Just the Words Will Do: A Short Story

The room was rich with blackness and, as the velvety dark enveloped her, she knew it was a mistake. Half cut on gin and grief, she thought perhaps she could sneak in unnoticed – or better, noticed and wanted. Instead, she lay on the rock hard mattress as though afloat on the huge, reckoning ocean, the messages arriving on her phone lighting up the ceiling where the stars should have been. In the next room, she could hear him breathing. Huge lungs that inflated his white back as she nestled behind him, her face pressed into the comforting scent of his spine. Perhaps she’d never feel as safe again as she did pressed into that boy’s back, listening to the heaving sighs become the gurgle of a snore.

She’d never slept in that room, always the other, and the perfumed bedsheets that held no memories had lulled her quickly into a deadening slumber. The creaking of the door stirred her and she felt his long limbs slipping into the bed beside her, his arms snaking the dip of her waist and pulling her towards him. Startled awake, she felt the wet tears of nightmare and longing coating her face. A dream, just a dream. Stirring inside her, The Sadness curled into her stomach, digging its black claws into the lining and making it threaten to throw the nothing she’d eaten up her throat and onto the counterpane in front of her. She lurched out of bed, nausea swimming over her, and threw the door open into the hallway. The clothes rack tilted and crashed to the floor, a tide of frilly underwear and careworn socks spilling down the corridor.

In the bathroom, the stark bulb lit up her ghostly face in the mirror, freckles standing out against the strained greyness of her skin like black holes on a galaxy of anguish. She was falling apart at the seams, the living redness of her blood showing through the corners where her skin was fixed on. Touching her face, she squinted in confusion at the mirror, leaning closer and then pulling away in horror as a huge swathe of skin detached from her lip and peeled away in her fingers. It was long and sticky, a milky white film made of spider’s silk that draped and clung to her. Letting out a moan of horror, she tried to shake it off, but it wrapped around her hand, nestling into the curves of her fingers, draping down her arm in a ghostly gossamer. Reflected back in the glass she saw her exposed teeth where the skin had come away, the tendons of her jaw, the lurid red of blood seeping unstemmed from the tissue.

What was happening to her? She picked at the edges of the skin, tearing it away in great chunks until the flesh of her neck was exposed, the startling white ridges of her collarbone. Rifling through the basket on the windowsill, she pulled out his razor, fiddling with the catch to free the blade from the safety mechanism. Panic mounting, she tilted it and plunged the silver edge into her skin, scoring the fraying edges until it came away like toilet tissue in a child’s party game of wrap the mummy. The crashing of the door distracted her and she looked up to find him staring at her, open-mouthed, as she crouched above the heaping of her own skin.

He saw her straighten, each tendon exposed, her skin swept away like Gunther von Hagens’ plasticised Körperwelten. She was ripping herself to shreds for him, The Sadness leering from the cavity of her stomach. Gurgling, the voice of it crept up her throat and forced its way out of her mouth.

“Please, please say it.”

“I can’t.” He whispered in horror, “You know I can’t.”

“Please!” Her black eyes pleaded with him from the exposed tunneling of her eye sockets.

“I can’t say it. I don’t feel it, you know I don’t feel it.”

“Please. You don’t need to feel it, just the words will do.” He watched the keratin claws of The Sadness creeping up her flayed throat, a strangling chokehold looking for some purchase. Her breaths came shorter, the mounting panic evident on the straining muscle tissue of her face. Helpless, he watched the horny hands forging their way upwards, squeezing the life from her as her mouth begged him for emotions he couldn’t feel. Stricken with terror, he let the door fall shut and stumbled blindly back to his bedroom, pulling the cocooned safety of his duvet around his shaking body.

In the morning, the red sludge of her sat as a bleeding stain on the tiles of the bathroom. The Sadness squatted on the bathmat, its black fur spiked with the drying bile of her broken stomach. It had grown fat with the richness of her, sated with the animal vehemence of her overwhelming emotion. Carefully, he mopped the floor, swishing the dirty tendrils and squeezing out the water until the bucket stood pink with what was left of her. Feeling a tugging at the hem of his jeans, he looked down to see the horn rimmed hands of The Sadness reaching for him. He felt the creeping pull of its irresistible candour. To save them both, just the words would have done.

The Curse of the Cool Girl, And Why I’m Done With Pretending Not to Care

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.” – Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl.

We’ve all met a Cool Girl, with their long hair and perfect arses, their craft beer knowledge and their fluid sexuality. Or, rather, we’ve all met a girl who is pretending to be her. I should know, I tried for a long time to be exactly that. Maybe I still look a bit like her, because some of the Cool Girl traits also happen to be real human woman traits too. I love whisky and craft beer, dirty jokes and eating an entire pizza. Those things are fine; I actually like those things. But some of the other Cool Girl traits aren’t me at all, and I’ve found them hard to give up.

I’ve always prided myself on being good at being one of the lads. Me, with my four older brothers and my devil-may-care attitude to wearing clothes in the house. Tall and blonde and filthy. Show me the girls you’ve matched with on Tinder whilst I’m laid in your arms on the sofa, because I don’t care. Ask me who I think is hotter. Call me up when you’re between women. Act like you barely know me when we’re with your friends, but forbid me from seeing anyone else. I don’t care, because I’m fucking cool. I put up with all of your shit and never call you out on it, whilst hiding any of mine – or worse, carefully not having any – so you don’t get hurt. Don’t I sound chill?

Spoiler alert: I’m not chill. I’m angry and stressed, I can’t sleep, I have a crick in my neck from that awkward position I never say anything about, my friends are fed up of listening to me. Why? Because what the Cool Girl attracts is an endless parade of scumbags. Men who put your needs last, because they can. Men who are seeing other women, because they can. Men who never text you unless you text them. Men who never take you on dates. Men who make you feel small and stupid when you haven’t heard of a band/niche French playwright/school of philosophical thought. Men who never go down on you. Men whose friends ask if you’re together and they say “No! I mean, I duno, I guess we’re sort-of-semi seeing each other?”. Men who can’t stand to see you with someone else, but will never ever commit to you. Cool Men.

I read this article the other day, about how the ‘cute but psycho’ joke is normalising abuse and women need to stop saying they identify with it. Whilst that’s a valid argument, all I could think about was how the ‘cute but psycho’ trope is just a reaction to the ever-pervading Cool Girl. She’s the opposite of the Cool Girl: she keeps a tight leash on her man, checks up on him, insists on a terrifying level of control. No one can deny it’s problematic. But, as women who have been denied any control, who have forced themselves to put up with all kinds of crappy treatment under the guise of being ‘cool’, is it any wonder that the reaction is to push back and claim some kind – any kind – of control?

We constantly talk down about women who have a dominant or, let’s face it, even an equal role in relationships. This is why I detest the word ‘whipped’. I hear people describing men as whipped all the time. Does he drive down to see his girlfriend at the weekend? Whipped. Did he bring her a glass of wine when she asked? Whipped. Does he cook all the meals while she cleans? Whipped. This rhetoric perpetuates the idea that women don’t deserve to be treated well, that being kind or considerate to your girlfriend is unmanly. There is no word to describe a woman who fetches her boyfriend a beer, who lovingly makes dips and buys in crisps for boys’ night. It is expected. Not only does the idea of being ‘whipped’ shame women for having needs, it also shames men for acting in a caring, nurturing way. It looks at healthy, loving relationships and calls them out for not adhering to some ancient 1950s stereotypes of how to behave.

How we talk about relationships is so important, because it shapes our expectations and the expectations of those around us. To be desirable, I felt overwhelming pressure to be the Cool Girl, no matter what the cost to my enjoyment and even my mental health. No matter what awful sort-of-semi relationships I had to endure. Pretending not to care, not to have any needs, is emotionally exhausting and damaging. I’ve seen girls put up with horrific behaviour and never call it out, because they’re scared of looking like they’re not a Cool Girl. I’ve done it myself. It’s time for us to start demanding what we require, and breaking off the damaging, sort-of-semi relationships if they fail to provide for our needs. We need to start saying no to that thing he’s asked us to do that always hurts, because doing it isn’t cool: it’s problematic. We also need to stop shaming men for being caring. It’s not fair to say we aren’t having our needs met, and then make men feel bad when they are meeting those needs. We need to pay attention to how we talk about relationships. Stop putting up with it. Stop perpetuating it.