Cynthia is drunk and slurring her words when she calls me at three a.m. In my dream I am drowning, a lighthouse far overhead flaring in time with my phone’s vibrations, and then it’s over, the last remnants of sleep dissipating into the night like a pill dissolving in water. My hello is a barely coherent mumble, but Cynthia doesn’t ask if she woke me up. She wants to come over. I already know that, even before she asks, and she knows that I know, but she phrases it as a question anyway. She likes hearing me tell her yes.
I make myself a cup of tea and drink it in the kitchen while I wait for her to arrive. I want to make one for her, too, but I know she won’t want it. She never wants anything when she comes over, except for painkillers, sometimes. She’s still not here when I finish my tea. I wash the mug and put it upside down on the draining board to dry, then stare vacantly at the tile above the kitchen sink. In the stillness of the night I have nothing to think about that isn’t Cynthia. I wish she was here already.
Finally I hear the clack of high heels outside the window of my ground floor flat. It’s three twenty-seven. I’m already at the door when she knocks, but she doesn’t comment on how quickly I let her in, only stands there smiling with a look of catlike pleasure. She calls me babe and kisses me wetly on the cheek, then weaves unsteadily into my living room and drops down onto my ancient futon.
‘Good night?’ I ask.
‘Mmmm.’ Her hum is noncommittal. She rolls her head back until she’s looking at me almost upside-down, her messy topknot hanging nearly to the floor. Her golden hair is the brightest thing in the room. ‘You should’ve come. I would have had more fun if you were there.’
‘You always say that.’
‘It’s always true.’
‘Well, I don’t enjoy that kind of thing. Rooms full of people, having to shout to be heard. It’s embarrassing.’ She rolls her eyes at me affectionately, then closes them. Her lashes are clumpy with mascara but they still look fragile and delicate, fluttering lightly against her skin like butterfly wings. She’s always sleepy when she gets here, but I don’t mind. I like to look at her without being seen. ‘I’d dance with you, though,’ she says.
‘We’d have fun together.’
I don’t answer. She says things like that on purpose, I think, because she likes to get under my skin. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ I ask instead.
‘No.’ She stretches and yawns. ‘I have a headache.’
‘I have paracetamol.’
‘Mmm. Not that.’ She opens her eyes just enough that I can see them glimmer in the dim light of my living room. ‘The good stuff.’
She means the codeine that I keep in my bedside table. I’m not supposed to give it to her, but she knows I will anyway. Still, it’s customary for me to refuse her, once or twice. It lets me pretend I have power. ‘I can’t give you that, Cynthia,’ I say. ‘It’s prescription. I could get in trouble.’
‘Babe, come on. Nobody cares.’
‘It’s not good for you.’
‘Neither is this headache.’
I sigh, my resistance exhausted. ‘Fine. Wait here.’
When I come back with the box and a glass of water, she’s lying on her side, her knees pulled up to her stomach and her head pillowed on the sweater I’d left slung over the back of the futon. Her eyes are closed again but she hears me come in and holds out her hand towards me, palm up. I pop two pills out of the packet for her and place them gently in her hand. She sits up, then, and swallows the pills dry, brushing me away when I offer her the water. Useless, I hover with the glass until she laughs and says, ‘You can sit down, you know. I know I’m fat but I don’t take up that much room.’
She isn’t fat at all. She’s tiny, wraithlike in her tall heels and silver slip dress. Her shoulder blades are so sharp that sometimes I worry they’ll come bursting right through her skin like a knife tearing through paper. I feel huge, suddenly, lumbering and elephantine and still looming awkwardly above her, so I sit down. She kicks her heels off and puts her feet in my lap. ‘Hurts,’ she says plaintively. Her toes are curled still in the shape of the shoe, her milky skin crisscrossed by ugly red welts where the straps have rubbed against her. I try smoothing the marks out with my thumbs, the pads of my fingers pressing into the soles of her feet, and she moans. Her skin is warm and a little sweaty and there’s a crescent of rough dead skin on each of her heels. I catalogue it, adding it to the list of her imperfections: the silvery stretch marks on the soft underside of her upper arms, her knobbly knees, the dimpled cellulite at the intersection of thigh and ass. The sight of any of these places makes something greedy and proprietary unfurl in my chest. I know that she must take pains to keep these uglinesses private, concealing them from the men she meets on Tinder and takes home from bars, the pretty girls she goes out with who are fluent in the language of backhanded compliments and sly, sidelong glances. She doesn’t try to hide them from me. I’m not like her other friends; we’ve known each other for so long that I’m barely a person to her at all anymore.
She’s falling asleep. I can feel it in the way her muscles are relaxing, her legs in my lap sinking more heavily into me. I stroke her ankles with the tips of my fingers. I should get a blanket to cover her, and I will, soon. I’ll tuck her in and go to bed, and when I wake in the morning she’ll already be gone, and I won’t hear from her again until the next time she calls me at three a.m. But now the silence of the night encircles us both like a shroud, enveloping us in its warm, womblike stillness. I feel as though I’ve been touched by the night itself, or the moon, some benevolent feminine energy reaching in through my window to appoint me Cynthia’s guardian, her mother, sister, lover, no longer just a greyish lumpen thing tugged inexorably into her gravitational orbit but newly imbued with my own sense of celestial importance.
She begins to snore quietly. Her lips are slightly parted. I can see the tip of her tongue emerging from the dark cavern of her mouth, pink and wet and pointed. The waxy hollows under her eyes, bruise-coloured, sallow. On the mantelpiece, my miniature grandfather clock ticks quietly. Cynthia’s toes, her ankles, the patch of light golden hair on her calf, limned by lamplight, that she must have missed while shaving. It’s four o’clock in the morning. A cat yowls outside, then silence again. Cynthia’s clavicle moves up and down with her breathing. I take it all in with my eyes that have no colour, my gaze that could be anyone’s. Her butter-yellow hair coming out of its fussy arrangement, the delicate shell of her ear. The deep hollow at the base of her neck. The clock ticking and the lightening sky. Her skin, her breath, her hands, my hands, her feet. She sleeps, and I’m drowning.
Robyn Jefferson is a short story writer, poet, and aspiring novelist from the Southwest of England. She writes about women, bodies, and rich interior lives, often with a particular focus on the lived experience at the intersection of marginalised identities. She has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing, in which she earned a distinction. Find her on Twitter @apocryphai.