He lights me a cigarette. He cracks open the window enough to let the stale air out and the lighter air in, and the drapes flutter in the breeze. Silly weightless voile things, but then, he didn’t pick them; she did. He slides into the bed beside me and I take my place under his arm. Sweat has gathered there, still fresh and odourless, damp and sticky against my shoulder. His skin is softly tanned, his chin is prickled with stubble, and in the half-light he looks much older than his twenty-seven years. He takes the cigarette from my mouth and savours a long drag, blowing the smoke in a large puff unlike my own thin, steady stream. We pass the cigarette between us, sharing it although we still have a whole pack, and we stare at the ceiling for an age.
Finally, he speaks, from far away. “I miss her.”
But today, I do not wish to entertain his sentiments about Erica. Today, I am trembling and raw; my very bones rattled; and today – just for today – I want nothing more than to pretend. “We ought to wash these sheets, Alex,” I say, and he picks up on my cue. We are to act domestic, as if the cleanliness of his sheets is something that affects the both of us.
“Yeah. They’re getting pretty…”
Ripe would be an adequate word; or filthy; or gross. But we don’t say these sort of things. To do so would be to acknowledge that what we have is something unclean.
“They’re pretty due a wash,” he finishes.
On the ceiling, above us, is the smallest circle of yellow. Sometimes he frowns at it, as if as soon as we are done he is already wondering how we will get the stain out. Sometimes his frown tells me that the nicotine ring is not the only stain he worries about washing away.
I take his watch from the nightstand and check the time. Hours have passed quickly, as they always do, and I will be late for work. “I should go; I’m running late.” But I pause and look at him, watch as he bites his lip. He wants to tell me to leave; to shower at my own place. Pretending only goes so far, and that limit, apparently, is a cabinet full of expensive, fruity bath products. They’re only in the cabinet at all because I told him it was time to take them off the shelf.
He sighs. “I bought you your own soap. It’s under the sink.”
I am welcomed in, but only so far.
Whispers begin the moment I step into the restaurant. No amount of lather could wash the stink off of me, it seems. Perhaps it is my hair that gives me away, so obviously matted even though it is pulled back into a ponytail. Perhaps it is the mascara that has smudged under my eyes, and would not shift without my trusted makeup remover. All these things, together, mark a woman who has not come from her own home.
“Well, look who’s decided to join us!” My manager, Yusef, wipes his brow with a napkin. Meat sweats and whiskey breath. He takes my arm and pulls me past the hostess’s podium, where a thin blonde is looking at me as if I have shit on my shoe, and he drags me into the back where no customers are seated. “You must think you’re hot shit, Rosleen. Thirty minutes late. What, you think you’re invincible? You think I won’t fire you?”
I look at my fingernails to keep from seeing the wet patches under his arms, under his collar, under his tits. He mistakes this for humility.
“Get out there.”
Yusef’s friends swing by around seven. They are drunk by eight. As always, they take the table in the private room; the best table; the one that is reserved for paying customers. As always, they do not pay, and Yusef dances like a puppet for them, attending to their most ridiculous needs and sending me in for reinforcements. He sends me because I am twenty-four, redheaded, and his fifty-something-year-old friends like to paw at women like me. Meanwhile, they pull faces behind Yusef’s back, and you don’t need to speak their language to translate that they are mocking him. Yusef thinks he is in on the joke.
I come to their table with a tray of drinks and a smile, serving their ringleader first. “Marinel-” but before I can hand Marinel his whiskey sour, he has pulled me into his lap, to roars of laughter from the others.
Yusef chooses this precise moment to come to their table with shots that no one ordered. He looks from my face to Marinel’s, and back again. He shrugs, and places the tequila on the table.
I should get up and leave. I should tell Yusef I am not waiting on his handsy friends anymore. But tonight, my head is ringing. Tonight, all I can hear are nine words: I miss her, and I bought you your own soap. So I pick up a shot of tequila and I throw it into Marinel’s face. It hits him squarely in the eye and he reels back, crying out. Before Yusef can pull me away, I slap Marinel.
Yusef, in his fury, is wide-eyed and red faced. The sweat that prickles his brow is now running in pools, but he does not dab at it. “Get. Out,” he says, slowly, spittle flying.
I stand, defiant, and take off my apron. I throw it to the ground. When I walk past him I do not break eye contact, not even when he has to turn around to maintain it as I pass behind him. He looks away first, and I have won.
One of the waitresses demands to know where I am going as I storm past her towards the door. Another remarks that I’m probably going back to the whorehouse.
I don’t correct her. Sometimes it feels like they are right.
Alex picks up on the third ring. When he speaks, I can hear the sleep in his voice. “Hello?”
“I got fired. Well, I quit. I don’t know which.”
I hear the rustling of sheets. He is sitting bolt upright in bed. “What?”
“Can I come over?”
A moment’s hesitation. He’s not certain. After all this time, he’s still not certain. “Sure,” he says, but he’s not and he isn’t convincing me.
“Forget about it. I’ll just go home.”
“No, wait, Rosleen-” frantic, now; wishing he could eat up his words, or, rather, his hesitation; his lack of words. “I’m sorry. Please, come on over. I’m here.”
When I get there, he has music playing. Something is cooking on the stove, filling his apartment with a rich, red wine smell. He takes my face in his hands the moment he opens the door to me – I still don’t have a key – and kisses me hungrily. “What happened?” he asks me, and I tell him as he pours the wine.
Three glasses in, reality hits me. “Shit,” I say, rising to my feet in horror. “How am I going to pay my rent?”
“Don’t worry about that.” He puts a hand on my shoulder and steers me back into my chair – and for the sensitivity he shows by not putting me on his lap, my heart leaps for him – and for one beautiful moment I think he’s going to ask me, at last. After all these months, maybe he is finally ready.
“I can cover your rent until you’re on your feet,” he says, and my heart shrinks, deflated, to its normal size. He is not ready, as I am, to force himself to move on. Not even after three months of carefully avoiding her name and her memory. My head is thumping, wild with thoughts. I can still feel Marinel’s hands on me, and I want to shower – not with soap that he bought specially for me, but with the shit that she was clearly never going to come back to use.
“I’m going to shower,” I say, “and the soap you bought me smells like my grandmother. I’ll use something else.”
Alex is after me in a flash, letting himself into the bathroom as I undress and let the water run. “You can’t just help yourself,” he says, with such a panic in his voice that I can’t even feel any anger, only pity.
“She’s not coming back for any of this!”
All I can do is hope that he knows I am not just talking about shampoo.
I see his jaw clench. He shakes his head and turns his gaze away from me. “Do what you want,” he says, before leaving, closing the door behind him and shutting me away.
I use the soap that smells like my grandmother.
“I think I’ll go now. Back to my place, I mean.”
Any anger from the bathroom has softened, and when he says “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow,” there is no friction in his words. But he does not look up from the saucepan he is washing.
“No, I mean, I think we’re done here. I don’t think that this is good for either of us.”
Now his hands stop moving about in the sudsy water. “I don’t want you to go. I- I need you here.”
And the truth is that I need him. He feels the pain of a love he has lost. I feel the pain of a love I have never won. We are both in love with other people, but when we pretend, we can be – for just a moment – happy. But when the pretending stops we realise that if either of us had what we truly wanted, we would not be together at all. We are a scratch that temporarily soothes an itch, and nothing more.
I put my arms around him. “Alex, this is helping no one.”
He turns and takes me in his arms, his hands – still wet – running over my body. And God help me, I still need to feel his hands. When he holds me it is a little like I am loved, and I still need to pretend. He takes me upstairs, to where we still have not washed the sheets. The room still smells like the afternoon’s cigarettes, I am sure, but we barely notice it anymore. This is how we live. We fight and we fuck and we pretend. We come running to each other at the drop of a hat, but there no love between us, only a desperate need.
When we are done, I complain of soreness. He brings me painkillers and a glass of cool water. I take my place under his arm. We share a cigarette, looking at the ring we have formed on the ceiling. Tomorrow, I must find a new job. I must ask my landlord for an extension on the rent, before I end up on the street.
But today, I will pretend.