Five-minute memoir: Emma Forrest recalls a ‘flingair’

 

It was around midnight and I was reading the New York Times obituary page when he texted me: "What are you doing?" We were having a flingair, a cross between a fling and an affair where there's no third party and nobody gets hurt. I calculated the time to his house, the time to put on mascara and indecent underwear. I looked down and saw that the founder of Kundalini yoga had died at 90, but the founder of Danone yogurt had died at 103.

Later, I was scrabbling in the dark to find my top, so I could leave without him waking. Failing to locate it, I settled on his button-down shirt, Banana Republic, striped, extra large. Buttoning the stolen shirt as I waited for my cab, it struck me like a religious awakening: "I have become promiscuous!".

Not that I was proud of it. But as someone on a permanent identity quest, I am always intrigued to belong to a new tribe. I am a vegetarian. I supported Hillary Clinton's run for the Presidency. I have sex with a large, drunken man who texts me at midnight.

I thought I hadn't slept with many people because I hadn't gone to university. The truth had changed from underneath me until I saw it all clearly in that cab home. I'd always told myself I'd had 10 lovers because it sounded right and because I didn't know the answer. I related to my sexual history the way 'Rainman' related to money ("How much does a pizza cost, Raymond?" "About a hundred dollars." "How much does a house cost, Raymond?" "About a hundred dollars.") I was romantically autistic, and I estimated I had had about 10 lovers.

I continued to see him, even though I knew I was one of maybe three girls he had a week. He was rich and getting richer, handsome but losing it, bottles of booze by the bed, nothing in his cavernous home but a large framed picture of Peter Sellers – never a good indicator of a man's emotional capability.

I was always stone cold sober. I often wore his shirt. From the night I'd pulled it on in the darkness of his room, it had felt comforting even as he had felt less and less the right fit. The shirt was a reminder of a night that wasn't an accident, wasn't a result of coercion or manipulation, drunken-ness or guilt. It wasn't love. It was sex. And it was great sex. It was a choice: mine.

Until I was 25, the sex was all bad. Bad in different ways, a Baskin Robbins 31 flavours of unhappiness: they hurt. Or, he was probably gay. Or, I was 16 and he was in his forties. It didn't feel good and I didn't know the noise I was supposed to fake. I tried different sounds, like someone new at elocution school: "Umm?", "Ahh?".

But the biggest problem was always: I didn't want to be there. I wanted attention. I wanted to be told I was beautiful. I wanted to feel like a grown-up. I was deeply, deeply sexy. But I didn't want sex. We never communicated except by text, and so it felt discombobulating when I'd arrive and find him flesh and blood. One night, in the middle of the act, he paused and asked solemnly:

"Do I disgust you?"

"Do you disgust yourself?"

"Yes."

"Well, then."

Eventually, I didn't want to be promiscuous anymore. I did not want to be a tool of someone else's self-disgust, post-coital contempt.

I always knew the fling would be short-lived. If I had stayed in it I'd have become ill: it was meant to be a revolving chamber (I'd seen the girls who'd stayed too long. I knew them from afar).

Each time I left his room, I'd lean over to kiss him and carefully drop a hairgrip down the side of the bed. It wasn't territorial. He wasn't a man I wanted to claim as my own. But I knew I would leave this behind soon enough, and I wanted the next girl in his bed to know I had existed, if only to will them to find their way out, too.

I hope he is going to be OK. When I met him I thought him very beautiful, Buster Keaton sad, very clever, very funny. But now he was just a drunken man. He had once been in love, very faithful, utterly devoted, someone had hurt him and it had made him crazy and compulsive. I recognised it because I had been there, too.

"You're sexy," he texted me a few months later. "Thank you," I replied, and turned off my phone.

Emma Forrest's memoir, 'Your Voice in My Head', is published in paperback this month by Bloomsbury

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