I shouldn’t have been with her, however much her dark beauty simmered in the early summer air. Someone had been feeding her drugs again, her feline eyes were wild, wicked, as she bounced and giggled on my lap in the pub garden. She flirted outrageously with old men for cigarettes, indulged herself in orange-selling theatrics, put on a bad Australian accent, all the while with one arm draped idly about my neck, soft fingertips stroking. I sipped on my pint and wondered whether I should go. I had no real cash, we were still teenagers: perhaps, I thought, I should take one night off. But her father always gave her money and the bar was cheap, so we remained till close.
Most of my friends hated her; they spoke with spite of the lies that tripped from her gilded tongue. Her hair fell cascading in ebony wisps over my face as she whispered stories in my ear, a realm of pure happiness tinting her words. I listened to her lulling babble, a half-smile upon my lips.
When we were finally kicked out I tried once more to leave. Yet she laughed, grabbed my arm and held it tight.
‘Stacy’s!’ she said excitedly. ‘Everyone’s at Stacy’s!’
Stacy had given Esme the key so we slipped in through the outside gate. We descended the rickety wooden stairs to her basement boudoir, a zodiac wind chime tinkling by our heads, and pushed open the panelled window door into the smoke-filled crimson gloom beyond.
Within, there were three people: Stacy, Adam and Kai. We nodded awkwardly hello to one another; Stacy went to open another bottle of wine. Esme and I sat down next to Kai on the sofa-bed, and soon we were drinking and smoking and quietly chatting, as Stacy and Adam began to kiss and fumble on her bed opposite. The small, cave-like room was hot and cluttered; a disarray of tumbled clothes lay strewn across the floor and Stacy’s obsession for all things pink dominated in eerie plasticity. A magenta television took pride of place; photos of her friends were stuck upon the walls, some of whom I knew too. Through a hanging purple cloth there lay a tiny kitchen and bathroom. Music softly played, I disremember what.
Kai I knew vaguely, Adam not at all. Kai was dangerous, so rumour said, but he seemed quiet enough at that moment, gurning and drumming his fingertips upon his knee. As Stacy and Adam began writhing on the bed, Esme started whispering again in my ear.
‘Look,’ I said quietly. ‘I think you need somebody else.’
She glanced at me, put off her guard.
‘Because I think somebody else would treat you better. I don’t think I can give you what you want.’
‘But of course you can,’ she purred and commenced nibbling at my neck.
I couldn’t quite think of the words. She was fairly oblivious to what I was saying anyway. When she went to the toilet Kai looked over at me from his side of the bed, smoking a cigarette in a hard manner, his blue-eyed glare softened a little by the drugs.
‘You want a pill?’
‘No money, mate.’
‘I can splash you. If you want.’
I looked at my phone, the last bus had gone.
Later someone turned off the lights, though the music carried on, and Esme and I lay down, Kai next to us. Soft moans and grunts whimpered over from Stacy’s bed. In the dark I felt Esme’s hot lips brush against my own and the insistent, hormonal rush of the ecstasy took over as I met her with a fluttering lust; hummingbird kisses, my caresses traversing her supple back, down over her taut thighs. One of her hands was playing with the nape of my neck, her other upon the small of my back. When Kai slid his hand down into my pants and started tugging on my penis I began to plant kisses on his head too.
Suddenly Stacy’s strident voice echoed through the room.
‘What are you lot doing over there?!’
I climbed out of bed, went through to the kitchen, and drew the cloth behind me. The two of them could sleep together if they wanted. Stacy had left a nearly full pack of Marlboros on the side counter, so I pulled one out and lit it. It wasn’t long after that, as I was sitting on one of the tiny stools, smoking and gazing at the linoleum floor, that Kai followed me into the room. Esme had passed out, he said.
We smoked in silence for a bit, both in our boxers.
‘I’m bi-sexual,’ he said. ‘If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.’
I nodded along. He wouldn’t quite meet my eyes.
‘Are you bi then,’ he ventured, ‘as well?’
‘I’m not bi mate,’ I said. ‘I’m gay.’
He drew in a pensive drag of cig, blew out a long plume.
‘You don’t like girls at all then?’
‘I like girls,’ I said, feeling the ecstasy talking. ‘But it’s not there, it’s not here –’ I touched my heart with my fist ‘– you know. I mean, I could probably get married and have kids and all that shit in ten years’ time, but it wouldn’t be true, it wouldn’t be real. It’s boys I’m gonna fall in love with, I know that.’
I was being a bit extravagant because of the drugs, so I quietened to await a response. He drummed his fingers upon his knee.
‘Have you, like, been in love with a boy then?’
‘My best mate,’ I said, gazing at him evenly. ‘But he’s straight.’
‘Sounds pretty shit.’
‘And all I wanted to do was be with him, you know. Like… like you lean into them and all you can feel is the heat from their body, and you can’t think of anything else.’
He took a breath as if to speak and then seemed to think better of it. I waited again.
‘It hurts,’ he said, tipping his fag ash into a half-drunk glass. ‘Don’t it.’
‘Yeah,’ I smiled at him bitterly. ‘Yeah, it does.’
We talked more, unfolded ourselves – guardedly at first and then more eloquently as we relaxed to each other’s presence. We smoked the entire pack of cigarettes. Then we got into the shower together. He wouldn’t kiss me at first, until he made some kind of proud comment about how his penis was slightly bigger than mine and I laughed and made him meet my lips. When the drugs finally wore off and fatigue set in we crept through the gloom into an ante-room leading to the upstairs house and slept arm in arm on a couch. When I awoke his hand lay on my chest, warm and raising slightly with each of my breaths.
It was the summer before I was to go to university, I was eighteen and relatively free. I saw Kai twice more, but neither time was sexual. Once to buy drugs, and once when he was with his new girlfriend. He made sure to touch her ass conspicuously as he walked off, and mentally I laughed, feeling an extraordinary weariness at the world. Esme and I hit every club we could, getting thrown out of Lakota for taking too much MDMA, dancing in Level every Wednesday, slamming it around town all the weekend through. She glowed and glittered in the heat-soaked streets, we drank cheap wine in underground pubs, downed beer in the harbour-front bars, caroused our way through the carnivals and gigs.
‘People don’t understand,’ she said, illuminated by moonlight, sepulchral and alluring, as we tripped on tequila, weed and red-crystal mandy on the swings of a playground in Pill. ‘If we die, we’ll die as we lived. We lived fast, we died young.’
I laughed and she kissed me, and we swung the swing harder still.
I told my old best friend I had been in love with him; that was why I had acted like such a cunt. He said thank you. As I smoked a cigarette alone afterwards on the top floor of a multi-storey carpark and snorted Ketamine from a key, I wondered if Kai had done the same by now.
Then the summer suddenly fell in shrouds around me. University came with more friends, drink and drugs. Stacy rang me in the first term as I was lying in my room.
‘I know what you did with Kai…’
Somewhere I couldn’t be bothered to play this game.
‘Yeah, I’m gay, Stacy.’
‘I know that! You were never interested in my boobs! I can’t believe you did it in my shower! Have you told Esme?’
‘No. Don’t tell her.’
She giggled excitedly, I didn’t put a great deal of faith in her trust. I realised she must have spoken to Kai about it.
‘Did he tell you?’ I asked. ‘What did he say?’
‘He said he really didn’t like it. He said it was horrible.’
I tried to laugh it off but Stacy’s note of self-congratulatory satisfaction hurt too much. I hung up on her, and went and sat on the window-pane, leaning my head on the glass. Outside people laughed, drank and smoked on the grass. I felt, for a while, incomparably lonely.
I forgot about him most of the time. It was only the boys I met and slept with in the gay bars and clubs who occasionally brought him ricocheting back to insistent life. They were lukewarm and milky, seeped in artifice, compared to what I remembered to be his angry truth.
Around November, as the snow was falling on the spires and in the woods, Esme came to visit. Her rabid gypsy exoticism seemed like home amongst all those middle-class safety nets and I was joyful to see her. We immediately bought a couple of grams to celebrate our reunion, spending the night drinking and snorting our way through the bars. She made a spectacular impression of devilish fantasia on everyone I introduced her to.
We screamed as we ran through the snow under the dark treetops. ‘We’ll never be parted,’ she said, her breath as steam, and we fell to the hard blanketed forest floor.
Huddled into one small room with twenty other people and embraced in the snaring wreaths of cannabis smoke, I left her in one corner. When I returned she was kissing another boy.
Later she found her way back to my room and climbed into my bed, where she started nuzzling at me. I turned to my side, I had never been so furious.
We didn’t speak when she left.
After Christmas we met in a bar in Bristol; I arrived a little late and she’d already bought me a beer. She was wearing white, looking like a bird trapped in a cage, and she smiled warily as I sat down.
‘One thing I have to know,’ she said, gazing at me intently. ‘Why was I the last to know?’
Clichés and platitudes soared through my mind, but I felt she needed an approximation of the truth.
‘Because I think I wanted to keep you.’
She laughed, her brown cheeks becoming tinged with a faint pink. I didn’t think I’d ever seen her blush before, maybe she was angry.
‘I’ve been sleeping around a lot since you sent me that letter,’ she said.
‘So have I.’
‘I’ve kinda started seeing someone else.’
‘You deserve it.’
‘I’ve had an abortion.’
‘No, but would you be sad?’
‘We wouldn’t have been good parents.’
We smiled at one another, genuinely now.
‘Are you seeing anyone then?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Because I don’t like anyone.’
‘What about that boy?’
I took a large swig of my beer. I could work out the route of information – Stacy would have taken a great sadistic pleasure in conveying the news to a rival – but I was taken aback that she mentioned it now.
‘How long have you known?’
‘Since before I came up to visit.’
‘But you never said anything.’
‘It was never the right moment.’
‘Is that why you kissed that boy?’
‘You were so jealous.’
‘I’m a jealous person.’
She surged up, spilling amber liquid all over the table. She was like some siren of the cliffs, an Amazonian warrior, as her hair coiled and tumbled about her face.
‘How can you be jealous of someone you don’t even want to fuck?!’
I stood up to meet her. I think, secretly, we were both finding an element of perverse enjoyment in this as the other tables stared. We shared a taste for theatrics.
‘Because we were together and, I guess, you were mine, weren’t you?’
She stared at me, then shook her head and smirked bitterly.
We sat down again; she got out a pack of cigarettes and chucked me one. As we lit them, I relinquished some of my dearly held vulnerability to her.
‘It’s hard, you know. I can’t make friends with straight guys anymore. Not when they know. Not real friends – there’s a gulf, kind of.’
‘Maybe that’s just you.’
‘Maybe. I feel like I’ve lost something though.’
‘So what’s happened with him? Kai?’
‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’
‘I’ve kissed him as well, you know.’
I blew a plume of smoke in her face, she stuck her middle finger up at me.
‘I saw him the other day actually,’ I confessed. ‘On Whiteladies Road. He was standing outside a bar with a friend having a cigarette. We clocked one another, he looked at me and then he looked away. He went to look back again and then stopped himself.’
‘Did you say anything?’
‘Coward,’ she laughed.
The weird world rolled on, years came and went, I graduated and was back in Bristol for the summer when Kai came up and asked me for a light outside a pub. We stared at one another, as I lit his cigarette for him, and cupped my left hand around the flame to protect it from the wind. He also sought to protect the flame, so that, for an instant, my fingers were embraced within his touch.
I felt like speaking. He stood next to me, making sure that the fag was lit, and dragging on it. Then he mumbled ‘Cheers’, looked at me one last time, and I let him walk away.
The friend I was with commented that he was a violent drunk who’d got thrown out of all the clubs in Bristol for fighting or causing trouble. I thought I understood.
Esme got arrested shortly after this for attempting to smuggle seventy pills into Bestival. It was enough to put her in jail but she pulled out every trick in her considerable book, oscillated between seductive flirtation and floods of victimised tears with the male police officers and got away with a caution for ‘possession with intent to sell’. She rang me shortly after and said she needed to get the fuck out of this country so we travelled together to Avignon in the south of France, to stay with friends for a theatre festival.
Under a vine-leafed trellis we smoked cheap French cigarettes and drank two-euro red wine from a plastic bottle, as the cicadas chirped and the day’s heat rolled and wrapped itself about us in the night air. Long after everyone else had gone to bed we stayed up drinking and talking. Esme had another boyfriend who she didn’t really like.
‘What about you? Are you seeing anybody?’
I sighed, a little uncomfortably.
‘No, not really. I was, for a while. But I didn’t like him much.’
‘Even if you don’t like them you’re gonna have to start having some proper relationships soon, you know. You’re not gonna be this young and beautiful forever. Before you know it you’ll just be a drug-addled old alcoholic.’
She put her bare feet up on my knee, leant her head back to blow out indigo smoke into the star-filled sky. She’d painted her toenails orange.
‘I think I might be a bit mental,’ I said.
‘Because I still think about him – Kai, you know. This boy I slept with once four years ago is still in my head. And I don’t know why.’
She narrowed her eyes at me.
‘Fucking hell. And you never talk to him.’
‘It’s not like that –’
‘What is it like then?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t explain.’
‘You’ve got to talk to him.’
‘You know when Stacy told me about you two, she also said he’d came out as gay and got a boyfriend.’
I sat up, her feet falling off my lap.
‘Esme, are you lying? Are you telling me the truth?’
‘That’s what she said. But now he’s back in the closet. Weird, eh?’
I must have looked consternated because she relented a little.
‘She actually said he asked about you, as well, when she saw him. And he said that he’d really enjoyed the sex. She was very fucking happy to tell me that.’
‘She told me he’d hated it.’
Esme gestured flamboyantly and spilt some of her drink.
‘That’s Stacy for you. Bitch.’
A year later Esme and I went to Secret Garden Party. I held her in my arms and we swigged vodka straight from the bottle as we watched the procession of fire swirlers around the lake at night, eventually setting alight the great azure dragonfly that had been constructed in the middle of the water. As it flamed up in great crackles of orange and gold, fireworks soared from the immolation, lighting the sky with bursts and fountains of raining light. Esme leant her head back on my shoulder and I saw two tears silently streaming down her face. I gently kissed her on the cheek.
We’d both taken acid and were separated in the crowds later. As I was trying to find her on a small hill above the main stage, throngs of chattering people milling about me, Kai materialised out of the crowd. He hugged me.
‘Alright mate!’ he shouted. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Kai –’ I said. ‘Kai – how the fuck are you? I haven’t seen you for years.’
‘Yeah, I’m alright,’ he said, looking at the ground and into the crowd. ‘Getting married now, aren’t I? Got a kid on the way.’
He wouldn’t look at me. The combination of the vodka and acid was making it hard to think coherently but I knew what I wanted to say.
‘Kai, I’ve thought about you sometime, since that time at Stacy’s.’
He laughed nervously, smoked, and looked out to the left.
‘Yeah, most people do, mate.’
‘Have you ever thought about me?’
He looked at me, straight at me, that old blue-eyed glare.
‘No, mate, never.’
As he turned to leave, I asked:
‘What about your best friend? Did you ever tell him?’
‘That you were in love with him?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, mate.’
When I found Esme later I told her I’d seen him.
‘Really?’ she asked. ‘I’m seeing electronic butterflies in that tree right now.’
‘He was there. It wasn’t part of the trip.’
‘What happened? Did you kiss?’
‘No,’ I said slowly. ‘No, I don’t think he’s quite who I thought he was.’
She threw back her head, laughed in elation and then impulsively kissed me on the side of the mouth.
‘Most people never are.’