The Soft Skin

Jack Bell

This work contains references to sexual assault, which some may find distressing.

Sunday night, not long after the trial, Tom went to a party off-campus once he’d heard that Grace might be there. People there looked at him but didn’t say much, made murmurs, knew who he was in a vague kind of way. He saw Grace across the room with a couple of people but decided not to do anything about it at first. She wasn’t having fun, but she didn’t look miserable either; she wasn’t smiling, but her eyes were delicate and bright, and she swept her hair back over her ear every time one of her acquaintances took hold of the conversation on his own.

Tom hung back and had another drink by himself, out of the light and out of the sphere of attention. He was getting bored already. Someone started to talk to him in the hall outside the bathroom, but he excused himself with polite deftness before Anthony’s name came up.

An hour or two later, he found Grace in the living room by herself. She saw him, stepped up carefully and said, ‘Hey.’

Her voice was quiet in sympathy. He waited for her to say something else so he wouldn’t have to.

‘I didn’t know you knew anyone here,’ Grace said.

‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘Only you.’

‘Did someone tell you I’d be here?’

‘No. But I found out.’

‘You came to see me?’

‘Not really. I had to do something, be by myself for a while so I don’t let my thoughts drive me crazy.’

She smiled a little. ‘I’ll leave you alone if you want.’

‘I want to be by myself with you, if that’s alright.’

The two of them wandered to a quieter part of the room. The sound system had shifted to something mellower and most of the people had wandered outside to watch the sunrise. ‘Are they talking to you about it?’ she asked.

‘They want to. They all want to talk about Anthony. I don’t know what they want to hear. They’re talking about me too, I can tell.’ He shook his head. ‘This is the wrong place. It was a bad idea.’

‘I thought you didn’t know anyone here.’

‘They know me.’

She frowned in solidarity, dashed her eyes down. He thought of asking if he could refill her drink. Before he could, she said, ‘You can take me home if you want.’

They drove back to campus, Tom watching the bloom of the streetlights above them before he pulled up to the curb of Grace’s block at dawn. She thanked him. They sat in silence for a few moments.

‘You don’t have to explain everything,’ she said.

He wasn’t looking at her. ‘Tell them that,’ he said. ‘Everyone else.’

‘You haven’t talked to him or anything?’

‘No. Of course not.’

‘Not since then?’


‘Have they asked you for anything else?’

He hesitated. ‘They said they didn’t need me for anything more. They don’t need me for the sentencing or anything. It was the trial and what I said and that’s it.’

She moved over and touched his arm. He looked down and tensed his lip.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean to pester you with nothing but my problems.’

‘They’re not just your problems,’ she said.

He looked at her. The quiet pastel light breaking inside the car was catching at the edges of her amber-brown eyes. He didn’t want her to stop looking at him.

‘How’ve you been doing?’ he asked her.

She put her head down and shrugged, but didn’t say anything.

‘I saw something they’re showing at the art gallery in a little while,’ Tom said, ‘The Soft Skin, part of some retrospective they’re doing of old French movies. Thought I’d see it if someone came along with me. Someone who liked old French movies.’

She took her arm away from him. ‘Françoise Dorléac. I like her.’

‘You’ll come?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I’m there yet.’

‘Is that a no, or an I’ll think about it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’ll think about thinking about it?’


He smiled. She did, too, and got out of the car after giving his arm a final touch of goodbye. He watched her walk up the darkness to her flat and unlock the door.

There was nothing much the next few weeks. What there was, when it was, were people on campus passing the time by talking about Anthony and what he should get. The most common answer was death. Another was to have his dick cut off.

People seemed to forget about Tom altogether. When they remembered, it was when they were asking him, ‘You’re the guy that was friends with him, right?’

Tom would say, ‘Not really. I knew him a little. He didn’t have too many friends.’ That seemed to satisfy them.

‘I think he should just be shot,’ they would then follow up. ‘Do you?’

And Tom would nod.

Neither answer was true.

He spent his time thinking about Grace, and about The Soft Skin. He didn’t see her again until closer towards the end of the semester, towards the date of the movie and the date of the sentencing.

‘I’m not sure I want to see an old French movie,’ she told him.

‘I thought you liked old French movies.’

She shrugged a little. He was walking her to the bus station.

‘We can see something else or do something else.’

She moved her head, but didn’t answer.

‘Do you think about him?’ Grace asked when they were far enough away from anyone else at the platform.

‘No,’ he said.


‘I don’t know. Sometimes I do. Just sometimes. How can I not, you know?’ He shrugged. ‘It’s just…fucked up.’

‘Do you think about her?’

He paused. ‘She was young.’

They were silent a moment. ‘I’ve never asked you about any of it,’ Grace said. ‘How you felt about anything.’

‘You can, if you want,’ he said.

‘I don’t know if I want to.’

‘You’re indecisive.’

She had a modest smile. ‘I guess I want to spare you.’

‘Do you want to see The Soft Skin?’

‘No,’ she said. The bus arrived and thundered down the platform.

‘Do you want to see me?’


‘You’re indecisive.’


She vanished into the crowd and into the bus. Tom went back to the carpark.

When it came down, it was only eleven years for Anthony with the possibility for parole after seven. His age was taken into account. The judge called the whole thing a ‘youthful episode of improper passion’.

Tom turned his mind away from it, away from everything; he didn’t want to think about it at all, have an opinion about anything. Opinions were for everyone else.

When the day came, he decided to see the movie alone. He didn’t know what he thought about it, but wondered if Grace would have liked it. She probably would have. She liked old movies, and French movies, and movies that were long and stylish and thoughtful about things. Tom didn’t, but wanted to if he could say so to Grace. While he was sitting through The Soft Skin, he wasn’t thinking about much of anything except what he would have said to Grace as they were leaving; what he liked about the movie, how it made him feel, how he would have impressed her with how much he liked an old French movie.

The actress in the movie was beautiful. Tom could see why Grace liked her. She had a contemplative strength, one that radiated straight through the silvery nitrate as she and her lover held each other and spoke breathfully about how much they loved one another. He looked her up after the movie and some other things in the mid-60’s she was in: French movies, British movies, a musical.

She died at twenty-five. Car accident. Three years after The Soft Skin.

She was young.


The next weekend there was a protest along the river. Grace said that she was going, just as everybody seemed to be. Tom either wanted to or didn’t want to; he didn’t know. Neither made any sense.

The night of the protest was black and cloudy. There was a bright, cold scent that was carried from the river by the evening breeze, up and over the masses of people that were cluttered along the promenade; young people, mostly women, moving in still murmurs and speaking with the hushed electricity of anticipation.

Tom turned through the crowd. He recognised none of the faces. Some of them looked back as if they recognised him, or as if somehow they knew with a quiet sense how improper it was for him to be there.

He stopped and moved back to sit against the parapet. Everyone was above him, looking at each other, talking to each other, and he was alone. He made no sound.

Then they began shuffling across the stone, masses of shoes thumping against the ground. The combined energies of a hundred marchers or more all moving past him with purpose and destination. Tom didn’t move. He let them leave him behind. He thought he saw Grace’s face as they went past, in between some others that were holding signs and lanterns, but didn’t know if she saw him. There were lots of Graces in the crowd.

He sat still and watched as the mass of people marching against Anthony filed down the view of the promenade, down the length of the river and spread up across the bridge at the end towards the city. He watched them as they filled the night air with specks of movement and muted sounds of purpose. He tried to think about something, anything. He thought about Grace. And he thought about Anthony. And he thought about The Soft Skin, but didn’t know why.

Jack Bell is a third-year creative writing student who also has a degree in Film. He’s interested in fiction that explores genre boundaries, as well as literary fiction that explores our current cultural milieu.