Go on, ask me about my life. It’s fine – I’m here, you’re there. We’ve got this screen between us. You are safe. I don’t mind, really. If you met me in real life, I’d be the quiet one. Here, you can do the working out. Talk isn’t always synonymous with meaning, you know. I’d like to ask you directly what you think, but sometimes you get more of an explanation by reading between the lines. What you don’t see is what usually results in the right answers. I’ve learned a lot more about you from your silence. You were quite cautious at first. I think you would have been reserved in person, too. But then we had a funny conversation about unconscious drinking and you sent me a picture of you pretending to drink straight from a wine bottle. I laughed, you made another joke and swore, and I knew you were comfortable.
I’m not allowed to swear on social media, you say. Children’s author and all that. Like some old-Hollywood star with a morality clause. That’s why we talk in private. We joke how depraved your lot is in private. Charming drawings and words about cats and horses by day, I say. Knife fights and drug-fuelled orgies at night, and that’s how Roald Dahl actually died, you say. Natural causes, my arse. You are funny, incredibly so. I’m not sure how we started talking. I think I replied to something you said about biscuits and tea being the new rock n’ roll. Since then we’ve had 140 character conversations involving cat walking, S&M dungeons being steam cleaned, the woes of modern dating, solitude, a hatred of new build houses, growing a beard, playing the ukulele and the Shipping Forecast.
We also talk about separation. You’re separated, so am I. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the more complicated set of circumstances, even if you’re the one with kids. You make a slightly cryptic comment about how new build houses were one of the many reasons why you’re no longer with your wife. Secretly I puzzle over this as I can’t picture it being that much of a bone of contention. Maybe you just love old architecture. I don’t pry into this and instead tell you about how, if I won the lottery, I would buy the huge statues that used to sit outside Bedlam from the Science Museum, and sit them outside my front door. I tell you that I would move into the Chelsea Physic Garden if I could. You say you’ve never heard of it. I say someday I will take you there and show you the poisonous plants and maybe, if you’re good, you can draw under the big tree. You say that sounds nice and that you’ve even got your own crayons that you can bring.
You ask to read what I’ve written, but I demur. I have a lot of self-doubt, and I tell you this. You say you feel the same every day and that it doesn’t really go away. This reassures me because I see you as established. I know not all writers have Will Self levels of supreme self-confidence, but you never really hear about them. The reality is I do not let you read it because it is painful to me to let you see the things that I cannot say out loud. This is why my ex-husband has never seen what I have written, or anyone close to me. If you read me, it is intimacy, raw and emotional. Maybe someday I will let you, I say.
You ask me my name, my real one. It is lovely, you say. My name is not for everyone. It is secret, like my writing, like these conversations. At times you make me feel like I am unfurling, spiralling. I’m nosy, you say. You apologise for this, more than once. But I say I don’t mind, and I really don’t. But I can’t help feeling like a Venus fly-trap and that I should be apologising to you. Talking draws people in, sometimes just enough for them to open themselves as much as the one doing the talking. At its most genuine, it is also at its most manipulative. What I am doing with you, it is pain as much as pleasure. There is a reverberation in this kind of communication that hurts the sensitive, and I amplify laughter and sadness within me to the point of it being unbearable. In the real world, words float over you, some filter through and very few hit their mark. In this world, they envelope and contain you.
I sometimes wonder why these fleeting encounters mean so much to people. Is it because we are so detached from each other in our day-to-day lives that the connections we make in this other world are held up as some ideal? It is just as easy to hide in this one as it is in the tangible one. Perhaps we honestly believe our alternate selves are the best, the truest ones. Perhaps there is some godlike appeal in the ability we think we have to manipulate ourselves into the perfect image. The screen is a mirror, and we seek the safety and desire of others to be our reflection. There is still enough self-loathing in me to be wary of this, yet each new line written or received is as hypnotic as the conjurer’s snake or the lotos of Tennyson’s poem, and I worry that one day I will never want to return.
Do you believe in any sort of cosmic balance? I don’t, and never have believed in things like karma or horoscopes or the universe magically, invisibly controlling us. And yet like the addition or subtraction of weights on a golden scale, one relationship amends itself while another unravels. Both in tears, I should imagine – the best and worst always do. It’s a strange thing how tears represent great cleansing and utter destruction. Until now I had never stopped to think of how our fluids betray our emotions, from joy, sadness and ecstasy to the blood of the person so distraught at being that they release it in the hope of draining their pain.
Sex is the connection and the closeness you say, and I agree. But I have been so disconnected, so distant from people. Sometimes it feels like I can never come back, that I am permanently severed from the world. Once in a great while I feel something electric and this shock triggers ghostly remembrances of emotion, muscle memories of beautiful entanglements. It lingers for a moment, then disappears, filling me with despair and questions of whether I am to feel this way again. I have been passionate and irresponsible in my youth. I turned my back on these to be who I thought I should be – the model of adulthood and progress. And yet there was no progress and my maturity only gives me a self-awareness I wish I did not have.
Sometimes I feel like the oracle, questioned through the ether and asked for advice. Why do you ask? You say honestly, you want to know, is it the right thing you are doing? I do not know why it is I cannot see myself the way others do. It is a curious thing to be devoid of that perception. You say you’ve been here before. It makes you tired sometimes. I listen. I advise, but it is the polite kind of advice. The advice you give when not enough familiarity has passed between you and the other person, when you know it doesn’t matter and that they are willing to accept their hurt as much as their joy, in spite of all its frustrations. It’s not black and white when you’re in the relationship, you say. Oh, this I know, but I do not reply. I know that all areas are grey when you are in love. Once I was that maelstrom of passion and insecurity that brings men to such peaks and lows. You see, we women are Scylla and Charybdis. You are wary of us yet you sail through us, always willingly, knowing there is destruction.
This is the other world. This is not real life, even though there is no difference to me. I act the same in both but I feel I no more belong to one than the other, any more than a spectre condemned to walk the earth unseen. What do you want, you ask. What I want is to come out of the ether, to hear breath when I listen, to touch when I speak. What I want is for you to say my name.
Tomoe Hill lives and writes in a converted lunatic asylum near London. Her last short story, “Peripheries”, was featured in The Stockholm Review of Literature. @CuriosoTheGreat.