It’s the same sofa, burgundy red and sturdy, although it needs reupholstering. Seventeen years, an entire childhood, and still the same sofa. He’s careful with his things. Or he’s bought a new one, exactly the same model. She sits in the far left corner, lays her arm on the armrest, shifts until she thinks she’s found a position that looks relaxed. Casual. As she picks at the smooth fabric of the sofa, she sees how pale and bare her thighs stand out against the red of the upholstery and the black of her dress. She pulls down the hem, takes a deep, gasping breath.
You’ve got some nerve, she had thought, when she read his message. The light-hearted flattery, the invitation. She had quickly clicked it shut. Only to open it again the next day.
A lot of people seem to be looking up their exes these days. Better the devil you know.
The door he’d disappeared through opens again. Midnight-blue polo neck, subtle smile – somewhere between cunning and tender. His gaze catches hold of her; she avoids his eyes. When he reaches out his hand to pass her a glass of red wine, she has to detach herself from the armrest for a moment. Then he sits down so close that she can smell his shampoo. Cedar wood. A scent that is supposed to help to relieve fears and respiratory problems. He looks intently at her, trying to spot the ten differences. Something in his gaze leaves less of her remaining. She straightens her shoulders.
‘So, Bram Stoker’s Dracula,’ he says, ‘by Francis Ford Coppola.’ His voice is still his voice, the smoke has never left it. On his shoulder, there’s a silver-grey hair. Leave it there.
‘That’s why I’m here,’ she says, with a little laugh. Keep it light. You silly cow, why are you laughing?
Grinning, he turns on the screen, keeping his gaze on her. Blood flows to her cheeks, as deep cello’s swell.
‘It’s been a long time,’ she says, putting down her wine, placing her cold hand on the back of her neck. ‘I was so young when I saw that film.’
‘You’re not that old now, are you?’ he laughs. ‘You look… healthy.’ His hand strokes her hair, which she’s stopped dyeing since she tried out every colour as a teenager. It’s brown now – boring, but less fragile. He gives it a tug, brief, teasing.
A twitch in her stomach area, irritation mingling with her excitement. She blinks, sees a glimpse of the girl she was – crop top above baggy trousers, fidgeting.
He must be fifty, given that she’s thirty-three – that’s exactly how old he was when they were here – no, not here, in a different house, but on this sofa, the photos of the girl before her turned around on the mantelpiece when he… Why do we say that men ‘take’ women, that men ‘have’ women?
Maybe she has had men, but not him.
He points at the screen. ‘Dracula represents a world from before the Enlightenment, from before reason. A savage noble, from an archaic eastern Europe, who might just tear apart that supposedly respectable England by unleashing his sexual urges.’ He pauses for a sip of wine.
‘I know,’ she says. ‘My PhD was about literary vampire stories.’
‘Ah,’ he says, and he coughs. He takes another sip of wine.
In silence, they watch the transformation of the Romanian prince into the undead count, his body so close that she can feel its warmth. Costumes, sets, dialogue: it’s all far more artificial than she remembers, more theatre than film.
She glances away, taking in the neatly tidied room. When she met him, in the foyer after a play she went to see as part of her art-criticism course in high school, he was working on a book, ‘an epic of magic realism’. It should be finished by now. She scans the titles of the books on the shelf to her left, and her eyes catch on the photo frame. A smiling girl with shiny blond hair and ladybirds in her ears. She chuckles. ‘Sixteen is the ideal age,’ he had said to her, ‘the rose unfurling. Just read the Brothers Grimm, or La Fontaine: all the princesses are sixteen.’ She had felt special, at the time.
This child looks more like twelve than sixteen.
‘Who’s that?’ she asks, not even trying to soften her tone.
He follows her gaze, frowns. ‘My daughter,’ he mumbles, and he leans over her to turn the photo around, a smooth movement past her, his woody scent in her nostrils. She keeps perfectly still as he sinks back, stopping halfway, his body above hers. He’s giving her a big smile now. His hand glides over her face, down past her neck, clasps her waist. She feels the skin around her nipples flush. She holds her breath, her eyes open.
‘My little girl,’ he whispers in her ear.
‘Enter freely, of your own will,’ says Dracula in the background, as pale as a corpse.
He presses his lips to her throat, sucks on to it.
‘This isn’t working,’ she says, pushing him away. She gets up off the sofa and walks to the coatrack.
‘Hey!’ he calls after her. ‘It was fun, wasn’t it?’
She turns to him. For the first time, she dares to take a proper look at his face. The self-assurance has slipped from his expression, he looks aggrieved, a hurt child. With lines around his eyes and furrows in his brow.
A tired, divorced man, who is a few centimetres shorter than her.
A calm descends upon her. Stay or go – it’s her choice.
‘What can I do?’ he asks, almost begs.
She bares her neck, turns her head to one side.
‘Kiss me,’ she directs him.
He pulls her against him. She feels his greedy mouth on her throat.
‘No,’ she says, firmly.
He stops, lets her go.
‘Kiss me more softly,’ she says, wrapping her arms around his shoulder blades.
A soft kiss, right under her jaw.
‘More softly than that,’ she says.
He kisses her more softly.
‘Even more softly,’ she whispers.
His lips brush across the tiny hairs on her throat. Like a leaf, like a breeze.