• Samuel Valentine

Short story #1. strangers

I've left the cinema, a plushly decorated room in the basement of a hotel, plump black leather walls, dimly lit, ornate mirrors, each seat with its own style, the staff inked and pierced. I’m heading to my single bed sublet in Brixton and need to change bus at London Bridge. The bus stop buzzes with Friday night; couples waiting to head home talk privately, groups of drunk lads journeying to their watering hole, three of four lone people on their phones. At this interchange I see you. I’m standing leaning against the bus shelter when I catch a glimpse of you from the corner of my eye. A feeling rises in me that sometimes comes when I'm alone, a yearning, seeking the approval of women. Wanting to make a connection, whilst all at once, knowing the connection is unlikely to sustain me. You are coming toward me and are suddenly within breathing distance. This is unusual, I think, it’s usually me that starts conversations with strangers. Your face is like a harpoon. Your jaw angular, sharp, pronounced and perfectly symmetrical. You have the frame of someone that doesn't eat much. Your eyes pierce into me, even through your clear inebriation. Your slurred speech coated with your Spanish accent forces me to listen very carefully.

“Are you okay I ask?” You seem vulnerable, but you have a power, that’s clear to me. “Me?! Yeah, I’m fine!” I don’t believe you, we're in that liminal space before you know how someone is.

“Are you going to be okay getting home?!”

“Tschh, I just need to get a bus. One bus...one bus all the way. 21 - it takes me home."

“Are you sure you’re alright?” I ask again. There’s a darkness to you. I'm scared and intrigued by you. I don’t want to miss my bus. "You’re definitely okay to get home though, yeah?"

"Yes. I know. One bus all the way." We stand for a moment looking at each other. The traffic passes steadily, on the bridge. "I don't belong here?’ I'm engaging this opportunity. This seemingly random event - this happening. You have arrived to tell me something.

“What do you mean?” I reply. Your lipstick is half gone. There’s small black dots perfectly poised under your eyes. You’re older than me, the lines on your face show it. Your body, your boots, your jeans - I am objectifying you, it’s been less than a month since I was last intimate with someone, it feels so much longer. A flurry of thoughts bash through me, though I hide them from you. I am noble. Am I noble? Am I bad? What does it mean to be noble? Do I want to do the 'wrong' thing? Am I capable of whisking you away and making it all better for us both? For a heartbeat, for tonight?

“I don’t fit in this world, it’s not right.” You offer.

"What’s not right?"

"Everything...I want to die - be in the stars. Up there, in the stars, sky, anywhere else, not here, it's all fucked". I'm caught in the miraculous randomness of life.

"You don’t want to die" I challenge. "Things are changing, I'm better, right now, I'm better. I feel things are getting better." A part of me acknowledges as I say this to you, that your drunk misery at the state of things is as true as my attempt, albeit an honest one, at seeing the good in things - so much is fucked up right now, but it can be better.

"Where are the changes? How does anyone change?".

"I meditate...that helps" I feel awkward. I rarely feel awkward.

"Look at these two", you wave your attention to a couple behind us, further back from the road. I’m torn; part of me wants to lean in and kiss you, a different part of me wants to slam you against the wall and penetrate you, a separate part wants to take you down to the river and spend an hour drinking water and sobering you up under the soft lamplight, pontificating on the unfairness of life. I just stand, listening, still, quiet. In-action is so easy. Why is it so hard to be brave?. You continue "I will get old. My tits, my body, it will all get worse, old, sag". You’re so close to me now - your breath reeks of alcohol, it turns me on. Animal needs move me. You’re staring right into me...do you want me? Shall I ask you? Just come out and say it. "Do you want me?" I don't..."I have been married for 17 years" you say seductively or at least that’s how I read it.

"Are you happy?" I probe. Everything in me is churning - I can’t describe it - I’m ashamed that I want you, but too scared to risk asking you; I don’t want to take advantage - I know where that ends. Emptiness. Disappointment. Why are you here?

"Am I happy?" You seem to take a genuine moment to consider, almost as if you haven't considered this before. "I have no idea." I check for my bus. "I want to be up there with the something, stars something l..." what is it that you said? It was so clear in that moment. You wanted to be free. "All these people, drinking, going out, their bodies will change, we'll get old - I don’t fit here". You take my arm, look to the sky and start screaming, shouting something...something, what was it? I start screaming too. Howling like wolves, howling, howling, howling. Those around us start to laugh, but we don’t care. I’m screaming because I’m with you and I want you and I have no idea what's going on. Your bus comes then but you miss it, the door shuts on you, you bang it, but the bus drives away. Then you’re back in my eyes, what is this? Your back in my eyes - do you want me? Where’s my bus? What do I say then? I want to touch you, hold you, I want to make you better, to make me better, to stare into the lonely abyss and deny it. Pleasure you till you’re better, till I’m better.

My bus comes. We hug. I can’t remember your name. You did tell me. I can't remember.

From the comfort and emptiness of my bed, I lie thinking. I made the right choice. No, the wise chose, but I wanted to make the wrong choice, the unwise. I sat in the bus, trying not to doubt everything - my masculinity, any other man would have taken you home, or to a hotel, or anywhere? What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I act? Why am I not Marlon Brando? Why don't I fuck anything that moves - 40 children obese dead maverick Brando.

Where are you? Did you get back to your husband and scream with him? Did I dream you?

One that does not belong.