…and there is no such person as Sheena.
Sheena. How that name fills me with horror.
How to write about Sheena…….? Just plunge right in.
Sheena was fat. I immediately want to write, ‘That is not relevant to what I have to tell you about Sheena’ – we must be nice, not judge on appearances, be politically correct – but that is nonsense. Our brains do not exist separate from our bodies. Our bodies are not pedestals to carry our brains about. If someone has a huge port wine birthmark on their face are you stupid enough to imagine it doesn’t help make them who they are?
Thus it was with Sheena’s fat. Her fat was not the plumpness of genetics or an indicator of a voluptuous and sensual nature; no, this fat was like a badge, a membership: I belong to The Damaged Club – keep away.
But we didn’t keep away, of course. Not my doing, I have to say. Not my active pursuit. No, the ‘boyfriend’ was on heat for anything that made him feel good about himself. The ‘boyfriend’ was on heat for anything that replaced his lost ‘art’. The poor soul was ‘deprived’. There were a lot of single commas in our relationship; the tissue paper holding it together was that thin.
But I am not blameless. I am not blameless. I am my mother’s daughter, with everything shitty and low that implies. I knew it was all wrong, it stank, but I said nothing. I had this terrible pride, you see. Pride that might just eat me up. I could not face hearing out loud those words, “You are replaceable. Your value is only as good as how you make me feel. You are only as good as how you make me feel.” I had grown up with that shit, no need to bring it home here. Not that that is an excuse; it isn’t. I do not want you to think I in any way tolerated this self-delusion. I knew exactly what I was doing, but I was persecuted by thoughts of my own jealousy. I had a jealous father, and all that was ever about was the disrespect to him. He had to be everything to everyone and I assumed my discomfort was the same disease. It genuinely never occurred to me that what the ‘boyfriend’ was doing was wrong; I merely thought that I was wrong for feeling it.
Mistake. Big, ugly stupid mistake.
One that Sheena was quick to jump all over. Because my knowledge of her was limited by her own knowledge of her, there were things missing from her psyche for me. Normally an uncomfortably astute critic of the human personality, my skill failed me here. Perhaps I was too close. Perhaps I was too stupid. Ironically, now, I can see everything so clearly. And what I see clearest of all was that I knew. I knew everything, from the very first sigh, the first excuse, the first hiding of the computer screen.
That was the first true, dangerous symptom I recall, the first sense that all of this was not in all of me. It was external, it was there, breathing in front of me: an electronic pulse of disillusionment. That was the first sinking of the heart I felt.
Ironically again, it wasn’t Sheena. It was Maureen. And Lorna. And I don’t know how many others. It was covetous secret conversations over the net that made him blush when I entered the room. Sometimes he was so uncomfortable I used to talk about it just to relieve his pain. I’d say, “What’s Maureen saying now?” Or even ask him outright: “Talking to Lorna? Aren’t you supposed to be working?” Making light of it, treating it as a joke: ‘Oh, I don’t mind. Look how grown-up and not jealous I am being about your philandering. You cunt.’
It fooled him, eased him, which is what it was meant to do. Even in pain I could not stop myself trying to make things easier for him. That was my job as a loving partner, to trust. But for me it did nothing but prolong the agony. It kept something that should have had a face faceless. It allowed me to go on calling infidelity – scummy, shitty backstabbing – my jealousy. It let me be me while he went to hell in a handcart, cheerfully running it over my back because it made the climb easier.
Ironically again, all this provided a thick screen for Sheena’s sneaky entrance. Not one that she knew of, but one that he did. She played no part in this part; she was as close to innocent as she got. But he knew everything. Even now I think he sees it as fragmented events. He doesn’t see a bigger picture of deceit and shabbiness. Now he has a carefully thought-out story for why he did this and why he did that, but he still doesn’t feel shame for what he did. He feels remorse and wishes it undone. He has understanding and wishes it undone. But he does not feel shame. He still sees it as necessary. It was a part of his growing up. He felt a loss – many losses – that caused this greedy pulling towards himself, and his trampling of absolutely anything that meant anything to us. ‘Us’? There was no ‘us’. There never had been. That was a deceit of mine; one I fear I still pull off today.
Sheena came in under cover of ‘harmless’ online flirting, meaningless dirty talk on the dance floor, cuddles and knee-sitting in large groups that could mean nothing but innocent fun since it was flagrantly public. That was the ticket that took Sheena home. Here she lost her innocence. Here she became a large wet predator, feeding alternately on food, drink and something else. I was the something else.
Like a lot of things about her, it was conflicted. She was smart, but too dumb to see the idiocies of her life. She was funny, but too terrified of alienating people to express it. She was strong, and too weak to leave her mother. She was bolshie, and so needy she looked like a sponge in human form. Food wasn’t the only thing she drank. Like her father before her, and her sister with her, she sucked up life like a giant heroin injection. More, more, more. Nothing was safe.
Once, during a party, I ventured into her walk-in pantry. It was lined with food. Not unusual amounts of food, just normal, especially for where we lived. But there was one idiosyncratic thing: Glayva bottles. Empty ones, full ones, half-empty ones.
The Glayva gave me pause. Nothing else in that pantry suggested a weakness, a problem, but that Glayva…….
It was like her whole personality was in that one idiosyncratic note. Glayva is an ultra-sweet liqueur whisky. It’s the ultimate addict’s drink: strong alcohol and syrupy sweetness, nectar and liquor in one heroin-drowsy delicious mother’s-tit package. It’s even expensive, classy, the ultimate deceiver’s drink. No deceit like self-deceit.
While I was in the pantry, Sheena was trying not to have a hissy fit. Unable to stop me in front of the assembly without creating a scene, she still did not want me in that pantry, a give-away that made me more than ever want to be in her pantry. What was she hiding? The harder I looked, teased her about its secrets, the more she wanted me out. She felt violated, her privacy ripped open. By being in the pantry – a pantry that could have caused alarm only to someone who knew it held a secret – I was flaying her alive. I was risking her exposure. Something that pained her more than being stabbed in the heart. For this was the biggest, most overriding facet of her personality: No-one must know who she really was.
Nothing else mattered as much to Sheena. Nothing. There was a geographical cause for it, culturally; she was not the only person in her community to live a secret life. But it was more than that, something so fundamental it caused episodes of ‘depression’ where even she couldn’t tell the genuine from the fake. She got genuinely depressed about ‘depressions’ that had started out as boy-cries-wolf for help. The cries for help were real; the ‘depressions’ that conveyed them were not. But then they became real, such was her despair over her own impotence; such was the severity of her fear of exposure.
Sheena was convinced that no-one could love her for what she was. How ironic that out of the two of us – the ‘boyfriend’ and me – her money would have been far better placed on me. I was probably the only person she knew capable of ‘loving’ her unconditionally, but so trained was she to feel incomplete without a man that all her psyche was hell-bent on getting my man, even although all he cared about was what she could do for him.
Irony piled on irony was I, of all people she knew, was probably the only one who didn’t give a fuck how black her soul was, or how much she hated her mother for letting her stepfather ride roughshod all over her. I was the one person she knew she could tell anything to, the one person who had been there, done that and got the T-shirt; the one person to whom blackness of the soul was workaday, commonplace. She could have confessed every desire to strangle her mother and throw her sister into hell and never look back and I would have passed her a biscuit and said, “Oh, you are not alone, my girl. You are not alone.”
But perhaps that’s what was wrong. Perhaps the very last thing she wanted was genuine understanding. With understanding came a call to action, a need for change, and Sheena had got into her sympathy rut. No matter how miserable she was, getting sympathy and strokes, being encouraged to go into a Victorian decline and draw her drapes and mourn for herself over ice cream and Glayva, was what she knew best. It was the ultimate non-threatening boyfriend, always dependable, always there, and so comfy.
But all this was academic. By then I was already work-hardened and I had no desire to befriend anyone – not even Jesus Christ himself. It was always too late for her with me. Oh, her company could be funny, smart, acerbic, but how could I truly like her when she changed with the wind? When I watched her keep her friends apart lest one group find out that she was a different person with every other group? How could I trust her when I watched her re-write history on an hourly basis, when I watched her feign illnesses she didn’t even know she was feigning, when her annoying, interfering mother constantly carped at me to be smaller, but Sheena said nothing, did nothing?
I couldn’t. I was sick of all of them and I could not wait for her to make up her mind to trust me. Unlike the ‘boyfriend’, I did not feel honoured at her pretence to place us above the crowd. I was tired of her, and her friends, and him. Him most of all. Flirting and dancing and having soul parties of secret-sharing. Making up pitiful excuses to be places, do stuff I knew bored him so his ego could be massaged. And me? What of all my duplicitous, two-faced role-playing?
Oh, party girl, the funny one, the sarcastic one, the outspoken one who likes jewellery and sparkly things and who speaks her mind. What shit. What an utter crock of shit.
I was being walked on on by the whole dirty circus and I knew it. Worse, they knew it too: the Sheenas and the Carolines… and the Lornas, and the Winifreds, and the Maureens, and, and, and… The list was endless. I wondered sometimes how many of them imagined they were exclusive, the bestest platonic friend. Do you know how much it takes to keep him afloat? I used to think in my sourer, angrier moments. Do you really imagine all this ‘love’ and eagerness will be yours when you cease to find his suaveness so alluring? His ‘understanding’ is knee-deep and goes no further than that quality black-suited shoulder and that designer tie. Trust me, if he can leave me for you, he can leave you for me.
But I didn’t fight for him. I wouldn’t. That pride again. Instead I did the opposite – let them have him; they’re welcome. Good luck to the lot of them. I pushed them into each other’s arms by never saying anything. I wanted to see how far he could go. I wanted to see how low I could sink. How painful could this get for me? How stupid and insensitive could he be?
Oh, I had no idea.
I found out the depths of his possibilities one rare day when he was staying away from home. That never happened, but here it was, like some special treat from God. I was sitting on the toilet – these things are never dignified; they’re like dying: ugly, messy and painful – and I saw he’d left his notebook on the floor. I picked it up and leafed through it. Of course, I was doing this because I was feeling especially low. I never read his journals. They were private. I had never had the urge in all the years I’d known him. But I was lonely, abandoned, desperate that day; at the bottom of a long, long spiral. I hoped he might have said something nice about me. I craved it, a sense of value, of meaning to someone. Instead I found poems, blank verse, about driving home late at night and him sharing the car with “The two women he loved most.”
I, the one, had suddenly become two.
I had never been two. The reason I was with him was because I was The One. The whole world fell through me, sitting there, ungainly on the toilet. There was no greater loneliness, no bigger betrayal. I had never ever hurt like this, not since I had been a small child and had learned piece by painful piece that no-one loved me. Or ever would. And here I was, right back there again, unloved. I had been unloved always and hadn’t even known it. I had been lied to, cheated, all along, and just as with my parents, I’d thought it was me. I thought I had imagined it. I’d thought I had been needy, jealous. I thought I was being my father’s daughter – and here I was, in the middle of real life-size betrayal that had been going on behind my back all along. Not Maureen, or Lorna, or Caroline, or Winifred. Sheena. ‘Nice’, funny, smart, sneaky Sheena. Oh irony went to town that day alright.
At first I wailed. I screamed, I cried. I paced and roared. I roared my heart out. I yelled, guttural with rage. I was like an elemental, something primal. It was bottomless, this grief and rage. It just kept pouring out of me. Then I needed more. I needed to read more, see more. I was greedy for proof, more pain. I sat and read every poem in the book, went through his stuff, his room. I even checked his pockets, that laughable cliché from farce and film. But there was nothing more. It was all in that journal, his secret heart, the truth. I saw poems about illicit conversations, trips I’d imagined were innocent. I even found a stolen kiss. There were declarations of love. It was grotesque, ugly, unbelievable.
Suddenly all the hidden resentment and rage I felt at being passed over and ignored for the past seven years came raging out of me.
And ran right into a brick wall. Him.
I can’t remember the showdown when he came home. I remember nothing. There is a huge gulf of blackness. I only remember the aftermath, weeks later, when I pleaded with him – it didn’t sound like it, couched in angry language, demands, but it’s what it was – that he pull his finger out his arse and decide. But he couldn’t.
And that was when I found out the depth of my possibilities – and they were limitless. Shaming. I was a doormat. A moron. A snivelling, martyring fool. I despised myself. I despised my grief. I felt a contempt for myself I will never lose. I had been fooled again. Me. And I did nothing about it.
Eventually, however, I found some spine and got sick of his adolescent lovelorn mooning. I took matters into my own hands and told Sheena that I could not see her again. I gave no explanation other than the briefest. Let her sort it out for herself, I wasn’t here to make nice for her or him. But she didn’t. Instead she and her mother went on a pre-emptive Jerry Springeresque rumour campaign that took hypocrisy to levels higher than even the discovery of their Endless Love had been. How little she knew me. How little that surprised me, but how much it hurt me. Offended me. To imagine for one instant I would ever talk about it. To anyone. This is the first time it has ever drawn breath in public, and may well be the last. Sheena, the arch pretender, had not seen me at all, knew nothing about me. How unamazed I was.
And he didn’t sort it out either. He merely followed my example. Whatever I did, he did. I still don’t know why, what he was thinking. I only know one thing, I will never ever forgive him for it. Not the infidelity. That was chickenfeed, as real as a twelve year-old’s first crush. In adulterous terms it wasn’t even a zero: no sex took place, no clandestine meetings for nookie. It was all emotional play-acting, childish nonsense that the two of them got off on: her by having a relationship without threat, him to have his ego stroked. Neither of them had the balls for a real affair. No, I will never forgive him for being so spineless, so self-indulgently cruel. To have lied repeatedly and with such aplomb for seven years, to have taken advantage of my own internal struggles with who I was, to use the cruelties and neglect of my childhood as a cover for his own self-satisfaction is beyond contemptible. And when I asked him to step up and declare himself, he couldn’t do it, for fear of endangering his pretty little world, his construct of myth and fable spun out of glass and twice as fragile. Not for love of her, not for a grand passion for all that was Sheena, but for himself. Always for himself.
What came out of it all, what the fictitious character that was Sheena taught me, was that for the entire seven years I lived in that world no-one actually saw me. He never saw my pain; she had no idea who I actually was. No-one noticed me. No-one was looking. But that’s because I never stood up. In spite of all my ‘extroversion’, my party girl spirit, I was incapable of saying two simple words: “Fuck you.” I have that greatest of female gifts: the ability to eradicate myself entirely, to turn myself into a collection of suitable polite responses, to never do anything unseemly or ugly, or self-revealing.
But how I love – and fear, abjectly – to do bad.