Axe to Grind 2021—3rd place winner: "You've Matched"
By Katie Bowers
Piran was fidgeting as he waited for his date to arrive. It was his first date since his separation and he feared he’d slapped on too much cologne, or too little. He breathed into his hand to smell his own breath—he’d had egg salad for lunch. He wasn’t anticipating being kissed, but you never know. He watched the women come and go, waiting for Deborah, the woman he’d matched with online. She, too, was separated and new to online dating, which wasn’t around last time that they were single. Piran found himself feeling aged, sagging into the red pleather couches at a hip bar, painfully aware of the light bouncing off his thinning hair and shining head.
He wasn’t even that old really, just old enough to feel self-conscious in the hip bar he’d suggested for their first meeting. It was the kind of place where the bar staff all had torn jeans and asymmetrical haircuts and everything on the menu was so laced in idiom that it was impossible for a layperson to decode. Piran wasn’t sure why he’d chosen it, except that it was dimly lit and served a pinot noir that he’d read was on trend. He wanted to impress Deborah with his knowledge of wine, though most of it was garnered from reading, not tasting.
When she arrived (7 minutes late), Piran was checking his teeth (for the tenth time) in the camera on his phone. She rushed towards him, a flurry of red lipstick and white, bare, braceleted arms.
“Hi, I’m Deborah.” She laughed, though nobody had said anything funny.
They hugged, for the briefest of moments, and Piran liked the way her hair smelled, a blend of shampoo and sweat.
“Am I what you expected?” She twirled like a child at a beauty pageant. “You never can tell with online profiles, can you?” she continued, not allowing him to answer. “The last man I went out with was a good forty kilos heavier than his profile pic—not that I mind them cuddly, but a bit of warning would have been nice, y’know?” Deborah laughed again.
“Shall we sit?” Piran asked, eager to steer the conversation away from previous dates, of which he’d had none.
Piran had noticed Deborah on the dating app because she looked unpretentious and homely. She was pretty enough to be alluring but not so beautiful that he would feel unworthy of standing beside her. In the back and forth of online babble, they’d shared the kind of small talk that one does when the truth of yourself is unbearable. They spoke of marmalade and coffee spoons and the monotony of work. Piran did not speak of the nights that he lay awake, listening to the sound of his own breath. He did not speak of the collection of holy texts that he kept by his bed—he had them all, to hedge his bets you see. He did not speak of the deep-seated mistrust he held for the universe, or the picture of his ex-wife he still kept in his top drawer—long after she’d moved on happily with the man she’d left him for. And Deborah did not ask, so he unfurled, like a wounded lotus: simpering, sycophantic. His chest felt small.
They sat together, two tall people trying not to let their knees touch. Occasionally one of them took a tentative step towards genuine disclosure—Deborah mentioned the loss of her childhood dog, some distant trauma served up as an offering of vulnerability. Piran recognised the gesture (however small) and squeezed her hand.
“It’s hard to lose someone we love,” he soothed. After a moment her offered, “I lost my grandmother when I was 10”.
Deborah nodded, trying to formulate a good response.
Truth be told, Piran didn’t even like his grandmother, but it seemed important to show Deborah that he could attach and grieve without mentioning his wife, or her lover, or their dog. Piran imagined the dog he had rescued sleeping at the end of his wife’s (and her lover’s) new bed, reeking of wet fur and disloyalty.
Later that evening, after an awkward kiss and a mutual “let’s do this again,” Piran went home to his large house and his small bedroom with one bedside table. He flicked the light on and re-arranged the Torah, the Qu’ran, the Bible and the Vedas, as he did every night. Piran felt it was safest to let them take turns at being on top. Then he clicked the light off and masturbated, more as a way to bypass thoughts and go straight to sleep than out of any real sexual desire. He thought of porn scenes he’d memorised and climaxed quickly, and then for long minutes after, Piran lay there with his flaccid penis shrinking against his palm like a silkworm, soft and helpless. He stretched his arms and legs out across the empty bed, like a snow angel, paralysed with awe at the first sight of the night sky.
But there were no stars, just a white ceiling with a single, industrial light globe hanging at an awkward angle from a poorly fitted fixture. He had not, with his skinny limbs, disturbed the universe and instead lay deeply still, as if dead, one slow heartbeat for every tick of the clock that sat by his bed. He could feel his pulse in his ears, and desperate not to think of his ex-wife, or her lover (whose name Piran could never allow himself to say out loud), he forced his mind to Deborah, with her nice smelling hair, and he wondered if she too were lying alone in the dark, surrounded by holy ideas so acutely out of reach that they were almost cruel… if she too lay awake in a sea of white walls and cold sheets, listening to the sound of her own breath.
Katie Bowers fell in love with stories as a kid and has been in a long term relationship with them ever since. She has published several poems and attributes all creativity to the presence of her dog at her feet.