My Sheets Were Freshly Cleaned and Smelled of Lilac (Bel Woods)
She smiled that day, when I told her I was Yugoslavian, her bright lips an open suitcase – one of those soft slouchy ones with a saggy zipper – not really a suitcase at all, a bag. Her face was open and pale and her eyelids a deep salmon colour. She was, in personality, what they call ‘bubbly’ over here.
She was younger and I was older, and her nurse uniform was pants and a patterned shirt. This disappointed me a little, as I preferred the crisp white dresses of the past. I was tactless enough to say this out loud and she’d paused momentarily, removing her hand from my arm.
She’d worn a little rectangle tag around her neck and a pen on a chain, new school; a pinned analogue clock face to her breast, old school.
On the way to my building we discussed the suburb I lived in – in Sydney, Australia.
The country I picked from the sound of its name alone; it wasn’t anything like my home. The suburbs all seemed the same to me, but she assured me they all had individual sub-cultures. The term ‘sub-cultures’ was unfamiliar to me, so I said nothing as we walked in the sunshine.
I missed my home.
When she bounded up the stairs to my apartment, I watched her hips sway in the dim light and began to feel less burdened again – some things were the same everywhere.
‘7’, I called out to her, ‘looks like an L – 7 upside down.’
She shrugged and leaned against the wall, in that way teenagers do when they’re bored. She waited quietly as my door was opened, and we shuffled inside my brown-walled bed-sit. Her body was then flattened up against me – against my crutch. I held my breath unsure if my body would remember how.
‘Hmmm,’ she purred, moving away until she was standing with her back to me. ‘My jacket,’ she said after a few minutes.
I lifted her up and carried her to my bed – she flung her head back and laughed as clothes escaped her and legs wrapped easily around my hips; pillows fell to the floor.
I felt alive and free in this moment.
My sheets were freshly cleaned and smelled of lilac – I changed them often due to severe night sweats. My open shirts promote an easy personality, but this anxious perspiring would happen regularly.
I woke with her beside me, and she sighed softly, her body whole and lifting while breathing out on my face. I rolled away and thought of my parents – my wife: her body, their bodies, in pieces; my heart tripping in my chest. Grief visits at the most inconvenient times.
My hand stretched back towards this woman in my bed and she held it against her softness. She climbed over me – light and ready for whatever the world would bring.
I choked softly under the weight of her body.
She talked: ‘why did you say you were Yugoslavian? I thought Yugoslavia was gone.’
‘Yugoslavia lives,’ I said, grasping her hand and pushing it to my chest, ‘here.’
She sat back a little.
‘What’s your name? She quizzed me, running short fingers through my greying hair and creeping kisses up the line of my neck.
‘Why do you want to know?’ I pretended to tease, pulling her away from me and getting up from the bed; discarding her in order for her to understand.
She was quiet then, like a scolded child, and put her clothes back on. I felt the heaviness return and put on my thongs, getting ready for the trip to the showers at the end of the hall.
‘I’ll walk myself out then, shall I?’
I barely heard her and stared at her face, motionless, emotionless. She gripped my arm hard.
‘I figured my name might mean something to you. When we met, you… I thought after, we’d be friends at least. I pulled away from her and she lifted up her tag – squarely, in front of her face. ‘I’m Diana, anyway.’ She then opened her arms and lifted her mouth to mine.
It was an awkward goodbye.
I wanted to say something to make her feel better, but instead I walked clutching my robe and toiletries in the opposite direction; she walked down the stairs. The insistent memories of my wife’s moaning returned, and each step took more effort than the last.
In the end, some minutes later, when my fingertips were on the cold steel of the doorknob, and my eyes were transfixed on the porcelain plaque wrought with yellow and green daisies spelling out an almost unreadable ‘bathroom’, I yelled back into the space, into the hall that met the stairs, my name: