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Chapter 3
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The street lamps shone through the flimsy fabric of the curtains, tinging the shadowy room in a dull, orange hue. It was three o’clock in the morning and Louise was wide awake.

The previously much fretted-over velvet dress lay in a sad heap on the floor, pointless now it had failed to serve its purpose, Louise’s black strappy sandals carelessly flung on top. She was lying on her side in bed, all wrapped up in her trusty flannel pyjamas again; the plaid ones, that were at least two sizes too big and kept smelling of Nan’s fabric softener, no matter how many times she washed them herself; the ones that smelled —that felt— like home. She was holding one of Tina’s teddy bears to her chest, her chin resting on the fuzzy top of the bear’s head. Fidgeting with the pom-pom on the bear’s nightcap she stared at the bed opposite hers. It was almost garish in its emptiness. Tina was spending the night at David’s…

   Louise pulled Teddy closer. How often? she wondered. How often had Tina and David been together these last couple of weeks? She tried to count the nights her roommate hadn’t slept here, but she couldn’t remember. Louise never used to pay much attention to Tina’s comings and goings. That would be different, from now on…

  Tears welled up again, unstoppable. With a frustrated grunt she turned around and faced the wall, burying her face deep into the bear’s tummy now, as if she could muffle her thoughts, her very emotions, that way. But it was too late. The mental image was forming again; that image of what Tina and David were probably doing, right at this very minute.

  His lips, brushing along her neck. His hands, kneading her breasts. His hips, grinding into hers…

  ‘Oh, God!’ Louise jerked up and sent Teddy flying. He banged against the window, making the curtains flare, then plopped down onto her desk and subsequently onto the floor. In the thin band of unfiltered orange street light coming in through the fresh gap in the curtains, his black doll-eyes stared up at her in hurt confusion. “What have I done wrong?” they seemed to ask, and an irrational spike of guilt toward the inanimate plush toy mingled into Louise’s general despair, convincing her she was somehow the worst person in the entire world. A new and formidable fit of crying took her, transforming her into a blubbering mess for about the twelfth time that night. She pulled up her knees and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, trying to push the tears back in, to will them away again. But it was no good. She hiccupped and groaned and lamented miserably, snot mingling with her tears like she was five years old all over again, and her mother had just dropped her on Nan’s doorstep with nothing but her favourite blanket and a distracted kiss goodbye, her weak, drug-hazed mind already with John or Billy or Greg, or whoever her loser boyfriend had been at the time. Now that had been pain! That had been confusion. Even as a little girl, Louise had decided she was never going to feel that way ever again… And now… She made a pained, helpless sound. How she resented herself for crying! For allowing any man, even David, to reduce her to this. She didn’t recognize herself at all.

  You came out on top of your graduation year. You put the work in, and you won the scholarship for Kingsmore. You’re acing every one of your classes here, even professor Cavelin’s. You can do anything you put your mind to!

  Like win David Brown back.

  The thought was like a little flame. A match, struck in the black depths of her despair.

  ‘Win him back...’ Louise tasted the words, slowly letting them melt on her tongue like pieces of premium chocolate. Technically, she’d never really had him in the first place, but it still sort of felt that way. Like Tina had stolen him from her. Her tears subsided. She snapped a couple of Kleenex out of the box on her night stand and ponderously blew her nose. Crumpling the used hanky into a ball and tossing it aside, she used the second one to wipe her eyes and cheeks, taking her time. Her whole face felt puffy and bruised, but her mind had been set in motion; she was back on familiar ground now. From experience, she had learnt there wasn’t much in this world that wouldn’t yield to a combination of intellect, determination and a proficiency for hard work. Three qualities she knew she possessed. So why shouldn’t she put them to good use here?

  The problem is that I’m so inexperienced. I’m completely out of my depth when it comes to love. That’s what’s making me insecure; too insecure to really flirt with David. He sees me as a little sister. Not as a sexual being.

  She would have to change that. Question was of course: how? Clearly, approaching him like the blushing virgin would be pointless considering he’d fallen for a girl like Tina. If there was anything Louise could conclude from this whole nightmare it was that David liked his women experienced. And Louise’s roommate might have nothing on her when it came to academic achievements, but in matters of the heart Tina was a black belt. Everything about her simply oozed sex.

  I don’t stand a chance against the likes of her.

  Yet.

  Louise narrowed her eyes. If there was one thing she was an expert in, it was in learning. Whatever the topic. After all, how hard could it be? Every dumb animal knew how to fuck. Look at Tina… A snort escaped her. It was weak and shaky; a thick sound from a throat that was still raw from crying, but it almost sounded like laughter. It almost sounded like she was herself, again. Strong, level-headed Louise. The one who knew what she was doing.

  And I will. I’ll do whatever it takes. Anything, to win him back.

  Determination settled in her stomach like a tiger crouching low before the pounce.

  He wanted experienced? Fine. He’d get experienced.

  With a sudden surge of energy, Louise jumped out of bed and plopped down into the revolving chair behind her desk. She flicked on the green library lamp that had been such a find in the Tennsfield yard sale last year, pulled her favourite, super-soft fleece snugly around her shoulders and flipped open her laptop.

 

*

 

‘Where R u???’

  Louise felt a pang of guilt. She had just switched her phone back on, discovering about ten unread messages, all from Jeanie. She had texted her friend last night to warn her she had left the Ball early, and no thanks, very sweet, but Jeanie didn’t need to come by her room to talk, Louise just wanted to be by herself for a while, no need to worry. After which she had killed her phone and forgotten all about it as she sank into a puddle of despair on her bed.

  In the meantime, the despair had been dealt with, but the effects of the sleepless night were still very present.

  Louise blew the steam off her double cappuccino and took a careful sip, groaning with relief as the fragrant caffeine entered her system. Mason’s was a lot cheaper, but after pulling an all-nighter like she just had, coffee at The Pantry was the only way to go. Plus, they made a mean chocolate muffin —extra chunky— for those who liked to top off their caffeine shot with a little extra sugar rush.

  She manoeuvred the bulky ceramic mug back down onto the table, eyeing the muffin that tantalized up at her from a matching side plate, and texted: ‘Having breakfast downtown. Phone died. Sorry!’ A little white lie—that Jeanie of course immediately picked up on.

  ‘BS, Lou. I ws worried sick! Why didn’t u say gbye? I’m alrdy on the train home!’ Followed by a tearful emoji.

  A new guilt pang, stronger this time. Louise had left Glover Hall at the crack of dawn, her only thought avoiding Tina who would inevitably be returning to their shared dorm room at some point to pack for the holidays. The sight of that tart's afterglow was something that would have sent Louise back over the edge for sure. But that meant she had missed Jeanie too, of course. Her friend was heading home for Christmas, just like the vast majority of students at Kingsmore College. Not Louise, though. Unless she wanted to spend the spring semester eating discount marmalade on toast morning, noon and night, she couldn’t afford missing the holiday season in the city.

  ‘Again, so sorry about that!!! Just needed to be alone for a bit. After last night an’ all. Hope you understand…’ She added the teary emoji too, and one that blew a little kiss.

  As she waited while Jeanie typed the reply, Louise picked up the muffin and held it at eye-level. One elbow on the tabletop, she pivoted it around slowly like a jeweller appraising a rare gem. She took a deep breath — vanilla, butter, chocolate — as if to deliberately torture herself, then set the muffin back down again. Not yet.

  ‘Course… Poor Lou,’ Jeanie messaged. ‘Such a shock. That bimbo. Yuk! U all right?’ Two kissy emojis.

  Louise assured her she was.

  ‘Really?’ Jeanie insisted. ‘I mean absolutely positively?’

  ‘U know me, always land on my feet.’ Louise sent a little muscly arm, to show her determination.

  Jeanie buried her under clapping hands and kisses. Then came the question of all questions: ‘What R U gonna do now?’

  Louise sat back for a moment, and let her phone circle over the weathered varnish of the tabletop with the tip of her ring finger.      She took another sip from her coffee. She knew what the answer was, of course —she’d just spent the bulk of last night preparing for it. But she couldn’t tell Jeanie. Not yet, anyway. Her friend was far too sensible a person not to see how crazy Louise’s idea essentially was. Jeanie would immediately go all reasonable on her. And reasonable just wasn’t what Louise needed right now. Reasonable meant being pulled back to the edge of that empty, gaping hole in the middle of her chest, the one she had just managed to clamber out of. Her idea might be crazy, but ironically, crazy was the only thing that was holding her together right now…

  Louise set her coffee down, grabbed her phone and typed with both thumbs: ‘Dunno yet. Will see after the holidays.’

  Luckily, this time, Jeanie didn’t spot the lie. ‘OK. But if u need to talk, I’m here.’

  ‘Thanks, Jeanie-baby. Have a great vacation.’

  ‘U too, Lou-doll.’ Heart heart.

  With a smile, Louise put her phone away. Jeanie’s pep-talk had left her feeling warm inside, even more so than the coffee had. For a while, she just sat staring out of the mullioned window, cradling her cappuccino and taking tiny, absent sips, as she watched people passing by. It was a windy day and it had started to rain, the thick droplets drawing erratic trails along the window panes. Exactly the type of weather that made you feel grateful for being inside, all warm and cosy and with a hot beverage in front of you. Louise could feel herself start to relax, for the first time since, well… days, really. All that excitement living up to the Christmas Ball, followed by the cold harsh shock of what had happened there, and then the white night of feverish research that had ensued; it was finally taking its toll. Fatigue plucked at her with greedy fingers, overpowering the caffeine surge. Her eyelids started to grow heavy. Outside, a young couple, arms linked and heads bent underneath a big black umbrella appeared around the corner. He had brown hair, she was a blonde. Immediately, Louise's cappuccino made a dash at escape, travelling halfway back up her oesophagus. Wide awake again, her heart pounded in her ears like a sledge hammer at a construction site. But then the couple looked up, their faces coming into sight. Not Tina. Not David. Just two strangers, rushing along the cobbled street to a waiting taxi. He proceeded to hold the door for her, lifting the umbrella higher up so she was shielded from the rain the whole time.

  What a gentleman…

  Louise felt a dull, longing sensation throb to life in the centre of her chest. Thank God couples like that still existed in the world. It gave her hope, somehow. Immediately, her mind jumped to the question if David would behave like that in a relationship, too. She supposed she’d find out soon enough, when she got to spend more time with him and Tina. The hopeful feeling turned into a sick one, and once again, the coffee churned dangerously in her stomach. David and Tina, Jesus! They really were a couple now, weren’t they? The magnitude of the implications made her head spin all over again. Tina would be added to their little circle of friends, coming along to all social gatherings, sitting with them in class, going out to lunch with them…

  Or will they isolate themselves? Be one of does couples who do everything in duo and forget they ever had friends?

  Louise didn’t know which of the two scenario’s she found more troubling.

  They’re bound to spend time together over the holidays.

  A whole new array of grisly speculations sprang up. About David and Tina spending Christmas or New Years’ Eve together. About Tina meeting David’s parents… Louise chewed on her lower lip, hard. She could see it all now, the Brown family exchanging presents under a huge tree that was decorated with traditional taste, the occasional heirloom angel figurine dangling like a rare treasure among the bows of red and green. The kind of Christmas tree she’d imagined you’d find in the old-fashioned yet roomy cottage of a demure, intellectual couple that had, besides the son of college age who was the pride of the family, two feisty younger daughters and a much doted-on mist-grey Persian for a pet that had been a rare splurge on account of the lady of the house, a fact which was a running yet benevolent joke among the other family members. The kitchen had a green-house look, with wrought-iron pans hanging from hooks over the hob, and a variety of plants in unpretentious terracotta pots on the shelves. There would be a big, weathered wooden table in that kitchen, where everyone got together on Christmas morning in their pyjamas and dressing gowns for hot chocolate and pancakes. Except for Father of course; he took a full English, same as every morning…

  Louise closed her eyes, warming herself on the image for a moment, purring inwardly like the Browns' imaginary Persian. She had no idea in what kind of house David actually lived. If he had sisters or a cat — she’d be surprised, he’d told her he was a dog person, but the cat fit her fantasy better somehow — or even if his parents were still together. She and David had talked about anything and everything these last couple of months, but strangely enough none of that had come up. The kitchen, the cat, the family, it was all just a picture in Louise’s mind. A postcard from her own personal fairy-tale land. And now, as jarring as a gaudy cartoon figure in a solemn black and white documentary, Tina was pencilled in, too.

  It doesn’t matter, Louise heartened herself. He can take her home to meet his mother all he likes. Next year, I will be the one sitting at their breakfast table. And everyone will heave a big sigh of relief!

  After all, what kind of parent wanted to see their son bring home a silly tart like Tina? And actually, when she thought about it, even David himself had to be a little ashamed about dating such a ditz, right? Why else would he have kept the whole thing secret at first?

  Suddenly, Louise was sure that David hadn’t invited Tina to come home with him after all. In her mind, she flipped around her pencil, and rubbed cartoon-Tina out. There!

  And in real life, it’s going to be just as simple.

  With a private little smile, she plucked the muffin from its plate, and took a slow, luxurious bite. The taste was rich, full and wet, and presented an even bigger kick to her system than the caffeine had. Her smile grew wider. She licked a stray, buttery crumb from her upper lip, set the muffin back down and pushed everything aside to make room for her laptop.

  ‘Not to worry,’ she beamed, when an old lady on her way to the counter noticed the images on her screen. ‘It’s all in the name of science.’

  The woman raised her painted-on eyebrows and gave her a long disapproving look up and down, but Louise was already deep into her research again.

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