The big night had finally arrived, and as she exited the station and walked down the rain-washed pavement, she tried to calm herself down so she wouldn’t start to sweat. She was on the late side of fashionably late, and as much as she wanted to hurry, there was no way she was going to arrive with damp spots under her arms.
She’d been getting ready since the late afternoon: a long bath after an exfoliation, an application of body lotion after the bath, a facial cleanse, tweezing, hair and make-up. She was a master in the art of make-up. The finer points of her face were all accentuated; the high cheek bones higher, the rounded, fine eyebrows finer, the pouty, red lips fuller and redder.
The match had happened almost two months ago. She had been ready to swipe right after the first photo: that slick brown hair and hazel eyes, the strong, tanned forearms, the chiseled torso. He was just her type, but in any case she’d flicked through the rest of his pics, just to be sure.
After a few minutes of heels echoing off the pavement she saw the bar on the other side of the road, just as he’d said it would be; a patio area under a beige awning extending from the brick wall, crowded with people – the late twenties, early thirties crowd, and a corner door under a column painted to match the awning with the name of the bar in white italics.
Her heart was pounding as she walked past the people on the patio, trying to keep a good posture, with her back straight and her head high, one hand gripping the wooden, crook of her compact umbrella and the other grasping the padded leather of her red-lips clutch. A mantra was repeating in her head; cool confident classy. A bit cheesy, she knew, but it worked. She scanned the patio for him, while gauging by the other women’s outfits whether she was over-dressed, under-dressed, or just-right. She breathed a little easier when she decided she was on the better side of just-right.
Confident he wasn’t on the patio (people can look slightly different in real life than in their photographs), she opened the door. It was a small room with a bar at the back and benches lining mirrored walls. Wooden tables and chairs in racing green padding crowded the limited floor space. A chime was ringing over the low music as she stepped inside and closed the door, causing a split-second gap in the hum of conversation as all eyes glanced at her.
The intimidation factor was almost too much, but her mantra did its job and she kept a calm front. She saw Chris in the same muscle gripping, red and white top he wore in one of his photos on the app. He was sat between two men. If she knew he was bringing friends she’d have brought her flatmates. He didn’t look at her then, although she was sure he’d glanced when she was at the door. He now seemed to be in deep conversation, and his friends looked as if they were holding back laughter. She didn’t know what to do.
Was he short sighted? Hadn’t he recognised her? Had he changed his mind? There was no way she was going to approach him, especially when he was in company. A part of her wanted to go straight out the door again – the self-saboteur part, as it was called in so many of the books she’d read, but they’d been getting on so well during their in-app conversations that she wasn’t going to give up just like that.
Spotting a lone stool at the bar, she took a seat, feeling the familiar heaviness as beads of perspiration seeped through the thick foundation on her forehead; brought on by both the brisk walk and the humiliation of not being recognised. Before she’d even settled into the stool – Why do they always make them so small? – the barman was at her, but she sent him for the wine list and turned the stool to have an open view of Chris. After surveying the wine list, she ordered a glass of South African Dry, and went hot in the face when it was poured from a screw-top in plain sight of everyone.
Sitting there, taking small sips to make it last, while looking at Chris from the corner of her eye, she subtly tried to gain his attention. He kept glancing at his watch, and when he got up along with the others at the table, she bounced forward to the edge of the stool, her feet poised on its rung, ready to run after him, but after shaking hands, the others left and he sat back down and looked around the room. His eyes met hers and she raised her arms as if to say, ‘look it’s me.’ After peering at her for longer than seemed polite or necessary, unless he had vision problems he hadn’t told her about, he came right over and apologised in a dull monotone.
‘It’s okay,’ she said, trying to sound charming and positive. ‘You preferred to stay with your friends rather than the woman you were supposed to be meeting.’
‘Something like that,’ he replied without eye contact.
‘Your pint’s still on the table, shall we go and sit there?’
They went to his little table and she was glad he left her the padded bench and took the frail looking chair for himself. The bench wasn’t as robust as it had looked, however. She sank into the padding and the frame dug into the her thighs.
‘These seats are so small,’ she said after an awkward silence, and couldn’t tell if his laugh was sarcastic or a nervous gesture of agreement.
‘How’s your day been?’
He stared into his pint and nodded his head, ‘Not bad’
She waited for him to continue, but he didn’t, so she spoke again: ‘Just not bad? Weren’t you going to the game? Who was it? The Bees?’
‘The Wasps against the Quins.’ He gulped from his glass. ‘Quins won.’
‘Thats good. That’s your team isn’t it?’
He still hadn’t looked up, and began fiddling with the beer mat. ‘Yes, it’s good. They have a chance of winning this season.
‘Cheers to that.’ She raised her glass, and with only a flicker of eye contact, barely lifting his from the table, he clinked it against hers then took another big gulp. His glass was now half empty.
This wasn’t going good. He’d been so chatty on the app, how could he be so different in person? She knew there was a big difference between a written conversation, where one has the safety of time and distance, and the shield of an electronic device between them and the person they’re talking to. But this was about as much as she could take. It was why she’d been the last of her friends to try Tinder. She took a breath. Maybe his lack of social skills was because of shyness.
‘You know, its rude in some cultures not to look into each others eyes when you clink your glasses together. In others they say it leads to seven years of bad sex.’
His eyes grew wide behind his pint and he cleared his throat.
‘So, who were the men? They went to the game?’
‘One of them, yeah. The other must have watched it here. Met him when we arrived.’
‘I’d imagine the atmosphere there would have been better than here.’
‘Yes, of course.’ He brought the glass to his mouth and she watched in surprise as the rest of the lager disappeared.
‘Let me get you another,’ she said.
‘No.’ He held his hands up. ‘Thank you. I’ve had too much already.’ Rising to his feet, he reached an arm into one sleeve of his jacket.
‘Come on, we just sat down.’
‘Really, I have to go. Early start tomorrow.’
She was determined to get a round in: ‘Please,’ she said. ‘Just one.’
He dropped his shoulders and sat back down. His jacket stayed on.
As she got up her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t eaten since lunch: ‘Hey,’ she said, an idea popping into her head. ‘They have wonderful looking scotch eggs at the end of the bar.’ A vision flashed in her head: His tanned, masculine hand gently easing a fork full of creamy scotch egg into her mouth, then dabbing her chin with a napkin. ‘How about we share one?’
‘No thanks,’ he said.
She walked towards the bar aware that, despite his demeanour, he might be checking her out, and tried to project an image of sexiness. Another mantra from one of her self-help books cycled in her mind: Sexy in, sexy out. She imagined tripping over and falling flat on her face. That would be something to tell the girls about, but it would be even better to let them know how he came to her rescue, wrapping those arms around her and helping her up. The toilet was to the left of the bar and she decided to use it while she was on her feet, turning back to see if he was checking her out. What she saw was him shaking his head and laughing to himself.
In the tiny cubicle she struggled to pull down her jeans and reduction underwear. She thought about how he had said he was going to give her a great big hug and a huge kiss whenever they met, but he hadn’t so much as touched or looked at her.
She called the flat and Sarah answered.
‘He’s probably just shy. Keep calm and don’t get paranoid.’
She really wanted to like him, and wanted him to like her. Maybe Sarah was right, maybe he just needed coaxing to come out of his shell. She decided to go out and start over, to tell him to forget whatever was troubling him and start afresh.
She carried a pint of lager and a another glass of dry white to the table. For the first time of the night he was the first to speak.
‘What?’ He said looking at her body. ‘No scotch egg?’
He might as well have stabbed her in the heart.
‘What’s your problem with me?’ She slammed the glasses down. Her aggression had caught him off guard and he reclined in his chair, creating distance.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘it’s just that, well…’
She looked down at him. ‘Come on then, spit it out.’
He looked away. ‘Let’s just forget it. Come, have a seat.’
‘No I won’t have a seat. You’ve been off the whole night. You’re nothing like you were on the app. You were going to say something. Be a man and say it.’
His eyes fixed on the table, he mumbled to himself. ‘She says I’m nothing like I was on the app.’
‘What was that?’
He looked up at her, past her. ‘You said you were into the gym. I thought you would be smaller.’
‘Smaller?’ She spoke through clenched teeth and unblinking eyes. ‘So you’re saying I’m fat. That’s what your problem is?’ Her hands balled into fists.
He remained silent for a while. ‘I should have asked… I mean… you only had face pics on there.’ He was talking to himself more than to her. ‘I should have known you’d be a big girl, it’s one of the tell-tale-‘
Her hand slammed on the table. She reached for the wine glass to throw it over him, but his eyes were filled with genuine compassion.
‘Maybe you should put different photos on there. Normal ones. Not ones taken from obscure angles, and maybe remove, “what you see is what you get” from the profile. Quotes are silly anyway, all girls do it for some reason.’
She was in a rage now and though she wanted to shout out, little more than a whisper escaped her throat. ‘Fuck you,’ she said. She picked up her bag and umbrella and left, flinging the door against the wall with a thud that silenced the bar.
She held it together, walking with the same confident stride that she had walked in with, past the patio, past the takeaways and bus stops, through the gates of the station where a solitary guard nodded hello in his navy with red trim jacket, until she found an empty carriage, where the first tear led to a flood that reached the flat.
She had tried so hard, so fucking hard; the 5 a.m. runs through the empty streets so nobody would see her, the aerobic DVDs, the celeb diets, the self-improvement books; confidence building, conversation guides, philosophy, and she had come so close to being the confident, thin, celeb-like person she had always wanted to be, but now this.
She thanked God that her flatmates were asleep when she got in. Now she’d have time to come up with a suitable lie for what had happened. In her room was a personal fridge with the white of its door barely visible behind meal plans, a forbidden foods list, an exercise regime and magnets of topless male pop-stars and actors, female models and bikini clad Instagram chicks. She pulled off her skinny jeans – that had been ordered online as her size wasn’t available on the high street, pulled off her reduction underwear and her brassiere, wiped the make-up from her face and opened the fridge. Behind a half-eaten cake, fizzy drinks cans, cheeses and biscuits was the freezer compartment. She picked out an ice cream tub that was missing its lid and grabbed hold of the spoon stuck inside, bending its handle until a frozen lump of Belgian chocolate broke away. She stuffed it into her mouth. In the mirror across the room, all five foot five and fifteen stone of her was illuminated in the darkness by the soft yellow fridge light. All her fleshy folds were visible, as were the blue veins on her breasts. With the make-up she’d washed off her cheekbones, the contoured jaw line. She knew he’d had a point. She had deceived him by hiding her looks behind the image of what she wanted to be, just as he had deceived her by burying his true nature under a false persona.
The anguish swept over her anew. The ice cream became a gag, blocking her sobs from reaching the ears of her flatmates. Her warm tears helped soften the ice cream in the tub, making it easier for her to dig the spoon in.