She liked films that ended well. That followed a clear path, from beginning to end. She wasn’t the sort to get lost in the woods with a flashlight or walk down an unfamiliar street. She liked knowing what the point of a film was, and if it was too smart, obscuring itself, retreating from clear definitions, she’d walk out of the cinema. She was the same with books, they needed to follow a “trajectory of action”.
Of course, I didn’t need to point any of this out to her, that wasn’t my role. We’d meet at the LEON near Moorgate Station, find a table in the back, and I’d eat baked fries while she’d have a lemonade.
She knew that her need for things adding up was because of fear, and to counter-act that fear, she’d plan. It really was that simple. She bypassed centuries of continental philosophy that was all about locating meaning within futility and suffering, by planning. All her notebooks were the same colour, a kind of cardboard beige that she’d buy from Muji on Carnaby St. She had planners, daily notebooks, idea books, mini calendars, and everything she wrote down, from grocery lists, reminders, to birthday gifts, was done with a .5 mm gel pen. She held the pen in a claw grip, and when she’d write, often in the middle of a conversation, I’d see a seismograph’s needle, precisely jittering over lined pages, conveying small vibrations.
Her career in the city, from unpaid internships and overnight shifts to her first job in a retail bank, to pivoting to an investment management fund and her work on financial modelling and risk forecasts, was planned. She knew how money equated to security, and financial services in the city with social mobility. When she first started, there weren’t any ethical questions or nagging internal monologues about compromise. Her perfect grammar and administrative finesse, neatly slotted into her company’s ethos, and in record time she was promoted to an executive position, co-managing a risky pension fund. Her ability to negotiate male emotions and egos uniquely positioned her. She wasn’t a feminist at work, she just quietly did things better and more efficiently, until she got closer to her next objective.
I first met her in a LUSH outlet. I was looking for a soap to gift Kareem. He was in a bad way, giving up on writing the novel that he’d gambled the last 2 years of his life on. I’ve never been much of a reader, but I knew what that book meant to Kareem. After dropping out of a law degree that his parents invested their savings into, he was guilty and he punished himself with high expectations. He was vague about the book’s story, sometimes he’d describe it as being about a group of friends, and other times, he’d talk about circumcision and body mutilation. Whatever it was, it felt that Kareem was injecting every last emotion into the book, like an IV drip, and when I learned that he was scrapping it, that he was going to apply for corporate jobs, I wanted to intervene, but I didn’t have the words.
My hope was that the right kind of soap, citrusy but grave, would create feelings of exfoliation in him. Like a good facewash does, wiping away dead skin, creating room for new layers. That the initial fruitness of the soap would remind him of his passion, and then the metallic notes would push him towards claiming personal responsibility. Maybe I was overthinking, but I imagined him standing in that unplastered shower with the sticky drain, naked with goosebumps from the cold, washing away his fear with the soap.
She handed me a soap and asked what I thought. I smelled honey and sandalwood and it must have been a gift for a man. It’s nice, I said, old-world vibes. She seemed happy with my response. I noted her nail polish, soft purple, perfectly matching July’s first lavender blooms. Her hair was cut short and blow-dried, and her COS blouse was neatly ironed. She felt rich, but like she worked for her own money. Every part of her outfit appeared organised, and the constructed visual femininity jarred with how she spoke: assertive, commanding, straight-to-the-point.
I learned how the sandalwood soap was for her. She even helped me find a soap that felt right for Kareem. I told her how Kareem would probably kill himself if he didn’t finish his novel, and I think there was something in the lonely, male artist, choosing art over well-being, that ignited her interest. What’s the novel about? she asked. His shame, I said.
She spoke about love in a way people don’t do anymore. It didn’t feel like a London love, easy to break, quick to recover from. It was love from mid-century films and romantic novels, told by couples that fled war, separated by barbed fences. I learned that she was in love with a man and it wasn’t the same man she had partnered up with. He lived in another country, and she didn’t specify which. They’d meet every few years, in Travel Lodges and Holiday Inns near King’s Cross or in Camden, dissolving into each other in the hurried feelings of budget hotels and deception. After a weekend, she’d go back to her partner, he’d fly back to wherever.
Sometimes he’d text. Always badly, demandingly. She’d reply by email, or block him, but leaving one channel of communication open. Always replying.
She talked about how she hated work. Then she’d complain about my septum, my pink hair, and how I’d get a better job if I just dressed normally. You have a nice face, she’d say.
I’d tell her to quit her job, she has all that money, take a year out and travel India, or whatever it is that city people do when guilt catches up with them. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself, she’d say.
I’ve loved him for 10 years, she’d say, it’s a love that’s ruined my life.
I’d think about the films she hated, the ones that don’t really say anything. People getting together in a supermarket and talking about different kinds of lettuce. Abrupt endings. Confusing emotions and difficult questions: love you can’t leave, jobs that you can’t forgive.