The nagging doubt had been silenced after a few days. But now it had risen again, like some unwanted ghost from the past. I wish that I had listened to it when I first heard it. I know what they say about hindsight, and as I wash myself clean, I promise that I will never forget again. If I get the chance …
Voices are either pleasant to the ear or grating on the senses. His voice was over half way through the scale, but approaching the negative end. There was an edge to it that wasn’t quite smooth but I ignored it. I had been missing someone’s desire for my company so I accepted his time with me without the usual questions. Christmas does that to you, it makes you lonely. We had been regularly talking online for a few weeks. When we first started chatting over a year ago it had been very casual because I had just started to piece my heart together again.
We both enjoyed word games so we bonded over the boards. Nothing serious. That suited me fine. The months passed and our communication came and went in waves. Then there was a drought. He was gone.
He told me later that he had found a partner and they were really getting on well. So he had not had time to text his friends. I think that this was another one of his fantasies. But I didn’t know this at the time.
A month ago he reappeared in my life. Richard was back. I smiled because it was a pleasant distraction from reality. He came back when I was stuck between memories that hurt and I was looking for a way out. I thought talking to him would help me to surface. In a way I was right, but in another way I was very wrong.
I can’t remember all the details but I do know that we had exchanged telephone numbers and would text greetings occasionally. That’s how it restarted. It was my fault. I just got to wondering about him one day and sent a text saying “Hello, how are you doing?” By the end of the following week we had started talking to each other regularly on the phone.
After all that time not talking I couldn’t even remember what he looked like so I went back to his profile picture. I paused at the screen. “Oh, yes. I remember now. Not really my type, but someone to talk to I guess.” My thoughts were tinged with sadness. I wondered why I would accept that for myself?
He’s too tall, I thought, as soon as I saw him taking his long loping steps towards the car. He was grinning at me. I knew it must be him, but he looked quite a bit different from the picture I’d seen. Suddenly I was nervous as I remembered that I hadn’t told anybody where I was. Calming myself I remembered that we were just meeting for a drink in a public place so it’d be alright. I practised my deep breathing techniques before he reached the car.
Although there wasn’t physical attraction I had met an interesting mind and it was great to put the physical and the mental images together. I was completing a 3D jigsaw puzzle right there in the car park. I made my first mistake, I smiled and greeted him with a hug.
We had shared some long conversations so I thought I knew him a bit and a handshake seemed too informal.
“Where shall we go for coffee?” I enquired. I had driven to his location so he knew where to go. This was the start of a new chapter. We were in effect meeting for the first time. Real life people.
“Um,” he hesitated as he sat in the car grinning at me.
“What?” I smiled back nervously.
“Well, I’m a bit hungry,” he said, “do you mind if we go back to mine and get something to eat? It’s only 5 minutes away.”
A nervous wave washed over me. I looked at the time and realised that I would have to make my return journey soon, so a short visit would be safe – or so I thought. As soon as we got into his house I knew I’d made another mistake.
I’m no good at getting out of situations without offending people, so I was trying to find a polite exit. My mind was rushing around thinking of way and reasons to leave. “Help!” I screamed to myself as I stood by the kitchen door while he cooked himself some lunch. Everywhere was packed. There were cartons on the floor, unwashed crockery piled in the sink and an opened bin with spills down the side. Food and drinks that had not reached their final destination were sticking to the soles of my shoes and covering the wall behind the bin. I still had my coat on but, when I foolishly accepted a hot drink, I had reluctantly put my bag on the floor. I made a mental note to wash it as soon as I got home.
My OCD was screaming at me, “Get out, get out, now!” But I stayed. So, I think I only have myself to blame really.
“Can I use your bathroom?” I asked. I needed some space to breathe and decide what to do.
“Yeah, sure. It’s straight ahead at the top of the stairs.” He hadn’t stopped grinning since we met. It was unnerving.
When I opened the bathroom door my worst fears were confirmed. The grime that had met me at the front door trailed through the house and seemed to multiply in the bathroom. I hadn’t seen that amount of dirt and stains in one place since I’d visited some homeless people I’d used to work with who were living in a squat. I think the bathroom suite had once been white but, as I fought my gag reflex back, I could only see brown and yellow stains that fought with the mould for prominence.
As someone who hates the smell of bleach I was surprised to find myself yearning for the cleansing properties of it right then. I used toilet tissue to touch the taps as I attempted to wash my hands.
“Your water doesn’t go down in your basin,” I said too brightly as I picked my way gingerly back towards the kitchen drying my hands on my coat as I walked.
“Yeah, I know,” he responded. He knew and didn’t care I thought. He knew that the gunk was in the basin.
He approached me as if he was going to kiss me. I could not allow that to happen.
“No.” I said firmly, “No kissing.” I stood up straight and looked him in the face. Couldn’t he see the fear in my eyes?
“Awww,” he reached his arms around me and hugged me. I returned the hug while trying to stop my olfactory system from working. “OK, I promise.” He said reluctantly as he hesitated in front of me then leaned into my shoulder and sniffed me. Involuntarily I shivered with fear. He mistook it for a sign of pleasure.
“You smell just as I imagined you would,” that disconcerting grin was still on his face as his uneven teeth and protruding gums flashed at me, “you smell like cocoa butter and soap.”
I shivered again, smiling to cover up my discomfort. “Thank you.” He returned to his cooking. “Are you sure you don’t want some?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine.” As he turned his back to stir his meal I looked into the cup that I was drinking from. The outside looked clean enough; I just hoped that hot water had killed any germs that were living in there. I felt sick already. I wanted to go. I didn’t know how to.
The initial smell that I had a hint of when I had greeted him in the car park was magnified in his house. It was extremely nauseating. I felt like the dampness in the walls was closing in on me. Then there was the odour of several layers of unwashed clothes each time he came close to me. I felt soiled. I felt scared.
But there was a sparkle in Richard’s eyes that kept me talking to him even after I knew that I should go. I was in a suspended state of disbelief that this was the same person I had been talking to for the past month on the phone. This man had a great mind and personality but as I moved gingerly from foot to foot I knew that his hygiene issues would never match with mine.
In our fantasy chats we had envisaged an animal attraction and an immediate sexual chemistry. As I continued to stand there, feigning cold as I pulled my coat closer around me, all I could think about was soap, dry cleaning and the hottest shower possible in my clean bathroom. I longed to be at home. Yet I found it impossible to move.
I kept looking at my watch willing the hands to move faster. Then, it was nearly time to leave. I had another appointment that I couldn’t miss.
“Oh, it’s nearly time for me to go,” I breathed as I gave back the still heavy cup of tea.
“Surely not,” Richard said looking for himself.
“Well, the traffic was really bad on the way here, and I have to get back. I have no choice. Sorry.”
I was sorry. Sorry that the dream and the reality did not match. I was sorry that he saw more possibilities than I did. I was sorry that he didn’t see the filth in his home as a possible problem for the comfort of visitors, however rare they might be. I was sorry that I had used my last tank full of petrol on a whim. I was sorry because my loneliness had steered me into insane behaviour. I was sorry because I could not think of a good way to tell Richard that the best we could hope for was a continued casual friendship. I knew he would be disappointed. He had already built a world for both of us. But the smell he carried with him had triggered something unpleasant over my entire body. I felt all wrong and extremely uncomfortable just being near him.
“I don’t let many people come to my home,” he said, “I trust you. I feel safe with you. We have a connection.”
“You can trust me,” I replied. “Maybe you can come and visit my city one day.” A casual statement of friendship that turned into a promise of love to him.
I felt sorry for him. That’s why I stayed. I was foolish. That’s why I pay now.
When I returned home I took every piece of clothing off and washed myself from head to foot – even though we had only shared hugs. I felt soiled. Inside and out. My mind is still not clean from the experience although my body had been scrubbed several times.
The next morning when I told him that I accepted that I wasn’t physically attracted to him he got angry. “You must be attracted to me,” Richard said. “I think you are just too weak and scared to give us a chance to work it out.” He was right about one thing, I was now scared – of him. He’d said we’d always have a friendship if nothing else, now he couldn’t accept just that. The unpleasantness that I had first detected in Richard’s voice was undisguised now. His harsh words grated on my ear.
I enjoyed the silence that followed the day after I told him. I thought the discomfort was over. I felt free to relax again. It remained quiet for a week.
That’s when the texts and emails started. He claimed I’d led him on. “You’ve broken the trust we had,” he wrote, “your excuses about hugging me like that just because I was in close proximity are rubbish. You must like me. You should try to fix our relationship instead of running away from it.”
I really believed, naively, that we could be friends. But he is still trying to persuade me to give it a chance and fix what he thinks I have broken. I feel sorry for Richard. I am also scared of Richard.
He knows the city I live in but not my home. I wanted to keep it that way.
I keep washing. But I still sense him touching me. I can still smell him. And it makes me feel sick.
But yesterday I thought I saw him, watching me from a side road. I think he’s found me. I am shaking again. I dialled the police. I want him gone from my life.
I hope it’s not too late to do some spring cleaning.