20 | Where’s your Smile?

I can only ever pinpoint the start of an obsession when I’m already too far into it to go back. I’m fantasizing when I’m walking to work, about a guy I’ll call John (although that is an ugly name in comparison to his real one), about a house in London, and a story where John—a man I’ve never met and probably never will—is coming round to pick up our shared daughter, who doesn’t exist. That’s about when I realise I’m in the middle of a problem again.

My job, which is on a roundabout on a nice leafy road next to a park, is still ten minutes walk away, so I get out my headphones and phone. I’d left them in my bag this morning so I could concentrate more on my fantasy, which is another sign of the start (or the middle) of a problem. I put music on —something popular I’ve heard many times—and go back to when John entered my life, because maybe I can stop the obsession if I know how it started. By entered, I mean . . . well, I don’t know. I don’t mean entered, because that would imply something physical. I go back to the time when I first heard about John—when I first saw him.

It was when I was studying abroad in Paris about two months ago, before I came back to my boring English town, because somehow no matter how much education or training I get, I still seem to end up back home in my childhood bedroom with dragonfly wallpaper, working in the same block of offices, directing the same people to the same companies where the same bosses bring me coffee and wink at me. I can’t tell if it’s because my education means nothing or because I don’t think I’m qualified for stuff I am qualified for and I don’t apply for it. My Mum says it’s because I keep changing what I want to do, doing short courses instead of long ones, never building on anything, but I just can’t seem to pick anything worth sticking to—nothing realistic anyway.

Anyway, I’d gone to see an American movie in the UGC near the studio flat I couldn’t afford. My teachers in France told me it was the hottest summer ever recorded, and my building didn’t have air conditioning, so I stepped out into the blanket of heat, getting it up my nose and in my eyes, and walked as fast as I could without sweating too much to the air-conditioned cinema.

It was busy, and I stood in the line panting and trying not to sweat too much, smelling sweat and hoping it wasn’t me. I mumbled my way through asking in broken French for a ticket to this movie (which I won’t even bother making up a fake name for because I can just call it the movie), and the guy didn’t even look up—just nodded at me and pointed at the credit card machine while the printer chugged out my ticket with a whir.

I bought a cold drink and sat in the cinema, not caring that much about the movie but caring that my Coke was cold and my leather chair was cold and how the beads of sweat on my arms were cold. A few other people came in after me and didn’t sit too close, because I think we were all feeling the same about the heat. I wonder now if any of those people—who are probably still in Paris and ordered their tickets in perfect French but could also order tickets in perfect English where I live —came out of the movie with the same seed that was planted in me planted in them.

John was an actor who was in the movie for about twenty minutes and had a romantic subplot with one of the main characters. I thought he was hot, but then I look at a lot of actors and singers and people in general and think they’re hot and don’t end up inventing a whole life for them in which they live in my head with me. He had brown hair and brown eyes, a chiseled face with a fantastic jawline, and he held the actress in the movie tight and looked at her deeply, like he was looking inside her and seeing secrets she didn’t even know were there. It all happened before a backdrop of Paris but a shiny, scrubbed-up one—one I didn’t know.

It was five in the evening when the movie let out. I’d enjoyed it—I knew that. I liked the movie. And I thought John was attractive but that was it. It was still hot, except now it was also raining thickly, so I went to a McDonald’s with air conditioning down the road from the cinema. I sat on one of those tall seats on one of those benches and sipped more Coke and ate a burger. I swung my damp legs to feel the cold air. I googled movie reviews on my phone, and then I googled John. I wonder if the initial movie review googling was an attempt to make it look like a natural progression to google John? That is the kind of thing I do now when I want to find his IMDB page; I type the name of the movie and click on the page and then scroll down casually, as if someone were watching me, and then click on his profile just to have a look, as if, oh, by accident, it just happens to be there. Or, because the googling was before the obsession, was I genuinely just curious about the movie?

In the weeks after, I discovered that John was on Twitter and Instagram, so I followed him on both—and then I followed the rest of the cast too, going for that nonchalant air again but also, as I told myself at the time, because I do genuinely like them and the movie. I scrolled through his activity way more thoroughly than the other actors’; in fact, in the last two months, I don’t think I’ve gone on any of the others’ pages except to see if there are pictures of him. When I flew home from Paris, I pretended he was in the seat next to me. I wondered what kind of flyer he would be and decided he was a nervous one.

I get into work, hang up my bag, and go to my desk.

“Oh, you’re back?” Mr. Martins, the head of the dentist’s office on floor two, says when he comes in from his lunch break and sees me at the desk. He has been away for the week and hasn’t seen me yet. There is a morning girl, and then me at one. Whenever I get back from bouts of education or traveling that I’ve saved up for in an attempt to find a life different from this one, the afternoon girl they’ve hired to replace me for a bit is nowhere to be found, and I sit back down in that chair like it was empty the whole time.

My job is this weird interim position I was placed in through an agency that my Mum signed me up for when I couldn’t seem to get a job, and none of these men are my bosses; I kind of work for all of them and none of them, just directing different clients to different floors of the building. I’m more a door person than a receptionist, but overall I don’t mind, because there isn’t much to do and I get to wear my own clothes, which makes me feel that if ever John was to need a solicitor or a dentist or an article in the local telegraph in a nowhere midland town, I would be waiting here with my hair curled, in a cute dress and not a uniform. Ultimately, though, I could be replaced by one of those doorbells with multiple buttons and no one would really notice.

“Yeah, here I am,” I say to Mr. Martins, smiling because you have to smile at them all the time or they say, “Where’s your smile?” or “You don’t look happy today. Can I get you a coffee?”—which they do anyway but more frequently if you don’t smile, and then you end up with  three half-drunk coffees under your desk where you’ve hidden them from the last guy.

“How was France?”

“Wonderful,” I say. “I really loved it.”

“You didn’t want to stay?”

“No, I think three months there was enough.”

I’ve had this same conversation a lot since getting back and I always think to myself, How much did I actually love it if I didn’t want to stay? Then I think about all the things in my life that I’ve said I love and didn’t want to continue with.

“Welcome back then.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He disappears upstairs, and I go back to trying to chase down the root of my obsession. Obsessions. The thing is, the problem is, there is no root. Root is the wrong word. I’ve googled stuff like this before; it’s been happening for years and years, before my parents’ divorce, before the worst breakup of my life, before all the stuff that is supposed to make you crazy that could be what your therapist calls “the root” before he makes you stand up in his carpet-smelling office and crouch down and hold out your hands, lower them to the floor, down the air he calls “the tree,” and then makes you “pull it up,” saying, “That’s it, perfect, it’s going to be hard—not easy—just pull on it, just pull with all your strength.”

I can’t tell you the root; I can’t tell myself the root because I’ve looked for it, I’ve dug for it, I’ve googled ideas on what it may be or how to find it, and come up with nothing. I can only tell you and myself how and when this current obsession first came about and how I got to now. That’s what I do every time—figure out where it started, try to force myself to stop, get on, be normal.

The fantasy started out like this: I’m John’s girlfriend, my life is the same as it was when I was in Paris, and his life is the same as his. The problem is that he looks like a God and I’m averagely pretty at best. I’ve got an alright face, but my hair is always flat and my nose is larger than average. Don’t get me wrong; it could be much, much worse but it could be a lot better. I got most of my compliments when I was a child—“She’s pretty,” “What a pretty little girl”—and I think it started to go wrong when I lost my teeth and a new set that was too big for my face grew in. But also, when I was a kid, I figured people said those things because that is what you said about kids, about little girls, and so I didn’t believe they meant them, and when I look at pictures of myself then, I think the same thing. I couldn’t comfortably be his girlfriend, or realistically anyway, and the scenes I was imagining were invaded by young fans coming up to John for autographs and saying, “Is this your girlfriend?” and sniggering behind their hands. So the fantasy started to morph.

My thoughts are interrupted when some clients come in for the solicitors. As the automatic doors let them in I see the sunlight and the autumn trees and wish I were outside. But I’m not, so I greet them, a man and a woman who I think are here to talk about a divorce. When clients tell me who they’re here to see, I love trying to guess what they are in for. Sometimes it is obvious, like with a kid holding a bloody tissue to his mouth, and they go straight up to the dentist without a wait. It’s more fun when I get to figure it out, or pretend to.

These two are completely quiet, moving about the waiting room like ghosts, when I hang up the phone on Mr. Stevens and tell them he’ll be down shortly. The man sits down, and the woman, bending to sit next to him, second-guesses herself and gets up again and then crosses the carpet, her heels quietly tapping it, and browses some pamphlets in a rack on the other side of the room. I don’t want to seem rude, but after I’ve smiled at both of them again, I don’t know where to look so I go back to my phone. It’s not a big room, and the pressure of him sitting and her standing and them not speaking and me not having any work to do and clearly knowing why they are there is building and building to a size that doesn’t fit here anymore. I’m surprised it doesn’t cause the motion sensors of the door to react and open, letting some of it escape into the fresh air.

Then Mr. Stevens comes down and greets them as Mr. and Mrs. something, so I know I was right, and they each smile at me as they file past my desk and into the lift. When it dings closed and I hear it go up, I realise that I temporarily forgot about John and my fantasies and the decoding of them and feel hopeful for a second; maybe this obsession will be over soon. But when the rush of it comes back into the gap in my thinking, I feel sick and my heart starts beating faster. It’s like the feeling of remembering good news or that you still have chocolate at home after a shitty day but way more intense. More like when you kissed the person you liked last night for the first time, and you remember that and that your life is different now.  

I go straight into fantasy. I am playing with my child, a little girl. If I have a child in my fantasies, it’s not always a girl; it changes depending on who the love interest is, and there is no logic to this—kind of like a gene pool itself. I just think girl or boy and there they are in my mind, and I get to name him or her and make up a personality for them.

I’m in a kitchen with flagstones and a fancy fridge. The house is loosely based off a family friend’s. I don’t know why my mind picked that house, but it did, and so that’s where I live now with my child. I’m twenty-nine instead of twenty-four, which gives me a chance to get a lot more beautiful and a lot more successful, so it can be real but so that I don’t have to worry about feeling the inadequacies of past fantasies. This is what those fantasies have morphed into, and the child—well, the child is there to keep the love interest around too.

I’ve watched a lot of sitcoms and romcoms and cheesy teenage stuff through the years because that’s what little girls do. A common theme is the on-again-off-again, the love triangle, the lobster, the soulmate, the one who they were always secretly in love with but pretended they weren’t or who they themselves didn’t even know they loved, and when the object of their love was off in a different scene they talked about how much they adored them and the circumstances which kept them apart.

In my fantasies, I didn’t like to include scenes like this. There was never a time when I sat and imagined John having a conversation with one of his male friends about me, about how much he loved me, about how much he wished the three of us could be a family and the vague circumstances that kept us apart which I hadn’t quite figured out yet—something to do with us both being so successful and busy. I only ever imagine things that happen when imaginary me is there, for some weird, pointless sense of realism that keeps me hoping that one day . . . one day, it will all be true.

In my mind, there is a knock at the door of my flagstone kitchen, where I’m playing with my child. I see his silhouette in the glass of the door.

“John,” I say, when I open it. “You okay?” It’s not his custody day and he doesn’t visit often otherwise. I see that he looks distressed, nervous, because he loves me and he’s been away for a while and wants to tell me. No. Better. Much better than that. It’s the middle of the night and I’ve been awakened by the door-knocking, and the baby is sleeping.

“John,” I say, when I open it. This time I don’t ask if he is okay, because I know he isn’t. It’s the middle of the night and he’s got a black eye and his knuckles are bleeding. I find out, after I let him in and clean up his wounds, that he was out with his mates and got way too drunk (I know this is because he loves me, but the circumstances are in the way and he’s struggling with that) and got into a fight. He came here because in his drunk mind, he knew it was the only place he wanted to go. The only place he could go. Nowhere else.

There isn’t a client or a boss or an email or a phone ringing, but for some reason I come out of the fantasy and I’m back in my body again, the office realer than my fantasy, the clock ticking and my legs tingling from sitting the way I’ve been sitting. I rub my head and wonder what I’m doing. Maybe I need to try therapy again because this isn’t normal.

I check my phone and refresh my emails, and I feel both the buzz of the fantasy but also the heaviness that it is not real and never will be, and the weird bit is it’s not a crushing heaviness, just a regular heaviness, but I start to feel a bit panicky about not being normal and I know even if I did meet John in the street and he happened to fall in love with me, it wouldn’t be the same, it would never be like it is in my head; it would be real and human and icky, and the real me wouldn’t be graceful and endlessly beautiful and endlessly lovable. The real John wouldn’t either. I have to calm myself down and tell myself that it is okay, this is life, this is everybody’s life. Then I remind myself that I already know that, deep down—and the fantasy, it’s just another way to pass the time, like TV or a movie or a book or a lover who you don’t end up staying with and don’t want to either.

The divorcing couple comes down about an hour before my shift ends. Something has changed between them; they aren’t hugging or holding hands, but they aren’t as tense anymore and they even chuckle when I give them all a half-smile and Mr. Stevens says, “Oh, I think she needs a coffee refill,” and I hold up the full cup that Mr. Martins brought down twenty minutes ago and say, “I’m all set, thank you.” And Mr. Stevens says, “She’s gotta have her coffee; we all do.”

Mr. Stevens rubs his hands together when the couple has left, and then after a moment, says, “Biscuits?” and I say, “Sure,” and he leaves.

I watch the couple outside; they walk out into the car park together in the dappled sunlight, and then she lifts a hand in a wave and he smiles, and they go back to their separate cars. I wonder when they will see each other again and whether they feel free or sad or both.

“I thought you needed some chocolate,” Mr. Parsons says when he dings out of the lift and hands me three chocolate biscuits on a plate. I will have to eat them or hide them before Mr. Stevens comes back down, but luckily, this time he doesn’t. Maybe he has found some actual work that needs doing or the motivation to do it. I’m never quite sure which one of them all the bosses lack.

I’m always the last to leave the building; all the staff and the bosses come down first and say goodbye, and then I can get my coat, set the alarm—the code hasn’t changed since I went to France—lock up, and leave. It’s still a nice day, the sun setting, and I get out my headphones for the walk home. I listen to the lyrics of the music and try and think about what my Mum is going to make for dinner, but I just don’t want to think about that or work tomorrow or what I’m going to do next with my life.

I’ll let myself fantasize for a little bit—just the walk home, it’s fine. I feel worse when I’m fighting it. I know it will go away. It’s happened so many times before. The earliest one I can remember was when I watched a World War II kids’ TV show when I was little, and I wanted the main character to be my best friend or I wanted to be her so badly and I played games where I was her, evacuated to a big house where I solved mysteries, or where I was her best friend or sister doing these things with her. These fantasies aren’t always romantic. And they don’t always involve celebrities. It’s harder when they are about people I know. When I was about fifteen, there was a teacher I thought about a lot. I wanted her to love my work and save me from bullies and deny I was her favourite to the rest of the class. When I actually saw her for Maths class, I barely looked her in the eyes. I couldn’t answer questions without my heart racing. Every hour of maths was kind of like hell, but I made up for it by imagining fake and perfect maths classes when I got home and hoped one day that both would merge together, but I also didn’t want that at all. Now I think about her and don’t even think I would care about saying hi in the street.

I’m never embarrassed either because no one ever knows. Like I’m walking along now and making up a story about someone I don’t know and never will, and people are walking past me but they don’t know that. They think I’m a normal girl on my way home from work thinking about dinner or a boyfriend—a real one—or the music I’m listening to. I have been that girl in the past and I know I will be again. This is just for me. I know that I won’t be sad either, when this obsession goes away, because I will still have everything that is real and there will either be just my real life, or the obsession will be replaced. No one will know and I won’t forget, or not for a while, and when I remember it, I will think, “Oh yeah, that was weird.” This is the conclusion I always come to. After thinking and researching and trying to find the root. It’s not normal. But it’s not actually a problem at all.

So I walk. I’m physically walking through the park to get home, the leaves on the ground soft under my feet, my chart music playing, the sun still warm. But in my mind, I’m in a dark flagstone kitchen, moonlight pouring in through the window, my feet cold and I’m leaning against the counter and wondering what to do with the drunk, in-love-with-me man asleep on my sofa. I’m causing no real harm, no real pain to anyone. I never send messages or stalk or beg or lie. I’ve never had an actual relationship with someone I’m obsessed with. I’ve been in love. He hurt people. Me and the other girl he was sleeping with on the side. But with this . . . who am I hurting?

I’ll get back to my real life. I’m not even really leaving it. This is just another way to pass the time. Another way to survive, like eating or sleeping or drinking water. When it ends, it will be just like that couple today, walking silently away from each other in the car park after a slight wave, except I won’t feel free or sad or both. I will feel nothing at all.

heather cripps is from Derby, England and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Kent. She has previously been published in Forge Literary Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Ellipsis, The Drum and more. Her novel in progress #beauisfine was recently shortlisted for the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize.