(this was a piece written for the Shrewsbury Flash Fiction evening, the theme of which was “rules”.
Way back, when it mattered, I’d said: “There’s only one rule and that is there are no rules.”
You laughed. “You can’t do that,” you said. “Can’t say there aren’t rules and make that a rule – it’s a contradiction.”
“Okay,” I said. “Call it a guideline then. No rules, that’s the guideline. Agreed?”
“Yeah, cool,” you said. You laughed again, you sounded full, and I knew I had you.
You were making coffee. Instant. You didn’t drink the proper stuff back then. Even with coffee, you wouldn’t follow the rules; you’d pour hot water into the cups then sprinkle granules on the surface where they’d float in belligerent denial of purpose. You had to stir it for ages before they dissolved.
Now you’re making coffee again, in the espresso maker we bought last June, and you hand me mine – black, just as it comes. Into yours, you shake sugar from the bag, not caring whether you get one measure or five, and you stir the sticky brew with an egg spoon for ages.
“I was wondering,” you say, “what the guideline would be for seeing other people.”
The coffee burns my top lip, hits the roof of my mouth and burns that too. I swear, jerk the cup away, hot liquid curls over the edge and spills onto my shirt.
“I mean theoretically,” you say, “you know.”
“Why ask me?” I dab at the spill with a tea-towel, but it’s seeped right through and is clinging fast. I go to the sink, dampen a cloth and press the stain gently, glad to have my back to you. I wait for you to speak.
“Well, as guardian of guidelines,” you say. “I mean they are always yours, right? So I thought, well, you might have… you know… one in reserve…”
You move forward and peer over my shoulder.
“Rub soap on it,” you suggest.
“It’s silk,” I say, “dry-clean only.”
“They always put that, just covering their backs, it needs soap.”
You do the laundry with the same reckless will with which you sweeten your coffee. I had to make it a guideline in the end – after the first couple of months of sludge-grey whites – that we each take care of our own clothes.
“So…” You drain your cup in one mouthful, swallow it down on the pause. “What say you?”
“I suppose it’s a case of to thine own self be true,” I say.
“That’s the guideline?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Okay,” you say. “Cool. It was just theoretical, just curiosity, you know.”
You put down your empty cup.
I stand by the sink, a circle of damp encroaching on my chest.
And I wait for you to leave.