I can’t remember the first time I met Luke. That’s the problem with meeting someone in real life: in retrospect, it’s usually hard to pinpoint your first interaction with them, because there were too many other things going on at the same time. I can vividly recall, however, the exact feeling I had when I first saw Paige. I spread my fingers to zoom in, turning her face pixelated and obscure.
Luke had Moral Philosophy with me at 10am on a Tuesday. We had spoken a couple of times in non-specific, anonymous situations, like holding open the door for one another or responding to the other one’s point in class. I recognised him immediately in the library café as I walked around trying to find a free seat. He was sitting alone at a table, books surrounding him, opposite an empty chair.
‘Could I sit here?’ I asked. This was a perfectly reasonable question – it was crowded, and there were no other spots – but I felt my fingers shaking.
‘Sure,’ he said, clearing a space. Then: ‘You’re in Moral Philosophy, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘I’m actually working on our formative right now. I’m so behind on it.’
‘Me, too,’ I said. ‘What are you writing it on?’
‘Good question – I wish I knew the answer. How about you?’
‘I’m not sure either.’ I was completely lying – I’d finished my formative a week ago. I found the course easy, but this was only because I had nothing else competing for my attention. Luke was popular – I imagined he’d had better things to be doing, and the assignment had slipped to the bottom of the list. ‘We’re both fucked,’ I said. This wasn’t the type of phrase I’d usually use. Luke laughed, agreeing with me.
Everything in the café was the same shade of pale brown, which made the entire place feel like a cave; it was strange to think that daylight still existed outside. Luke made conversation by pointing out the place’s stained tables and dim walls, and then we made fun of all the other buildings in the uni, their beige, anonymous interiors. He felt that our tuition fees were a complete waste of money, which I agreed with. I learned that he planned on applying for a master’s course in a bigger city as soon as we graduated – this place had been his second choice, and he nearly hadn’t come here at all. I imagined him as an overachiever in school, maybe the head boy, well-liked by every teacher.
We stayed there for a while, chatting. Our conversation felt increasingly easy. Eventually, I said I was hungry, and he invited me round for dinner.
‘Trust me, I’m a good cook,’ he said. ‘I have a large repertoire, it’s not just pesto pasta.’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said. ‘My standards are very low.’ What I meant was that I couldn’t cook anything myself, so couldn’t judge others; the words had come out wrong. Luke seemed to spring to life and said that I should observe him as he made dinner, so I would learn a new recipe.
‘OK,’ I said.
He cooked us noodles with a sauce that I would never have thought to make myself. I positioned myself behind him, watching him reach for pans and chop vegetables. He had long arms and legs, broad shoulders, and I saw a small, dark birthmark on the back of his neck. There was also, I noticed, a huge energy to each of his actions: he chopped recklessly, hurled things into the sink, and stir-fried with the same wide, swooping arm movement he’d made while clearing the café table.
I was constantly aware of Luke’s body as we ate, sitting close together on his bedroom floor – he smelled clean, somehow like the apple he’d been eating. I felt warm and insulated from danger. Then, suddenly, his arms were around me, and we were kissing. This is what’s happening right now, I heard myself think. This is happening. His skin was warm and soft, my hand cupped the back of his neck. Then he stopped kissing me.
‘There’s something I should probably say,’ he said.
I still had my hands on him, and I smiled at the randomness of the whole situation: that I’d only planned to sit in the library café, and now I was here. ‘What?’ I whispered.
‘I just feel like I need to say that I have a girlfriend.’
I realised later that I did already know this, vaguely: I’d heard Luke mention a girlfriend outside class before. Had I conveniently shelved this memory, or unconsciously assumed that they’d broken up? It wasn’t clear.
Luke had met Paige at school. They were sixteen when they got together, and now they studied at universities two hours apart. They took turns visiting each other every few weeks, although this was often irregular, because she was so busy. She was on the committee of multiple societies, she played football at an apparently impressive level and she travelled a lot, too. They had celebrated their four year anniversary in Amsterdam a few months ago.
Luke told me some of this information himself, but most of it came from Paige’s Instagram. It wasn’t hard to find – his own account had zero posts, but I went to his tagged photos and there she was, smiling next to him. He wore a suit, she a red dress. In heels, she stood at the same height as him.
I began to check her for updates ritualistically. I’d wake up and immediately search for her name before I opened any of the other apps, or even fully opened my eyes. Soon I only had to type in ‘P’, and her account was offered up as the first suggestion. She posted fairly often, but not as much as I would have liked her to.
Paige belonged to a certain category of girl. Some girls, I’d noticed, always bracketed their vanity in something else: beautiful pictures had to be candid or ironic. But Paige posted pictures of herself looking nice without feeling a need to justify it – the caption would be an emoji, or a matter-of fact sentence: drinks with the girls; post-match celebrations. Her pose of choice was always just a simple smile, directed straight at the camera. Her makeup was self-demonstrative: she had winged eyeliner, colourful lids, and her cheeks were earnestly contoured and bronzed.
She posted pictures of Luke regularly enough to affirm the relationship’s success, but they were always interspersed with friends, football matches, holidays, parties, as if to dispel any suspicion that she might be obsessive or pathetic about him. Yes, she had a life outside of Luke, just as he had one outside of her.
Paige was the first girl that Luke ever had sex with, he told me. I was the second. Together, we made a routine: he cooked dinner, we ate upstairs and then had sex. I loved feeling myself against Luke’s skin, bloated with food and with what felt like pure joy. Luke told me that other than Paige, I was the only person whose company he’d ever missed. I glowed when he said this about me. It didn’t matter that it was really a joint compliment for both me and her.
‘What’s your relationship history like?’ he asked.
‘I’ve dated a bit, but nothing serious,’ I said, a response that was believable but not strange, still withholding all the information I wanted to keep secret.
In truth, I’d had one experience that was deadly serious. When I was sixteen, I had met someone on an online fandom for a TV show. I sensed that this was an embarrassing thing to do – I didn’t even like the TV show much, really – so I never told anyone; anyway, there weren’t many people available to tell. In private, we exchanged passionate messages. When our relationship transferred into the real world, we sat awkwardly on a bench outside the Apple Store making small talk. Then, one day, he’d disappeared, his account suddenly a locked door, displaying an error page.
Even now, when I remembered all of this, I felt ashamed. I sometimes had a nightmarish fantasy about my online history being unearthed by some laughing hacker, and all of the messages I’d sent this guy posted somewhere online.
If Luke pressed me for specific details, I decided, I wouldn’t mention any of this. He didn’t, though.
When I was around Luke, I assumed every corporeal cliché: my face ached from smiling, my tummy felt light, and my limbs bended themselves towards him. This was the complete opposite of my first relationship – back then, the frenetic, feverish intensity of our online conversations had completely evaporated when we met in person. Yet, there was still something not quite enough about the physical closeness of sex with Luke, and I was sometimes violently, impossibly gripped by a wish to unlock some higher level of intimacy, to find new ways of merging our bodies even closer.
Things changed, though, inevitably, when he stopped responding to my texts as quickly as usual over one weekend. After hours of radio silence, he’d reply to me with something polite and boring, like lol, or ok. I lost my appetite completely.
On Sunday, I found myself walking a longer route home, past Luke’s road. I wasn’t really planning to see him, but when I came near to his house, I suddenly heard him speaking, and then a door shut, and a suitcase rolling against concrete. Then, a female voice – low, uneven – but I couldn’t make out what she said; her suitcase obscured the words. It could only be Paige.
The thought that she was here felt exciting at first, as if a celebrity was visiting my town. Then it hit me that they could turn the corner and see me. I froze.
Through a gap in Luke’s fence, I glimpsed the back of her head. Her hair was now blonde, I noticed with surprise – she must have dyed it, but she hadn’t posted it on Instagram yet. She wore the same red coat that she’d taken to Amsterdam.
Again, she spoke, quietly, and Luke replied: ‘You, too.’
Then I heard a car door shut. She must have been getting into an Uber – leaving for the station, probably, with her suitcase. I turned around and walked straight back in the opposite direction, pounding with adrenaline.
What did those two words mean, you, too? What had she said to him? All of the most obvious options seemed stunted and unbelievable:
I love you. / You, too.
I’ll miss you. / You, too.
I’ve had an amazing weekend with you. / You, too.
No, none of these conversations were convincing between two people happily in love. He sounded like he was subtly rejecting her every time. I tried out alternatives:
Have a nice life. / You, too.
No, more likely: I wish you all the best. / You, too.
He’s ended things, I thought. Surely. Or he told her about me, and she ended it – or they came to a mutual decision – or something. I walked home, quickly. My palms were sweating.
I didn’t hear from Luke until Monday afternoon, when he texted to ask if I wanted to come over that evening. I felt nauseous knocking on his door. When he saw me, he asked how my weekend had been, as if I’d just been away on a trip. Once we were in his room, we sat on his bed, and I started to take off my shoes.
‘So,’ said Luke. He exhaled. ‘OK. I don’t think that we should see each other anymore.’
He carried on talking in measured, rehearsed tones, staring at the floor: he did like me, but didn’t want to hurt Paige. He loved her, she was a good person.
I was stunned. I tried out responses in my head but couldn’t make my throat form the words. ‘Did you tell her about me?’ I finally said.
‘I’m going to,’ he replied. ‘She’s having a rough time at the moment, so it wasn’t a good idea.’
When I got back home, I welled up, but couldn’t shed any tears. The next few days passed uphill, and time seemed to curdle around me in a thick sauce. My lectures and seminars no longer felt like the milestones my weeks geared towards, but vague, indistinct lumps in viscous territory. Now, I came alive alone in my room, where I spent most of my time consulting Paige’s profile.
These browsing sessions began with specific questions. Had she posted a picture of her new hair colour yet? Yes, she had, with the caption blondes have more fun. What was she doing? She had gone out, she had done an all-nighter in the library, she was running a taster women’s football match for freshers on November 4th. But these things gave me no glimpse into Paige’s emotional state; her face was a blank scroll, offering me nothing. Deprived of new content, I slipped further into her past: their holiday last year, her 17th birthday party, her cousin’s christening.
I invented elaborate games, challenging myself to reach her profile not through searching for her name outright, but by choosing any person at random who I already followed, and then finding my way back to Paige through the profiles of people they had tagged in photos, spring-boarding between gridded mazes until I landed on her. Doing this taught me that everyone in the world knew each other, really. I remembered my online boyfriend had once told me that we were all just seven degrees of separation away from every person. ‘Even a stranger on a remote island across the world,’ he had insisted. Now, that idea never seemed so true: people were so incestuously linked that you could find your way to whoever you wanted, just by tapping through successive glass squares. So, it didn’t matter, really, that Paige and I were linked by just one degree – the degree being Luke – because any combination of acquaintances and friends and strangers could equally have led me back to her.
It was reading week, so my housemates all went home. ‘I miss my dog so much,’ one of them said to me before she left, putting her hands on her cheeks mournfully. I thought of going home myself, but it seemed pointless. There was no dog I missed.
I finished all my work, then passed the time lulled by a TV show, or cooking some of the recipes I’d learned from Luke. One day, sitting alone in the SU, I spotted him heading towards the exit. He smiled warmly, and then raised his hand. I felt suddenly sick. This was casual, kind friendliness; suitable for any acquaintance, but insulting to me. I wondered then if I’d imagined our entire relationship. I was, after all, the only person who would testify to its existence.
The next day, I sat on a train, reading through Paige’s post about the taster football match. It was chatty and jokey – come and kick balls with me, it began – written as though the only people she’d expected to read it were her friends. But her profile was public, so any stranger could have learned of the match, really; it could be anyone travelling to attend it.
I couldn’t explain to myself why I was going. I just want to see, were the words turning over in my head.
When I got off the train, I followed a bright blue line on my phone which led me down quiet residential streets to the university sports centre. This was a huge complex where students paced around carrying gym gear; by the entrance was an intimidating map of the grounds. Paige’s court was number 16.
I had timed it well – the match had already started, so no questions were asked about whether I wanted to join in. I climbed up to the top of the stands and stared out at the girls running up and down the pitch.
I couldn’t make out which one Paige was, though. They all looked the same in their uniform, and I didn’t know enough about football to discern the beginners from the experienced players. There were two girls with hair her shade of blonde: one darted around chasing the ball, light as a cat; the other stood in defence, scrutinising the other players. Either one could have been her, I was too far away to tell. I tried to concentrate on the game instead, making my eyes travel with the ball hypnotically, but I couldn’t follow its logic for long. The pitch blurred into a mass of neon green; small red and blue lines rolled across it, fighting acrobatically over a black full stop. The match finished: the score was 2-1.
I climbed down the stands. It made sense to just leave quietly, but the whole day seemed pointless if I hadn’t even properly seen her. Undecided, I hung back towards the entrance, pretending to text while people walked past me.
‘Have you come here for the try-outs?’ a voice suddenly said at my shoulder. I looked up: it was one of the players, a small red-haired girl.
‘Uh,’ I said. ‘Yes, I have, but I was too late, so I just watched in the end.’
‘Oh, that’s a shame,’ she sympathised, looking genuinely pained for me. ‘Are you hoping to sign up for the team?’
‘I was thinking about it – but – I don’t know, really, probably not.’
She took my arm, suddenly empowered, hoping to persuade me. ‘I’ll take you to meet Paige, the team captain. We have two sessions every week, you can just come along to one. Don’t worry about missing the try-outs, loads of people don’t come to them and end up joining anyway. Paige’ll give you all the information.’
She was saying all this while leading me across the pitch and through a door. Then, we were in a hallway, where Paige stood, speaking to a crowd of girls. ‘First practice is on Wednesday,’ she said. She had been the player in defence.
Her voice was different to how I remembered it at Luke’s doorstep. She sounded hoarse, like she had a sore throat. She had a long vocal fry at the end of her words. I could hardly take in what she was saying because my back was prickling uncomfortably with sweat; I felt nearly sick with adrenaline. She finished talking and the other girls dispersed.
‘Paige?’ the girl I was with called out. ‘I have someone here who missed the match!’
Paige looked at me with an energy I couldn’t have detected from seeing her pictures: it was alert, brisk, vigilant.
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I’m the team captain.’
I smiled up at her, dumbly.
‘You’re a fresher, then?’
I thought fast. ‘Well, yes, I am, but I’ve had to arrive late, and I’m living at home, so I haven’t had a chance to meet anyone yet. I had a family emergency.’
This was a lesson I’d learned at school: family emergency was an excuse which stopped anyone from asking further questions.
‘Oh, bless you,’ Paige said. ‘Sorry, what was your name?’
I conjured a fake answer. ‘Rebecca.’
The red-haired girl looked pained. ‘Rebecca did mention that she really wanted to sign up for the team,’ she said, fabricating this part of our earlier conversation entirely.
‘Well,’ said Paige, ‘that’s no problem!’ She took my arm and started to walk with me, bouncing in a way that painfully reminded me of Luke. ‘Every Wednesday after the match we run a social – we’re about to go to it now. You can come if you want? We’ll introduce you to everyone!’
It felt like being invited to a private event in a palace, entering doors that were typically closed to the public. ‘Yes, please,’ I said.
I followed Paige and the others to her flat, where girls swarmed around her bedroom, all talking. I hadn’t been in a crowd of this many girls in years, I realised – not since the PE changing rooms at school, where I’d turned my back as I took my top off, sucking in, careful not to make eye contact with anyone else. Here, everybody was at ease. One girl waved her hands in exasperation, another laughed while crying. Paige seemed to stand above everyone else, always being looked at, commanding her friends in a shrill voice about when we had to finish getting ready, leave, and arrive at the club.
She took my hand and introduced me to everyone as if she and I were old friends. ‘Did you bring anything to go out?’ she asked.
When I said no, she dressed me in clothes from her own wardrobe. They were nothing like what I would usually wear, but I tried to pick them up as if I was always buying things like this. Finally, she sat me in front of her and painted my face. She had more makeup than I’d ever seen together in one place, except in a shop. I let myself be transformed happily. While she lined my lips, I stared at Paige’s own mouth, pursed in concentration; up close, I could see the brush strokes of her foundation, the tiny, smooth pores beneath it, a few small bumps huddled on her chin.
‘Done,’ she finally said, gesturing towards the mirror.
I stared at myself. I looked more or less the same, but with foreign products on, which had subtly refreshed some of my features. Was I more like Paige, now, though, in some intangible way? If we walked next to each other on the street, would people easily associate us with each other? My thoughts now had slipped far from Luke. This is what I could have looked like in a different timeline, I thought, if when I was younger, other girls had shown me which things to buy, and how to use them.
‘You’re so good at makeup,’ I said.
‘It’s my special skill.’ Paige smiled. But someone else was trying to get her attention – she excused herself for just one second, and then darted away into another room.
I didn’t get a chance to speak to her again for some time, so I let myself relax into being Rebecca. I took a shot with a stranger, and then another one, and then I followed the crowd to the club. Being with these people felt easy – there were no in-jokes to dodge; it was as if I’d always been part of the football team. Outside was cold and crisp, and I was cocooned inside myself, maintaining an awareness of Paige’s whereabouts in the group, but happy to follow without speaking to her.
Inside the club, the air was purple and hazy, with plush pink walls that I associated with sweat and bodily fluid. I danced in a mass of people, and then found myself being pulled in by Paige, whirled around between all her friends. A song was playing that they all screamed the words to. I didn’t know it, but pretended to have the same enthusiasm as them, yelling garbled sounds that resembled words.
‘Are you OK?’ she was shouting in my ear. ‘Let’s go to the loos, hey?’
Once inside, I slammed myself into a cubicle and hunched over the bowl. Things were dizzy so I closed my eyes, and suddenly my vision oscillated between a series of cryptic images: I saw the fluorescent football pitch, the ball being cradled from side to side; I saw Luke’s apple; Paige’s makeup – for a while I thought they all danced together in a pattern, but it wasn’t a pattern, more like a slideshow. I tried to throw up, but nothing would come out.
Paige was waiting for me outside the cubicle. ‘Poor you,’ she said, putting her arm around me.
I steadied myself on the sink. In the mirror, I could see us both clearly now. We looked good next to each other, with her half-hugging me. It looked like we loved each other.
‘I’m sorry – I’m not usually like this, I just didn’t eat dinner,’ I told her, truthfully.
Paige nodded. ‘I was going to leave soon, anyway, so I’ll bring you back.” She held up her phone, which was opened on WhatsApp. ‘I’ve just been arguing with my boyfriend. He hates it when I stay out late. He’s been pestering me all night.’
Luke. I squinted my eyes at her screen, but I could only see blue and grey blurred rectangles, swooshing up and down.
‘Are you in a relationship, Rebecca?’
I shook my head, still trying to read their conversation.
‘I wouldn’t really recommend it,’ she said. ‘I do love him, but he’s quite clingy. Sometimes I want to do things on my own, you know? But, anyway,’ she sighed, and clicked her phone screen off, so that all I could see was my own reflection, staring blankly back at me. ‘I do love him,’ she repeated, cryptically.
Surprisingly, I felt myself zoning out. I was bored, I realised; the things she was telling me were boring. I would have much rather read their text messages.
‘Would your mum be OK with you coming back at this time?’ asked Paige.
‘You said you lived with family?’
I tried to remember the backstory I’d given, but my mind was slow to catch up. She looked concerned. ‘If it’s too late for you to get back home, you can always crash on my floor?’
‘Oh…’ I pressed my fingers to my temples. ‘Yeah, well. It might be too late.’
‘Bless you,’ she said. ‘Come with me.’
At some point in the night, my body woke me up. I had a sharp, urgent pain in my neck, and my hair felt sticky. I was sleeping on the floor. I reached for my phone: it was 3am. Quietly, I stood up. Paige was sleeping in her bed, curled up in a ball, wearing a black eye mask so I could hardly see her face.
I couldn’t remember much of last night – just snippets. Paige had bought me chips, then I lay down on her floor and watched her remove all the products from her face, pretending to be asleep until I actually was.
‘This uni is shit,’ she’d complained, on the way back from the kebab van. ‘I’m sorry to say it to you, Rebecca, when you’re just starting in first year, but you may as well know it now. I can’t believe that not only did I voluntarily go into debt to come here, but that my school encouraged me to do it! As soon as I’ll graduate, I’m going to move to another city with my boyfriend. The only good thing about my time here is the people I’ve met.’
It was the exact same speech Luke had given in the SU. They must have spoken these opinions to each other already, maybe countless times, rehearsing their lines for future conversations with other people. This realisation irritated me. I thought about it all night, falling half in and out of sleep. It made me feel, somehow, like this whole trip had been a complete waste of time; like there was nothing I could learn about Paige that I didn’t know already.
I thought about it now, carefully sliding open her bedside drawer and rummaging around. Greedily, I opened a small, white notebook, trying not to rustle the paper.
So stressed. Have a team meeting today and so much uni work, the first page said.
It went on for a little while like this. I skimmed downwards, then flicked the page.
Pasta – big packet, razors, toothpaste, tomato sauce.
The next page was a series of doodles, then some uni notes. As I read, I became more and more agitated, realising that there was nothing hidden or private I could find in there. But perhaps that wasn’t all – there might still be something more I could do. I put the book away and stood up, staring down at her. My fingers itching, I imagined getting as close to her as possible: climbing into bed with her, or trying to worm into her life permanently, committing further to Rebecca’s backstory.
Obsession leads to nothing, I thought. There is no satisfying ending to it; no real possible way of burrowing inside someone. It’s so unfair. The only thing it would ever lead me back to was myself.
I spent the journey home silently watching fields morph into more fields, massaging my sore neck. My obsession with Paige, with Luke, had felt so absorbing that I could hardly remember what I’d thought about beforehand. Paige and Luke; Luke and Paige. Now that I’d known them separately, I understood why they worked together. I thought of him moving agilely around the kitchen, her around the pitch; her positioning her friends here and there in the club; him positioning me in and out of our relationship; both at the epicentre of life, moving decisively. Yes, they both played the same roles, they were both doers, leaders. And what did that make me? I supposed it made me a follower. Or a parasite.
When I arrived home, I fell asleep immediately and woke up twelve hours later, in the night. I opened a window. Things felt fresh – it had rained, and the roads outside were slick and glowing. I didn’t regret what had happened, I thought, because I knew that I’d learned something from the experience: it was something I couldn’t articulate yet, but I was sure that the lessons were there, and that I would one day be able to say them.
I opened my laptop and found my university’s student union webpage. Women’s football team, beginners, I typed into the search bar.
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