A Little Longer
“Are you getting off, or not?”
I look up to see the driver staring at me.
“Yes, thanks.” I pick up my briefcase, ignoring the pain in my arm, and get off the bus.
The bus stop is, conveniently, close to the Gammel and Gates building. I scan the road for Rosie’s car. It isn’t there. I feel a distinct ache at the thought of her, and try to ignore it. She’s an intern. You’re supposed to be training her.
As I’m waiting at the traffic lights, old Mrs Matthews hobbles up to me. She hasn’t sat next to me on the bus since last Friday, when the interview came out. I turn and look at her face. It’s wiped clean of any emotion. This gives me hope. Maybe she wants to talk.
I smile. “Mrs Matthews, I—”
She slaps me across the face. “You’re disgusting, did you know that?”
I reel. My cheeks burn; part pain, part prickly shame.
“You evil creature,” she says.
I look around mutely, through the shock, and a hard knot forms in my stomach. People have milled loosely around us. Some of them look concerned.
“I just wanted to say,” continues Mrs Matthews, “that I can have you reported. Who knows what other people you’ve been eyeing. Children, perhaps?”
The words shock me to life. Anger breaks through self-pity. “Please leave.”
“I won’t have a bloody dyke telling me how to act!” With surprising strength, she pushes at me. My back slams against a pole, and I slide to the ground. Pain rushes down my spine. Vaguely, I realize her hands aren’t on my body anymore. There’s someone tall, in a suit, standing between the two of us.
“What the hell?” says someone loudly, and I recognise the voice of my colleague, Daniel.
Mrs Matthews bristles.“This isn’t your problem, Sir.”
“It’s absolutely my problem. You just attacked one of the partners of Gammel and Gates.”
I cringe as soon as he says the words. Around us, low murmurs replace the silence. Now they know who I am, what I am. I’m possessed with the urge to run away.
“We’ll have you charged with assault,” says Daniel.
Mrs Matthews backs away slowly. She looks more afraid now than angry. The crowd disperses.
“Are you all right?” Daniel extends a hand, helps me up.
“I’m fine.” It’s not true. Every part of me is shaking. I want to collapse, to sob. I want to be invisible.
“Come on.” He puts his hand on my arm, helps me up. “I meant what I said, we can press charges.”
“What’s the point?”
There will always be a Mrs Matthews. Someone else to take her place, to say her lines.
Inside the building, I keep my eyes on the floor.
You can get through the day. You can.
As we walk, I think of the coming-out interview, which I have regretted ever since it happened. It was a stupid impulse. I’d been to a family dinner the night before, to celebrate my sister’s engagement. My mother had been relatively civil, all things considered. But as she was seeing me off, she’d whispered into my ear: “Pity this will never happen for you.”
What had I tried to prove when I did the interview? That I, too, could find love? It’d been a large price to pay. The next day, the outside of my house was crawling with reporters. My mother called me to tell me what she thought of me. You ungrateful little shit. Dragging the family name through the mud. Aren’t you ashamed?
The response from work, though, was the worst.
“But how can you be a lesbian?” said one colleague. “I thought you were smart. I wanted to be just like you.”
Thought. Wanted. The past tense hurt as if someone had dragged a grater though my insides.
“Here.” Daniel opens the door to my office, now. “Do you want anything? Tea? Coffee?”
“Thanks, Daniel. I’m fine, honestly.”
“Okay. Shall I ask Rosie to come up?”
I sigh. “Send her in.”
The moment he leaves, I escape to the bathroom. I must be quick. I shut the main door and lean over the sink, gasping for breath. I think of Mrs Matthews’ words again, and feel as if I have been punched in the stomach.
Why did I have to do that damn interview?
My hands shaking, I pull out the tiny ziplock bag. The razor falls out into the sink. I slide up the sleeve of my left arm. Dark, chunky scars intersect all the way up to my elbow. I locate an unharmed spot and make the first cut. Pain breaks across everything else, hot and wet and immediate. Blood trickles into the sink. I tilt my arm a little and the flow intensifies. I am a red tap, a river, an ocean. Sitting here, watching my butchered arm, I feel almost tranquil.
I could bleed out here if I wanted. With a little luck, they would find me after it was over.
I’m back at my office in good time; I have a few moments to arrange my expression before Rosie knocks on the door.
She comes in, smiles, shuts the door behind her with a quiet click. She’s painted her lips a shade of red that reminds me not of hot things, but cool. Cherries on a plate, in summer. A popsicle, perhaps. Something flips in my stomach. Then I realize I’m staring, and a hot flush creeps across my face. How could she ever want me, anyway?
“Are you all right?” She looks concerned.
“Fine. Now, Rosie, about the pro bono work you’ve been doing with Alison—”
“It’s finished.” She pauses. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on with you, or not?”
Is it that obvious? I want to tell her everything, but I can’t. Not Rosie. Not now. She hasn’t begun to hate me yet. Why should I accelerate the process?
But then she says, “I saw the interview in Legal Letters last week.”
Here it comes. I can see it in her eyes, in the little creases that have formed on her forehead. She’s going to tell me what I am. Disgusting. Evil. Rotten dyke.
‘Excuse me,’ I gasp, and before she can say anything else, I leave the room.
In the bathroom, I peel off my suit, roll up my sleeve, start again. When I am finished, I stare at my face in the mirror. White. Wan. I don’t even recognise myself anymore. I clean up and return to my office, To my surprise Rosie is still there, waiting for me. I slide back into my chair. There is a long silence.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
Rosie looks at me for a long moment. Finally, I look up at her, expecting to see the hate that I have imagined. But it’s not hate at all; her large eyes are filled with tears.
She reaches out and takes my hand. “I wanted to tell you how amazing I think you are. How beautiful and brave, for saying those things.”
First there’s pure shock. Then something warm, centred in my chest, radiates through my body. It’s been so long since I felt something good. I am being jerked to life. It’s like a second birth. I begin to shake with the feeling.
Rosie slides her chair closer, puts her arms around me. I resist the temptation to be closer to her, but then she slides an arm around my waist, pulls me towards her. As I try to yank myself free, she places a hand on my arm, stopping me. It’s the exact spot where I’ve just carved my skin with a razor; sharp pain shoots up my arm. She notices me wince, and slides my sleeve halfway up.
“Scarlett?” She sounds horrified.
“Razor burn,” I say. “It’s nothing.”
“More like razor cut. What have you done to yourself?”
She pulls at my sleeve again. I let her, partly because I’m tired and partly because I want someone to know. I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of hiding.
“Fuck,” says Rosie.
The word hangs there, obscene, in the silence. I close my eyes; I am afraid again. Will she be repulsed, like the rest of the world?
“Scarlett, why do you do this to yourself?”
I swallow, feel the pressure of tears. “I’m afraid.”
It doesn't matter what Daniel says. It doesn’t matter what Rosie says. I will always be what Mrs Matthews says I am. Defined, always, by that one thing.
Disgusting. Evil. Rotten dyke.
Finally, I have words to match my pain. I begin to cry, savagely, tears and mucus running down my face, into my mouth.
Rosie leans forward, presses her lips gently to mine. I freeze. It is what I have wanted, all this time. And yet it is incredible that she could be attracted to me, to the empty snivelling shell of me. I rest my head, softly, against the crook of her arm. I allow myself to be stroked.
“Promise me you won’t do it again,” she says softly.
I think of how good it feels to be held like this. Then I think of how, the last time I cut myself at home, I did some research. I know all kinds of things I shouldn’t know—I know where the blood is darkest and most viscous. I know approximately where to make the cuts. I know how long it would take me to die. Then I think of Rosie, of a future I have never allowed myself to think of before.
“I promise,” I say.
Is it true? I don’t know. All I know is that in this moment, in her arms, I feel safe.
Maybe a little longer. A little longer.