This is Part 3 in our final story in the What’s Normal? Short Story Series. It also marks the end of a 12-week series marking solo life and emotions as lockdown eases. You can read stories 1 to 4 here. Hannah also wrote short stories following solos during the lockdown. In all, 16 stories over 24 weeks have been published by Solo Living for the Solo Living and Living Alone Community. You can find the original Solo Lockdown Stories here.
The woman staring at Kalisha in the mirror looked tired. Not so much from lack of sleep or anything as physical as that, but the kind of bone-deep exhaustion of someone who’s spent an entire day working themselves up to something, only to realise it crept up on them faster than anticipated. Even her makeup couldn’t hide it, the dark circles under her eyes visible through her concealer and foundation. Maybe she was just getting old. Her mother had warned her it happened to everyone eventually.
A glance at the clock. Six-thirty. Half an hour until her date with the mysterious Conall, about which she knew only that he was forty-two and Irish. It certainly wasn’t his fault that she felt so rubbish, yet with a small stab of guilt Kalisha realised she blamed him for her sour mood. If it was anyone’s fault it was Imogen’s, for convincing her to do this in the first place, but she didn’t let herself dwell on that for too long.
Fishing out a pair of shoes from underneath the bed, Kalisha shoved them on without much thought. Then, realising they weren’t even a matching pair, had to go hunting for the second ballet pump amongst the mess of forgotten items. The bed revealed an odd sock, an empty shoebox, three toffee wrappers and magazines she hadn’t read in years. No shoe, though.
At that moment, her phone buzzed – Kalisha jumped, smacking her head off of the bed frame with a yelp. She emerged rubbing her forehead, wincing at the ache that was quickly settling there. Brilliant start to the evening. Yet her phone buzzed again, demanding her attention, so she snatched it from the side table and hit answer.
“Hello, Kalisha here.”
“Hey! How’s date prep going? You on your way yet?”
Imogen. Of course. That’s what she got for not checking caller ID. “Not yet,” she admitted, “still hunting for shoes. I can’t find this one’s partner.”
“Then just pick another pair. God knows you have enough to choose from.”
She was tempted to stick out her tongue, even if Imogen couldn’t see. Instead she huffed out a sigh, nudging aside her handbag to see if her shoe had somehow become trapped between bag and floor. Nope. “I like those ones,” she protested, “and they’re new.” Well, new-ish. The pandemic hadn’t given her much chance to try them out, so they’d been stuck under her bed since she bought them in April.
On the other end of the line, Imogen made a sound of her own. “There’s something else, though.”
“No, I just want to find this damn shoe-“
“See, the Kalisha I know would be delighted to go out tonight. She’d be bouncing off the walls, not complaining about shoes. So, tell me what’s wrong.”
Good question. Kalisha found herself scowling at nothing, phone clutching the phone a little too hard. “I don’t know,” she admitted quietly, “I just think… I think that although I agreed to this, it isn’t what I want.”
“One failed date and you’re giving up?” Imogen’s laughter was broken by a bad signal, crackling in her ear. “Who are you, and what have you done with the real Kalisha?”
Irritation grew, settling heavily in her stomach. Flopping onto the bed, she let out a heaving sigh. “Maybe the old me would have loved to give it a try, even just to see what happened – but Imogen, things have changed. I can’t be the only one that knows that.”
Imogen was silent, save for the sound of her nails tapping against something. Probably the table. She always did that when she was thinking, and it never did much to reassure. Tap, tap, tap.
Kalisha was truly sprawled out across her bed now, not caring if she rumpled her dress. One shoe dangled from her foot as she swung it lazily, eyes fixed on the ceiling. “I love going out, spending time with friends and yeah, fine, I like to drink. But I just don’t think dating is right for me just now.”
“We’ve been over this. You just haven’t found the right person yet.”
“Maybe he doesn’t exist. It’s not that I’ve never tried – and don’t give me the excuse that it’s been years, because I know – but it’s just never as fantastic and wonderful as everyone describes it. I mean, I’m not exactly missing anything if I don’t want it to begin with.”
More silence. She could practically sense the gears working in Imogen’s mind, hear them grinding over the phone. Then there was a barely perceptible sigh and the sound of rummaging. “Give me five, I’m coming over.”
“What- come on, there’s no need-“
“Too late, my shoes are on. Stick the kettle on, would you? I’ll text Conall and tell him the date’s off.”
A spark of guilt, a wince – but Imogen hung up before she could voice her apology. Dropping the phone onto the bed beside her, Kalisha groaned. Now she was going to get a scolding in person, and frankly she didn’t care for that. Running a hand down her face – and then remembering she had foundation on, oops – Kalisha rolled into a sitting position. Her back popped, and so did her knees, and her single shoe thumped against the carpet.
At least she had wormed herself out of another date. That counted for something, right? Truthfully the concept of dating had always been better than the reality of it – and it wasn’t her fault or theirs, but just how she was made. Too bad it took her until middle age to realise it.
Rolling her eyes at herself, Kalisha slinked downstairs. She barely made it to the kitchen when car headlights flooded the hall, shining through the big glass panelled door. A door slammed, heels clicked on the path, and then the shrill of the doorbell shattered the silence.
Still holding the milk carton, Kalisha answered.
“Poor Conall was so disappointed,” Imogen scolded – as predicted – as she whirled into the house like a storm. A gust of wind followed her, ruffling her already messy hair, as the door thudded closed. “What changed your mind, Kalisha? You promised.“
“And I’m not usually one to break a promise,” Kalisha shot back, “but you coerced me in the first place.”
“Well…” Faltering, Imogen folded her arms across her chest. “Maybe I did, but for your own benefit.”
Hm. Just because Imogen thought that was true, didn’t mean it was. Brows raised, Kalisha wandered back into the kitchen. Two mugs sat on the kitchen counter, and she poured the tea.
“Not even going to defend yourself?” Imogen pouted. Like a kid. Honestly. Was she forty, or four?
Hot water sloshed over the side of a mug, spilling across the counter. Hissing, Kalisha darted back before it could stain her dress – or burn her. Grabbing a towel, she tried not to snap as she said, “as much as I appreciate it, it’s not what I need. Some people are perfectly happy single, you know.”
“Yeah but you’re so… out there. You’re the most sociable person I know, changing friend groups like I change handbags.”
“So… maybe it’s time you settled down.”
Ah. Kalisha froze, soggy towel still clutched in one manicured hand, glaring at her mug of tea like it was the cause of all her problems. Well, now they were getting to the truth of it, weren’t they? Hurt flashed across her features, reflected back at her in the kitchen window. Eyes narrowed and lips pursed, she said nothing.
Imogen quickly realised her mistake. In that same reflection she saw her wince, saw her thin hands swipe imaginary sweat from her forehead. “I didn’t mean-“
“Quarantine might have changed me,” Kalisha snapped, “but it hasn’t turned me into a different person. Not everyone has to settle down to be happy.” A pause as she tossed the wet towel aside. “Or is dating and love the only fulfilling thing in the world?” Folding her arms, she slowly turned to face Imogen. Their eyes met, deep brown and amber, and Kalisha held that gaze even as her annoyance hit its peak. It took all of her self-restraint not to just storm off.
“Look,” Imogen muttered, chest rising in a great sigh, “you like your life, and that’s great, but what about when you’re older? What if you regret missing out on romance, and your chance has gone?”
Well, Kalisha hardly thought she’d consider it a tragedy, especially considering the romance she had experienced in the past. Nothing bad, just… boring. Quirking a brow, she shrugged. “I don’t miss it now,…I doubt I will when I’m seventy. Anyway, that’s a long time in the future and who knows what I’ll want then. No point trying to decipher that future me will or won’t need.”
An argument, that’s what she expected. Harsh words and raised voices until one of them gave in. They’d been friends long enough to know how the other worked – long enough to know better than to fight, yet that’s usually how disputes ended. Yet this time, Imogen managed to surprise her. Raising a hand she stepped back, flopping into one of the dining chairs without a word.
Relief settled in her chest, heart fluttering. “Look,” she muttered, coming to perch on the seat beside her, “I’m sorry I disappointed Conall, and I’m sorry you went through the effort of setting this up just for me to bail. But I’m happy as I am, and this was a fun experiment, but I don’t think it’s for me.”
“You seemed happy enough at the beginning.”
“Not particularly,” Kalisha admitted, “but I thought it could be fun. The thing is though, that people have a lot of free time during pandemics and I realised a few things about myself over the last few months.”
“Like what?” she asked, voice hesitant.
Twirling a dreadlock around her fingers, Kalisha pursed her lips. “Like the fact that I’m happy on my own for the time being. And that I don’t feel the need for romance to lead a fulfilling life…I don’t need anything I don’t get from friends and family already.”
Imogen’s delicate nose was scrunched into a frown, and only at forty was she getting the first crease of frown lines around her lips and forehead. “Did you really let me bully you into this?”
A shrug, a laugh hidden behind her palm. “A bit, but I was curious too. I’m sure Conall is great – he’s your friend, so he must be – but I’ve decided dating and romance just isn’t what I want.”
“Right.” Imogen shifted uncomfortably – and she had the feeling it wasn’t just because of the hard wooden chairs. Tucking a strand of pale hair behind her ear, she let her gaze drift to her phone. “You know, it isn’t too late to still go out.”
“You have to book most places right now, pandemic and all.”
A low hum in the back of her throat. Head tilted, Imogen regarded her with a small smile. “Actually, I didn’t really cancel on Conall-“
“I told him you’d be late. Just hear me out, okay?”
Dubiously, Kalisha held her tongue. She had a few choice words she could have spat, frustration boiling in her increasing pulse, but he sealed her lips with a noncommittal grunt.
“I hoped I could change your mind,” she admitted quietly, “but that’s obviously not happening. Maybe you could still go, and I’ll come along. We could just hang out, the three of us, as friends.”
When phrased like that, it didn’t sound so terrible. She had lied though, so how was Kalisha to know this wasn’t just another ploy to get her on a date? Deep down, despite her thundering pulse, she knew Imogen wouldn’t do that. Probably. Her eyes were too innocent and she had this hopeful, dopey grin that told Kalisha was was genuine this time. So, with a sigh like the world was on her shoulders, she agreed. “Fine. But only because I love you, and because I’m already all dressed up and I don’t want all this effort to be for nothing!”
Imogen, who still looked windswept and not at all ready for a night out, beamed. “Great! Dump that tea and let’s go-“
“Not so fast.” Kalisha hopped to her feet, hooked a slender arm through hers, and tugged Imogen upright too. “You’re a mess, honey, and no best friend of mine is going out like this.”
“To be fair, I didn’t expect to go out today.”
“Please let me fix your hair, at least.”
“Has been waiting this whole time, and can wait another five minutes. Come on.”
Imogen could squirm and protest all she liked, but this was for Kalisha’s own benefit too. For starters, it was payback for the argument and the hassling – something Kalisha thought she was quite entitled to, considering. Second of all, now the pressure of a date was behind her she would have liked to make a good impression on Conall – difficult to do when her best friend looked like she’d been wrestling with the wind all night.
They settled down in the bedroom and Kalisha got to work – they didn’t talk, but the silence was peaceful. At least with the two of them, things always snapped back to normal in the same time it took to say I’m sorry. So neither of them spoke as Kalisha fetched the straighteners – something she hadn’t used in years, not since she started wearing dreadlocks – and Imogen didn’t even complain as her unpracticed hands tugged against her scalp.
She did, however, shoot her a grin and say, “this is why you’re a makeup artist and not a hairdresser.”
Kalisha’s response was to roll her eyes and tug a little more. Just for good measure.
By the time they were done it was almost half-past seven – half an hour late and not even on the road yet – but Imogen assured her Conall was a patient man. As they readied to leave Kalisha grabbed her coat – and there was her second shoe, shoved between two boxes in the back of the wardrobe.
“See? It’s turning out to be a good evening after all,” Imogen said with a laugh.
And, well, she couldn’t deny things were looking up. She felt lighter than she had in weeks, a grin working its way onto her features as she hurried downstairs with her friend in tow. Sure, the evening was still young and there was plenty of time for more things to go wrong, but something told Kalisha that she didn’t need to worry.
They bundled themselves into Kalisha’s car, flicked on the radio, and rolled down the drive.
They arrived at the restaurant forty minutes late, greeted by a disgruntled server that took them to the table, but Conall greeted her like she was an old friend, reaching out for an embrace before remembering the rules. He didn’t seem at all disappointed to see Imogen had tagged along too, and they sat down to chat.
So perhaps the night didn’t go as planned – but that was just because it was better.