My last city, my home city, is not really much of city. A stop-over. A gateway to the rest of the world. All heat and wind and prosaic buildings spread over four blocks which someone once labelled ‘city’. Somehow the label stuck. It might have been a city. Once. A long time ago. But it has not been able to keep up with its neighbours. We get out of there as quickly as we can. Often we have no choice. It closes before the sun goes down.
I wanted to write about breathing and homesickness and how long it took me to learn how to tell the time and jump rope and how meditation looks a lot like the word mediation but it is a very different thing and kiss-chasey and the idea of toxins in the body and hating the smell of hospitals and being too polite and not comparing yourself to others because YOU ARE ENOUGH and why hasn’t my agent called in months and (kind of) meeting your idol (kind of) and joy and how our printer sounds like some song I can’t remember the name of whenever it starts up and not drinking enough water and sometimes I will ignore the phone and Paris and expectations and are you ever too old for a treehouse and weird nightmares that make no sense when you wake up but are terrifying at the time and looking up when you walk and what if no one remembers me and packing and credit cards and breathing … just breathing.
Maybe tomorrow …
They had this story. It went like this: We never fight. Except this one time. This one and only time about nothing in particular. I threw my copy of Harry Potter on the floor, she would say, I was so angry. And then we both stopped arguing and just laughed because, well, my face must have, I mean, I loved that book and I … she would trail off a little there. It was very funny – not a real fight at all, he would add. We just don’t fight, they would say together, not really.
It wan’t true. Of course. It was their story and it wasn’t true but they believed it. So did everyone else. Because that’s what they were told.
She caught herself thinking about that story that was once their story- thinking about it and believing it again. It would trip her up when she least expected it and she would look around, embarrassed, hoping nobody had noticed.
They had fought. A lot. He had cheated. A lot. She had cried. A lot.
They had fought some more.
The real story goes like this: He took her trust and shoved in the back pocket of his jeans. Like a hastily scribbled mobile number on the back of a receipt. Like a dirty tissue. He forgot to remove it when he did the laundry and it turned into a shrivelled clump that fell apart the moment anyone tried to open it up, smooth it out, read whatever secrets were written there.
He got new jeans.
The clump got left behind.
As it should. After all, it’s just a clump … So she believed …
Until someone saw something in the clump and tried to ease it open, to gently smooth it out, to discover the secrets that were written there.
It took time to get that clump unclumped. He gave her time. And so much more.
She (who was a clump) and he (who is still someone) fight. They argue and disagree and say mean things they don’t mean. We fight, they could say if anyone asked them, really. They don’t try to believe otherwise. They keep Harry Potter on the bookshelf along with the other made-up stories. They fall asleep holding hands.
Now she has a better story. Their story. A true story.
Their story goes like this: Love.
– Just sit up there.
– Nah, go up, like, another branch … yeah, and another one … another –
– It’s high
– I could – I could fall.
– It’d hurt.Pause
– You should look scared.
– I’m not.
– You need to look it but.
– OK. Like this?
– That’s good.
– Now what?
– Dunno.They wait.
Weekly Writing Challenge - Fifty
I hate waiting.
And yet here I am.
It is a lot warmer than I thought it would be. The flies are those sticky, needy types that just want to sit on my arms / legs / face no matter how many times I brush them away. Sweat is running down by back, inside my dress. I hope like hell that no one notices. Sweating is disgusting when not directly related to exercise; even then it’s not very attractive yet more acceptable. Here I am sitting at a café sweating like I’ve just run 5-kilometres or something. I shouldn’t be sweating like that. Should I? Women don’t talk about sweating so it worries me that it is abnormal or a sign of something abnormal … I didn’t expect it to be so hot.
The flies continue. The sweat continues. I wish I had worn a hat and sunscreen and been sun-smart and slip-slop-slapped. Why didn’t I think of all this before choosing the outdoor table with limited umbrella coverage? If I get skin cancer because he is late I will kill him.
He was meant to be here twenty minutes. We had arranged this coffee catch-up only a couple of days ago. The place was his idea. The time was mine. 10.30am. I texted him as I left my apartment. I texted him when I arrived. There’s been no response.
When I arrived, I told the young woman who called me “ma’am” and made me feel incredibly old, that I was waiting for someone. The people at the other table heard me. The waitress brought out an extra glass of water and an extra menu – “Here you are ma’am, in case your friend wants breakfast” she smiled and added “ma’am”. I wanted to throw the water in her face. But I didn’t. Besides, she’d probably call me ma’am as she cleaned up the mess and offered me another, fresh glass of water and so the cycle would continue …
I sit with the empty chair in front me, the untouched extra glass of water, the unread menu.
Half an hour late.
Now I’ll look like some kind of jilted bride if I up and leave before he arrives. I will look like a complete idiot. I’m sure that couple at the table near mine live in my apartment block. I’m not entirely sure but they did walk from the same direction as me to this spot, look a little familiar and seem to be watching me now and then, sizing me up. Probably wondering if I am the girl from their apartment block. They’ll probably go home and laugh about that neighbour being stood up at the café. I’ll hear them laughing too. You can hear so much in the apartment block; couples’ fights, couples’ make-up sex … and so the cycle continues. They probably think I’m having some sort of secret affair and I’m waiting for my lover who has decided to stand me up on this day after Valentine’s Day. I really, really need my dear, gay friend to turn-up right now so they can see I’m not cheating on my boyfriend, so they can see I’m not some philandering loser.
But he still hasn’t answered his messages.
Maybe he met someone last night. It was Valentine’s Day. Maybe that’s it.
The waitress who called me ma’am just looked at me very apologetically. I don’t know how to make my getaway …
“Would you like a cool drink or something ma’am?”
Shit. She notices the sweat. She can see it. Why else would she ask if I wanted a cool drink. A cool drink? At a café renowned for its coffee …
“I’ll have a peppermint tea.”
Shit. Shit. Why did I ask for peppermint tea? It’s hot. It’s hotter than I had expected.
“Yeah, just the peppermint tea. While I wait. For my friend.”
Shit. Shit. Shit. Why did I say “My Friend”. Friend could mean anything. Anything. I remember when I had my first boyfriend in high-school and if he came over to any family sort of thing, Mum would always refer to him as my “friend” and I hated it. Hated it. It sounded so patronising. Now it just sounds like code for “my lover”.
“Of course ma’am. Right away ma’am” – what the hell is with this ma’am thing? It sounds like she’s the Prissy to my Scarlett O’Hara or something. I’m not looking for a maid. I’m not living in the deep south of 19th Century America. I’m not old enough to be a ma’am, surely?
She moves away with her ma’am and her apologetic look and I keep on looking up and down the street, keep checking my phone, keep writing, looking busy.
Someone else brings me the peppermint tea and this one doesn’t say ma’am. Thank goodness.
The sun is moving so it’s not as sweaty as before. But the flies don’t let up. I should have sat inside … Thirty-five-minutes.
On my first date with boyfriend I must have been half and hour late. Half an hour is a long time. I hope I texted him back then to say I’m just running late, oops, sorry, I’ll be right there. I feel bad imagining him sitting there, waiting, wondering if I was even going to show up. I hope I did text him. I will have to ask him tonight.
Maybe my friend had an accident.
No. I’ll go with the other scenario. He met someone. That’s better.
The couple next to me have finished their organic quinoa salad with soft boiled free-range egg, sumac corn, coriander, pomegranate, avocado, pistachio and citrus dressing … and side of bacon. Somehow bacon just doesn’t seem to fit that equation … Oh well. At least they’ve finished. Once they’ve gone I can go.
He gets up. This could be it.
I think he has gone inside to pay the bill. She is cheating at the crossword they were attempting over breakfast with the assistance of an app on her Smartphone.
He comes back and now she goes inside. Why can’t they just go already so I can leave without looking stupid?
If only I had a dog. That would solve everything. The dog could drink the extra glass of water. He may even sit up on the extra seat. I’d call him Dave or Corey or something and order him his own side of bacon.
A woman in exercise gear (the brunch uniform even if it looks like you haven’t actually exercised in the gear ever) has just tied her dog up near me. I can’t claim this one as mine; the guy at the table saw the exercise-gear-woman tie it up and wander inside for her skinny latte. Now the guy, clearly deflated by his girlfriend’s successful completion of the shared crossword, comes over to pat the recently abandoned dog. I think he wants to see what I’m writing. You can read it on my blog, I want to tell him. But I don’t. I just do that not so subtle arm across the page thing, like the super-smart kid in math class who didn’t want anybody riding her mathlete coattails.
11.15am. That’s 45-minutes. I can’t wait an hour, especially as I’ve heard no word that he is even coming. No word that he is actually OK and not lying in a coma in the local hospital … no, he has met someone. I am sure that is it. Yesterday was Valentine’s Day.
An overweight, shirtless man with a vast collection of tattoos stalks past me, muttering something about the dangers of choppers. Or coppers? I don’t like to ask him to clarify. I don’t think he’d like me to ask him to clarify. My dress sticks to my back. My once straightened hair is shoved into one of those cool messy buns all the girls do now, except mine is more mess and less cool.
Finally, my maybe neighbours leave.
Still no response.
I am going to get up, hold my head up high, march inside and pay for this overpriced peppermint tea. The other teas here sound amazing: Silver Fox, Genmaiche, Ancient Moonlight … No, don’t hide in the menu – get inside. Go.
11.25am. Peppermint tea finished. Operation head-up-high, this-was-not-a-date-and-I-haven’t-been-stood-up-at-all-my-friend-is-just-busy-or-hung-over-or-madly-in-love-or-in-hospital-or-something is about to take place …
I pay without one sympathetic, questioning, judgemental look.
I leave –
“Thank you ma’am,” the waitress smiles weakly as she picks up the still full extra glass of water from my table for one …
Ruby didn’t want to be there. She had been promised a visit to the park. This place was the complete opposite of the park (she knew all about opposites and this was most definitely an opposite). It was dark and smelt weird and her new sneakers stuck to the dirty carpet. She was not happy and showed her dad this by staring at her sneakers. He didn’t seem to notice.
She loved her new sneakers. They were purple and lit up with sparkles of colour every time she took a step. She liked to imagine she was walking on stars. But her sneakers didn’t light up here – they just stuck stubbornly to the thin carpet. It made her sad. Her new sneakers were for running and sliding and jumping and most definitely not for sticking to dirty carpet.
He had been promising to take her to the park for ages now but there was always an excuse; he was busy or tired or it was raining or he had one of those headaches he always seemed to have. But today he didn’t have a headache and it wasn’t raining and he had said put on your new sneakers we’re going to the park. So she did. She was wearing her new sneakers but this was not the park.
He hadn’t kept his side of the bargain. Ruby knew all about bargains and so far she had done her bit but her dad was letting her down. Again. Like those times Jake would want to make a bargain with their lunches and she would end up swapping a chocolate chip cookie for an apple. Yes, Ruby knew all about unfair bargains.
She wasn’t going to lose out this time.
She pulled on his jacket but he didn’t look at her. She squeezed his hand so tightly it made her screw up her nose but he didn’t look at her. She jumped on his foot, her left sneaker lighting up like a Christmas tree, but he still didn’t look.
She took a deep breath and used a voice louder than any voice she had ever used before; “Let’s go!” She knew it must have been really loud because Mrs Peachy always scolded her for being too loud even when she whispering secrets to Jake in her quiet voice. She was terrible at keeping secrets and she was terrible at being quiet. “I don’t wanna be here,” she said in the loudest voice she had ever used. Ever.
Ruby’s father still didn’t look but the old man sitting behind a table full of empty glasses did. He stared. She pulled her hair over her face and peered at him through the fine curtain. He smiled at her, a toothless smile that made her stomach feel like it was full of angry, mean butterflies. She stuck her tongue out at him, even though she knew it was rude, and got a mouthful of hair. The old man laughed and belched at her as she hid her face in her dad’s jacket. But still he didn’t look.
He was looking at someone else.
Ruby removed herself from the jacket and tried to see what he was seeing. She followed his gaze to the other side of the room, to a table tucked in the corner behind which sat a woman with messy hair and dark eyes. She had her elbows on the table and one foot resting on the chair in front of her. Ruby frowned at the woman’s very bad manners (she knew all about manners and these were most definitely bad ones).
“Who’s that?” Ruby tried to use her quiet voice. It felt like the right time to be quiet.
Ruby looked at the woman at the table again and wondered whether she had put her dad under some spell. Maybe she was a witch. Maybe she had frozen him to the spot with her dark, magical eyes. Maybe she had stolen his voice box.
“Dad …” she was starting to worry that they may never make it to the park. It felt like they had been here for a long time.
“Go say hello.”
Finally, her dad was looking at her. She tried to smile at him but there was something about him, about his voice and his eyes, that didn’t seem quite right. She pulled her hair over her face.
“Don’t do that.” He gently pulled her hair back. “Go say hello.”
“To who?” She hit his hands away, he was always trying to make her hair neat and she hated it.
He pointed to the woman at the table with the bad manners. “We can go to the park after. OK?”
Ruby had never seen her dad look so small but right there, right in front of her, it looked as if he had lost all his air – like the last balloon at a birthday party, sad and unwanted. She was sure that woman was a witch. An air-stealing witch. She didn’t want to say hello to a witch but she didn’t want her dad to look so empty. It made those mean butterflies start doing laps in her stomach again.
She took a deep breath and let her sneakers take her on a sticky star walk across the galaxy to the witch at the table in the corner.
Melinda needed another drink. She got up from the table, steadied herself and took a step towards the bar. Suddenly, right under her feet was a little girl wearing sneakers that flashed like police lights. Melinda winced as the girl said something in a loud, high-pitched voice. She pushed past the little thing to get to the bar.
Ruby turned at looked at her dad and shrugged her shoulders. She told herself she was most definitely OK but somehow all those angry, mean butterflies escaped and burst from her eyes and her nose and her mouth and suddenly she was crying. Ruby never cried. Jake cried more than she did and he was boy and everyone knew boys weren’t supposed to cry so much. Ruby knew all about crying. She hated it but she couldn’t help it.
Melinda tried to ignore the scene in front of her and ordered a double. She gulped it down. It didn’t help. She ordered another.
Ruby watched her father refill with air and rush toward her. As he hugged her she felt butterflies disappear.
“I said hello,” she said. “Can we go to the park now?”
Ruby’s dad took her hand and walked on her stars out into the sunlight and towards the park and didn’t look back – even though Ruby was sure she heard someone call their names in a voice which was trying to be quiet.
“I’d rather be here.”
“I’m not paying you to be here. Like I said, you’re bloody useless.”
Sam wanted to reply but the words got caught somewhere between his lungs and voice box and there they stayed, lodged in his chest, bringing tears to his eyes. Before he could stop it one escaped and rolled triumphantly down his cheek.
“Jesus Christ – go home,” Charlie’s bark was a little less biting as he handed him a tissue.
Sam hated his job. He had been planning to resign the very moment he started. But she had told him it was only temporary and she had meant it. Then. Of course she had meant it.
The fluorescent lights flickered and hummed. He watched a determined moth knock itself senseless against the plastic light fitting.
“Look at that little guy,” he said to no one in particular. He was always doing that; talking to no one in particular. It used to drive her insane, she had told him as much with that you’re-embarrassing-me-we’ll-discuss-this-when-we-get-home look he knew only too well.
Charlie, on the other hand, simply stared at him blankly.
“Jesus Christ, go –” but before Charlie could complete his somewhat predictable sentence the ding-dong customer alert chimed from the sliding doors.
Charlie sat up like a meerkat.
The ding-dong customer alert could be misleading at times. It had a tendency to be temperamental and cruel – raising the hopes of desperate salesman who felt sure this would be the sale they’d been waiting for only to learn it was just the wind. Sam liked to imagine it wasn’t the wind but ghosts who hadn’t yet realised they were actually dead going about their daily business, shopping for furniture, wondering why the sales assistants were ignoring them … He had mentioned this to Charlie who looked at him strangely and told him there was vacuuming to be done. Sam was always vacuuming – he felt more like a cleaner than a sales assistant.
The ding-dong customer alert continued to ding-dong and alert as the young couple stood, confused and unsure, in the entrance to the store. Charlie fixed his tie, popped a mint in his mouth and grabbed a clipboard. “Nothing in it but it makes you look important. Customers respond to that sort of thing. It is all part of my technique,” Charlie had told him on his first day.
Charlie stood up and tucked his shirt in; his ever-increasing beer-belly clearly took offence to the constraints of business wear. His sizeable belly constantly pulled his shirt away from his pants, burst belt buckles, popped buttons. He blamed manufacturing, the drycleaner, his wife but never the beer, fried food and copious amounts of cream and jam donuts that filled his morning tea ritual. Sam would push out his belly at home and warn her that he too could look like that one day. She laughed that laugh and told him she would love him no matter how fat he got and added it was only a temporary job anyway, he wouldn’t be there forever. He didn’t tell her but he had noticed his pants were getting tighter and his face a little rounder – he quietly did fifty sit ups every night when he thought she had drifted off to sleep.
Charlie took up his suit jacket from the back of his chair and slowly put it on. Sam quite enjoyed watching Charlie’s pre-sale routine. “You don’t want to appear too eager,” had been another pearl of wisdom Charlie had kindly shared on Sam’s first day. Unfortunately customers were becoming an endangered species at Crazy Charlie’s Furniture Emporium and the mantra you-don’t-want-to-appear-too-eager often meant losing customers before eye contact could be made. Sam blamed the fluorescent lights; Charlie blamed the economy, the competition, himself.
The ding-dong customer alert continued to ding-dong – happy that it had the opportunity to announce real customers rather than those pesky ghosts who persisted in shopping for furniture despite the fact they were dead. The young couple scanned the store from the comfort of the welcome mat (Charlie said customers respond to that sort of thing, it made the store welcoming because it said as much on the mat) and then whispered quietly to each other. It looked as if they were plotting their getaway.
“I’ve got to grab them. Just – just …” he flapped his arms uselessly as he trotted over to the couple, all minty-fresh, clipboarded and tucked-in.
Sam knew what the flapping arms meant: Stay away from the customers. He’d seen those flapping arms on numerous occasions, predominately in his first month of employment when he was forced to wear the condescending ‘in-training’ badge and laugh uproariously whenever a customer attempted witty repartee about his ‘name badge’.
“Where’s that from?” they’d ask with a smirk.
“Excuse me?” he would feign confusion.
“Your name,” they’d point to the badge to emphasis the hilarity of the joke, “In Training.”
They’d always put on some dreadfully insulting accent – French or German or something – Monsieur Entrainin, Herr Intraining. Then he would laugh and they would beam at their cleverness and continue to “just browse” and leave with a “see ya Mr Training” but no sofa or coffee table or five dollar throw cushion which was an absolute steal but no thanks not today … He hated customers. He had told her he was not cut out for customer service and she just laughed that laughed and told him it was only temporary.
He watched Charlie convince the couple to extract themselves from the welcome mat and take a wander around the store. Charlie would be their guide. Their friend. Their assistant. “Never call yourself a sales assistant,” he had told him, “it puts people off.”
The couple looked as dazed and confused as the moth who continued to knock himself against the light fitting. Sam wondered whether they too had simply been drawn in by the fluorescent lights.
He remembered visits to stores like this. He remembered feeling overwhelmed, wondering why they needed to buy a new sofa at all when the one he had picked up from roadside collection was quite adequate and a perfect example of lowering one’s carbon footprint and recycling and affirmative action for the environment because, after all, she was the so-called environmentalist and how could she buy into that Western wastefulness, that Capitalist greed … He sighed. Why could he only remember the fights?
Sam watched as the couple contemplated the queen-sized mattress. They looked like oversized dolls, lying shoulder to shoulder, shoes on, arms by their sides, stiff and disinterested as Charlie pointed out the miracles of the foam, the springs, the stitching. Sam watched as the woman took her partner’s hand. Sam watched as the man gently brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. Sam watched as she cupped his face. Sam watched as Charlie, in discomfort and politeness, referred to the clipboard and cleared his throat. Sam watched the tender scene unfold whilst the moth thumped against the fluorescent lights that hummed overhead. Sam watched as the woman told the man they were being watched. Sam watched as the woman pointed him out.
“What are you looking at?” the young man shouted from the mattress.
Sam remembered how she lay like that; she had looked like a tiny, porcelain doll upon the mattress, arms by her side, stiff and disinterested. He hadn’t expected it, her, to look so unnatural. On their backs, shoulder to shoulder, arms by her side he had picked up one of her delicate hands and kissed it, he had cupped her face in his hands, he had called her name, he had stroked her hair, he had called the nurse, he had said goodbye. He had known it was coming even though she had insisted, every step of the way, that it was only temporary – the hair-loss and the injections and the vomit and waiting rooms …
“Hey! Retard! What’s your problem?”
Sam didn’t know where else to go so he had come to work; his temporary job.
The young man stormed towards Sam. The young woman sneered. Charlie flapped his arms uselessly. Sam continued to watch and blink and breathe and listen to the dull thump of the hapless moth.
“He’s still going for it. What a determined little guy,” he said to no one in particular.
Unfortunately there was someone in particular who assumed Sam was speaking to him.
The man moved in close to Sam, his warm breath smelling like fast food and sugary energy drinks. Sam watched the man’s lips that had, moments earlier, kissed the young woman’s hand suddenly curl and contort into a barrage of insult. The young woman appeared at her partner’s shoulder and pulled him back. Sam watched the woman’s hand that, moments earlier, cupped the young man’s face suddenly twist into a finger sign.
The ding-dong customer alert sounded and they were gone.
Charlie stood on the welcome mat, flapping his arms uselessly in time with sound of the ding-dong. “Jesus Christ. Sam. Jesus –” Charlie put the clipboard back in the drawer, returned his suit jacket to the back of his chair, untucked his shirt and exhaled for what seemed an eternity.
“I know, I know. I’ll …” He considered going back to the house. Usually as he pulled into the Crazy Charlie’s Furniture Emporium parking lot all he could think about was turning the car around and heading back home.
The moth fluttered and faltered around the light above him.
Sam’s job usually included spraying the moths with fly spray or inducing a fatal blow with the rolled up newspaper. Not today. Charlie watched as Sam stood on the desk, reached up to the light and gently cupped the moth in his hands. He watched as Sam slowly made his way across the store with the moth cradled in the cage of his hands. He heard the ding-dong customer alert as Sam tenderly released the moth into the parking lot.
Sam stood, a lone figure on a welcome mat, and watched the moth flutter and fly until he could see it no more.
“Come and have a donut,” Charlie called.
Sam wiped his feet on the mat and returned to his temporary job.
Making myself keep up with this blog with the help of The Daily Prompt Weekly Writing Challenge – Dialogue