Apartment, 1962, 12th June
The sound of Billie Holiday fills the apartment, the sunlight wavering and dancing to the tune. Marie got this record for me.
She’s dancing as she cleans, hips swaying. When I’m finished putting the bowls and things away, I light a cigarette, gesturing the deck to Marie in an offering. She stops her task, (arranging the piles on the floor) and comes so close to me, so close. She pushes her unlit cigarette against mine so it begins smoking. She smiles at her shoes, then looks up at me. She doesn’t back away and there’s an inch of space between us, our chests all but touching. Then she stands on her tiptoes and kisses me on the cheek, so softly. She spins away, her dress creating a perfect circle around her, and dances. I watch her, swaying softly and rolling up my sleeves to catch the sunlight.
She looks at me looking at her, smiling, her lips catching the sun. I don’t look away, I don’t feel like I have to.
As soon as my cigarette has stopped smoking, I re-address the floor, attacking the pile of books and papers. I realise some of them are Marie’s, and hot embarrassment runs through my body. They’re A grade, every single one, and always on the back, “come to my office after the approaching class.” Every single one, in blue splotchy ink, a different pen to the red that I use to destroy any flaws in any of the other student’s papers.
I’m staring at the pages, and Marie, still rocking from side to side, her feet perfectly in time with the rhythm. “…You took the best so why not take the rest,” Billie sings in the background. I don’t remember when I took her papers out, or when I read them, but then again, I haven’t spent a sober moment in my apartment since Marie left.
After the jackets and shoes pile has been attended to, only the empty bottles remain. Marie’s back to cleaning after flipping the record side, sweeping around me, but I don’t feel the pressure to move faster, so I walk slowly and swing my hips to the music.
“You have a drinking problem I think, my dear.” Marie says, gently.
“How would you know, Marie?”
“Don’t you remember my father?” There’s a pause. “We’ll speak of it later.” I don’t want to talk about it at all, but in order not to spoil the moment I nod and stack the bottles into a bin bag I found under the kitchen sink.
An older woman, pale and big, carries a younger woman with glowing brown skin into creased sheets. They kiss slowly, everywhere, as the sun goes down, and they don’t stop when only the stars are left to watch.
Park, 1962, 29th November
It’s late, as always. I haven’t seen Marie in the light since that day in the apartment. She says it’s still too risky in the daylight. She’s right of course. The slowly forming droplets of dew seep into my skirt, and I daren’t move in case I just end up soaking it in more. The moon is covered by clouds, desperately trying to creep out from behind its unwanted curtain. The stars seem to be doing a better job. Perhaps the bulk of the moon is making it harder. The silvery light drapes across me and Marie, never fully, never effortlessly.
I place my hand on her lap, her thighs warm and sleek through her skirt. My pale fingers face up to the sky, and as my heart always hopes, she laces her fingers through mine, making my hand and palm look even more pale. But I don’t care when I can feel her heart beating through her chest, not quite steady, and it gives me hope. I rest my head on her shoulder, and look up at the sky. There’s so much more I want, there’s always so much more I want. I will never be satisfied, content, without everything I have ever dreamed of, I think it’s just how I was made.
I hear footsteps, and I would love to ignore them, maybe I could ignore them. Marie’s shoulder tenses under my head, her fingers loosening as she pulls her hand back to her side, and slides away from me on the bench. I’ve lost her, every time this happens it hits me the same as it always has. A man walks the path in front of us, glancing at us momentarily before he returns his attention to his cigarette, and then, having felt the same droplets I just did, begins to stride quickly, eager to escape the oncoming rain.
When I dare look at her, Marie is staring straight ahead. I want to hold her hand again, but she doesn’t offer it, and I don’t want to seem desperate, even though I am, I always am.
She must know that I’m looking at her, but she doesn’t move. Minutes pass and we sit there, alone in the park, the rain beginning to fall steadily around us, dampening our skirts and shirts, soaking our coats with its determined rhythm.
It makes me angry. The longer I stare at her, the more my chest swells, my head clouds and a veil covers my love for her, or perhaps it lifts, exposing the purity of my love for her.
Two women lie in a bed, in an apartment, skin mixing and hands all over each other. Above them a man attempts to cook dinner for his wife, next door a woman folds the washing and puts it away, while a man sits at his desk, unlikely that he will move until the sun comes up, he has to finish this paper.
Apartment 1962 12th June
We’ve gone through four records and more than a deck and a half of cigarettes. The windows are still open and I would rather be out there, sitting on the couch which we rearranged so it sits on the back of the wall in the corner, just perfectly to catch the late afternoon light.
Instead we’ll slave away in here, with the speakers blasting from the living room through the open door, playing Jazz Classics of the forties.
My god, I want to hug her. So I do.
She’s standing and I wrap my arms around her from behind. I feel her go stiff, rigid. It makes me want to pull away but I don’t, screaming at myself that I just have to do this right, just one thing right, just for her. I start swaying to the music and she softens in my embrace. She moves with me, finally. I touch her hand lightly, and she interlocks my fingers in hers. It feels like it’s happening all over again, accidentally falling in love. I didn’t mean to, of course I didn’t, I only wanted her body, her her. But instead I got this, the love, the pain, the sunshine. She spins away from me, a better dancer that I will ever succeed in being. I spin her and I twirl her, she tries to do the same to me but I really just can’t dance, not in the effortless way that she can. I trip over myself and we both fall onto the ground laughing, hands still entwined. It feels so goddamn perfect I could cry. We stare at the ceiling, cracking and peeling, covered in spots and grime. The record side ends, leaving us with just the soft crackling of the needle on the vinyl. We could have been there for hours.The phrase “Time flies when you’re having fun”; it’s a lie. Time slows down, almost to a stop, my brain trying to trick me into thinking that the moment will last forever. This could be my everything, my whole life, this moment and the year that we had. It ruined everything, utterly everything, and I wouldn’t change it even If I could. I couldn’t lose my love for her even if I wanted to. God only knows I’ve tried.
Marie unlocks my hand and tickles me softly on the inside of my wrist. I giggle, I’m helplessly ticklish, it’s a disaster. She’s the only one who knows that, even Paul didn’t know that, I don’t think he really cared enough to know anything about me. I reprimand myself for not just being in here, in this moment, so I let it go. I wanted to love him, I really did, it would have been so easy, but I just couldn’t. I roll over, curling up and trying to protect myself from the ruthless attack of light fingers. We’re both laughing hysterically now, and Marie says something but I don’t hear her over my own joyful screams.
“What?” I try not to giggle as I speak, try to get myself under control.
“What?” I’m lost now, and I wish she hadn’t spoken. Most of what she says I wish she hadn’t, but I think that’s more just because I just wish she wasn’t.
“It’s not ‘what’, it’s pardon.”
“I was your professor, if I recall.” I’m trying to make a joke out of it, but it stings. I’m not a child, I’m not her fucking project. It used to be Abi and Marie, in my head, now it’s Marie and Abi. I doubt I’ll ever come before her again.
I don’t realise I’ve said it all out loud until I’m halfway through the sentence.
Marie looks shocked, her mouth open then closing tightly.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Abigail you can’t just say things like that and then apologise so you don’t have to talk about it.”
I nearly say sorry again but stop myself just in time.
“It’s a force of habit,” Marie says, “the kids always need correcting on it.” This makes me fume more but I can’t articulate why so I don’t say anything, I just get up and continue the cleaning. I want the music to start playing so the silence isn’t so awful. The once gentle crackle of the record player sounds more like a cackle now.
Then I realise that she never said what I hadn’t heard.
“Let me try again. Pardon? You said something and I didn’t hear you.” I try not to make the pardon bitter, I really don’t mean for it to be, but it comes out with a tone anyway.
She ignores the emphasis.
“I said that you’re beautiful.”
I look at her, I feel like I’m in shock, like after one breaks a bone and they feel completely calm until the pain hits.
“You are too.” It feels more like ‘you are instead’ but as much as I love that she said that, as much as I love the warmth filling me on the inside, I don’t want to talk about it, and if she disputed that she’d think I was fishing for compliments, but I’m not, I’m just stating facts.
She smiles a little, but I’m not sure if it’s real. “Thank you.” She sounds tired. I barely had time to stop fuming when she threw that at me, my head is overloaded and my god I need a drink.
“One moment, I’ll be right back.” I almost add dear but I’m not so brave.
I have a swig of the whiskey in the cabinet, I wouldn’t let Marie organise it, I was too afraid she might smash the bottles, or pour them down the sink. I almost giggle at the thought of what I would do if she smashed them, I think I would go on my knees like a dog and lick it all up.
As soon as I feel the burn in my throat it settles, it all settles.
I head over to the kitchen on an impulse, setting water on the stove to boil, and listening to the sounds of Marie clean. The pasta goes in, and in a separate pot I fry onions and garlic, with olives and a tin of tomatoes. The sauce bubbles and I smile a little, mesmerised by it. I close the door and turn around, then double take when I realise Marie’s standing in the doorway, watching me with a smile just touching her full lips.
The women laugh, feeling each other everywhere and anywhere, the look on their faces, relaxed smiles, pure bliss. And every time they finish, and their breathing slows, they whisper to one another, “again?”
Park 1962 29th November
“What are we doing?” It comes out sharp and I don’t regret it, not one bit.
After a second she deigns to look at me, I must look so pale to her in the moonlight, all skin and no life, my hair drooping off my wrinkles and around my limp shoulders. She once made me feel beautiful, but I don’t think she ever thought I was. There’s a word for it, seduction, manipulation perhaps. I forced her to see me that way, I tricked her. Sometimes I can trick myself into thinking that she did love me, truly, and maybe she did, but right now I need her to leave, or to kiss me, maybe both.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean” I say, drumming my fingers on my knee.
“I don’t, you always do this, acting like I know what you’re thinking. I can’t read minds you know, I don’t always know what you mean, you’re confusing, Abigail.” At least she’s looking at me. And she’s wrong anyway, she does always know what I mean, that’s what love is, knowing what someone else is thinking. That is love.
“What are we doing now? Where does this go? I didn’t end particularly well last time, if you recall.” I know I sound impatient, but I’m not sure how to take that tone out of my voice.
“Abi please, can’t we just be here, now?”
“Here, two friends, partners, lovers, pretending to be strangers on a bench?”
“That’s not how I see it.”
I stand, feeling the cold of the dew on my thighs as the air rushes through my skirt. It’s properly raining now, the wind gaining force. “Of course it’s not how you see it.” I try and make my voice come out calm and measured.
“How do you see it then?” I’m genuinely curious about that.
“It’s just, it’s just some fun Abi.”
“Just. Just. It’s some fun, sure, it’s a good time, but Marie this is everything, don’t you see that? I am nothing without this, I am nothing without you for fuck’s sake Marie. I love you.”
“I know.” She won’t look at me, her eyes seem glazed.
“So what, you don’t love me back anymore?” We haven’t said it to one another for years, a decade, and I want it to have been sweet, caring, loving, but instead it’s just angry.
“Of course I love you but I love this too. All of this.” She sweeps her arm around the park and the rain, a brief smile, or perhaps a grimace, crossing her face.
“What’s all of this, the rain, a park bench with hundreds of sticks of pink gum stuck under the bottom of it.”
“You’re being shallow.” I’m hating her again. For the way she degrades me, how easy it is for her to tear everything down with a string of put together sounds, a sentence.
“So then what is the ‘this’ that you refer to?”
“Just all of this.”
“Minus me.” I want her to disagree but if she does I’ll know it’s just out of pity and that would hurt even more than a nod, knowing that she didn’t even respect me enough to be honest.
But she doesn’t say anything.
So I walk away, fast but deliberately, my shoes clicking, each time accompanied with a tiny splash as the heel enters an ever forming puddle.
I keep going, and I don’t hear her behind me. So I turn back.
We must seem a strange sight, as I stand, looking over her, seeming frail in the pale light of the stars, my face inches from hers, screaming in all ways except the literal.
“So you care more about how you are perceived than who you are. Is that right?”
“You love to be perceived as the good little black girl, the one who didn’t complain.”
My voice is rising now, she doesn’t even flinch, her eyes staring straight through me.
“You love me, sure, but you really love this, the status, the kids and Roger, the perfect man, a man.”
She continues to stare at me, into me.
I want to stop it but I don’t, I need this. So I raise my hand, faster than my brain processes that I’m doing it, and smack her across the face.
Her face turns with the blow, and her eyes close, slowly as the time slows down. Even now, she’s in total power over me. I think she always will be. She probably always has been.
She doesn’t hit me back.
“You are pathetic. You’re a sad, mad alcoholic, you peaked at twenty-five. You think I will choose that over everything I have? You think I want you? I love you, but my god I do not want you.” Her voice is level, almost a whisper. Of course when I hit her face she would know how to hit my heart.
Then she stands, pushing me aside with a finger, and walks off into the rain. I can’t see her after a few meters, the fall has gotten so heavy.
Of course, she doesn’t turn back.
Light falls over two women, their arms around each other, in a tiny apartment in the city. The world moves around them, hating them, and they ignore it, trying, always trying, to forget and just love each other.