(Edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)
The man who opens the front door is naked except for the towel around his hips. He seems surprised to see her and takes a quick small step back, as if something doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it’s her hair. On a whim she’d dyed it red, and according to all this small change had the effect of a mini transformation. Killer red, the package had promised, though she feels more raw than murderous. She recognises him immediately, despite the bulge on his waistline. She’d scrolled through his photos, posted after completing a triathlon to raise funds for cancer. A series of bare torso shots had shown off a body fit enough to chase any disease to the ends of molecular sabotage.
‘Sorry, I’m early,’ she says.
‘I hope you weren’t waiting long.’
‘At the door.’
‘Seven minutes,’ she stuffs her hands in her coat pockets feeling awkward, as if she has something to hide.
‘That’s alright.’ The two of them stand in the cramped space, the wall hung heavily with coats and scarfs threatening to toppled down over them, ‘Just head upstairs to the dining room, on the second floor.’
His accent is British, soft and precise. The word ‘plummy,’ pops into her head. As he turns, one fat wet drop runs down his spine. It’s always raining somewhere, isn’t it? These are the kind of thoughts that run through her head. Mental notes that could break your heart if you were made a certain way.
She feels her way up the stairs, through a house plunged in semi darkness, sensing the outlines of tasteful furniture and a lot of beige and browns. As she tosses her coat off, a wall of deep set windows flashes her reflection. Out the windows, she can see the high branches swaying slightly, and the last of daylight, as a stroke drawn across the horizon, before poof, it’s gone. Above, the ceiling disappears into the darkness of the third floor, swallowing light fixtures and exposed beams. Gothic proportions, this house has. A modern-day Vampire would be a fan. And with that thought, she crosses the word Vampire off her imaginary list. The one tacked to the bulletin board inside her head. People’s Homes You Should Not Enter, or something like. Crossed off also: ghoul, creep, goon, and loon, because he is, in all likelihood, just a guy, a Tinder guy looking for love in all the online places. She’d caught his smell when she entered: biscuit-y and salty, mixed with soap. A man’s smell, not a monster’s. Still a man is intimidating enough.
His dining table looms before her, chic and serious, the size of a small swimming pool, with an orange-ish patina the colour of General Moa chicken. The chairs look fabulous. She sits down in one, shifting around in her seat, liking the feel of it. Chairs are her favourite piece of furniture, because she believes they are architecture for the body. She feels the same way about shoes. Architecture for the feet. She stretches her legs out, kicks off her shoes, and flexes her toes. When she stares up at the ceiling she feels herself floating up towards the darkness.
He emerges from nowhere, dressed in an obvious hurry. His shirt is cubist in its misalignment, and she stifles an urge to fuss with the buttons. Shouldn’t he have looked in a mirror before rushing out to meet her? When he picks up a remote, music—wavy electronica- fills the room. A speaker, the size of an ostrich egg perched high on a pole, comes level with her head, the background singer’s laments hitting her straight in the ear and running down her spine.
‘How long has it been?’ His name is Daniel. When Daniel opens the fridge, there is a puckering sound.
‘A month. I think.’
With one hand, she fishes around her bag for the bottle of wine, hauling it up from the depths.
‘That’s a long time to chat before meeting.’
‘And I was surprised you agreed to come here.’
She seems unable to form a sentence with three or more words.
She blames the whole adult dating thing. The entire exercise seems like a poor imitation of high school and who was any good at it back then? She looks at the bottle and as she hands it over, decides it is too expensive.
‘Nice,’ Daniel says, reading the label. He ransacks the fridge, tossing cheeses onto cutting boards, and prying open plastic containers to sniff at the olives. He is talking about his week. A presentation at work with lots of power points was involved. Listening to him talk for several minutes convinces her – the wine is definitely too extravagant.
‘So much money, and all for what?’
‘Sorry, what did you say?’ Her mind has drifted, wandering to random thoughts on, say, the colour of vanilla ice cream—why white when the pods are brown? He does not notice, though she feels anyone walking into the room would sense her distraction immediately. The large ceramic Hello Kitty sitting squat on the windowsill does. The toy blocks. The placemats.
‘Instead of throwing money at us to build a website to encourage innovation, why not hand the money over to someone innovative so they can just do their thing.’
‘So, you do websites?’
He stands up and sighs, a cheese platter in each hand. ‘Well, I do many things.’
‘So, you don’t do websites?’
‘I’m a musician.’
Her eyes flicker over the contours of the house, with its dusted tasteful surfaces, and clutter of toys pushed into the corners. A peach pit sits in the fruit bowl, a small ballet slipper on one of the stairs. Not an instrument in sight. She’d dated a guitarist once, or rather, slept on and off with a guitarist, and she distinctly remembers the row of guitars standing along one wall of his loft. They were sexy curvaceous creatures coloured a robin’s egg blue, or cherry red, and were capable of bending sound. Even standing immobile, they strutted. When the guitarist created ambiance, he did not turn on music. He tossed a mound of cushions to the floor, projected swirling coloured shapes that morphed to pulsating beats, while serving chilled vodka with purple pills. Then they both stripped naked to dance, swaying back and forth while laughing at their shadows.
Definitely not a musician, she decides. Why was everyone she met lately a web designer or a DJ? When would he open the wine?
The cheese stares up at her. He is unwrapping salami from cling film. The tomatoes are delicious, apparently.
‘Do you cook?’ she asks.
‘With two kids, you sort of have to.’
Right. He has two daughters. A few cracker crumbs catch in her throat and she coughs to dislodge them.
He hands her a tumbler, then gives her a pat on the back that feels devoid of any sexual tension. Her mouth is dry and papery, her throat horse. There is some frantic searching for the corkscrew, and then finally, mercifully, she has a glass of red before her. She takes a sip and the warm blurry feeling relaxes her jaw and neck, spreads to her shoulders. She hadn’t realised she was tense. She wipes at where the water from coughing burns her eyes, then tops off her wine glass.
‘I know something that will make you feel better. I’ll play you one of our songs. We call ourselves Happy Apples. My girls came up with the name one day, straight out of the blue.’
‘Happy Apples. That sounds…very happy…and apple-y.’
‘The oldest just turned eight and the other one is six and a half.’
She’d seen the pictures: two pale expensive looking creatures with soft skin and shiny hair.
‘I’m not sure about this. I’m not much of a music critic.’
Did she feel any sparks that could be coaxed into something larger? These days, she is trying, through force of will, a different sort of man. Dating outside her food group, she calls it. The problem is she doesn’t know her own: Dairy? Protein? Starch? Was alcohol a group?
‘It’s easy,’ her friend Olivier had said. ‘Just avoid your type.’
‘It’s easy,’ Daniel says. His lap top is open on the table and he is connecting wires to his sound system. ‘You just decide if you like it or not.’ He scrolls his track pad. ‘No one’s heard this yet, so I’m dying for a reaction.’
‘I shouldn’t be the first to hear this. You’re at a vulnerable stage in the creative process.’
‘I’m not worried,’ he pauses. They smile at each other. ‘Give it to me straight and don’t hold back.’
She can feel her smile fading as she shakes her head, but he is busy fiddling with knobs. The expression: squirming in your seat, she did not know if it was actually, possible. As it turns out, it is.
There’s a squall of noise before the jangled notes settle into music. She pretends to concentrate by staring at the cheese again. She’s beginning to know each crease and crevasse on its camembert surface intimately. She cuts a triangle shaped piece and is quiet for a moment, chewing. The cheese on the cutting board has morphed into the shape of a Pac Man. Now if only Pac Man would spring to life, gobble up this table and house. But no. The camembert will stay content with its cheese existence, and she’ll have to come up with something to say. She can feel Daniel’s eyes on her, sense his body moving to the beat. Several of his fingers tap on the table, in time with the music.
The song is unfamiliar, and she forgets each note the instant it is over. The girls sing high-pitched, words strung along the string of a melody. The voices are breathy, close, like disembodied pink mouths, living things, heavily worked over electronically. She is unable to decipher the words beyond, ‘we’ll never give up our cream,’ though maybe those are the lyrics after all.
When the music stops, the entire house sits still and expectant, an empty chamber ready for applause. What can she say? There was none of the mysterious and slightly frightening and thrilling music she associates with childhood. No wild bright notes played in a magic forest then trapped in a song web.
‘It didn’t suck,’ she says idiotically.
He manages a laugh. A loud honking laugh. He is trying to be a good sport.
‘I’m sorry. That’s the lamest reaction ever. I told you I wasn’t good at this.’
‘That’s alright. Thank you for listening.’
He waits a beat, and she understands she is expected to offer up something more.
‘The production quality is definitely there.’
He leans towards her, grinning a little awkwardly. His face is wide with expectation, ‘That’s good.’
Is that neediness she senses just under the surface? Perhaps it’s only lack of creative confidence. An unfulfilled artistic ambition could rattle anyone.
‘Solid…bridge, or is it the chorus? Like I said, I don’t know much about music, especially kid’s music, but it sounds…’ she searches for the right word, ‘well-constructed.’
He sits back in his chair, ‘I’ll take that.’
‘Phew,’ she says and lifts her wine. ‘To solid construction.’
He touches his glass to hers and she relaxes. They have passed through the initial awkwardness and she presumes it will be easier from here on in.
‘So, you’re like this Svengali character and you’re going to mold your girls into pop princesses?’
‘We’re trying to break into the Asian market, which is, needless to say, huge. We’re pretty serious.’
Knowing nothing about Asia, the music business, kiddie pop, children, or princesses there is no way to gauge whether his plans are ambitious or delusional.
‘We just finished printing this promotional piece.’
He hands her a sheet, but she isn’t sure what to call it. A graphic photo story? The page is laid out like a comic strip, but with photos instead of drawings, with the characters talking in balloon bubbles. Daniel, dressed as a policeman, is chasing the two girls who’ve been tagging alleyways with spray paint.
‘Children’s music can have some edge. We even have a sneaky joke at the end.’ He points to the second last frame were Daniel the policeman sits in his squad car, dazed and confused with cartoon stars swirling around his googly-eyed face. In the next frame, he has a contemplative finger on his chin, with a look of understanding spreading across his face. Yes, of course, his madcap adventures with the rebellious, yet adorable little scamps have all been a dream. Except for, what’s this—
Daniel points to the last photo. ‘See.’
By his shocked expression, we understand his pants are wet. Earlier the girls had set the fire hose on him to escape his clutches, and now he sits in his squad car soggy to the bone, socks and shoes drenched, his shirt also. Or at least she presumes because she’s distracted by the way Daniel the cop points down at his pants, at his belt buckle, his crotch. The whole thing wobbles with a Key Stone Cops meets a teeny smithereen of Lolita.
She reaches into her bag and pulls out her phone.
‘I’ve got to Google this kiddie pop stuff, because I know nothing about it.’
When she scrolls down her screen she discovers The Verve have just turned to kinder rock with a newly released album titled, The Family Album, which signals either restrain when it comes to all things child related, or flat out disinterest. There are a few other names she half recognises, but Google comes up surprisingly short on info. Maybe this is some new cultural space once filled by Teletubbies, where kid’s entertainment meets adults craving childhood regression.
‘It’s the project closest to my heart. I’m hoping I can do it full time, soon.’
He slips the glossy photo-comic book-promo piece back into a folder. ‘And it’s a great way to spend time with the girls since their mother and I split up.’
Right. The split. This is her signal to ask how long he’s been single. Background info was absent from their texting because they had kept things limited to banter and word play.
‘How long ago was that?’
‘Eight months. How about you?’
‘Me?’ she sits back, ‘What’s my story, you mean?’ Of course, this is a part of it also, each one serving up selected snippets of their past like hors d’oeuvres to be sampled.
She hesitates. She cannot think of her life as a whole, because she is still taking it one day at a time, like someone in recovery. Maybe she should drink more so she could join an official program. What’s the idea of a balanced diet? A drink in each hand. Lately she’s been trying humour, lame jokes that usually result in groans and rolled eyes. She is trying to change in increments, hoping to build her life some spine. Otherwise it’s all a tear, a dizzy spin of air, a distraction from the fact her once fiercely forged self now hangs back in retreat, stranded and confused, only to lurch out occasionally at inappropriate moments.
‘I was married once. It didn’t end well.’
Daniel smiles, pats her hand quietly, sadly maybe. Then retrieves it.
She skips the details like her husband’s circuitous mumbling about a mid-life crisis. One come early, he being only thirty-two.
‘So, you’re planning on dying at sixty-four, then?’ she’d said. Ah, the mouth on her. Flippant even in the wake of disaster.
Although maybe it had been more like a slow-moving car crash with her trapped inside the car, unable to move or speak. The final impact had come after she’d spent two days away, and returned to a house half empty, their possessions divided so precisely she was surprised the chairs weren’t sawed in half. In the bedroom closets, space, so much space, only a few metal hangers bent and spindly, hanging on his side. The house seemed brighter, taller, awful. So much had run away. She pictured his shoes and pants careening down the streets chasing books and dishes, and him wrangling them all like distracted cats. Of course, it had been nothing like that. He’d acted with military like stealth and speed. For a long time, she stood in her empty half house feeling gutted, then baffled, and finally betrayed, before starting the cycle all over again. A few weeks later, over a beer, Olivier let the truth slip. Husband was living with another woman. Did she know this woman? Olivier took a long sip of his beer, while he eyed her closely. The sip was followed by a long sigh. Yes, the woman was a friend. He said her name slowly. Her best friend’s name.
Her heart had flown up into her throat, dropped down to her bowels, got snagged on her rib cage.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I’m sure. You mean…don’t tell me you didn’t?’
‘What? Didn’t what?’ her voice was screeching only it came more like a sobby cracked sound.
‘Oh, honey, everybody knows.’
Everybody. Knows. Number of words: two. Effect: twin bombs dropped, leaving behind scorched earth, vaporizing people, replacing friends by zeros. Friends. From that moment on she no longer had any. Zip. Zilch. She had nada, and scratch. Zefiro in Italian. Duck in cricket. Nil, in football.
Daniel’s hand is back on hers, the weight of it warm. She cannot react to his affection, however, as she’s just been wishing complicated and fatal accidents on over a dozen people.
‘How about you?’ she says, changing the topic, ‘Any adventures since you’ve split up?’
He takes a sip of wine. Winces. Sighs. ‘I don’t know if I should tell you.’
‘I think you have to once you start like that. It may even be a rule.’
‘Yes,’ he gets up and heads to the kitchen. ‘I’ve heard that.’ He opens the fridge door, stares inside, then closes it. ‘But I don’t know if I should.’
‘Come on. You can’t stop after such a build-up.’
He takes a deep breath, and she prepares herself for a long story on how he and his wife gradually grew apart, punctuated with the agony of tennis elbow and alimony payments. ‘Okay. I was taking the girls to church one day.’
‘Really?’ This silences her for a moment, ‘You’re religious?’
‘I’m giving it a try.’
‘You believe in God?’
‘Yes, don’t you?’
‘God no. I mean, sorry…no, just no.’
‘No. I believe when we’re done, we’re done.’
He smiles, ‘You and my brother.’ For a moment, he stands looking at her Godlessness. Amazed that she can exist while all of her hurtles towards oblivion.
‘But I have no problem with religious beliefs. Whatever gets you through the day, right? I just don’t understand why believers always want to convert non-believers? What’s the urgency?’
‘Well, now, see…’ Daniel is back at the table, ‘…it’s funny you should mention that because—.’
Because when he first moved into the neighbourhood after the split, in his confused and lost state and in the hopes of finding an activity for the girls where he could just sit and think, he started taking them to the church around the corner and on his way, each Sunday he would pass a massage parlour.
A massage parlour. She decides to stare at the cheese again. The middle has melted like wax and spilled on to the cutting board collapsing the surface. A massage parlour. She must have missed that section of street on the drive over.
Of course, he was feeling especially broken and distraught the day he decided to use their services.
‘Right,’ she says, rubbing her palms along her thighs. In what direction is the story going? It has veered sharply off road and is now bouncing across a craggy field strew with rocks, possibly land mines. ‘You went to a brothel.’
‘A massage parlour.’
‘Right, but the brothel kind of massage parlour?’
He nods his head.
She pictures padded bras and thongs, press on fingernails. Walls painted the colour of hard candy. A sticky carpet.
‘Okay. What did it look like inside?’
‘There was a desk and some chairs.’
‘A desk and some chairs? Like at the dentist? A waiting room filled with women reading out of date magazines in their underwear?’
He ignores her sarcasm or hasn’t picked up on it, ‘You choose who you’d like from a book before.’
‘Then you go and lie down on the massage table and wait for her to arrive.’
‘And when she does, what is she wearing?’
‘Sexy bra, thong, and garters, that sort of stuff?’
‘Oh, that’s disappointing. So, expected. What did she look like?’
At this point, she’s actually hoping some automatic wasp-ish reserve will kick in and he’ll feel too embarrassed to go on. But Daniel gets up and retreats back to the spot between the kitchen and dining room which seems to be his safety zone. One hand is on the wall for support and his whole body is stooped, curved like the letter C, a broken zero, or melted camembert. She imagines flashes of love sessions with his masseuse speeding through his mind. Him thrusting and thrashing his injuries up inside her. Then her getting up and walking around with all his pain contained in her afterwards. To a man this would seem like a miracle. How could he not be grateful? Daniel looks at her deep.
‘I get chills just thinking about her.’
She takes a slurp of wine. She does not have the energy to take on his pain. She is still meandering around her own dull ache unable to offer any support to those walking around with their wounds exposed and gleaming, like bones poking out their sides. Oh, the Tinder assaults made against the fragile heart. She wants to go home, plunge into bed with a book and slather hand cream on her feet.
‘That first time on her massage table I just started bawling like a baby. I couldn’t stop.’ Now Daniel’s whole face is a distraught, twisted into a lopsided look of sadness. ‘And she laid on top of me, and took my face in her hands and said, ‘But you’re so beautiful, how can you be unhappy?’’
‘So beautiful,’ she says. Her tone is edged with polite dismay.
He grows embarrassed, ‘Of course, things didn’t work out.’
‘But you fell in love with her?’
‘Yes, but, as I said, it didn’t work out.’
‘Hmmm,’ she says.
‘Look at this,’ he is laughing uncomfortably. ‘I’m spilling my guts to a total stranger.’
She watches him pace back and forth across the kitchen floor. He begins to rub his temples. ‘Sorry, I’m beginning to feel a bit off.’
She picks up her bag and hugs it to her chest. She shifts her gaze from his full glass to her own empty one.
‘It’s just she had such a caring expressive side to her. And every time I pass the place on my way to church, I can’t help thinking.’
He looks at her as if she should be able to read his thoughts.
‘You think religion—God—can save her?’
‘From what exactly?’
‘From the way her life has turned out.’
‘Because she’s a sex worker?’
‘But you go to church and that didn’t stop you from paying for a sex worker.’
She definitely wants to leave this ridiculous house belonging to this hypocritical man who claims to love a sex worker while pitying her life.
Just then the door downstairs opens and there’s a commotion. Children’s soft voices, the thudding of boots and hats being pulled off. A clumping up the stairs, and then two blonde-headed little girls rush into the living room.
‘Mummy!’ the youngest is running towards her, then slowing down uncertain, her smile fading.
‘That’s not mummy. Mummy’s down stairs.’ The oldest trails behind the youngest, looks straight at her, ‘Right?’
More steps, this time slower, heavier. It seems to take an unnaturally long time.
‘That would be… Claire,’ Daniel stops mid stride as if he’s made a private joke.
And then ‘Claire’ is standing where the hallway opens out into the dining room.
The resemblance is uncanny. Her eyes scan over this woman: same height; hair blonde as hers normally is; same eyes, nose, mouth. A slightly fuller face gives the woman a middle-aged quality. But still, it’s incredible. They look practically identical. Standing facing her, for a moment, it is easy to believe all women look the same, if not for the look of horror spreading across Claire’s face and the fact the room seems distorted and the walls wobbly.
‘What the hell, Daniel?’
‘Don’t be so dramatic, Claire. I told you I started dating.’
Daniel turns towards her. His eyes have a shining-eyed seriousness. ‘We met once before at the Goethe Centre but you might not remember.’ He turns back towards Claire, ‘It’s an amazing coincidence, isn’t it? Either of you have a long-lost sister?’
‘No,’ they both say at the same time.
‘I mean it’s actually sort of funny.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ again they speak in unison.
‘It’s just a coincidence.’
‘Coincidence?’ Claire stares straight at Daniel. Her eyes aim directly at him, dead on as if willing them not to stray to the side and catch sight of her.
‘Ask her yourself if it isn’t.’
‘What would I ask her?’ Claire turns towards her, ‘Sorry, I realise this may not be your fault.’ Her hands fly to her mouth as if she has to hold back a loud sound or nauseous cry, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got my birthmark.’
‘I was actually wondering about that.’
‘You were wondering.’
‘Would you stop repeating everything I say, and throwing it back at me.’
‘How is this possible?’
‘Actually, it’s not a birthmark. I had some vaccinations. I’m going on vacation in a few weeks. Got a bit of a reaction.’
Claire and Daniel turn towards each other.
‘I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think I understand myself. At first I thought it was you having a joke.’
‘You know I can hear both of you talking, right?’ she says. She can feel her face heating up.
‘Sorry, Claire,’ says Daniel, somewhat relieved to be chastised and able to apologize without losing face.
‘Claire. Her name is Claire?’
The other Claire shakes her head, ‘No. No. No. Not ‘obviously.’ In fact, given the situation ‘obviously’ is the one word that has no place in this conversation.’
The other Claire is breathing deeply through her nostrils, like an animal ready to charge.
Leaving. She should definitely be leaving. But it’s hard to move from her chair. Any kind of ending provokes a shakiness inside her these days. She burst into tears when her regular bank teller was transferred last week. The drugstore keeps moving the shampoo, toilet paper and Advil which leaves her wandering the aisles aimlessly, feeling stupid and crazy, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her sister is about to travel to Mexico for six months and she feels a sense of abandonment so acute it is physical.
‘Mommy, maybe when you’re busy we can go do things with this other mommy?’
This bright idea is offered up by the youngest while playing with the beads on her plastic bracelet. As for the oldest, her hair is hanging in her face and she is chewing on the ends of it.
‘You’ve got to accept we’re over, Daniel.’
The other Claire slumps into one of the fabulous chairs in front of the pool sized table. She looks hollowed out by something that has rushed in unexpectedly and shovelled out chunks of her insides.
‘For your own good,’ she is saying.
‘It’s just I don’t know what to do,’ Daniel’s voice shifts and his face looks blasted apart with sadness.
She stands up and hitches her bag’s strap over her shoulder, ‘I should be going,’ she says.
‘No,’ Daniel, slumped into a chair, is now on his feet. ‘I mean it’s just too amazing, right? Don’t you two, I don’t know, want to compare childhoods or something? There must be a connection.’
Daniel and the other Claire stare at her, as if she were a curiosity, caged. The street light glows dully through the linen blinds. Her eyes shift to the large porcelain Hello Kitty on the deep window ledge. Some kind of candy dispenser, maybe? A bubble shaped face topped by a pink bow the colour of children’s Aspirin. Why no mouth? It makes her want to scream. But what words would come out? Fire! Help! Life sucks! Cursing seems better. Fuck. Fuck. Fucky. Fuckitty-fuck-fuck.
She has begun to dislike everyone in the room which means she really should be leaving.
‘But I want to see you again,’ Daniel says.
Well, yes, she thinks. Of course, he would say that.
The other Claire makes some sort of snorting sound and Daniel turns and accuses her of not respecting his boundaries, and then she accuses Daniel of acting just like his father.
The girls have begun taking turns jumping on and off one of the wooden dining room chairs. Daniel retreats to the kitchen again, to open and slam cupboard doors. The fridge door puckers open and whooshes shut. Now there is yelling.
Claire makes her way towards a dark wood liquor cabinet spotted earlier. With the wine gone, she definitely needs a stronger drink. A small key sits in the lock and when she turns it to the right with a click, the door falls open to reveal a dozen different coloured bottles.
‘Would anyone like some scotch?’ she calls over to the two of them. She looks up, but neither says anything in her direction. She pours generously into her wine glass.
Between Daniel and the other Claire, brittle words are now flung like barbed spikes. Claire leans against the wall taking up a position on the sidelines to watch. She had been denied the furious argument that comes at the end of love. The blubbering tears and gasps, the angry gestures.
Someone should threaten to leave.
Someone should say, fine go.
Someone should yell, I can’t take this anymore.
Oh, the mournful horror.
There had been none of that.
Perhaps because she was denied the final scene, she has been unable to move on with her life. Her broken heart is stuck in pieces, numb, scotch-taped to her insides.
She swirls her scotch, watches the other Claire as frustration fills her face. So, this is what she would look like in this state: bleak and pale. She suspects she lacks the courage for anger and grief, can’t take feeling bitter in an unbearable way. She sips her drink, the sharp taste warming her mouth, and shifts her gaze to the girls. In stocking feet, they dash towards the chair, leap onto it, then barely regaining their balance, fling themselves into the air, skidding across the floor, sometimes falling sideways. Any minute now there will be a terrific accident. One of them will lose a tooth, break a nose, or crack open a skull. She tastes the sharp bitter scotch on her tongue and cheeks, feels the blood flushing her face. From a cardiovascular point of view, the drink has done her good. As for Daniel and Claire, all their bitterness, pain and anger has brought them near to tears. Once again, another world is blowing up. Home. She thinks of the word. Home sweet home is burning. The wicked anger and freedom of it, a life in flames, this house burning to the ground instead of standing still and safe. There’s a lesson in that urge somewhere, and perhaps just a bit more scotch would reveal it.
Instead she goes to the bathroom, a bit woozy. She flicks on the light and after using the toilet, opens the cabinet. She takes out Daniel’s cologne and dabs some on her wrists, then behind her ears, like a debutant preparing for a cotillion. She smells the towels, the damp navy one wrapped around him earlier. She picks up the shampoo bottles and reads the labels as if they contain a secret message. Head and Shoulders takes on life with a manly Old Spice Scent. American Crew Anti Dandruff is 100% flake free.
When she spots the porcelain claw-footed bathtub her brain is flooded with homesickness. Her house, she misses it more than the man, or the marriage. He had not offered to sell her his half. Not that she could have bought it, except maybe, if she had pulled her act together, only she hadn’t. Instead, her home had been sold, just before Christmas, to pay off his back taxes. Now she bounces from friend to friend, sleeping in spare rooms, extra spaces that are dark and cold, where if you open the door you bump the bed. She is always banging into stacks of boxes. Alarm clocks blare at 5:00 am, loud as trumpets. Still, she cannot bring herself to stop moving, to close herself inside four permanent walls. Not just yet.
She turns the brass plated knobs and slips her hand under the stream of warm running water. Then she peels her clothes off and steps into the tub. As the water rises she feels her muscles unfurl. She squeezes the shampoo into her palm and through her hair. For a long time, she lathers herself up with Daniel’s soap, a slippery dark bar that smells of bergamot. She runs the soap over her arms and stomach, in between her toes and legs. It feels sexual, rapacious. When she lies back, dunking her head under water, the red dye from her hair sends watery pink tendrils swirling around her. Submerged, she’s off to another space, the only sounds of this life reaching her are distant and muffled. The light fixture is wobbly through the water, her heart beats in her ears. Eventually she pulls the plug with her toe and the water recedes, retreating from her body, leaving her in the warm tub, walled in a porcelain egg.
When she pulls the shower curtain back she finds the other Claire sitting on the toilet, her skirt pulled up over her thighs, and a pair of underpants stretched between her knees. Whatever terrors or heartaches life throws at you there is still nothing as unexpected as another human being.
‘Sorry, I really had to pee.’ Without missing a beat the other Claire looks at her, ‘You have a nice body. How much do you weigh?’
A grey towel is hanging on the opposite wall, ‘I don’t know. I just judge by how tight my clothes fit.’
When the other Claire flushes, she stands up and makes a jerky grab for it.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve interrupted something between you and Daniel. I shouldn’t be here. I got the dates mixed up.’
As she wraps the towel under her arm pits, the other Claire wipes a layer of moist perfumed heat off the mirror and an image flashes of the two of them, like a before and after picture.
‘Hold on. Did I just walk in on you taking a bath?’
‘Sort of. I was pretty much done, though.’
‘You just took a bath?’
‘It was an impulse.’
She does not say Daniel is still desperately in love with other Claire, and that the only reason he swiped right on her own photo was because of the resemblance. She does not say he has barely noticed her presence in his house this evening. Instead she says, ‘Welcome to my life—one big wacky ball of hilarious unpredictable activity.’
The other Claire takes a deep breath, ‘I write brochures for an insurance company so I wouldn’t know much about that.’
‘Insurance, you say?’ She feels an urge to break through the taut surface of this ridiculous evening with something, ‘Well ma’am may all your policies mature.’
The other Claire laughs, a slow lazy chuckle, ‘And may you always have full coverage.’
‘From cradle to grave and womb to tomb.’
‘From erection to resurrection.’
‘From…oh no, I think I’m out of insurance puns.’
‘Right,’ says the other Claire in a brisk concentrated way. She opens the door, but before leaving, stops, turns, ‘I like the red hair colour, by the way. It really suits you.’ Then she stands up straight as if making a toast, her smile broad, ‘May you always burn as you do now, like a brilliant flame.’
And then she is gone.
Maybe this is how the heart begins its slow triumph over hurt—in an unlikely place, in a moment of unexpected kindness. Maybe if your heart can turn towards small kind acts, eventually it can take on greater ones, until your heart is braver, more evolved. Claire is thinking not only of herself here and her empty bed, but how for years she’d sneered at words such as ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ as if they were a sign of weakness. She’d gone through life searching out the tough and dazzling, picking her friends like brilliant stones. Somehow, she’d skipped a simple truth, the understanding that kindness is what we have to offer each other. It is the heart reaching outwards, a gift we send out into the world, like a gorgeous song when it hits all the right notes.
Miki Laval completed an MA in Creative Writing and now lives and works as a freelance writer in Montreal, Quebec. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Zounds, The Towner, The Bard Brawl and Soliloquies. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories.