Marlene cringed, silently, that out of all the hundreds of profiles to swipe through on that app, out of all the random possibilities, she had to land on a guy like this. But she was more terrified of being alone. Not dying alone necessarily, she was only twenty-five, so still a few years before she needed to start having that crisis. It was just the sickening dread of being in her own company with no distraction when she hated herself. She could stay vigilant on the damage control where necessary and fund his lifestyle, so long as it meant he couldn’t ghost her the next time her breathing sounded too sarcastic. He’d been so angry, when she’d stupidly let out that breath she’d been holding with too much haste, and a tone. She’d had a tone, looking down on him. But he always made sure she knew he was kind for letting her know to her face what others were most certainly saying behind her back: that she was intolerable. The next day she paid the rent on the flash studio in the heritage neighbourhood on the hill, looking out onto city skyscrapers only a ten-minute walk away. They both lived there but Marlene usually paid, buying time. People said he looked a bit like a girl. In fact, some people had just assumed he was a girl all along from the photos she posted of him, and she only found out after the break up. It wasn’t as if he cross-dressed, or tried to make himself appear that way. It was just that kind of look. His face was a bit fat, rounder lines; very full lips, like fillers from the walk-in cosmetic surgery down the road; and he bleached and permed his hair. Funny, how when it had actually been a girl, more than a year before she ever met him, people became distant, awkward. They had a problem or just didn’t know what to say, even if they wouldn’t admit it. But when the new girl was actually a boy, they somehow sensed something more palatable, easy to associate with, because a boy was still a boy deep down. People have a sense for these things. Semi-strangers have the best sense, and they’re the best at letting you know about every unsolicited sense they have. Don’t breathe too loud. Keep that condescending tone in check or you’ll loose everything and be alone. Marlene made the mental note, but when she found herself mildly dizzy from taking only half breaths for hours at a time in the apartment she was supposed to call home, even she had to admit this was heading somewhere possibly worse than alone. But what could be worse? It wasn’t as if she thought he’d actually hit her or anything like that. In fact, one night she really lost it and asked through snotty tears why he didn’t just punch her in the face; a slap, at least, if he hated her so much. But no, he liked to keep the wounds hidden, deeper than beneath clothes even. He liked to keep them hidden behind her increasingly contorted outer shell, the mask with mascara smudged and pouring down its’ cheeks.
“It’s just this crazy chick I live with. She causes, like, ninety-percent of all my problems.” Calm, blank face, not a hint of upset. Who wouldn’t see that as the dictionary definition of emotional stability? “That chick’s a bit nuts, where did he even find her?” It had been Marlene’s twenty-fifth when they went out for dinner, premium Kobe beef teppanyaki with champagne, all at a fashionably inflated price. He’d even called ahead and arranged a birthday cake for dessert. Marlene had been looking forward to that dinner. It had been months since they’d actually been on a date, and the fact she was paying for the whole thing, a price he’d never afford without her, made for certain he’d show. Easy bait. Much easier than the demoralising slog of trying to convince him to spend twenty minutes at the same table of a Starbucks. You needed cash, or Kobe steak, to keep him pinned down. A cheap cup of coffee was never going to cut it. At the end of the meal he didn’t even bother making it look like he was paying. The staff knew it was her birthday dinner, because of the cake, and she would have happily given him her card to take to the front counter. But before she could even open her wallet, he’d sprinted for the door and she was left alone, embarrassed and conspicuous, paying for her own birthday and trying to ignore the low-key pity on the waiter’s face.
So much for a guy who was all about image.
She had to scold herself for such selfish thoughts. She didn’t need him to do it for her anymore. It was well and truly conditioned. And who was she to be begrudging after such a fancy meal in a fancy part of town, with a guy who was actually willing to sit with her for over an hour. . . . “By the way, can you buy some bread tomorrow?” “Sure, I’ll try to make it to the supermarket after work. I think it’s open till ten.” “No, I can’t eat supermarket bread. You need to go to the French patisserie. It closes at eight, but get there earlier because the baguettes might all be gone by then.” . . . The guy works maybe three days a week for a few hours at a time, pays no rent, and he’s still got the nerve to say he’s too good for supermarket bread. Well, Marlene, isn’t that a good thing, to have a guy with style? A guy who’s too good for the supermarket? Not so long ago people barely knew how to categorise you, you made them uncomfortable. So be thankful things are better now. . . . But it was a farewell dinner for a middle-manager at Marlene’s work that cut the final, clinging thread and commenced the unravel. It should have been a good night out – some decent food and a lot of alcohol, all paid for her by someone else, even if that someone was just a corporate logo, and no need to grovel for anyone to sit at the same table as her. She thought she looked pretty nice as well, considering she’d dressed in the dark, lights out and curtains drawn at seven in the morning. He got angry when she disturbed his sleep, even if it was just so she could go out and earn the money that meant he could afford to sleep in until noon. The previous night he’d even suggested she pack a bag and go stay with a friend for a week, so she could ask them for an honest appraisal of her behaviour, of what she was like to live with. She needed to hear it from another person who wouldn’t pull any punches, he’d said. But Marlene didn’t have the time or energy to organise some weird adult sleepover. It had been strenuous enough pulling together this farewell party on top of everything else she had to do over a fourteen-hour workday. Besides, the logical part of her brain knew it would be a bizarre request to make of anyone: “Please let me stay with you for a whole week and grade me on my behaviour.” They’d look at her like she was a psycho. People already looked at her a bit that way. But there was no point arguing it, and she was deathly afraid of crushing one too many eggshells. She was here now, not looking too bad, a few drinks on the company account. The middle-manager being farewelled stood up to give his final toast and say a few words to each person in his team. He started doing the rounds, praise and appreciation, a nostalgic anecdote here and there. The girl Marlene’s age, who’d started the same time as her, he spoke to like a lover, a bit sleazy, easily for three full minutes, even though he was married with at least one child. Then he landed on Marlene. And he laughed. Not raucous, but conspicuous enough. An awkward chuckle under his breath and a look that Marlene should have been used to by now, a look that said: I’m not sure how to categorise you, why are you even still here, making me uncomfortable? “Um…so…how long have you been working here again?” “Almost three years.” “Well…I guess…what can I say? Sorry…” He chuckled again, or this time rather giggled. “I mean, you’re no Charlotte, but you just keep trying your best, okay.” He moved on as quickly as possible. Marlene sat in silence, mortified. She couldn’t even bring herself to pull off the obligatory smile and nod. What was the point even?
What the hell was her life? The different components may have looked good listed on paper: prestigious company name, flashy address, difficult-sounding bachelor’s degree from a university people knew without asking. But it was all a farce. In the flashy studio she was lonelier than she’d ever been in her life, even more than when she’d just been in her own horrific company. Everyone had a fancy-named bachelor’s degree these days, and the company name? Now it felt more like a BMW label tacked onto a third hand Ford Fiesta – three years of utter exhaustion and her boss couldn’t even think of a single platitude to throw at her, in front of a table full of people. In those few nonchalant, throwaway words, Mr. Middle Manager had shattered the facade. Not that he would ever have been interested in the impact of his words. Marlene was an awkwardness that didn’t require any further thought. She was definitely no Charlotte. Engaged Charlotte who was so likeable and sociable even a man in his mid forties with a wife and child at home could easily find himself with her one-on-one at one am in an all-night Chinese restaurant. But that didn’t matter. No one cared about that. It was the ‘normal’ kind of indiscretion. Socially palatable, people still knew how to talk to them the next day. Charlotte shot Marlene a pitying look across the table. It wasn’t sarcastic. She really meant it. She made no secret of thinking Marlene needed some pity. It was mortifying and degrading.
Charlotte and Mr. Middle Manager knew the ‘correct’ way to put a few toes across the line. Marlene didn’t. That was the problem. Better to sleep with a married man almost twice your age than a girl around the same. In any case, Marlene wasn’t sleeping with anyone anymore. It had only been the once since she and her boyfriend moved in together. Then his job was done. He had her where he needed her to be. Marlene snuck away and walked as fast as her legs would carry her without looking insane: through the city and up the hill, into the little snow-globe village and back home.
Back in the apartment: the bathroom and the combined living-bedroom area segregated by a wall made almost entirely of turquoise frosted glass. Printed on the glass was a cheap, black outline of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was all very impractical – you could see the blurred outline of whoever was showering or using the toilet, no way to have guests, too awkward.
It was one of those designs for people who want to look like they have more money than they really do and are willing to pay premium for something stupid because they think it looks expensive – a complete and utter farce. Marlene’s boyfriend must have been there not so long ago; the bathroom side of the frosted glass wall was still dripping wet from shower spray. As Marlene collapsed to the floor in ugly, heaving sobs she looked up momentarily to notice drops of water running down the cheeks of Audrey Hepburn above her. A quarter of a century of living and what did she have to show for it? A job she slaved at only to be treated as a joke, an apartment where she had to watch the volume of her breathing or be scolded like a poorly trained dog, and a boyfriend who far from not loving her, made it clear he didn’t even like her. He would he livid if he could hear it now, all the withheld breath that had been going stagnant in her lungs for weeks, loud and obnoxious as she heaved and sobbed on the floor.
He didn’t come back home for close to a week after that night, no contact whatsoever. Marlene could easily have used that time to expedite a moving service, clear the apartment of everything that was hers, which was most things, and leave him to flail whenever he decided to come back. He was the only one whose name was actually on the lease. Marlene could easily have disappeared and left him to scramble and panhandle for next month’s rent, for tomorrow’s bread. He wouldn’t even have been able to afford the supermarket loaf. But narratives in real life rarely, if ever, turn out in perfect, satisfying layers of bitter and sweet; love, heartbreak and vengeance. It look Marlene a few tries over to finally bring herself to leave forever, to stop feeding him when he begged or tantrum-ed. It definitely wasn’t the catharsis, the crescendo of justice that would have been so much more satisfying to look back on. She just no longer had the spare energy to keep dancing on a puppet string so the shit-show could go on.
After she left, properly, Marlene got a new career, more stamps on her passport, more photos and memories with her actual friends, and eventually a family and a home where she could breathe. At one point, after about a year and a half of not seeing each other, Marlene found out her now ex-boyfriend was still living at home with his parents. She looked up his Twitter, knowing she had better things to do, and found it scrawled top to bottom with the innumerable spam links he shared, all from faceless accounts promising implausible cash prizes for followers who did so. Above some of these spam links littering his wall, Hugo had written, “choose me, choose me!” Only this time the demand didn’t echo as threatening in Marlene’s head. Instead, it read more like the plea of a ten-year-old kid, desperate to win a raffle prize at the carnival. Except he wasn’t ten, and Marlene needed to stop this online stalking and get on with her day. She was well and truly sick of this story now.
Katie-Rose Goto-Švić is an emerging writer from Australia, living in Japan.
Her work has appeared in ‘New Contexts: 3’ (Coverstory Books), The Manifest-Station, and Bewildering Stories, and is upcoming in BarBar Online Literary Magazine and L’Esprit Literary Review. She was a finalist for the 2021 Page Turner Writing Award. https://www.instagram.com/katiegs_writer/