It is the end of the dinner party. My wife leaves the room to fetch coffee from the kitchen. Her friends talk loudly and laugh in quick, successive bursts at the other end of the table. At my end, a professional couple talk literature between themselves. I am left silent and alone next to the woman I love.
She is pale, with a neat, black bob and dangling silver earrings. She carries a little endearing weight around the face and sometimes snorts when she laughs. I find every inch of her attractive, even down to the little orange spots on her behind. I long to make contact with her, to touch her or talk to her, but though we sit beside each other, we are as distant as stars.
I catch her watching me through the corner of her eyes. When I meet her gaze she looks away. I look around at the other guests; they are completely absorbed in their own interactions. I look toward the kitchen. I can hear the kettle beginning to boil. I fix my eyes straight ahead and talk quietly.
“Hold my hand.”
She looks across at me. “What?”
I know she is frowning. “Why?” she asks.
I look at her. “Just hold my hand.”
Her eyes grow wide and round. They are sad, empty basins I can barely stand to look at. I imagine my own eyes must look the same to her: stark and desperate. Then I feel her fingers wrap around mine under the table. They are soft and clammy like a child’s. My own shake nervously. I take hold of her hand with a firm grip. The smell of freshly-poured coffee reaches my nostrils from the kitchen. I feel time slipping away with her fingers. I could speak to her, or throw down my cards and kiss her or run away with her and be free to make love to her tonight, but I don’t. Just feeling the skin of her palm against mine has to be enough.
My wife comes through the door with a tray of steaming coffee cups. I hold on tightly to my lover’s fingers. She tries to pull away, but I won’t allow it. My wife places the tray on the table. I try desperately to keep holding my lover’s hand, but she yanks it away violently. It knocks against the table leg, causing the coffee cups to clink. My eyes shoot up towards my wife. She does not appear to notice. I clear my throat and shift in my chair. All of a sudden, my muscles seem to cry out for movement. I feel them trying to force me out of the room. I push back my chair and rise to my feet.
I catch my wife’s eyes as I stand. I am surprised by what I see. Her look is vague and wistful like my lover’s. I only see a snapshot of emotion, but it is painful and frozen. In that split-second I see every doubt, every regret, every could-have-been, should-have-been, is, was and will be. I only see a short, impassioned glimpse, but it is stark and stirring all the same. I look away.
You Touch Me
It is too cold in this bar. Every time the door swings open, a breeze comes in. My friends have noticed it too; most of them have put their jumpers back on. I didn’t bring a jumper out this evening, I didn’t fancy carrying one. Now my arms are covered in goose bumps.
I sit on a wonky barstool, my elbow resting on the bar behind me. One of my friends, perhaps the best friend I have made since I arrived in this city, sits beside me. The rest of our group stands in a semicircle around us, chatting in deep, male voices and laughing loudly. I am quiet and contemplative on my barstool. I have only known these people for a few weeks. A couple of days ago I realized why I feel so apart from them. They never touch each other. Not unless they have to. There are no slaps on the back, no handshakes and no hair ruffles. These are not the kind of men to touch, or be touched by. They walk like real men: self-affirming, upright. I don’t feel like this kind of man.
I notice the bare skin of my friend’s arm. His arm is resting limply on his leg. It is within inches of mine. I move my arm closer to his. I do it subtly, he can’t notice. I feel tense and excited. I move it closer. The hairs on my arm stand on end. They are drawn to his. I look away and let my arm drop towards him. I feel nothing. I look down. His arm has moved and my hidden break for a connection has been foiled. I have missed. I wonder if his movement was intentional, if he had noticed me trying to touch him. I doubt it. I hope he didn’t. I don’t want to give myself away.
My need to be touched gains momentum.
As I shift my weight slightly, my stool wobbles. It gives me an idea. I glance across at the friend standing to my left. He is a short, stocky lad with muscular arms. He is perfect for my plan. I rock a little on my stool and prepare myself. Then I rock suddenly to one side and let the legs of the stool buckle underneath me. The stool tips towards my friend and I fall. As I fall, he sidesteps. I crash onto the floor. My friends cheer and no one helps me up, but I can see in their eyes that they are not being vindictive. I stand up and fake a smile.
Behind my forced smile is anger. I will be touched. I stand and make a final attempt at contact.
I walk quickly through the group and try to brush shoulders with someone, but they all move aside. As I leave the circle, a tall, skinny boy with a shaven head blocks my path to the toilet. A new idea comes to my mind. I only have a second to decide whether I want to go through with it. The rowdy sounds around me, the smell of stale lager and the taste of salted peanuts in my mouth fade to nothing. All I have is the boy in front of me and the electricity in my fingers. One second. I will be touched. The boy looks at me as if to question why I am still in front of him. I answer him. I raise my fist and punch the stranger square in the face. I don’t smack him too hard; I don’t really want to hurt him. The boy falls down. The first thing I feel is the sting in my knuckles. I see the boy is bleeding. Then I hear the commotion. I stand still as the boy’s friends rush over from the other side of the bar. I wince and let them give it to me. The first boy hits me hard in the face. I take it gladly. I keep my arms by my sides and fall back. My short, stocky friend slips both arms under my armpits and holds me. I let him take my weight in his big arms. More of my friends rush in front of me and hold off the stranger’s gang. The lad who holds me helps me to my feet. His arms are still on my chest. Another friend holds my arm. Another has a hand over my shoulder. I am no longer cold. I feel the blood pulse in my temples. My friends’ fingers are cool and refreshing on my shirt and skin. They hold me back from fighting. But I do not want to fight. I have no need to fight now. My knuckles still sting and the bruise on my cheek hurts like hell, but for the first time in weeks, I feel satisfied.
The madness and confusion continues all around me. I stand still and absorb my friends’ hands all over my body.
I Touch Myself
I stand in front of the first installation of the gallery and adjust my glasses.
It is a tall, white box with a small video screen set into it at chest height and a mirror at head height. There is one image on the video screen. It makes me uneasy.
The screen shows a man masturbating in the desert. He kneels on the sand and strokes his penis slowly. I scratch my shoulder and turn to see if anyone else is in the gallery. I see no one.
I look up at the mirror. My face looks nervous and a little guilty. The flush in my face tingles just under the skin. I rub my red cheeks anxiously.
I look back at the screen. The man is still masturbating, more vigorously now. He has no body hair and nothing is hidden. I readjust my glasses. The camera remains unmoved. There is nothing else to look at, except for my face in the mirror.
I check over my shoulder again, then lean forward and strain my eyes to catch the expression on the man’s face. As I do, the image zooms quickly to the man’s erection. I jump back. The screen forces me to look back up to the mirror.
I look horrified. So easily embarrassed. But I have to stay.
“You enjoying the exhibition?”
I jump out of my skin at the sudden voice behind me. I almost fall over. The newcomer puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
“You all right there?”
I turn my head to look at them. My heart is racing. It is a man, a young bohemian with weak stubble and a little black hat, probably a student. I’m not sure what to say to him. I look back to where I was looking. It’s the exhibition. I have to keep looking now.
“What do you think?”
I fiddle with my collar for a second, then shake my head and shrug. The words don’t come.
“I’m not sure what it’s about myself,” says the student.
I’m not sure either. The man in the desert continues to taunt me.
“Is it aesthetics without commentary, or a commentary on aesthetics?”
I have nothing clever to say. I just keep looking at the screen and keep longing to be able to leave. The man on the screen is cumming as I do. A commentary on aesthetics…
The man stays put in front of the screen and I hear the sound of his fingernails scratching the hair on his head as I walk away.
Joe Bedford writes fiction and reviews for literary magazines.