This is an older piece with way too many adjectives. Cut some, left the rest.
The problem with trying to "make it" in traditional publishing is that I find myself clutching newer pieces Gollum-like to my chest, just in case a munificent trad gatekeeper deems a piece good enough to include in a longlist or anthology, in which case previous publication online is a no-no. Still trying to work through how I feel about that. In the meantime, here is something from long ago.
1:32pm - Small Talk
The meeting was unplanned. It feels vaguely embarrassing, that they can create such a display of dramatic coincidence, colliding at the street corner where the bank building with mirrored windows stands with its straight-angled edge. The lights turn red. Pedestrians flood onto the intersection among the traffic brought to a stop. Car horns sound, motors rumble, Sudha’s paper cup of half-drunk coffee falls to the ground, the lukewarm liquid splashing onto the pavement.
“Oh,” Lauren says, eyebrows raised. “Hey. How are you?”
Sudha laughs, not in delight or discomfort but a mixture of both, for surely this is the way fictions begin, bumping into an old friend on the corner of Victoria street, the sun a watery silver orb in the sky. The moment is impossibly perfect in its own way. Perfect, if she doesn’t have to think about the small talk that ensues. She steps back from the puddle of coffee. “What are you up to?”
“Work.” Lauren slips one hand into her coat pocket and moves away from the footpath. They stand, face to face, beside the mirrored windows, their reflections muted in the dark glass.
Sudha notices the other woman’s faded black skirt and scuffed shoes. “Where do you work now?”
“Waitressing,” Lauren replies, and in one inconspicuous glance takes in Sudha’s charcoal silk suit, the too-bright shade of lipstick. “Okami, the Japanese restaurant down the street,” she adds, and as she speaks those extra words she feels the weight of their inconsequence. “What about you? Still at the same firm?”
Sudha smiles again. “I’m Senior Associate now. You know, boring stuff. Clients.”
“Yeah,” Lauren says. “Cool.”
“What have you been doing?” Sudha asks. After all these years there remains that careless energy about Lauren, the bohemian free-spirit, who never quite seemed to belong to the world of objects. For a moment, it does not matter that Sudha is the one wearing the expensive Prada heels. Equally, it does not matter that Sudha is headed for a boardroom meeting behind closed doors instead of throwaway labour, serving sushi to balding businessmen on half-hour lunch breaks. The longing remains the same, the old terror of seeing people’s eyes lose focus, glaze over. Seeing them turn away. “How long has it been,” she says quickly, “since…? God, it’s been years…”
“I’ve been good,” Lauren replies. “Working, mainly. I’m doing some courses at the polytech.”
“Oh! What courses?”
“Jewellery-making, massage. Part time.”
“That’s very nice,” Sudha’s voice takes on a falsetto edge, a disappointed mother trying to act happy for her children’s sake. “Sounds like great fun.”
“It is.” A pause as Lauren ruminates over the sincerity of the statement. “What about you?”
“In my spare time? What spare time?”
Lauren chuckles politely. Another pause. “Are you still with James?”
“Actually we just bought a flat.” Sudha names a fashionable district. Two bedrooms, sunroom, a small garden. Incredibly good fortune to have landed it, really. Lauren nods and smiles and remembers that Sudha’s parents have always had an unhealthy obsession with houses, a habit that their daughter despised, once upon a time.
“And how is Marcus?” asks Sudha. A freezing wind swirls around her ankles and she notices the spilled coffee had seeped into her stockings, the damp patch straying dangerously close to her shoes. Perfect Italian Leather. She blanches, but does not do anything to salvage the situation. Not in front of Lauren. Never in front of Lauren.
“He’s fine.” Lauren is matter-of-fact. “He’s a sound engineer now, for Absolution. You know, the bar in town. We go there most nights.”
Sudha looks wistful. “I miss going to gigs. Reminds me of uni days.”
“There’s no reason why you can’t go now.”
Sudha seems taken aback at the possibility. “James doesn’t like it. We don’t really go out.” She laughs. “I guess we’re just one of those old couples who stay home and watch telly.”
“Mm,” Lauren says. She glances at their reflections in the glass, her sallow skin. She suddenly wishes that she, too, had worn lipstick, and it catches her by surprise, the strength of that desire, like the breaking of a wave overhead.
“We should really catch up sometime,” Sudha says, her eyes darting over the other woman’s expression with a mixture of rue and hope, very thinly disguised.
“Yeah,” Lauren agrees. “Maybe take a look at your new flat. I haven’t seen James in ages.”
“I’ll call you,” promises Sudha. Awkwardness breaks through her casual veneer, hard as a knife and twice as perceptible as its cutting edge. “You still have the same number?”
“Yes.” There is a small tremulous note in Lauren’s voice. A contrived carelessness, perhaps, concealing what is really a secret embarrassment that life had not moved forward for her? Still in that large run-down house, then, still within the whitewashed, boarded walls, the dank hallway and high ceiling. The living room perpetually littered with leads and amplifiers, glimmers of rainbow light filtering through the crystals hanging in the window, the air thick with incense smoke. There is something almost obscene about a thirty-two year old woman still living like that. Sudha envies and despises the thought in equal measures.
“I’ll call you,” she says again, and in the same breath announces, “I’d better go.” She looks at her watch and feigns disappointment, “I have a meeting in ten minutes. It was good to see you.”
“Good to see you,” Lauren echoes. The words plummet through the air and land in the puddle of coffee sitting on the sidewalk, its milky brownness reflecting a fragment of the sky.
Sudha nods, smiles, moves on. Lauren stands still for a moment, and then she, too, continues walking.
6:27pm - Side A
Sudha opens the door to the flat and places take-out cartons of Thai food on the kitchen counter. The maid has been and gone; last night’s dishes are clean and stacked beside the sink. The kitchen smells faintly of lemon-scented detergent.
She kicks off her shoes and walks into the living room. James is already home, his attention focused on the game of Counter Strike flickering on the computer screen.
“Hello,” she kisses him on the top of his head.
“Hey,” he replies without looking up, his fingers flying over the keyboard.
She removes her suit jacket. “I bought takeaways.”
“I ran into Lauren today.”
He hits the mouse button quickly and with more vehemence than, she thinks, is strictly necessary. “What's she like now?”
She considers. “I guess the same.”
“Still with Marcus?”
“Still with Marcus.”
He smirks. “Still working at Burger King, I suppose.”
“No,” she says, “she’s a waitress now. Okami in town.”
The sounds of electronic destruction issue from the speakers. With an exclamation of disgust he throws up his hands and turns away from the monitor. “The other guy cheated,” he exclaims, his eyes flashing.
“That’s no good.” As she says these weary placating words she understands, completely, that they are not what he wants to hear. An old, bitter taste rises from her throat and coats her tongue. “It’s just a game,” she says.
His expression closes over like blinds flipping shut. He turns back to the game. She waits for a moment longer, watching his face illuminated by the screen. Then she turns and pads back into the kitchen, her feet making no sound across the moss-green carpet.
Here is the night that settles around them, and with the flick of a switch, here are the soft circles of yellow light that cut through the dim outlines in the kitchen. She rummages through the cutlery drawer, letting the sound of silver clashing against silver interrupt the sounds of the game, the bleeps and blasts, issuing across rooms and hallways. She thinks of Lauren. The music in Absolution bar, watching Marcus’ intent face as he stands before a switchboard, the deep shudder of a bass note beneath their feet. She exhales, straightens herself, and returns to the lounge.
James accepts a Thai carton without looking at its contents. She sets a fork down beside the keyboard. “Thanks,” he says absently.
She sits down on their new couch and turns on the television, watching the colours flare up, for a moment, the tones unbalanced, garish, red-tinged. Then the image flickers and settles. She begins to eat her meal.
10:54pm - Side B
Lauren arrives at Absolution after her shift at the restaurant. She spies Marcus at the back of the bar and walks to him, shuffling her aching feet. The dim light above their heads forms a shifting, liquid net.
He is speaking with the guitarist from a local band she half-knows. He sees her, gives a small wave, and pecks her distractedly on the cheek. He continues to talk, but also reaches over to circle his thumb and forefinger around her left wrist, loosely, like a bracelet tag. She sits down beside him and his hold tightens, his fingers warm and slightly sticky. A surge of love rises in her chest, along with a less discernible feeling of weightlessness.
This, then, is life in all its glory. A bar full of music, a smile, a kiss on the cheek. It was all that she had wanted. But as she looks toward the band warming up onstage, she feels the full weight of her age pressing down on her, rank with new uncertainty.
He finishes his conversation and makes a quick trip to the bar, bringing back a bottle of pre-mixed cocktail. She smiles: he always remembered that single, minor act of chivalry. He did not ask, did not need prompting. James never liked to spend frivolous money and she remembered the voracious look in Sudha’s eyes, back when they still went out together as a foursome, when the first thing Marcus did was to saunter up to the bar and come back with a bottle in cold, bright jewel colours, pressing it into Lauren’s hands without ceremony. Sudha had glanced at James, whispering in his ear, the sound of it like a hiss. James had glanced back, exasperated, almost disgusted, and he paid begrudgingly for Sudha’s drink, all the while muttering about the ridiculous mark-up. He, like most men, was oblivious to the trivial battles between women, small victories, triumphant smiles barely noticeable in the semi-darkness. Lauren had smiled then.
“I ran into Sudha today,” she says, running a finger down the frosted neck of the bottle.
He leans closer to hear her over the din. “What was she like?”
She takes a sip of her drink. “The same, I guess.”
“Still with that sour loser?”
“Still whoring herself out to the corporate machine, I bet.”
For a moment she looks at him, disgust bubbling up in her stomach as though she had taken a swig of soured milk. “They've just bought a flat,” she says quietly. “She makes good money...”
“Band's on,” he interrupts, rubbing her shoulder briskly. “I gotta…” the rest of his words are drowned out as he moves toward the sound booth, flashing a thumbs-up to the stage.
Lauren nods, more to herself than anyone else. She drinks, savouring the familiar tang, the saccharine flavour of blueberries imprinted with the headier aftertaste of vodka. There is a warm trail from her tongue to her throat. She watches Marcus. She nurses her drink. She swings her legs, swollen from standing, back and forth.
But tonight she also thinks, perhaps inevitably, of the unpaid rent, the cold that never leaves the house, the damp spots on the ceiling. She thinks of the winged ants that had taken up residence in a corner of the kitchen cupboard. She thinks of Sudha and James, smug and satisfied in a world of plastic and chrome, watching television in all their white-collar mediocrity. She looks at Marcus in his op-shop ensemble of a striped 80s shirt and baggy camouflage pants. She tries to smile at him, but he is bent over the sound deck. He does not look her way.
The light wavers; a guitar riff cuts through the peripheral chatter. She watches as he makes a minor adjustment to a dial, his forehead furrowed in concentration. Her drink has grown warm and bitter. She closes her eyes.