Stretching out across his scuffed-up mattress, my mouth saltsweet and my eyelashes sticking, I turn to him and I say—

“Promise me something?”
“Promise me you won’t write a poem about me.”

His laugh is full, faltering, a little flat. I pursue—

A pause.
“I’m sure you’ve had enough poetry written about you already.”

Galvanized, I let his comment linger.
“Do I strike you as that type of girl?”

Another pause. Unreproved, I pursue again—
“It’s funny, but it is actually true. I’ve had a few poems written about me in my time.”
I feign embarrassment.
“This one guy, he wrote me a haiku for each of our four, short, miserable dates. Another, he hid a sonnet amongst the pages of my favourite book. One guy even mailed a full monologue—in rhyming couplets, I might add—to my front door, the pages tea-stained ‘for effect’.

A horrible pause.
“Huh. That’s crazy.”

“I know. I mean, I get it, I have tortoiseshell glasses and low self-esteem, but there’s really no need for any of that.”

“I…I’m only pretending to be embarrassed by it all. Secretly, I think I need it. I need to be ‘that girl’—the girl boys write desperate, debilitating poetry for.”

Another half-hearted laugh. I make one last push—
“I…I’m only pretending to be embarrassed by it all. Secretly, I think I need it. I need to be ‘that girl’—the girl boys write desperate, debilitating poetry for.”
No response. I ramp up the faux-sincerity.
“I don’t know if it’s my susceptibility to fantasy, my desperation to appear desirable, or just my half-crazed commitment to cliché, but I need it. I need to be the girl boys write poetry for.”

I allow him to escort me out of his apartment.
I know that he deletes my phone number the second the door shuts behind me.

Later, burrowed in the corner of Café Lokal, bushy-eyebrowed under a baker boy hat, I type up our conversation. Dozens of dates, all here—compiled in front of me in a single document. Double-spaced. Twelve-point font. Painstakingly, I write up everything I said.
Everything he said. Everything I won’t say, next time.
This is what I do.
This is how I stay in control.

My opening line, I record, was a roaring success.
“Promise me something.”
It’s taut, tempting. A little teasing. This line is one to stick with.
“Promise me you won’t write a poem about me,” however, I am not quite sure about. I annotate it: “rehearse your delivery, hun.” I was too serious, too stylized—I could almost hear his eyes rolling.
I make a note: keep it flippant, keep it flirty. Above all else, I write:
“!!! make sure he knows you’re joking !!!”

I am shaking with laughter as I type up my concluding monologue.
“I need to be the girl boys write poetry for.”
The poor boy, he probably thought I was going to start sobbing into his bed sheets. My attempt at “sultry, yet self-aware” may have been a little too intense.

I chalk it up to experience.
My latest experiment, after all, is over.
I make my edits.
I am ready to experiment again.

Three days tick by, and in the shhh-tick of a razor, the sweep of a shading pencil, I am bumping against the radiator of a new room. New bruises. New boy.

Curly-haired, and careful, I lean closer to him.
Jokily, faux-sultrily, I whisper—

“Promise me something?”

My tone is apt, this time, and he responds:
“Oh yeah?”

This boy is eager, his eyes hungry.

“Promise me you won’t write a poem about me.”

He laughs, holds me tighter, and I know I got it right this time.
“Is that what usually happens after this?”
“Well, you know, I’m ‘not like other girls,’ so…”

We’re laughing, now, our eyes dancing together in the dim light. I relish the knowledge that he thinks we are “hitting it off”.
The next part is the trickiest.

“Not like other girls, eh?”
I allow myself a nonchalant shrug.
“I can’t even imagine how many poems have been written about you.”
“Well, you know, girls like me are hard to find. You’ll need to write at least one poem just to see me again.”

He’s laughing, still, and I savor this brief moment of control.

“I’d better get writing.”
“Don’t let me get in your way.”
“I’ll let myself out.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I wouldn’t want to disrupt your creative flow.”
“You’re pretty serious about this, huh?”
“I take poetry very seriously.”
“I can see that.”
“I mean, not as seriously as my exes, but…”
“You should see the poetry they used to write me.”
“Entire sonnets, would you believe? Endless verses about their anxieties, their aversions, their artistic failures, and which of their exes fucked them up first. Sometimes,
(I joke)
the poems were even about me and my interests!”

The air sours, and falls flat.
I let myself out of his apartment.
I receive a half-hearted text an hour later:
“hope u got home ok”
No kisses.

The day rolls out before me, and I am caught again in Café Lokal’s lazy embrace. A barista hands me black coffee with a ringed, freckled hand. I open my computer.
I begin.

I had him, I’m sure, until “my exes.” “Not as seriously as my exes.” That was when I lost him.
I leave myself a note: “don’t mention your exes.”
I underline it twice, eyes rolling.

Flustered by the fragility of it all, I record the furrowing of his brow at “the poetry they used to write me,” the loosening of his grip at “entire sonnets.”
I resolve to make fewer jokes.

But this experiment was an improvement. I bite into a cinnamon bun, sweetened by his follow-up text, stickier for my almost-success.

But this experiment was an improvement.
I bite into a cinnamon bun, sweetened by his follow-up text, stickier for my almost-success. I am still too much, my faux-vulnerability somehow still too vulnerable for a boy with hungry eyes.
But I am closer.
All I need to do is say a little less.

Next time, I will say a little less.

It is Saturday, and in a hot, inky bar I lock eyes with Experiment No. 3.
Soon, my hips, gripped, are stealing into the street, his teeth knocking against mine in the backseat of a taxi. We fumble with keys, shoelaces, light switches. Dizzy with drinking, we collapse into something new.

Soon, a hazy morning. Filtered light, filter coffee, and me, poised with a question:

“Promise me something?”

The rest is easy.
I tease him, taunt him a little. I laugh. I let him tease me, too. I feign offense, embarrassment, pleasure. I smile at my shoes.
And I say less.
And less.
And less.
I let him wonder for himself how many poems have been written about me. I let him wonder for himself how many mattresses I’ve woken up on this week.
I keep quiet.

And he kisses me.
He walks me to the station.
He texts me before my train has even left—
“is tonight too soon for a proper first date? x”

I smile to myself.
In that room, flat on that mattress, I was so little of myself.
Yet, impossibly, I was everything that I needed to be.

In Café Lokal I am jubilant. Gap-toothed, and grinning, I exchange smiles with the freckle-handed barista. She compliments my tote bag. I feel alive.

I begin to type.
Patiently, I record every angle of his eyebrows, his elbows, his hips.
I track our shifting smiles, the moments I spoke, the moments I stayed silent.
I wind in ever-tighter on “promise me something?”, sharpening my syllables, silently mouthing out the sounds in my corner of the café. Pillow practice makes perfect.

I perfect the art of saying exactly enough.

I make careful alterations to my pronunciation, my promises, my posture.
I design myself to be as lovable as possible.
As impossible-to-lock-down as possible.

I daydream about allowing myself to appear vulnerable, just for a second.
And then I scrap that possibility, smiling away.

I type furiously.
Slack, clack, clack, goes my keyboard.

By now I am sweeping through bars recklessly, swiping on dating apps with ease. I am smiling, blinding: unflappable and unfazed.
I am holding just enough of myself back.

For every—
“Can I buy you a drink?”
I have an—
“Only if I can buy you the next one.”

For every—
“I like your dress.”
I have an—
“I’m afraid it’s not for sale.”

The lines topple off my tongue, my own eagerness leaving me reeling.
I’m confident, cripplingly so—then suddenly cryptic. Suddenly shy. I’m available, yet guarded. Soft-spoken, then suddenly loud. I can be serious. Not-so-serious. Silly. I toe every line.
On every first date, I go to the toilet to make notes on my phone. After every first date, I linger on the doorstep before we go inside and I say—

“Promise me you won’t write a poem about me.”

And every kiss is some lost, delicious thing.
I relish every moment, every moonlight, every mattress.

And every morning-after, I speak—
Yet hardly speak.
I make some clever comment, then I retreat.
And every morning-after, they don’t want me to leave.
Every morning-after, the text arrives before I’m halfway down the street—
“what are you up to tomorrow? xxx”

Three kisses.
I have to laugh.
To love.
To leave.

It is Sunday. Café Lokal is bristling with customers, and I have hardly any notes.
I relax, rolling back in my chair. I read tweets. I tap my teeth with my tongue.

With a wry smile, I watch as a man leans across the counter towards the freckle-handed barista. He talks and talks, gesticulating wildly. From my corner of the café, I overhear choice phrases: “my books,” “my band,” “my beer of choice.”
He talks and talks, and in a half-moment between mouthfuls she looks at me and our eyes roll. Delicately, discreetly, we laugh together at his concerted effort to acquire her phone number.

I open my computer.

My rate of return is higher than ever. In one morning alone, I receive eighteen texts from boys. Twelve of these are from the same boy, but I choose to count them anyway.
I have almost perfected my algorithm.

I have new rules.
I imply that my schedule is empty.
I am never available to meet when they are.
I do not mention my exes.
I leave hints that I’m somewhat sought-after.
(a fact that embarrasses me, of course)
I make jokes.
I laugh the hardest at the jokes they tell, regardless of their quality.
(I do not laugh too hard, so as not to arouse suspicion)

I allow myself one moment of vulnerability per evening, maximum.
And, every evening, I brush away this moment with a shy smile, twisting my hair in my hands.

By now, I can look at a boy and make an immediate assessment.
Within seconds, I can determine his likes and dislikes, his quirks and his aversions.
Within minutes, I can make the necessary revisions to my retorts.
I always have a response ready.
Confident, yet never arrogant: remembering exactly enough, making sure to forget their last names. I have the wandering eyes of somebody who might leave them for somebody else any second, yet—
I never mention another man.

This is my formula.
I am on-script, on-cue, and oncoming.
I am the most desirable I have ever been.

I am mad with power. Half-drunk, half-delirious, I savor the fact that I never fall flat.
Minute by minute, my phone fizzes with light:

“how have you been?”

“are you out tonight?”

“what do i have to do to get a text back? write you a poem?”

I am gorgeously, deliciously likeable. Lovable. Unforgettable. Unregrettable.
I have everything I ever wanted.
And I am going out again tonight.

The bar is packed; hot; filthy. I’ve abandoned my date at a table, somewhere—I am in the toilets instead, triumphant, sharing lipstick with strangers. I’m a little drunker than I like to be, on dates, but I feel crisp, confident—he told his sister about me already, he said. He likes me, he said. I have room to make mistakes.
Giggling, I share my stories with a girl at the bathroom mirror.
Wait, so, you don’t like this guy at all?” she asks, gesturing vaguely in the direction of my deserted date.
“Not at all,” I promise her, laughing—“it’s a game. It’s all a game.”
“Yesss, girl,” she slurs, “You’re iconic.”
We’re still giggling when a familiar face appears at the mirror.
The barista. The barista from Café Lokal. The barista—in a backless dress. Freckled shoulders. Dark eyes. Mischievous.
“Well,” she says, “I did wonder what you were always writing about.”
We laugh together, swaying. I fall, briefly, and clutch at her waist.
We return to our respective tables.

“Where were you?” asks my date, a little forlorn.
“I made some friends in the toilets!” I tell him.
“Girls are always doing that!” he laughs, reaching for his pint.

Across the room, I meet eyes with the barista.
We sip at our drinks.
We don’t look away.

The morning hits like something unexpected.
I’m hazy, muffled. My eyes can’t adjust to the room.
A new room.
And a new hand, softly held in mine.
A barista’s hand.

A girl’s hand.

“Good morning,” she says, and something shifts and bursts inside my heart.

I’m silent, for a second—paralyzed by a feeling I don’t have words for.

I’m silent, for a second—paralyzed by a feeling I don’t have words for.
Finally, finally, I say something—
“Good morning.”
“Do you remember last night?” she asks.
I do. Of course I do.
“I…yes, uh—”
I’m floundering. I’m never like this—shaking, shy. I don’t have the right words. I look at her—at the sharp, scathing beauty of her—and I want her so much.
For the first time, I want someone so much.

“So, do you have a speech prepared, or…?” she teases me.
“I don’t,” I tell her, and it hurts because I mean it.
“Well then,” she says, “breakfast?
My voice falters.
“Or you could write a poem about me first, if you’d prefer. That’s what usually happens next, isn’t it?”
Her eyes shine with a familiar mischief. I take a deep breath.
“I…I promise,” I say, breaking into a smile—“I promise I’ll never write a poem about you.”
She looks at me. Really looks at me.
“Deal,” she whispers.

“Pillow Practice” by Annie Williams and the artwork titled Pillow Practice by Charlotte Bunney appeared in Issue 41 of Berkeley Fiction Review.

Annie Williams is a British writer currently hiding in Canada. In 2020, she graduated with an M.A. in English Literature from the University of British Columbia, and she has forthcoming criticism in Critical Inquiries into Irish Studies, the Critical Journal of the Katherine Mansfield Society, and The Modernist. She is also a poet and playwright, and has recently penned work for Yolk Literary Journal in Montréal, Canada, and Bitter Pill Theatre in London, England. She tends to write about dating, drinking, and regret—but she insists that this is nothing to worry about.

Charlotte Bunney is a final year Classics student University College, Oxford and will hopefully be studying a masters in Classical Archaeology at Lincoln College, Oxford in the coming academic year. She enjoys creating all kinds of art in her “free” time and is inspired particularly by nature and the Classical world; she also enjoys blending text into her work. A full list of her publications can be found on her website at

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