Things I Wish I Said
I’m not going to be boring and list the things I like about you.
I’ll just say this.
I like your face. As faces go, it is not a particularly memorable one. There’s no one feature that stands out. You could be any age, really, between 22 and 38. You don't look especially interesting or especially like anyone famous.
But none of this matters because I no longer really see you as you are.
We meet on a Sunday afternoon.
You are late. We cross the road and walk towards the park together. The park is much closer to where you live than where I live. This is the fifth time we have seen each other over the course of six weeks, and each time we have moved further East across London towards your flat. I am hopeful, this time, we will actually reach it.
As we walk into the park, your book drops out of your jacket pocket onto the street. You laugh, a bit embarrassed, and pick it up. We both look at it for a few moments. There is a white label on the front cover with 79p written in biro. This is a fair price. It's black, with THE SIRENS OF TITAN written across the front in 1970s graphic writing. The lettering on the inside is tiny. I decide that it is charming you are reading this book, more charming that you brought it, and even more charming still that you dropped it onto the ground.
It’s a spooky book, you say.
I smile, rifling through it, trying to say something funny, but nothing comes.
I can put it in my backpack, if you like, I say back.
You nod. I tuck it away and zip it up.
We walk. You say the canal goes all the way from East London to Islington. I ask if you’ve walked the whole route and you say no.
You haven’t lived, I joke.
You laugh even though this isn’t very funny.
I’d hate to live on a canal, I say, looking through the windows into the houseboats, even though truthfully there's something I envy about the bright scenes inside.
If you live in London you have to live in London properly. You can’t hide away on a houseboat like you're living in a bloody fairytale.
Yeah, I agree, laughing. You have to just get up every day and deal with London like the rest of us.
Yeah! you laugh. Imagine a cold night like this. Going back to cuddle up in your fucking barge.
You get falsely angry when we have these kind of ridiculous conversations, and there’s something I like about it, like we're in on some conspiracy that no one else would understand.
We buy teas from a weird little cafe on the water with bright fairy lights everywhere. All of the staff are somewhere along the continuum of plastered. All of the other people in the cafe are very attractive. They pay no attention as we sit down.
We argue about what percentage of people in London are good-looking. Your number is lower than mine. We talk about road trips in America which leads to strange Christmas rituals which leads to family. We talk a lot about my family and not very much about yours. The conversation is easy and natural. If I’m honest, I can't remember a time I allowed myself to be so visible to a man, but there are some places you won't go, certain subjects you won't touch.
When the bill comes, there's a £13 cocktail that neither of us ordered. You laugh about this with the waiter who was, you'll remember, the second most drunk on staff that day.
That happens all the time, the waiter says, something about the position of the buttons on the till.
How funny! you say. Poor you.
Literally happens about twice a day. You wouldn’t believe the fights people have about it.
The waiter puts his hand on your right shoulder as he laughs. Someone told me once that you can judge a man's character by how nice he is to waiters in a restaurant.
As the waiter takes the receipt out of the machine, I try to imagine the relationship he thinks you and I have. I try to imagine how we look together to other people but it feels a bit like trying to imagine how English sounds to people who don't understand it.
When we leave the cafe, I turn right, to continue North. You suggest, instead, we head back the way we came, down the canal again towards the station. I agree, of course, and follow you.
Darkness has fallen, now, and it’s very cold. The clocks have just gone back and so night hits fast, out of nowhere. The canal has become eerie and unkind. There are no Sunday strolling crowds any more, only us and houseboats and silence. I can't see my feet, which makes me feel sick. As we walk under the bridge, I reach out to touch the side so I don't fall over. You look back to make sure I am okay.
After the bridge, I take your arm but you don’t take mine. It feels awkward and lopsided. I drop it after a few paces, wishing I'd never made the gesture.
I start to need the toilet. Once we reach civilisation again, I look eagerly at every bar we pass, providing a running commentary of my quest.
Are you the kind of person who could just walk into a pub and use the toilet? You say.
Why wouldn't I? I say back, confused by the question.
When we arrive back at your bike, you kiss me, very lightly, on the mouth. You are making movements to suggest this is it, that I should go one way and you should go the other. All signs point to one conclusion: our nice day out has come to its natural and timely end.
I just… like… I don’t really understand. Yeah. I don’t really understand.
The words make no sense. It doesn’t matter. We both know exactly what I mean.
I just - um - I don’t think I’m in a good place to get into a relationship right now, you say.
I look down at the floor. The world becomes fuzzy and full of water.
Are you okay? You say.
No, I reply. I’m not okay.
No. I’m not okay. At all.
It feels good, I am not afraid to admit, to twist the knife in this moment.
Oh God. Don’t say that. You’re a catch! you say, with a horrible brightness.
Your words fall to the ground with a clunk. I'm not a massively murdery person but I think about killing you then, properly. I think about picking you up and throwing you into traffic.
I start to cry. Not enough that it's satisfying and cathartic, but not so little that it’s a proper one-tear, movie-star cry either. A sort of lukewarm combination of the two springs out of my face.
Great, I say. That’s fantastic. I’m so glad you think I’m a catch.
I think about a huge cumbersome haddock. I think about the way fish, once caught, just flap
around gasping as they begin to die.
Oh god. I didn't mean. I can’t believe - I can’t believe you fancy me. You’re talented, and incredibly beautiful. And clever and nice.
Lists of my good qualities, I have come to know, is the beginning of the end, the swan song of a budding potential love, the fat lady taking her position on stage to sing.
How do you know I'm talented?
He doesn't know what to say then.
Have you ever actually read anything I’ve ever written? I ask, knowing the answer.
I just want to - you start.
Please don’t say you just want to be my friend, I snap back.
You look down.
Sorry, you say. I thought we were friends.
Do you kiss your friends? I ask back.
Can’t men and women be friends? You ask me.
I look at you, speechless.
Sorry, you say.
London rushes past us, continuing on, as though what you have said and what I have said doesn't matter. Men flash by on bikes. A homeless woman talks about politics somewhere to our left. I still need to pee. I try to ignore it. I wonder if I’ll wet myself on the street. I wonder what you would say if that happened.
I know, deep down, that there is so much I want that you could never give. I want you to be extraordinary, I want you to swallow me up in entire, take me as I am, ask nothing. I know you are not bad. But of course I also know that you are just a person, just a mortal human person, who gets up and gets through the day and makes mistakes and doesn’t look especially like anyone famous, and this is something you could never give.
We are just two people, with a relationship for which the world has no definition, standing in the way of passers-by, who had something a bit good for a tiny bit of time, who will both go our separate ways and live our lives and never see each other again.
Maybe in a year, you offer, like compensation.
You’re just saying words now. Whatever words there are now will be the last words there will ever be. The silence is full. We both know the sentiment it contains. You will never be enough for me and I will always be too much for you.
I'm just - not in the right place for a relationship right now. I have so much family stuff going on. And I’ve just started this new job. So it’s like - it’s...difficult.
I say nothing.
Like everything’s sort of perfectly balanced in my life right now, and one change - you know - it could ruin everything.
But isn't life about taking risks and seeing what could... I don’t know. There’s no point standing here and persuading you I guess.
It’s sort of awkward. Neither of us know how to end the conversation. We both stand there, trying to think of a way out. If we were in an American high school drama, this would be the moment for my killer exit line while I swagger off stage left. But we are not in an American high school drama. We are in Bethnal Green and it’s drizzling and my need for the toilet has become urgent. I'd somehow like to talk more, to squeeze out every last drop of you, to hurt you as much as I possibly can, to make an impact, but - really - there is nothing left to say.
So yeah, I say. Guess that’s - it.
Sorry I made it all about me.
You lean forward to give me a goodbye hug, and I want to punch you and make a wound. But I also want to kiss you something silly, like one of those proper, risky, old-timey kisses, like the famous photo of the soldier and the sweetheart on V Day. But instead I hug you back. It's a wet squib of a hug. This is how we part ways.
I feel the old familiar bruise forming a black mark against my chest. And I know, as it has done a million times before, the bruise will become blue and then yellow and then no colour at all. But something inside of me has hardened.
I leave you then. I still need the toilet so I do a weird sort of half-run, half-walk to the old man pub over the road. I walk straight to the toilet, trying to look nonchalant in case you're watching me leave.
In hindsight, I needn't have worried.
I somehow think, if I'd said the exact right words in the exact right order, everything might have been different.
As I wash my hands, my head is full of things I wish I’d said. Each line is more seering than the last.
I’m going to forgive you, and I’m going to forget you.
Do you know what? You're not a bad guy. You’re worse than that. You’re a coward. I'm not
even angry with you. I pity you.
My friends were right about you.
You're not big. You're not clever.
This. THIS doesn’t happen very often.
Big mistake. HUGE.
There's nothing special about you.
There's something so special about you.
On the train home, I find your book in my bag. I think about whether I will keep the book. I think about whether I will read the book. Just because I can. I look at the book and decide it looks boring, cheap and pretentious. I think about a ceremonial burning ritual of the book, the sole thing I have that belongs to you, in my paved garden. I think about sending it to you in the post in the most beautiful package I could manage, with petals and tissue paper and fucking streamers, the whole nine yards. I decide this would be above my price range. I think about ripping out every page. I think about writing my own book on your book, between the lines, like some act of patriarchal rebellion. I decide to leave the book on the Central Line, the absolute worst tube line, as some kind of symbol to the universe. Let The Sirens of Titillation - or whatever it’s called - languish in some Lost Property office. Let it gather dust.
I change trains at Bank.
A handsome, middle-aged man, six foot three and more hair than you, races after me. I look at him, wondering if he is The One. Then I see the bloody Sirens of Titan, held aloft in his right hand, like some great prize from the underworld.
Hey sorry - you um left your book, he says.
And I say
And we both just sort of look at the book for a few seconds.
Then, as the doors begin to close, I run off the train with it.
When I get home, my friends say all the right things over Facebook chat. Gay, says one, obviously just so insecure says a second. Fucking mentally ill says another, I mean you are a BEAUTIFUL PERFECT HEAVEN-SENT ANGEL WHO TURNS EVERYTHING YOU TOUCH TO ACTUAL GOLD and he's a human pillow.
I don’t blame them for saying these things. They are saying the only things they can possibly say, they are trying to help, they are trying to be kind. But - the truth is - they don’t know the first thing about you. They’ve never met you. They are playing a part written by someone else, reacting to the part of ‘Stupid Young Boy #5’ that has been written for you.
While their messages differ, the refrain from all of them is the same: I can't believe how crap men are. I can't believe how crap they're allowed to be.
They all agree that I should run a bath, I should eat ice cream, I should treat myself. I order a Deliveroo. I choose a burger and a side salad. What is handed to me, twenty minutes later, by the guy on the motorcycle is oddly heavy. I hold the weight in my hands for a couple of seconds, trying to process it. I look inside the package. It is, quite clearly, a whole chicken, for four people. There is nothing else inside the package.
This isn’t what I ordered, I say. The driver ignores me and, instead, acts like he’s given me a great gift.
Enjoy it, he says, with a wink.
But - it's not in any way what I ordered? I say again, stupidly, deciding this is a battle I have chosen to fight.
Lots of food. Lots and lots and lots of food. Enough for a feast! he says, and put his helmet on to drive off into the night.
I lug the whole chicken back to my flat. I sit, on my kitchen table, dressed only in a bathrobe, hacking at the whole chicken and crying. I fall in love with the gloom of this moment. I look at my own Facebook profile, trying to see myself as you do, trying so desperately to understand.
The next morning it is Monday and it drizzles. As I walk to the tube station, a man who is scraping leaves off the pavement says to me, brightly: morning!
I look at him. I’m slightly in shock that he said something, that he broken the unwritten code of grim, drizzly, London commuting: you don’t speak. You don’t say things.
Morning! he says again, his kindness springing towards me out of nowhere, undeserved, apropos of nothing at all.
Something about the phrase is exactly right - it’s a morning, another morning, neither good nor bad in itself. Because, whoever I was the night before and whatever I said or didn’t say, morning happens and to other people, I just look like another person, bracing myself against the cold.
Every bone in my body is telling me that there is something very wrong, very deeply wrong, that sends people pressing ‘eject’ as soon as they recognise it. Every calculation I do in my brain leads to the same conclusion. But I stand there and make a decision. I decide I’m going to fight against logic, against sense, against better judgement, and keep trying.
Morning, I say back. It’s the first thing I’ve said all day and my voice sounds broken and husky.
I walk back towards the station, for the millionth time, trying to think about the day ahead, trying to believe that the words you said and the words I said don’t matter.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by Helen Walker