On the table is a bowl of limes. Their greenness is mesmerising.
I dress quietly so as not to wake the couple cocooned in faux fur. As I leave, I blow them a kiss.
Outside it is cold and skyscrapers salute each other in achromatic sky. It is exhilarating—the coldness—and for no reason at all I pretend I am Phillip Petit walking on a high wire, except that instead of ballet slippers I am wearing fur-lined Crocs. It is a silly game but it is fun and in the course of it, quite by accident, I slew off my false self and get a glimpse of what a belief in god feels like, an amazing feeling, a bourdon note that seems to say: Life is good and mysterious, You are good and mysterious.
After that, nothing happens.
A year goes by like a moving image of reality: trees ~ faces ~ TV advertisements for whitening toothpaste ~ tulips in parks ~ streetlamps at dusk ~ buses swooshing through rain ~ teaspoons ~ wheelie bins. I learn that it takes patience to change a life, and fortitude. (I hate the word resilience.) I have to apply for a job and interview for a job and get a job and then I have to find somewhere to live and stop drinking and go to the dentist (sobriety gives me bruxism) and then I have to eat more fibre and apply online for a tax deductible travel pass. But despite the tedium, it is almost a joy—after the brouhaha of the last few years—to narrow the aperture of desire to simple quests, to seek consolation in real time.
I make a list of daily goals:
- Take the bus to work
- Eat rye bread with green salad for lunch and again for dinner
- Feed the bird on the balcony
- Do not drink
I also make a list of life goals, some achievable: buy a cushion with a fleur-de-lis pattern; others not so much: die happy.
Aside from the boredom of day-to-day existence, life is good. I grow thick around the middle like Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four and voraciously unsexual. Whiskers sprout on my upper lip. The skin around my eyes tightens until there is no white, only iris and pupil. That’s happiness for you! But I stop short of getting a cat—there’s the bird on the balcony to think of—although one day, on impulse, I buy a sheepskin rug in a department store (real things are now cheaper than fake) and when I’m in the mood I stroke it back and forth, my fingers making drills in the fur, first one way and then another, ruffled then shiny.
And for several years, life stays good.
Then three things happen in a week. First, I receive an email from work informing me that a bullying complaint has been made against me. Second, the bird on the balcony dies. Third, I see my ex-husband—I thought you lived in Canada!—sitting in a booth in Nando’s with a woman and two children.
Apologies. I have a habit of telling stories too fast, expecting a coherent narrative to spring up from a few words flimsily strung together on a string. The problem is words words words. The more neatly I arrange them, the more they lose their flavour.
So okay, big breath, here goes. REWIND.
First, work. The job I got was as a moderator of online content for a large tech company that cannot be named for legal reasons. It was well paid, and once I got used to it, it was pretty easy. I had to watch a video every ten minutes and make a call on taking it down or not. This never took longer than thirty seconds, so I planned to do productive things with my free time—‘get into’ crypto or write a novel or practice chair yoga—but all I ever did was surf the internet. Mind you, I lasted longer in the job than anyone else, no matter how creative their side hustles. However, it’s not easy to do nothing for nine minutes at a time, so I put my bullying of a co-worker down to boredom. It started innocently enough—stealing her ChapStick when she went to the bathroom—but when I got no pushback on that I just kept going—scribbling on the photo of her niece she had blu-tacked to her monitor (that really upset her)—and then of course the emails from the main server purporting to be dissatisfied with her work, her appearance, the length of her bathroom breaks… Whenever I pressed SEND, the surge of chemicals in her body washed into mine. Did I mention that our desks were side-by-side? My co-worker looks like Salma Hayek and when she brought in homemade cookies she always offered me one. Was this bully my true self? Who knows, I’d forgotten all about the Phillip Petit moment on the high wire by then. The email ended by inviting me to attend a Conflict Resolution Stage One Meeting in Suite 8, Floor 2.
Second, the bird dying. The bird had turned up not long after I moved in to my new apartment and I took it for a good omen. (You can believe anything if you want to.) I read online that birds should eat gastropods so I started looking out for snails on the walk to-and-from the bus stop. Whenever I found any I popped them into my bra until I got home. I would like to say that this idea is original but I stole it from Patricia Highsmith. I had glanced through a book of hers in the library—given it 5-Stars on Goodreads—and then seen on Wiki that she kept snails in her bra—pretty weird yes, but also, I discovered, oddly soothing, like having extra nipples. I put the dead bird in an empty tea caddy and closed the lid. A few weeks later, when I looked inside, there was just a dusty weightless lump, like the stuff women use for flower arranging.
Third, Nando’s. I go to the Nando’s near work sometimes, but that wasn’t the one I saw you in. I’d taken a half-day to go to a dental hygienist (I suspected halitosis) and afterwards, on impulse, had gone into the Nando’s on the hight street, the nice one with the retro-style booths. I recognised you straight away even though you had no hair and were wearing a navy anorak with a Nike logo. The woman—your wife—looked like a wife in a magazine, and the children—your children—were watching cartoons on kiddie tablets. When the waitress arrived, you ordered the Family Platter Meal of two Whole Chickens and five large sides with four glasses of tap water. I was surprised—all that youthful carping about the bourgeois family—but then I remembered how you often had tears in your eyes at the end of a Simpsons episode. You once gave me a bouquet of flowers. Do you remember? It was after the operation. The flowers had rust at the edge of their petals and when you gave them to me I presumed that I would never see you again. And then you dropped a piece of paper on my table, with your number written on it, on your way back from the bathroom in Nando’s.
So, yes, it was a bad week—what with the bullying complaint and the dead bird and you in Nando’s—but it was not inevitable that life had to change. I could have attended the work meeting, accepted a caution and mandatory counselling. No big deal! I could have gotten over the bird dying, That’s what people do. They move on. Since death happens quite a lot, the smooth transference of love from one thing to another—birds to guinea pigs, for example—but mostly from people to money—is what keeps the planet going. I could have binned the piece of paper with your number written on it.
O the complexity of the human heart. Joking!
I lose my job and hang around the balcony at night drinking tequila and missing the bird. CUT. I text you. CUT. Your wife goes away with the children and you invite me over. CUT. You are nervous—the neighbours might see me—and you usher me into the house hurriedly. CUT. Inside, everything is white, even the bin in the kitchen is white. CUT. We get naked and start, but it’s surprisingly blah, so I make an excuse and go to the bathroom. CUT. On a shelf above the sink is a bottle of Johnsons Baby Shampoo (no more tears). CUT. I open the lid and smell. CUT. The smell makes me depressed. CUT. When I return to the bedroom I try harder. And it works! You mistake my effort for passion (an easy mistake to make) and fall asleep the instant you ejaculate.
There’s a light on somewhere and the white walls of your bedroom are swaddled in shadows.
I watch them as I think back over of my life these past few year: faux fur ~ skyscrapers ~ high wire ~ thousands of videos of violence and/or paedophilia ~ my co-worker with her homemade cookies ~ the fleur-de-Lys cushion I forgot to buy ~ the dead bird ~ Nando’s ~ Johnsons Baby Shampoo. Each image, as I remember it, melts away, like sleet falling on snow, until the only image left is of the bowl of limes on the table. I understand that some metaphor has burst its boundaries and transformed into something else. But what? And then suddenly I don’t care because I have the most wonderful memory! I remember that in end-stage palliative care I am given an injection of top-grade morphine and die happy—so happy—my mouth, my throat, my whole body, full of the taste of limes, impossibly green and crammed with the sensation of a new and better life.