The Entourage

Fiction
Clare Kane


Komachi in the Graveyard
Photo Credit: Asian Curator at The San Diego Museum of Art

What use did I have for a boyfriend? Was I supposed to be grateful that I could pin down some guy who would look up from the porn on his smartphone long enough to give me an empty compliment or capture an oaf willing to buy me a steak on Valentine’s Day in return for me dressing up as a cheap hooker at home? I had no use for a boyfriend. But boys, yes, I did have some uses for them.

The system made sense to me. First of all, girls were so boring. All they ever did was talk about boys. So I happened on the idea that by directly hanging out with the boys I could avoid all talk about them forever and ever. And so I did. When I was at school they tried to paint me as a slapper until they found out I wasn’t even having sex with all those boys but just leading them in what my mother called “merry dances” and then the girls all froze me out. So what started as a lifestyle choice pretty soon morphed into a lifestyle.

By the time I graduated from university, I had perfected the rotation of what I called “the entourage.” I suppose they weren’t really an entourage as they were never together at the same time, but they were my own personal shower of rogues. They could never be fewer than four (if the numbers dipped, emergency action was required) and it was easiest to see the same guys on the same days of the week. So in my first year as a real grown-up I had Tom the management consultant for Mondays, Tuesdays for myself, Alex the mysterious Russian with unlimited funds on Wednesdays, Pierre the French banker on Thursdays and the weekend was usually divided between old faithful Robbie, who I had known since university, and whoever had snuck a short-term term pass into the group. Some of the women at work would look at me oddly as I applied my lipstick and said I was going on another date, asking “But don’t you want a boyfriend?” And my God, that was all they wanted. They spent hours discussing wedding dresses and babies’ names and how much a three-bedroom house would cost while filing their nails and sleeping their way through emails and all of them were totally, pathetically desperate. If only they knew that what drew men was total indifference, aversion to marriage, and the vague knowledge that they were just one of several possibilities, one star in a big, shiny galaxy. They were so dull, the jeunes filles a marier, that I always sighed with relief when I left them for the day, winding my way through London’s Tube tunnels to another date.

But then there was Harry. I met him when I was out scouting for a fifth member of the group after the incumbent, Scott, announced he was going to return to California and marry his high school sweetheart. I wished him well and immediately bought a listings magazine. I saw there was a poetry reading at the Japanese embassy and although I had no liking for poetry (at least not on the surface, perhaps down in my most secret recesses the pulse of emotion did still beat), I did like embassies. Just the kind of place to meet worldly foreigners. Guys from other countries were key to the mechanics of the entourage, as they had smaller networks in London and were less likely to know each other. So I set off for the embassy, a dark cloud of doubt above my head, which always happened when one member had dropped out.

I don’t want you to think that I wanted Scott to be my boyfriend or that I even wished for a single second that it was me he was marrying and not some blonde beach bunny. After all, I had cohabited with a man most of my life—my father. His moods and petty jealousies and heavy, male demands convinced me that living with a man was perhaps the worst fate that could befall a woman. He had confirmed this view when he left my mother for a woman just five years older than me after twenty-six years of marriage. You couldn’t put your faith in relationships. Bank notes (at least not Zimbabwean ones), jobs and real estate would be the bricks of my security. I would work my way to the top, gathering savings and men as I went, enjoying the lack of reliance on one person because there was always another to fill their place.

The poetry reading was surprisingly populated. None of these people had dates to go on, obviously, and time enough on their hands to waste listening to other people read words aloud. I slipped into a chair near the front. There was a panel of experts sitting on a small stage, holding thick books and serious expressions. The hubbub of conversation died down and the first man, an older Japanese with half-moon glasses, introduced the young guy next to him.

“This is Harry Wilson. He’s just completed a PhD in Japanese poetry. He’ll begin this evening with some readings.”

Harry, who looked very student-chic in light chinos and a thick sweater, moved to the front of the podium.

“It’s been a pleasure translating these poems,” he said. “Let me begin with some work by Ono no Komachi, a poet whose unusual beauty brought her a lot of fame, though she suffered from a deep sadness.” His voice was soft and melodious, like water running past my ears. Maybe he was from up north.

“How hollow
Are tears upon a sleeve
In gemlets;
For mine cannot be dammed
As a surging flood!”

There was something in his tone that almost made me laugh, as he read out the most private depths of female misery in his confident, male voice. I watched him to the end, feeling my breath getting tight in my chest. What was wrong with me? It hit me like scaffolding falling from above. I found him attractive. I never found men attractive—life was too short for that kind of nonsense. I only liked men who liked me. Who were these women that chased men? Didn’t they know how society worked? But I liked him. And I wanted him in my entourage, like the insect collector might keen for an exotic butterfly. So after the talk, I walked over to congratulate him.

If there was one thing I was good at it was flirting. I could take the slightest flicker of interest from a man and turn it into ardent desire that would stop him sleeping, eating and, in one extreme case, breathing.

“I just wanted to say I loved your poems. I’m afraid I have to run but I was really blown away.” Always. Leave. Them. Wanting. More. Ladies who give up your kisses and words and beds so quickly, you have a lot to learn.

“That’s a disappointment,” he said with a short laugh. “You must be the youngest person here by at least ten years.”

“I’ve come to poetry early,” I said. “Oh, I don’t mean to be rude. Kate.” I stuck out my hand and he shook it softly.

“Pleasure to meet you, Kate.”

“Thanks again. Bye-bye.” I had walked two steps before he stopped me and asked for my number.

I couldn’t fit Harry in for a week. Alex, the Russian whose parents were involved in some mysterious business that allowed them to support him in a Chelsea flat while he loafed around London, wanted to take me to Scotland for the weekend. I know, if I had been the son of a Russian oligarch, I would have preferred Saint Tropez too, but the rich are often depressingly banal in reality. Alex was the perfect kind of unattached soul for me to have around, a drifter on a raft of money, who needed nothing else to cling onto in this life. Almost Buddhist, really. So we went to Edinburgh and then to the Highlands and stayed in a cute little hotel and got drunk in the evenings and I pretended to enjoy rainy, windy walks and a tour of a distillery. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I wasn’t with Alex for his money. I was going to make my own. But there was no harm in the occasional Tiffany bracelet or shopping trip to Harvey Nichols. That was what lots of people had boyfriends for.

Before my date with Harry I felt strangely nervous. He had suggested meeting during the day, i.e. the opposite of romance, and I wondered if he really just thought I was a poetry buff. I put too much hairspray in my hair so it was as stiff as the blue rinse on an old woman’s corpse and my lipstick was too red. But I went to the British Museum, where he met me with a smile in his eyes and another handshake.

“You look nice,” he said and I felt a sudden flush, wondering if he was laughing at me. But we walked around the museum in an amiable silence occasionally broken by his comments about the Meiji era or some other Japanese-related thing I pretended to be interested in.

“So what brought a girl like you to a Japanese poetry reading?” he asked as we walked outside, the grey canopy of London opening for us.

“What do you mean?”

“You just seem like more of a girl about town. Someone who might eat sushi, but your appreciation for other cultures would stop there. I don’t mean it in a bad way.”

“I would have thought you of all people wouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” I said. I was taken off-guard by this boy. I should never have come. He was right. A girl like me had better things to do than read poetry and walk around some chilly museum with a lonely PhD poet.

“I don’t. In fact, when I look at you I think of another one of Komachi’s poems. I don’t know why.” He stopped walking and cleared his throat.

“How sad,
To think I will end
as only
a pale green mist
drifting over the faraway fields.”

“And they say romance is dead!” I retorted haughtily, but inside I felt a stab of shame. It was like he was undressing me with his eyes, not in the way other men did, but to peer right into my soul. Bring back the trashy guys who just wanted to drink cocktails and dance too close to me, I thought, because I’m drowning here in Harry’s unwavering attention. We said goodbye and he didn’t even attempt to kiss me. As I watched him slip into the cavernous mouth of Tube station I conceded a point. The boy had game.

On Sunday I spent the afternoon with my mother. She had blossomed into the most superior example of single womanhood. She lived in a small flat in Bayswater with a Persian cat and a perfectly-tended window box. She ushered me in and I breathed in the sweet tranquillity of living alone. It was beautiful. While she shuffled around making tea I saw a smile playing on the corners of her mouth.

“You’re quiet. Something on your mind?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Come on, who’s the latest victim?” She winked.

“I met a new guy. But it’s nothing serious. You know I’m still playing the field.” I bristled at her questioning. I knew there was something unorthodox in keeping a collection of men as though they were rare stamps and I didn’t like having to justify it.

“I know, darling, but I really could leave this world much happier if I knew you were with somebody. I’d like to see you settled. I hate to think of you all alone once I’m gone.” It was true that I didn’t speak to my father and his new wife, who still hadn’t had the decency to turn thirty. But my mother didn’t need to worry, because I would snuggle up to a hard pile of cash in my old age. I was totally self-sufficient.

It took Harry four days to get in touch with me again. The wonderful thing about having an entourage was normally I didn’t notice that kind of thing. I always woke up in the morning to at least one tender text message and spent my day fielding calls and invitations from various suitors. If one guy dropped off the radar, there was always someone to fill his place. But I felt Harry’s absence deep in my gut and I panicked. I had to convince myself that we couldn’t be together. This had happened to me once before, when I had thought about ditching the group for just one man. But justifications were easy to come up with—he’s the same age as me, he’ll want someone younger in a few years; he doesn’t earn much money and I don’t want to support him; he chews gum too loudly. With Harry the reasons were myriad—he was working as a freelance translator, living in east London, he probably had a fetish for foreign poetesses, he didn’t appreciate me because he was taking so long to get in touch with me. When I had my date with Pierre the French banker that week he noticed I was distracted.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “But Pierre, have you ever noticed anything funny about me? Like there might be a valley of sadness inside me?” I couldn’t get that line about green mist out of my head.

“A valley of sadness? Um, no.” I saw the look on his face. I’d made that same expression a million times. Please take your emotions to someone who cares. “Is this about us? Because I’ve told you I’m not looking for anything serious.” What had just happened? Was he really feeding my classic line back to me?

“Believe me, I’m more than happy with that,” I said. But I wondered if any of the rest of them had ever spotted the mist of misery that swirled around me, ever wondered if there was something more to me than pretty lips and words dripping in honey.

Harry took me for a drink to the kind of place I normally abhorred, where women rolled up the ends of their jeans and men tended their facial hair like they were watering plants. Low, depressing music played on the speaker and I didn’t know how to pronounce the names of any of the cocktails.

“I don’t want to mess around,” Harry said suddenly, putting down the drinks list. “I like you.” This was the worst thing that could happen. The first rule of entouraging was to block any kind of commitment conversation.

“I like you too. You’re sweet.” Sweet was a word that would normally stop even the most macho of men in their tracks.

“You know what I mean, Kate. I want this to be something only you and I do. Exclusive.”

“What, having a drink? That might be quite hard to manage.” He was taking me for a fool, I thought. I had years of experience. Trying to beat me was like playing tennis against someone who used both hands. You would always be outmanoeuvred.

“Can you please stop trying to be so cool? You can take the mask off with me.”

“I don’t want a boyfriend.”

“Who broke your heart?”

“Nobody. Ever. And I intend to keep it that way.” I pointed at a gin cocktail on the list. “I’ll have that one.”

“I don’t want to see you if you’re not even going to give it a try. I want to be someone’s boyfriend, not a toy.”

I felt a little chill when he said that. Had another member of the entourage set him up? How did he know that I was just playing with him, warming him up to sit on the bench?

“Fine,” I said. “If you must know, I’m not willing to give this a proper try. We can hang out and have fun together but I’m not looking for a relationship.”

“Then I don’t want to see you anymore,” he said, scraping his chair back loudly enough that a girl with a buzzcut turned to stare at us. Without another word, he walked out the bar, leaving me gawking after him. Had I just been rejected? Who did he think he was, this lowly, Japan-obsessed translator, proclaiming about the green mists of my mental state? Well, he would never get another chance with me. Too embarrassed to stay under the watch of the people in the bar, I left a few minutes after, a face full of shame.

The next week I was a bundle of anger and embarrassment. I couldn’t let that cheeky chino-wearing intellectual break my game. I would find another person to fill the hole. I even went to a networking event for young professionals, with the sole purpose of finding a new entourage member as different to Harry as possible, someone who would never wear a jumper with holes in it. I was seething. This might sound overdramatic for a boy I’d met three times, but the entourage was my bedrock. My happiness depended on an equal and even rotation of players in the game. After a few more painful days, I received a text message from him:

“I was just reading one of Komachi’s poems, thought you might like it:

In reality
You must do it, I suppose;
But even in my dreams, too,
Hidden from prying eyes,
It pains me to see you do so.

Remind you of anyone?”

With furious thumbs I replied: “I wish someone had created a succinct way to express eye-rolling over a text message.” He didn’t respond. I became obsessed with the poem, re-reading the lines every night before I slept, wondering exactly what he meant by it. I had to extinguish Harry.

He waited another week before calling me.

“So, Kate, you win. I want to see you again. Have you had a chance to think about what I said?”

“Yes,” I said, my voice strangely strangled.

“And has absence made the heart grow fonder?” he said, the hint of a laugh in his vowels.

“I thought you didn’t want to play games.”

“Let’s meet this weekend. But only if you’re serious.”

And to my astonishment I found myself saying: “Yes, I am.” I slept soundly that night, not even glancing at the poem before drifting off.

Scott was leaving for California at the weekend and wanted to see me one last time.

“What about the girl you’re going to marry?” I asked, but secretly my heart was pumping with joy. I still had it, even with men betrothed to someone else.

“I’m not married yet, am I?”

Maybe I knew what I was doing when I suggested the place. My therapist is always telling me that we can act on an unconscious level, so maybe deep in the layers of my skin, where the green mist had clogged into a bitter fungus, I knew what would happen. But when I told him to meet me on Thursday at the same bar where Harry had so spectacularly abandoned me to a lonely cocktail, I really didn’t think anything would go wrong. I hadn’t even liked the place, but I thought Scott might. That was how I justified it to myself.

When I arrived, Scott was already waiting for me, his freckles hopeful and his hair shiny. I walked in and waved at him, feeling a looming presence from the other side of the room. Harry was working on a laptop with a big book spread out in front of him. It was one of those moments when decisive action is called for. I could have bolted from the place or calmly spoken to Harry and told him I was meeting a friend called Scott. But instead I sat opposite Scott and felt my body turn numb as he seized my hands and kissed me across the small table.

“You look great,” he said, his tones booming and American. “What’re you having?” I couldn’t see Harry, but I could feel him and my heart tugged in his direction. I had sacrificed him upon the altar of the entourage, abandoning something that made my blood run more red and my heart beat more joyfully for a boy who was leaving the city forever to marry somebody else. I felt like an observer outside myself, someone who was wagging a finger at me and saying: “You silly, silly girl.” I couldn’t hear the words Scott was saying to me, my stomach was so black with the fear Harry would come over and say something.

“You seem distracted,” Scott said, just as I heard footsteps behind me.

“Well, congratulations. You’ve made your point, Kate.” I turned slowly to meet his eyes, the swivel as slow as I could manage, hoping he would disappear. “You were never going to change.” He dropped a piece of paper on the table, hiked his laptop under his arm, and left. I felt like my whole body had gone to sleep as I watched him leave.

“What was his deal?” Scott said and I just shook my head, unravelling the note in shaky fingers.

Another Komachi poem for you:

Placing burning coals
To my body hurts less than
The sorrow of
The capital and island shore
Parting.

Well, never mind, I thought, scrunching the paper into a ball.

“I want a drink,” I said to Scott and he nodded. He was a proper entourage member. He never questioned. And I would always be able to find another one like that.

pencilClare Kane is 25 years old and has over two years’ experience as a financial journalist for Reuters news agency in London and Madrid. She is currently looking to publish her first novel, while working on her second, which is set in 1930s Shanghai. She recently had a short story published on website Londonist, as part of the London Short Fiction series. Email: clarelouisekane[at]gmail.com

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