Though Effy had almost forgotten what it was like, being looked at so intently that the burn of it was palpable, the reminder was not startling. The person on the other end of the gaze was.
Katie Fitch wore proper clothes for a proper job. She looked like the type who avoided contact on the Tube by perpetually keeping her mobile to her face. Effy imagined her lowering it and seeing a person she thought she knew, who long ago should've died, but somehow had not.
For this reason, Effy smiled at Katie: Yes, it's me, alive and not a ghost.
There was no safe way to describe to Katie all of the ways in which she had not changed. The fear was that she would be insulted by Effy's thought on the matter, which was that Katie wished she were more than she was when they last separated, when Katie had decided on university and Effy had subsequently absconded for London. Six years later, Katie needn't have worried. She was enough. The well-appointed flat, and the expensive manicure, and the Lanvin and Balenciaga were redundant.
The renewal of their friendship was tenuous from the start, and Effy knew it was because of what she had done, when they knew one another, and she couldn’t truly blame the circumspect way in which Katie referred to their time after college. And if she were to tell Katie she’d never attempted suicide again, Effy would be lying and not helping her own cause.
So she said, "I keep to a schedule now. I’ve got plans-of-action."
She did, though the schedule was not what kept her alive. Her mum still called her twice a day--once in the morning, and then again in the evening, just to be sure. There was no need for concern. Effy had not been unwell. But once the unthinkable is attempted, there is no going back to a place of innocence. Katie's wariness was proof enough.
The flat Effy had once shared with Naomi, and which she had to herself now, was too far from Katie's place, and so the arrangement they made, ludicrous given they had only just reconnected, was a moving in together. This, despite the fact Katie did well enough on her own, did not need a flatmate, and certainly not one she felt the urge to mother.
Effy told her so, but Katie was indeed the mothering type. She scolded and she worried and she loved far too much.
“You’re not eating. Is it horrible? Did I fuck up the recipe, then?”
Effy sipped at the soup.
A little bland, but nothing bad. The next day was Effy’s night to cook, but she had already decided on take-away.
Then Katie dipped her spoon in her bowl, tasted it, and hummed her tacit approval. In between mouthfuls, she said, “That boy from marketing, Peter--?”
“Have I called him that?”
“Yes, you have.”
“Oh. Well, he asked me out.”
“And what did you say?”
"Told him I’d think about it.”
“So he’s not a pervert?”
“Did I really say that?”
“I mean, he isn’t, totally, and it might be fun to go out. I haven’t been out in ages… And, I dunno…”
“Not exactly, but I could use a shag. Don’t get me wrong, Eff, you’re good company, yeah? But you’re totally useless in that respect.”
It was said in much the same way most of what came out of Katie’s mouth was said: with ease and little forethought. What Katie didn’t seem to know was that Effy would not have been opposed to such a thing. She liked sex, and she liked Katie, and although she imagined Katie might be a bit of a pillow queen, breaking her of the habit could bring its own kind of fun.
“I could be not useless.”
The hysterical laughter that peeled out of Katie was answer enough, and worth the joke that wasn’t really.
The lost years—the time in-between college and their new world of adult washing up and job-doing—were not discussed. That is, Effy’s years were not discussed, because she did not volunteer information, while Katie must have been scared of inadvertently picking at scabs. Yet Katie talked about herself—about her shit coworkers, and about the brief time she’d spent at uni; about Emily, and sometimes, grudgingly, about Naomi; her brother, her parents; the Duchess of Cambridge, David Beckham’s indefatigable arse.
Sometimes Effy paid attention, others she was content to listen to the comforting drone of Katie’s voice.
The night Katie came home from a date crying, Effy was already in bed, her room dark save for the glow of her iPad. And, of course, Katie barged in without knocking, and the only thing that stopped her cold was Effy’s slowly pulling her hand out of her pants.
“Shit, shit. Sorry, I—“
It could have been funny, the way Katie turned round and back again, like she couldn’t decide whether to stay or go, except that she was still crying and Effy didn’t quite know what to do.
She settled on a quick trip to the bathroom—pulled up the zip on her jeans, washed her hands, and came back out like nothing had happened at all. When she turned the light on, she saw Katie’s face was scarlet from crying, and embarrassment, probably.
“Come on. Sit down. Tell me.”
Katie sat at the edge of the bed, her hands gripping her knees. She sniffed loudly and shook her head. “I was right whenever it was I called him a twat.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“No. He just left me in the middle of fucking Chelsea.”
There was a strand of hair stuck to Katie’s damp cheek, so Effy slowly reached for it and tucked it behind her ear. “Sometimes boys are shit, yeah?”
Katie nodded slowly, dejectedly, then seemed to remember her earlier mortification, cleared her throat, and hooked her thumb back to point at the bed.
“And I’m sorry about—.”
She cleared her throat again and Effy discovered, not for the first time, that she liked a frazzled Katie.
Katie rolled her eyes, in the way that she did when she was irritated with herself; Effy used to think embarrassment was borne of self-consciousness, or a kind of weakness, but now she thought it was just a matter of people not wanting their own basic shortcomings reflected back at them.
“Oh, yeah, right—it’s great when you catch your friend wanking. Not, like, awkward at all.”
Laughing, Effy said, “Knock next time. Might make you feel better.”
The mattress springs made a pleasant little squeak as Katie flopped back on the bed, sighing; and she was pretty, always, but she was rather beautiful when she was on the verge of falling apart. Effy lay beside her and swiped a thumb across her lips. The colour had long ago smudged.
“Are you drunk?”
“Christ, not enough.” Katie stared up at the ceiling, as she drew her arms over her head, reaching for the headboard. “Maybe I am lonely.”
“Is that why you brought me to live here?”
“Because you wanted to take care of me?”
Katie frowned. She was embarrassed, again.
So Effy let it go. “Fuck it. Let’s go out for a few drinks.”
“I look like shit.”
“So what? Come on, Katie, let’s not pretend that your idea of looking like shit isn’t better than most people’s level best.”
It took a bit of time, but when Katie’s smile arrived, it was brilliant.
Effy tried very hard not to fall into old patterns, but sometimes she went out with boys whose names she couldn’t remember; woke up with bruises on her thighs.
Katie watched carefully. Her only advice: “Be careful, Eff. Please be careful.”
It was when she spied real fear in Katie’s eyes that Effy agreed to see a new psychiatrist. With Katie’s help she found a woman who could have been her grandmother, who was as physically different from John Foster as any person could be.
The woman, Dr. Rahman, asked about him.
Effy’s reply: “He said he would help me, but he killed my boyfriend instead. You’ll forgive me if I have a hard time trusting you.”
“Whatever you need to feel comfortable, Elizabeth, please let me know.”
Dr. Rahman was patient, and had a kind face; talking with her grew easier and easier. A few weeks in, she asked Effy to discuss her friends.
“I don’t have many.”
“I don’t generally like confiding, and most people can’t get along with silence.”
“So who would you say is your closest friend?”
“Katie, I suppose. We live together.”
“Tell me about her.”
“She’s… She hated me, when we were at college. There was an accident.”
“Not an accident. We were camping with our friends. And she was with Freddie then, but I wanted him--and he wanted me. Katie was jealous and… I dunno. We were in a fight; I was tripping on mushrooms and I hit her, left her there, and didn’t tell anyone what I’d done. It was lucky someone found her and took her to hospital.”
“That sounds very serious.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“And she forgave you, then?”
“It wasn’t like that. I mean, we didn’t talk about it—it just happened. That next year, when I had my breakdown, she helped me. She was there when I tried to kill myself. She was there when I was in hospital. Literally, there. She slept in a chair by my bed. Every day when I woke up, she was there. It was a massive comfort.”
Dr. Rahman said, “It’s a blessing, having a friend like that.”
And Effy nodded because words were superfluous. They were not enough.
When a boy Katie was seeing turned into a boyfriend, Effy thought, “Oh.”
And although the relationship ended within two months, the residual feeling of jealousy lingered like a bad taste in Effy’s mouth.
The night was chilly and clear. It was a Friday and they had an entire evening to pretend they were still young and reckless.
And they did, aggressively, stopping at a sleazy, little club Effy had known about for ages, the kind of place that was good for dancing, good for losing yourself in, and little else. She ignored the drugs, ignored the alcohol; and focused on the music, on movement. On Katie beside her--eyes closed, in her own world. They danced until they were drenched with sweat, and only stopped when Katie tugged on Effy’s sleeve and said, “Shit, I’m knackered,” and Effy nodded even though she could have gone on forever. On the Tube ride home, they leaned against one another, Katie’s head on Effy’s shoulder, Effy’s on top of Katie’s. Somewhere between Earl’s Court and East Putney, their fingers met. They walked home with clasped hands and collapsed in Katie’s bed to sleep it all away.
They went back to Bristol when they were invited to Naomi’s birthday party which turned into Naomi and Emily announcing they were getting married and moving to Canada. Emily had found a job and Naomi would be completing post-graduate work, and wasn’t it lovely?
It was a surprise to everyone, even to Katie, who got a sour look on her face immediately and left the room as soon as Emily spoke. Effy followed her out the door and into a bleak winter garden, where Katie was already lighting a fag, though she hadn’t smoked in ages and only for a little while during Effy’s initial recovery, a vice taken up in a strange commiseration.
Effy pulled her own cigarette case from her back pocket and joined her.
“I can’t believe she didn’t fucking tell me.”
“Would it have made it any better?”
They sneaked away and went to the harbour, where they shared a Cornetto and another cigarette. Walked to the nearest pub and had two drinks each, until Katie’s smile fell more easily into place. It was dark when they finally arrived at Katie’s family home, which was a flat they had moved into after Mr. Fitch lost his business. The Fitches moved steadily onward after the fiasco, and the flat was large and in a rather posh part of town.
“Think they’re still at the party,” Katie murmured. “Good. I don’t want to deal with Mum’s hysterics at the moment.”
“She’ll be back eventually. Emily, I mean. It’s not like she’s dead. You’ll email, or Skype, or.” Effy shrugged.
They were near the guest room when Katie froze at the words. She turned round like it had finally occurred to her that she should be ashamed of not being happy for her sister.
“Christ,” she said. “I suppose that’s true. I suppose I’m just feeling sorry for myself.”
“It’s not, really, but it’s honest.”
They went into the guest room, where Katie pulled a toothbrush out of her bag, and then her pyjamas, as though she were getting ready for bed, but in middle of it she stopped.
“Can we leave?” she asked. Her hand was sunk her hair, and her eyes had a wild despair about them Effy had never seen on her. “Can we just go home?”
“I’ll ring Emily later, yeah? I’ll tell her I’m sorry, but… Please?”
So they took a train back to London.
Katie cried for a bit before falling asleep with her head against the window. Effy stared out of it, out at the black, and thought about what it would be like to lose half of herself. The time after Tony was run over by a bus felt a lot like loss, like he’d died only to come back to a slow, agonizing life. Save for Freddie’s death, her brother’s recovery was the most difficult thing Effy had ever experienced. More than her own breakdown and suicide attempt, because the random, inexplicable tragedies that happen to those you love are always worse than whatever horror you inflict on yourself.
Two hours later, when they were at Paddington Station and looking for a taxi, Effy told Katie all about it. Every painful detail poured out of her, and Katie listened.
Effy considered psychoanalyzing her feelings for Katie, which had taken a greater sexual bent, and she was certain she knew what John Foster would have said about them. Transference, surely: Katie had become a twisted version of Freddie, a replacement who reminded Effy of a time in her life when everything had been upside down and backward, and yet— Hadn’t she been in love?
Katie loved her, of that Effy was certain, but whether that love extended beyond the boundaries of friendship—that was another matter, one Effy did not pursue.
“Why not?” Dr. Rahman asked.
“I like what we have, and I don’t want to scare her off.”
“So you’ve resolved to not deal with your feelings for her?”
“If by that you mean I’ve resolved not to tell her about them.”
“And is that difficult?”
“Why isn’t it?”
Dr. Rahman smiled. “That’s not what I meant, you know.”
“I’m not happy about it, but the last time I was in a relationship, I lost myself in it, and it was all rather horrible from then on.”
“Perhaps now that you’re older, and you’ve a better support system, things could be different, hm?”
“Perhaps, but it still doesn’t seem worth the risk just so I can tell her I want to fuck her. An orgasm I can get on my own.”
“I would argue that sex with someone you care about is not all about orgasm, Elizabeth. It brings with it a special intimacy—“
“I know that. I know it, but perhaps Katie deserves better than to be exposed to my sort of intimacy.”
“You shouldn’t conflate what happened to Freddie with—“
“Don’t tell me that. What I discuss here doesn’t have to be rational, does it?”
Dr. Rahman scribbled something in her notebook; Effy bit the inside of her cheek. When she’d finished writing. Dr. Rahman looked up and smiled. It was beyond irritating.
“What’s your plan, then?”
“At the moment? I’ve got none. There is no plan.”
And so she went on with her life, which entailed keeping to her schedule, to her plans-of-action. The monotony of it should have worn her down, but she found comfort in routine, and comfort in the act of daily coming home to Katie.
There were days, however, when Effy’s good intentions ran away from her, when she brought strange girls back to the flat—and if they fucked loudly and the girls were casually dismissed the next morning, Effy was only a little sorry.
“Was that a girl?”
The first time Katie asked she was having toast and tea, getting ready for what she had the week before predicted would be a hellish day of work. Effy, meanwhile, was on holiday, and taking full advantage of having the time to be as irresponsible as she could, Katie’s worried looks be fucked.
When she opened the refrigerator, searching for milk, ignoring Katie’s question and Katie repeated it, sounding more and more alarmed, Effy just raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Looked like a girl.”
“You fucked a girl?”
“Yes, Katie. Are we out of milk, or is it hiding somewhere?”
“It’s on the counter. Effy—“
Effy poured a splash of milk into her tea, hopped onto the counter. “What?”
It was satisfying, the way Katie just stood with her mouth open for a full three seconds before saying, “So, I mean, uh. Are you, like, gay now, or something?”
“Not quite gay, but I’m something.”
“Is that all right?”
“You’re asking me? I don’t fucking care. It’s a free country, and girls are just as ridiculous as boys are.”
“Brilliant.” Effy slid off the counter and walked to Katie, who still looked vaguely nonplussed and startled by the kiss Effy pressed to her cheek. That was satisfying, too. “Have a good day at work, then.”
And so it went.
Dr. Rahman opined that fucking-and-running, not her term, was probably not the healthiest path to take in terms of dealing with whatever feelings she tamped down; Effy, meanwhile, pointed out that it was not running if both parties agreed they would get their jollies and never cross paths again. And although Dr. Rahman was being sarcastic when she called the arrangements "tidy," Effy had to agree that indeed they were, and that was why she liked them.
"How does Katie react to your bringing these people home?"
"She's making a valiant effort at not appearing judgmental. It's rather commendable, actually."
Though her efforts were indeed commendable, perhaps bordering on extreme, Katie's results were slipping. Off-handed remarks about safe sex became direct and one-sided conversations Effy rolled her eyes and walked away from, conversations that became lectures that became cold shoulders.
"Are you sabotaging your relationship?" Dr. Rahman asked.
"Of course not. How fucking stupid."
"Are you certain?"
There was no knock before Katie stormed into Effy's room and threw a wad of fabric at her face. The wad unfurled to reveal a pair of skimpy knickers that did not belong to Effy and, by the look of it, did not belong to Katie, either.
"What the fuck?" Effy asked, sitting up in bed, still sleep-dazed and working up to being annoyed.
"What the fuck? I shouldn't even have to tell you that you're not to shag one of your sluts in common areas, yeah? I mean, have some fucking decency, Eff."
Effy rubbed at her eyes before giving Katie a long look and a shrug. "I don't shag sluts in common areas."
"Oh, don’t you? Then what was that doing under the sofa cushion?"
In truth, Effy had no explanation to offer. Just because she couldn't remember fucking someone on the sofa, did not mean it hadn't happened.
“Fine. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
Effy tossed the pants somewhere across the room and settled back into bed, closing her eyes. As sometimes happened, she’d had an interminably long, sleepless night that had only just ended a few hours before Katie’s indignant swoop into her room.
“Oi, I’m not finished talking to you.”
When it looked like Katie’s exasperation would make a lecture unavoidable, Effy turned over to face away, burrowing deeper under her duvet. Undeterred, Katie climbed into the bed and grabbed Effy’s bare shoulders. Effy, too tired to be angry or all that surprised at Katie’s intrusion, shook her head.
“What d’you want, Katie?” she asked, her voice rough, her body still warm and heavy with sleep. “Are you jealous?” And, “Christ, your hands are like ice.”
Maybe Katie didn’t know. Maybe Effy hadn’t let on. Maybe she’d been remarkably obtuse. Maybe that didn’t matter, because whatever the case, they were, in that moment, in Effy’s bed, practically cheek to jowl--and how did that not merit the forgetting of propriety and good intentions?
Effy took Katie’s hands, slipped them under her camisole and held them by the wrists, while Katie got this look on her face as if she’d just been struck and didn’t yet know what to do about it. (A stupid thing, because Katie’s reactions had always come fast; all reflex, Katie was.) Effy, though, she knew what to do, and so she sat up and tilted her head, her lips parted, ready. In that moment, she swore she saw Katie close her eyes, but maybe that was wishful thinking. What she felt when their mouths met was a jerk closely followed by a sigh. Retreat and surrender all in one breath. The inside of Katie’s mouth tasted like bitter coffee and a sweetly tart jam. Effy dragged Katie down to the mattress and turned them over so Katie was on her back; Effy’d let go of her wrists, but Katie’s hands remained static, cool against her stomach. But she did kiss back. In a hesitant sort of way, until she eased into a deeper touch, and it was then that her fingers twitched, slipped higher, and she began making soft, helpless sounds that made Effy’s knickers go damp. She spanned Effy’s ribs, her fingers landing just below the curves of her breasts. Stopping. Effy pulled back, but she didn’t go far; the air between them was charged.
Katie blinked at her slowly, her dark hair fanning the pillow, and said, “You haven’t lost your nerve, have you?”
The corners of Effy’s mouth twitched. “No,” she said quietly, though her heart hammered in her chest. “I haven’t.” When she shifted her weight, Katie’s thigh found itself between her legs. “Did you want to ruin a lovely friendship?”
The best one I’ve got? Could have?
Katie searched her face for a long time. “No,” she said. “But that’s not going to happen, is it? You’ll just have to promise, yeah?”
Could it ever be that simple?
They kissed again before the question was answered, Effy’s hand slipping into Katie’s hair, through to the back of her head which she held as their mouths slanted wetly against one another. What was the right thing to do? What was the thing she wanted more than anything?
“Yeah,” she said, wanting air, wanting Katie, wanting. She licked into Katie’s mouth and trembled. “Yeah, I promise.”