Fiction from NER 40.1 (2019)A
man sat next to me on the tube. Straight away he started talking to his wife opposite us in a quick, large language, and waving his hands about to make his point. So enamored and assured was he of this point that between Canada Water and Canary Wharf, he hit me in the face. That was how this day began.
Wrigley was still dead. I went into work, my cheek screaming, and Anu pressed a wet wad of green paper towels to this tender part. “You should report him,” she said.
“Who?” I said.
“The tube guy.”
“For hand talking? It was an accident.”
“He was reckless, Loraine. It was a battery.”
“It’s probably not that simple.”
We were paralegals who sometimes wanted to be lawyers, but then again who wanted to be one more of something the world didn’t really want? Wrigley had been a lawyer. He’d worked above us. Much higher up.
“Nothing’s ever simple,” Anu said. “Hand talking? You’re strange, you know that?” She laughed, and squeezed water from the sodden wad. I laughed too. “Keep still,” she said, and kept pressing.
It was Friday and she was getting married on Saturday. We’d already thrown her a work hen party, where we went out for drinks with pink, cock-tipped cocktail sticks skewering our cherries and curls of peel. Then she’d gone on leave. Anu-in-the-office was actually a trespass. A transgression. “Wait, why are you here?”
“Hindu hullabaloo. It’s too fucking much.” She dropped the paper towel wad on her desk. I wanted to toss it up at the ceiling. I wasn’t Anu; I didn’t know how to transgress with style. She started up about the pre-wedding preparations, and her fiancé, Deepesh, who was picked from a great lineup that had considered the contours of her deepest soul. Consequently, she really loved him. Had I really loved Wrigley?
Anu scratched at herself, one hand then the other, from where the Mehndi had caused a mild reaction. I hadn’t been invited to that party. Real friends and family only. How many miles had everyone there traveled in their lives, just to reach the point where they could paint her hands, together, in London? Thousands. My great aunt Eunice had traveled five thousand miles to London from Jamaica, only to get run over by a bus.
“Your people will be worried, Anumati,” I said.
She kissed her teeth. “Deep knows where I am.”
Then she got on the phone to tell him.
Here was Anu, caught between two worlds. She never said this but it was what bonded us, as colleagues. I’d gotten very excited about her nuptials. I’d decided her wedding represented a kind of watershed in my own life. It was arbitrary but necessary: I’d been staring at myself in shop windows for too long. In fact, every time I passed reflective glass the shapes of my face would mock me. I had nobody to talk to about it. The wedding was the event where I would cash in my tokens for a stable version of myself. For a new, non-mocking face. I’d been collecting these tokens for years.
Anu kissed her teeth again. Then she said something in her other language and laughed. I taught her teeth kissing, for jokes, but now it was hers. She did it all the time and so I couldn’t really do it anymore without everybody thinking I was trying to beAnu, even though teeth kissing was really a black thing, not an Asian one. Nobody had arranged me a marriage. Was teeth-kissing a token? If it was, I’d just handed it over, like it was nothing.
“I’m just popping out,” I said. But nobody heard.
12:00pm. I had to eat because you have to eat to keep it moving. What I really needed was fresh air, but the firm was housed in a vast building designed to stop people from ever wanting to leave. I took the lift down to the basement, into the subterranean high street, airless and neon. I got myself a Meal Deal from Boots. A man buying deodorant and toothpaste dumped his giant pannier in my bagging area so I had to switch checkouts. He looked like Wrigley, who also rode a bike. I followed him out of Boots and around the shopping maze, waiting to see exactly how he’d escape it, and whether he could take me up with him, into the proper light and the fresh air. When exactly does healthy, human curiosity cross the line into weirdness? In Petit Bateau I tapped him on the shoulder: The yellow baby bib is better than the blue or the pink. Don’t impose your limitations on others. You have to let people just be. No preconceptions, no stereotypes. No judgment. It’s crucial for the psyche.
The man actually looked nothing like Wrigley. He was just a random bloke with a pannier and a decent suit.
Three months earlier, Anu had wanted to know what Wrigley looked like. “A white boy, yeah?”
We’d searched for his face but when we found him he was just a generic gray head. The firm’s intranet was bad for stalking. Wrigley’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—locked down, not much better.
“He approached you?”
“In the canteen.”
“Be. Careful.” Anu had pointed at the gray head. “He could be a lunatic.”
Three months to the watershed, though. And a white boy. A rich, tidy white boy.“I gave him my number.”
Anu got his Facebook up. In the square box Ed Wrigley was hanging out with a black bloke. They were wearing ski gear. I don’t know—this made me feel more confident.
“Be careful,” she’d said again. This time she’d grinned. “He could be one of those.”
“White boy. Possible chocoholic. He could have—”
I’d twigged. “Don’t say it.”
“A white boy with a case of—”
But then we’d both sang it, like a chorus: “Jungle Fever!”
I showed the shopping maze security guard my ID badge after he removed me from Petit Bateau. He escorted me to the lift so I could travel back up to my firm. “I don’t want to see you down here causing any more trouble,” he said, as he pressed the button.
“Oh, you won’t,” I said, and let the doors close on his mild concern.
I was happy to go back upstairs. Our firm is one of the biggest and best in Canary Wharf, which I have always considered a win. Being one of a handful of browns in the whole place might be a token, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure what actually counts as a win or a token anymore; maybe I used to know but now Wrigley is dead. I do know that me and Anu work in Trusts. Trusts is on the second floor of the firm. The staff canteen is on the third floor; M&A, where Wrigley worked, is on the sixth. So, technically, me and him met in the middle.
Back at my desk I got out my sandwich. I’d picked up egg salad, not cheese-mix—a terrible mistake. On my second date with Wrigley, a double burger with everything had defeated me and he’d said something like did you know there are starving children in Africa?as a joke. My mum used to say literally the same thing to me when I was a kid. She also used to say our problems are not others’ problems. We don’t air our dirty laundry in the street. I’d laughed and let the waitress carry the half-eaten burger off to where we couldn’t see it anymore. I bit into the egg salad. It stank.
“Jesus Christ,” Anu said. She smiled. “So. Deep has someone for you.”
“Tomorrow. A date for the wedding.”
A date for the watershed. “Oh.”
Anu kissed her teeth. “Some enthusiasm maybe? Come on, you haven’t heard from Wrigley in weeks. Deep works with this guy. His name’s David. I’ve met him; he’s solid.”
I hadn’t heardfrom Wrigley in exactly two weeks and six days. I missed him, in a strange way. Had I wanted him to end up broken, at the bottom of a well? “Okay,” I said. I knew it made Anu a little bit happy, each time I chose someone new and he refused to love me. “Okay.”
Date four, me and Wrigley had gone to the new indoor slope in Peckham. I’d gotten there early and watched a black guy fill up a snow machine with fake snow juice. When Wrigley arrived, a lanky black kid had sold us our tickets and a fat black girl had strapped us into our boots. Wrigley had just come back from a week’s five-star in the Caribbean. “This is so weird,” he’d said. “There’s more black people in here than in Barbados.”
I’d looked around us. It was Peckham; there were a lot of black people.
“Thought black folk hated the winter sports,” he’d added, and laughed. “Remember Cool Runnings ?”
I’d remembered the Facebook friend hanging out with him in the neat square box. What point was Edward Wrigley, Esq., trying to make? I was standing next to him in ugly ass ski boots. What the fuck was I?
“Peckham is a pretty good idea these days,” he’d said. “On the rise.”
On the slope for babies and beginners he’d shown me how to shift my weight over the skis so I could control my movement, something I’d never cared to know but was suddenly desperate to get right. I’d picked it up pretty quickly and he’d been impressed: “Damn, girl.” These were such wonderful tokens, gold plated. When we got outside, someone had nicked Wrigley’s bike.
“Fucking Peckham,” he’d said, and kicked at the sawn D-lock. “Fucking typical.”
It was raining that night. He’d jumped on the bus with me, just three short stops, back to mine.
The fake Wrigley with the pannier had spun round as soon as I’d touched him. He’d seemed repulsed by my face, as I myself had been for many months, repelled on a cellular level. As I told him about the dangers of damage to the psyche, his eyes had widened and his thin mouth had aped my words like he was mentally disabled. This was definitely not something the real Wrigley had done when alive. He’d been all there mentally, and then some. The fake Wrigley had yelled when I tried to swap the baby bibs, genderless buttercup for the pink in his hands: “You’re fucking mad. What are you doing?”
I didn’t know. I remembered not quite knowing what I was doing when Great Aunt Eunice lay bleeding on the street, right out front of our house. Then I’d put my palms to the windowpane and stared at her body through the glass. My own face, reflected, had interrupted the gore. It was really young then, smudged with girlhood. I could tell this fake Wrigley had seen in my grown face that blackness and madness were maybe the same thing in a woman. “You don’t know,” I’d shouted at him. “Youshould’ve died. Not the real Wrigley.” I think this was when the security guard came and hustled me back to work.
1:00 pm. I got up from my desk to bin the egg salad. I couldn’t force myself to eat it; I didn’t have to; Africa was pretty far away. But I couldn’t let it sit there, stinking up the whole office. The afternoon was full of Wrigleys. Several passed me in their suits while I was out of my chair. I wished I was at home. But then Wrigley had been in my home after the first date. My home was where he’d chewed my bottom lip and marveled at how my flat-ironed hair went curly at the roots when I began to sweat. “Oh, yeah,” I’d said and moved under him, thinking back to earlier, to how good I’d felt because of how good I must’ve looked with him. I did look good with him. Very current.This was a token. Some people sipping Prosecco by the river had turned to watch us.
It was the eyes that gave Wrigley away. There are articles online about body language and what to watch out for, how to know if somebody is yours before they even know themselves. I read some of these articles before our first date, so I would know. Between the main and the dessert, the color of Wrigley’s eyes intensified, and based on my research that meant he was mine. Better than tokens. Like winning a prize, or feeling like everyone saw and understood and accepted that you were the kind of person who won prizes, which was the kind of person I’d never really been taken for. Without meaning to, I picked out my dress for the wedding based on the color of Ed Wrigley’s eyes. The watershed version of me would wear a bit of him to Anu’s perfect day. I didn’t mention this to anyone. Some secrets are easier than others to keep.
Back at my desk, Anu was peeping at me. “Your cheek is well bruised,” she said.
“You were smacked in the face this morning, what’d you expect?”
“I don’t know.”
“Jesus.” She groaned. “What is wrong with you?”
If you prick me, won’t I bleed? Isn’t that how it goes? I bled when we had sex on the third date. My period—closer than I’d thought. Wrigley wasn’t bothered. “I’m a practical man,” he’d said, and we’d showered together so he could wash me off his dick. The two black clots dragging their bloody tails past our feet did not bother him. Again, he’d been surprised by my hair. The shrinkage and the spring, the change brought on by the water.
“You’re like a Gremlin,” he’d said.
He didn’t laugh so I didn’t laugh either. That night he gave me two love bites, one on my cheek and one on my collarbone. “Jesus,” I’d said, when I saw in the morning. “What the fuck?”
“Wow, I didn’t think that would show up.” He’d been surprised. Surprise, surprise, surprise. It was too soon to ask him to be my plus-one.
Just before my final weekend with Wrigley, I’d discussed the plus-one quandary with Anu. “It’s like the sixth date, or something. We’ve only been seeing each other a couple of months.”
“It’s not too soon. I was practically engaged by then.”
“That’s you. What if he says no?”
“Then he says no.”
He did say no.
We’d gone to a party. This party had crashed a weekend of us pet-sitting for a friend of Wrigley’s in this big, white, four-story palace in Hackney. The weekend was supposed to be relaxing and sedate, just the beginning of his three-week housesit. It was supposed to include hand-in-hand dog-walking and buying artisanal things at farmers’ markets. Things like jam. The party was happening at a club nearby called Blitz. It was the sort of party where the promo posters get pasted up in damp places, under bridges and railway arches, and then those posters get covered by other posters or left to bleed and disintegrate in the rain. Wrigley had shown me the flyer. There were two light-skinned girls wearing lamé bikinis on it, and they were really enjoying themselves, presumably because they were advertising this incredible fucking party. “He’s a mate,” Wrigley had said, and pointed to a name: DJ Vivant.
“Vivantas in living?”
“Whoa, you speak French?”
I’d already Airbnb’d my studio flat for two nights to a couple from Munich. When they showed up I’d been able to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and you’re welcome, all in German. So, yeah. That was French andGerman. The couple looked more like they could be brother and sister. They held hands and smiled at each other a lot. They even held onto each other when I handed over the keys, and it wasn’t awkward how they did it, either—they were so in sync. “There’s extra toilet roll in the—” I’d said as I was leaving. When I’d turned back to look at them, they were kissing like little birds sucking up worms. On the way to Hackney, with all the extra toilet roll in my overnight bag, I’d thought about them fucking in my bed.
3:20pm. A lady lawyer I didn’t know by name dropped a stack of paperwork on my desk. She smiled as she did it. I hated her and all the other white women at the firm, who were legion. All of them were the two women who’d stood and whispered to each other while my great aunt Eunice lay bleeding on the pavement. Even as a six-year-old I’d known the right time for horror and when it was missing from another person’s face. Those two women just stood and shook their heads. Until then I hadn’t known it was possible to judge somebody for dying.
I elbowed the stack of paperwork into my wastepaper bin. Nobody was looking. Nobody knew I was thinking terrible things. In two days, when they find him, nobody will judge Wrigley for dying. He will get away with it, and I won’t.
That Friday afternoon Wrigley had shown me around the Hackney house. We’d started at the top, with the nice view over a rectangle of grass, and worked our way down, through the kitchen, into a windowless basement that was actually a wine cellar. At the top of a steep flight of stairs he’d pulled on a cord and bathed the pit in custard light.
“It’s like being at the bottom of a well, but fancy,” I’d said as we’d descended. “How long are they gone for, again?”
“They’re back the day after Anu’s wedding,” I’d said, but Wrigley was distracted; it wasn’t the right moment to say more. I’d dusted off a bottle in a huge rack. “Take one and replace it?”
“Later,” he’d said, and hurried me back out sans wine. He’d been anxious. He’d wanted to get me ready. “I know how long women take,” he’d said. It’d taken me twenty minutes. Then another twenty when he’d reminded me we were going to a club not a church coffee morning. He wore beige Yeezys. I borrowed a stretchy red dress from a wardrobe in a spare room upstairs. The wife’s. This wife was at least a size smaller than me, but then her dress looked a lot like something that had been passed over in favor of comfort, so maybe she wasn’t a size smaller than me anymore. Or maybe this wife had just grown into herself in a way that meant she no longer needed that cliché of a red dress to feel sexy. Or maybe the red dress wasn’t a cliché at all and I just didn’t understand the right ways to make myself feel beautiful. I’d thought of my dress for Anu’s wedding, the piece of Wrigley. I’d been 100percent confident that the woman from Munich fucking her brother-boyfriend in my flat wouldn’t even think to touch it.
“Perfect,” Wrigley had said, when I stepped out of the bathroom.
Wrigley was re-lacing his Yeezys. He’d heard me but he didn’t reply.
I watched the little hand on the clock. In office buildings all over London it was 4:32pmon a Friday afternoon. A time for exodus. Tomorrow was still Saturday and the day after that would be Sunday. Anu scooched over to me on her chair. She was wearing blue lipstick. “Ten minutes. Get your shit together. We’re out.”
“Drinks. Deep’s already two deep. Ha.”
We went to an All Bar One. I hadn’t been out like this since the club with Wrigley, which was now exactly three weeks ago. Those weeks had ticked by—each of their minutes had shriveled up slowly and died. I wasn’t ready to be surrounded by all this life. I held my wine by the stem and went inside myself, straight back to Blitz.
Wrigley had grabbed my hand going in, and I’d stumbled over the entrance mat, over its one turned-up rubber corner. He’d stopped me falling, then rolled his eyes. His friends were in a leather booth. A Hackney set. Clear acetate frames and wild ’fros on two mixed girls, too beautiful for their own good, too tall even when seated. They’d smiled widely. They were probably nice. Their white boys were casual: one in a black-on-black Yankees cap, the other in a plain white tee, his pretty, doodled sleeves exposed. Probably they were Creatives. Even in his beige Yeezys, my poor lawyer Wrigley didn’t fit. Not in the leather booth, or at Blitz, with those people who were not really his friends. I’d felt sorry for him and this made me love him and made him mine. I’d looked at him in his awkward unbelonging like a person would a dog with a limp. A dog with a limp in a dog park full of non-limpers. Bring the misfit home, my heart had said. He needs help.
The lights in the All Bar One dimmed, and I could smell someone’s cigarette smoke sneaking in from outside.
“You’re a million miles away, Loraine.” A man was in front of me, holding a pint. He was handsome. I caught Anu and Deep spying behind him.
“David, right?” I said.
“Bingo! And you’re Loraine.”
At Blitz, we’d danced. I’d made the most of the red dress and could feel myself really inhabiting it, really allowing it to do the work it had promised to do. The music had been fine. Beat after beat my body had known how to respond, and like that night at the indoor slope, I could see Wrigley was impressed.
I could see I was fulfilling my promise.
Black girls are such great dancers.
Yes. Yes, we are. Thank you for noticing.
And he could move too—so much for all the stereotypes about white boys. We’d danced together and then apart. One of the casual white boys had tried to grind on me and I’d let it happen because it’d looked like maybe Wrigley was proud. He’d placed his hands around the waist of one of the mixed girls and I’d smiled over at them, a beautiful swirly duo dancing, because I didn’t mind. I trusted him. After six dates I loved and trusted him. This was how couples who attended weddings together were supposed to behave. Together but also a little bit apart.
Sade was playing in the bar. David was shifting his body to get closer. “So, where were you?”
“When you were miles away. What were you thinking?”
I was thinking: I wonder if it was instant. Or if it took him a while to die. “Oh, nothing,” I said, and David smiled, and because it was still happy hour, I let him buy me a margarita.
In the club, Wrigley had wanted to introduce me to the name on the flyer. A short black guy had emerged from the strobes. He’d looked me over, then nodded at Wrigley, then moved on in an instant to chat it up with the mixed girls and their casual white boys. Maybe this DJ Vivant was a king of Hackney, scene royalty. Wrigley had tried again: “Long time no see. Meet my girlfriend.”
Girlfriend. Had I collected the final token? Was I really ready to cash in?
Wrigley had grabbed me by the waist, making a show of my curves. Had he introduced me by name? No, he hadn’t. My name is Loraine. One r. Lo followed by rain.
“Hey,” Vivant had said.
Hey? Not good enough. Wrigley had followed him. The limping dog, limping after a non-limper.
“How do they know each other?” I’d shouted at one of the mixed girls.
“Vivant spun in Verbier. He crashed Ed’s chalet for, like, a week, and did all his coke.” Her breath had been ugly.
For the next hour, Wrigley and I had danced. I’d let him take me right up near the decks, under the nose of this man he needed to impress. I’d let him use the red dress, and my skin, and my dancing. He’d been in his element. I didn’t mind that I’d been colonized. Colonize me, baby!I might have shouted, if the bass hadn’t been so fucking loud.
David was leaning in. “Tell me about yourself.”
“What about myself?”
“Whatever you think I should know.”
On Sunday, when the Hackney adventurers get home, the police will find me and arrest me.I won’t run.
“I don’t know where to start.”
“Then start at the beginning.”
Yes. At the beginning.
When I was little my great aunt Eunice came to England, went insane, and killed herself. She was my grandmother’s youngest sister, and she’d lived in a village in Jamaica all her life, until my grandmother brought her to Peckham. The idea was that she would join a bridge club, access the NHS, and live a better life. There were these grand structures here, you see, these palaces of promise. Royalty owned the palaces and if you could get close enough to the gilded gates, just being close enough would make life better for people like my grandmother and Eunice. But it didn’t work. Just like how the royal touch never actually cured a fucking thing. Nobody talked about this, but it was true.
David was so close his lip grazed my ear. “Go on, tell me,” he said.
“I don’t really know where the beginning starts.”
The music changed tempo. Something nineties. Suddenly we were upbeat, having fun. It was Friday night, after all, and everyone in All Bar One could feel it. David placed another margarita in my hands and I guzzled it. I remembered the red dress. I closed my eyes and swayed to the music.
Eunice was afraid of MTV. She used to bite her fingers while TLC sang about chasing waterfalls and I soaked up American Black from my grandmother’s sofa. One day, when MTV was on, Eunice walked out of the house and stood on the curb. I noticed her out the window. After he’d mown her down, the bus driver, in shock, had yelled one word at her pulped body: stupid. The two white women on the street had watched and whispered to each other. At the hospital, a lady doctor with bright red hair had tried to get my mother to agree to put me into some sort of program for fucked-up children. But my mother didn’t trust the idea. It was okay to get close to the gates of the palace but apparently not to step inside. After I started talking again, all talk of Great Aunt Eunice stopped.
David. I opened my eyes again. David was a good name. David felled Goliath and became a king. “Are you Jewish, David?” I asked him.
He took my hand. “Why yes, yes I am. Culturally speaking.”
“Are you even allowed to date me, David?”
“Ha! Sure I am.”
We’d walked back to the palace just before dawn. I’d mentioned the coke, Verbier, and Vivant.
“His sound’s good,” Wrigley had said. “You know, when he was high he told me he was depressed? Black girls hate him. Won’t date him. He actually cried over it.”
I’d watched this man that I loved smirk. Or maybe I was just seeing his face right for the first time. There’s a fortune-teller fish that lives in my guts and it curled up tight. “So, you wanted him to meet me?”
London at 4am. I was cold and the streets were full of gray and wrongness. I’d thought forward, to Anu’s wedding—still three long weeks away—to how colorful it would be, and how full of warmth and rightness. Then there was the concept of quid pro quo, which in Latin means something for something, and in law underpins the notion of a fair contract. Wrigley was a lawyer; he would’ve known this. The strangers’ bed had been very clean. We’d fallen into it and slept without fully removing our clothes.
On Saturday we woke. Sometime after noon. We’d missed the farmers’ markets. Wrigley put a hot mouth over my nipple and sucked. I felt myself swell and harden. We were so lit. We were listening to SZA on his iPhone, and he was pulling gently at the red dress. We should’ve been filmed. His arms were better than I remembered, freckles on the shoulders, a tiny birthmark the same color as me staining his bicep (I thought: I was always here). I loved how pretty his golden wrists were, the Caribbean sun still lighting up his cells. I loved how pretty his golden hands were between my legs. I loved him with my mouth. I loved him. We were dirty, grimy even. His shoulders were broad and his waist was narrow and I put my tongue in his hollows and shallows and everywhere, like I could lap up the color of him. A lucky black cat after her milk. I let him spill, deep inside me, and the smell of him trickling out of me into the expensive white cotton was a smell that could feed me, I thought. His blond hair was dark with sweat and I raked my nails through it. He breathed. He dozed, sweet as milk.
“Ed. Come to Anu’s wedding with me.”
He looked up. Those eyes that promised he was mine. The red dress was wrapped around my ankle like a bandage round a bloody wound and I knew my piece of him was waiting unworn, hanging in the wardrobe in my flat, with the lovers from Munich who love each other too much to let go. “Nah,” he said, and yawned, breath sour. “Weddings aren’t really my thing.”
In All Bar One we were dancing. Staff came around and put tea lights on the tables and my margarita sloshed over the edge of the glass. Anu and Deep held hands and laughed, spending their last night alone together. When David kissed me he cupped my face in his hands. I let his palm push against the bruise the stranger had given me on the tube. I wish I’d understood the point that man had been trying to make to his wife. Had she understood him? David’s tongue was quick and meaty in my mouth. I had no idea what it was trying to say to me. There should be dictionaries for things like this. Translators, for love.
We missed the farmers’ markets. We didn’t buy anything artisanal. We forgot to walk the dog and it pissed in the hallway. I cleaned up the yellow puddle, while Wrigley vaped weed. We showered then lounged around for hours, watching Netflix, fucking. We were still dirty. I wanted to whisper to him that he owed me the wedding, but the truth was that he owed me nothing. I wanted to kiss my teeth, but teeth-kissing now belonged to Anu, and in my mind it was she who made that sweet sucking noise, stripping the air of all its foolishness, whenever I pursed my own lips. Quid pro quo was a joke. Something for something really meant something of value for something of value. Definitions mattered. Eunice was stupid and so I came from stupid; it had taken me this long to realize. I was a paralegal, but Wrigley was a lawyer; he knew all the loopholes. I swigged vodka from the bottle the wife had in the freezer. It was hers because pink lipstick stained the rim.
“The first ceremony is at one.”
“I’ll pick you up at eleven.” David cupped me and kissed me again, and my cheek had that raw, moreish feeling, same as when your tongue finds newly toothless gum. I probed him, and teased him into hardness against me. If I could eat this man I would. A last meal. I would eat him and pick him clean from my teeth with his own rib. If this made me a monster, I would wear my hideous monster face to Anu’s perfect wedding. The piece of Wrigley was still hanging in my wardrobe. David’s eyes were fair and green.
At five in the afternoon Wrigley thought about wine. Take one, but replace it. Later. Quid pro quo? He dragged his body, shirtless, in jeans, off the sofa and I followed. I don’t know why. We must’ve passed the pictures of the husband and wife on the wall, and all their beautiful trinkets—Chinese vases and African masks, a Vishnu from India and a Buddha, maybe from Nepal. A life amassed through travel, the spoils on display, making up a home. I followed Wrigley down two stories to the cellar door, with the vodka bottle in my hand. Everything swam and swamped me. He opened the door, and, drunk, I tripped behind him, let his naked back break my fall. There was nothing I could do to stop it: he was stoned and he stumbled. He tumbled. Down the stairs, down and deep into the well.
For a while I stood there looking into the darkness. The little black dog came and barked around my feet. I heard myself breathing over the sound of the dog, my own life amplified, same as the day with Eunice, until the bus driver and his screaming won out. I was reckless. What a face that bus driver had. Puce with anger, or fear. There wasn’t sadness, not yet. Nor guilt. I listened, through the barking and my breathing, to the darkness in the well. Nothing, except a thick, syrupy silence, then the faintest echo that sounded a little like Wrigley, a little like my own voice. I didn’t speak for three months after Eunice, then the first word I said when I came back to myself was “sorry.” But did I have anything to be sorry for? I suppose I was reckless then, too.
I closed the cellar door and moved through the palace, collecting my things. In the bedroom I smoothed the duvet over the cum-stained sheets, and hung the red dress in the wardrobe. I hoped the wife would wear it again someday, if only to laugh at herself. I fed the dog in the kitchen, tipping too much food from the bag into the bowl and then around the bowl onto the floor. The food had to last three weeks. The dog was hungry and it nipped my toe, gouging a small crescent of flesh by accident so that I bled onto the tile. I wanted to kick it but I didn’t. I filled its water bowl and wished it good luck instead. I pulled on my shoes. When the front door shut behind me, I was grateful for two lungfuls of the damp, city air.
Just before midnight Anu and Deep say goodbye, see you tomorrow. They hold hands and wave after us with their spares. So natural how they do that—they’re so in sync. They will be married in the morning and they will be happy, and everyone agrees that’s what should happen. My watershed will happen. And then . . . ?David lives nearby. He twirls me in the middle of a wide, dead road, and then pulls me in close to kiss my neck. “Loraine,” he murmurs into my skin. “You’re a queen.” We latch onto each other and keep walking. I’m a queen, walking arm-in-arm with David somebody or other, a king. So, I’m royalty for now, a pocket full of tokens, solid gold. The night is not too cold or too grim; London is playing along. My bruise is healing. I remind myself that things are never really that simple; that none of this was ever really my fault.