Cracked Plate


‘There goes dinner,’ Nina says.

She stares at the broken shards on the floor. Was it hand-painted? Nina wonders, admiring her own plate – part of the same set. The blue brushstrokes against the white ceramic, the flower in the centre and the figs dancing along the rim. Must have been.

She massages her temples before surveying the table. Emma, at one end, returns her stare, though their camaraderie – if there ever was any – is long gone. Aldo, at the other, scratches at the glass table with his finger and mutters to himself, words somewhere between fuck and stupid and respect. Toby’s vacant stare falls on the rolling Tuscan landscape.

This is supposed to be a holiday, but even here, Nina is languishing, withering. Dread crawls across her chest, wrapping its long claws around her back. She’s been forcing herself out of bed these past few months, and it’s been the same here, out and on to the poolside lounger. Poor Nina.

‘I want to go home,’ Nina announces, though no one responds.

At home, Nina knows how to tweeze the rot from her heart. Singing with Ramon, a twenty-one-year-old with a handlebar moustache who sits up so straight it’s as if his spine is a maestro’s baton, and who’s raised her vocal range by five notes and her spirits an octave. Throwing clay at the pottery studio near her flat. Hugging her nephew, each roll in his fat little arms like a crease in a boiled dumpling. But she’s stuck here in Florence, at the silent dinner table, staring at the broken plate on the floor.

She looks out at the enormous cypress trees lining the thick wall of Aldo’s parents’ holiday home, and behind them the Florentine hills. No, Nina is trapped. No Ramon, no nephew and no clay, unless she sticks her hands into the dirt, but why would she do that? Her manicure cost forty pounds.

Toby fiddles with his fork, prodding at the tines, and then moves it across the glass to poke Nina’s knife, disrupting the parallel lines of her cutlery. His playful gesture annoys her. Is he insane? He used to call her beautiful, used to kiss her breasts, lick her nipples, rub his face along her upper thigh. He said it so often that after a while Nina believed him. Now, she doesn’t really care what he thinks, or tries her best not to.

Nina and Toby were never that serious. They never had conversations about not sleeping with other people. For that, Nina feels both disappointed and unentitled to that disappointment. Nina can’t bear it. The animus, the cracked plate, Aldo and Emma’s ugly faces, Toby’s pretty one. Just as she’s about to combust, the oven dings. The lasagne.

She rises, her wooden chair scraping against the sandstone tile, and walks inside the house – too modern, a little gaudy – to take the dish out of the oven. She lets it rest on the counter while she finds a dustpan and brush beneath the marble sink.

When Nina returns, Toby tries to help her, or perhaps more accurately, crouches beside her as she sweeps. Rather than relieving her of her tools – actually being useful – he fiddles with a fragment, picking it up running his finger along the broken edge.

‘Ow!’

Toby drops the shard, which cracks into two.

‘Are you okay?’ Emma asks, pushing back from her chair, a desperate rumble vibrating off its legs.

‘I’m fine,’ he says.

All for show, Nina thinks as she draws the debris into the dustpan. All for fucking show.

As Toby latches on to his finger, attempting to suck the wound dry, Nina notices the drop of blood now staining his white trousers. She feels a hollowing out and her mind drags her back to the drop of blood she once saw on his sheets.

‘What’s this?’ Nina had asked, still naked, pointing to the round stain pressed into the linen.

‘Oh, it’s um . . .’ Toby had mumbled. ‘I’m sorry.’

With that apology, Nina plummeted.

‘Whose is it?’

‘It’s . . . I don’t know,’ Toby said, because he didn’t. ‘Sorry.’

Why didn’t he just lie?  Say that he scratched a scab in his sleep. He could’ve said something else – anything else – but sorry. Nina imagined Toby having sex with a woman who wasn’t her. Fucking her on the bed, on her period, leaving a spot of blood behind and caring too little to change the sheets before he next saw Nina.

‘Are you upset?’ Toby had asked.

‘I’m upset.’

‘But—’

‘I know, Toby.’

With that, she’d left his flat, her body swollen with regret. Regret for failing to keep it to herself, for asking questions she didn’t want the answer to. When Nina first learned that Toby had started sleeping with Emma, Nina was reminded that she was the architect of her own suffering.

‘It couldn’t be less serious,’ Emma had said.

Nina acted as if she didn’t care – she was a fool who swallowed her own reality whole.

Why does Nina do this? Circle her own life like a vulture. She thought she’d healed, at least enough to be on holiday with him. And with her. But Toby’s a fucking child. She hates him! She does. But when he releases his finger from his mouth to look at it, it’s with an innocence that charms from her a desire to kiss it better, to consume him, but only for a moment before the anger returns. She shakes her head, and he turns his face as if she slapped him.

Nina takes the shards inside, and Toby follows two steps behind her. She hears her therapist in her head: sit with the emotion, examine it, question if there are other places you have felt it.

Do I love him or the idea of him? Nina asks herself. Or are they the same?

‘I’m sorry,’ Toby says to Nina in the kitchen.

Nina ignores him, sweeping the debris into the bin, and when Toby moves to touch her shoulder she jerks it toward her neck. His hand recoils and Toby feels a puncture he can’t locate. He retreats to the bathroom in the far recesses of the house, beyond what the glass walls expose to the table outside.

 

Toby shakes his hand, a perfect circle of blood falling on the tiles. He mummifies his finger in toilet paper before rifling through the cabinet beneath the sink. He finds a plaster, taking longer than he needs to. All he wants to do is buy some time, minutes away from people who pair forgiveness with resentment. Nobody hates him more than Aldo, still angry that Toby followed his dreams while Aldo couldn’t hack it – always spewing big talk at Toby about how he wants to be a provider, which makes Toby angry but also makes him want to laugh, because Aldo’s wife fucking left him.

Provide for whom? Fucking moron.

Sitting on the toilet, he thinks about Nina. He really liked Nina. Still likes, even. And he followed the rules, in that there weren’t many rules, and if someone else doesn’t set the rules then how can he follow them?

One night they watched a movie called Boiling Point, set in a restaurant near his flat in Hackney. He remembers a female patron saying that sex was like food, you work with what’s there, not with what’s not, and how he and Nina laughed. Nina’s body had been different to other women he’d slept with, but it was pleasurable all the same. With Nina, Toby wasn’t in search of just sensation, but of feeling, too, and that scared him. It scared him so much that when he thought about how sex was like food, he questioned if what the woman in that movie should’ve said is that no cuisine offers everything you want, which means dipping your cock into as many cuisines as possible.

So he began to fuck around, even though he knew Nina wasn’t, and no matter how much he ate he found himself hungry. Even when he was with Emma, the difference in Emma’s body didn’t feel as great as he’d hoped, lovely as it was, and it scared him again, to know, undeniably, that for him Nina was much more than sex.

When Nina had asked him about the blood on his sheets, Toby watched something in her crack. He felt guilty. He wasn’t lying – if he’d hazarded a guess it would’ve only been with the certainty attained from a balance of probabilities – but he felt wrong, and even worse for knowing the blood could’ve been Emma’s.

Emma told Nina that she was sleeping with Toby, though only sometime after Toby and Nina had ended things, and with no indication of the overlap between them.

‘She seemed fine,’ Emma said to Toby.

This both surprised and disappointed him, and so he chose not to believe it.

Emma and Toby didn’t last long. The guilt ate at Toby – it eats at him right now. He hates himself – a lot – for being the kind of person people say he is. Can’t prioritise, can’t think about other people. Can’t promise, because promising means disappointing people, means falling short. Nina once said that when we act from a place of fear, we secure the outcomes we were trying to avoid in the first place. Toby thinks about that a lot, about how much he loses because he’s a coward.

Clearly, he doesn’t lose enough. Nina is here. Emma is here. Everyone forgives him. They forgive his lack of promises and accept his vague attempts to do better. And maybe if they look hard enough, Toby is doing better, but he knows that people will always wait, and that strips the journey of urgency. Maybe if he’d been honest, about sleeping with Emma, about the overlap, then none of them would be here. The plate would’ve stayed intact, untouched in the kitchen cabinet, and they could’ve each dealt with their broken selves much closer to home. But Nina would’ve been so hurt, even if she’d try her best to hide it, and Toby hadn’t wanted to do that to her. Honesty would’ve lost her, right?

Toby notices that the plaster has soaked through with blood. He replaces it with a larger one before walking back through the house. Emma’s glare is on him as he comes into view from behind the glass doors. It’s as if she could see him through the walls, wrapping his finger in the bathroom. Before this evening, before the batshit drama, Toby had thought it was wonderful that he could be on holiday with Emma and Nina, and for everything to be okay. Silly, really.

‘Are you okay?’ Nina asks, still in the kitchen.

Toby nods, holding up his wrapped finger.

‘You?’

‘No, Toby.’

 

From outside, Emma watches the movement in Toby’s jaw, unable to discern his words. She knows he’s talking to Nina, even though she’s hidden behind the curtain. She turns to Aldo, who scowls at the horizon as if the dipping sun is to blame. Emma rolls her eyes.

Why did Nina laugh? Emma wonders, thinking about Nina sniggering while Aldo said all those horrible things to her, right before he threw the plate. Is that what they think of me?

Emma rests her head on table and looks down at her dusty feet. It’s not that she hates Nina, it’s just that Nina’s a little serious, isn’t she? Emma used to feel superior, knowing that Nina will forever aspire to things that for Emma are God-given. After all, what else can she feel superior to Nina for? Her wit? Emma has never been funny, and whenever she tries it comes off as mean, though she doesn’t intend it to. And Emma knows relying on beauty for comfort is a pillow stuffed with misery, of limp feathers, and the deeper her head sinks, the more it decays the bones in her neck. She knew it more than anything after her ex-boyfriend Dave cheated on her, throwing away seven years and a shared group of friends for the thrill of something new. Can you believe it? The heartless cunt. When Emma saw a picture of the woman, the one Dave fucked in their bedroom, the one who posts pictures of a charcuterie boards with hot honey and salami roses, Emma’s first thought was: She’s not even that pretty.

It was then that Emma had come to a realisation that, in this moment, with her head on the table, she returns to: while beauty attracts interest, it doesn’t sustain it, and no matter how beautiful she is, how genetically predisposed she is to perfect hair, a narrow waist or an angelic face, none of it will shield her from pain. Dave, in his own way, said that this was part of the issue: that Emma surrendered herself to the church of optimisation, to hip thrusts at Barre, believing that the soul of a relationship rests in the self and not in the relative. Well, not quite like that. Dave was never good with words.

Emma tries to scratch an itch in the arch of her foot with the opposing big toe.

Feet are disgusting.

Emma feels ashamed. About everything. Sure, her paintings – nude self-portraits – are still selling, and selling for a lot, but is there anything really there? Emma doesn’t know.

Maybe Aldo’s right. Maybe the only reason people – all those rich men – buy her paintings is because they can’t buy her body, so they settle on purchasing its proxy pressed onto canvas. Even though she couches each nude in thematic narratives of hope, pathos, or, as Nina might put it, rotting, she worries these paragraphs are afterthoughts to the panicked desire to preserve her beauty in oil, linseed and turpentine. Emma doesn’t know what will happen when she wilts, when the flower moves past its season.

Emma is a little miserable. But so is everyone else, she tells herself. Nina was born hating herself, and no hobby or man will fix that; Toby has the emotional literacy of a nine-year-old; and Aldo reminds her of her father, which is sad, because at least her dad waited until sixty to become so bitter and hateful. For a while, after Dave, Emma’s misery found a home in Toby. She didn’t feel bad about Nina, at least at first, because if Nina and Toby lacked clear boundaries then it wasn’t Emma’s fault. And if Nina found out, she would just have to grow up and be an adult. But Emma’s heart doesn’t rest so easy. She is not the woman she wants to be – the liberated artist selling nudes of herself without care, taking lovers who have other lovers. She lifts her head off the table.

Where is Toby?

She looks at Aldo, who’s now picking at the skin at the side of his nails. Toby moves out of view and toward Nina, and Emma finds herself walking towards the open glass door.  When she reaches the kitchen she sees Toby hugging Nina with her arms flat at her side. Emma feels exactly like Nina did when she spotted the blood on Toby’s sheets.

‘Leaving me alone,’ Aldo calls from the table. ‘Real fucking nice.’

Emma’s head swings back towards the table.

‘Are you fucking kidding?’ she asks. ‘Did you want a fucking hug?’

Emma looks back at Toby, who has let Nina go, and she thinks of the first time she slept with him, after they’d taken shrooms dissolved in whisky and walked around the Tate Modern like dickheads from a Ben Lerner novel. Later that day, Emma had thought of Nina while Toby fucked her in bed. Isn’t that fucked? Thinking about the other girl he was fucking. Her friend. But Emma wondered how Nina’s body felt in comparison to her own. And she asked him what it was like having sex with Nina, what it was like to have sex with a trans woman. She couldn’t resist, and she asked in a way that implied that she might like to have sex with Nina, too. And who knows, maybe part of Emma did want to fuck Nina, but lying in Toby’s unwashed sheets, all she wanted to know was how she compared to her friend, because Emma needed to feel safer, to know that the essence of her edged Nina out, and that all the other stuff – being, personality, charm – was just white noise that clouded the fundamentals.

‘It’s different but the same,’ Toby had said. ‘It’s sex. You work with what’s there, not with what’s not.’

When he’d said that, Emma had decided to pretend, to tell him what he’d said was beautiful, and she kissed Toby on the lips and realised that she didn’t really love or even like him all that much. She didn’t desire his body but the dialogue of his against hers, utterances that she was somehow worthy, forming wedges between her and Dave, who had slept with the girl who wasn’t that pretty.

She remembers going through Aldo’s wedding photos with Nina. There was a picture of them walking, Nina a few steps ahead. Emma saw Nina’s face fall. Those few steps made Nina look much taller, that much broader than Emma.

‘Don’t be silly,’ Emma had said. ‘You look fine.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I wish I was as tall as you,’ she continued, although she couldn’t look Nina in the eye. ‘I’d feel so powerful.’

Now Emma can’t look at Toby either, although for different reasons. Nina walks past Emma, arms brushing, back towards Aldo outside.

‘The plate’s in the bin,’ Nina says.

Aldo, for the first time since the plate hit the floor, looks at her. He stares. Wordless. Nina rolls her eyes and sits on a sun lounger by the long, cerulean pool, looking out at the view in silence.

Fucking bitch, Aldo thinks.

 

Aldo’s insides are still cooking. They’ve been cooking since he threw the plate. He’s disintegrating into a hateful stew. He scrunches his fist and squeezes one into the other, as if the force could crumble them, but even if it could he knows it’d just be salt in the soup.

Fuck Toby. And fuck Nina and Emma. Those fucking bitches. Fucking stupid bitches.

Aldo might have a problem with women. Has he always had a problem with women? Well, haven’t most – all – men had a problem with women? The divorce has made things worse, and if the only woman on Earth was Vivian, his ex-wife, it might not be a crime to assume that women were terrible. Emma. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so hard on Emma. There should’ve – could’ve – been some solidarity there, after what happened with her and Dave, and with him and Vivian. Maybe calling them bitches is misogynistic. But they really are bitches, aren’t they? Do they really get a free pass because they’re women?

Divorce has been hard on Aldo. Especially divorce at thirty-two. Getting married at twenty-seven was weird, and a woman who is pregnant in her early thirties is basically a teen mum, so of course Vivian was still secretly on the pill even though they were supposed to be trying. He was so angry about the pill. Angrier about that than the cheating. He wanted kids. Badly. It was part of the plan. Work hard, buy a house, have kids, because when you have kids you’re golden. Sex with your partner will have grown stale, anyway, but that love you once had for your wife evolves into something more meaningful, spilling over onto those little versions of you, who will consume so much, require so much of you, so that the fact that you’ve fallen out of love with your partner will matter less and less and less.

Vivian was cunning. Vengeful. On their first date, she told Aldo she discovered her flatmate was using her expensive shampoo – Olaplex, Aldo later learned, as he scoured the labels in her shower – and so she emptied the bottles and filled them with mayonnaise. When he first told Nina about it, Nina, who is Chinese, asked if Vivian was, too.

‘How did you know?’ he’d asked her.

Nina shrugged her shoulders.

‘Obvious.’

Maybe from that point on he should’ve known that Vivian would take whatever she could get her hands on, and in this case it was half the proceeds from the house, even though he (his parents) had provided all the deposit and paid most of the mortgage. Not because she’s Chinese – deep down, he can’t be sure that has anything to do with it – but because she is cunning and vengeful. She has no friends from her childhood.

‘I’m sorry, Aldo,’ Emma had said when he’d told her about the affair and the pill, his focus heavy on the pill. She’d put her head on his shoulder and rubbed her hand along his back. ‘We always thought she was the kind of girl who got a kick out of not being a girl’s girl, which is a really bad sign.’

How nice it was for Emma to have Aldo and for Aldo to have Emma, at least until now. Emma had reminded Aldo that there were right people and wrong people. Right: Aldo and Emma. Wrong: Vivian and Dave. This had made Aldo feel good – very good – so good in fact that he began to parrot Emma’s words.

‘She’s the kind of girl who gets a kick out of not being a girl’s girl,’ he would tell friends, and family, and even colleagues, until it elicited enough odd looks for him to stop.

Toby walks out the house and towards the pool.

Fucking prick, Aldo thinks, glaring at him as he takes the chair next to Nina. Stupid Toby. Fucking Toby.

Why are people so fucking obsessed with Toby? Isn’t that why Aldo threw the plate in the first place? To think they were once a partnership, too, years ago. A comedy duo – sketches, stand-up, you name it. To think they wrote and performed together, until Aldo decided that it was time to get real and shed his sense of humour and become a banker, whereas Toby decided their life was in fact real and that maybe he could really make it work. And Toby did make it work. Sort of. Filmed a BBC pilot with potentially more to come. Aldo would be lying if he said he hoped it’d all work out.

Aldo thinks of the illustration Toby used to show him, the one with two men digging separate tunnels. One of them gives up, though, unbeknownst to him, all that separates him and a clutch of diamonds are a few swings of a pick. The other man keeps swinging on. Was that Aldo and Toby? How utterly unpalatable that would be. How unbearable. It felt to Aldo like he and Toby’s life decisions were two ends of a seesaw, a zero-sum game. But at least Aldo can provide. What the fuck can the others do? Toby works when he can. Emma locks herself in a studio and knows nothing about the real world. Nina seems to make it up as she goes along. They do what they want, and nothing seems to matter. But Aldo cares about duty and responsibility, so much so that he cried when the Queen died, because, in his eyes, she lived a life shaped by those ideals.

‘What the fuck did the Queen do for you, Aldo?’ Vivian once asked, glowering.

He impressed on her then that it was important to give yourself to something bigger, and by that he implied that he was giving himself to her, their life together. That’s why he quit a job he loved for a job he hated, because if you believe in servitude enough then love falls out of the question, and that in some ways is a relief, until it isn’t.

People are ungrateful. Vivian was ungrateful, and so are these motherfuckers. He gives them a holiday and they can’t even cut him some slack. So what if he snapped at Emma for cutting the nose off the brie? Something Emma herself had once told him not to do. What right did Nina have to interject?

‘Aldo,’ her palm had smacked lightly on the table. ‘You’ve been acting like a dick since we got here. We’re supposed to be on holiday.’

‘Oh fuck off, Nina. It’s my fucking house,’ he replied, although his parents would be quick to remind him that it’s not his fucking house. ‘I’m going through a lot.’ And as the three of them looked away from him, at the table, he saw disbelief in their faces. ‘If you knew the first thing about love then maybe you’d understand.’

‘What the fuck is that supposed to mean?’ Nina snapped.

‘Well, Nina,’ Aldo said. ‘You’ve never been in a serious relationship. Your entire existence is fleeting encounters because nobody in their right mind would commit to you, and it all works out for you, because you can write another essay about being trans and the intersection of love, fertility and transness, even though there are probably millions of trans women living perfectly normal lives with loving partners and children, and the problem is, Nina, is that you are probably just a little bit fucked in the head, and you’re so used to profiting from how fucked in the head you are that—’

‘Aldo!’ Toby shouted, matching Nina’s palm on the table with his fist.

‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ Emma screamed, all while Nina’s shoulders rose and her jaw tightened. Silence fell upon them, and Emma continued. ‘All your fucking digs. Why do you even hang out with us?’

‘Well, I thought you were my friends,’ Aldo said, feeling sorry for himself.

‘I think you just like being around artists,’ Emma muttered. ‘But the more time I spend with you the more I realise you don’t know the first thing about creating art. You aren’t an artist. You haven’t ever been an artist. You’re just a city cunt who likes being around actual art—’

‘Art?!’ Aldo shouted. ‘Art?! Is that what you think you fucking do, Emma? Your ridiculous paintings of your tits that are somehow about neoliberalism?’

And then Nina let out chuckle, which did not go unnoticed by Aldo or Toby, and especially not by Emma, who looked at Nina, face twisted like a Francis Bacon portrait. Now that was talent.

‘Seriously,’ Aldo snarled. ‘How many times do you have to paint your pussy to get why Dave cheated on you?’

‘Aldo!’ Toby interjected,

Nina stayed quiet. Emma crossed her nail into the mosquito bite on her arm.

Is this what they think of me?

Toby’s head fell towards his hands. Everything was going wrong.

‘You’re all fucking useless,’ Aldo continued. ‘What are you going to do when your face and body hit the wall, Emma?’

‘The wall? . . .’ she asked, hands splayed either side of her. ‘The wall?! Are we on fucking 4-chan?!’

‘Yeah, the fucking wall.’ Aldo stood up. ‘In a few years, when someone younger, better and hotter comes along, people are going to forget you, because when it comes down to it, people have painted pussies for years, and yours just aren’t that good.’

Emma stood up. Toby pointed at Aldo.

‘That’s eno—’

‘That’s enough, Aldo,’ jeered Aldo, returning the finger, only drawing Toby further out of his seat. He turned to Nina.

‘Do you know he was fucking you both at the same time?’

She didn’t nod or shake her head, she only pursed her lip, but Aldo wanted more.

‘Did you hear that?’ he said. ‘He was fucking you and her at the—’

‘Shut up!’ Toby shouted.

‘Fuck you!’ Aldo screamed, and then like a reflex, he reached for his plate and threw it at the floor. The ceramic split. Heads turned in unison to stare at the shards on the patio.

In silence, the others joined Nina in sitting down around the table, unsure of where to go once the unretractable had been said. There was no point in putting it back together – any meal from it would just make them question if their art was terrible, if they knew nothing of love, duty or sacrifice, and if they were just angry people who threw plates.

‘There goes dinner,’ Nina said.

 

Image © theilr



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