Everyone does this once, at least, or should do:
where you wake up in the wrong bed with the wrong body nestled close, unfamiliar smells on the sheets and in their hair and a beat of blank in your memory before their name comes to mind, a touch of strange where you touch them because their touch is so different to what your skin is used to, what your bones expect. You listen to their breathing as they sleep, and even that’s out of kilter with rhythms long established in your head; and you’re so, so glad they’re still sleeping, because you realise suddenly that you have no idea what colour their open eyes will be, or how your face will look reflected in them.
They say we fall in love to reinforce our own self-image; perhaps we sleep around to do the opposite, to remind ourselves that others see us differently, or can do. That we all have other faces, the possibility of alternate lives.
“Whatever, it’s a thing that happens, we’re not a naturally monogamous species; and once, yes, once is terrific. Once in a while is okay, though you don’t want to make a habit of it. But every day, every day I wake up with a stranger.
I’m getting to know her well.
“Doing it once, doing it the first time made the best sense. Waking was hard that day, consciousness was something to be clawed at, fingers too weak to grip; I clawed and it tore, it frayed to ribbons under my weight and couldn’t hold me, so that I slithered down into easy dark and had to start again.
And did, and struggled up and felt far worse for doing it, felt so bad I only wanted to slide again.
That was my first coherent waking thought, that waking hurt and I wanted none of it now that I had too much.
Didn’t open my eyes, nothing so foolish; if it was daylight out there—and it had to be, surely, I felt as though I’d slept forever—then that was only going to hurt more. My head was murder already. Spears of light in the eyeball I could live without.
“Second coherent thought yet, and already I was making plans for the day. Don’t open your eyes, sunshine. This was excellent. Proactive and sensible, and what more could anyone ask of a man first thing in the morning?
Presumptive morning. Might be afternoon, but I wasn’t going to enquire. Not that much interested in clocks just now.
Curiosity, famously fatal to Felidae, is not dangerous to cats alone; but it was a sluggish poison in my blood that day. Took a while, took the longest time for me even to start measuring where I hurt, let alone wondering why.
“Head, yes. Head was the worst. Bad head in the morning traditionally meant hangover, but this was a blinder, and I couldn’t believe I’d drunk enough to earn it.
Wasn’t just my head, anyway. All my joints were aching, my ribs were seriously sore; trying to be dispassionate, I concluded that I must have spent a couple of hours on a rack last night, doing stretching exercises before or after some kind lad in hobnails kicked my head in.
“Trying to be sensible, I went back to the tradition again: bad head plus bruises meant being well pissed, getting into a fight perhaps, staggering home from one hard-edged lamppost to the next and falling downstairs a time or two before finally crawling to the top and so to bed.
That I couldn’t remember drinking last night—that I couldn’t remember anything about last night, where I’d been or what I’d been doing, even what night of the week it must have been—was only another confirmation, alcoholic amnesia doing its stuff.
Okay. I got stotious, though it wasn’t like me; I got hurt, though it really wasn’t like me. That just about covered the damage, the internal situation my body was reporting.
“External situation: I was in bed, obviously, but not lying flat. Propped up against pillows, I guessed. Pillows and something else, warmer and firmer, tucked tight against my side. Something that moved, a little, when I turned my questing, tormented head…
Jonty, my brilliant mind deduced, you are not alone.
“Nor should I have been; what is a helpmeet for, if not to succour the wounded partner and comfort the beloved?”
Her fingers touched my forehead, and it hurt. I jerked away, and that hurt also; when I moaned I heard a chuckle close by my left ear, and a soft voice murmur, “That’s my man. Why be stalwart?”
Dry tongue, dry lips; hard to talk, but I managed her name, at least.
Said, “Carol…?” and felt her arm tighten, where it lay around my shoulders.
Her voice tightened too, acquired some edges; but she was still laughing, and all she actually said was, “Jonty, you’re a pig. But welcome back, anyway. I missed you.” Then she laid her cheek against mine and moved it gently, cool softness catching on bristles. This also hurt.
Her perfume caught in my nose, acting like sal volatile to clear my head a little after so long sleep. Perfumes, plural, at second sniff: I could smell fresh-washed skin too, conditioner on her clothes, toothpaste on her breath. But over all was the scent she was wearing, which was light, sharp, a little aggressive; expensive, for sure. It was also utterly unfamiliar.
Lances of light; my eyes had opened, regardless of earlier and wiser decisions. Squinting into the pain, they found her face and focused.
Uncertainties about the voice and the perfume, even about the way her body felt against mine, although my skin was registering little but its own discomfort: all doubts were resolved in a moment.
No, this was not Carol. Not at all Carol, not even a little bit. Whoever this was, she was only half the size. Petite, elfin, gamine: my mind might be running slow, running pretty much on empty here, but I was having no problems with vocabulary.