It was a small classroom. Somebody was testing the limits of the central heating, fogging up the windows and bringing out the scent of the carpet. Eight people sat in a circle, steaming silently in their outerwear.
Jonah was fidgeting with purpose, shredding the cord of his rain jacket between thumb and forefinger. He was trying to solve the problem of Olivia before the hands on the clock hit 10 a.m., and praying to Gods he didn’t believe in that she would not show.
All girls were different, and all girls were special, but evidently they were organised by some basic principle of girlness; a shared, unifying property, that transcended the sensate facts of breasts and hair and other signifiers. Jonah knew, fidgeting furiously, that this ideal had reached its apex in Olivia, but he was yet to work out precisely what it was. He was, after all, trained in the abstract.
On the practical side of things, girl-wise, Jonah was aware that fitness displays played a role, like birdsong or jousting. Fitness displays could be anything. There were acts of violence and heavy lifting. There were displays of personal wealth. You could fix stuff. Jonah was a pacifist, and had once electrocuted himself with a toaster; an ex-girlfriend had said, fondly, that he looked like a melted Jude Law. But Jonah made the most of his modest gifts: he had done every reading for every paper; had overcome his moderate fear of public speaking; had developed into the most voracious, vocal and eager member of the philosophy programme, rewarded with a well-earned weariness from his tutors and a strong B+ average. There was no fitness greater, he reasoned, than the understanding of higher truths. And there was no truth higher than Olivia.
Jonah had not done as well as he might have during this paper. He put this down to the amount of time spent thinking about burying his face in Olivia’s neck. Women in the philosophy program were scarce, and rarity shone a charitable light on the few who’d endured the years of rough-and-tumble pontification. This tutorial had a relative abundance of three: quiet blonde girl; long face girl; and Olivia. As far as Jonah was concerned, there was only one woman on the earth, and it was She. However, he was well versed in the importance of maintaining objectivity at all times.
Olivia didn’t say much in class. When, pressed by the tutor, she did speak, her voice had a brittle, gravelly tone. Though Jonah had recently decided that the entirety of his being hinged on this sound, her reluctant contributions — regarding the atom, the void, the philosophy of beginnings and endings — were disappointing.
The problem had begun three weeks prior. Olivia had mispronounced Wittgenstein; Jonah had corrected her. It was their first interaction. At his polite enunciation of the hard ‘v’ sound, her eyes had whipped up from the floor to meet his, sustaining three seconds of uninterrupted contact. In the disproportionate rage of that glare, Jonah found love.
Being in love with Olivia was like being punched in the eye socket, over and over, all day. For the intervening weeks, little articles of Olivia popped like burst arteries in Jonah’s mind: hair, shoes, eyelashes, the nasal grind of her voice. She cast a blinding light, Jonah explained more than once to his flatmates, over every aspect of his being, rendering everything deformed, perverse, and infinitely imperfect in her wake.
This presented Jonah with two options: marry Olivia, or drop out of Philosophy and die. It was due to the urgency of this choice that he hoped, desperately, at 9:58 a.m., that she would not show up and force his hand.
Show she did, waddling through the yellowed plastic doorframe, lank with rain, canvas shoes grotty with mud. She rubbed at her fringe with the palm of her hand, careless of rumpling, and swung her tote down on the floor. Her damp eyelashes were thick on her face like a swab of baby spiders. He wanted to reach out across the room and run the pads of his fingers along her hairline. He wished she had pronounced Wittgenstein correctly.
She was seated too far away for Jonah to execute his well-rehearsed introduction. Instead, she fell into conversation with the long faced girl next to her. He listened intently to their fractal sentences, ebbing in and out of each other.
“There’s that thing at –
“Justine’s, in town, I know, but Tony –
“Just think of that –
“As an opportunity –
“I think I’ll just –
“Yeah! After –
“That. I know. I know. But –
“All the guys in this city are disgusting or –
“I know. There’s got to be —
“It could be –”
“Anyone. It literally doesn’t matter.”
“Yeah. God. I guess.”
The clock struck ten, and at the curt “ahem” of the tutor, the room settled back into silence.
After fifty minutes in the fetid classroom, Jonah ran to catch Olivia in the elevator. The doors began to close and, though he barely made it over the threshold in time, she did not move to stimulate the motion sensor. As the lift descended, she focused on the glowing oracles of the floor numbers. Jonah glanced at her like a nervous tick, flicking his eyes from doors to peripheries and back. She seemed unusually still. He tried to think of a way to start a conversation. Did you know Aristophanes theorised that humankind sprung from an original cleavage, and thought that men and women were once fused together, yin-and-yang chimeras with four feet and four hands and two heads, in perfect union? So every man and every woman was looking for their literal 'other half'? Jonah thought about his body fused with Olivia’s: a medusa-like mess of limbs, walloping in and out of class, trying to read two books at once, accidentally elbowing each other in the nose. She got out at the next floor before he worked up the power to open his mouth. He thought about following her, but didn’t.
At Justine’s, Jonah was telling Mariah that he worked in a bookshop but actually wanted to quit someday, after he finished his masters, though currently he was still an undergrad, after an ill-advised foray into Law, of all things, ha ha. Jonah assured her that he actually loved books. No, he didn’t read a lot of fiction, theory mostly. But there was no point discussing that with bookstore pundits because they don’t know what you’re talking about and sometimes they ask not to be disturbed. Jonah was telling Mariah no he’d never read Stephen King, for the same reason he didn’t smoke pot, which was the same reason he stopped being a Marxist. Mariah took five puffs of her cigarette. Mariah worked at a coffee shop, she said. She made coffee.
Jonah didn’t really want to talk to Mariah but his friends hadn’t arrived yet and she had looked so lonely out there, smoking all by herself. Olivia, despite her animated scheming in the last tutorial, was absent. Olivia didn’t know Jonah was there and Jonah was not sure if Olivia really knew who he was, but she would, because Jonah was wearing extra cologne and Jonah was confident and Jonah was pretty drunk.
Jonah was telling Mariah that Thales, the pre-Socratic philosopher, actually believed that everything was composed of water. That wasn’t true, but in a way, everything was a manifestation of a single substance, atoms and voids, different forms which were, at the greatest level of reduction, ontologically identical. Jonah was struggling to pronounce the word ontological. He hoped Mariah hadn’t noticed. He noted the relative emptiness of his bottle of bourbon. He asked Mariah for a cigarette.
“What a load of horseshit,” said Olivia, emerging from between the heads of two warring Psych majors. Jonah immediately felt the force of their connection, united in antipathy against the world.
“You,” Olivia began, slurping from a mug of red wine, “are in my tutorial.”
Warmth flooded Jonah’s chest. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I’m Jonah. And you are?”
Olivia screwed up her face. “Olivia. Not Livvy. Not Liv. Thanks,” – slurp. “You basically never shut up. No offence. You’re always on about,” – slurp, “bullshit.”
“That bullshit is important, Olivia,” Jonah replied, undeterred. “It’s the stuff of the world. It’s about what makes up you and me. Our essential nature.”
Olivia nodded, her neck lolling dangerously. “Yeah, shit like that. You’re always saying shit like that. Essential natures and bullshit. When we’re just,” – slurp. “People, you know? Like it’s just speculation about, like, basically, nothing. And the worst thing is —“ Olivia lurched. “The worst thing is, is that we pay money to sit around talking about it.”
“Well, I disagree. I think that –” Jonah began, sucking in on his cigarette and trying not to cough.
“That’s it. That’s your problem obviously, thinking. A whole lot of thinking about nothingness. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just about crawling so deep into your,” – hiccup. “Your head that you end up stuck in your own ass. Like, we live in a material world. Whatever. Fuck it.”
Jonah couldn’t quite remember the source of the reference and he couldn’t quite discern, in her flat tone, in the low heavy lids of her eyes, whether she was being ironic.
She gathered her hair into a high ponytail, bony elbows stabbing the air around her head. Jonah wanted to lick the fine black down on the back of her neck. He thought about the delicate scent of skin, girl’s deodorant, red wine and musk. He was unable to contain himself.
“I think you are…” Olivia’s lip curled as he spoke. “You’re totally, immense.”
“Like inconceivable. You know, boggling,” he said, contorting his mouth and picking up words at random. “You have this vibe, like everybody is… beneath your firmament. Has anybody ever told you that?”
He applauded himself on his poeticism.
“Nobody’s ever told me that,” Olivia swerved dangerously as she finished up her ponytail, gripping her mug tightly between her knees. “Probably because it’s a pretty, pretty fuckin’ weird thing to tell somebody.”
They stood in silence, she swaying, he achingly close to her, a head or so taller, hanging over her like a vulture or a telephone pole.
“You’re a weird dude,” said Olivia, frowning, looking into his eyes. Jonah was overwhelmed by the dense surface of her pupils. He felt uncertainty creep back into his system. Strategising in his flat three hours ago, this casual interaction, followed immediately by a stable and committed relationship, had seemed a plausible goal. In the blurry world of the patio, the cog-turnings of her inner life evaded him more than ever.
“You’re not so average yourself,” he said. “You’ve got a… chip on your shoulder.”
Olivia snorted. “No, I just broke up with my crap boyfriend and I’m like, miserable.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Jonah. He was not sorry. They swayed in tandem in the yellow light of the house, flickering with the lurching of bodies past windows and doors.
“No, I should be sorry, like I don’t even know you and I’m just like… well here I am, ranting to a stranger, like a loser,” she laughed, draining and refilling her mug.
“I guess, uh… I guess everything happens for a reason, sometimes.”
Olivia gazed deeply into the dregs of her wine. “I read somebody saying somewhere that like, love is just giving something you don't have to someone who doesn't exist, which makes sense to me, about it. You know.”
This statement had a laxative effect on the carefully held muscles of Jonah's face. Giddiness warped the sound of his surroundings; mangled speech and spikes of laughter crystallised into seraphim, sweetness, hallelujah! She had quoted. His earlier phantasm of the monstrous Jonah-Olivia hybrid returned, transmuted, made lovely: the soft white pudge of Olivia's arm, leaning across Jonah's chest to turn a page of Thus Spoke Zarathustra; his own hand resting on the gently fluttering bat-wings of her eyelashes, his eyelashes, their eyelashes.
"I disagree," Jonah replied. "Lovers perfect one another. You know, love is, about the holistic... becoming the whole thing. You know?"
"It just means there's something you haven't got. If you're not missing stuff, why would you need anybody else?" Olivia's cup ran over, leaving bright pools on her boots. She didn't notice. "And nobody's ever going to be... nobody's ever going to be right enough that they have all the pieces that fit right, for you, so you invent them. You have to make them up."
Jonah chuckled in what he hoped was a dashing kind of way, but sounded to his own ears like a drain gurgling. "That's very cynical of you. Don't you think sometimes people just… click? Like, understand each other?"
“No, people never understand each other!" The mug jerked violently; specks of red appeared on Jonah's shirt. "That’s exactly it. People never want to love each other because they understand, people just want to put love on somebody and it's the... property of loving someone that makes them perfect, you don't love somebody because they're perfect, you're just doing this whole stupid thing so you can try and fill up all the shitty bits inside yourself but you can't."
Olivia's top lip was set in a snarl; her eyes were glossy and dangerous looking and pointing in slightly different directions.
"Like somebody said, I don't know who, 'love is the part between meeting a pretty girl and discovering she looks like a fish.’ And that's what that means. Love changes the object of love. It's the cause. Not the girl. The girl really looks like a fish."
It was difficult, in the scant light, to tell whether Olivia was crying. It was difficult for Jonah to maintain a sturdy line of gravity. The patio was smattered with staggering bodies; it was impossible to tell which of them were standing at the correct angle.
"I don't think you look like a fish."
Then he very was close to her face. Her mascara had collected in clumps; her nose was peppered with little blackheads. He was surprised to find that they were sort of kissing. Olivia was mostly just holding her mouth open, which was fine by Jonah because all his dreams were coming true.
Then they had moved inside, Olivia’s soft cold hand pulling him without tenderness into the bathroom and into the bath. He went to touch her breast and she thrust him away, pulling instead at the clasp on his belt with murderous intensity. And then he tried to take his shoes off and she told him to stop fiddling with his fucking shoes and then she had pulled him down and grabbed his haunches and he had pushed, and she was making sharp little grunts and he was on another plane, where things were pure and straightforward and fundamental. Her eyes were scrunched shut in concentration beneath him, and he thought about how beautiful she was, her nose red with wine, her sort of damp-juice smell.
But he didn’t want to let himself go too quickly, and so he tried to focus on the relationship between consciousness and the matter of the body, rather than the increasing pressure. Like, was the gentle mechanical rhythmic thrusting, not unpleasant but definitely bizarre feeling, an assertion in empty space between the individual particles of Olivia-ness, or was Olivia the empty space? Was Olivia an atom or a void? How did Olivia feel so good? How much of what was behind Olivia’s eyes had to do with the ‘chemistry’, in the crass language of science, produced by her organs, hormonally determined, biles and humors; how real, how essential was the uncuttable, indestructible, insuperable final unit of girlness softly nestled within her? And Jonah thought about ‘softly nestled’, and was carried away by the turgidity of his own thoughts, and then by the sound of his own breath, and a sort of squeaking, and what he could only describe as tumescence.
Somebody outside was laughing loudly and music was pounding and so was the blood in Jonah’s head, and as Olivia moved he felt a moment of release and he screwed up his eyes and he might have accidentally said ‘Wittgenstein’ and he might have not. He came to a halt, then felt the soft jostling of her beneath him, as she said something unintelligible, with no upwards inflection.
Olivia leant over the side of the bath and sighed deeply. She hoisted herself up, retrieved her underwear, and headed for the door.
“I’ll, um, text you,” said Jonah. “Um, thank you.”
Olivia’s turned, wobbling, her face set with a drunken pallor. “You don’t have my phone number,” she said, hand on the doorknob.
“Olivia,” Jonah struggled to remember how to use his mouth.
Olivia sighed. “Joel.”
Before he could correct her, she had shut the door behind her with a firm click.
Jonah marvelled that even this most intimate act had failed to provide him with access to the mysterious core of his beloved. But the wounded ringing through his ribcage, and the bourbon-tinted clouding in his head, were tempered by the rising urge to run after Olivia and do it again. His rattletrap thoughts wandered back to the caveman, the peripatetic pursuit of contact that was his raison d'être. Of course – desire did not reach its zenith; it did not nestle resolutely in the viscera of girlness, as he had sought to do. He should call a taxi. Desire reproduced itself as desire, infinitely and limitlessly. He might still have some bourbon. The basilisk black behind Olivia’s eyes was never designed to absorb his passions, but to refract them back at him, multiplied tenfold. Where was his wallet. The game of the chase wasn’t a grail quest; it was Pacman.
He banged his way out of the bathroom, rich with epiphany. The Psych majors stood across the hallway, engaged in what appeared to be a stand-off debate for the benefit of Jonah’s tutorial blonde.
“I have achieved real insight into the nature of woman as a unit of concern and sex as a practice!” Jonah yelled.
“What?” somebody asked, possibly in response.
“The feminine principle is a void. It must be occupied… consumed by… the atom. It has no essential nature. It is merely… a mirror for desire.” He rocked unsteadily on his feet.
“Are you okay, man? You look kinda fucked.”
“I’m Pacman,” said Jonah, and, world spinning, collapsed onto the floor.