Dog was lying on his side in the rectangle of morning sunlight on the floor, warming himself, me staring at him from the couch with a bowl of Weet-Bix in my lap, when Trent shuffled in from the bathroom. He was wearing only his boxers and a security wristband from a nightclub, which to me looked more like it belonged in a hospital. He squinted at the sudden sunlight, turned his head to stare out the window, frowning as if in thought, hunching his shoulders to accentuate his chest and abs, and running his hand back through his wet hair, all with the utterly convincing nonchalance that he had now perfected, after months of practising the distant facial expressions and subtle poses from the high-status wristwatch and cologne advertisements on the back of his Men's Health magazines. I figured that by that time it probably wasn't even a conscious affectation any more, it had become an integral part of his physical vocabulary. Similar to a mantra that is chosen and repeated daily, until you truly believe it.
He shuffled over on stiff legs, staring at the floor ahead of him, then turned around and fell onto the couch beside me. He stared straight ahead, still and expressionless, as a non-morning person in the early morning generally does. It was much too early for any kind of good conversation, so I said nothing. We sat there for a few minutes, him like a statue, me slowly eating spoonfuls of soggy Weet-Bix.
"Fuckin' crazy night."
He said this without shifting his gaze. It surprised me a bit, as if the voice had come from the air in front of me.
"Yep. But it's probably a good thing you didn't come."
"Why would I have?"
Another minute, or so, of silence. Then he spoke again without any warning.
"I picked up a girl."
I had expected this, but it still bothered me a little to hear it. I made sure not to react outwardly, to let nothing show.
"Very good. What's her name?"
"That's a nice name. So, I presume she's . . . in there?"
I motioned with my bowl towards the wall in front of us, with his bedroom on the other side. He was staring at it with a great calmness.
"Yep. Asleep, I guess. I didn't sleep much."
"So what is she like?"
I didn't really want to hear the answer, but it seemed right for me to ask.
Hearing this surprised me. His usual response was something like, "Yeah, not bad," or, "Alright, I guess." Something that gives no information whatsoever. But as surprised as I may have looked, he couldn't have seen, with his eyes still fixed on a spot somewhere about one-third of the way up the bare wall opposite us.
"Soooo, what do you like about her?"
"She's just amazing."
"I guess I'm just trying to get a handle on what specific qualities you're talking about here."
There was not a hint of excitement or humour in his voice.
"So, she's pretty? smart? funny? not-too-talkative-not-too-quiet?"
I waited for the rest of the answer.
He said this with something close to resignation, as if he had just accepted the painful truth of his situation.
Trent was the type of person who generally said what was most expedient for him at any moment, but also with enough forethought and guile that he didn't come to be seen as an outright liar. As clever as he was, though, I don't think he was ever one for real self-awareness, so sarcasm, irony, and self-parody weren't in his repertoire.
"Is Dog right?"
Hearing his name, Dog lifted his head and looked at Trent.
"What do you mean? He's warming up, he does that every morning."
"I've never seen it."
Dog blew a snuff of air through his nose and laid his head back on the floor, facing into the light.
"Sorry, weren't we talking about this girl of yours?"
"Yes. The fact that she's supposedly perfect, which is the one issue; and the fact that you're acting like you have post-traumatic stress, which is another."
He made a slight, morose shrug, the first gross movement I'd seen since he sat down.
"I just don't know what to think."
"Well, normally, I think someone wouldn't think so much as be elated and grateful, or perhaps have a religious-slash-spiritual epiphany."
He let out a sigh, looked down at his hands, which were clasped between his knees, and frowned. I was watching for any sign that he was just making fun of me.
"I couldn't do her."
I opened my mouth to speak, but didn't know what I planned to say.
"What do you mean?"
He turned his head to look at me, staring calmly into my eyes.
"Don't tell anyone about it."
"Well, no, of course not, it's your business."
He went back to looking at his hands.
"But if you're going to tell me this, then I guess I'd want to ask, why?"
Trent's long string of many short-lived relationships was something that had had a strange effect on me throughout the several years we were housemates. Initially it was astonishment, plus some small amount of disbelief, and I wondered if he was just doing some kind of act to impress people. The sheer number of women who successively came through our door with him, usually late at night, was the kind of thing I had only seen in comedy movies and had assumed was just cinematic caricature. One girl's empty Smirnoff Ice bottles would only be halfway down in the recycling bin when the next set of high heels clicked up the concrete stairs outside our door.
"Well, why couldn't you have sex with her? And, I guess, why are you telling me this, but that's a secondary issue."
"I don't know what to do, so I want to talk about it. It's less stressful than getting caught up in thinking about it. Kinda weird."
"I think I know what you mean."
"And I couldn't do it 'cause she doesn't turn me on. She doesn't have anything sexy."
I smiled at this.
"Not even the perfection of the human form? Or is that more like a Platonic ideal, not to exist in our crude world?"
"Do your friends actually think that kind of thing is funny?"
"It just sounded odd when you said it, that's all."
"Whatever, point is there's nothing about her I can't imagine. Like she's the dictionary definition of sexy, not in real life. Playboy shit."
"You don't like Playboy?"
"I don't like porn. That's what I mean, it's all boring and you always know what's going to happen."
"I suppose you're right about that, but I don't think many people watch pornography in order to be surprised."
"That's stupid. Surprises are the exact opposite of boring, if something isn't surprising then it's boring."
I had been staring at Dog, but now I turned my head to look at him, focusing on the small acne scars at the edge of his eye.
Over time, I had gotten used to the succession of young women I saw sitting on our couch when I came in from work, and my amazement had turned to jealousy. I put on a face of nonchalance and apathy, but I'm fairly sure that Trent knew how pitiful and hopelessly undesirable the whole thing made me feel. He never rubbed it in, which was good of him, but there was nothing he could tell me that I hadn't heard through the walls of our two-bedroom flat.
"That's what makes a girl sexy. If she has something different about her."
"I'm not sure I can completely agree with that."
"Well, that's how it is for me."
"So, what would be an example of this?"
Trent let out a little sigh through his nose, or perhaps it was nothing. Usually he would have cut off a conversation with me by now.
"Heidi had those really big thighs."
"They were totally out of proportion, just weird."
"I think I remember her, yes."
"And naked, they looked even weirder. Like two different people cut in half and stuck together."
"You don't need to tell me what she looked like in the nude."
He shrugged again, with more heft than the last time.
"Kayla was really sweaty all the time."
"I don't see how that's attractive at all."
"It was exciting. She left a big outline on my sheets."
Imagining this, I couldn't help but screw my face up a little. I looked at Trent, and he was smiling, just slightly.
"At first I thought it was from dancing, but she was like that all the time. She had a massive hankie in her bag, and she'd wipe her face, and it smeared her makeup all over. Massive dark patches on her shirt."
"And you liked that?"
"Shit yeah. She always looked like she'd just got out of the shower."
"Fair enough then."
I couldn't find any memory of this sweaty woman.
"Rosie didn't show me anything."
"You didn't have sex with her?"
"We fucked, but she turned all the lights off and closed the blinds to block out the street lights."
"But you couldn't have known that she would do that when you first met her."
"I met her at the pool, and she was wearing a huge black swimsuit with arms and legs on it, like the things Muslim women wear. I could only see her head and hands."
"That's a pretty extreme case of self-consciousness."
"I guess. She always wore long sleeves and pants, even in the summer."
"Did she seem to lack confidence, in a general sense? Was she trying to cover up a big scar, or something like that?"
"She was alright."
"That's not much of an answer."
He shrugged again.
"Point is, her body was like a mystery."
"Right. What about Angela?"
Angela was the only one whose name I could recall. We'd had a few short conversations in passing, standing in the kitchen. I had liked her, and felt very sad and lonely when Trent had taken her hand and led her into his room. She had smiled warmly and given me a small goodbye wave as she went.
"Hairiest girl I ever met."
I opened my eyes wide with surprise, sticking my head out forwards like an idiot.
"I met her at the bar, and she had her belly button showing, and she had a massive snail trail."
"I never noticed it."
"She was pretty casual about it."
"So she didn't shave at all?"
"Nup. She was like a cavewoman."
"Well, that's a bit harsh, don't you think?"
"I liked it anyway."
I thought about the way Angela had said the word 'between', which, for some reason, stayed with me very clearly. Rather than a hard 'tee', she used something between that and 'thee', and the 'wee' hung in her mouth, more like 'uee': 'bethueen'. Something about it really grabbed me, and made me stare at her lips with what was probably quite a creepy look on my face. Many times I tried to ask her questions whose answers would require the use of that word.
"The best one was Isabel, hands down."
"You need to keep in mind that I don't know any of these women's names; to me they might as well be fictional. And by 'the best', do you mean sexually?"
"Eh, the sex was good, but she was just sexy in general."
"And what was her idiosyncrasy?"
"She was beautiful, I mean really beautiful, but she looked like she was getting ready to kill herself. People didn't talk to her, because she had a sad face and never smiled and sorta moved like nothing mattered."
As soon as Trent had said the word 'beautiful', I was quite sure I knew who he meant. She was a dark-skinned woman with a square jaw and black freckles on her cheeks, who looked much older than either Trent or me, despite having not one wrinkle. It was something subtle in the way she dressed, and her complete indifference, which showed in her every action and didn't seem to fit a young woman.
"I remember her now. Yes, she was very good-looking."
"But she hardly looked you in the eye. And when she did, it made you want to look away."
"Yes, you're so right. That resigned, miserable expression of hers would get stuck in my head for hours. Where did you meet her?"
"In a lecture. I watched her sitting on her own for a few weeks, then one day I sat down next to her, and she didn't acknowledge me at all. Like, she didn't react at all, like I literally wasn't sitting there."
"That sounds about right."
"So I asked her if she liked the course, and she looked at me, and kind of smiled a tiny bit, then she just shook her head and looked down."
I laughed out loud, and shook my head and looked down at my knees.
"That's exactly what she would have done."
"It's what she did."
I didn't know how to respond to that. There was a pause in the conversation for a few seconds.
"So how did you end up going out with her?"
"I just said that I'd seen her in class, and I thought she was really beautiful but always looked lonely, and I asked her if she wanted to hang out after."
"You were a bit more subtle than that, I take it?"
"Pretty much just said that."
I paused for effect.
"And that worked?"
"Yeah, we had some coffee."
"What did you talk about?"
"I tried to be funny, told her some stories and stuff, she didn't talk much."
"Did she laugh at the stories?"
"Nup. She kinda reacted, but didn't really laugh."
I knew exactly what he meant. I had seen her standing with groups of people, her arms folded, listening to them joke and laugh with each other, and instead of laughing she would give a melancholy smile and look into the distance for a moment, as if the only slightly funny thing was the irony in the mere existence of jokes. If she was especially amused at a potential piece of wordplay that had gone unnoticed, she would make tiny exhalations of laughter through her nose, along with that same pitying little smile. It had made my chest ache a little whenever she did that.
"For how how long did you see her?"
"About half a semester, then she switched to arts and we stopped hanging out. The sex was always really quiet, and I don't think she was that into it."
"She didn't seem to be that much into anything at all, as far as I could tell."
"She liked books."
We both lifted our heads at the sound of Trent's door opening, and looked at each other as we listened to the soft footsteps in the hallway. I had what I think was quite a neutral and meaningless expression, but he looked at me as if he was pleading for something. I only saw it for a moment, and didn't know what it could possibly mean. Then we both looked over to the entrance as she stepped into it and paused, looking at the two of us, with one hand resting at shoulder height on the far side of the thin wall that separated us from the hallway.
I hadn't quite believed Trent when he had briefly described this woman, but 'perfect' is definitely the word that comes to mind. She was one of those extremely modern-looking people of chaotically mixed race, with caramel-coloured skin, loose curls of near-black hair, and a face made of precisely arranged lines and rounded corners. Her eyes were bright and calm, moving from one object of attention to the next without any unnecessary movements in between. She looked from Trent to me, and gave me a smile that tugged at something in my stomach and made me feel that she was genuinely happy to see me sitting there in my musty flannelette pyjamas. Her hair fell like a curtain over most of the right side of her face, and was pinned back on the left, showing a long, smooth expanse of cheek and neck. I followed a line from her smiling eye down that plane and across at the collarbone, stopping at the wide shoulder-strap of her navy-blue sundress.
She looked over at the illuminated patch on the floor.
"What a cute dog. What's his name?"
"We couldn't agree on a good name, so he's just Dog."
She looked back to me, smiling the way mothers do when a child says something adorably naive.
I imagined that she must have been a dancer, from the way she moved through such a mundane room. Her motions were like a dance, but with such thoughtless ease that I didn't think it could have been for the benefit of Trent and me, who just stared dumbly from the couch. Every step was placed softly, almost without a sound, and her legs remained straight as the turned, like a small pirouette that she made only for her own enjoyment. She kept her arms straight and angled slightly away from her body. Her erect spine was like a gentle brushstroke in the air. Every movement was precise, light, and effortless. She looked like she had never stubbed her toe or tripped on a tree root or spilled a cup of tea in her life. She went to the fridge to find something to drink, and when she stood on the balls of her bare feet to look through the top shelf, I stared at her calves and felt a desire for her that suddenly made me feel ashamed and worthless. Each time I looked away for fear of staring for too long, I couldn't hold my eyes in one place, and I felt as if they were pulled towards her by a string. Looking at her was like scratching a mosquito bite.
She disappeared behind the kitchen bench as she searched for a glass amongst our assorted mugs and plastic cups, then poured herself some orange juice. She held the bottle as gently as if it were an infant animal, and stepped into her shoes as she drank a mouthful of the juice. Then she put the glass on the bench and stepped towards Trent, who remained sitting, but now looked up to meet her eyes. She did everything with a calm, contented smile on her face; either oblivious to, or completely accepting of, the effects that her presence had on those around her.
"I've suddenly realised that I don't really want any juice. Will you finish it, or should I pour it out?"
"I'll have it."
She started to lean down, and I turned my head away. I heard the sound of a small kiss.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
There was another kiss, louder than the first, and when I looked back up she was halfway to the door. She gave me a small wave and the same warm smile as she turned to close the door from the outside. I lifted my hand to return the wave just as the door clicked closed.
Trent looked down at his hands, which were folded in his lap, and took a long, deep breath in through his nose as he closed his eyes.
"She even has dimples above her arse."
He leaned forwards to push down onto his knees and stand up. He dragged his feet around the corner into the hallway, and closed his bedroom door behind himself. Dog jerked his head up at the noise, then looked into my eyes before putting his chin on the floor, ears held high at attention. A moment later, I heard the large, soft thump of Trent's body falling onto his mattress, and I imagined him falling face-down with his arms straight by his sides.