Do You Have Emotions? Strange Them

The title is a reference both to Saul Bellow’s satirisation of Ernest Hemingway’s prose style and a few days I spent in Melbourne. Everything is as I remember it.

It was a most tactile tooth brushing experience. The glow of the lights strung across the mirror. An anticipation, a twinkling. She, at her most majestic, eyes closed, head resting, in the bathtub. Her expression reminding him of St Peter’s Basilica. Her scent, of oats and maple. Both moving and at rest.

Earlier, on Tuesday, he arrives in good spirits after a long train. The journey was fruitful, he is thinking seriously about the world because of the novel he has almost finished. A peck at the station, some polite and friendly talk. They have dinner at her house with her housemates, which is delicious without extravagance. They drink tea from an ornamental pot and have some amiable conversation. He reads on her bed while she writes an article, and he retreats once it is late.

The next morning, on Wednesday, he rises, greets her, and makes plans with a friend in town. After his friend leaves mid-afternoon he has a snooze in the library. He writes emotionally charged phrases in his notebook. He waits in town, they have vague plans to go to the gallery in the evening. It doesn’t happen, and as he sits on a sofa in the gallery foyer, receiving her message that she and her housemate weren’t ready in time and could they go tomorrow, he decides not to be a bitch and makes nothing of it.

He returns to the house in the north having bought groceries, and makes a risotto with white wine and fetta and sweet potato. While he is cooking they drink more wine and discuss sexuality and monogamy. They discuss the shortcomings of their exes. She asks him if a friend of his is sexually available, which he is not, not really. They eat and it is very comforting and they enjoy it, and they drink some more and she suggests watching a movie later, which he says is a good idea. She asks him to look over her article on fashion and race. It is very well written, but needs some de-clunking and a more coherent ending. They achieve this over a couple of hours, with him suggesting a few word choices and grammar changes and her confidently fixing other flaws he has hesitated to mention.

They are sitting at her desk and it’s after one in the morning when they finish and they give up on the movie. As he is leaving the room she says he is welcome to sleep in here and after last night’s wispy retreat he abandons his timidity and like a modern lover says, yeah, actually, it’s quite cold in the other room, which is true. He flashes in his mind to her question, earlier in the afternoon as she made her bed, about whether an electric blanket is suitable if you’re expecting a special friend. He wonders whether she was thinking of him in that moment, or some other lover. They get into bed, lying on their lefts, with her facing out into her bedroom and him facing her.

He isn’t sure how to construe her oblique offer and so lies there. He waits, he does nothing. She gets up, ostensibly for the bathroom, and he steels himself, and when she returns he puts his right hand on her right hip, limply. A little squeeze and a little scratch. They are chatting amiably. She pulls his arm around her torso and he holds her stomach and then her left breast and she rubs up against him. She is masterful and confident and this encourages him. Then they face each other and kiss and what ensues is a panting haze of incongruent sex. She is demon-fast, he wants to work into a rhythm, and they end up both out of breath and unsatisfied. But then they talk about the reasons for this part failure. Talk it out, work it out, sleep together better.

The next morning is a daze and a jumble. She dresses to go out to scan an image for her article and as she is about to leave she propositions him abruptly into sex. He enjoys the feeling of violation this brings. They conversations become more intimate throughout the afternoon. He agrees to accompany her to her work drinks, where they have gin and tonics and neat smoky whiskies. They leave under the pretence of going for dinner. On the way back north her brother who is leaving the country soon calls, and comes over, and they drink red wine and discuss their lives and after he leaves our protagonist is now enamoured enough with her to join her in a cigarette outside. Then a long bath, and later, in bed, their sexual appetites merging like maple syrup with their oat-scented skin. It is a long night but it is exquisite. He tried to intellectualise it, by saying that it’s an interesting battle between the mind wanting sleep and the body wanting sex, but she says that it’s actually just that they really like having sex with each other that keeps them up.

On Friday they rise late, she has work in the afternoon and they have a dinner party to plan for. They buy vegetables in town, and meet her ex-boyfriend who has come to pick up some books. She hides her clogged bin in the corner of her room. They chop vegetables until it is time for her to get to work. The ex drives them down towards the city and drops them off at the bookshop where she works. Our protagonist goes to the city markets to look for sunglasses but does he really need them? He sends her a text message, telling her she is lovely, and she tells him she is melting. He goes to the gallery to see the exhibition and it is like she is there with him. He enjoys it very much.

In his notebook he writes about how he is already trying to crystallise their relationship in his memory, even though he is still in the moment and living it, and even though he knows that when he retrieves the image he will find its likeness non-incandescent.

Getting back up to the north takes him longer than he thinks, he is disorientated, but when he returns in a hurry it turns out there is nothing to rush over. He starts making a spicy pumpkin soup with the vegetables he has chopped. It has a lot of wholegrain mustard in it and potatoes and garlic and it tastes very satisfying once it has been pureed and thickened. Her friends start arriving for the dinner party, girls, more girls, a few that he knows, and he starts chopping bread to make croutons, grills them, drizzles them in olive oil. There is cheese and wine and by the time the soup is ready everyone is hungry and it goes down well and he sits at the table with the seven or so women who are spooning at their bowls.

There is one other man now, who is well meaning but abrasive, and this is an enjoyable dynamic for the girls who chide him. The main is a mysterious and excellent lentil dish that she has prepared. The wine they are drinking starts to blend the evening in on itself, through smoking breaks outside for some of the party and into discussions of misogynistic authors, and then there are brownies for dessert, so soft, and talk of sex and exes, and people start to leave, in fast forward in his memory, because he wants to get her alone again. It is very late and they are both very tired but there is a lot of passion. He says that she is lovely but she says that he is definitely lovelier. They talk about the tentative way she kisses, and she admits that she hasn’t allowed herself that intimacy, and that it is for lovers, and he makes eye contact and says that it is okay that they are lovers, and they then kiss strongly and warmly and it is good.

On Saturday she has work early, she leaves him in her bed, and he sleeps later than he meant to, until eleven. He has both a breakfast date with friends and a kitchen to help clean. The other male at the party, who stayed overnight, is being most industrious in the kitchen, but he doesn’t know where the dishes go, so he helps him put them away for a time and then leaves the house. He enjoys a most delicious four-way breakfast with close friends of his. They order separate meals and then pass them clockwise and try some of everything. His own meal is ricotta hotcakes with yoghurt and banana and desiccated coconut. He gets a tram down to the city museum and meets other friends and they explore the artifacts but mostly watch the many other people in the exhibition, which is full. They travel down to the seaside afterwards, and eat burgers, and walk along the boardwalk, and because of the curved white roller coaster and the palm trees he feels like he is in California and everything is nostalgic and he is taking photos with his grandfather’s old camera and he feels like he is already living in the memory he is trying to capture.

It gets dark, and they go into the city to his friends’ hotel, and they have a little snooze on the bed there. He wants to go north and see her but also wants to socialise, but these are friends from his hometown and he can see them anytime. They go into a pub and he hasn’t brought identification and so takes this reason and travels north with it. The tram he is on lingers on a city corner where there is a climbing gym, several stories high, with tall windows that face out onto the street. He tries to take a photo of the people clambering up the walls but by the time he sets his shot the tram has moved forward.
She is having a domestic evening, with work to do, and he encourages her to work and be productive by sitting on her bed and writing. She doesn’t really seem to get anything done. They watch a movie on his laptop in her bed, and they interrupt it just the once, her reaching over to him and kissing him and then him dropping the laptop to the floor and then them twisting around for a long while. It is a very good film but it is sad and he wonders whether he should have chosen a comedy because they are both tired and now a little morose. It is past midnight and now it is his birthday. They cuddle and they want sex conceptually but are both very tired, and so decide on sleep, but he wants her to wrap him in security and so doesn’t sleep nearly as well as she.

They sleep in on Sunday, but they are late for his birthday breakfast, they fuck rigidly but considering the circumstances it is still quite good. They go down with one of her housemates to a trendy café for breakfast and meet several of his and her friends. He has a bagel with Gruyere and caramelised onions and spinach and a poached egg and beetroot relish, and they do the crossword and he thinks that this is all very nice. A friend has made him a hand-knitted scarf, which touches him and he skips around the table to peck her and say thank you, this is so lovely. He sits back down, and as they do the crossword together, he wonders whether their touching legs are as intimate in her mind as they are in his.

She is going to another friend’s birthday lunch and this seems like a nice last thing to do together, as his flight is that afternoon, and so accompanies her after checking if she is sure, are you sure, that it’s okay if I come? She says that of course it is, and I was asked to bring a friend, and it will be really nice. They get the bus together and the house is spacious and nice and full of interesting and semi-interesting people, and there are baby olives and potato salads and another salad with avocado in it and he tries to eat some even though he is already stuffed. They drink Pimm’s, and he feels pretty comfortable holding conversations with these people, being polite and amiable, talking to the birthday girl’s father and friends. She lets it slip that it is also his birthday, and so they are very lovely to him also.

The girl’s father gives them a lift home, as it is time to pack for the plane, but midway through the car ride he gets a message informing him that his flight has been unexpectedly cancelled and there will be no other flights on this airline today. He is annoyed but he keeps it together and makes some phone calls and eventually decides to buy a flight the next day rather than getting a long overnight train. He recognises that he is becoming flustered and fears crowding her space so he decides to take a bath while she does her writing. With just fairy lights in the bathroom is too dark to read in so he has a nap in the bath and it is very soothing. He rewarms the water twice before getting out. He feels much better and gives her a kiss and she asks him if he’d like to join her for her family dinner that evening. She encourages him and he says yes, that sounds lovely, thanks.

The role he is to take for her parents is that of a friend in town for the week that is sleeping on the couch, and this is easy to assume because that was the original arrangement. To him they are interesting and lovely people, and again a fuss is made over his birthday which he is bashful about but also appreciative. Cauliflower cheese is the ideal comforting dinner for the occasion and feels consummately homely. Her mother, a musician, hops on the piano and the family sings happy birthday and there is even chocolate cake with strawberries and mascarpone, and they drink full-bodied red wine, and have a whisky, and listen to jazz. Her family bickers over which jazz to listen to which he finds amusing because his family would never listen to jazz. He wonders whether his keen interest in her family and her irritation would be reversed if it were his home they were having dinner in. He knows at least that he would be irritated.

Eventually they go back home and once they are alone he becomes morose and silent and mopes around in the corner of her bed. He fails to articulate his feelings for a good while. He is finding it hard to separate being great friends with great intimacy and great sex, with something to hold and keep, seeing that he is leaving. He remembers in his mind the proverb that if you love something you should give it away, and feels momentarily better, but sinks again, and then he gets out of bed to shake it off, feels momentarily better, and mopes more, but it is when she says that he is just indulging himself that he wakes up and gets back on the horse. He returns to being affable, kind, sexy, not needy. He laughs and mocks himself and feels good doing it and gets on top of his emotions. They talk candidly again, in deep voices, and are very kind to each other. She thanks him for being charming and polite to all her friends. He wants to have sex again, on their sides and slowly, but this time, unlike the previous twenty-four hours, it is truly fine that she is tired and he wants to sleep this time. Instead of tossing and waiting for her he is ready to sleep too, and as they are drooping off he references an earlier anecdote she had told him and says I hope you dream of flying.

Justin Wolfers