He is drying glasses behind the bar when they discuss it for the first time. They’ve been seeing each other for three months now, and lately he’s been leaving bruises on her, bruises the colour of absinthe and chartreuse. Bruises that she’s begged for, in the heat of the moment, but cannot quite yet bring herself to talk about in the cold light of day.
The cold light of day is what she’s hibernating from here, in the cosy wood-panelled quiet, under the old Campari poster, with a chilled glass of white wine, at 4p.m. on a Tuesday. When your boyfriend’s a barman, she’s learnt, there’s no point hoping for alone-time after dark.
Occasionally, she presses her fingers to her collarbone, to a mark he’s left there, until he catches sight of her and says, ‘You’re pretty fond of that, aren’t you?’
‘Yes.’ There is strength in Chardonnay.
‘You like it when I hurt you?’
‘And when I fuck your arse?’
He strikes a match, and the hiss of fire fills the silence. He lights the tealights on the bar, and then holds the burning match under her chin, like you would a buttercup, not close enough to burn, but close enough to remind her of his power. Only this doesn’t turn her chin yellow, this turns her cunt slick.
The tealights are well alight now, the wax beginning to soften. He blows out the match, drops it in the sink, and picks up the candle instead, swirling the molten wax so it surges up against the glass. ‘Wax play?’
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Depends. It can do, if you want it to.’
‘OK. Rape fantasy?’
‘One day, I think. Not yet. I’m not ready.’
He chops limes into wedges. ‘I should be keeping notes.’
This reminds her of something, something unappealing. It reminds her of bloody Christian Grey. ‘No contract,’ she says. ‘That’s a definite hard limit for me. I do not want my desires neatly typed up in a bulleted list, thank you.’
He laughs. ‘Got it. No contract. What about another kind of list?’
He plucks a menu from the pile on the bar. ‘A cocktail list?’
‘Stop teasing me.’
‘I’m not. It’s perfect.’ He gestures at it, his handiwork, all flowing calligraphy and clever names. ‘See – there are soft drinks, hard drinks, and -,’ he flips it over, ‘–harder still on the back.’ He’s talking about the ones with absinthe and chartreuse rinses, the ones she’s always terrified to order, lest she end up a teary, crumpled mess at the bar after two sips. The ones that remind her how much she loves the bruises.
‘So the things I find tempting go on the front, and the other stuff on the back?’
‘And what happens if I change my mind?’
He grins. ‘We change the menu.’