There was a swimming pool under the hotel. It was set into the ground under the plaza so that the ceiling was at street level. I used to go there in the evening when it was empty. I would swim on my back with most of my head underwater. I’d return to my room towards midnight, my limbs hanging like dead weights out of me, and I’d collapse on the bed and be instantly unconscious.
Kel must have been watching me from some discreet comer. Nothing moving but his eyes. I never once suspected that he was behind me somewhere.
It is a curious thing about indoor pools – they never fall still. They quiver all night, hours after the last swimmer has gone. That pool quivered the first time it saw me. It seemed to be more than just water. It was too gelatinous and kinetic to be just water. It was alive in its own right. It was a great weeping jellyfish. That funny-bone shimmy that pools do, all exposed nerve-endings and neuralgia – it means something, I’m sure of it. But then, I’m sure of many things. I’m sure that nothing is fully insensate. Every discarded sweet wrapper, every broken-down car, every object that has contact with the human race must feel our vague pain.
There are traces of it in the skin we shed, in the breath we exhale. It bleeds out of us into the air and coats all the surfaces around us. It is like dust, like plutonium. Nothing can escape it, we don’t know how to destroy it, and yet we are constantly creating more.
And then, and then.
And then one night as I swam, someone dived in. I hadn’t seen anyone entering the poolroom. The lights were off at that hour. The pool was officially closed. The only lights that shone were the internal ones on the walls of the pool. The rest of the room shimmered dimly. Two shadows were wavering on the ceiling. Just one of them was mine-the one that wasn’t moving. I looked down and watched the second shadow circling shark-like beneath me. I tread the water nervously.
He surfaced behind me. He exploded through the water and scooped me up in his arms. I shrieked in relief and delight when I saw that it was Kel. He threw his head back and laughed. I was confronted with his throat. His laughter echoed around the damp tiled walls. He jigged me up and down a little, as if guessing my weight.
‘You’re as light as a ball!’ he said, cradling me. I had my arm around his neck. We smiled at each other, our faces only inches apart. The water had beaded all over his skin. I reached out to a droplet on his cheekbone. The bead gave up its spherical shape as I held my finger over it. It leapt onto my skin and straddled the space between us. I couldn’t take my eyes off this tiny transparent conduit. The fathomless distance between Kel’s flesh and mine.
I became aware that he was staring at me.
‘Don’t do that,’ he said, and I withdrew my hand. He dropped me into the water and I tumbled over backwards. By the time I surfaced, with water pulsing up the back of my nose and rumbling in my ears, the poolroom was empty again.
‘So, did you manage to place me?’ Yes, that is what I said the next time I saw him. He was back in his seat by the window in the breakfast room. I sat down beside him this time, acting all casual.
‘Nah,’ he replied, without glancing up from his newspaper. ‘That was just a chat-up line.’ Kel and his miasma of lies. The two could never be separated. Like peering at another human being through fogged up glass.
‘Are you chatting me up?’
He laughed loudly at that and threw down the paper. He swallowed what was left of his coffee and stood up. ‘Come on,’ he said, and I followed him up to his room, which was exactly the same as my room, but on a different floor. The cherry wood blinds were shut against the late morning sun. The air was the colour of tea. He lay down on the bed and began rolling a joint. I lay down beside him and watched.
He gave me the joint, and began to roll another one for himself. I smoked it carefully. It was carefully put together. What light fingers the lovely Kel had. Time unfurled gently and the room grew hushed. The hotel around us grew hushed. The whole city grew hushed. Had I ever been so happy? I smiled at the ceiling, and the ceiling smiled back. No, I had never been so happy.
It couldn’t have been that late when he asked me to leave. It was not yet dark outside. We had been smoking in silence for hours.
‘You finish that,’ he said, passing over what was left of his joint. He rolled off the bed and unlocked the door, and stood there holding it open for me. I understood that he wanted me to leave, but I understood more clearly that I had no intention of leaving.
‘Up you get,’ he said. His voice was too loud for the room.
I closed my eyes to shut it out. He came over to the bed and clicked his fingers in my face. ‘Come on,’ he insisted. ‘Get moving.’
‘Keep your hair on,’ I said, and then laughed. It was a messy laugh, poorly executed and shrill. I was ashamed of myself. I knew I could do better.
‘Jesus,’ said Kel, surveying the scene. He reached forward and heaved me off the bed, sending me stumbling towards the door. The carpet was treacherous, and as steep as stairs. Some of the stairs went up, and some of them down. There was no clear order to it. It was a matter of taking them as they came. I had difficulty negotiating the doorframe. It kept confounding my exit.
The lights in the corridor were excruciating. There was an unpleasant taste in my mouth. I tried to hold onto the walls. The butt of the joint, which was stuck to my lip, started to bum. I spat it out and stamped on it, hurt and offended that it should come to this. Ke! closed the door behind me before I could object. I turned and looked at the door for a while, thinking that I was in some way still looking at him, and then I wandered off. The first expulsion was complete.
And then he was by my side again again the very next day. I didn’t see him until he was right up close. He must have been sitting in one of the armchairs in the lounge, biding his time. He seemed to have a lot of time. He seemed to have even more time than I had. He touched my elbow to say hello, and he accompanied me through the lobby, like it was the most natural thing in the world. And me, like an idiot, delighted to see him back. No mention made of the evening before. I wasn’t overly keen to refer to it myself. We shared the triangular segment of the revolving door. We had to shuffle along inside it and we got too close to each other. He was behind me and he put his hands on my hips. ‘Skinny!’ he said appreciatively. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know where to look. He told me that he had this great idea. We’d get dressed up.
‘Like pimps,’ he grinned, when we were out on the Plaza. ‘You can be a pimp too. But only if you’re good.’ He threw back his head and laughed at the sky. I wanted to jump up and nip him on the throat. His arm was around me, holding me by the shoulder. He steered me down the street and then we darted through the traffic. I said, yeah, okay. Alright. You know, what the fuck? He said, yeah, what the fuck? Come on.
We went into a large department store and made for the designer rooms. I tried on chokers and tight tops, and Kel tried them on after me.
‘Check these out,’ he said, wearing a pair of white shoes and doing lounge lizard moves in them. Lounge lizard moves and all kinds of shimmies. ‘Very nice,’ I murmured, with clammy hands. Very, very nice. He clapped his hands once and pointed at me with both index fingers.
‘I forgot to ask you your name,’ he said, still smiling.
‘Isolde,’ I replied. The smile collapsed. Isolde was the wrong answer. Too late to change it. We eyed each other carefully. Then Kel stretched his lips back into the smile. He did so slowly enough to indicate that it was not spontaneous·.
‘That isn’t how you pronounce that name,’ he said sweetly.
The name sounded even more ungainly on my lips after that, even when he had made me ape his pronunciation and repeat it back to him, syllable by syllable. Isolde, he said, and I looked at his mouth shaping the word. I watched it stretch and pout. Eee zole day, I said back to that mouth, realising that I was nervous. The back of my throat was dry. Eee zole day eee zole day, I repeated, until the syllables seemed random.
‘Good,’ Kel said, after a brief hesitation. Good, and then the perfunctory smile.
We wore the new clothes out of the shop. Large rectangular shopping bags dangled out of us like Christmas decorations. We didn’t even bring our old clothes back to the hotel. We dumped them in the litterbin on the street, like it was the most hilarious thing ever. Then we strutted down the high street like peacocks on coke, eyeing up our images in every reflective surface.
I liked the new clothes. Kel liked them too. We tried them all on again that night in his room, and then we got
‘Damn,’ he said to me in a Deep South accent as I modelled for him, ‘you can be my bitch anytime.’ Mah bith, he had said in his street argot. You can be mah bith.
‘Are you gay?’ I asked.
‘No.’ He smirked. ‘It didn’t work out.’
This indeed was welcome news. I took a run and a jump and landed on the bed beside him. He reached over to his bedside table and grabbed a pink bottle. Baby lotion. He squirted some onto his palm and rubbed his hands together. Then he smoothed them over his pale scalp. I felt privileged that he should have done that in front of me. Intimacy, yes. Intimacy with Kel was my quarry. Anything would have done me, any crumb that fell from his table. I propped myself up on one elbow and gazed at him. His scalp still had the paleness of unexposure to the sun.
‘What about your head?’ I asked.
He gave me an evil look. ‘What about my head?’
‘When did you shave it?’
‘I was in New York,’ he began, and a smile came instantly to his very fine lips, a smile for New York, not for me. ‘I had been living there for a while, but decided to come back here. So, the night before I left, I got as drunk as a rat. I was having a great time, but then I sort of passed out. Anyway, I woke up and dusted myself off and I saw that I was in the East Village, so I went around to one of the Polish diners for a big slap-up breakfast, but when I got in, they all looked at me funny. Like all of them, the waitresses, the customers, looking at me like I was a freak. So I went down to the bathroom because I thought maybe someone had written something on my forehead like the time before, but this time they’d got me with the animal clippers.’ He paused for a while, nodding in agreement with himself. ‘And that’s how I ended up with half a head.’
‘Half a head?’ I asked, showing interest. That would have made two of us.
‘Of hair, you idiot. Half a head of hair. Some asshole shaved off half my head of hair, and I had to shave off the other half to stop from looking like a freak-show.’
He was furious. He really was angry. I nodded in deferential sympathy. He shook his head bitterly, ready to thump somebody. He looked at me to see whether I too thought that this was the most appalling thing that had ever befallen a fellow human. I tried to look appalled. And then I couldn’t help myself. I started to snigger.
My first thought was that he was about to hit me. The skin on his face tightened and his mouth went thin. stopped sniggering and tensed up on the bed. A small ember tumbled out of his joint onto the quilt, burning a hole through it. Kel put his finger on the hole. Then he looked up at me, and burst into laughter. I joined in cautiously after a few moments, getting louder and more hysterical as relief set in. Soon the two of us were laughing like the insane. It was the most unbelievable feeling of comradeship I had ever felt. I was so happy to be part of that room. I could not get enough of him. I wanted to embrace him. I wanted to throw myself upon him and squeeze him tight. Oh, tell me more, I wanted to plead. Tell me about the streets. Tell me about the drugs. Tell me about the women. Tell me about the trouble you were in! Alone at night in my own bed, I dreamt up ways of making him spill.
We looked at each other while we laughed. Right at each other. We didn’t break eye contact. I briefly thought I was him. I watched him out of the corner of my eye just as he watched me. It felt good. Really: it felt so good to think I was Kel.
There was silence for a while when the laughter subsided. A ladybird was making its way up the balcony door. I wondered if I was hallucinating it. It was very odd to see it there, so far away from ground level and from any vegetation. Even the tops of the street trees were a good three storeys down. I was flattered that it should have chosen our room out of the hundreds of rooms that riddled the hotel. I should have hated it the way I hated all insects, but I didn’t because of its pretty colours. My mind was never democratic where beauty was concerned. I asked Ke! how he had worn his hair before it had been shaved off.
‘It was sort of like yours,’ he said, tightening up again.
‘It was dead straight and very dark, wasn’t it?’ I asked.
‘Yeah.’ The ladybird spread its wings and leapt onto the wall.
‘And to about here?’ I persisted, indicating my collar bone.
He shifted his weight on the bed. ‘For a while, yeah.
‘No reason,’ I said lightly. ‘No reason at all.’ I was watching an image half-forming in my head. It could have been him, I told myself, and then quickly dismissed the idea. How could I have done anything other than dismiss it? I did not know Kel from Adam then. I repeat this knowledge to myself over and over. It is long and thin and very fragile. It wavers back and forth in the wind, and threatens so often to break. It is the straw at which I clutch.