“It’s my birthday today,” I said.
And it was. My grandmother thought I was having some sort of party at Kay’s, but I hadn’t spoken to him in months.
“Happy birthday,” Mrs Miller said, revealing the same easy-going smile I saw her son give on a daily basis. “I wish Joe would’ve told me, I’m afraid I don’t have anything special in.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” I said, trying to colour the sentence with a tinge of sadness, but not too much. I was being brave.
She sighed in a way that bordered on agitation, but it was reigned in enough to just about pass for sympathy. “No, no, I’ll go out and get you some cake and ice cream. I’ll pick up a pizza too. I know you’re sixteen now, but birthday foods always stay the same, don’t they?”
I wouldn’t know, I thought, but nodded anyway.
Then she left, and it was just me and Joe in the living room. He wouldn’t look at me. I thought he might at least shout something or demand truths. But he didn’t. He just got up and went to the kitchen. I heard him pour himself a glass of water.
I followed him through the immaculate cream-coloured hallway into the pristine, white marble kitchen. I perched on the edge of the kitchen table and smiled.
“Want to watch a film?” I asked.
“What have you got? I don’t mind what we watch, maybe an action or a…”
“Why are you trying to torture yourself?”
That sentence, and the way he said it, has been permanently burned into my memory.
Why are you trying to torture yourself. Why are you trying to torture yourself. Why are you trying to torture yourself. I’ve thought about it over and over and over, imagining different intonations and emphases, but his words were simple enough. His intention was clear.
I think it’s the word ‘trying’ that still makes me angry. As if my life is nothing but a shoddy attempt at self-destruction. I can’t even succeed at hurting myself.
Why are you trying to torture yourself?
I felt sick. Not because it wasn’t true. It was. I felt sick because he had worked it out before I could.
“I don’t know what you mean,” was all I could think to say. I slid off the table onto shaking legs.
“Could you leave?” he asked.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact he had asked rather than told me. Typical Joe.
“But it’s my birthday.”
“Then you should be with your family.”
I snorted. “You don’t know my family.”
“Your friends then.”
“You’re my friend.”
He opened his mouth and closed it again, unsure whether I meant it or not. At that point I wasn’t sure either.
“Fine,” he said. “Shall we go and pick a movie?”
He was only suggesting it because I had mentioned it earlier, but the idea of sitting down to watch a two-hour movie in silence was suddenly too much. No. I had worked hard to get to the crescendo of this, I wasn’t going to allow him to do what he always did. Average Joe. Average fuckingJoe. Middling, liked by everyone, known by everyone. He wasn’t going to get away with it. We were both going to end this day changed people. Something different was going to happen.
There was a knife block on the kitchen counter in front of me. I pulled one out and pointed it at him.
“What are you doing?” he asked, but he was quite calm. He didn’t even attempt to get a knife for himself.
“You need to tell me why,” I said.
“Put it down.”
“No. You need to tell me why.” My voice was thin and unconvincing.
“Let’s go and watch a movie.”
“At least tell me what this is all about.”
My grip on the knife tightened, but the sweat on my palms caused it to slide slightly from my grasp. I imagined thrusting it at him and it slipping out of my hand, clattering to the floor.
“Shut up, Joe.”
“Why are you doing this?”
Why are you trying to torture yourself?
I don’t know why it happened. Hot tears started to stream from my eyes, but I don’t remember feeling sad at all. I tried wiping them away with the back of my hand – the one not holding the knife – but they just kept coming.
“It’s people like you,” I started, not knowing how to complete the sentence.
“What do you mean?”
“In the cafeteria, I saw you, when you were talking. I saw you do it.”
“You saw me do what?”
The image of him digging his fingernails hard into his thighs resurfaced, and then it was like a switch in my brain. I couldn’t say it out loud. Everything just suddenly seemed so intensely, painfully idiotic. Pathetic, even. Did it really mean anything? Was this person capable of being anything other than what he so blatantly was? What did I really want? Why was I there?
“What do you think I did?”
That annoyed me.
“I don’t think, I know what you did. And this isn’t about what you did, it’s about what you are. You, and all people like you. You’re just…”
And then something hard and cold struck me hard across the side of the head. I staggered sideways and the knife in my hand clattered to the floor, just as I had imagined it would. As I fell, I looked up and saw Joe’s mum in the doorway, a small bottle of beer in one hand and a shopping bag in the other. Her face was full of fury and fear.
I eventually found the wall on the other side of the kitchen and held onto it. My vision was starting to blur and quiver.
“I’m calling the police!” Joe’s mum announced, high-pitched and hysterical.
I slumped to the floor, no longer able to use the wall to keep upright. I gently prodded the side of my head and found a large lump. Warm, thick blood dripped from it onto my shoulder.
Joe’s face was emotionless when he walked over to me. He bent down in front of me and put his hand up to gently cup the lump on my head.
While still looking at me, he spoke to his mother. “Don’t call the police.”
She made an odd gurgling sound. “Joe, he was threatening you with a knife.”
“We were messing about.”
“But I just…”
“We. Were. Messing. About.”
His quiet but stern words calmed her, and I felt the frenzy in the air dissipate. I looked at his stillness, then I looked over at his mother. She was trembling so much the bottle fell from her hands, smashing on the floor. I looked back at Joe, his hand still cupping my bleeding head. The coolness of his hand eased the pain.
“Go and get some painkillers and bandages, Mum,” he said.
He spoke to her as if she were a child. She sloped off up the stairs, taking each step slowly, and I heard her open the bathroom door. I then heard the rustle of plastic and paper as she began to search through the cupboards.
Joe took his hand off my head, which immediately started throbbing again. He wiped my blood onto his black trousers and sat down in front of me.
“You know you can’t come here ever again, right?”
As I nodded, pain ripped through the side of my head to my eye sockets. I quickly put my hand where his had been. It helped a bit, but my hands were too hot.
He exhaled. Not for any sort of sadness or exasperation, he was just expelling a long, deep breath. “You following me around all the time – that has to stop too.”
“Don’t try and talk to me at school.”
“You hate me, don’t you?”
His question threw me. I tried to place the words. “Not exactly. I don’t know. I want to see you in pain. I want to see what you look like when you suffer.” I paused. “Well, I wanted to. Now I don’t know what I want. I just feel numb.”
He smiled. “That’s because you lost.”
I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t. “What do you mean?”
He ran his hands through his hair in the way I’d seen girls’ imitate to each other behind his back.
“Whatever this was, you lost.”
“What was this?”
“I don’t know, but I won. You didn’t think I would, but I did.”
Then he smiled in a way I’ve never seen before. With his teeth. It didn’t look grotesque, or odd – if anything it looked quite natural, warm even. But it was different. It was a different side to him.
He was giving me another clue.