The woman behind the counter is having a bad day. I know that because, at one point, her assistant leans towards me and whispers,
‘It’s OK. She’s just having a bad day.’
‘That’s OK,’ I say, and give her a little nod to show that I understand. I wait a while longer and then the woman behind the counter comes back and says, ‘I’m sorry sir, but we don’t have that particular colour in stock.’
‘That’s OK,’ I say, ‘Just give me any colour.’
The woman behind the counter glares at me and I know she’s going to ask me again what colour I want. I don’t give a fuck about the colour. I only mentioned that particular colour to keep her happy. To satisfy her with an answer. How was I to know she didn’t have it in stock?
‘Perhaps sir might like to choose another colour?’ she asks.
‘Yes, any colour,’ I say, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s not for me anyway.’
The only thing I’d like to do right now is get out of the shop. My feet are sore and my back aches from walking around all day. My head is buzzing with the sound of muzak. I’d like to curl up beside the counter and go to sleep. I’d like to be vaporised and gently extracted via the air-conditioning.
I turn away from the counter. There are lots of people browsing in here today, mainly couples; men with women and women with women but not many men with men. The men prefer to split up and operate alone. They can cover more ground that way.
Somebody says, ‘It’s definitely a pullover day.’
Outside, a bus pulls up in front of the shop. The folding doors swing open and a small platoon of schoolboys spills out onto the pavement. They’re all shouting and yelling and swinging their schoolbags at each other. I like to watch small people behave aggressively. It’s hard to believe they can hold so much emotion. At the front of the bus, an old bloke is trying to climb aboard. He has barely enough strength to pull himself up. All the people waiting to get on crowd around him, as if to show how close they can get to pushing him aside without actually doing it. They could do it though, if they really wanted it.
At the back of the bus, a man sits by an open window. He’s looking right at me, although I’m not sure if he can see me through the plate glass of the shop window. Perhaps he’s only staring at his reflection. His round, tanned face is poking out through the narrow gap, like an animal sniffing the breeze. There’s something about his placid, chestnut-coloured eyes and the pale down of his cheek which reminds me of a boy I knew at school. Taddie, we called him. I can’t remember what his real name was.
Hey, Taddie, whatcha up to Taddie...
Nothin’ - fuck off willya...
‘Will that be all, sir?’
The woman behind the counter is putting something in a carrier bag. She holds the corners of the bag with her fingertips and offers it to me, holding it away from her body, so that I can grab the handle.
Zoe is sitting at one of the chrome tables in the food hall, smoking a cigarette. I make my way through the jumble of tables and chairs and, when I’m a few feet away, she looks up and sees me. For a moment, I think she’s not going to smile. It’s like she’s seeing someone else and it makes me wonder if she really is. I feel sick in my stomach but then she does smile and it’s all OK.
‘Why so serious?’ I say.
‘I was thinking,’ she says. I don’t ask what about.
‘Have you been waiting long?’
‘No,’ she says, doubtfully.
I sit down opposite her and take a drag from her cigarette.
‘Are you OK?’ I ask. I have a lot of questions today.
Zoe says, ‘I saw a woman laughing with a child and it was like they were two adults sharing a joke. I mean, they were really laughing. You don’t see that often. Not these days.’
She holds the cigarette in the air, pointing it at the glass ceiling. A trail of smoke unwinds slowly through the potted palms. I’m about to ask if smoking is allowed in here, but decide against it. People are moving through the food hall carrying trays piled high with cartons and cups, looking for a place to settle. Nothing ever stops, nobody rests for long. The trays look like tiny cardboard models of futuristic cities. Some of the children get to carry their own.
‘I wanted to get you something,’ I say, ‘But I couldn’t find anything.’
Zoe watches me through a veil of smoke. It’s hard to tell whether she’s disappointed or not and, if she is, whether she blames me for it. I want her to say that it’s OK, but she doesn’t. For a moment, I wonder if she knows about the woman behind the counter, although I don’t see how that can be possible.
Later, when the house lights start to go down, Zoe reaches out and takes my hand. We’re watching something foreign about a woman who goes to a mountain village and does something to the men. There’s no apparent reason for what she does but that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s quite enjoyable all the same. The mountain scenery in particular is very beautiful.
Zoe lifts my hand, puts my thumb in her mouth and starts to suck it. At first, I try to ignore it and concentrate on the sub-titles instead. I like sub-titles, the way they make sense of the people’s voices, give meaning to their music. Eventually though, I’m forced to think about Zoe’s tongue going round and round my thumb like she’s trying to wear it down. I can feel the thumb going all soft and warm as if it’s starting to melt in her mouth. My arm’s beginning to ache too, but when I try to pull my hand away, Zoe tightens her grip and starts to suck faster. All feeling – and it’s mainly pain at this stage – becomes focused in a single part of my body. My thumb feels huge. Nothing else exists.
¿Que clase de dolor es? What class of grief is it, what sort of pain...
I lose track of the film, drifting off, no longer attached to my arm, and the lines come to me from far away, like coded messages meant for somebody else: La cortina este atrancada. The curtain is stuck. Quisiera un lapicero... I would like a mechanical pencil... ¡Que dia tan bueno! What a lovely day!
When the lights go up, we remain sitting in our seats until everybody else has left. Then, still holding my hand (which feels quite numb and useless now), Zoe leads me down the aisle to the front of the auditorium. I follow along behind tamely like a docile animal too stupid or scared to resist. In the far corner, there is an emergency exit. Zoe leans against the door and pulls me through after her.
We are in a bare concrete stairwell now, fluorescent lights, bright yellow handrail, the smell of urine and damp cement. Zoe starts pulling me quickly down the flights of steps. I do my best to keep up with her, stumbling, trying not to trip up. The clattering of our feet echoes off the walls.
Suddenly Zoe stops, turns towards me and pushes me hard against the cool, dusty wall. She takes both of my hands and puts them behind her back, pulling me against her. Our heads manoeuvre towards one another. Our mouths rub together. My lips feel her lips, follow the shape of her mouth, taste her. I think to myself: This is where my thumb has been.
We stay like that for some time, leaning against the cold concrete. At first there are the far-off sounds of other people moving about, doors slamming, laughter, even a scream, but then it goes quiet and it’s just the two of us, locked together on the stairs. I can hear our breathing, feel my heart beating. For a moment, I can almost believe there is no world outside, no movement, no moments before nor after this one, only this space between floors with its grey stone slabs, metal pipes and fluoro lamps.
Then a sound – quick, someone’s coming! – and we’re running down the stairs again, laughing, spinning round and round, slamming against a double door which bursts open on to the city streets with the evening crowds milling past and car headlights starting to be turned on at the end of another day.
It’s busy on the train going home and we have to sit on opposite sides of the carriage. We look at each other but don’t pull any faces or anything, just pretend we don’t know who we are. It’s funny looking at her like this, as if she were a complete stranger. I can’t remember the last time I did it. Perhaps that’s when I realise that it’s all over between us. I suppose I’ve known it for some time but it’s only now, when we’re so close to it, that it becomes really obvious. I look across at her again, see her flat, closed face, dead eyes, and I know she’s thinking the same thing, looking at me and wondering how she ever managed to get so close.
Somebody says, ‘He’s never attacked me. The dog. He’s never attacked me so far.’
Sometime around midnight, I’m lying on the couch, watching the car headlights slide across the ceiling. It feels strange. There are people out there now, still moving through the city, and we’re in here, everything settled. Zoe is asleep in the next room and I’m supposed to be sleeping on the couch. I’m not though. I’m thinking about a cold morning long ago, grey skies that seeped into everything like weak ink and a wicked wind that sliced us apart. It’s been raining and the streets are hard and shiny, drained of all feeling.
Taddie looms up in front of me, browns eyes bulging, red face, his arms swinging at my body, left right, left right, grunting in time with the blows. I’m taking most of the hits on my arms but, even though I can see them coming, I am unable to avoid them. Then, out of nowhere, he lands one on my lips. Smack. His fist feels huge and heavy. It seems to catch both of us by surprise and, for a second, he stops, standing before me, breathing hard through his mouth.
I begin to fight back. Although he’s bigger, I’m stronger and faster, and I go for the face. I can feel the hardness of his cheek bones and teeth, the softness of his nose and lips against my fingers, my knuckles. When I land a blow, he makes a noise like a small groan of disappointment. Oh. Oh. Oh.
He’s mine now. I have to power to claim him whenever I want. Except something holds me back. I look at Taddie, see the bruised face, the blood-streaked snot, the cut lip, the tears, and it stops me dead. It isn’t mercy or compassion though. I should take him, finish him off – I want to – but I can’t. I turn and walk away.
Later, I’m sitting at the back of the bus going to school and I realise I’m still bleeding from my mouth. Carefully, I feel the cut with the tip of my tongue, tracing the deep, smooth rupture in the skin. It stings pleasantly and tastes slightly metallic. Some blood has dripped onto my shirt, soaking through the fabric and changing the colour, staining it a deep, dark shade of purple that I know I’ll never be able to get out.
By now, everybody will be saying that I lost it, lost the fight, lost face, lost my way, but I don't care. I don't care about anything any more and, for a moment, I feel clean and empty - concrete walls, bare lights, the sound of someone breathing - and I know it's not going to be such a bad day after all.
This piece originally appeared in
an anthology called 100% Synthetic
in which every piece includes
a man in a purple shirt.