but tucked, always, and always messily, into his belted trousers, from where the material would inevitably untuck itself, only for him to shove it roughly back in, with thrusts of his hands, held pointed flat downwards, with thumbs perpendicular. His French (he was half Hungarian) was at once drawled and impacted, parts of it supressed altogether; French is a language of vowels, after all, and Laslo was from the south, from Marseille, where they slide and elide more than anywhere; and I remember the pride I felt when I realised he had stopped trying to moderate his spoken language for my benefit; just as I had been amused to pick up on a couple of sly jokes he’d thought he could slip by me in a mumbled, off-hand undertone.
Now that I’m painting this portrait of him, I ask myself, or asked myself, there at the table, in whatever tense it was that I began this story, or anecdote, or shaggy dog story, whether any of my friends here ever met him, there, for certainly some of them visited me during my year and a half in Paris, and certainly if they did then I would have been keen to introduce them to my work colleagues, for my social life largely revolved around them. And this issue, of whether any of them met Laslo, or would remember or recognise him in my story, could alter – or I amuse myself by wondering if I might let it alter – how I might choose to tell it, should the bottle pick me out, from the seven of us here, to speak; although, of course, it may not be just one person who speaks: the bottle might be spun again, with the same or a different, though still viable question; or perhaps the question will be opened to the floor, and other people will chip in with their most unusual sexual experiences, having gone to the trouble of picking one as the bottle spun, and decided on an angle, an approach, a way in to telling it – and thus making the original spin of the bottle (still ongoing) an entirely symbolic, or rather ritualistic action. For it would be worse than embarrassing for the game to end after just one spin. Unfair, on the sole confessor, and awkward, for the rest of us; these things have to have legs of a certain length to be worth embarking on in the first place; or rather, having decided to embark on it, or at least to go along with it, you are duty bound to validate your decision by helping it along, however far short the first offering may fall in terms of entertainment or titillation, if titillation is what you are after, or we were after, or what Matt at any rate was after. Because we are older now, and while sex in youth is a thing of joy (by default, I mean: even when it is a thing of misery it is a miserable precisely because it has failed to achieve joy), sex in middle age (which we are not yet in, but in sight of, I guess you’d say, or six of us, at least) is by default a thing of despair, of despair even when it offers consolation, because consolation is the best that can be achieved. Matt wants or wanted to offer Craig the solace of companionship, of a sense of continuity, to show him we are the same friends as we ever were; and also, perhaps, to foster, consciously or unconsciously, the illusion that we are as young as we ever were, as young and as vividly, vibrantly, sexually alive – though, miraculously, with a deeper reservoir of stories, a deeper and hopefully dirtier history to share than we had back then: look at us, with the physical stamina of twenty and the emotional maturity of thirty, not to mention the eager, creative desperation of nearly-forty – what a sexual cocktail that is! – and I think we’re all behind him in this, despite the groans and exclamations that greeted his suggestion, and have punctuated this period of anticipation, and tension, that will continue as long as the bottle spins.
(Is it slowing? Perhaps I imagined it. It can’t possibly be speeding up again, can it?)
I imagine that at least some of my friends met Laslo, as we spent many of our evenings in bars near our office, and it was at one of these bars that the story I’m thinking of begins. I’d not been there long, maybe six months, but I had progressed beyond the point that Laslo spoke to me in a simplified and sanitised version of his yawing drawl, and I could tell that he rated me as a member of our team, for the contributions I made and, no doubt, for the sense that I was ‘in’ with the London office, that I had their ear. We were drinking heavily, in that French way that is so different from the British way, more drawn out and stable and sustainable. We were celebrating a job successfully completed and caution and money was thrown to the wind. Cocktails, champagne, good solid bottles of wine – not like this trash we’re drinking tonight, that is good only for spin the bottle. Food brought out at odd times, as if unordered, plates of cold meats and pickled vegetables, and bread, baskets of bread, simply to keep us going. We had taken over half the bar, it was dark, cold outside, inside people were moving around, in a self-perpetuating loop of congratulation and aspiration. I was aware of Laslo, lounging away over the other side, casting glances towards me – this was not so strange, I had been involved in the job – and he lifted his wine glass to me; it’s uncanny how you can sense when you’re being looked at, in a certain way; at the moment you clock you’re being watched you are brought to yourself, to your own consciousness, as an object, but an object that is immediately flooded – that you immediately flood – with your own powerful sense of subjectivity, of self; it’s as if it’s a defence mechanism against being observed, appraised, understood. He raised his glass to me, or perhaps just tilted it a little, and I lifted or tilted mine back, and thought no more of it, beyond a continuation of that uncanny feeling that, when it bleeds over into the sexual, gains an incredible and almost diametrically opposed potency; for though we all, as social beings, hate the thought of being objectified, observed and appraised – we bristle at it; it rankles – the opposite is true when it comes to sex. It is highly erotic to be thought of sexually; it sets the physiological mechanism in action, kick-starts the chemistry kit in the brain.
I tilted my glass back at him (and would it be too fanciful to suggest that my chair-tipping-back, here, this evening, that evening, was a pre-echo of this same gesture, or the narration of it, something to do with leaving the ground, leaving the level, setting things on edge?) and went on with my conversation, perhaps reddening at my confusion as to the meaning of Laslo’s look at me, for though it could easily have been linked to work, to the job, and nothing more, there was a steadiness and a penetration to his glance that seemed to answer my assumption and say, no, that is not all. So when some time later I found him at my elbow, I was at once flustered and confused, again, dismayed and delighted.
You don’t want to drink too much, he said. And he tapped me on the shoulder and moved on. Not a pat, but a tap, there on the shoulder blade, with the end of the finger, hard enough to feel, almost to hurt.
The next step, he timed brilliantly. Just at the point when some people had gone, and some (the hard core) were settling themselves, or digging themselves in, to carry right on drinking, and were concentrating solely on the carrying on, on the digging in, and everyone else was getting on coats, calling cabs, kissing cheeks… among all of this, he said, again at my elbow, Look, finish that and let’s go for a drink around the corner.
I knew what was going on. I had in the intervening hour or so of the evening passed through the stage of uncertainty, when, as with the dimming cinema lights, you at once know something and doubt it, or rather doubt your sense of knowing, your judgment of external facts, and I had passed through it quickly and clearly, as perhaps is given more to some people than to others. I felt I knew this, back then, because – and here, if I tell this story, tonight, that night, as my party piece, I will deepen and steady and also somehow lighten my voice in the way that I would want you to hear it now – I had had experiences of this kind with both sexes. I had become… not adept, but let us say not unskilled at navigating the very different terrains of each. The signals were different, and operated on different scales of intensity. Think of semaphore, and think of bidders in an auction house. Not to put too fine a point on it, once you had got beyond a certain stage of potential misreading of the situation, in the homosexual field, in my experience, there was very little further misreading that could occur; and most likely the fallout from that misreading was likely to be minimal; with girls, on the other hand, you could go on misreading up until the final moment, and the effect of that misreading – beyond the facts of whether you were going to get laid or whatever – could be quite severe and far-reaching. The difference being, I suppose, and it’s quite obvious now, and perhaps even different now, I wouldn’t really know… the difference being that sex with girls, or the negotiation of it, was something that was played out in the open, as part of the general social scene, or my social scene at any rate, both now and then, when I was part of a group with the people currently sat around the table, watching the bottle spin, whereas homosexual sex was played out on a parallel plane, usually hidden – or usually hidden from me – where there was no spinning of bottles, no mixing of the public and private, no covert messages in the openly shared stories of unusual sexual experiences; no collateral from the past used as down-payments on the future… I mean, I’m sure there were, but none that I was party to, that’s not where I got my sex, of that type, on the occasions I got it.
So I guessed, from the way that Laslo suggested we have a drink in another bar, and I knew, from the moment that we sat down over our glasses of wine there, that he was intent on encouraging me back to his apartment for sex or something like it. I came to know it, really, as we walked there, to the bar, from the time it took, walking fast, and making short-breathed small talk as we went, passing perfectly viable bars, stopping for the traffic, nipping across side streets, the chat was about work, the London office, about where I was living in Paris, exhibitions and plays I might have seen, nothing sexually loaded: no club nights or cafés or clothes shops on particular groupings of streets.
I knew, too, that he was married, although I hadn’t met his wife, and I had guessed, or worked out, or at any rate intuited, before that night, from conversations in the office, or dropped remarks, insinuations that were often the gap where a remark might have fallen, that there was or had been sex outside of that relationship, though whether that was straight infidelity, or some kind of permitted or perhaps only tolerated promiscuity, I didn’t know. Certainly I had had no inkling that he was interested in men to any degree. But now that we were sat opposite each other in this bar du coin, much more basic, or common or garden, than the place we had taken over en masse, it was, as I say, unequivocal that sex was on the cards. He even said as much, although he spoke quietly, he had changed his manner to some degree; this wasn’t a gay bar we were drinking in, and as it turned out it was quite close to his apartment, close enough that he might drink there and be known there; it was much closer to the apartment than it was to the first bar, which in fact wasn’t that close to the office, which made me wonder to what extent all of this had been planned, rather than being, as I first assumed, when I came to make my first assumptions, a spontaneous thing, as most of my experience of sex with men had been, from my side, for you can never be entirely sure what the story is on the other side.
You can guess why I’ve dragged you all this way for a glass of not very good wine, was what he said, looking at me steadily as he said it, his hand touching the base of his glass, fingers nudging the stem. There was none of that slouching, slanting, posturing behaviour about him now, nothing arch or ironical in his attitude, or falsely lewd, or even embarrassed or coy. It was a straight-forward proposition, gay sexual culture being – as I could possibly say at this point if I was called upon to flesh out this anecdote for public consumption, should the bottle’s gaping eye fall to me – far more straight than straight sexual culture, in my experience, in this regard.
You’re going to invite me up to your apartment, I replied, holding his gaze, as I had been taught to do in the office or in meetings, when dealing with clients. For fucking, I said. Pour baiser. I let my voice drift higher than his had been, though there were other people in the bar. I wanted to show him that I was equal to his proposition, that he didn’t have one over on me, in terms of surprise or composure. The terms of engagement being, in these things, important to establish, even if what you establish is that nothing is as yet established. Of course, when it came to clients, in our business, I was never brought in to negotiate but only to add creative sparkle, my language came in useful with that – a few minutes in buzzword-heavy English could make all the difference to a meeting. Yet here we were negotiating. Perhaps I thought of the exchange as something like a job interview. Look, I was saying, I can go toe to toe with you on this. If you think you can have my arse just like that, that it is there for the asking, think again. I felt very cool in there, my fingers like his pressed against the stem of my wine glass on the table before us. There was none of the prickly, illicit, hairs on the arm excitement about making a connection back home, in the UK, those times that it had happened – I never went looking for sex, but you might say, I suppose, that I was good at picking up signals, and, more importantly, giving out signals, the glance that is a glare, double of meaning, where one of those meanings is no meaning at all. This was different. I was aroused, or potentially aroused – the action was there, in outline, just as these thoughts were there, that night, sat around Craig’s oak table, in outline – but I was distanced from the physiology of it. Sometimes – I imagined myself giving the others that same loaded, dead-eye gaze as I said it – it’s good just to go with something, just sit in the canoe, spinning slowly in the current, and let the river take you where it will.
I remembered standing in the lift of is apartment block with him and making some entirely stupid and anodyne comment about the quartier, about how fashionable it was, or the opposite, perhaps, no doubt I took some ironical stance, complimenting him on its impeccable bourgeois credentials, and he looked at me with a withering look, as if to say, you don’t have to pretend to be above all of this, or, at least, if you are going to pretend you are above this please don’t borrow my own brand of jaded sophistication to do so. Because even then, as I have said, I was most likely mirroring him in my attitude, in my choice of words and my manner of pitching them, and even in the way I was standing, placing myself in relation to him in the lift as he was to me, and when you are stood in the lift of your apartment block, which was almost certainly mirrored on at least one of its walls, with someone you are bringing upstairs to, essentially, fuck, the last thing you want to feel is that the person you have chosen is a clone of you, or a lesser version. So he repudiated my version of his cool, ironical persona, but then neither did he fall on me, clutching or kissing or otherwise touching. I think if he had tried to kiss me I would have pushed him off, not so much because the physical idea of it repulsed me – although it’s not exactly my favourite part of the package – but because it didn’t fit with my idea of him as a person: never needy, never showing weakness; or rather, never showing himself in a position of weakness without it being clear and understood that he has something else prepared, a comeback or ambush, should anyone try to take advantage of that weakness; that the position of weakness is, in fact, a position of strength. All of which might suit the office, with its endlessly subtle play of hierarchical manoeuvres, but would be entirely out of place, even counter-productive, in this stage of a sexual negotiation, especially male homosexual negotiation, where ideas of hierarchy necessarily devolve to the intimate, practical and entirely pertinentquestion of fucking rights, of who fucks who and how.
And as I get to the point in the story, in my head, where the lift reaches his floor and I follow him out and along the corridor and he opens the door to his apartment, or to that point in the outline or rough of the story, if I am not in fact going into it in all this detail in my head, because I can’t, because of all this is happening in the time it takes for an empty wine bottle laid on a table and spun to spin itself to stillness… when I get to that point I look at the six people around the table, and wonder to myself, am I really going to do this? It’s not ‘coming out’, because I’m not gay, nor is it ‘coming out as bisexual’, because I’m not that either, really, it’s just my story about an unusual sexual experience. And if I told it – if it fell to me to tell it, because all this could remain permanently hypothetical, the bottle might not fall to me, or the next question and the questions after it might be substantially different, because one thing I do know is that I’m not going to volunteer this story; if I tell it, it will be simply because it fell to me to answer the question, sing for my supper, entertain the troops – if I told it, then, I would be doing more than simply telling a funny story, I would be making a statement about myself, drawing attention to myself, laying myself open to comments (no doubt most of these people – my friends – would congratulate me or otherwise warm to me for my candour, thinking that the humour of the story – its unusualness – is just my way of enabling myself to tell them the important thing that I couldn’t tell them any other way: that I’m gay, or bi, or whatever), which I’m not against per se, except that there’s nothing in it for me. I don’t want or need their approbation or understanding or sympathy (these are my guesses at possible reactions based on a microsecond’s scan of their faces, over their tilted wine glasses). I get those things from other places now, other people, if I even need them anymore. Nor is there anyone here, to hark back to any earlier thought, that I would want to use this story to seduce or impress.
I followed him in through the door of his apartment…
(The bottle is really slowing now, perhaps it’s on its last rotation, and perhaps because of this I’ve stopped looking at it, not wanting to see where it ends; not wanting to know and, more than that, not wanting to want to know.)
…and it’s a standard Parisian apartment of its type, of its time. Dark wood floors. Moroccan rug running down the hallway. Framed photographs on the walls, taken by Laslo himself, or his wife, or an artistic friend. At the end of the hallway it will have a well-appointed salon, with a long, low sofa and glass coffee table, and tall narrow windows with full length curtains and perhaps a vase or small objet d’art on a pedestal between them. He comes out of the kitchen with a bottle of whisky and two glasses. This is how I remember it, and it’s only in the moment of doing so that I wonder, did it actually happen like this? Every time I tell a story, or rehearse it in my mind, it solidifies a little, no matter what the actual historical fact of it was, and if that goes for a story in your head, it goes sevenfold for a story in your mouth, and then out of your mouth, gone into the ears of the other people around the table; it becomes fixed, irrevocable. You can’t tell a story and then immediately say, of course, that’s not how it was, not then, or the next day, or another time entirely, tell someone who repeats it back to you, or alludes to it, that’s not how it happened. Two glasses, and perhaps he said something like, he wanted to get the taste of that mediocre wine out of his mouth. Or perhaps it wasn’t whisky, perhaps it was cognac, something strong at any rate, because I do remember that when we kissed (when he kissed me) I already had the taste of the drink in my mouth, and I remembered wondering about kissing and alcohol, and the relationship between them. And it was either that we were kissing in the hallway and then went into the salon and she was already there, or that we went into the salon and kissed there and she came in, but from where? From the bedroom? From the bathroom? But the next thing was that one moment we were kissing, Laslo and I, not roughly or passionately, but experimentally, formally almost, with no other touching, no grabbing of face or hair, keeping a distance, letting the kissing do its work, and the next moment there was a third person, I must have startled when I heard her or saw her, no matter how cool I might have wanted to play it, I would have been concentrating on him, on the kissing, on the work it was doing, and it would have been a surprise, a shock even, to find a third person there, and did he laugh? Did he laugh, gently, at my reaction, or apologise? No, I think that was when he grabbed me, pulled me back into the kiss, and no doubt my heart was going like mad, it’s not a situation I had ever found myself in before, or since, a sexual situation, which usually, by default, involves two people, that suddenly involves three people. I mean, it’s not usual, is it? (That’s how I might say it, if I do say it: it’s not usual, is it? And I can imagine the reaction I’ll get.) And I pulled myself away from the kiss and looked at her, racing my mind through the and/or if/but gates of logic and supposition.
Laslo put his hand in my hair – I was taller than him, but still it was like a grown-up putting their hand through the hair of a child, affectionately messing it up: tousling is the word, the very specific word, for what else would you tousle but hair? and whose hair but a child’s would you tousle? So that very gesture, with its mix of physicality and affection, told me everything I needed to know: he was tousling my hair for her benefit, as a means of introduction, and for mine, as a putting at ease. And indeed she was smiling, at me, and when I looked at him I saw that he was smiling, at her. And she came towards me, hand held out – she was that strange French type of the striking woman, almost ugly, but stylishly so – as if ugly was the thing, this season, and her almost-ugliness came straight from the pages of Vogue and the counters of the Rue Saint-Honoré. She glowed with graciousness and self-possession, as she stepped toward me and I took her hand and she introduced herself, Laslo’s wife, and I realised that I had met her before, I remembered her smile, the same smile she gave me on the two or three other times we met, socially, after that night, during the rest of my stay in Paris, before I moved back to London and found that the group, in my absence, had fallen apart entirely. And she gave my hand a single, formal shake, and repeated my name back to me, when I told it her, and it was at that precise moment, as she stepped still closer, into the handshake, moving beyond or perhaps inside the bounds of formal introduction, and put her other hand up to my face and placed her lips on mine, that her husband unzipped the zip of my trousers, and also when I noticed that the bottle had finally come to rest.
This story was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize 2013.