I started biting my nails at the age of five. I remember the tingling sensation, neurons responding. I remember being aware of the pain. Biting harder. I did not stop, even though they told me to. I enjoyed the tearing of the skin. How does a five-year-old know they are alive unless they feel pain? I felt most alive when I fell off my bicycle and scraped my knees, gravel waiting to be picked out of the bloody wound. Grandpa said it was a learning curve. I believed him. Mother, wired to leap to my protection, said I could no longer be trusted with a bicycle. But I wanted to. It didn’t matter what I wanted. I watched my bicycle gather rust in the courtyard. Grandpa was diagnosed with skin cancer. I never learned how to ride a bicycle.
At the age of seven, I discovered my dad’s porn magazines. There were piles of them, hidden away in a cupboard I couldn’t reach. At this point, the habit of nail-biting had become second nature. I don’t know what I was thinking going through the cupboard. But I was curious. What I found was copious amounts of exposed flesh; soft, youthful, eternal. I liked looking at it. I knew I was not meant to look at it, let alone like it. I was charmed. Bewitched. The women would stretch across the pages, more like proud peacocks than peahens, showing off their luminous colours. They pushed their bodies into forms I didn’t know existed. I liked the women better than the men. The men seemed to be an addition, an afterthought, a prop. They were different. The women were all perfectly hairless, smooth, minus the mane of wild locks on their heads. The men were hairy everywhere, a mountain of flesh and muscle. I came to associate the rawness of their bodies, the way they were arranged as if they were merely apples, and grapes, and oranges, with how some paintings made me feel. The photographs were shameless in their forcefulness and violence. In my mind at the time, they felt honest.
Years later, after my parents divorced, my father’s apartment was robbed. We found the door broken down, the big mirror in the hallway smashed, the furniture turned upside down. The jewellery that my grandpa had left to my dad after his death had also vanished. My dad used to keep them in a blue plastic grocery back, the kind of which is now discontinued. My instinct was to run to the bedroom. The mattress had been moved, it had been toppled; half of it was still on the bed, the other half on the floor. The contents of all the drawers were emptied around the room. The magazines were scattered everywhere. Some were on the vanity mirror, some on the nightstand. The image of naked bodies spread around me; a mosaic of my dad’s private life now exposed. An assault on my childhood. Somehow the shock was now greater than it had been before. My grandma came in the room. She shook her head and walked out. I wonder whether she ever picked up those magazines while cleaning the house, whether she put them neatly back into their cupboard.
Is this what motivated me in my mid-twenties, after being with someone for almost two years, to go through their phone? I wasn’t thinking of the present. I didn’t even think that there was someone else. The present was perfect. I knew it to be perfect. The past was a medium-rare cooked steak that I was salivating at the prospect of sinking my teeth into. I didn’t even like steak. But I was curious. I wanted to see the man that I did not get to see, this fictionalised character I only heard stories about but could never shake hands with. Steve was honest. He told me things, even when I didn’t ask. I just didn’t think the answer I wanted could slip out of his mouth. It was too long ago. It didn’t even matter. I don’t know why it mattered to me. I knew if I were to ask him about his past, I would receive an accumulation of biased memories that had filtered and censored themselves over the years. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to see a fragment of the past. A snapshot. It would be confirmation enough that this person, my person, existed, functioned, worked in something different, something that wasn’t this. However tasteless to acknowledge, even more so to admit, the plain fact was that Steve’s affection had penetrated to such depths, that I believed myself to be the sovereign of his past as well as his present. I didn’t think about how this act, the act of going through someone’s phone, could be considered an act of betrayal. I hoped he wouldn’t see it like that. He had that phone for what seemed like an eternity (seven years); it was a vault of memories and experiences.
Being somewhat imaginative since youth, I held onto crumbs of information and with that, I tried to construct narratives that were dramatic, otherworldly. I cared little for whether they were true. I imagined her, that spectre from his past – that woman that he had been with for seven years – to be my polar opposite, my dark double. In contrast to her, I thought I was sparkling, youthful, audacious, larger-than-life. In contrast to me, I thought she must have been quiet, tame, mundane, earthly, sweet and amiable, with a sparkle of gentle charm, but she left no impression. The maintenance of their friendship to this day was a mockery to any previous romantic affection that they must have borne for each other at some point in their lives. Secretly, I thought she was a little bit pathetic. Steve, too. I found that if someone had to commit a cardinal sin, the best one was pride. It is the last thing you have after you’ve been broken up with. There: once one of the party breaks up with the other, a sense of superiority and power is established. You could not have left me, but look how I can. The one that breaks up, then, has an advantage over the individual that has just been broken up with. The last admirable thing the broken-up-with-party can do is draw a line and say, you may have left me, but now I decide to remove you from my life. It has always amazed me how after splitting up two people come together and say, in earnest, let’s be friends. It has always been hard for me to believe it.
I was left scrolling on the phone for a considerable amount of time, reliving my memories with Steve and as I did so, with a smile on my face, I saw our pictures from Paris, Vienna, Florence. Neither of us enjoyed travelling, but we liked seeing art, so we would hop on a train just to see an exhibition we had been looking forward to: a lot of those pictures were of art. Us staring at art. Other people staring at art. Art I didn’t wish to forget. There were pictures of our morning table set up for breakfast, the peonies on the mantelpiece of the fireplace, the orange roses on the table, pictures of him painting, of him reading, of him in front of one of his favourite artists, looking up, piously as one does when one is about to kiss the image of a saint. I scrolled back patiently at first, then maniacally as I could feel I was getting closer and closer to a life where I did not exist. I saw other faces in the meantime, faces that meant nothing to me but they all had a similar look of exhaustion about them; being in your mid-thirties, I guessed, must have been soul-destroying. I would have never known.
Eventually, the efforts of my search paid off. My heart sank when I found the first incriminating picture. So, he did exist before me. I looked at the happy couple in the picture, that one, with the Seine in the background. They were unrecognizable at first sight. They both smiled at the camera, ribs in close proximity. I felt nauseated. I kept staring. A hand on the waist here, another limb softly wrapped at the back of the neck there. Exposed flesh colliding. It was like a car crash; I couldn’t look away. Bewitched. Was this the man I loved? I blinked. Once. Twice. He looked similar, but chubbier, with a fuller face. I deduced the photograph was taken by inexperienced hands. It certainly captured a mood out of the plethora of moods they must have experienced, and now I had access to all of them. What is worse I didn’t feel one ounce of shame. I was floored with gratification; I was dizzy, intoxicated. I wanted to take in every picture, all the moments that they had deemed worthy of capturing, eternalising. It was proof that something had existed and proof that, admittedly, I wasn’t much of a sovereign.
When I looked up from Steve’s phone it was dark outside. The dog was barking, anxious to go on a walk. Or maybe he was telling me off. What have you done? Trips in France, Greece, United States. Picking up oranges, reading books, drinking coffee. They were irreparably intertwined by the memories, some of which undoubtedly still swirled in Steve’s mind. Memories that would now swirl in my mind, memories that were now part of me. Naturally, there were gaps in my understanding; I couldn’t paint a full picture. I couldn’t guess what they were thinking when the pictures were taken, what the rooms smelled of. I couldn’t feel the sun on my face or their warmth of their skin. It was only after I put the phone down that I had a vague idea of the consequences that would follow. The dog was looking at me; interrogating me. The moral dilemma: do I or do I not tell? I had forgotten what I was looking for. Maybe I was hoping that I wouldn’t find anything, that Steve would have deleted the pictures, but he hadn’t and maybe that meant that he wanted me to find them. How would I frame it? Could I explain it? Did I care? I only cared about the sensation, the sensation that I could relive if I just turned the phone back on. The stiffening of the heart, the knot at the back of the throat, a sensation very similar to biting my nails until the nailbed was exposed and bleeding. I remembered dad. I promised I wouldn’t tell.
Elena Zolotariov is a writer and researcher from Athens, Greece. She is an English literature graduate of Aberystwyth University, where she completed her BA Hons in 2017, and the University of Kent’s Paris School of Arts and Culture, where she gained her MA (Dist.) in 2019. She is currently a PhD candidate at IES, School of Advanced Study, University of London, focusing on the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. She occasionally reviews books for Review31.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.