Soft play

At first, Hayley barely notices the change in herself. There are other, more worrying things, she’s grown aware of in the eleven months she’s been a mother – like the fact that she’s now willing to sit in a noisy, overlit room for two hours, even when she has a headache, if it buys her twenty minutes to sit uninterrupted with a mug of overpriced, badly-made coffee.

In a way, soft play is like a metaphor for the way her body – her self– has altered. Before, she was all angles and boniness, prickly like the cacti in the hipster coffee shops she wasted hours in. Now she has rounded edges like the bumpers that surround the ball pit. And no matter who tells her she’s still hot, she doesn’t recognise herself in the mirror.

Before, back when she liked hipster coffee shops, she also liked pain. She liked to be tied up and flogged, she liked nipple clamps, biting, hands around her throat. She’s pretty sure the desire for that stuff hasn’t gone forever, but it’s sure as hell gone for now – what with the pregnancy, the birth, and the breastfeeding she’s had enough pain to last her a lifetime.

She used to like pain and she used to like men. Or rather, she often hated men, on an ideological level – what feminist wouldn’t, when you saw all the shit in the world that men were responsible for – but she really, really liked cock, and she was willing to tolerate men just to have access to cock on a regular basis. And there’d been at least a couple of men that she’d grown fond of for more than just what was between their legs.

But that’s another thing that’s changed. She’s gone off hipster coffee shops, pain, and men and she’s replaced them with coffee that tastes like dishwater, juice cartons, rice cakes and supervising tiny humans in the ball pit.

And women. Or rather, a woman.

That started in the ball pit, too, but it’s moved on from there, because it might be legit to hit on your crush in the ball pit when you’re four years old, but it’s less acceptable when you’re thirty-five.

Never before has she had a crush that began so much with the urge to just touch. It reminds her of the way toddlers touch each other – the way they reach out to clumsily stroke each other’s faces, the way they hug so fiercely they throw each other off balance. That’s what she wanted with this woman before she even knew her name. She’s fascinated by the pale roll of flesh that spills over the top of her jeans every time her t-shirt rides up. At home, Hayley spends a long time studying herself in the full-length mirror in the hallway. In many ways, she’s not dissimilar from the woman she desires – her tummy has the same soft rolls, she too is clothed in jeans, Converse and a T-shirt from H&M. She’s not dissimilar, but she still wants her own flesh to melt away. How, she thinks, is it possible to find something attractive on another person and still repulsive on your own body?

Her brain is a fucker like that.

Anyway, the crush has moved on, because the woman, who she now knows is called Francesca, has suggested that she comes round for coffee one morning.

‘It’d be nice to get to know you properly,’ she says.

God, the fantasies Hayley builds off that properly. She lies in the bathtub, lets the showerhead rain warm water on her clit as she imagines the two of them standing in a small galley kitchen, biscuits on a plate, ground coffee waiting in a cafetière, and Francesca reaching past her to flick the kettle on, brushing her arm as she does so.

‘Sorry,’ she’d say, and Hayley would say, ‘Don’t be sorry,’ and somehow she’d know that what Hayley actually meant was ‘Please kiss me,’ and she would. The kettle would go unboiled, and Francesca’s hands would be on her waist, on the bits of herself that Hayley likes least and she wouldn’t care at all. In fact, as Francesca kisses her and strokes her, pulls her t-shirt over her head and drops it to the floor, Hayley would understand that her own body is beautiful too.

They would stumble through to the living room and there, on a sofa in front of a bay window, Francesca would suck Hayley’s nipples, rub her clit, slide her fingers inside her, and Hayley would come, shuddering, as easily as she does when she’s alone. Afterwards, they would lay together, giggling softly, and Hayley wouldn’t worry about whether or not she’ll hear from Francesca the next day.

These thoughts are still running through her head as she knocks on Francesca’s door, noticing that the house doesn’t have a bay window, just standard double-glazing. They’re still running through her head as Francesca flicks on the Nespresso machine, as she froths milk in a metal jug. And they’re still running through her head as they stand and drink their coffee and Francesca reaches out towards her.

Hayley feels Francesca’s gentle hand at the back of her neck. ‘I -,’ she starts. She doesn’t know quite what she was planning to say, but it doesn’t matter, because, before she can say anything else, Francesca says ‘Sorry, your label was sticking out.’