I liked her anyway because she was not bi-polar or a nymphomaniac; She drank beer cheerfully, without developing a fixed gaze or a whining simper. She did not have a caustic temper – or, if she had, had not shown it yet. She had not mentioned any man who ill-used her; I might be the first to disappoint her. She did not live in Switzerland or have kids.
Nothing in her conversation or demeanour suggested obsession, whether for tidiness or body weight, nor bitchiness. She did not mask her face in plaster, oils or powder, nor did she smoke or bemoan her troubled life. She was not like any of the big loves of my life. That was good. She reminded me of a woman I once had a nice affair with, that had not ended in violence or divorce.
She seemed to like me but not to need me, whether for shelter or as someone to control. She sought neither my affirmation nor my love, just my company, so that she might enjoy my jokes and tell a few stories of her own and unwind after a hard week.
She would have been as content with someone else. Whatever was about to happen was not going to be according to a script that had been enacted before, in my life anyway, apart perhaps from that love affair with a sane woman. But probably nothing was going to happen. She interacted with me like a lesbian, that is by not picking up any sexual charge or generating one. Maybe she wondered if I was gay; women say they can tell by the man showing no curiosity about them. I was not attracted to her. Might she have been used to that? I doubt it; she was a lovely woman, in a way; just not in the way that usually intrigued me.I wasn’t really amenable to being intrigued anyway.
And I had mentioned that I was in relationship already, so she would not move or speak in any way that might be flirtatious; that would be just bad manners and pointless since she trusted that I was a good man who would not betray the woman he loved.
I had done a small job for her, facilitated a meeting. As a thank you, she and her colleague invited me for a drink. I had left my girlfriend at her home and said I would be back in a few hours; this was work related. I was really just being courteous. More work might follow.
She and her friend, on the other hand, were partying. They were a bit drunk already. The conversation was loud and tumbling. I didn’t get fully into its flow and I didn’t want to get drunk. If I had been planning to go back to my own bed, I might have switched gear and fitted more easily alongside them.
Rachael was thin and dark. She was a vivacious conversationalist. She was drinking a trendy beer from the bottle. But she was a serious person.
At one point we were talking about the morality of abortion, probably as an aside to a conversation about the differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. And she said she had had one. We went deeper, into the question of whether she should feel guilty; not morbidly but almost as if we were planning a programme on the subject. She said: ‘I don’t feel guilty because I had no choice. It’s like running over a rabbit to save your life.’
I went away thinking that I liked her, that it was a pity we couldn’t sit drinking and talking together all night. We might have passed out together on her bed and had a hungover breakfast in the morning. She was grand: edgy, cerebral, bright. We could be mates. We could work together. There would be occasional opportunities.
The first came a few months later. I looked her up when I was in London. She was happy to hear from me, even excited. We met at her workplace and travelled on the upper deck of a bus in the rain. She looked different now, tired and shivery, in her working clothes, reduced by the bigger city.
She took me to a small flat with paintings on the wall and made me dinner. Soon we were doing what came naturally to us, talking. She was telling me what artist painted the gloomy monstrosity over her sofa. When she was at the loo I browsed the shelves and found a political biography beside a sex manual. I flicked open at the page that told me what part of the anal sphincter was more sensitive to touch, as if I couldn’t work that out for myself.
Then she was back filling my glass.
One of the big questions over the sexes is whether a man and a woman can have a friendship without sexual desire intruding. Every girlfriend that I have ever had has been jealous of other women in my life. Women believe they can have friendships with men; but they don’t seem to believe that a man can have a friendship with a woman. My wife, for instance, has male friends. She will meet them for dinner or a drink. None of this threatens me. But she would not like me to be meeting female friends in the same way. And that is a paradox which I am so familiar with that I don’t regard it as hypocrisy or paranoia. I am used to the fact that women have rules they can’t rationalise. I suppose what it means is that women feel they can be trusted to refuse sexual advances more readily than any man can be trusted not to make them. That’s probably right too.
But I did not feel like suggesting to Rachael that we sleep together. And I was curious about that. I scrutinised her a little and asked myself why I was not immediately attracted to her. She was beautiful. I could imagine by her shape that under her clothes she had a lovely trim body with large breasts. She was single and in her 30s, like me. She was professional and had a good salary. She was a good catch. And there was an obvious explanation for why she didn’t have a man. She was too intelligent for a lot of men. She would scare them. But she didn’t scare me. I loved her intelligence.
So: she had brains and a body.
She was, now I thought of it, perfect. The reason we were not now undressing each other was not that we sensed we were not a good fit; it was that we were talking too much. We were distracting each other. I reasoned that it was time I made a little effort to pay attention to that body and excite her. Otherwise a relationship that might be just perfect for me wouldn’t get started.
She walked me to the underground on the night before I was going home. We were talking about politics now. It wasn’t that she was a compulsive talker. The natural chemistry between us made both of us voluble and witty. That was the high we gave each other. But before she directed me to my train, I said: ‘are you sure this is what we want?’
‘Well, what do you want?’
‘Well, shouldn’t we even think about it?’
‘Spending the night together?’
‘How do you feel about that?’
‘I don’t know’, she said.
She seemed not to have considered it.
‘Well think about it for next time.’
‘OK.’We might still have been discussing some theorem.
I looked into her eyes to try and read her secret feelings. They were only looking back, scrutinising me, wondering where this notion had come from.
I kissed her briefly on the lips.
‘Phone me,’ she said.
I felt that this was going to be a cerebral pairing but I didn’t mind.
In fact, I considered that this might be the entirely correct way to initiate a sexual relationship. Every other relationship I had had before had been driven by passion, and none of them had worked. In all of them — bar one or two — I had fallen in love, which is to say, I had become obsessed. I had been overwhelmed by fascination and desire. I had always, nearly always, chosen badly.
I had lived for a time in India where I had seen a culture that operated differently, in which pairing was agreed pragmatically. I was tired of the cycle of enthralment and despair. I was demoralised by how predictable my breakups were. I had to do it differently, or I had to tell the women I fell for that I was living out a pattern of repeated failures. And they, if they had any sense, would then have nothing to do with me.
But, of course they would accept me for they were usually women living out similar disastrous cycles of passion and calamity themselves.
A few nights later, lying in bed, I took a notion to phone Rachael.
‘Hi.’ There was a smile in her voice.
‘Tell me what you’re doing’, I said. She was sitting at the kitchen table, near the phone on the wall. She was alone.
‘What are you wearing?’ She was wearing a black cotton dress that buttoned down the front. She had no shoes or tights on. ‘What are you wearing?’
‘Nothing. I am in bed.’
‘Do you like that thought?’
And then we were discussing phone sex. Not having phone sex, but talking about whether we could.
‘Would you be able to come on the phone?’
‘I don’t know’, I said. But she noticed surely that the rhythm of my breathing had become more languorous.
‘I would like to imagine you taking your knickers off.’
‘OK. Imagine me taking my knickers off.’
‘It’s a bit hard with the phone in my hand.’
I was too shy. Neither of us would go first so neither of us completed. But she stayed on the phone and we talked round the possibility for about half an hour, her breath in my ear. She said she liked doing this, but I have no idea what she was doing.
A couple of days later I got an affectionate card from her.
A week after that I went back to London, trusting that we had agreed we would be sleeping together.
We met in a Chinese restaurant in Soho and talked about the Irish peace process, John Major and Ernest Hemingway. I got food poisoning which would not clutch my gut for another 12 hours but might already have been nibbling away at my libido. Still, I wanted to secure a sexual basis for our relationship, get the thing started. When I kissed her in the taxi, she looked entirely perplexed, as much as if I had just started cutting her hair.
We lay on her living room floor and I unbuttoned her flower patterned dress all the way down. She watched me. This was an experiment for both of us. I drew her white knickers over her thighs to see her whole vulnerable body, the flesh of her tummy, the uncropped bush of black hair. I knew bodies by now, had caressed the stretched bellies and breasts of women who had had babies, knew varicose veins and the close cropped pudenda of the kind of woman who has to be tidy, even when naked. I had seen fatty and slack vaginas and very discreet ones. Even the hair may be patterned differently on one woman than on another, just as on a man’s head. There was about three inches of white string emerging below it. She said: ‘I think you can see you face an obstacle now.’
I had made love to other menstruating women, some of whom had been embarrassed, most indifferent, none ever squeamish, so familiar are all women with their own blood. But she still wasn’t getting into this. She was watching me as from a distance, perhaps making mental notes. But now that she had effectively stopped me, it was her turn to make a suggestion.
‘I think we’ll be more comfortable in my bed.’
I undressed in her bedroom and got under her scarlet duvet. She walked into the room in a light dressing gown then dropped it to the floor and stood completely naked. Her body was as beautiful as a model’s. Now the breasts that had flopped to the sides when she was lying on the floor, sat out firmly with perky nipples. Her belly was smooth and flat. I doubted I had ever held such a gorgeous body close to mine.
There had been little suggestion of her shape in the way she dressed or moved. Her colleagues in work, if shown this body without her face, would probably not have guessed it was hers. And she, being a witty intellectual, put no value on it anyway, had not presented it as an advertisement of her inner self. I snuggled close and savoured it.
I was amazed that she had so much glory to share. Such flesh, such curves, such juices, such depths, such power in her limbs and comfort on her breasts.
She helped me in and she was warm and oily from the start. I’d expect a woman to be dry just after removing a tampon and the entry to be a struggle, or I’d have to go down and lick around, which I don’t like doing if there is blood and which some women don’t allow at all. Maybe she had added jelly or spit when she was in the bathroom.
I came inside her and she hugged me and we fell asleep, wrapped around each other. At least, I slept. She, I suspect, was still wondering if this had been a good idea.
In the morning I woke facing her shoulder and back. I stroked her side, down to the beautiful bottom that was there for me to admire and fondle as she slept.
I did not feel well. I was nauseous and the appetite for her skin passed suddenly. She turned and I told her I was delicate. She would be going out. I could rest and recover. She would trust me alone in her flat.
In her bathroom, among her perfumes and toiletries, I voided horrific spluttering sludge into a clean toilet bowl and hoped she didn’t hear me.
She kissed me as she left. I winced. Then I went back to the toilet.
For the next few days, the churning of my gut seemed indistinguishable from an uneasy sense that I should not have coaxed my friend Rachael, against her own judgement, into bed, and that we weren’t that good fit I’d been looking for. There had been no obvious thread from the ordinary social pleasure in our being together to the decision to have sex. She had never roused me with a look, a touch or a smile. I could have gone on for years meeting her for vivacious conversations and perhaps never felt a genuine, spontaneous twinge of lust for her. She might as well have been a man.
I had tried her because my experience suggested that my fancying a woman was a signal that I should have nothing to do with her.
One morning, naked together, she turned to hug me and make love and I pulled away. I just didn’t feel like it. I said the chemistry was all wrong. I was talking about the whole thing. She was furious. She leapt out of bed and got dressed.
We didn’t analyse. She was probably thinking she would calm down, talk later. She had more sense than to invite excuses and rationalisations. There would be a time for me to explain.
But I didn’t want to go through the weeping and arguing.
She phoned a couple of days later and asked me to meet her in a cafe. ‘Are you saying this is over?’
I thought she had already been quick to interpret me that way.
‘It was a mistake,’
‘Oh, don’t be bloody ridiculous.’
I phoned weeks later to try and apologise or explain. She now had nothing but contempt for me. Well, that’s normal.
She felt betrayed; I had ruined a friendship for a fuck.
True, I had wanted sex, but not, as she now believed, in a frivolous or animal urge for copulation and release. I hadn’t felt that at all; that was the problem. I had wanted to undress her and sleep in her bed, get entangled in her limbs, to explore whether a deeper intimacy would bind us closer. It didn’t. But my intention was good. It wasn’t the first time I had called it wrong. In fact, I was always calling it wrong.
I’m sure it wasn’t the first time either that she had succumbed to a man who turned out to be a dud.
Malachi O’Doherty’s new book On My Own Two Wheels, is published next month by Blackstaff Press, £8.99. His earlier works are available on Amazon.co.uk and on Kindle.