From the car I can see the stranger through the convenience store window, drifting between the aisles. He has a long, pale throat, a protruding Adam’s apple, a face that peers uncontrollably, all fringe, forehead and nose. His right hand clasps a tube of Pringles, which is not what I wanted, and it is nobbled and veiny, the fingers far too long. His skin is sallow under the low, yellow lights, which cast caramel-coloured shadows under his eyes. I wait, fuming, because I asked for ranch popcorn, or candy cane kisses: something I would never eat at home, because that was the whole point of this, not being there. But he doesn’t seem the type for candy cane kisses. He seems the type that likes what he likes.
Just days before this, I had a boyfriend. His name was Brett, which sounds made up, like a porn name, but he was real, and brand new, if almost too handsome to be true, eight inches taller, five years younger, blonde, with thick brown eyebrows and happy creases at the corners of his eyes. We were in California, we were driving through it, and it was a crazy idea, because we hadn’t booked anything, and barely knew each other. But it didn’t matter because there was so much to discover: the rock-strewn beaches; the pink skies at sunset; the smell of Brett’s armpits; the taste of his sweat. We had met the month before, in London, via a mobile app. I saw his penis before his face, and it was a good one: thick and fleshy, amiably pulsating. We masturbated together for a week on Google Hangouts, and then we met for a coffee at Joe and the Juice, and I was surprised to find I liked the rest of Brett too. He was 27, from Melbourne, uninhibited and excitable, said every thought as soon he had it and blushed and laughed when he heard the thoughts out loud. Once we both had our coffees, he put his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands, and asked me charming questions. I looked French, was I French? Where did I get my glasses from? Which gym did I go to? I didn’t? What? Really? It all felt very serendipitous, and coincidental, like the universe had malfunctioned and delivered me something I didn’t deserve, so I pounced on it, and took him out, and we got drunk, and booked the plane tickets on our phones right there and then, in some dingy bar in Dalston. After Andrew, it felt important to be impulsive, so I embraced it. I was tired of being the way he liked to be: above it all, too good for things. Before Andrew, I had liked tacky TV talent shows, and wearing a different earring every week, and being the kind of person you shouldn’t tell secrets too. Those powers are lost to me, but with Brett, I hoped to recapture some of that energy, at least. We started at LAX and we’d paid for a Fiesta, but they upgraded us to a Mustang – red, glossy, ridiculous, beyond – and we drove with the top down and listened to the radio, arms hanging out the side of the car, gazing up at the palm trees, feeling like we were in a music video, like we were fine and could do whatever we wanted.
We took turns driving, but I found it hard to keep my eyes on the road. Brett worked as a sailor, – he sailed rich people’s yachts for them; this is a job – and he dressed every day like he was still on deck, in polo shirts and navy chino shorts and boat shoes. When the sun came out, the tops of his thighs shimmered, the hairs golden, the lotion slick and shiny, and the whole world felt like it had been re-done with an airbrush. When a song he liked came on the radio, he turned it up. When he saw something interesting, we stopped and tried it out. This happened a lot, because he wanted to try everything: the breakfast burritos; the waffles and chicken; the Dungeness crab; ice cream; onion rings – he didn’t mind, anything new. We dropped into roadside diners and cafés, places where they printed the calories on the menus and had souvenir T-shirts pinned on the wall, and he told every waitress his life story – wind, water, oligarchs – while I hid behind the menu. In San Louis Obispo we sat outside and shared a sandwich named “Tropical Vacation.” A bluebottle landed on my garden salad and Brett said: “You want flies with that?” and drummed both his hands on the table and howled with laughter, ecstatic.
Back in the car, Brett and I talked, sort of, yelling things at each other over the rushing of warm air. He was amazed by everything, even the second time he saw them. We drove through Big Sur, saw cookie-coloured cliffs and frothing water, the colours deep and swirling, like a painting in motion – and he nearly lost it. “Look at that view,” he yelled, more than once. “Isn’t it incredible?”
It was incredible. It couldn’t last. I drove and I thought of interesting things to say. I needed to keep it all afloat, somehow. “Somewhere up here is this nutty retreat,” I said “where you stay for a month and do meditation and yoga and everything.” He blinked and nodded and scratched the back of his neck. “It’s been there since the fifties,” I continued, “It’s about self-actualisation.” He yawned and knit his eyebrows together, until they almost touched. “Sounds a bit full on, mate,” he said. The m-word makes me uncomfortable, but I let it slide.
In San Francisco, some trouble: the sun caught up with Brett. We had driven around to find the most ludicrous hotel we could, a pale pink faux-Victorian in Upper Filmore, with floral wallpaper in the bathrooms and jacquard throws on the beds, and a pamphlet in reception about a ghost cat that stalked its corridors. We had checked in, laughing about it, then gone straight up to our room and fucked ferociously for who knows how long. Brett enjoyed sex like he enjoyed everything else: like it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to him, like he couldn’t wait to tell you about it. I had liked this thus far, but that night, it was a little tiring, so I placed a finger on his lips, and kissed him slowly, and he took the hint, eventually, and shut his beautiful mouth. His body was still new to me, flat and hairless, scattered with moles, the nipples small and round, like chocolate buttons. As I travelled up and down it, I noticed a few pink patches, but I thought nothing of it: the moment seemed greater than anything. Afterwards, I lay on top of him my head bobbing up and down on his chest as he breathed, and we ate tiramisu Oreos and watched Bravo until we fell asleep. But the next morning, we were disentangled: he was lying on his back, and wouldn’t move. The burns had deepened, spread, become tender-looking blotches that raged on his cheeks, livid stripes on his shoulders and ribs. He said he wasn’t getting up, that he was sore, and dizzy, and I thought he was joking at first. I showered and picked up his clothes, and asked him where he wanted to go to breakfast, whether we should check out the piers first, or, get a cable car, or go to SFMOMA. He groaned, and rolled over and said, into his pillow, that he didn’t want to do anything, that we never should have come.
I spent that day by myself, walking around neighbourhoods I’d read about – Haight Ashbury, the Castro, the Mission – and feeling like I’d come about 30 years too late. I had a list, because this, the city, was the one thing I’d planned for. I’d been planning, actually, for several years, because I had always thought I’d go with Andrew, that we’d travel, at some point. Andrew broke up with me last year, after belittling me for six. He said I had no sense of adventure, but that’s beside the point: this is just the kind of thing you say when you’re sick of someone. The truth is that Andrew had ruined me: I had come to him tender and sweet, and tried too hard to please him. The problem was I was now too much like him. The problem with that being: he hated himself. Anyway, for what it’s worth, he would have loved it there, in San Francisco, would have enjoyed poring over vinyl at dusty second-hand record stores and would have wanted to see all the sights, one by one, in order. We would have walked down Valencia, and peered into the shops, and he would told me about all the punks and weirdos that went to the clubs there back in the day. I would have listened, knowing not to interrupt, and tried to share his interest, but I would have found myself faking it, the rigour, the curiosity, and I would have felt like my face was being trampled into wet sand. I walked along long streets not made for walking, past bong shops, and plywood-clad hot-desking cafés, and skate boutiques with chai urns, and looked at my list, and felt sad, and alone. I ended up standing outside a bookshop, staring in the window, at the events programme.
When I got back to the hotel, Brett was still suffering. I had bought him some aftersun, watched him slather it on in the bathroom, winced as I saw how the blotches had started to harden and crust over. I suggested we go to the book store for a reading that evening. It would be interesting, I told him, and besides, I said, it might distract him. “From what?” he said. I said: “Well, whatever this is,” and gestured with my hand to his entire being, from top to bottom. He pursed his lips and exhaled slowly, and said: “Sure, whatever,” but made no further comment, and got dressed, quietly. We had an early dinner, at a place from the list, and he smiled only when the waitresses came. At the reading, he squirmed in his seat, and kept rubbing his collarbone and squeezing his dry, scaly forehead with his thumb and forefingers. When it came to questions someone said: “I suppose there’s three parts to this question, the first part being...” and Brett scoffed, audibly. Flakes peeled from his arms.
That night, the last night, was the first that we did not get naked together. Brett, clearly, was going through something. I looked at him, nervously, while he slept, his neat, amiable face ghoulishly uplit as the shadows of Real Housewives crawled across his flushed, scarlet cheeks. His skin was crackled and swollen everywhere now, seemed like it was bulging outwards, like it wasn’t just sunburn, but some kind of reaction. His heart beat fast, and his chest shuddered up and down, and he wriggled his shoulders and his legs, like he was in the midst of some savage dream. I looked for as long as I could, until my eyes were blurry and watering, until it seemed like tiny cracks started to appear at the top of his forehead and shoulders.
Next morning I opened my eyes, and the shower was on, and the bed was empty. Brett’s skin was lying on the floor, discarded. Without him inside it, it was translucent, shell-like, crispy. It must have split down the centre in the middle of the night, it must have crackled open and painfully yielded what was inside. I sighed and watched TV. Real Housewives gave way to Top Chef. When the stranger emerged from the bathroom, scrawny, hunched, judgemental, I had no idea what to say. So we packed our stuff and got in the car and drove. I was trying to make the best of things. It was what Brett would have wanted. It’s what I owed my true self. We drove for four hours, taking the 101, because the stranger felt carsick. We sped through Santa Rosa and Healdsburgh, past all the fancy wineries, not stopping to see anything, because the stranger wasn’t interested; he just wanted to keep driving, to keep moving. He wanted speed. We drove until Eureka, and only then he let me stop. We stopped to get snacks, and here we are, waiting. It’s been twenty minutes now. I watch him look at the Pringles, thoughtfully, and almost put them back, then decide to keep them anyway, then continue to peer at the merchandise. I watch him hover between several choices, because this is what the stranger is like, it seems, forever looking, unable to find the right thing, and I wait for him to come out, with some form of nourishment.
Adam Welch is based in South London. His fiction has appeared in Ambit, Salt's Best British Short Stories 2019, Open Pen, Shooter, and the London Short Story Prize 2018 Anthology. He is an Arvon/Jerwood fiction mentee for 2019/2020. You can find him on Twitter @badambads
A note from Short Fiction: Our judge Jon McGregor and the Short Fiction reading team decided to award ‘Larva, Nymph, Imago’ a Highly Commended place in the 2020 Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize. We were impressed by its confidence: the sentences full of concrete and grounding detail while the story action zips by. It’s so visceral, both in content and tone, and we really admired the way it brings to life that sudden foulness that can enter a new relationship. Horribly relatable and highly successful. Congratulations to Adam.