Crowded City, Tuesday
As the shuttered windows glow and the street noises rise, Caroline lingers beneath the covers, a strand of her long dark hair twisted in a tight curl round her finger. She watches Daniel sleep, but her eyes drift to the items lining the walls of Isabella’s room, a kind friend who has let Caroline borrow a real bed behind a real door so Caroline can sleep with Daniel.
Why must you sneak? Caroline’s father would say. He’d be standing at the edge of his overgrown allotment, his arms loaded with butternut squash in the shape of elongated buttons, noses, and bulbous toes. He is handsome? He is kind? Her father would ask.
Maybe Caroline cannot do this, not yet. Too soon after Thomas, who stalked her when she said Enough. So sudden, Thomas said. Yes, I mean it, she’d said. His tight fist clutched at her hair. He told her No one says no.
I am saying no, she’d said, and she’d looked for a flat.
Then one day in the office Daniel touched her on the shoulder, and she said yes. Caroline talked to Isabella, who, though kind, is also a bit nervous, tying and re-tying her scarf, her eyes darting away as if she’s a little bit panicked. Would you swap flats? Caroline asked. Just for the night? The little fold-out couch in Caroline’s new, shared, one-bedroom flat was too small, too exposed. Yes Isabella had said. Of course.
Daniel wakes, the pipes clanging, Caroline humming in the shower. He reaches for the panties on the drying rack and holds them to his nose. Lavender. He smells Caroline on his fingertips and then remembers, again, these are not Caroline’s pants. This is Isabella’s room, Isabella’s closet module in the corner, scarves, sundresses and hats hanging from hooks on the wall. It’s as if he’s sleeping with two women, and he’s forgotten. He’s only met Isabella once and can’t remember if her eyes are blue or brown.
In another part of the city, in Caroline’s shared, one-room flat, Isabella slips from Caroline’s sofa bed, folds it, sets the pillows in place and is quiet so as not to wake Caroline’s flatmate, a large woman who works late nights.
In the mirror perched above the sink, which is cluttered with jewellery and statuettes and half-melted candles, Isabella applies liquid black liner, a perfect arc above her lashes like her mother taught her. The brush curves just beyond her lid, a gentle stroke up and out. She holds a pendant to her lips then tucks it under her scarf. With a nearly steady hand, she draws tarry bristles of mascara to the ends of her lashes, blinks once, twice. A stray black tear escapes the edge of her eye and she wipes it with a ripped piece of toilet tissue. She adjusts her scarf, refastens the clip in her hair and tugs at her mother’s necklace. Robin’s egg blue, clear glass, wrapped in silver. A colour not unlike the paisley cotton shirt Daniel was wearing last week when Caroline introduced him. Isabella won’t see either of them today, so it’s okay. She touches the pendant again, unsure, wondering what her mother would think, and decides to leave it out, hanging, just beneath the scarf.
On her bicycle to work, Isabella sees a man in a black jacket and black trousers with wavy black hair like Daniel’s stepping into a portable toilet on a construction site. It can’t be him. Traffic swirls beside her and sweeps her forward—she can’t keep looking back. It can’t be him.
All morning, Isabella will hunch in her cubicle, translating an absent office-mate’s work. This means no one will sit with her at lunch because the others will have spent all morning on Isabella’s editing. She’ll take her sandwich outside, even though the bench will be cold. A little sparrow will hop to her fingers, pecking at the breadcrumbs Isabella offers. This will remind her of her mother. The other birds will wait, shy, only pecking at the bread Isabella tosses in the bushes.
Daniel will be arriving at work in time to see his boss’s blinds swing to and fro across the window near the top of the door. The slam comes first, then the swish, swish. Daniel smells Caroline, damp from her morning shower, on his wrist. He was inside her one minute, entering the metro the next.
It happens so fast—he can barely make sense of it all.
In the night, when he woke to strange noises of traffic – strange because it wasn’t his traffic – he stared at Isabella’s clothes in the shadows. The closet module in the corner. Her lacy, pretty things. He smelled lavender and rosemary, lifted her bra to his nose. Caroline snored softly on the bed in the dim streetlight bending its way into the shuttered window, but Daniel’s eyes moved about the room, restless, and he reminded himself this was not Caroline’s bed, not her slim collection of necklaces and scarves. Not her curio on the shelf—a little sailor wearing a little sailor’s hat.
At work, Daniel sits at his desk, listening to the simultaneous clacking and tapping and shuffling at dozens of other keyboards. He stretches his neck and tries to see outside through the corner of the window where he can just peek over his desk mate’s divider. But there is nothing to see save the white stone of the next building. Daniel rests his head in his hands. Good hands, his mother would say, for good work. But as he turns on his computer and begins clicking his own keyboard, Daniel’s fingers meld with the keys, and the scent of all of it is gone.
In Isabella’s apartment, Caroline has changed the sheets, smoothed the duvet and closed the windows that were open in the night to air the smell of sex. He’s not crazy or mean. He gathers his towels and trousers. He’s not a man-child you would tell clean up after yourself.
Be nice. That’s what Caroline’s father would say. Give it time.
But Caroline is late. The metro will be crowded. She sets each pillow into place and pulls Isabella’s door closed with a loud click. When she crosses a wet avenue on her way to the ministry office, jostled by the dozens of others making their way, Caroline is uncertain now whether she even likes Daniel or not, whether any man is worth it. Just then, a woman who looks like Isabella glides by on a bike slicing through the crowd, turned away, face and hair and scarf askew. Caroline doesn’t call out. She doesn’t want to look again to see if it’s her friend. She presses forward, instead, the crowd of suits and skirts and elbows and shoulders pressing forward alongside her.
Published first in print: Quiddity 2016.
Lania Knight lives in the UK and lectures in Creative Writing. Her work appears in print and online, two novels and many short pieces including fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Read more about her at www.laniaknight.com