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Phoebe Stuckes

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866

Laura had a message from Conor, this meant that he’d broken up with his girlfriend. She knew he considered himself too honourable to message her while he was dating someone, but not so honourable that he wouldn’t message her the minute his current relationship was over. She knew what the woman Conor was dating looked like because Conor fancied himself as a photographer. She scrolled through Conor’s photos and found a picture of the girlfriend, she was standing in some sort of architecturally significant building. She was wearing only black, all the way down to her tights and looking into the camera, unsmiling. There was another picture of her, face turned to the side in front of a portrait of Effie Millais. Laura knew he was trying to draw a comparison, and there was a passing resemblance, something in the way her eyes sloped downwards. The painting was in focus and her face was blurred, so perhaps she’d been turning away from the camera at the moment it was taken, what was left was a murky smudge in front of the painting. The girlfriend had dark hair that grazed her collarbones, she wore it flat and straight while Laura’s hair was buoyant and blonde. Laura guessed that Conor and the girlfriend were a similar age, while Laura was younger. Laura tried to picture what the girlfriend was like in bed, what she liked and what she didn’t but her brain faltered, she simply couldn’t picture the girlfriend without her clothes.

The girlfriend had no pictures of herself on her own page. Her name was Julia. Laura liked the way it sounded, the three syllables; Ju-li-a. Her photos were all of buildings or skies or close-up pictures of shells on the beach. Her job was something in design, she vaguely remembered Conor mentioning this on one of the dates they’d been on. She’d known then that Conor was still in love with Julia, he called her the designer. When he described her like that Laura knew that Julia was significant, that she and Conor’s wandering in the thick summer heat wasn’t what she had hoped for. I’m a symptom. She thought to herself, he’s having a crisis because he’s in his thirties and doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing with his life and I’m just a symptom. When he moved his hand to the small of her back and asked her if she wanted to go to his place she said,
Great! He replied. I need to stop and, um, get something first.

She let him go off by himself to buy condoms in the pharmacy while she dawdled in front of the press on nails. She picked up an impossibly shiny pack of red and gold stiletto nails and put it down again. Are you ready to go? He said, reappearing at her elbow. She smiled.

On the bus to his flat he’d rested his hand absently on her knee like it was a small dog he was trying to keep quiet, it made her heart clatter around in her chest like trainers in the drum of a washing machine. His flat was incredibly tidy, in his bathroom she’d picked up his glass bottle of cologne and imagined smashing it on the hard tile floor. She put it back on the shelf slightly outside of its proper place.

When they tried to have sex he couldn’t get properly inside her. She knew it was because they’d moved too fast, she had a vague recollection of her doctor telling her this problem was about trust and for some people it was about trauma, Sometimes your mind wants something your body isn’t ready for. She decided to go down on him rather than explain all of this. She liked that she’d reclaimed control of the situation, he was vulnerable to her like this. Pathetic, even, she thought as he groaned and rested his hand on the back of her skull. When she left his flat afterwards she felt sick and light, it occurred to her she hadn’t eaten anything all day. She felt like walking fast, she felt like running.

Laura met Julia about a week and a half after Conor sent her the message. They were at an event at an art gallery, Laura’s friend had paintings in the show, large dark pictures that were thick with oil paint. One of them was in brownish hues, it reminded Laura of the dark blood residue she’d find in her underwear towards the end of her period. She felt out of place, the women were all dressed expensively in black or muted colours, she was wearing a pink crop top and ripped jeans. Laura saw Julia across the room, she was taller than she had imagined, she stood very straight, her eyes darted around the room as if looking for someone. Laura had no idea what to do with her information about Julia, her knowledge of her occupation, her breakup, her birthday. Laura’s friend had wandered off with the other artists to talk about artist things and Laura was standing awkwardly alone. She noticed Julia was standing on the fringes of a conversation across the room. Laura took herself to the bar to get another drink and suddenly felt Julia’s presence at her elbow.
Are you here on your own as well? Laura asked her. Julia seemed surprised to be addressed.
Sort of. I’m here to see my friend’s work. Me too. I always feel awkward at these things, everyone seems to know each other.
Who’s your friend?
Katie? She’s the one in the velvet coat.
Oh, I don’t know her. Laura realised that Julia’s manner was shy rather than aloof, that she might not have realised this about her if she’d never engaged her in conversation. Laura paid for her glass of wine and waited for Julia to order and pay for hers.
Well, I’m going to go outside and smoke. Laura said, hoping to end the conversation and go back to staring hard into her phone.
I’ll come with you. Laura was surprised, talking to Julia was making her nervous, her voice was bored and expressionless in tone, she had no idea what she was thinking. She watched Julia lighting a long thin cigarette with a plastic lighter, Vogues she said aloud.
Yes, Julia said, is that a problem? She cocked her head slightly to one side.
No! Laura was horrified. You’re just really cool.
Are you being sarcastic?
No, I’m just overly sincere – I promise.
Well. If you promise. Finally, Julia smiled. 
I do. Laura fished a cigarette and her lighter out of her bag, she stood in front of Julia trying to light her cigarette and failing. Julia watched her struggle for less than a minute before she stood up and cupped her hands around Laura’s. Her hands were narrow and elegant, they felt cold around Laura’s which were hot. Laura felt an overwhelming urge to shove her against the opposing brick wall and kiss her. She stood very still, focused on catching the tip on her cigarette with the flame and waited for the urge to pass. The urge to shove was a confusing one, she couldn’t identify where it had come from, usually she was the one hoping to be shoved, she thought.
Which way are you going?
It took Laura a second to realise she was being addressed. Oh, um, south, the 453?
I’m going that way too. Are you in Brockley?
New Cross.
Oh I see. Julia brushed the end of cigarette against the wall to put it out then threw the stub into the gutter.
Shall we walk? Laura followed her wordlessly, so eager to keep up she ended up throwing her half smoked cigarette into the road. On the bus, she lost her footing on the wet floor and half tumbled into her seat. Laura tried to work out if Julia was sitting closer to her than she had to. She felt jittery, she tried to think of something to say but she couldn’t, she kept opening her mouth and closing it again. Julia’s hand was resting on her own thigh. Laura tried to lean on her hand, her elbow balanced on the narrow ledge of the bus window. She was quivering slightly, from cold or anxiety should couldn’t tell. She felt something move against her leg, she wondered if her coat was in the wrong place and looked down, the back of Julia’s hand brushing delicately, deliberately over her knee.

Phoebe Stuckes is a writer from West Somerset. Her debut pamphlet, Gin & Tonic was shortlisted for The Michael Marks Award 2017. In 2019 she was the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award for her first full-length poetry collection, Platinum Blonde, which will be published by Bloodaxe Books in 2020.