One red. One green.
He watched them out of a greasy, cloudy window – the woman in the red dress, the man in the forest green shirt. On a street muddied by dull colours, by dirt and settling fog, the two of them stood out; and that made for an illusion of the crowd seeming to part for them, of their passage through it causing it to melt at their crest, then to seamlessly heal in their wake.
I wonder where he's taking her, Drayton thought. To somewhere upmarket and glamorous, he imagined – the kind of place where everything sparkles, where coloured lights are embedded in the walls, and about half the surfaces are disorientatingly reflective. Certainly not to a worn-out apartment, peeling at the walls, murky with even all the lights on. Not to a place that smelt a little bit of mould, a little bit of paint, which had stains on the walls, and not-quite-matching spots where the cork-board flooring had been torn up and replaced.
The worst thing, he thought, was the little blue couch near the window. It was made from some sort of vinyl, stretched too tightly over too small and narrow a frame, rounded all over, bulging everywhere, looking as if it had shrunken in the wash. The colour offended him too, a kind of off-turquoise blue, which the ambient lighting turned almost green.
I should just go, he told himself, without moving, without really intending to go anywhere.
He could hear her in the kitchen, bustling around, looking for that drink she'd offered him.
“It's all right,” he called to her, “I don't really need-”
“Won't be a minute!” she called back.
And then she was standing there in the doorway, holding a can in each hand. She leaned her white blond head against the arch, blew a strand of that hair away from her eyes, only to have it flop back over her nose. Her hair had been bound in red velvet when he'd first seen her, but it had progressive broken free, and now stood in tufts and spikes, with the velvet ribbon hopelessly entangled. She wore cheap gold-look bracelets all up one arm, wore glittery-pink lipstick; wore two different coloured eyes: one glowing red, one like a tiger's. A black singlet, black leggings, hung over her thin figure; bare feet wore thick fake toe-nails – patterned with fashionably multi-coloured swirls.
She was pretty; and that made him nervous. Her small breasts, standing out against her
singlet, drew his eyes in in spite of his better intentions. He did want to reach out and touch them. He wanted to slide his hand inside, to feel how warm her flesh could be, feel the undulating texture of her ribcage - how small she'd feel under his hands.
“You all right?”
“Yeah.” He wanted to stay in the shadows.
But she came over to join him there, opening his beer and pressing it into his hand. She clambered up onto the back of her awful blue couch, and sat there with a leg hanging over each side, her toes playing with a crack in the floor.
“Marry a rat,” he said idly.
“Step on a crack.” It felt awkward.
The girl shrugged. Nina. Her name – he'd asked her it twice tonight – was Nina. And Nina said “I've been there. Married a rat.”
“He gave me this.” She twisted her arm around to display a scar.
“What did you give him?”
She looked down. “Fucking everything.”
“Yeah, well, what matters now?”
What did? The side of his face ached, his mouth – and what was left of his tongue – tasted like metal. His mouth was always hot, especially on the left side. And there was only worse to come. For you too, sweetheart. He wondered if she'd be able to taste it, if she'd notice the heat, if she'd comment, if she'd be repelled... That was why he tossed himself down onto the blue couch and reached for her, why he covered her mouth suddenly with his. He wanted to know what she'd taste. And he wanted to get the moment over with.
Nina responded. She was all hands and tongue. She pressed herself up against him. A creature of the night, she knew the game, she was going through all the same motions. He noticed that she had clusters of tiny glass studs in her cheeks – they looked like pretty silver freckles.
He sensed the little jolt in her as her tongue played inside his cheek. And the fingers that reached for his face, their hesitation as they felt his cheek and jaw, the way they stopped and fell away. And he looked into her artificial eyes as she drew back. “You've got it,” she said.
“So what? It's not fucking contagious!”
“I know.” But she didn't move forward.
“It's not fucking contagious.”
“I know that.” She wasn't looking at him.
“You've probably got it too, anyway.”
“You'll get eaten alive. It's just a matter of how soon and how fast.”
She pushed herself off the edge of the couch and stood awkwardly. She plainly didn't want
“You miserable little bitch!”
“I was good enough for you before.”
She rubbed her cheek against her shoulder. “It's not that.”
He moved forward and experimented with touching her arm. He saw that she held her ground, but felt that she tensed all over. Her skin felt cold. It's not that. No. He knew what it was. You're looking into a crystal ball aren't you love? You don't really like what you see.
She reached slowly for his cheek. “I'm sorry.” Any traces of desire were replaced now with pity.
He pushed her backwards.
She was nothing special, just some unemployed junkie. Another failure on life's scrap-heap. But she still thought that she should be the one rejecting him. Drayton shoved her again, not meaning it to be as hard as it was. When she stumbled backwards she tripped on a discarded shoe, and fell hard against the wall. He hadn't meant for that to happen. He hadn't even really meant to push her. And now she just looked so shocked and fragile, the scars on her arm caught in the crosshairs of a nearby streetlight.
She shook head. “It's okay.”
“I should go.” This was over.
“Okay. Um.... Drayton, does it hurt?”
“A lot? Worse than anything?”
“Sometimes it does.”
“How do you stand it?” Meaning: how will I, when I have to?
“Look at me: I don't. Or I try to take the edge off with girls like you.”
“I'm sorry I couldn't....”
“Forget it.” It was old and familiar territory. He didn't say he was leaving now, he didn't say goodbye – turning around and walking away said that for him – he just turned his back on her and walked out the door. He let it slam behind him. Outside, he stopped in the street, staring up at her window – a moon-pale rectangle, floral-patterned by her thin curtains; a rough gem set in slime-covered, city-worn stone.