I met Nina when I was twenty-one and she was sixteen. Nowadays, that would be borderline illegal, but then it was okay. I was at university, thinking about dropping out, and she was finishing school. She was French, from France, her parents had moved to London only a year earlier. They made me have dinner with them, and sent Nina to her room to do homework while we ‘talked.’ They were okay with my age, they said. Nina’s mother thought it was good for girls to have a sexual relationship with older men, she said. I didn’t say we’d not had sex, in order not to disappoint her. I spent half the dinner blushing.
“If you ask me,” said Nina’s father, “schools should teach you much more about sex. One of the most important things in life, and schools don’t teach you anything.”
“We watched a video,” I said. I don’t think I was really ready for this conversation, like a Sunday driver being dropped into a Grand Prix. “They were playing volleyball on a nudist beach. Miss Jones taught the class. I think she was a virgin.”
“That’s not sex,” said Nina’s father. “That’s only mechanics. This video, what did it teach? That the penis becomes hard when it fills with blood, that you grow hair in puberty, that sperm pierces the wall of the womb? That’s not sex. What do you do if you want to make a woman come? If you suffer from impotence? How do you eat a woman out? How do you talk frankly with your lover? What do you do if she bleeds? If you bleed? How do you introduce a discussion of anal sex? How do you ask for oral sex? School, all it teaches is the Pythagorean theorems of sex. Where do you go when you want to learn the art, not just the science? Hmm? Meanwhile, I spent half my life not knowing how to get a woman, half my life not knowing what to do with her once I had her. I thought there was something wrong with me. The first time I had sex I thought I’d broken my penis. Why hadn’t school prepared me for that?”
I definitely wasn’t ready for this conversation. I think I’d had sex with maybe four girls before I met Nina, none of them for very long. I wasn’t a virgin, but certainly not fluent. Nina’s mother and father probably had more sex before breakfast than I had had my entire life. They were talking to me as if I were an equal, but I wasn’t. Perhaps, on reflection, they knew that. Perhaps that’s why they talked to me so.
“Because school didn’t prepare you, darling,” said Nina’s mother. I couldn’t imagine a school preparing anyone for thinking they had a broken penis. I got the idea they’d shared this discussion before. I wanted to feel mature for being part of a conversation about sex with proper grown-ups, but my maturity was undermined somewhat by my blushing hot pink throughout. Yes, definitely Nina’s mother and father knew what they were doing, embarrassing their young daughter’s boyfriend so mortifyingly. That must be where Nina got it, later on. To this day I can’t imagine their casual conversation about unsheathed penises and anal sex etiquette was accidental.
Nina and I didn’t have sex together, as it happened, until she was eighteen and I was twenty-three. I understood. I had a friend whose parents were alcoholic; he’s never wanted to drink his whole life. She wanted to wait, and I was comfortable with that. If we had sex, there was a feeling we’d have to discuss it over dinner with her folks. We got married when she was nineteen. She was young and innocent and I used to write her long poems full of words I pulled from Roget’s thesaurus. I stayed away from her parents as often as possible. It was hard to reconcile their frankness with Nina, a shy virgin bride.
Then Nina sold a Freddie Mercury-signed condom in the wake of his death, made a lot of money, and almost overnight she changed. The dark side of commercialism unearthed a hard-core bitch within her psyche. She grew a lot harsher, a lot less innocent. A lot more like her parents, in fact. She developed a Bettie Page fixation, had her hair cut like the 1950s bondage porn star. She pushed me to have rougher and rougher sex. She liked nipple clamps and being punched in the tits and tying my wrists behind my back to my ankle.
I lost my mojo, frightened of the new Nina. For ten years we stayed married, but we had sex less and less often. She became harder and harder. I didn’t.
For example: She had an impersonation of Whitney Houston she liked to do. She’d throw her hands in the air and say “Not in the face, Bobby, not in the face.” When Rihanna was in the news for being battered she updated her impersonation. “Not in the face, Chris, not in the face.” When Whitney died, while the rest of the world watched Kevin Costner and Alicia Keys at her funeral, Nina pulled out her Bobby line again.
She got angry with me at the drop of a hat. Nina’s father and mother were right about at least one thing. Nothing in school had ever prepared me for sex and women. Most of this happened in the days before Google was a verb. I didn’t know who to turn to for advice. The two of us tried to sort our problems out on our own, and we made a big fuck-up of it.
We stayed partners in the shop, but had papers made and signed to turn our informal co-ownership into one contractually bound. I think we were both afraid of losing out to the other one in the inevitable break-up. We felt safer behind a piece of paper. Nina arranged a schedule that guaranteed we were never both present in the same place at the same time, pinned it proudly on the notice-board in the shop’s office. Another piece of paper to feel safe behind. This was before we even separated. We took our prompts on marriage guidance counselling from TV shows, from magazine articles, from self-help books. We mished and mashed conflicting ideas together and hoped that we could somehow muddle our way back to being a happy couple. It never happened.
Nina started wearing bondage gear as part of her everyday wardrobe. She began talking about how a person went through different stages in life, how it was difficult to find somebody ready to go through the stages at the same time as you. Is the man you want to fall in love with the same as the man you want to have children with? She didn’t even want children, she’d heard the argument on Oprah or something similar. A realization – she turned into her parents, perhaps. She took another man to bed, a tattoo artist who’d cultivated two-inch diameter holes in the sides of his nose. I saw the two of them, the two holes in his nose, yes, but also Nina and this man, their bodies wrapped around each other in my bed. Nina must’ve started yoga. Her ankles were behind her ears. She knew I’d be in the house on that day, at that time, it was part of her schedule, so presumably she wanted me to see her infidelity. Even so, I was ready to forgive her, to let it go. It was Nina who finally suggested divorce.
After such an adversarial marriage, our divorce was surprisingly gentle. Neither one of us wanted to give up half the shop, so we didn’t. The schedule set up to avoid seeing each other formed the backbone of our divorce. It was the most successful arrangement in our time together, something Nina’s lawyer told me she was photocopying to pass on to other clients. Some couples are proud of their children. Nina was proud of an excel spreadsheet that made sure we never had to see each other.
Helen, my girlfriend now, thinks I tell the story of my divorce all wrong. “You only concentrate on the beginning and the end. It’s all you ever care about, beginnings and endings. The whole way you describe your marriage is centered on its failing. You don’t talk about any of the middle parts. There must have been good bits in the middle, that’s the way to remember a marriage.”
“Even a failed marriage?”
“Especially a failed marriage. In fact, that’s the only way to remember anything. The ending and the beginning are all men ever concentrate on. For example – you told me about World War Two. You talked for twenty minutes about why it started, you talked about why England won for twenty minutes. Anytime you talked about what happened in the middle of the war it was only so that I’d understand the ending.”
“I told you about the football match. That was in the middle.”
“Right! That’s what you should tell me. That’s what you should think about. The soccer matches. That’s much more important.”
“Football, honey. Not soccer.”
“If you ever wrote your biography it would have ten chapters on birth, ten chapters on death and photos of your wedding and your divorce.”
A story from the middle of my marriage, long before our divorce
Nina took the tube at rush hour, which meant that she hated it. She queued to get through the gates and listed people who deserved cancer. The man with the wheely-case in front of her should get brain cancer. The woman who’d brought her children with her should get ovarian cancer, serve her right for procreating. The old man afraid to hop on the escalator, so slow, should get lung cancer, or liver cancer, or bowel cancer. Old people always deserved cancer. There was a reason why old people had free travel outside of peak times.
She was behind the old man all the way down the moving stairs. He stood on the left instead of the right. At rush hour everybody did that. HIV from bad blood transfusions for all of them. She got past him at the bottom of the stairs, on the way to the platform. She turned left, walked to the end, where it wasn’t so busy. The train was late. The train driver should get ebola for Christmas, bleed through his skin, his eyeballs should fall out. She bumped somebody pushing through the crowd. “Mind it,” said the bumpee.
“Fuck your mother!” said Nina. She took a minute to berate the bumpee. “Talk to me again and I’ll stick my hand down your throat, grab your pea-sized testicles and rip them up through your esophagus, leave them hanging out your mouth like your senile grandmother dribbling because she’s lost her tiny mind. I’ll staple your lips together so you can’t swallow your testicles back into place, for the rest of your life you’ll have balls banging against your chin, you’ll know never again to speak when you’re not wanted. You fucking ballchindangler.”
Nina stared for long enough to make her point, then carried on heading left. She kept an ear open, hoping the bumpee would dare to say anything. She hoped he would challenge her understanding of human anatomy. She’d never stuck her hands down anybody’s throat before. She reached the end of the platform and the old man was there. She watched him stumble forward, watched him fall to his knees, watched him slide off the platform and onto the rails.
“You stupid old man,” she said to him. “You’re going to make the train late.”
“Help me, please,” said the old man. He looked scared. He was small. Standing on the rails his nose didn’t even reach the platform. He was just a pair of frightened eyes hovering over the G in MIND THE GAP. Nobody else noticed him, they were wrapped up in iPods and free newspapers and Harry Potter books.
“Help yourself. Don’t you watch TV? Didn’t you read Seven Habits of Highly Successful People? You don’t get anywhere in this world relying on others. If you want something to happen you’ve got to go out there and make it happen. Take me, for example. If I waited for my husband to make a success of our business I’d die poor and failing. My husband doesn’t have what it takes. My husband is a loser.”
Helen: In this story, does she talk about you often? Is this a true story, or did you make it up? It feels like a fairly biased interpretation of events.
Me: Shh. It’s a true story. Let me tell it.
The old man wrenched his arthritic fingers up to the edge of the platform, where they clawed above the H and P of MIND THE GAP, tensed and white, like he was hanging off a cliff in the movie remake of a popular Western TV series, having been thrown from a runaway stagecoach.
“I’m going to die if you don’t pull me up. The train will hit me.”
“Pah!” said Nina. “I have problems of my own, I don’t need to deal with yours.”
So Nina left the old man and he was hit by the train. Nina watched the eyes of the train driver for as long as she could. It was a woman, a larger woman, who looked too big to fit into the tiny train driver’s cabin at the front of the train. Nina saw her from the tunnel, concentrating on stopping the train in the right place on the platform. This is one of the train driver’s greatest responsibilities, to stop the train in the right place. She didn’t see the old man until she’d hit him, and then his blood flew up over the windscreen.
The old man saw the train a few seconds before he felt the train. He had time to think about his life. In that second, Nina saw what he saw. She saw him in the thirties, not even in double figures yet, playing amongst bombed out estates in the East End. She saw him in the forties, learning to dance to the American dances, quite a ladies man, leaving buttons undone on his shirt. She saw him in the fifties, taking his son to the park to feed the ducks, taking his son to the cinema to see the latest thing, a feature length animated movie, taking his son bowling, helping his son push the ball down the aisle. All of it a waste of time, Nina thought, his son had problems with his brain and didn’t understand ducks or cartoon princesses or the rule that says you can’t cross the line on the bowling aisle. She saw him in the sixties, when his son died, and he went to the funeral in a black leather jacket like the Rolling Stones wore. Later, when his wife died, and he went to her funeral in the same jacket. She saw him in the seventies, and the eighties, and the nineties, and the noughties. He changed with the fashions, a little slower each year, until he stopped changing and started wondering what was happening to the rest of the world, wishing he could keep up, and finally not even noticing that the rest of the world was changing around him.
Some people on the platform saw him, some didn’t. There was a jumble as information was passed from the observant to the unobservant, and then a pause. The train doors stayed closed. The people stayed where they were, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for someone to tell them what to do. The train doors opened, people were asked to leave. A voice from above told people this train would not be leaving this station. It advised passengers to seek alternative routes to their destination. Nina was ahead of the crowd, already on the way to the Piccadilly line.
She spent exactly five minutes thinking about the old man’s death, wondering if she should take the rest of the day off work. She decided not. She remembered that the old man had been wearing an old leather jacket, wondered if it was the same one he’d worn to funerals in the sixties. She didn’t think his death was a loss. When you stop changing, you’re already dead.
Helen: What’s interesting to me is not whether that story is true or not, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But I know that you and Nina are getting close again. I’ve heard you talking to her on the phone recently, getting ready for the new store. I’ve heard you laughing. I’ve heard the pauses. So what’s interesting is that of all the stories you could’ve chosen to tell me from the middle of your marriage you choose to tell me one that reassures me you think Nina is a cold heartless bitch.
Me: Helen, honey, there’s nothing happening between Nina and me.
Helen: I know there’s not. It’s just nice that you wanted to reassure me. It shows that you care.
Saying I do care, emphasising the do, suggests I’m contradicting something Helen has said, rather than agreeing with it. Helen told me once that emphasis and excessive adjectives are sure signs a person’s lying.
Me: At my age, honey, you have to care.
Suggests I’m getting old. Shifts attention from one sensitive area to another. Helen seems to accept it, or maybe she’s just putting this conversation aside – we can revisit it later if I want.
Do I want to revisit it later? Am I getting closer to Nina again? We were in love once, that doesn’t all just go away. But how could I want anything from Nina now that I have Helen, lovely, wonderful, beautiful, smart, perfect Helen?
Christopher James lives and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. His stories are found or forthcoming in Tin House Online, Camera Obscura Online, the Times and the Smokelong Ten Year Anthology. He is always but always failing to work on a novel.
Read an interview with Christopher here.