“A Good Safe Thing” by Kharys Ateh Laue
You spend the evening in the Champs smoking room, drinking wine and rolling cigarettes while you wait. The air is hot and acrid. A haze of smoke, stained by the dim light, hangs over six wooden booths along the wall. Between the third and fourth of these is a soundproofed door leading to the bar. When it is opened, music breaks into the room and rages on until someone shouts to close the fucking door, and then it is slammed shut again. The door is closed now, but you can feel the music in the wood of the table. You feel it kick up through your fingertips in tremors.
You search the room. People sit knotted about tables and stand strung out along the aisle. Watching them, you wonder if they wait as you do. Their expressions of hilarity or surprise or concern are theatrical, exaggerated by drink. They leave scraps of conversation lying around like offcuts of some ritual garment.
Ja-no, it was hectic, hey.
Oh my word, and then?
Jissis, my bru, you shoulda seen her.
You notice certain men, the large-boned bearded ones that appeal to you, but they seem distant and inaccessible. Five Fridays in a row, each with its own warm dangerous body, but not tonight. Tonight you are high and dry. That is the phrase that comes to you. Tonight I am high and dry.
You lower your eyes, touch the lip of your wine glass. You remember his words because they were words taken from the mouths of others. I can’t do this distance anymore, he had said. You were prepared for it, it had been discussed for months. Nevertheless, in the days before you left you imagined endless versions of your departure. You saw yourself silent, weeping, pleading, laughing. But when finally the day came, you were calm. You embraced him and told him you loved him and walked through the glass doors without looking back. You were awed by your strength. You could not have anticipated, then, the hunger to come.
Rachel and Ava sit across from one another at your table, deep in conversation. You watch the play of their mouths. You think how strange and various an instrument the mouth is. The supple pliancy of it, its soft fragility. You think of what it consumes and what it expels and the multiplicity of acts of which it is capable. And its languages, the languages of the mouth. How it continues to speak long after we fall silent.
You imagine touching their mouths. First Rachel’s, then Ava’s. You see yourself reach and caress, following their conversation through the tips of your fingers, knowing the words by the little actions of their lips.
You look away. Unbuttoning your tobacco pouch, you begin rolling yourself a cigarette.
Ja, but listen to this, Ava is saying. Just take a fucking listen to this, Rache. She leans forward, her arms flat on the table. So just as I’m leaving, okay, he comes up and whispers in my ear that he wants to lick my clit. I’m serious. He takes my hands like this, Rache, like this, and he says, come on, we’re both adults here. We’re human, he says, we both know there’s something.
She leans back and looks at Rachel. Her lips are puffy and red from the wine. She licks them repeatedly, as if they hurt. She says, And he was so fucking sure of himself that I let him say that. I let him say that to me, Rachel.
You notice a helix of hair gummed to Rachel’s temple. Reaching, you brush it back. She glances at you and smiles, and then she looks at Ava again.
Jai? she asks. Jai who does art?
Ja, says Ava. You know him, man. That short guy. Round face, short black beard.
Yoh, she says. That guy’s a shit, Ava. He’s all over town.
Ava looks at the dead end of her cigarette. Ja-no, she says.
Shit, man. He’s a real piece of work. You know he has a girlfriend, hey?
Ava puts the cigarette between her lips. She relights the tip and inhales and places the lighter on the table. She looks at Rachel.
Ja, she says, exhaling. So I heard.
Ah fuck, says Rachel. Ag, Ava. I’m sorry, man.
You sit and smoke. They are too drunk to notice your silence. Their faces glow as if coals burned in the hollows of their throats. They lean towards one another, illustrating words with loud outlandish gestures of their hands. You listen to them and think, I will not phone him. You repeat it to yourself.
You roll your tongue in behind your lip. You are tired of this fucking place. Tired of the people and the noise and the sulphurous light. You take a final drag of your cigarette and crush it in the tin ashtray. You hesitate. Then you get out your phone and reset the Caller ID to Private and put it back in your bag. You pack away your rolling equipment and rise from the table.
Rachel looks up at you. You going? she asks.
Ja, you say. Someone can have my wine.
Ag Soph, says Ava. Stay.
Rachel watches you slip your bag over your shoulder. Come on, Soph, she says. You can’t go. You can’t walk by yourself. Then a look comes into her face and she says, You walking by yourself?
You laugh. Ja, man. Campus is just down the road.
Holding up her glass of wine, Rachel says, If you just let me finish this I’ll walk with you.
I’ll be fine, you say. You kiss her. You lean across and kiss Ava, and then you touch Rachel’s shoulder. I promise you, you say.
As you press your way down the aisle towards the door, Rachel rises from the bench. Walk safe, hey! she calls. Message me when you’re back!
You gesture to show you have heard, and then you open the door and go out into the noise.
Outside, the air is cool, metallic. At the mouth of Scotts Avenue you turn left onto New Street, the hammer of your footsteps flaring high and sharp against the asphalt. As you walk you think of the bars and clubs in the vicinity of this road. Champs, Friars, Rat and Parrot, Prime, Monastery, Slipstream, Old Sixty-Five. Seven of them. Pop music rolls skittering through the streets. A woman screams the lyrics of a song and someone laughs. You walk on, looking neither left nor right, and only when you come to the corner where Somerset intersects New Street do you stop. You stand a moment, breathing. Then you take out your phone. At the sound of the ringback tone, you close your eyes and wait.
Inside, behind your lids, you see Ethan. He lies on a bed, his body naked and spare in the sourceless light. You step forward, bending. You watch his breath stir the wedged shadows between his ribs. Then, passing your hands over him, you begin your study. You trace the coupled lips, here, along the shadowline flexed by the procheilon, parted with your mouth that first time outside your residence. Afterwards, when you apologised for the cigarettes on your breath, he had said, No, you taste of grass. Of grass! you had said, and laughed. Your fingers, remembering, tremble. They falter upwards, to the forehead with the vein in it, and plumb the slope from brow to nose. You come to the eyes, sealed. You touch the lids, mapped faint purple with veins, and envision the gaze below. Underwater green, you had said. Green as sea moss.
You lower the phone and open your eyes. You watch the cars pass. A chill breeze riffles the thin fabric of your blouse, scatters a drift of oak leaves over the road. You listen to the tiny-nailed scratching of the leaves and think, If I hold my breath he will answer. Inhaling, you dial his number a second time and close your eyes.
In your vision, you are stooped as before. Your hands are flat on his chest, here, against the vault of him where you used to fall asleep to the shudder of his heart. Later, you would wake to your sleepsounds, to those murmured offerings that you and he exchanged while you slept, and that secret night-language, those nonsensical enquiries and responses, had seemed a link between the two of you that could not ever be broken. But it is here, further down at the base of his sternum, that you find what you are looking for: the hard knob of deformed bone. You remember how, straddling him, you had felt it and faltered, and how he had laughed and said, My flaw, Sophie, the knot by which you’ll know me from all the others. Crouching low, you had put your lips to his ear and whispered that you too had a flaw and would he be able to find it? And then you had laid yourself open to him. He had tracked every groove, circuited every hollow, cleaved every cleft. Arched deep inside you, his hands flat against your collarbones, he had moaned, Here, my Soph, here the left is higher than the right, before sinking onto your breast, hoarse and sated.
The night has turned cold. Standing alone on Somerset Street, you feel your body’s need for air and concentrate on the vision of Ethan. You see yourself kneel by the bed. You are motionless a long time, and then, knowing no way around it, you take up his hand. Ridge-veined and articulate. Delicate. The hand that precipitated the end. On that day, you had unfolded it and measured it against your own and said, You have small hands for a man. He had become a stranger, then. A man? he had demanded. A man? What the fuck is a man? Tell me! What makes a man, hey? Big hands? Jesus. I’ve spent my entire fucking life trying to be this thing, this thing that that everyone calls a man, and now you tell me this shit. There had been other scenes, but none that matched this one. Because of manhood and its demands. Of womanhood you and he never spoke.
You open your eyes, taking in a long breath. When the asphyxia subsides, you put your phone away and press the boneswell between your eyes.
Ethan, you say. Ethan, you fuck.
You stand in the gathering wind. You look across the road towards campus, your hands hanging at your sides as if they were burdens to be borne and not instruments for bearing, and you understand that there will come a time when you will be dead in the ground and then what will this matter?
You picture a car hitting you as you cross. Then he will be sorry, then he will repent. Your injuries are serious but not fatal. It is important that you live to see his grief. In hospital you regain consciousness and call for him. Flowers everywhere, birdsong on the breeze. You shout, Where is Ethan? Sunlight spills through open windows and rinses the antiseptic scent from the air. You begin to scream his name, over and over. At last he arrives. He comes straight from the airport, devastated, pushing his way past doctors, nurses, patients. Oh my god, he says. Oh god, no, Sophie, please don’t, my Soph. But by then, of course, it is too late. You turn to the wall and are still.
Turning from the road, you sit on the front-door step of the house behind you. Your heart feels thin and powerful, whetted capable of cutting through the skin of the world. You bow it to your knees. You do not know how long you stay like that. Perhaps ten minutes, perhaps half an hour. Then you hear the woman’s voice and the footsteps. You sit up, listening.
You bastard! she screams. Don’t you dare walk away from me! I saw, I saw you! You’re a real asshole, Ruan! A real fucking, a fucking—
She breaks off. You hear the footsteps quicken and grow louder as they advance along New Street. By the woman’s nasal whine, her Sandton-kugel inflection, you guess they are coming from Friars. The man, Ruan, appears first. He is sleek and assured, his eyes set straight ahead. He gives no outward sign of unease. The woman appears behind him. She pursues at a slanting trot, her bare arms folded high on her chest. All at once she breaks into a run. She reaches him as he steps off the curb and, catching hold of his wrist, drops the weight of herself into his arm. Ruan swivels against the snag in his shoulder. He steps up onto the curb and pries himself free of her grasp and looks at his wrist and looks at her. She puts her hands over her face and stands. He stares at her, breathing heavily.
Jissis fok, Lizzie, he says. Wadjew foken want?
He waits. He rubs his shaven jaw, glancing up and down the street. Then he looks at her again and says, Whatsa matter with you, hey. You foken deaf or what?
She stands as before. Taking hold of her wrists, he pulls her hands from her face and ducks his head level with hers. Look at me, you bitch, he says. I’m speaking to you, okay, I’m asking you a question. I’m asking you, wadjew foken want?
He straightens, releasing her. She stands with her hands hanging at her sides staring past him. You hear the wind in the sky and the liquid purl of music. Someone slams a car door. A dog barks. Then you hear the sound. A chanting sound, like a penitent’s prayer or a monk’s mantra. The rhythm loops, circling back on itself. You strain to hear its meaning but the syllables are submerged in a voice so low and so subdued that the words are indistinct, unintelligible.
Ruan goes very still. He looks at Lizzie, watching her mouth. Then he draws back his fist and punches the tree trunk above her shoulder.
Jissis! he shouts. What’s wrong with you! Hey? You foken mal? he pauses, his chest heaving. Don’t you pull this shit on me again, he says. You hear me, Lizzie? Don’t you foken dare.
She does not flinch. She makes her sound and her sound is as it was before. Like a monk’s mantra or a penitent’s prayer. Like a rosary of words offered up against a force which might at any moment bring her to her knees.
Ruan turns towards the road. You have not moved. You remember, packed against the floor of your bag, your switchblade knife and pepper spray. One for indoors, one for outdoors. Without taking your eyes off Ruan, you open the clasp. He raises his fist and looks at it, turning it this way and that in the light. You slip your hand into your bag. As he pivots back towards Lizzie, you begin feeling for the can of pepper spray.
I’m asking you one last time, he says. Okay? One last time. He pauses, passing his tongue along his lips. Wadjew foken want?
There is no break in the sound of Lizzie’s voice. As if a chord, struck alive by some force, were reverberating inside her. As if she had no control over it. As if, beyond its cadence, she were insensible to all. You know, then, that it is too late. You stop searching in your bag and watch. When the time comes, he is quick and sharp and clean as a predator stunning its prey. You see him raise his arm and cock his wrist. You hear the hollow impact. You think, I can’t believe this is happening, and then Lizzie is sitting on the gravel. Her mouth is open but no words come out. Her bag lies off to one side, its contents scattered.
You are standing. You wonder how you came to be standing. Then you wonder how to get to Lizzie. You would like to go to her and say something but you can’t figure out how to get there or what you would say.
She gazes around as if she were taking her bearings. As if she had chosen this place to sit and rest, and it interested her. She looks at the oak tree on the curb and the houses along Somerset and Debonairs on the corner opposite. She looks at the sky. Then she turns her attention to the ground, to the leaves and litter and gravel with grass growing in it. She touches a blade of crabgrass. She picks up an empty packet of Maggi 2-Minute Noodles and examines it and lays it down again. She upends her hand and watches it retract into a fist. All these things you notice. Then Ruan swings away in the direction of campus and the feeling comes back into your legs. As you start towards them at a run, you hear Lizzie scream, I’ll call the fucking police!
Hey! you shout. What the fuck are you doing? Hey!
Ruan does an about-turn. Walking backwards, he raises his hands in mock surrender. Ja, he shouts, it’s my fault! Always my foken fault, hey? Hey, Lizzie? Call the police! Come on, call them! Ja, whatever. He drops his arms and turns back. Always my fault, hey? Jirre-fokoff, man.
Lizzie is silent. She watches him a moment, and then she starts gathering her belongings and putting them back in her bag. You squat at her side.
You okay? you ask. You hurt or anything?
She does not reply. When everything is packed, she sits back on her calves and calls his name.
What! he shouts over his shoulder. He walks on in his wide-legged swagger as if he bore a giant cock between his legs. Call the foken police! Call them! I don’t give a shit, he says. All right? I don’t give a shit!
You touch Lizzie’s shoulder. I can walk you home, you say. Where d’you live?
She shakes her head. She tries to stand but her heels give and she sits down again. She fixes her gaze on Ruan.
When you lift her she rises in one unbroken movement. For a moment she leans on you, finding her balance, and then, without looking left or right, starts across the road after Ruan.
You watch them disappear up Prince Alfred street, and then you go back to the step and sit down. You look at the road with the urine-yellow light running over it and think, She is walking through shit and piss. You feel an urge to urinate and consider what would happen if you were to squat and piss in the path of oncoming traffic. A tremor comes into your hands. Holding them out, you watch them until they are still, and then you put them in your lap again. You think, There is Tom.
You have not seen or thought of Tom in months. He is no more than a stranger to you, a man who had once given you a lift from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown and invited you out for a drink. But now a memory comes to you. You see him alongside you in the car, narrating a drunken escapade at Friars. He pauses for you to respond and you remark, not knowing what else to say, that you’ve never been to Friars. With a gesture of dismissal, he says, Friars is a fucking meat market, man. You know what I mean? I’m telling you now, you’re not missing out on anything there. Just a shit-ton of poppies and jocks all crammed into this tiny excuse of a dancefloor sucking each other’s faces. Ja, that place is something else, hey. You go there if you want to hook up and that’s it. I prefer Rat, that’s the spot if you just want to chill out. Keen to get a drink later?
While his words stayed with you, Tom soon slipped from your thoughts. If you felt anything for him at the time, it was a mild liking. A liking that was, perhaps, just the absence of dislike. What is it, then, that now makes you message him? You don’t know. Perhaps it is that there is no one else, or that you cannot face going home. Regardless, you send him a message. You ask if he’s still interested in that drink, and then you sit and wait with the phone screen-up in your lap.
Friars is a fucking meat market, you say aloud, tasting the blood of those words on your tongue.
Tom meets you outside the Rat and Parrot. He embraces you and holds you out by the shoulders as if he has not seen you in years.
Glad you made it, Sophie. Wanta drink?
Whiskey, you say.
Good choice, he says.
He guides you to the bar by the small of your back, orders and pays. Back at his table he introduces you to his friends. They are all smiling strangers. Hey, I’m Sophie, you say, and sit where they make space for you on the bench.
The music is so loud that you have to shout to make yourself heard. Tom gets up to buy another round. As you watch him pick his way to the bar, you notice a woman on the perimeter of the crowd. She dances alone, smiling, her eyes closed and her hands twisting. A white sucker-stick projects between her lips like a cigarette. Your attention shifts to man sitting off to one side. He, too, has noticed her. While you are still trying to place his face, he crosses to her and takes her wrist. She opens her eyes. Still smiling, she removes the sucker with her free hand and looks at him. He strokes the hair from her lips. He leans close, speaking. When she opens her mouth to reply he takes her head in his hands and kisses her.
You stand and hit your thighs against the edge of the table.
Oh my word, a girl at your tables shrieks. Did you guys see that? That girl just got lunged! She begins to laugh. Ag shame, man, just look at her standing there!
The whole table turns to look. You sit down.
Jai, you whisper. My god. I’m not drunk enough for this.
Tom returns to the table. Here, he says, setting a fresh drink in front of you. It’s a double.
You stare at the amber liquid a long time before drinking it off. Afterwards your tongue feels furred and swollen in the pit of your mouth and you tell yourself My tongue is a caterpillar slumped in a hole. You see it written in capitals behind your eyes. MY TONGUE IS A CATERPILLAR SLUMPED IN A HOLE. You want to laugh. You want to leap onto the table and expose yourself. You want to stick out your tongue at these people and pull faces and shout, Just look at this hairy caterpillar, assholes!
You close your eyes. When you open them again you can’t remember how you came to be there. Tom touches your leg. He narrows his eyes playfully, winks.
Should we go?
In Tom’s bathroom you tie up your hair kneeling in front of the toilet. You put your hand in your mouth and fiddle two fingers against the back of your throat until you gag, and then you remove your hand to cough over the bowl. On the third try you vomit. When at last you bring up bile, you spit your mouth clear of the bitter junk and sit back.
There is a light tap on the door. You okay? he says.
You imagine him standing there, his head bent to the door. Finally you get up. Propped against the sink, you lean towards your reflection in the mirror. Bloodblown eyes, mouth wet with saliva. You look at this simulacrum of the woman named Sophie and say, What are you doing? You wait, as if for a reply. Then you say, Who are you?
Tom knocks again, louder this time. Sophie, he says. Soph?
Soph, you think. Who does he think he is? Wiping the saliva from your mouth, you call, Ja, coming! You turn on the tap. You wash mucous from your hands and splash your face. You rub your teeth with his Sensodyne toothpaste.
Tom is under the covers when you come out. He rises on his elbow and tracks your path around the bed with his eyes. In the dark he takes your earlobe between his teeth and touches his tongue to it.
Tom, you say. Please.
He slips his hand into your blouse. He brushes your stomach, runs his fingers under the waistband of your leggings. Heaving himself closer, he takes hold of your breast.
You, he whispers. You.
Tom, you say. Come on, it’s late.
Sophie, he says. You are so, so fucking sexy.
Tom, come on. Please.
Oh Sophie. Soph.
You are hungry. It is a simple stomach-hunger, a craving for fried food and orange juice, and you think, If I could just weather this maybe he will give me something to eat for breakfast. You tell yourself that it can’t be long before morning. You visualise Tom coming into the bedroom, saying, How about something to eat, hey? I can fry up some mushrooms and tomatoes and veg sossies. But first things first, how does a glass of orange juice sound? He brings you the juice in bed. It is rich and sweet, and you burst the pulp against your palate with the tip of your tongue. The next moment you are on his balcony, a breakfast tray on your knees. Tom, you say at last, this isn’t Grahamstown. You rise, scattering your food. Oh my god, you say. What is this place? Where am I?
You wake to his tugging at your panties, and you are afraid. For a time you lie motionless, remembering. You remember who is touching you and where you are and how you came to be there, and then you remember leaving your bag, with the knife and pepper spray in it, by the bathroom door. You have no recollection of undressing. Cursing yourself for drinking so much, you brush his hands from your hip.
Tom, you say. Come on, man. You roll from him and get up on your elbow and check the time. It’s past three, you say. Let’s just get some sleep, okay.
He gathers the hair hanging down your back and drops it over your shoulder. Ag Sophie, he breathes, and kisses the nape of your neck. Just a little bit.
Embracing you from behind, he slides one hand into your bra and the other into your panties. You twist, seizing his wrists. He opens his eyes and stares at you.
Are you fucking serious, he says.
Tom. I’ve said, I’ve said. Please.
Jesus. Well, this got boring fast.
Releasing his wrists, you hold him in your gaze. You wonder how you are going to keep from falling asleep again. He sees you watching.
Calm down, he says. I won’t touch you.
He raises his hands to demonstrate.
You wait for regularity in Tom’s breathing and then you rise, fumbling in the dark for your clothes. You dress in stages, pausing to listen before putting on each garment. On your side is a door leading to the balcony. It is unlocked and makes no sound when you open it, but you nevertheless study the bed before closing the door behind you.
The view from the balcony, free of security bars, is intact. You lean on the guardrail and look out. Beyond the bricked parking lot of Tom’s complex is a plot of land bordered by spiralling barbed wire and lit by security lights. It is deserted and potholed, heaped with mounds of grey rubble out of which grow sow thistle and shepherd’s purse. Though you cannot see far, you can imagine the landscape. Warped roads and shopfronts peeling and broken, erratic pavements. You lean further, looking down at the balcony directly below. You calculate the drop from here to there and think, I could make it.
An icy drizzle has begun to sift through the wind. Clasping your arms, you close your eyes and wait. Behind your lids you see him slip naked through the door. He coils his fingers into your blouse and draws you against his erection. It is stiff and tall, rising above his shoulder. You twist free and lift yourself over the railing, landing on the balcony below. He tries to follow but his penis, curved and sharp as a scimitar, hinders him. He pushes it aside and it springs back, lacerating his hand. Sheaves of blood fan from his fingers and drench you. You taste iron on your tongue. He folds over the bar and opens his mouth, whether in a scream or shout you cannot tell for there is no sound in this world. You vault the second railing and land on the bricks below, making for the vacant plot ahead. You know what you will do next. You will scale the fence and, finding cover, take him out from there.
Sensing a disturbance in the air current, you glance over your shoulder. The balcony door is open, easing back and forth in the wind. You turn slowly and stand motionless. For a time you watch the empty doorway, and then you approach it.
You hold ajar the door. The wind sheaves in past you, agitating the blinds and riffling blades of light through the room. When you see his eyes your throat tightens.
Tom? you whisper.
The blinds click like teeth. He lies watching you in silence, his head turned on the pillow. Finally he says, Where’re you going?
Home, you say.
Why, he says. He sits up. You grip the doorknob, moistening your lips. Why, he says again.
You think, briefly, of your knife. Then you consider the knives in the kniferack in the kitchen, but to get to them you would have to pass him first. You change tack. You register a pair of scissors on the desk, a glass tumbler on the bedside table, the brick doorstop at your foot. You estimate the distance from where you stand to the railings. You look at him and think, Because this right here is a fucking meat market, Tom.
I can’t sleep, you say. You know how it is sleeping with someone for the first time.
He looks away. He rubs the corner of his mouth and nods. I’ll drive you, he says at last.
Pulling aside the duvet, he swings his feet to the floor. He switches on the bedside lamp and for the first time you catch sight of his bare chest. It is frail, flawless. You step inside, closing the door behind you.
As he turns onto Prince Alfred Street, the car’s headlights sweep the sidewalk and cast up against the Humanities building a human shadowshape, crouched and elongate. You call out and open the car door. He brakes and says what the fuck are you, but you are already on the sidewalk, backtracking and turning in between the low walls and going up the path towards the figure squatting there by the entrance, her arms around her legs and her spine flexed in the curve of a nautilus shell. You kneel.
Hey, you say. Hey.
Her whole frame is clenched against the cold and the rain. Now that you are closer, you hear her voice. Her words are muffled but the hymnlike intonation is familiar. You know, then. You do not need to see her face to know.
Lizzie, you say. Oh my god. Lizzie. You okay?
She falls silent. When you touch her she shrugs you off with a clumsy jerk of her shoulder. Jesusfuckingchrist, she says.
All right, you say. Okay, Lizzie. Can you tell me what happened?
Tom comes over from the car and stands flicking his keys around his forefinger. Shit, he says, she’s wasted. You know this chick?
Lizzie, you say, I need you to tell me what happened. Do you know where Ruan is?
She lifts her shoulder, drops it. Notfeelingsogood, she says.
All right. We’ll get you home now-now, okay? I just need you to tell me where Ruan is. Do you understand me, Lizzie?
Notfeelingsogood, she says again. Notfeelingsogood.
Tom whistles. This is pointless, he says.
Catching his keys midswing, he lowers his fist and looks at you. You return to the sidewalk and stand gazing up Prince Alfred Street. Fragments of music drift on the wind. Remembering her bag, you go back to her and ask if she recalls leaving it anywhere. She does not answer.
Her bag, you say to Tom. She had a bag earlier. Can you see it anywhere along the sidewalk?
Tom comes back a minute later. No bag, he says.
You press your eyelids with the heels of your hands. Shit, you say. What a fuckup.
Just then Lizzie coughs. Dropping onto her hands, she arches catlike and vomits. Through her noise you hear Tom say, Jesus, I’ll be in the car, okay, and then you are alone with her. You have never seen vomiting such as this. You gather her hair and knot it at the nape of her neck and rub her back with the flat of your hand. You talk to her steadily. There-we-go-get-it-all-out, you say over and over again. When the convulsions cease she sits up and looks at you.
Hey, you say. Hey, Lizzie. Feeling a bit better?
She wipes her mouth. She looks at the wet smear across the back of her hand and then looks at you again.
Lizzie, I need you to help me. Do you remember where Ruan went?
She stares at you. Uh’ve been, uh’ve been, she says, and stops. Her eyes fix above your head, but when you follow her gaze there is nothing.
Ja, Lizzie? you prompt. You’ve been?
Been, she says, her eyes refocusing. Ja. Uh’ve been, been looking.
For who? Ruan?
She shakes her head. For them, she says.
Who? You stare at her. Who’ve you been looking for, Lizzie?
She fumbles with her dress. Catching hold of the hem, she pulls it up to her navel. Panies, she says. She seeks you with her eyes. See, she says. Djew see? Uh’ve lost my panies, she says. Djew know where my panies are?
While you wash your hands at the sink, Tom stands in the middle of the room looking at her. She lies on your bed, her eyes closed. She is still wearing her heels.
So, he says, you going to tell me who she is?
I don’t know who she is, you say. You work the bar of soap between your hands until there is a fat white foam and then put it back on its fluted ledge. I saw her for the first time tonight, you say. Her boyfriend was pushing her around on Somerset.
Whadid he do?
You hold your hands under the tap, watching the water run between your fingers. The suds circle the plughole before sucking down. I really don’t feel like speaking about it, you say.
After a pause he says, How d’you think she lost her underwear?
You turn off the tap. You pick up a dish-towel and stand looking out the window while you dry your hands. The rain is falling hard now. Drops splinter against the glass like ice.
All right, he says. So she’s sleeping here.
Ja, you say. You hang up the towel and look at him. Where else? She can’t remember her address and her bag’s gone.
Tom looks at Lizzie again. He clears his throat and looks at you. He says, Where’re you going to sleep?
Here on the floor. I’ve got an extra blanket.
You gonna be okay?
Ja, you say, smiling. I’ll be fine.
Your hands are slack and damp. You feel you should do something with them but don’t know what. Finally, you wipe them on your leggings and say, Tom, thank you. You okay finding your way out?
When he is gone you switch on the heater above your bed. You wait for the room to warm, and then you fetch a pair of underwear from your drawer and kneel by the bed and rouse Lizzie. You remove her heels and thread the panties around her ankles and, helping her stand, manoeuvre them up under her dress. Then you sit her down again. She looks at you with a weaving, lethargic gaze.
Water, she says.
You fill a glass at the sink and give it to her and watch her drink. You ask if she wants a shirt to sleep in.
Lizzie lowers the glass. She tugs taut a section of her dress and stares at the soiled fabric. She is on her feet waiting when you turn with the T-shirt, her arms half-raised, the empty glass at her feet. You peel off her dress and look at her. She is filthy. She stands there in her red lace bra and your black panties, her ribs pressed out like spines and her stomach sucked in, and you take in the vomit and dirt and blood caked on her skin and in her hair, and the little mouth rubbed red like a wound, and you say, I’m just going to give you a quick wash, okay?
You sit her down again. You run warm water over a face-towel and soap it and come back. You start with her face, working your way down to her feet. Every now and then you rinse the towel and re-soap it. You concentrate on her knees and her palms and her back, where the hurt is the worst. Revived by the bath, her eyes alternate between your hands and face. Her expression is grave and searching, as if she had lost something precious in your features and were looking for it. You ask how she’s feeling but she does not answer.
When she is clean and dry and dressed in your T-shirt, you sit back on your heels. She gazes at you a moment and then pushes under the duvet and turns towards the wall.
Your dream is without colour. The streets are slatted crosswise black and white like piano keys, and walking through them, slowed by the woolly air, you are by turn dazzled and blinded. A dull murmur rises from the floor of the night. In its annular uniformity it effaces itself and takes on the form of silence, and you understand that it is the backbone or membrane that holds this world together.
For some time you pass along a narrow sidewalk, a wall on your right and a street running parallel on your left. Finally you come upon Lizzie. She crouches by the wall, ringed in by three men. They speak over her as if she were not there, as if her presence cast no shadow.
Ja, but jirre-jissis, says one of them. I’ve seen some siff cunts in my time. You know that chick, whatsername, Ava. Ja, her. You should’ve seen what she had on her. Jesus. You should’ve seen it, man.
Ag siss, fok-off, says the second man, laughing. There’s nothing a good fuck can’t fix, though, hey.
The third man cradles something soft and pink in his hands. If you guys could just see the places this big guy’s been in, he says. If you guys could just see.
For the first time you notice a fourth man. He stands off to one side, peering into a cellphone. His body is obscured by shadow, but his face, lit by the phone’s screenlight, hangs suspended like a coin on a thread. His phone is ringing. It is you on the other end of the line holding your talisman of breath.
You want to scream, Goddamn you, Ethan, answer! What’s wrong with you? You’re a real, a real, a real—
The ringing ceases and, with it, the men’s voices. All that remains is Lizzie. You look at her bleached hair and her too-thin shoulders and her red heels. You look at her tight black dress. You say, I don’t like you, Lizzie. I want you to know that. You squat in front of her. I don’t like you at all, you say. Did you hear them? Hey? Siss! You lean and spit. What kind of woman are you? Letting them say that shit. Just look at you!
She lifts her head to look. Her features slacken, sliding from her face like a mask. It is Rachel, not Lizzie, who crouches before you. Her face is wet.
You didn’t message me, she says. I told you to and you didn’t, and now look. She lifts her dress and opens herself with her fingers. Just look at this, she says. Look!
The murmur swells. It loosens from the floor of the night, lifting and coiling, gathering about you until, caught at the soft thick core of it, you feel you will suffocate, and then you wake. You sit up, leaning far into each breath.
When you hear it you go cold. For a long time you sit without moving, waiting to wake from this dream within a dream, and when you do not wake, you listen. Then, all at once, you remember. Turning, you look at the figure in your bed.
Lizzie, you whisper. Lizzie?
Her skin is flushed in the redglow of the heater. She lies facing you, her eyes half-open and her fingers curled near her cheek. Her lips move, and behind them, her tongue. You imagine her tongue as a needle, knitting row upon row of syllables with the soft wool of her voice, and forming this length of sound, this mantra. You get on your hands and knees and crawl to the bedside.
Hey, you whisper. Lizzie, you okay?
Her lips flicker over small, transparent teeth. Even at this proximity her words blur, running one into another. She looks past you, her gaze locked on an object beyond your field of vision. You lean close. You lean so close that you feel her breath, and it is then, with your ear a hairsbreadth from her mouth, that you make out the words for the first time.
When she starts over again, you take up the refrain. You take it from her mouth like an offering. You try it on your tongue and hold it inside.
Then you sit back on your heels. You watch her thin bladelike features in silence, your mouth too full of words to speak.
Later, you switch off the heater. You get into bed behind her, keeping a space between your body and hers. The bittersour stench of her fills your throat. You lie sideways, tense and motionless, listening. If she is aware of your presence she gives no indication of it.
She speaks on, her murmur circling in on itself, each end a beginning and each beginning an end, until you are no longer certain of beginning or end. What is there to prove, after all, that She-had-to-take-it were the opening line? Those were merely the words you had heard first. Who is to say, then, that She’s-fine did not come first and She-had-to-take-it last? And if that, or any other combination, contained the true beginning and the true end, then what did that make of the meaning of the whole?
You listen for evidence of a beginning or an end. A change of tone perhaps, or an extended pause. But there is nothing. Her rhythm and pitch are unvarying.
When you can take it no longer, you speak.
Hey, you say. Lizzie, hello. I haven’t told you my name yet, hey? My name’s Sophie. Ja. Soph. Maybe you remember from earlier tonight on Somerset street? I should’ve done something. I should’ve done something and I didn’t and I don’t know why. I’m sorry about that, Lizzie. I’m so sorry.
Shehadtotakeit, she says. Shehadtotakeit.
No, you say. No, Lizzie. Everything’s okay now. I’m here and you’re fine. D’you know where you are? I want you to know where you are. You’re in a little room in Olive Schreiner residence, just behind the library. It’s my room, okay, and I’ve locked the door. We’re fine, Lizzie, we’re safe.
You pause to listen but she has fallen silent. Her stench no longer disturbs you. Beneath it you detect scents of Dove soap, Pantene, floral perfume. Fainter still is another smell, almost undetectable, of Lizzie herself. A human smell, earthy and wholesome. You inhale it before going on.
It’s such a weird thing, hey, sleeping next to a stranger. Even with Ethan I slept like kak at first. Ethan’s this guy, Lizzie. You wouldn’t know him, but he’s someone, he’s someone. Around the time I met him I’d started keeping a knife in my bag. I’d had a shitty experience with a guy and after that I kept a knife and pepper spray on me. Then this one night I woke up with the knife in my hand. I was just sitting holding it and Ethan was sleeping right there next to me.
The rain slants, shivering the windowpanes. You wonder if she is listening to you.
But here is the really hectic thing, you say. My first thought when I woke up with the knife was how simple it would be to run him through with it. And not only that, but also that I was capable of it. What I mean is, capable of stabbing Ethan. Ja. I realised that I had it in me to kill him. I can’t describe how it felt, knowing that. It was like relief almost. I don’t know. It was like I had seen a part of myself that I’d not seen before and I knew then that I’d be okay.
You touch her shoulder. Her skin slick with sweat, her muscles bunched like fists. After a time you go on.
I know it sounds insane. But here’s the thing, Lizzie. It wasn’t that I wanted to kill him. It was something else. It was as if, as if I’d suddenly realised that killing him was a possibility, an act within my reach. Do you know what I’m saying? I saw that I had it in me to take his life if I had to, if I had to stop him from doing something to me. Before that I wasn’t sure, but after I woke up with the knife I knew. I had glimpsed something in myself and I was glad I had it in me. I was glad, Lizzie, and I was relieved, because how can you survive womanhood without it?
You shift, touch the length of yourself to her. Holding her in the curve of your body, you feel the beaded stanchion of her spine, the corrugated ribs, the soft swell of her belly. She is foreign and soft as a fetus. You did not know that a grown person could be so soft. Is this what men sought in women, this deathlike softness, this horrible vulnerability? And is this what women the likes of Lizzie cultivated in themselves for men?
You want to ask her how she is going to make it. You want to say, I heard what you said tonight and I don’t know how you’re going to make it.
Instead you say, I know what you want to ask me, Lizzie. You want to know why I keep going home with them. Hey? That’s what I ask myself, and I don’t know. It’s got something to do with this feeling I get on Fridays. During the week it’s fine, but then on Fridays I get this feeling, and it’s the worst, Lizzie, the worst. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like, it’s like hunger, except not for food. And not for sex, either. D’you know what I mean? That’s how it’s been since Ethan. I don’t know. But I think you understand, Lizzie. I saw what you did tonight and I think you understand.
You pause. You remember how she stood on Somerset and faced Ruan’s fury with her words, and you know that the words she used then were the same as those she uttered here in your room. You wonder whether they are her own self-made words or the words of some other, and, if they are another’s, whether they were taken or bestowed, and by whom and to what purpose.
Lizzie, you whisper.
There is something more you want to say. You know it is important but you cannot think what it could be. You lie a long time waiting. Her warmth rises into your fingers, her ribs lift and fall under your wrist. You wonder who she is and where she comes from and what happened to her. You wonder what her story is. You think, This is a living human being and I am holding her in my arms. The thought is colossal, insupportable.
You doze briefly. When you wake you are fullbellied with the heat of her. With a last gesture against sleep, you speak.
No more stories, you say. It is a good thing to just lie with you here. Ja. It’s a good safe thing.
Kharys Ateh Laue is a South African writer whose short fiction has appeared in Brittle Paper, New Contrast, Itch, and Pif Magazine. In 2017, her short story “Plums” was longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize. Her academic work, which focuses on the depiction of race, gender, and animals in South African fiction, has been published in Scrutiny2 and the Journal of Literary Studies. She currently lives in Port Elizabeth.
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