Talking about it would make me sound mentally ill, and sounding mentally ill—in this economy?—feels dangerous.
I enjoy approximately the same relationship to the truth as most people: I savor its bracing quality; THE SIMPLICITY OF COMMUNICATION; right up to the point it stops being convenient. I do not publish untruths on a billboard for the kick of the thing. But if an exaggeration will add seasoning to a story I only realize is half-baked and palely tedious once I’ve embarked on the telling of it, then: sure. If a friend invites me to their house party and on the night of, I fall asleep on my couch, then: obviously.
so sorryGrey’s Anatomy
He falls asleep afterwards and I listen to the passing cars, the low hum of tires kissing tarmac. Eventually, I fall asleep. At some point in the night, I have the sensation he is talking on the phone, just outside the room: Maybe he already has a girlfriend? I think, too soggy with sleep to care.
In the morning, I roll over to find him sat up smoking and watching me. Before I can say anything, my phone rings: It’s Anna.
“My angel. Baby girl. How was your PLEASURE RIDE?” This is what we’re calling the rollercoaster initiative. “Are you less listless? Better concentration?”
“Productivity’s up 54%.”
“Great. Thrilled to hear it. But enough chit-chat.”
Anna runs the agency I freelance for, and like every other thought leader thriving under the Liberty government, she’s reverse-mullet: Party at the front, business at the back. “Gazprom phoned last night. They’re looking for someone to do PR for a pipeline they’ll be building between Hull and Tokyo. This is big. Which could be helpful for you! Your reputation still isn’t . . . it’s not . . . ”
“Not perfect,” she finishes firmly. “It would look good, wouldn’t it? If you handled this and it went well.”
She names a sum so big it almost knocks me off my chair. All the same, I tell her I’ll think about it and give her a call back. It seems smart to remind Anna that despite my fuck-up, I am still TOP TALENT. I hate to brag (I do not hate to brag) but I was on plenty of “30 under 30” lists up until I worked for the opposition party in the last election.
When the Apathy descended, anyone who worked for the opposition got tarred and feathered. Mental Health Crisis, shrieked the papers. Solidarity’s Defeat Tears the Country in Two. Those infected first slumped onto the pavement with bored, hard eyes. They shat in the street because who cares, barely ate because why bother. After one particularly cold spell, the city of London awoke to hundreds of bodies frozen to death in the centre and there was an outcry in the international press. The bigger American and German companies started moving their offices to Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt. But that was when the Apathy was something new and the Government didn’t know any better. Now they send “social workers” to clean up each morning.
All the same, some of our clients still refuse to work with me after they GOOGLE MY NAME. “Can you blame them?” Anna says sometimes, when she’s in a sour mood. I’ve never asked how she voted.
Will enters stage left, fully dressed. “Are we going for breakfast?” he says so guilelessly that I find myself nodding, though I’d already decided to head home and research what this Gazprom pipeline is about—just a play for the headlines, surely? “We’ll have to get a jump on,” I say, checking my watch. “My rollercoaster ride’s at eleven.”
“Mine too,” he says.
Over breakfast, we laugh and feed each other pancakes like COUPLES I HATE ON FIRST SIGHT.
“How did it take me my whole life to meet you?” he says, mock-aghast. While normally, such a statement would leave me sprinting for the nearest exit, something feels different this time.
There’s some undefinable thing about Will that has me hooked. He would be perfect if he wasn’t so pro-rollercoaster. “I just think it’s not THE END OF THE WORLD,” he keeps saying, provokingly, “There’s revolutionary potential, there.”
I shovel some more sugar into my coffee. Would Will still be attracted to me if he knew I’d worked for Solidarity? “How so?”
“Think about it: just every possible sector of society, standing in line. It’s a great opportunity for people to get talking. I mean, we did.”
“Yeah, but would we have? If it hadn’t been for the drunk guy behind you?”
He shrugs. “It’s whatever—the point is, I think there are benefits. Maybe it really will lead to a dip in isolation and depression—not because rollercoasters cure depression, I’m not that dumb. But maybe it’ll give the unemployed structure to their day.”
“The unemployed?” I make obnoxious quote marks. “Are you quoting Liberty’s press release?”
I’m suddenly feeling as skittish as I usually do about romantic entanglements. “Look, I’ve got to head off. Got a few things to tick off before the rollercoaster. Maybe catch you in the queue?” I reach for my card, thinking of the Gazprom account. “And don’t worry about the bill. MY TREAT.”
Even though I trudge two neighborhoods along in the rain for my rollercoaster ride, I still manage to run into Will.
“Oh god,” he says, face red. “How—?”
“I just,” and he eyeballs the tarmac. “I just felt like earlier didn’t go very well and I didn’t want to crowd you.”
I have to laugh. It is kind of funny. “Yeah, same. So I thought I’d go to a different facility.”
“Same.” He slips his hand into mine, attempts a rueful grin. “I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to offend you with the rollercoaster stuff. We don’t have to TALK POLITICS.”
“OK,” I say. “That sounds nice.”
On the rollercoaster, the wind whistles through my hair and I clutch Will’s hand, and for 180 seconds I do not think about anything at all. My secret is this: I fucking love these stupid rollercoasters. I genuinely do feel happier, healthier, more upbeat, more engaged. My ears prick, my tail wags. All of the promises in the press packet. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
for the longest time, i pull love over my head like a duvet when the alarm is bleating. when will so much as places his hand on my back some essential tension at my centre unknots itself. will has a constellation of freckles across his cheeks that makes him look younger than he is and sometimes at night he talks in his sleep, but i can’t make out the words. i stop going to work and stay at home instead. sometimes will goes away for a couple of days to build stage sets and even when he’s in the house, he takes a lot of phone calls with the door closed behind him. i don’t think liberty is so bad, he says. people seem happier than they used to. you seem happier. for my part, i switch my phone off so anna can’t reach me. she comes round once—i see her silhouette loom large against the glass of the front door—she knocks twice, leans on the doorbell for a while. i know you are there, she calls out. i can hear you breathing. in turn, i can smell her perfume through the door—it smells like being bored and glamorous in a department store, dust motes pooling in a shaft of buttery light—and for a moment, i want to open the door and bury my face into the lapels of her expensive coat and breathe in. she thinks i am ill. but i believe having the apathy would involve laboring under such a deficiency of hope that you cannot do anything but lie down on the pavement and cool your cheek against the concrete, and my chest is so full of the stuff that sometimes i could take flight. i google long elaborate queries about whether there is an opposite state to depression. whether it could be harmful to be happy all the time, without pause. will seems worried that i’ve stopped working. you don’t seem like yourself, he keeps saying. you were superwoman when we first met! don’t you miss the hustle? we only leave the house to go for rollercoaster rides, get our passes stamped. i find a notebook of his filled cover to cover with tight, looped handwriting—it’s written in code. it’s my diary, he says unblinkingly. what about work, he asks do you think you’ll
I go back to work four days after Will disappears. I was half-asleep when he stuck his head around my bedroom door to say he was going to build a stage for a trade fair. I have my pride! Which meant, in practice, riding the choppy seas of my stomach churn until eleven that night before I gave in. “The number you have dialed has not been recognized.” I checked the number—it was the same one I usually contact Will on. But now all our texts had vanished. I hardly know what to think.
i TUMBLE INTO THE ABYSS for a few days but eventually, I get up and go into the office. Anna is on a phone call when I come in and her eyes go big and bugged out when she sees me.
“My angel. Baby girl. How was your PLEASURE RIDE?” This is what we’re calling the rollercoaster initiative.
“Two fucking months,” she says when she finally gets off the phone. Her face is damp and blotchy with tears. “I thought you—” she starts to speak but thinks better of it. “Well, it doesn’t matter. You’re back now.”
Anna has already put together the media plan for the Gazprom pipeline, but she catches me up. All day, I work on press releases and speeches. When I look up, it’s already dark out and Anna’s pulling on her coat. “Come on,” she says. “I’m going to a party. You should come.”
Outside, the air is starting to smell like spring. We both avert our eyes when a man slumps across the pavement before us and skirt around him. Anna places some coins next to him in a tidy pile on the pavement, but that’s more for our peace of mind than for him—Apaths don’t have enough forward-motion to spend money. Anna wants us to stop for pizza on the way and I order a quattro formaggi and then find I can’t eat. “Oh, honey,” she says, consuming both of our pizzas with poise, no melted cheese dripping down her chin. “Is this ABOUT A BOY?”
I shrug it off. Talking about it would make me sound mentally ill, and sounding mentally ill—in this economy?—feels dangerous. “Let’s go to the party,” I say.
“Yes,” she smiles. “That’s the spirit: plenty more fish.”
The party is a housewarming in a lavish apartment painted pink and gold, and everyone must have come straight from the office, because they’re mostly decked out in those white suits that only upper level civil servants get to wear. There’s a surplus of champagne, which has happened at precisely zero events I’ve ever been to. Anna introduces me to a friend she went to boarding school with and has presumably briefed her about my FRUSTRATIONS OF THE HEART, because the girl watches me with kind, serious eyes as I tell an anecdote that manages to both go nowhere and last a few hundred years. I go to the toilet to recover, but there’s a big queue outside it. I’m preparing for a long wait when someone stumbles into me. I turn around and the perpetrator catches his breath on seeing me. I place a hand on his arm to settle him. “Are you OK?” He’s wreathed in whiskey fumes. There’s something familiar about him, but I can’t place him. Then it hits me.
“I am . . . good.” he says, finally, carefully. I decide he’s very drunk, like last time.
I extend my hand. “Monica.”
He takes my hand, but doesn’t tell me his name. Anna walks past at this point, and catching us hand in hand, gives me a sly thumbs up. My phone pings, and I reach for it, breathless—Will?—but it’s just Anna again: get back on the horse
“Do I look familiar?” He shakes his head.
“Because you look familiar. Can you believe that we were in the same rollercoaster queue a few months ago?”
“I don’t think so,” he says. “I’ve just got ONE OF THOSE FACES. People are always mistaking me for someone else.”
But if this was true, then why can’t he meet my eye?
“It’s funny,” I continue, recklessly, “because I guess you were pretty drunk then. You lost your balance and fell into this guy, Will, who stumbled into me, and, it’s a funny story, because we actually ended up . . . ” I feel close to crying, so I force a laugh, which rings hollow. “It’s whatever. It didn’t work out in the end. But it’s so funny to see you.”
I am shooting for something light and gauzy! a PARTY-APPROPRIATE TONE. But this last line drops with all the vivacity of the volcanic ash choking Pompeii. It seems unfair to expect this—would “acquaintance” be a reach?—to counsel me, so I fish my phone from my pocket and pretend to be absorbed in a text so he has an exit route.
But then he threads his arm through mine and pulls me through the crowd and onto a balcony. He starts to roll a cigarette, then another one, which provides a convenient alibi for not looking at me the whole time he talks.
“It wasn’t meant to go so far. It was just . . . a sort of game.”
“Game’s a funny word for it, maybe—there was professional backing, big data. The messages you sent, the films you watched, where you hung out, but, still. There was an innate playfulness, there. ‘Could it be done?,’ etc.”
I think of watching Notting Hill on my couch, the orange juice fucking meet-cute. The sheer SCALE OF MY STUPIDITY winds me.
He shakes his head. “I shouldn’t even be saying—”
“But you’ve started.”
“You ran such an excellent PR campaign. Very neat, just playful enough.”
He shakes his head impatiently. “You were never going to win. Those weren’t good odds. But it meant people noticed you.”
“The right people.” He rolls his eyes. “Or OK. Maybe they were the wrong people, in your case. Because nobody wanted you just to take a new job—to just take it for the money. You had to really believe in the whole thing.”
I take the second cigarette from him, find a lighter abandoned on a chair. “So . . . ?”
He finally looks at me. “So.”
I smoke the cigarette and survey the blank faces of the Belgravia flats across from us and think about an essay I once read by this Canadian novelist. She had separated from her partner, and what struck her was how similar it was to kicking a long-term cigarette addiction. That she didn’t primarily understand it as an emotional experience; it felt closer to something like a physical ache: THE IMMEDIACY, THE STRENGTH OF THE YEARNING.
Finally, the man who stumbled into Will turns to me, and there’s something in his face that makes my palms prick. I feel dizzy, on THE VERGE OF REVELATION. The thread that will pull everything together. He says: “Of course, he never should have taken you back to his place.” He looks almost wistful now. “How many twenty-something carpenters do you know with their own luxury apartments in Knightsbridge?”
I stumble down to the street. It’s raining now, and ordinarily, I’d pull my hood up or wrap my scarf around my head, but what does it matter? I’m so tired that the world blurs blue-grey around me. I trudge to the end of the street. I never noticed how long the roads are here. Three more streets til the bus stop. Two. The largeness of London feels bad on an ordinary day, but right now the scale of the city feels crushing. One. I sink to my knees, let the rain soak through my tights. My body is too heavy, so I lie down. Passers-by clip smartly past, orbit around me. Cool my cheek against the concrete. Gone.