BY DANILA BOTHA
He didn’t really have time for a girlfriend. He was in an academic crunch, four months away from graduating from dental school. She seemed like the type that was serious: serious about life, about her career, about relationships.
She had the strangest accent he’d ever heard. It sounded like a mix of a lot of things. He couldn’t place it. Where are you from, he asked her. Everywhere and nowhere, she said, and shrugged. He found out that she was from Quebec, from a tiny town called Cap Rouge. After her C-Jep, she lived in Berlin for three years, and then the Netherlands for one, before moving to Paris to go to university. He could tell she didn’t really like talking about herself, so he didn’t press her further. He told her about himself; the small town in Ontario he was from, his family, his friends.
She looked at him with obvious wariness, even when she smiled. She’d be a lot hotter, he thought, if she didn’t seem like she could be a giant pain in my ass.
He votes Conservative and doesn’t read fiction, she thought. He doesn’t know Michaelangelo and Raphael’s art from the Ninja Turtles. What will we ever talk about?
She was affectionate though, he noticed, and clearly up for a lot of things. She was good at dirty talk, good at teasing the hell of him. There was something sexy about her laugh, the way it came from deep in her throat. She seemed like the kind of girl who was hard to shock.
He was a foot taller than her, and when he put his arms around her, she felt like he was swallowing her. It felt strangely reassuring. You remind me of a character in a Disney movie, she told him. He looked at her oddly. Who, he asked. She smiled. The crocodile in Peter Pan. Remember the Never Smile at a Crocodile song? His expression was the definition of blank.
“Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin/he’s imagining how well you fit within his skin.”
She made him feel like she was onto him. Like she wouldn’t take any shit. There was something that got under his skin about it, something annoying, yet something he guessed he probably needed to hear. She taught grade seven and eight at the French immersion school, a twenty minute walk from where he lived. She could be bossy, and occasionally she forgot that he wasn’t her student. She’d fix him with a look, a mix of chagrin and disappointment with a tiny dash of anger. There was something alluring about it.
He noted, the first time he kissed her, how full her lips were, how reluctantly she parted them. Everything seemed deliberate with her, purposeful. Her mouth was dry, he moved his tongue along hers. She’d crunched on violet flavored candies that her mother bought her in France a moment before. He winced, picturing her teeth cracking. She tasted like potpourri, like flowers and Tic Tacs, cigarettes and Diet Coke. He noticed her teeth the first time she smiled. He liked her eye teeth, their sharp little ends. She told him she liked to bite, and he imagined them nibbling his shoulder, or the skin below his clavicle.
She liked the way he hugged her, the way she and all her heavy thoughts suddenly felt so insignificant.
Diet Coke is bad for you, he told her one day. You shouldn’t drink it.
She shrugged. Everything causes cancer, she said.
No, I mean, it probably does, but I meant, you know, it’s bad for your teeth. It strips the enamel off them. You’ll get cavities.
She laughed. It’s a bit late for that she said. He liked the way she said the word bit, a beet. I’ve already given my dentist hundreds of dollars this year, and it’s January.
You probably shouldn’t smoke either. She nodded, looking at him seriously this time. Oui, je sais. My grandmother died of lung cancer just last year. She was just in her seventies.
He touched her shoulder. Was she a heavy smoker too?
She shook her head. She never smoked a day in her life. Maybe everyone goes when it’s his or her time, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it.
Their first date began at 11:30 at night. Their clothes had hit the floor before the first hour. He said, we can go for coffee, but she was running late, so after about five texts, each one delaying her arrival by another twenty minutes, or half an hour, he told her to just come over.
She was taken aback by the disarray in his apartment. He was redoing his floors, retiling his bathroom. It looked like a construction site. You have very manly hobbies, she said, looking him up and down like she was trying to figure out just what she was doing there. Well, it’s true, I’m not into needle point or knitting, he said, and she laughed uncontrollably. She was surprised he even knew the terms.
He’d pulled off her skirt, her tights, her winter boots. She laughed when he left his socks on. What if I needed a lot of foreplay, she teased? I mean, hypothetically, anyway? He laughed, slipped a finger between her thighs. She moaned. You don’t, he said confidently, I can feel. She laughed, moaned softly, then louder, then gave in, inhaling, shuddering deeply.
The morning after they’d slept together, he got nervous. He got up and showered. He made coffee and ate breakfast. She continued sleeping, looking faraway. He paced next to her side of the bed, til she woke up. It was 8:15am. They’d gone to sleep at roughly 3:00, after two amazing rounds, both satisfied.
She rubbed her eyes, sat up slowly, smiled at him.
I don’t want you to get all weird now, he told her.
She looked at him like, what the fuck.
He looked back at her, and smiled tightly. Like all boyfriend and girlfriend-y. She nodded, looked him in the eye, said so you want it to be just about sex?
He looked at his feet. I don’t know what I want it to be, ok? I just want to go slow. Get to know each other. Ok?
She nodded. So if I ask you to marry me now, that would freak you out? Or if I tell you I love you next time you make me come?
He laughs. Shut up, Camille, he said, and ran the back of his hand along her soft left cheek. She kissed his fingertips.
Still, she was surprised every time he called her. Every time he texted. If she had her period and didn’t want to have sex, he still wanted to see her. It dawned on her slowly one day: he actually likes me.
What she liked most about him was that he was as straight talking as she was. Girls ask for too much attention, he told her, and she nodded, knowing that it was true. Often the question of how much she liked a guy was entirely dependent on how much attention he paid her. On some level, it was a relief to know that other women were guilty of it too. On another, it suddenly seemed ridiculous to her.
What do you miss most about being in a relationship, she asked him one day. Having someone to talk to about my day, and having someone to have sex with, he answered almost immediately.
She liked how simple he made it sound.
He was ambitious about his career. He seemed genuinely passionate about teeth. It disarmed her a little. She’d assumed that dentists were boring, and bored with everything. She also assumed, based on her own experiences being drilled and poked and cut and frozen, that dentists actually liked inflicting pain. Every time he touched her gently it was like unwrapping a tiny present. His touch grew softer every time he saw her. It made her feel like her skin was melting.
Doesn’t dentistry have the highest suicide rate of all professions, she asked him one night, lying in bed next to him, marking, as he studied, her left hand stretched across his stomach, his on her thighs. He looked at her like she was crazy.
So, I’m really glad you like it so much, she said. I don’t think you’ll get depressed doing this job.
He laughed, you’re sweet, you worry about me.
She shook her head. No, I don’t, she said. That’s what I’m telling you.
He laughed harder.
They always stayed in. He ventured over to her tiny apartment once, but she preferred his, debris and all. They tried to see a movie together once. They sat in the back row and made out. When she moved from her chair to his lap, and put a hand under her skirt, he realized she wasn’t wearing underwear. They’d left after five more minutes, straight to his car. They were surprised that they’d steamed up the windows, that it actually happened in real life.
It had been almost two months, and it occurred to him that they’d never actually been out together. In public. On a real date. It occurred to him that he’d never even seen her eat.
He asked her if she wanted to go for dinner with him one night. She looked at him blankly. Why, she asked. I want to take you out, he said. She thought of all the men she’d known in her past, all their fake promises. She had no patience for real dates, when it came down to it. But she was starting to trust him.
Why, she asked, again, knowing that she needed to hear him say it. Because I like you, Camille, he said, and she smiled. She was starting to believe it.
They went to a seafood restaurant, on the water. She ordered the salmon that was swimming in butter, that came with a side of mashed potatoes. She was afraid to look at the price.
She did what she always did in restaurants. She chewed her food carefully. She ate slowly. She drank water before and after. She was starving. It was delicious. She felt like she needed a shovel. He ordered them crème brulee for dessert. The caramel top layer was crunchy, the middle perfectly moist. She licked her lips.
When they were finished she excused herself to go the bathroom.
She’d been doing it for roughly fifteen years, long enough to have permanently damaged her digestive system. A part of her stomach that was supposed to clamp didn’t anymore, a doctor explained to her once. She could make herself vomit without using her fingers, without thinking of something nauseating, without any effort at all really. She could vomit spontaneously. She could vomit quickly, bring up an entire meal in less than ten minutes. She was excellent at it.
It made her feel, for a few minutes a day, like she could breathe. Like she was in control. Like she was normal and calm instead of being full of self-loathing.
She’d been in and out of rehab for years, but nothing really seemed to help. She tried not to let it take over her life. So she couldn’t keep her food down, she reasoned. So she needed cavities, an occasional root canal. So her stomach burned sometimes. So she’d lost her appetite. So what? She’d live. She hoped anyway.
She stopped to fix her make-up, put drops in her eyes to mask the redness, wash her mouth out with water, use mouth wash, pop a fresh piece of gum, use hand sanitizer, douse herself in a cloud of perfume.
She knew she was safe. If there was one thing she knew about Scott it was that he didn’t ask too many questions. She knew he was smart enough to have figured it out. That he might know. That the irony of it might strike him as funny. It was like a bad punch line: she feared intimacy the way a bulimic fears a dentist. The word love had always caused her stomach to tie itself into knots. It did her head in, to think about it.
His lips were stained purple from the wine he ordered. He reached for her hand under the table. She whispered, come here, quietly, but loud enough that he could hear it, and kissed him quickly. In public. She felt the blood rush to her temples.
I like romance, she whispered after he’d paid, when they got up to get their coats. I like it a lot. I’m just afraid of being hurt. He pulled her close to him, patted her hair. It’s ok, he said, even though she wasn’t sure it would be.
Later that night, back in his apartment, he pulled out a small chocolate heart, wrapped in red foil paper. Is that for me, she asked, grinning. No, it’s for my other girlfriend, he answered, and she slapped him. She wanted to eat it right then, but the effort of throwing up seemed like too much. Plus the apartment was small, and he’d find out. She promised him she’d eat it the next day. I wanted to ask you if you’d be my valentine, he said, but I figured it was too cheesy. She giggled.
Yes, she said, a few minutes before they both fell asleep.
Danila Botha was born in South Africa and lives in Toronto, Canada. Her first book, a collection of short stories called Got No Secrets, was published in 2010 by Tightrope Books. It was also published in South Africa by Modjaji Books and will be published in Australia by Blunt Trauma Press. Her second book, a novel, called Too Much on the Inside, will be published in the fall of 2012. This story is from her third book, a recently completed collection of short stories called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known.