My Love Back
Updated: Dec 4, 2018
The name of Safi’s husband flashed onto her phone and the world stopped for a moment.
The call had disrupted one of her daily work-time daydreams about him. Saf felt something uncanny had happened, as though she had summoned him with her mind. She stared at his name on her iPhone with such a giddy intensity she almost forgot to click ‘accept’. But she did. And out came Frankie’s tired, crackly voice, as if by some miracle.
“I’ve missed you”, he said.
“You have - you have no idea”, Safi responded, grasping around for words.
“I’ve got good news”, he said. “They’ve put me on leave. For 24 hours. I’ll be there on Saturday.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“You’re right. I’m joking,” he responded, “bye.”
“NO!” she howled, laughing.
“I’m just teasing. Listen - I do actually have to go. But I’ll be back with you soon. I promise”.
“Don’t worry. This is good”, he said. “This is a good thing”.
Saf heard the tiny automated click. She stared at her stupid, ugly iPhone 6S, as though all the frustrations and confusions were its fault. She announced who had called to the desks immediately surrounded hers. Her colleagues smiled, agreed it was good news, and went back to looking at their computers.
Saf chewed her lip for a second. She ran to the toilet and rang Nancy. She would usually text rather than call, but she wanted to hear herself say the words again, to let herself relive the feeling again, make it tangible and complete in her mind.
“I can’t make it to your drinks thing this weekend”, Saf said. “I’m sorry”.
Nancy made a guttural sound of disapproval in her throat, breathing out very heavily.
“Fuck’s sake,” she said. “You’re such a flake these days”.
“I know. I’m shit”, Saf responded. “But it’s cos, like, Frank’s on his way back. They let him on leave!”
“Ugh. I’m so jealous. I hope you have shit sex”.
Saf laughed, pleased by the feigned bitterness in Nancy’s voice.
“We will. I promise”.
Saf hung up quickly. She started making arrangements.
There was a lot for her to do that week. She enjoyed, in the time between work and bed, having a project. On Tuesday, she cleaned the flat from top to bottom, reaching into all the hidden crevices she usually ignored. Mostly, she would stuff everything into two large plastic boxes under her bed, but this time she actually made things cleaner. On Wednesday, she introduced organising systems to her draws. She watered the house plants, she polished the cabinets, she tidied the books on the side of her bed. She bought beautiful, expensive flowers. On Thursday, she went to Oxford Street after work and bought the first item that made her gasp: a long, elaborate dress, covered with sequins and gemstones, the kind of dress too glamorous for someone with a life like hers, who never went anywhere or did a thing. But Saf didn’t mind. She wanted the kind of dress people would say things about. She bought a new shade of lipstick she’d never tried before. She covered her face with expensive foundation, every forgotten corner, so he would have no choice but to notice, if not her then at least the effort she had made.
On Friday, Saf bought everything she needed for Frankie’s favourite meal (beef bourguignon with roast potatoes) from Waitrose, and nice wine from the actual wine shop where the sommeliers pronounced everything properly. She winced at the price and tried not to think about it.
By the time Saturday crawled around, Saf and her flat looked as good as they ever had and ever could. Saf lived alone in a basic one-bedroom on the 12th floor, a place with little natural light that offered nothing out of the ordinary. But tonight, it would be magnificent. It would have atmosphere.
Saf knew she was nothing out of the ordinary either, she too had little natural light, no matter how many products she bought that promised radiance. Saf curled her hair into an updo and fixed it with hairspray. She gazed at her face in the mirror. “Beautiful” might be a bit far, Saf knew, but she at least looked as though she had made an effort. She looked like the kind of wife you could buy in a catalogue. It also occurred to her, briefly, that she looked a bit unhinged.
In the minutes before her husband’s arrival, Saf rearranged things, pottered about, made herself busy, moved everything to be 90 degree angles. Everything gleamed.
Doorbell. Sound of feet on the stairs. A man, a husband, standing blank in her doorway, still in his uniform.
“Sorry it’s so messy”, she said as he walked in.
“Are you joking?” Frankie responded, taking it in, throwing his bag down on the ground.
Safia surveyed him.
“It’s you,” she heard herself say, like a character in an old film, touching his rough face, so different in feeling to her own. Their shared time was unfolding out in front of her like a long rug. She played around with it in her mind as she looked at him, her handsome boy, her very own. His legs were her legs, his face was her face, his eyes were her eyes. When they walked around in public together, women would look at him and then they’d look at her, as though disappointed by the mismatch. She tried not to let this bother her.
Saf scanned her husband. He was still six foot four and broad, still auburn-haired, still delightfully freckled. He still had that cheeky, up-to-no-good look in his eye. But Saf, in the pit of her stomach, had to admit that he looked dimmer, wan, shrunken into himself.
The last time they had seen each other, Safi had over thought the visit too much ahead of time. She’d made it too much of a thing in her mind, trying so desperately hard to be the buxom young sweetheart his army friends saw in the photo next to his bed.
She so wanted to be a perfect, pleasing, adept little creature, offering him no pressure or punishment. But she had overdone it. She had gone too far the other way. Her presence had been needy and quiet and strange.
This time would be different.
Saf threw her arms around him. She wanted to sob.
“What do you want to do - more than anything? What do you want to do?”
“I want to have a bath”, he said, his voice flat with exhaustion as he sank onto the sofa.
“A bath? You want to have a bath?” “You have no idea how much I’ve fantasised about a bath. Washing without a line of sweaty men waiting outside.”
“Oh”, she said. “Well. I’ll run it for you then”.
As the water began to tumble down in its stop-starty way, Safi walked over to her man, her husband, and sat in his lap.
When they had first met, Saf had felt like a delightful little nymph around him, able to please with a single touch or glance. Now, she felt sad and desperate, trying very hard to bend her body in ways it wouldn’t go. Saf was not one of those women who naturally gave off the pheromones of sex. She was jolted and angular, trepidatious and unsure. Frankie, by contrast, had a god-given talent for being, for floating in and out of situations with ease. He knew what to say. People liked him, they gravitated towards him, they asked after him when he wasn’t there. He was the acceptable face of their marriage, translating Saf to the outside world.
People often read her shyness as callous disregard, but really, Saf just didn’t understand what she was supposed to do.
As the two of them sat together in serene silence, Saf panicked. She didn’t know how to make her husband look at her, how to make him more interested in her than his bath or his phone.
Saf ran her fingers through his hair, massaging his head, enjoying the texture of him she was wedded to but could never touch. It was funny to have a man, a big old messy man, in their boring little flat. She was so used to sitting on this sofa and imagining him, and now he was undeniably real, made manifest, taking over.
“Yessss…”, he said as she massaged his scalp, pressing his head onto her chest.
“Do you like that?” she said, laughing.
“You have no idea”, he responded.
“Do you remember when I used to do this? When you were stressed?”
“Of course I do.”
“How did it make you feel?”
He smiled and looked at her.
“It made me feel good”.
“I like that. I like being useful to you”
Saf looked at Frankie’s dark grey rucksack, discarded onto the floor.
“That’s a small bag for such a big man,” she teased, poking his chest.
He breathed out.
“I have to tell you something”
“There’s been a change of plan. I have to leave tonight. They’ve cut it short’’.
“What? Don’t they know I haven’t seen you in four months? It’s ridiculous”, she said, seeing red, feeling like a spoiled, petulant child.
“I know. But I have to go. I have to do what they say.”
“I hate Afghanistan. I hate the army. I hate the other soldiers. I hate the uniform. I hate it all.”
“You can’t hate them”, he said quietly, after a silence.
“I can. I do”, she said.
“So many things have happened to me, Saffy.”
She pulled him towards her.
“What things?” she said.
But he didn’t say anything.
She knew she was the only person in the world he talked to about the way he felt. She so wanted to take some of his burden. She was truly astonished by this man, seeing him afresh. She was astonished by every single thing about him: his back, his thighs, his shins, the thoughts in his head. It was all perfect to her. She held him close, wishing she could absorb his ideas and memories and anxieties into her mind by osmosis, so there was no space between them any more and they were the same person.
“We’ve only got this little bit of time together. Don’t you want to use it? Don’t you want to talk?” she said, surprised and saddened by the kind of words escaping her own mouth.
Saf followed Frankie’s eye and her heart sank. He was looking at the cover of The Economist on the coffee table, moving away from her a little so he could flip through the pages. She tried to hide her give-away gasps of tears.
Don’t be a baby, she told herself. You’re being stupid.
Saf became aware of the running water. She hurried over to stop the tap. She filled the bath with every ablution she could find, until it looked like some terrible colourful potion concocted by a small child. She stared at the bubbles of all sizes and reds and purples and greens for a few moments. She had tried too hard. She had made a mess of it.
“Sorry Franks...I tried to make your bath nice. But it just looks like a disaster. It smells good though. Sort of.”
Frankie laughed. He thanked her. He went into the bathroom. She could hear him gasping with pleasure as he sank into the water. They just existed in separate rooms for a few moments. Saf knew, instinctively, that he needed privacy for a few moments. He needed a room with a closed door.
Safia knew he was in Afghanistan, she knew it was difficult, she knew it was a country that had once been beautiful. But she had no idea what he actually did on a daily basis, who he spoke to, where he slept. When she pictured him there, it was just silly images based on old war films or bits and pieces on Channel 4 news. She had too many questions to even begin.
How could he begin to explain it to her? How could she even begin to understand?
Saf knew she was the only one he talked to. But every time she tried to broach the subject, he would balk, get angry, say it was fine.
“I basically never speak to anyone, you know”, Saf said, through the door.
“Why not? You’ve got so many friends. Nancy, and... What about Mia and Cody? They’d love to see you”
“I don’t know. I hate being with other couples. They don’t understand what it’s like”.
“I think you should make them dinner. Or invite them out for drinks”
“I will. I just don’t feel like it. I just sit here and wait for you.”
Frankie was quiet for a moment.
“I don’t think that’s very healthy”.
Saf got up and walked into the bathroom. She looked at him, soaking, his chest hairs floating up and around. She sat down on the side, drifting her hand through the water.
“What’s up?” he said.
“I thought you’d like it,” she said. “A girl at home just thinking about you”.
“I just want to know you’re having a good time”.
“I am having a good time.”
“Ok. How’s work?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Same crap as usual. They’re still giving me all the boring jobs. I feel like no one ever listens to my suggestions”.
“So talk to them about it”, he said, as though it was the easiest thing in the world.
“We can’t do this”, she said, looking at him very intensely. “This is all the time we have”.
Frankie nodded. He climbed out of the water. He dried himself off and put on clean clothes. He dressed himself slowly, relishing the feeling.
“How is it there? Can you tell me?” said Saf, her voice breaking.
“Don’t say that. Don’t say it’s fine”.
“What do you want me to say?” he said.
“I don’t know. Something real. What do you eat for breakfast? What are your friends like? It’s weird how little we know about each other”.
“I can’t - I can’t even begin,” he said, rubbing the towel through his hair.
“Okay,” she said, looking straight ahead.
They talked for a little while to each other. It was a perfectly pleasant conversation, but there was no joy in it. Frankie, Safia knew, believed her life in a swanky office near Oxford Circus, putting together contracts and sitting through meetings, was a kind of paradise, so he did not want to hear her complain. Safia wanted a sketched outline, at least, of the last four months of his life, but it was the last thing in the world he wanted to offer her.
Eventually, Frankie looked down at his phone to check the time.
“I should probably head off soon”, he said.
“Wait a second”, she said, and picked up her phone. She clicked onto the camera. She selected a filter (“Vivid Warm”) and took a photo of the two of them, smiling together, their faces excited and unwieldy, her head just sticking out over his shoulder. His hair was still wet from the water. They looked happy, silly, attractive, in love. They looked like two people who just fit, who snapped together, the kind of couple who had grown to look more alike over the years. It was exactly the photo she wanted.
“I really have to go now”, he said.
“But we haven’t even -” she started to say. She saw his face and stopped herself.
She kissed him on the mouth, no tongue.
“It’s been great to see you” he said.
“So nice”, she said. “We should do it again”, she joked.
He picked up his bag. He kissed her hand. He walked away. He closed the door without a final glance.
Saf looked around the flat. She looked at the fridge, filled with food he would never eat, the beautiful, electric-blue orchids he would never smell, the perfectly arranged bedspread he would never see. She hurried over to the window, to see if she could watch him walk down the road, but she had missed him somehow, or he had gone the other way.
Saf picked up her phone. She sat down. She went onto Instagram. She uploaded the photo of the two of them with the caption “finally have my love back!” with three heart emojis. She sat back and watched. She didn’t have to do anything else. She knew the likes and effusive comments of support would pour in without hesitation, and she would feel little sharp hits of satisfaction and glee.
And come they did, right on cue. Everything happened exactly as she had wanted it to.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by India Boxall