Frances Novak

CN: Sex; sexual relationships; online dating


He’s sat across the table from me one hush night in Oxford and it’s just begun to snow. We’re settling for dinner now in a hearth-lit old pub after a long day traipsing around the city expressing private displays of affection – a squeeze of the hand, fingers on the waist, lip brushed above the brow. Yes, quite that saccharine. Anyway, we’re opposite each other, everything’s roses to the point where I have been suspecting nothing, when he cups my face in his hands and says:

“It’s just gone so fast so quickly and I don’t even really know what you look like.”

I reverse. He’s a portraitist by trade, that really matters a lot to him, and actually, no, he’s right: I agree with him. I tell him “I don’t know what you look like either!” despite the fact I’m looking right into his eyes (a calm grey, always a little placid, always analysing the micro-muscular movements on the faces of everyone he looks at because he’s damned good at his job) and the twitching of the hair above his mouth as he considers what to say next (I’ve already imagined what he’ll look like when he grows old and it goes white).

But even so we’ve only been in each other’s pockets, hands, heads for the tender sum of three weeks. Before that neither of us existed to the other, I remind myself, although despite the overbearing cynic in me, in the back of my mind I could’ve imagined making a silly tale of love-at-first-swipe. Because at this point we already both feel in-sync and imbued in every fleeting thought that crosses the others’ mind. “I’ve pulled the disappearing act before, I’ve sabotaged it all and then run away. Now I don’t know what to do.”

I withdraw my fingers from his, folding my arms across my chest. What’s coming is familiar. Once I was a by-and-by phantom too.

Three days later and he’s made his decision: he doesn’t want to mess me around, he’s going away soon so he’ll go away now instead. Brief exchange of virtual parting courtesies. All very cordial. I understand, good luck! Deleted. More space freed in my memory. Today I’m stored in his phone somewhere: there’s six shots of me peering into a camera stuck in different places and times accompanied by my name and a quirky little story about who I am (something about an itch to pull off an art heist, so he’d hatched a plot for us to steal Primavera together). But it’s my face, static half-finished maquettes of me, that I wonder about. Does he ever pull me out of his pocket to look at me? Really though, I’ve already forgotten his name and various online aliases. All blocked out.


“But it’s my face, static half-finished maquettes of me, that I wonder about. Does he ever pull me out of his pocket to look at me?”


I’m telling you this now as I’m eating fat pink grapefruit segments with one hand whilst the juice dribbles down my chin – now I’m twisting my tongue to lick it all clean off. It’s a lovely day out, isn’t it? Let me show you – it’s crisp, cloudless and there’s a lilting breeze. There is something deeply erotic about a breeze, something promising about being caressed with only the echo of a real, physical touch. I’m aching for you to touch me. (Perhaps I ought to tell you I’m texting this exact sentiment to four different men in four different ways in the same minute).

My girls and I are sat hungry around an oak table, helping ourselves to a medley of exotic fruits off a ceramic platter and there’s even a china saucer of pillowy cream for hot black coffee too. My hands are pressed onto the woodgrain, an index running over the curves and bumps. I’m biting the inside of my cheek. “I had a rugby player last week”, she says “he had the prettiest dick I’ve ever seen,” she continues, “and I applaud the doctor who cut him, I’d never had a circumcised man before,” we’re all laughing at her now, “but I cannot stress this enough, it was a fucking treat.” Hysterical, we pass round the table and exchange stories of the men we each have consumed – a silver-circle lawyer with a hand fetish; a bodybuilding Adonis with a Pygmalion complex; an interrogator in the army who had begged me to peg him. “It’s basically reparations”, I quip and they roar, my head spinning from the high.

“You’re the good kind of slut,” that same interrogator had informed me the morning after in our Whitehall hotel room. “You’re not the kind of slut who does this sort of thing because she has shit self-esteem. I would know, it’s my line of work. And you know,” he’s going on about it as he brushes his teeth, watching himself do it in the mirror, “it’s not really just your body. It’s that I can’t figure you out. That’s a good thing.” I quietly curse myself for having concocted a pompous figurine of womanhood out of Sylvia Plath poems, Bond girls and the way Nigella Lawson pronounces the word ‘unctuous’. Thankfully he doesn’t remember how we both, heady wine-drunk, collapsed in bed the night prior, him having gone soft with the stuff, me slumped against his shoulder, and how I, footnoting his snoring, slurred, “I like you, John, I had an eating disorder, did you know?”

How ardently I aspire to be a real Venusian – in her honour I take photos of myself in the mirror with my black black hair curling out round my bare shoulders, an unstudied pout, just the right amount of pink bottom lip protruding and doe-eyes opening bashfully under wettened lashes, blushing, fresh out of the shower and demerara brown. Broadcasting, now live at the touch of a button, this is the woman I am today. Pretty, youthful, pure, with a pronounced décolletage any young man might have the pleasure of tracing his fingers, and maybe if he’s very lucky, his tongue over. What do you think? Yes? No?

Here’s what I’ll show the next one through the purdah of the camera lens: I will unravel him, contort myself into the object of his fixation whether he likes it or not. You want to sculpt a woman? Make me your Galatea, I’ll film myself doing squats as you prescribe, watch me metamorphose for you. Watch my thighs flare out for you. My muscles ache, god they ache. You like that, don’t you? Or maybe you like fucking hands? My nails are perfectly French-manicured, look. Watch my fingers as they stroke the fur on my throw, I’ll tell you I’m nude and cold and waiting underneath for you. You want a stone-cold straight-up bitch to throw you into bondage and frighten the fuck right out of you? I used to box, baby, I was born ‘round the corner from a brothel, watch me strut around in this PVC skin like I was born in it. Here’s my vibrator: it’s going inside you whilst I crush you under my heel. Or maybe you just want to make a girl laugh and that’s all, and it’s wonderfully refreshing – you’re hilarious, you know, and I’d love to read your sitcom script sometime. Oh dear, you’ll never meet me though, you’re far too sweet, I could quite like you and I’m not sure either of us could handle that. So, prematurely, executively, stealthily: goodbye. That one reaches out to me three times hoping for reassurance only to meet radio silence. Even from here it feels sadistic.


“So, prematurely, executively, stealthily: goodbye”


Right now I am swimming in the sheer narcotic Lethe of groping limbs, I am floating sky-high in the countless names flaring up on my screen. How delicious – so many, all pivoting off every message I send, anticipating that special voice I put on, saying ridiculous words like ‘believe me I am devilishly delectable’, ‘come ravage me monsieur’, or begging for a view from that indelible angle with the soft-dawn-yellow-light in my bedroom hitting just the right spots, how I effortlessly frame the places where my body swells in and out and in again. It’s shockingly easy really –  the stream from man to man is about as lubricant as a slip’n’slide, it’s like nothing to dive from one to another once you get going, and once you get going names and palms and voices all intermingle. I can’t distinguish you from the many other men I’m snaring – what do you look like again? What was it I said to you that time before our first kiss when no one was looking? You got stuck in your jacket and I untangled you. Did you laugh?

Here’s the thing: there are so many of us out there. There are so many faces to flick through. And you or I might not be the prettiest of the lot, but we’re damn sharp and we’ve got a wealth of power you wouldn’t believe right at our command behind the glass. You’ve got to know how to use your words, how to seed a daydream in their mind’s eye from nothing but a few remarks and choice stills, and you’ve also got to know when to let their heads do the work for you. Carefully choreograph their moves like you’re the director of the Bolshoi ballet.

There’s one of these apps you can use where you put your picture up for the span of a single hour and in that hour match with someone who just wants to fuck. Found an actor on that with a voice like suede, he tasted salty and a little like the spearmint gum he’d been chewing. Somehow, in person, he looked nothing like his headshots and we both politely ignored the fact he lived with his mummy for the sake of narrative – but then again who am I to judge? In any case, he made up for it with his performance (and subsequent encore) before he fell asleep on the other side of the bed. Maybe next time I’ll try a woman and let you know how it goes.

What is he doing right now, at this very moment? He begins to exist again, lucid in a moment of silence when the others are all in bed. The really funny thing is, in all our time together his hand never wandered below my waist nor were any explicit phrases exchanged. What’s hilarious is, one of my thumbs is still sliding over my mouth and brushing softly where he made it tingle. Now I suppose for old time’s sake, I could easily check up. God help me, I decide to check up. Who he’s checking up is: three new girls, all who look kind of like me but on surveying their profiles, ha, audible scoff – not even close. I’m a tough bitch and an even tougher act to follow, so learn your lesson, mate. Not even a little. No, of course not. I close the window so that he doesn’t exist anymore, open another window and begin swiping.

I’m someone very different today. My hair is short, messy and cut sharp at the bottom. Claret-red rouge smears over my mouth and cheeks, my figure is velveteen, I am built like a grand odalisque, come look at me, everyone, anyone, come look at me. I appear – I am – challenging. ‘Beguiling’ is the sexy word I use today, it’s rather apt for a siren like this, no? This next one seems to like what I write to him very much. When we meet, we have a drink of some bitter gin and kiss in a smoky Soho basement bar as his hand snakes about the nape of my neck. It has to be said he’s very good at this, about as practised as I am – when I tell you he knows exactly where to bite my lip, it’s almost like witchcraft, or a metal detector that’s struck gold. Attention to detail is key, remember. He devotedly eats me out under my dress in his Mercedes, we’ve sobered up and driven the whole night, wound up in Hampstead so I’m pressed against the white leather backseat with him slinging my thighs around his gorgeous face. Him, drinking me into his mouth. He fancies himself a Hemingway, gets a thrill when I slap him, and tells me that “all of his motivations have boiled down to either sex or revenge.” Coy, I raise a brow, play ball, and try to deduce where and why the hell he came up with a corny line like that. Eat the stories up anyway. You know you’re hungry for it.

You know, actually, that night in Oxford, the other excuse he gave was that “we’re different.” Yes, I know, I couldn’t believe it either, of course we’re different – and I told him that, I said the words out loud over dinner: “you’ll find that with any two people.” He processed it as if it had never even occurred to him before. You see, I reckon he was making that classic online-dating error. You want a unicorn, an instant spark, and you expect it because the person comes to you out of the ether so shouldn’t the rest follow suit? And you assume that you can just flick through them all and eventually it will follow suit, because surely, they can’t all be something other than what they say on the tin, can they?

Another perfectly good enough man had begged me not to delete him a long time ago when I first started this business and I, arrogant, didn’t listen, shitfire-sure that another one would come along just as welcome as he did. At this point I would like to take this opportunity to kindly inform him and whichever karmically-inclined deity governing me that I am sorry. I’ve well and truly learnt my lesson now; consider me thoroughly reprimanded. Thank you.

But I do understand. There’s so many of us out there, a swathe. It’s nothing to drift along from one to another. That ditsy girl across from you, does she not embody the niche notion of perfection you’ve been salivating over your whole life? Well then, there’s a wealth, an abundance of attention to be eaten and we are all so hungry these days, with these apps rallying us up and promising to herald us to pastures new from which to graze within the week. By noon. A minute. She’s out there. Eat it up.


“There’s so many of us out there, a swathe. It’s nothing to drift along from one to another”


As soon as that face you’ve seen behind the glass steps into the real world, it’s as if a doll that you’ve bought and brought home starts breathing – of course you’re going to be frightened, it’s scary. It’s a sharp, fearful inhale he takes before he says: “you want to touch me, hold my hands, kiss me all the time.” But he wants to do the same thing, he’s been doing the same thing all the time, and is that really so much? “Yes,” he says, “you’re real, you’re here, you like me you said, it’s a lot all at once.” Real is much too much. I lash out: “I’m not short on attention, you know”. The truth hurts us both.

You want a doll exactly like the one you’d seen advertised on the screen, with her shiny hair, perfect teeth (he liked my teeth). Back over at dinner, he wasn’t prepared for the little quirks, he said, like the dimple on my left cheek when I smiled, the tiny black beauty mark by my nose, the scar on my forehead, or even worse, how I liked orange and he hated orange, or more possibly it was the way I pushed him beyond the comfort zone of his routine, how we felt small in the wake of ghosts from both our past lives, perhaps it was what happened to us in that darkest corners of our childhoods, but I think mostly it was the way I wanted nothing more from him than the quiet man he plainly presented, sans bells or whistles, the lazy addict who smoked 10 to 15 cigarettes a day and didn’t do much besides paint by himself and drink beer with his best friend. A good man, I said; couldn’t give me much, he said, this isn’t how I usually live, he said, this isn’t the real me, he said.

But sometimes in passing he’d been sat smiling in front of me, in the sun, in true life, in the flesh.


Header image by Fernando Assumpcao

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