To Love Two Ghosts
She had skin like honey.
Drizzled over each limb, down the nape of her neck. My own, in comparison, is pale; my back is scarred with past acne, my thighs raked with thin white stretch marks and dull, greying bruises. For her, the sunlight clung, in sheets of golden gossamer, to each of her limbs.
I’d watch, jealously, as she walked about our flat, her legs bare, her face free of makeup. Sometimes I’d pretend I was Colin, just to be able to skim my fingers along the dusted with blonde hairs coating her arm, or across the knobble of her exposed knee. To know that Colin never actually did these things only made it worse. Once, quite proudly, he told me that he ‘preferred to keep her touch-starved’.
“I never hold her hand.” He’s grinning at me, a cigarette held between his fingers.
“Why?” I ask him, bewildered. “Georgia and I hold hands all the time. It’s comforting.”
“Nah,” he says, dismissive. He drags on the cigarette, then lets the smoke fall out of his mouth, to spill out into the night air. “I never hold her hand. Hardly ever. But then, very occasionally, I do. And you should see it. She melts.”
Rae wasn’t beautiful. She was the type of girl to slip into the cracks of a social group, filling the silences with an almost unnoticeable insertion of comments and jokes. To me, for two years, she was the Colin’s girlfriend, and nothing else. She seemed nice, quiet, and occasionally funny; sometimes she baked cookies that I never ate, but people told me were delicious.
Her mousey blonde hair was short, the fine tendrils never past her chin, which I thought at first might be an attempted feminist statement. Later, I learned she kept it this way for him, because he had a thing for Jean Seberg in Breathless. This is how she dressed too, bland and unremarkable, in striped t-shirts and jeans, or short, plain dresses with cardigans. Her jewellery, if she wore any, was dainty and delicate – perhaps so it might be missed, at a cursory glance, and not ruin the Seberg effect. At the peak of mine and Colin’s friendship, I accompanied him on his annual shopping trip to buy her a birthday present. It was always the same, he told me: some small but reasonably expensive piece of jewellery, which she would then wear almost constantly, until the chain wore out, or the clasp broke. He was never quite sure he got it right, he confessed, never certain whether she was wearing it to make him happy, or if she truly liked it. So he recruited the help of a girl he felt close enough to ask. As we perused glinting diamonds beneath glass cases, I felt the heavy weight of the trust he’d placed on my opinion. I chose a ring, made up of two tiny rose gold rabbits, their paws fused together in the centre.
The first time Rae and I had sex, I lent her my blue velvet heels and she kept them on the whole time. This is the image I want to keep of her. All of that honey skin, bare and glowing in the moonlight filtering through her bedroom blinds.
Naked, except for my favourite shoes.
I couldn’t keep my hands off her, that night. What I hadn’t realised, until it was happening, was that I had been touch-starved too. Unknowingly, Colin’s treatment of Rae had stirred resentment, deep in my chest, buried beneath my aching desire to please him. I’d listen to him talk about her, a pint or a coffee in his hand, listing her flaws as if I were just one of his mates, that might laugh and chime in with some derogatory comment of my own. And later, at home, she’d be waiting for us, a new dish of baked treats to present, in the hopes it might endear her to him. He’d graze her cheek with his lips, and roll his eyes at me when her back was turned.
She acted like she didn’t mind it. She did his washing, and cooked his meals, and willingly tiptoed around him, so he could continue striving to be the tortured artist he so yearned to be. At fifteen, he’d ensnared a sweet, bookish girl and broken her down, until she became empty, devoid of a personality except the one he dressed her in. Nothing about her was real, in his presence. She’d been his for so long that she’d forgotten who she was without him. Over time, I teased it out. I found in her a love of dogs that he didn’t share. An aptitude for baking that surpassed my expectations. A girl with a sharp, intelligent wit, who cried reading Sapphic poetry, and would smoke all of the weed in the bowl, given the chance.
This girl was there inside her, buried deeply, only able to peer out on the occasions she and I were alone. I could tell she longed to be free. This hidden girl wanted femininity. She wanted innocence. She wanted to be held, and taken out for candlelit dinners, and danced with in the small hours, wine-drunk, her skin tingling with the remnants of kisses. Tottering about in nothing but my blue velvet shoes – the only heels she had ever worn – was the only time I knew her to be liberated completely.
In hindsight, I know I romanticise her. Rae is no poor, disadvantaged victim, and in the end, we were all just as cruel as each other. I was dumbed by a desire to save her from drowning in her own sadness. Now, I think she liked the water clogging her lungs. She found perverse bliss in teetering on the brink of submersion. She never really wanted to be saved.
When I get too drunk, I almost text him, the way she reached out, once, across the miles and months that separated us, to me. As the haze of the gin in my bloodstream dapples the air around my phone screen, I can I lie to myself that he’d reply, that he suffers as acutely from our separation as I do. Sometimes, I talk to people that never met them, and the desperation that claws in my chest feels like it might wound me fatally.
Hovering either side of me are two silk-spun ghosts. In the folds around their amused, ash-white eyes, our shared secret is tucked. Can it be true, that nobody else sees my ethereal companions beside me, silent and smug?
“She was cruel and careless. She broke your heart.”
“He was supposed to be your best friend, and look how he treated you.”
You’re not being fair, I want to yell back, when these statements drift, dripping in condescension, from the high horses’ chomping mouths. You never knew her like I did. You never saw her, pupils blown as we lay inches from each other, trying desperately not to give in to the match we’d struck in our bellies, whipped into a frenzy with wine and speed. And you never saw him either, awash in the smoke from his unfiltered cigarette, that devilish smile aimed my way, because I’m the one that sees the amusing futility of the life we’re leading. I’m the only one who understands.
I never knew what it was to be hated until he hated me. I never understood that your best friend can break your heart, and that you can break his, in turn. I didn’t think it possible that she and I would not speak for years, after I’d poured myself over her on a mattress on the floor, and after I watched her step unsteadily towards me in my blue velvet heels.
They both loved me, for a time.
They loved each other, too. It was irresistible, once, to fantasise that there was nothing more to it, that the three of us could love each other forever, in the bohemian bubble of our Hackney flat, blowing smoke into each other’s mouths because we really wanted to be kissing.
The three of us lived a singular life, for a time. A clique, I suggested laughingly one night, delirious from the cannabis accumulating in my bloodstream, and the freezing Amsterdam air. I was joking, but it stuck. Together, Colin and Rae were already a solid, and unbreakable pair, solidified by the years that had piled up between them, and the first love either of them had known. With me, however, we became inexorable. I was their stabilising wheel, perfectly fitted to the gaping hole at their core. I stoppered up the gap, and balanced their insecurities with perfect ease. It never occurred to us that our machine would need maintenance. That it might need care and attention, as time passed. We crumbled gradually at first - wearing away in the long silences following spiteful words - and then so fast and sudden that it shocked us all.
I live in fear of the photos, taken in the hours before sunrise, Rae and I pressed against one another in matching t-shirts, our legs bare, our lips wine-stained. One day, I may wake up to find them posted somewhere online, our dark, dead secret risen to haunt us once more. My ghosts never leave me. They are here even now, in the hidden corners of my heart, pulling the strings that dance my fingers across the keys, and laughing softly. My anger at them fuels me. It pushes me across oceans, it drags me into seedy places, where I find myself ensnared in unspeakable deeds. My ghosts, rakish and crisp-white, are privy to my most concealed secrets; they never hesitate to unveil them, to taunt me with my own shame. At night I hear their voices, rich and wicked, in the veins of the thick silence.
“We know,”they tell me. “We know you love us still.”
Mairead is a writer living in Brighton, England. She recently spent a year in Paris to study an MA in Creative Writing, for which she gained a distinction. She is currently applying for a PhD in the same subject.