That was the summer I had an affair with the girl who collected shadows. You might think she was doing it for some deep and meaningful reason (an art project, maybe? A political statement about the things people hide?) but it wasn’t like that. She just liked the way they looked. Or maybe it was the way they felt: the scritchy soft velvet of shadow collar. Those delirious folds of shadow skin, so very grand to poke your finger inside.
At first, I was intrigued, stirred…even, I confess, a little aroused. Her bedroom was doused in them, doused in this pretty half-light, and we’d skirt around the shadows, licking at each other’s skin. Marvelling at how it looked when a particularly daring one cascaded over a thigh.
I’d always been nervous around other women’s bodies, convinced they were mere moments away from sitting up on their elbows and denouncing me. That’s not how you do it! But the shadows made things easier. I didn’t need to see the smirk that said I was a fool who’d never learned the right technique, and without that smirk I was so much more precise. By believing I was doing okay, it became the truth, kind of like how the stock market stays afloat for exactly as long as everyone agrees to pretend.
So I pretended. We pretended; we were happy. But then, at some point, I began to resent the shadows. Small things nagging at my skin. I grew sick of looking for my socks in the dim canyons of the bedroom floor. I got irritable that when we played Ladies’ Salon in her bed my pedicures always came out half-smudged—that I’d miss entire toes, forgetting they were there. I started to think that the shadows were capable of erasing whole parts of my body just by turning them invisible in the dark.
“Let’s get another lamp,” I’d say, as I dove down between her thighs, tossing the shadows off my shoulders like the unwanted palms of so many businessmen. “What?” she’d say. “No, like this. Softer. Yes, that’s it. Keep it like that.”
There was always that moment on the street when we’d have finished dinner in some cheap Italian restaurant, and I’d take her little soft hand and pull her under the lamplight to kiss her. And she’d laugh the laugh that sounded like pretty summer icicles falling on a runway, yanking me back into the depths of the alley. “Let’s go to my place,” I’d say. “It’s so close.” But then I’d see the anxiety flicker across her face, the thought of spending the night without her babies—the thought of them, alone, rubbing darknesses across each other—and I’d relent. She’d look up at me with eyes that looked like terrified petunias, spread wide and vulnerable, and I couldn’t say no.
So we went home, again and again, to her shadows. We let ourselves slip inside.
The first time I let myself be unfaithful was when she was in a whole other city. It makes sense—back then, I couldn’t have imagined doing what I did when she was just across town. She worked in the Ministry, cataloguing innocent intentions, and they liked to send her to hotel rooms all over the country, where she could meet a whole crop of receptionists and busboys and maids who meant well (they did, honestly). Sometimes I went with her, but I was still haphazardly trying to find a job of my own, so that particular weekend I stayed home under the guise of doing some applications. Or perhaps guise isn’t the right word. I didn’t start out intending to trick her.
As it was, I didn’t complete a single form. I tried. I started out writing neat letters in square boxes, sitting with my feet tucked beneath myself at the desk. I thought about categorisation, and how best to present myself to the world. But something wasn’t right. There was an itch in my thighs, a dissatisfaction of skin. I made myself another coffee and sat dimly, the world slowly drifting.
I wasn’t fully paying attention as my hand crept to the desk lamp. I wasn’t dreaming of lazerbolts when my fingertip toyed the nub of the switch. And then, without me ever really meaning to, I flicked it and the desk sparked into light, and I sat in the pool of it, sudden and breathless, marvelling at the details on the backs of my hands.
I confess: it was splendid. And it was too much, and it was not enough, so I threw myself to my feet and ran through the house, throwing switches, my skirt flapping behind me like a glowing white cape. I did not stop until every lamp was blaring; I even opened the fridge door to bask in its small yellow glow. And then I lay down on my desk with my eyelids peeled wide open. I saw fluorescent strip lights clinking at the corners of my vision. Search lights panning across my body. I shrieked and thrashed and giggled deliriously, until what?! I came to my senses and unplugged them all. I sat, panting in the semi-darkness, once more surrounded by shadows. I swore I would never do it again.
And I thought that would be the end of things. I convinced myself that the light was like a pressure valve that had been building up for weeks and it was only natural that I’d had to let some out. But I’d picked the wrong metaphor. It wasn’t like a pressure valve at all—or if it was, it was like a pressure valve with an infinitely refilling tank. You see, the moment I was done, I just wanted more: faster and harder and so very much brighter.
And so, I did. I did it again, and again, and then some more.
Soon, my house lights weren’t enough. Lamps? Pfft. How could house lamps ever be enough? I found myself in the reception of great office buildings under the flimsiest of pretexts, clutching an empty tool box and gesticulating at my boilersuit. I dreamt of stepping onto an empty floor and flicking the switch that made a dozen fluorescent tubes bzzp into being.
And still, come evening, I would go to hers. Sometimes I would even wear the boilersuit, and she would peel it off me and throw it into a dark cavern and our bodies would become a single black smudge in the night.
I stopped asking her to change; I quit believing I could. We met in a place that I told myself was between us, but in truth I was just a fugitive making my way through the foxholes of her country. It was okay, I said. It was enough.
And so when she found me one afternoon—my dress hiked up around my waist, the camera flash light bleaching the folds of my cunt—our ending was barely a surprise.
I thought I was over all that, but I’m trying to be better about honesty, so I wanted to let you know. Last night, at dinner, when I ducked beneath the tablecloth, it wasn’t because I’d dropped my napkin. Or, it was. At first. But I found it, quickly—there are only so many places beneath a table that a napkin can hide. So I guess the napkin wasn’t why I stayed down there, even though I could feel your embarrassment radiating from your knees.
It was just so peaceful, in the shadow of the tablecloth. It felt right. I sat for a moment, knees to my chest, and in the darkness I could hear myself breathing.
Perhaps tonight we can try something else. Maybe—have you ever wondered how it would feel to switch the lights down low? Though if you don’t want to, that’s okay too. I know very well how uncomfortable the shadows can be. Maybe instead, you can just wrap a scarf around my eyes. Tie it close, and call out to me, softly, from the dark.
© Jane Flett
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Jane’s interview]