Smothered

by Paula Shackleford

This time last week, I had it all.

Now I have nothing and I can barely remember what it was like to be in the priveleged position of having it.

It's funny how that happens. You take things for granted, expect them to always be there. But people really don't know "what they've got till it's gone". It may be one of the world's oldest cliches, but when you hit rock bottom the way I have, cliches can occasionally provide a comfort of some sort. Especially when they prove true.

So I guess I sound desperate, eh? You're probably thinking, what's wrong with this girl? Has she lost all her money and worldly possessions? Lost her family in a tragic accident? But the simple fact of the matter is, I was dumped.

Everyone hates the disintegration of a relationship, even if the breakup is inevitable. I hate it more than most. I'm dumped on a regular basis and that's the problem.

You see, I have little trouble when it comes to actually attracting men. With long blonde hair, long lashed eyes as blue and inviting as a movie star's swimming pool, and a figure not unlike Jennifer Aniston's (and I actually eat!!!), guys long to be with me. Can't believe it if I pay them the slightest bit of attention. I have no shortage of dates, nor of potential boyfriends.

Problem is, I'm a member of that group. You know the one I mean, The Women Who Love Too Much. I think someone wrote a book about us. We smother the men in our life, cause them to panic and back of. Our membership is ever-increasing - this Bridget Jones generation I'm part of are so aware of how finite our good looks are, we need to capitalise on getting a man and keeping him while we still can, but we drive them away with our tangible aura of desperation.

I, personally, smother silently and cloyingly. I don't present my man of the moment with constant raptures reagrding my love or him. In fact, I've never told anyone outside of my direct family that I love them. It's my non-verbal behaviour which has a tendency to be the give-away, it's what sends out the air of desperation. I'm not sure what exactly. Is my smile too eager-to-please, are my eyes too adoring, does the way I stroke his hair make him what to run for uncommitted cover? Or is it just my overall presence in his life that drives him insane?

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William was the latest casualty, pushed away as I endeavoured to hang on, to reel him in.

"You're just getting too serious, too fast," he told me as he left. "I'm not ready for that, and it's not fair on you for me to pretend otherwise."

"I don't mind," I called after him, keen to oblige. "Pretend away!"

He'd thrown me a look of disgust, turned on his heel and strode away, walking out of my life as quickly as he'd entered. Gone forever.

All I'd done was suggest that I bought him a toothbrush that could live at my flat. Just so he wouldn't keep using mine when he stayed over (which, by the way, was often). I was only being hygenic. I don't see what the problem was with that!

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Lydia, my flatmate, instructs me to pick myself up, get back on the horse. "The only way to get over one man is to get under another," she advises me crudely. She'd been reading Marian Keyes, she tells me, that's where she unearthed that particular pearl of wisdom.

But it makes sense. So we put on our gladrags, tart ourselves up and head out, ready to Pull with a capital P.

And neither of us have any trouble doing so. Lydia, who is also a gorgeous blonde, is approached by bloke after bloke, as am I. Some nervy ones approach one of us, are rejected, and so approach the other. We can afford to pick and choose. At the end of the night, I make my selection and take him home. Lydia gives her man of choice her number. She's Catholic and while she is totally against the concept of no sex before marriage ("No way! What if you found out he was crap after the wedding!"), she doesn't approve of sex on the first night.

I'm also Catholic, but I don't take it seriously.

My New Relationship commences that night. I never have one-night-stands because, at first, the guy wants to be with me full-time. He doesn't want to simply spend one night with me, he is infatuated. Wants to be mine forever. The Honeymoon Period lasts two, three weeks. Obviously, it varies slightly according to the other individual involved. A month is usually the absolute limit.

I should mention that I'm the aloof, distant one at the start. Even sex doesn't cause me to lose the elusive air. I'm the one who is uncertain of whether I want the relationship to go ahead. Half the time, I'm not entirely sure of whether I like the bloke or not. I'm a little shallow, I go for looks first and foremost (tall, dark and handsome, naturally), so I'm always a little wary about the accompanying personality. The fact that I usually, in time, fall head-over-heels in love with each and every guy is made even more ironic by the fact that as I fall in love, they fall out and run for the hills.

It's sad. It's pathetic. But, for me, that's the way it is.

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So Jason is My Latest. He meets my requirements. Six foot one, dark haired and eyed, and absolutely gorgeous, in a cheeky, dimpley sort of way. He's also, at twenty-one, four years my junior. But my age requirements aren't specific, and his younger and infinitely more naive take on life is overwhelmingly refreshing. And, of course, he's not long past his sexual peak, which is ideal when it comes to Matters of the Mattress.

That first night, after we share a post-coital cigarette, he tells me he loves me. Our first night together! "I love you," he says simply, gazing into my eyes, his face serious.

I'm not excited. Guys often force their adoration onto me. Right at the start, before they know me. I, quite simply, find it impossible to take seriously. Declarations of love, in my opinion, are made too often by people in our society, and as such they are rendered virtually meaningless. It's no longer special if someone tells everyone they love them, when they really have no idea if that is the case.

"Did you hear what I said?" he asks, after a moment of silence. He is leaning on his elbows, gazing at me intently, as if scared I'll disappear if he risks a quick blink. I shrug and exhale, the ensuing smoke drifting lazily towards the ceiling.

"You don't mean it," I tell him. "You might THINK you love me, but it's merely infatuation."

And it is. Predictably, just as I grow to like him, his interest in e begins to fade away. I'm calling him, he's not answering. I'm leaving desperate messages on his machine. Presumable he's erasing them, after having a good laugh at my expense, of course. I'm going around to his, laden with goods to spoil him with, to entice him back into my world. He relents momentarily, just long enough to sleep with me. Then back to the cold treatment again.

"You're too clingy," he tells me as he leads me to the door. "When I first met you, you were so mysterious. I felt so lucky to have you with me. But you gradually changed, and now I just feel so . . ."

". . . Smothered," I finish. "No need to say anymore, Jace. I understand, honestly I do. I'll leave you alone from now on." I let him push me outside into the spring drizzle.

Closing my eyes tightly, I stand in the middle of the street wondering What's my problem? Why can't I hide my desperation? Why can't I be cool and composed? Why do relationships make me so flustered? Why can't I be normal?

Another one bites the dust.

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Apparently I'm getting a bit of a reputation. A month on, another break up later, Lydia hesitantly tells me of the gossip making the rounds of our usual night-time haunts.

I have a Name, a label that brands me different from everyone else. The London Smotherer. All the designer labelled types that frequent the same bars as us are talking about me, about my constant failure in the romance department, and they've given me a name that makes me sound like a murderer. I wonder who made up that name. It had to be one of my exes, right? But it could equally be one of my enemies (I have a lot of female enemies, due to numerous cases of plain old jealousy) who's noticed my inability to keep a man, put two and two together and actually been talented enough at mathematics to make the resulting four (hey, it sounds simple, but the company I have chosen to surround myself with have larger dress sizes than IQs - extra worrying when you consider the number of potential anorexics in my world!).

How embarrassing though. I have to change my social life, I guess. Choose some new bars and go there instead. Lydia is fine with that, glad to have a change. We've been visiting the same places for almost three years now and it gets a bit tedious constantly seeing the same faces week after week. The only thing that ever changes are the designer outfits.

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But my luck doesn't change. The next guy, Alex, starts off as hopefully as ever. Within weeks it has gone sour. Once more I arrive home in tears, but this time it's Declan who is forced to comfort me.

I have two best friends. I know that you're not supposed to have more than one, that best means best and there can't really be more than one. But Lydia is my best female friend and Declan my best male friend (see! I got around the one-best-friend rule!). And we all live together in a large but grotty flat in Soho. The grot, incidentally, is our own fault as we all have a tendency towards slobbery.

Declan is a heartbreaker. He's tall, dark and handsome, as per my requirements, but I hate the way he gets through girls so fast. Me, I can't help my failed relationships. His failed relationships are failures because he has ended them due to boredom. Cracking female hearts in two in the process.

"Let me guess." He turns his attention away from "Neighbours" as I slam into the living room. "Yet another relationship over?"

"Wow, are you psychic or something?" I ask sarcastically, throwing myself onto an armchair. "Alex just ended it with me. Apparently, he 'can't give me the committed relationship I clearly want'. I can't remember ever saying that was what I wanted."

"But he could sense it, right?" Declan says astutely.

"I guess so. Isn't that always the way with me?" I ask rhetorically. "I just can't get a break when it comes to relationships."

Declan sighs. "Please don't tell me you're going to spend all evening dissecting your relationship problems. I don't think I could stand the self-pity."

Declan is so sensitive. I don't think. I emit a pathetic sniff. "Lydia lets me do it."

"Lydia does not," he tells me. "Lydia takes you out and makes sure she's so drunk that she finds your boy-girl theories fascinating." He stands up. "And, I guess, in the absence of Lydia, it'll have to be me who accompanies you on your pulling spree."

"Don't put yourself out," I snap sarcastically.

"No trouble," he says, choosing not to pick up on my irony. "I've just came out of a relationship myself, I could do with searching for Miss Right."

I groan. "Another break-up? I wonder who instigated that." I glare pointedly at him. I suppose his good point is that at least he never thinks he is in love with his many conquests, he knows that it is just infatuation or lust and that it will peter out over a short period of time. With him, there is no pretence, even the girl involved knows where she stands.

Still, that doesn't make him any less of a guy, and I'm currently very much against the opposite sex as a whole.

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Declan takes me to a wine bar I've never been to before. Very classy and full of beautiful people. I've never seen so many handsome guys in the one place. Or beautiful girls for that matter.

Declan introduces me to one of his friends. He's quite fair in colouring, and his hair is mousy brown as opposed to dark and striking. However, he has a stunningly good-looking face, accompanied by a pair of the bluest eyes I have ever seen.

His name is Michael, and Declan leaves me alone with him. Not before warning me that Michael is a Heartbreaker. "Just so you know he won't be any different from any of the others you've been with," he tells me. "Just try to exercise some self-control, okay?"

What? He practically sets me up with the guy and then . . . well, I'm not entirely sure what he's doing. Is he saying I should have simply a one-night-stand, not let myself get involved? Or that I should steer clear altogether? Michael is a first class babe though, so I choose to interpret his warning as option one.

Declan himself has headed off across the bar, and is greeting a beautiful brunette who is the kind of girl I love to hate. At least ten times as sophisticated as me, and with the type of clothes I would kill to be able to afford. Like they could have been made to her exact requirements. Probably were.

I turn back to Michael. I can't be bothered with the usual small talk."Shall we go to yours?" I ask boldly, none of my usual enigmatic aura present. He looks surprised, but clearly isn't against the idea. So we head toward the nearest taxi rank, throw ourselves into the back of the first cab, and start necking frantically.

He's good in bed. Not as good as some of my previous lovers, but pretty close to expert. We fall asleep, and I make to sneak out in the morning, determined to heed Declan's "advice". As I gather up the belongings which have spilled from my handbag, he stirs, opens his eyes and sees me.

"Where are you going?" he asks.

"Work," I mutter, avoiding his eyes.

"And you were going to leave without saying goodbye?" he asks. "God, you're breaking my heart here."

"Yeah, right," I respond in a monotone. If I give in now, I'll just follow the same pattern over and over again. I'll stay with him, things will progress to a stage when I love him, then it will be all over in a heartbeat. I'm not going to consciously go through this process all over again. Not for a guy who I barely know. "I had a nice time, Michael. I'll see you around."

And I actually do it. I leave, without looking back, without offering my number or begging for his. I smile widely, feeling empowered as I make my way back to the flat to change into an outfit which is a bit more respectable for the office. I run into Declan, who has just emerged from the shower, towel wrapped snugly around his hips.

"Wow. You're home." He looks surprised. "No relationship?"

"Nope. I loved him and left him. And I actually enjoyed it." I toss back my hair. "I think that's going to be my game plan from now on. Hump and dump immediately. Who needs true love, right?"

There's worry in Declan's coffee brown eyes. "I wouldn't say that," he tells me seriously, but I won't listen. "Thanks Dec," I tell him. "This is all down to you. What you said to me . . . it made me realise I couldn't go on the way I was. I'm going to be the Heartbreaker from now on."

"That's not what . . ." he begins, but I'm busy checking my watch.

"Sorry, I'm in a huge hurry. Talk to you later." I run into my room, frantically tear through my wardrobe for "something smart" and forget that Declan appeared to be on the verge of arguing with me about something.

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The feeling of empowerment continues all day. When I get home I fall into bed, a smile on my face. All this self-decisiveness is exhausting. I sleep through until midday the following day. Thank goodness it's Saturday.

Saturday is my casual, don't-care day, so I throw on my jeans and a vest top, tie up my hair and apply only a slick of mascara and lipgloss, just in case I have to leave the house for some reason. Then I leave my room to locate some breakfast.

"Hey." Declan is in the kitchen. He's clearly just finished his own breakfast, and is sitting at the table, reading the paper. "Nice night last night?" he asks. "I didn't hear you come in."

"That's because I was already in," I tell him. "I've been asleep since half six last night."

He lets out a low whistle. "Man, that's one long nap."

"Tell me about it." I sit down. "Oh, I meant to ask, what happened with that girl the other night?"

He glances at me, eyes warily veiled by his fringe of eyelashes. "What do you mean?" he says cagily.

"Did you score?" I ask simply.

"I could have," he shrugs. "But I couldn't be bothered, so I went home." The expression in his eyes is closed, and I know he won't be pressed further. I'm confused though, that girl could have been his Miss Right, and he didn't even give her a chance. Not like him at all. Maybe he's ill!

"You don't have any ideas about what I can do today, do you?" I ask him, to change the subject. "I'm kind of at a loss, and I can't really justify staying in bed any longer."

He shrugs. "Dunno," he mutters. Then his eyes light up. "Oh god, I know what we can do. Remember that thing we used to do when we were bored . . .?"

"Yeah!" It's been a long time since we've done this, it used to be a more regular thing. And it's something I really want to do. It'll take me back to a time before I started to ruin all my relationships, a happier time when I didn't worry about everything.

And, no, it's nothing to do with sex!

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We leave the flat, head into a busy street and find an ideal position. Bang in the middle of the pavement, so we are in everyone's way.

Then we start screaming at each other. We are suddenly a couple who are in the middle of their worst argument ever. "How could you do this to me?" I scream at him. "You said I was the only one!"

"Don't make such a big deal about it," he tries to placate me. "It was only . . ."

"She was my best friend," I yell. Around us, there is an audible gasp of shock. "And you cheated on me with her. Repeatedly. So it is a big bloody deal to me!"

"Well, what about you? You're hardly lily white," he retaliates. "You had an affair with my sister!"

Suddenly, there is a lot more interest from the male camp. I narrow my eyes at Declan, but he shakes his head, his eyes telling me to go along with him. So I do. We throw ridiculous accusations at one another, each one more and more unbelievable. Then I say simply: "It's okay. I forgive you. I hope you can forgive me."

He smiles at me tenderly. "I'd forgive you anything," he tells me.

There is a stunned intake of breath around us. It's clear that no one can believe we have forgiven and forgotten after we both have done so many disgusting things to one another. We burst out laughing, and run out of the crowd surrounding us. I think the crowd take the joke with humour. We know from experience that most people just think we are actors-cum-buskers, practicing and perfecting our art. And we do a pretty good job of it.

We repeat this little show in different parts of London, thrilling in getting attention from random strangers as we wash our imaginary dirty linen in public. Then Declan points to a public art gallery. "How about in there?" he asks, his eyes glinting with mischief.

"Will we get away with it?" I ask. "Aren't you supposed to be quiet in places like that?"

"We'll make it quick," he says. "Come on." Grabbing my arm, he tows me inside.

"You know I hate places like this!" I complain loudly, shaking my arm free. "How dare you order me around?"

"Someone needs to tell you what to do," he says nastily. "You're hopeless!"

People are already looking, and a security guard is looming threateningly on the horizon. "I'm not hopeless," I say quickly, nervous. I don't want to get thrown out. "But, honey, I don't want to argue."

"Neither do I." He slips an arm around my waist, ultra-casually. But I jump as his other hand rests on my left buttock, Huh?

"What are you doing?" I whisper in disbelief.

"Something I should have done a long time ago," he murmurs, maneouvring me into a more deserted part of the gallery. "What do you think of this painting?" he asks me lightly.

"Don't give me that!" I snap. "Why is your hand on my ass?"

Declan eyes me seriously. "Are we going to pretend forever?" he asks softly. "Am I going to have to keep seeing bimbos to make you jealous? Are you going to keep unconsciously wrecking your relationships because you secretly want to be with me?"

"I don't," I snort. But his words have shaken me. Because he's hitting too close to the mark. Because he's landed on the truth that I wouldn't even admit to himself. That it's Declan I've wanted all along. And that he appears to want me in return.

Quickly, I study his face One of the most gorgeous faces ever created. I notice the sincerity in his eyes and realise for the first time the lovely gold flecks that pinwheel around his pupils. It's funny the things you pick up on when you're in shock. Maybe it's just classic avoidance.

He's squeezing my arm hard. "Am I right?" he asks quietly.

I nod. "Yes. You're right."

He smiles, and I know without a doubt that he is the guy I want. It's a shame we couldn't see this before, it would have saved us both a hell of a lot of trouble.

He kisses me, his lips gently touching mine, moving slowly and languidly against my own, sending shudders through my body. Breathing hard, I open my mouth and slide my arms around him. He pushes me back against a statue or something like that and we kiss and kiss and kiss, barely pausing to breathe, totally unaware of the time or the place.

"What are you doing?" The deep voice of the security guard startles us. We leap apart guiltily.

"Um . . ." Declan actually looks flustered. There's a first - I never thought I'd be witness to a loss of cool on his part.

"Doesn't matter," the guard says. To our relief, he's smiling. He nods at me."You're lucky that statue you're leaning on isn't a real person, you'd have suffocated her by now."

He can't understand why I find this so hilarious. But, as Declan smiles at me, I realise that this statue incident is my last attempt at smothering someone. I no longer need to.

"Come on," Declan whispers in my ear, his breath on my skin sending shivers of desire down my spine. "Let's go home, Amber. Finish what we started."

He doesn't need to suggest it a second time.

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