A short story of lust and longing in the Old Town, by Lisa Locascio
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For the first 25 years of my life, I thought that desire was the business of the body alone. Then, one night in Edinburgh, Deirdre Smalls walked backwards through candlelight and spilled two pints of brown ale on me. She was only a collection of parts when we collided in the tiny bar: a back in a black dress, a neck dusted with fine hair, a thick braid hanging between two white elbows. I saw her body coming, but I did not move. I thought that she was only taking a few steps back to steady herself. I was sure she would stop. The moment in which I could have stepped aside dissolved. She bumped me hard.
I felt the soft heat of her body, then the cold seep of twin waves of ale sloshing onto my sleeves from her pint glasses. She did not turn. “Excuse me.” I wanted to sound angry, but I was a foreigner in her country, so I probably sounded very polite. “Oh Christ, sorry sorry.” Her voice scaled up like a kettle left to squeal itself dry. “I really am sorry.” She laughed so hard that she coughed, a shrill sound clear above the din of the bar. I was ready to leave, actually kind of excited about angrily stomping away, leaving her confused and sorry.
She twisted her neck and showed me her profile, like a beautiful coin: dark eye, sharp nose, lush mouth. Then she turned around. Her broad brow and narrow chin formed a pale heart set with big half-closed eyes, a long nose and a wide, thick-lipped gash of a mouth. Coppery escapees from her long braid floated around her cheeks and chin. Above her eyebrows, a fringe of red hair parted to reveal a window of glistening forehead. The skin there was the pearly pink of the smoked salmon I had eaten for lunch. I imagined her kneeling, looking up at me from the floor, her chin wedged just above my fly.
I shook my head. Her eyes darted between my stained arms and up to my face. She grew a clown’s helpless smile. “I’m sorry,” she said between cackles. “When I get nervous, I laugh and laugh. It’s awful, isn’t it? I’ll stop if you let me buy you a pint.” She put her half-empty glasses down on the bar and meekly raised her hand, making a show of looking for the bartender. “I was just leaving,” I lied. I could already feel the tension ebbing. If I left now, my grand exit would win me only a chilly walk home, the wind blowing my own beery smell into my nose.
She showed me her gleaming canines. “Come sit with us. We’ll get you fixed up.” She grabbed my wrist with a sweaty hand. It was my first time at the bar, a narrow room with eight barstools and a few tables lit by candle nubs jammed in glass bottles coated with layers of dried drippy wax. At the front was a wide window onto Blackfriars Street, dotted with shoddy parked cars and overseen by owl-perched buildings. Across the street was a hostel built of slabs of gray stone. Like nearly every structure in Edinburgh, it wore its age with pride and exhaustion. All night its arched door spilled loud people out for a good time. We were just blocks from the Royal Mile, where tourists lugged Jenners bags of oilskin mackintoshes they would never wear into the queues at the Castle and the Palace. I had stumbled into the bar after a late soup dinner at a restaurant named Spoon, cold and lost, a copy of a dispiriting Scotsman article about liquefying arctic ice tucked under my arm.
The girl led me back and into a room, secret to me until that moment, that might have once been a walk-in closet. A milkglass window was set into the wall above the glittering black-rimmed eyes of three more girls. The one in the middle had a cap of short dark curls. She clapped her hands in excitement like a child in a Victorian novel. “Dee, oh Dee, what have you done?”
Dee. I passed the girl’s name over the back of my tongue. “It’s all your fault, Mimi,” Dee said, putting down her half-empty glasses. “I was trying to do your dare and I spilled your ale and mine too all over this nice boy.” Her hand was still tight on my wrist. She yanked down, forcing me into an empty chair. “What’s your name, nice boy?” The second girl wore a blue caftan under her straight blonde hair. “Wait, let me guess!” The third girl’s wide face was framed by two pendulous brown braids. “It’s Ethan. No, it’s Jack. No, it’s Jeremy.” “Jeremy! Definitely Jeremy!” Mimi and the blonde agreed that this was my name. I did not correct them.
“I’ve got to get Jeremy a pint to make up for my clumsiness,” Dee said. I had been avoiding her eyes, trying to see her body instead. Her hips were full under her black dress, her thick legs curved where they emerged from the skirt. But when she spoke I looked automatically back at her face. My mind filled with images again: Dee, nude, on all fours, staring back at me over her right shoulder. It was her face I wanted, not her naked body, the expression just before I entered her, a little bored, expectant, dismissive. I would make those heavy-lidded eyes open wide.
“A pint would be grand,” I said. “Thank you.” “Right,” Dee said, and left me in the little room with her friends. The table was covered in smudged empties. In their right hands, each of Dee’s friends bore sugar-crusted beakers of jewel-toned fluid. At least the one I wanted was drinking ale. “Okay, so, Jeremy,” the blonde said. “Do you like this place?” She flicked a sheet of fine hair out of her eyes with a vicious jerk of her neck. I could look at her face with no problems. Thin nose, little vole mouth filled with teeth, eyes like plastic beads. “The bar, or Edinburgh?” They laughed for what seemed like hours, the backs of their throats showing in their open mouths. There were dark stains under their arms. Their small movements were sloppy, splashing their drinks onto their clothes. How old were they? Eighteen, nineteen? Every few minutes they stole little looks at each other and then checked their own faces in pocket mirrors, wearing satisfied smiles. Each believed that she was the most beautiful. Brown Braids picked up the interrogation. “Right, right, the bar, Jeremy. How do you like the bar?” “It’s my first time here. It’s nice,” I said. Then, without thinking, I added: “I just wonder about all the candles. Do you think they’re a fire hazard?” Another roar of laughter. “A fire hazard! You are a dear, Jeremy.” Mimi clapped me on the shoulder, as if we were two industrialists commending each other on a job well done. “I read safety manuals all day at work, you see,” I said, refusing to be funny. I thought of the amount of alcohol on the thin shelves behind the bar, the wine bottle candles dribbling precariously between the scotch and the vodka. I wanted to tell the girls that fire could cook their bones to sludge. “It’s a good question,” the blonde slurred. “Too many candles, isn’t it?” “Especially in Scotland, where everything is built of wood,” Brown Braids said. “A fine question! Let’s toast to it!” They downed their remainders.
When I was first learning English, the word “wood” had given me particular trouble. In my language, the word was “tree”; there was no etymological difference between the material and its origin. A material does not change simply because it is put to use. Trees burned wherever they stood. How easily one of the candles could ignite the dry tree of the shelves or the bar, how quickly the whole place could dissolve in flame. I knew that I would be a coward in a fire, shoving my way out of the room, trampling the girls’ fine clothes, their bird bones. I wouldn’t try to save anyone, not even Dee.
I had given this subject—my great potential for cowardice—a lot of thought. At that time I was fairly sure that all of society would soon collapse. The oceans would fill with garbage and the streets with tar. Before we knew it, we would be hurling coins at dancing bears and sucking marrow from dirty bones. I hated this thought, which made me think that it was true. I wanted to wash my mind.
It was hot in the little room. The drinks were finished. The girls looked around, blinking, unsure what to do with their hands. They sunk back into their corners and we sweated together in silence. Then Dee’s voice came like a dream. “Long queue at the bar. I got you an Old Speckled Hen, Jeremy.” She settled into the chair next to me and I caught a whiff of her smell: smoke and rose. “Hope you like that sort.” I didn’t, but I drank gratefully from the glass she handed me, looking at her plump knees. “Now what are you lot talking about?” I downed the rest. “What’s the name of this bar?” “Well, that’s an interesting question,” Dee said. Chunks of loose hair stuck to her moist face. “We think the name is Black Bo’s, but there’s no sign.” “That’s an odd name.” “Exactly,” Dee said, her eyes lit. “Which is why – ”
Mimi rolled her eyes. She was nothing but a collection of affectations: false joy, fake exasperation. “Uh oh, here we go again with Dee’s poetry business.” The other girls tittered unkindly.
I leaned towards Dee. “What poetry business?” Dee colored and stared at her lap. She spoke quietly. “It’s just, I wonder if the name isn’t The Black Bough, because that would make more sense, and maybe some people just don’t understand the reference, so they call it Black Bo’s.” “Which is ridiculous,” Mimi said. “Because no one knows that reference, Dee.” Brown Braids said. “Not everybody reads English at uni,” the blonde muttered. I slid my arm around the back of Dee’s chair, watching the others see it. “I don’t think that’s true, Mimi.” I said, allowing myself a look at Dee’s face. Her mouth glistened like fruit. Was it painted? “Ezra Pound, ‘In A Station of the Metro’?”
That was all it took. Now I could see how she would really look in a moment of ecstasy, the corners of her eyes twinkling, mouth wet, full eyelashes batting over her grin. I smiled. The gulf between my idea and her reality was a little disappointing.
Before two hours had passed, Dee and I were fucking in a small street called Robertson’s Close. We tried to make it back to her flat, but our pauses to kiss at the foot of tall staircases and in secluded doorways smoothly devolved into frantic coupling in the September chill. I pressed her against the soft crumbly grain of a stonewall. Dee’s face met the mossy rock. She panted like a horse run hard. I forced her head to the right with my chin and hissed filth into her ear, biting her neck. Her pale skin bloomed pink lesions in the dim light. I knew she would be covered in a sheen of cold sweat afterwards, thick and shiny, the kind that can be flicked away with a finger. I hiked up her dress and fed myself into her body with my left hand, keeping my hand there on the cleft of her ass, pushing against her with my fingers and the sharp bones of my pelvis. She tittered and cooed, trying to be quiet, but not very hard. My fear of being caught was intense, not least because we were almost certainly glimpsed by several people. Maybe the residents of the curved building nearby peeked at the edges of their dark curtains and saw us rutting there in the shadows. Maybe some late drinkers left the pub and heard our panting in the quiet night, saw our white clouds of breath rising into the night sky. Maybe Mimi and the others found us as they left the bar, where we had abandoned them with no explanation or apology.
I rode her harder, seeing those sour-faced girls bundling scarves around their necks, slurring agreements about Dee’s bad behavior, proclaiming their superior beauty. I thought of their faces. Dee’s body was just a prop, a barrier between me and the cold wall. The world of objects diffused, swam yellow, then purple. I took Dee’s braid into my mouth and bit, pulling hard at it, like a rein.
I thought I would never see her again. Dee was complete, with no need for revision, like an experiment conducted to test a theory: the idea that some women’s faces possess a quality, different from beauty, as unwilled and intrinsic as family resemblance, which incites desire. I saw it as a type of fate, predestined, irresistible. I created a whole history for Dee. Her features settled as she grew. Her cheekbones pushed into her peripheral vision, her bottom lip sank onto her chin. Around puberty her situation became clear. Strangers leaned to look more fully, workmen squinted from a distance before shouting, boys at school stared at the ceiling or the floor to avoid the set of her mouth, the tilt of her nose.
Soon Dee was able to see the eyes of the men who looked at her, to see the fraction of herself reflected there, their hapless gazes another sort of mirror. She began to understand. She painted her face and cleaned it off. She could learn to wield her face, or she could fight it, take anger inside her.
The night I met her, I thought I understood how Dee’s face could control me. She could have any man who looked upon the smooth nose, the wide eyes, the smutty mouth. I thought it was the same for me as for the others. But I didn’t know anything. I was still trapped in beauty, in desire. Dee was smarter. She saw the question in my eyes, felt it in my hands on her body, in the part of me that was inside her. This, not my knowledge of Modernism, was what intoxicated her. When she saw me look at her, Dee saw the possibility that she might not always be behind her face, the chance that she could step in front of it. She thought that I could help her.
Maybe I had the air of a young man who can be counted upon to provide assistance. By the time I moved to Edinburgh, I had held all of the positions well known to the possessor of a university degree in the humanities: personal assistant, research assistant, cultural ministry assistant, editorial assistant. It seemed to me that I was a member of a new working class comprised of the children of the disappeared middle class, pushed into service as glorified houseboys for the enterprises of the wealthy. My friends from university had all taken similar positions, collating their employers’ children’s homework, walking Pekinese, scooping cat boxes. There was no sense of disappointment that university had led to this kind of work, only gratitude towards the boss who paid in cash to avoid taxes, and the constant fear that the work might be taken away and given to a more recent graduate of the linguistics department.
In Scotland, determined to escape this ghetto of unskilled intellectual labour, I applied to be an “incident investigator” for a small company contracted by the government. I was intrigued by the vague title. An incident investigator, I thought, had at least a chance of being something tactile, a job that required blue coveralls and a toolbox. As a child, I had learned about the medieval guild system and wished keenly to have that comforting process, moving from apprentice to journeyman to master. I wanted to pack a simple lunch and be required to wear a uniform. At worst, I figured, I would be back behind a pressboard desk, sitting under a vent in a room with no windows. I had been there before.
Through the blustery fiction of a cover letter and more of the same during an interview with a man in a vast leathered Morningside office, I found myself employed. My position was functionary and semi-legal; I had to sign a kind of contract promising, essentially, that I wouldn’t think too deeply about its legality. This alone was esoteric enough to appeal to me. After I signed, all was revealed: Edinburgh was built from old wood, and scented candles and miniature deep fryers had entranced its denizens. “For midnight chips,” the interviewer told me, “drunken chavs sinking their paws into hot oil and howling, that sort of thing.” Very sensitive fire alarms, designed especially for the Scottish situation, went off constantly in every corner of the city. They rang in response to smoke, to steam, to heat rising through a building, perhaps even, I came to think, in reaction to human breath. Nearly all of these alarms were false, and they had overwhelmed the fire brigade, which was attempting to devise a system for determining which alarms were legitimate. Until that happened, someone had to pick up the slack.
There were no opportunities for advancement or higher pay, only a job I could have as long as I wanted and money that would loosen the guilt of living off my trust. “Nice to have an educated fellow on the team,” the man in Morningside said. So I was the bandage on the wound. My days were spent entering strangers’ homes. I opened doors on curtains of thick white mist through which a flat’s worth of girls danced, spectral in their bright pajamas, apologizing for the errant pumpkin spice candle special-ordered from America. They were from Nairn, they were studying sport and politics and maths, they just wanted a bit of Halloween.
I rode the train through yellow fields to manor houses in the outer suburbs, where alarms that went off like bells at the same time everyday, and costumed maids answered every door dragging massive hoovers. I climbed the stairs of the university’s David Hume Tower, dodging leaping students in stocking caps and tweed jackets, scaling to the highest floor, where a weak alarm cried its misfortunes. I diffused the emergencies of overcooked pasta, long showers required by grieving men, sausage links burning unloved on the hob, midnight votives lit by boarding school boys attempting the black arts. The imperiled were always happy to see me. They gave me glasses of water or high juice, sometimes lager. They followed me around their homes, pointing helpfully at the source of the trouble, the smooth white console in the ceiling that bleated helplessly, begging for attention. When I disabled the alarm, silence spread over us like a sedative. Stoned smiles settled on our faces. For just a moment, silence was pleasure.
On my fortieth day of work, I turned to the last page of my manifest and saw Dee’s name printed there. She had given it to me on our walk, just before we turned onto Robertsons Close: “My last name is Smalls.” She tilted her face up at me like the full moon, mouth spreading dark in the low light. “Deirdre Smalls. It’s funny. I’m not little. But it’s also sad. Deirdre is a tragic name, do you know the story?” I shook my head, but she didn’t give me time to answer. “What is your name? What is your story?”
I answered with a kiss and a hand at her waist, guiding her into the dark corner.
I should have seen how unlucky it was, another chance encounter with the girl with the malevolent face, but I did not. Is it possible I didn’t remember her surname? Is that why I rang her bell? I want to believe that I did not know I was going to her. But it is more likely that I was simply foolhardy. I thought it would be interesting. I was a great fan of interesting things back then.
She lived in the Cowgate, in a severe flat just above a place called Mussel & Steak Bar. I had eaten there once: a bowl of small green-lipped mussels in a broth of gorgonzola, leeks and cream. The savory tang of this liquid came back to me as I stood before the restaurant’s white facade, gazing up at the flats above. The large arched windows showed me only a deep white emptiness reaching back into shadow. I climbed the small blue staircase to the first floor, recalling the feel of the end of Dee’s braid against my tongue. Moments of our evening together came back to me staccato. Her teeth, slightly yellow in her pink mouth as she laughed at the bar. The looks of surprise on her friends’ faces when we left. The way she grabbed my lapels when we first kissed, and then again when it was time for us to part.
The dull beeping of the alarm was audible through the door. I pressed the lighted doorbell. A light song echoed through her flat, followed by the shuffling flop of feet. She might not live alone. Few young people did. I felt profuse relief at the likelihood that I would be met not by Dee but by a flatmate. Then the red door swung open and there she was, smiling jaggedly. Her face called all the hallway’s light and focused it. Its power was multiplied, redoubled by her ease. Her eyebrows were daggers above her dark eyes, turned black by shadow. Her mouth was thicker than I recalled, and shiny, as if she had been eating something oily. Her hair was loose and heavy on her shoulders, like a garment devised to shield her breasts. Beneath it she wore only a cheap-looking white slip.
I felt the quick headache I sometimes suffered after eating or drinking too quickly. “Hello.” She squinted, her mouth widening. “Jeremy!” She lifted half of her hair and tossed it over her right shoulder. I was glad I didn’t have a nametag to correct her. “I’m here in a professional capacity, I’m afraid. Your fire alarm has been triggered. I need to disable it.” Her expression did not change. “Right,” she said. She took a small end of hair into her mouth and sucked. “Nice to see you too.” She turned and stomped inside. The alarm grew louder and more insistent as I followed Dee through her flat. It was a railroad style, a series of rooms collapsing into one another. All the white walls were bare. Each of the four rooms was nearly identical to its predecessor: small, minimally decorated with cheap furniture, and oddly vacant. Even the kitchen seemed more like a display than an actual room, with one anonymous pot hung on a hook above the shining stove. I saw no evidence of a flatmate.
The alarm was mounted in a far corner in the last room. Here the white was interrupted by the presence of a low bed with a dark blue comforter and a sleeveless green dress spread atop. Dee watched as I climbed the collapsible stepping stool I carried in my workbag, disarmed and then reset the device. Heavy quiet rushed into the room, as if I had opened a door on a snowdrift. “Have you any idea what set it off?” I asked her. Her slick lips parted. “Probably the smoke.” I laughed, frightened. “Are you going out?” I asked, jutting my chin at the green dress on the bed, which looked too light for the weather. “I’ll be out of your way if you can just let me know what triggered the alarm. I have to make a note of it, for my job.” I gestured towards my manifest with my pen. A bead of sweat slid down my nose.
Why did her face strike me so? She was beautiful because she was almost not beautiful. Her nose was prominent, an unkind viewer might say large. Above it, her eyes were perpetually half-closed, like those of someone high on opiates. But she did not look sleepy. Her lips were the same color as the wet skin just inside her mouth.
“Sure thing.” Her voice was strange. “This way.” Was it good or bad that neither of us had made an effort to be friendly? She walked across the small room and opened a door I hadn’t noticed, revealing a little white closet. On a small table twenty or thirty sticks of incense burned, their stems stuck in a deep bowl of coarse salt.
“I see,” I said. Then, I couldn’t help myself; I had been living the job for a month, I had no friends, no one to distract me. I had come to believe in my mission. “That’s quite unsafe.” “Shut up,” Dee said behind me. “Excuse me?” “Shut up, Jeremy.” Her hands moved up my back and across my front. I looked down and saw her wrists rummaging under my jacket. She turned me to face her. This close, I saw little shapes in her face, her nose like a triangle and an inverted triangle at the same time, the trapezoidal push of her cheekbones, the way her breath issued in little clouds. The room was cold. Her eyes were the green of glass bottles. Dee was right about one thing: she was not little. Without her clothes her body was generous and full. Her breasts were high and well separated, rising palely from her chest like peaks of beaten cream. Below was a hand’s-width of dense flat muscle, and then her stomach asserted itself, a soft slouchy shape punctuated by a deep navel. Her thighs doubled when we pressed back on the bed, and for some reason my eyes stayed there, on the cushiony spread of her beneath me, the folds of the green dress where it was depressed by her round ass.
I couldn’t look at her face. It scared me. My eyes landed everywhere else: the intersection of white on white in the upper wall, the crush of skin beneath me, the thin wafting strands of incense smoke from the closet. The expanse of the Cowgate out the little window, young people in black clothes going to eat steaks and mussels. I could look at Dee when her eyes were closed. I could pretend things were different. For just a moment her face made sense, was soft, just pretty, nothing else. But then she opened her eyes suddenly, as if waking into my body, and I dropped my gaze to the place where the green dress met her pinking skin.
The next time we met, she wore that dress. It hadn’t been washed.
Using words like “beautiful” and “lovely” to describe Dee is imprecise. What I mean is that her face had power. What I mean is that when Dee was around, I couldn’t look away. Her face made me feel like I had never seen another. Her face almost didn’t belong to her, was wholly different from Dee herself. She barely understood it, could never explain it, couldn’t hope to live up to it. The rest of her was fine, but just that. Chubby fingers, clean feet with unpainted toenails, all of it covered in blonde down.
Dee insisted on calling the bar where we met “Black Bo’s, or, The Black Bough.” “Sounds like a Dickens novel, doesn’t it?” she said. She liked the inconstancy, the idea of a bar being as ultimately unknowable as another person. For me our meeting there was the start of a steep climb, and on the afternoon in Dee’s flat we reached the soaring apex, the hours in which our mutual attraction seemed to be the beginning of love. After we parted that day, I entertained humiliating thoughts of us together somewhere, wearing white linen and taking photographs. Then came the decline: we began a relationship, for lack of a better word for our situation.
We made dates and kept them in Old Town, that warren of bridges and staircases. The gray buildings crouched under the silver sky, glaring as we tried and failed to hold hands. Dee, stumbling across the cobblestones in her heeled boots, kept wrenching her gloved palm from mine and thrust it into the air to steady herself. She said several times that I should carry her, a suggestion I answered by looking away. Sometimes I made a joke and she coughed a hard laugh that emerged visibly into the cold air like a little mushroom cloud.
Our favourite coffee shop was at a gallery below North Bridge, near the rail station. Dee liked to sit in front of the tall windows and stare out at the alleys, looking, she said, for stray animals and lost children. Occasionally I went into the gallery alone, to see the shows. She never followed me, just stayed at the table drinking her fancy coffee. I don’t think Dee was interested in art. When I returned to the table, she looked up at me expectantly, feigning ignorance of the milk foam stuck to her nose. I wiped it away with my thumb, refusing to smile. “That’s my favorite thing!” she said, over and over. Then, hyped on caffeine, Dee said, “Let me tell you the story of my name.” I agreed, but then she turned to the long windows again and changed the subject, her smile vanished. She leaned forward and let her hair fall around her face like a veil.
The restaurants we went to were mostly Indian and Chinese places sandwiched on the first floor of small buildings, above a shop and below a flat. We climbed narrow staircases and sat far from other diners, smiling widely at the waiters who brought us bowls of fragrant steam. We drank tall bottles of yellow beer. Stirring chicken tikka masala or tofu hot pot across from each other in these hot dry rooms, we discussed Dee: her family in Aberdeen, her studies, her dull intrigues with her friends. Dee’s father was a barrister, her mother a physical education teacher, she was “leaning towards Irish Modern Studies.”
When she asked me the corresponding questions, I dodged. My relationship with my parents had degenerated to the point where I gave people an outline so foggy and sad that it deflected further questions. When I was eighteen, my parents had divorced and moved away from me, so I moved further and further away from them. I had not been back to my home city in over four years. My parents had money, and they gave some to me, buying perennial extensions of our separation.
I did not tell Dee that my mother had sent me preposterous gifts since the beginning of our time apart, gifts that had lately increased in quantity and ridiculousness. By the time I met Dee I was receiving a carefully packed crate of household goods—silver cutlery and bone china and crystal candlesticks, like lavish wedding gifts for a bride my mother didn’t know well but wanted to impress—about once a week. I stacked the gifts in the corner of my bedroom. They were portents I refused to acknowledge. It was as if my mother was trying to make a piecemeal home for me, a mutant of mismatched wares where I would stay comfortably away from her. I thought of selling the gifts, but couldn’t bring myself to haul my mother’s offerings down to the hock shop near the strip clubs on Bread Street. There was something unbearably intimate about the idea of unpacking those boxes in front of a stranger, letting him take her gifts into his ashy hands and tell me what they were worth.
My father wrote me on hotel stationery with postmarks from places I was sure he had never been, an identically cheerful empty letter about every two weeks. Sometimes he sent postcards of beautiful scenes. But my father did not like the outdoors. He only liked being alone. My father hated travel by any means other than car, but he seemed to be writing from Africa, then Iceland, then Canada. And my mother’s gifts were sent from the United States, where she knew no one. I wondered if they were holed up together somewhere, fabricating stamps, plotting. I feared they were both losing their minds. If they did, I would be next. There had only ever been the three of us.
So I gave Dee the short version: a few scenes with snow or wildflowers, pork at Christmas, horses in empty fields, swimming in shallow brackish water in July with smoked fish sandwiches waiting on the shore. She cooed and smiled, disinterested. She nodded knowingly, or pretended to, or at least moved her head as if she wished she understood. She wound her hair around her fingers. She looked over her shoulder. When I left my hand too close to her face, she kissed it and came back to me. I liked that she didn’t pretend interest. I never had to speak about myself for longer than a few minutes.
No matter where we went, no matter how well-researched the restaurant or long the walk – Dee claimed to hate the bus, but I think she was just charmed that I would follow her out into the night – she seemed always eager for the outing to end, for me to follow her on our cold treks back to her flat. She lit up as soon as we got inside, chattering, smiling more genuinely than she had all evening. She poured inches of scotch into tall wine glasses: “They’re all I have! Sorry!” Sometimes the laugh came, and I had to turn away. When the scotch was gone I followed her straight into her bedroom, muzzled and silent, ready for her.
What was a performance, what was not? We coupled fervently on her small creaking bed. Dee wore her face like a mask. She talked happily at me until we started fucking, but then she was silent, a soft mass I pushed against. I tried to read her expression, but could not. She set her features like a timer, turning them off so she could lose herself in oddly rhythmic breathing. Sometimes she hissed or screeched. I laboured above her or behind her, or, increasingly, below her, staring up at that difficult face. Smooth nose, skin like fired clay, fringe clinging in clumps to the crown of her inflamed head.
When she came, or at least when I thought she did, Dee squeezed her eyes tightly and let out her breath in tortured gasps, tensing every muscle. I worried she was in pain. Then she let go, immediately disinterested. She never wanted to lie together afterwards, never suggested that I stay the night. Like a bad husband in a comedy, she fell asleep instantly after I withdrew, ignoring the care with which I clutched the base of the condom and turned quickly to the wall, as I’d learned in school. I wanted to like her mannishness, the way she cared and did not. But it unnerved me. How could her desire be so specific, so pointed, and then disappear?
After a few weeks, the satisfaction I took in sleeping with her began to decay. Inside her, I stared at the wall to avoid Dee’s face. The white room distracted me. Why was it not decorated? I could have asked her to my flat, which I shared with a fatherly Dutch biology student, but I was sure that if I let Dee sleep in my bed, she would be gone in the morning. What would she take with her when she left? The latest postcard from my father, a photograph of Engadin Valley, with only two words, “Beautiful Country,” written on the back in his lost familiar hand? The red glass catching the light from the dirty window, sole survivor of the dozen my mother had sent me packed in shredded paper in a wooden crate, two years and several lifetimes ago?
So I left her alone in the early hours of the morning in her vacant apartment. We rarely spoke before I left. I pressed my dry lips against her forehead, trying to feel the blood moving underneath. Her impossible face glowed like a smooth stone. Sometimes without opening her eyes she said “Goodbye,” in a dry voice, as if we would never see each other again.
In Scotland, autumn is a precipitous slide from brisk September evenings into deep December cold. I dug my winter coat out of my chest. I had worn it over my white suits as a young man in the capital of my home country, and I had worn it as a professor’s assistant in Berlin, pulling the fine dark fabric over the muted uniform of collared shirts and straight pants I had imposed on myself in Germany, wrapping a thick scarf under my new short haircut. In those cities I had had an idea about myself, who I was, who I wanted to be. But here I had become, increasingly, a man who blended in, who made no effort at self-expression with his choice of clothing, who took no special care with his appearance. It was part of being past my early twenties, I reasoned. I got cheap haircuts. I pulled v-neck sweaters woven from synthetic fibers over undershirts bought in packs of three.
My plans with Dee began to spill from the weekends into the week. By mid-November we were spending nearly every night together. I slipped away from Dee’s flat for my walk home in the early hours of the morning. I always expected the sun to begin its journey up before I fit my heavy brass key into my building’s front door, but it wouldn’t appear until long after, in the tender hours when I stole sleep on my small mattress. My shift at work began at three in the afternoon. By November, the sun set around two-thirty. I often missed the day.
There was a time, forever ago, when I had designed my life so that I was awake only during those purple hours. But that was in the summer, when I was young. My sadness was different then. In those years I could still recall my childhood home, with a sharpness that hurt me: the blond wood furniture in the living room, my parents’ dimpled mauve velvet headboard, the rickety swingset that my father built in the yard from a kit. The smooth white table with the folded tablecloth we spread for every meal at its middle. The old glass in the windows thickened at the bottom of each pane, the overstuffed sofa beneath, the sleeping yellow cat atop. My father’s chair, built of dark wood and covered in nubby fabric, in his square of sun, his favorite place. In the afternoons he read there, sometimes looking up from his book to smile at me.
I’d had to push these memories back, muddy them, make them transparent and weak, like low-lying clouds that appear after a thunderstorm at night. When I smelled the smoky wool of my old coat on those walks home from Dee’s flat, I felt at an odd distance from myself, as if I was watching my body slip under waves. I should have stopped. I should have given myself over to the worries given me by the newspaper and the television, the heating planet, the weakening currency, the panic that we felt at not knowing what would come next. But remembering was comfortable, satisfying, like the slabs of buttered dark bread my mother gave me when I was a child. I allowed myself back into that world. The walks from Dee’s became precious. I went back to the yellow flowers on the cliffs near the sea in summer, the picnic of small tomatoes in oil and boiled new potatoes wrapped in a clean white cloth. I smelled the backseat of the old Peugeot my father drove to my grandparents’ house in the northern mountains, the place to which he had receded in the wake of our family’s failure. I remembered my home. I allowed myself to be curious about what had happened. I wanted to return.
This was not wise. I had to stay where I was, worrying the world and not my own history, kept awake by threat of war and famine, not my parents’ wellbeing. I had to look for fires, to see that they were not burning. I could not extinguish the question of why my life had happened to me. I decided that this sentimentality, this mawkish desire to go back, was Dee’s fault. It was the side effect of the strange power of her face,, of the hypnotic sex she required. I had to stop seeing her, to stop entering her home, to cease parting her legs like a curtain separating me from myself.
The night I ended it, we went to an Indian restaurant near my apartment. When the waiter brought the menus we saw that they didn’t serve meat. “Oh, boo,” Dee said. “I wanted something bloody.” “Then you shouldn’t have wanted Indian,” I said. “They cook all their meat until it’s dry as shoe leather.” She pouted. “You’re in a mood.”
“No.” Had I never said anything challenging to her before? She ordered paneer tikka masala and took a long, miserable sip of her beer. “So,” she said. “So,” I said back. Her face armored over, impenetrable. Dee possessed the power to make me behave against my best interests. What if she found me out before we left the restaurant? I didn’t want to break up with her there. I wanted to wait until we were back at her blank home, so I could leave her where I had found her. She pulled all of her hair over her right shoulder and began braiding it. “I never told you the story of my name.” “No.”
In her hair, her hands moved like she was playing a harp. I expected her to talk about her parents – Frank and Mary, as I’d come to know them, she was the kind of child who insisted on calling her parents by their proper names—but instead she told me a fairy tale. “Deirdre was a storyteller’s daughter, destined to be beautiful and cause trouble. Her father was told to kill her, but the king wanted her beauty. When she was a baby he took her from her family and gave her to an old woman, who raised her. On her fourteenth birthday Deirdre told her nurse that she would marry a man with black hair, white skin, and blood-red lips.” “Like Snow White?” She didn’t smile. “Yes. The old woman knew a man like this. She took Deirdre to him. The story says that he didn’t want her, that he knew she was the king’s and wouldn’t risk it, but I don’t believe that. I think he fell in love with her immediately. How else to explain why they eloped?” “Maybe she made him.” I stirred my soup, which had arrived tepid and was now cold.
Dee shifted her eyes towards me incredulously, her left eyebrow floating up. “Of course he wanted her. She was the most beautiful woman in the kingdom.” Without looking, her hands wrapped a reserved long strand of hair around the braid’s bottom and tied a bow. My skin crawled. “You didn’t say that. You said that she was beautiful, that’s all.” She scowled. “Why would the king want her unless she was the most beautiful? Anyway, his brothers went with them too, and they ran away to Loch Etive. By Oban. I’ve been there. Have you?” Since moving to Scotland, I had only left Edinburgh once, to visit a bookstore in Glasgow. “No.” “Jeremy, how do you think a woman could make a man do anything?” I nearly laughed, but instead I just shook my head. “Never mind.” “They were happy. The brothers hunted and Deirdre made delicious meals for everyone. They went out on long walks through the woods and swam in the loch in the summer. All night, every night, Deirdre made love to her husband, outside when it was warm.” I smiled wanly. “Then the king found them,” Dee said. “Everything went to shit, there was a fight, and Deidre’s husband was killed. She was sent back to the king. He married her and raped her for a year. Then he got tired of living with a woman who hated him. He asked her whom she hated most in the world. She named the man who killed her true husband.” “Mr. Snow White?” Dee glared and pushed the braid over her shoulder. “So the king gave her to him. But she would rather die than belong to him, so she threw herself from the chariot that took her there and broke her head open on the rocks.” “That’s sad,” I said. Where was our food? Dee tipped her empty beer bottle into her mouth, tonguing the opening. “It’s the saddest. That’s what it means. That’s what I mean. Deirdre means ‘sorrowful.'” “But you’re not sad,” I said.
Her mouth tightened into a thin line. Without the fullness of her lips, her face took on a funereal look. Her cheeks glowed from the beer and the hot room, but her forehead stayed pale, peeking at me from behind her fringe. She looked and looked at me, trying to distill the weight of her sorrow into a green gaze. Our meals arrived. We did not speak again until after I had paid the bill.
“Ready to go?” I asked. Dee nodded. Outside, across Clerk Street, a music shop was shutting down. In its front window, a tall woman in a long red dress was reorganizing a display of LPs. I felt irrationally attracted to her. I wanted to escape Dee and leap across the street, enter the store, embrace the record clerk. Instead, I helped Dee into her coat. She would never put it on herself, always waited for me to dress her. It was bell-shaped blue plaid. I slipped it over her outstretched arms, then turned Dee around and buttoned her up. She stood there for a moment in her big coat, the wind pushing her loose hair around her face in the light from the streetlamp, then turned away, showing me her profile, as she had on the night we met. Her brow and the glistening eye underneath were indisputable, prophetic. The wintry night city shimmered around her. For a moment I discarded my plans. I could not part from her. But then she turned back to me and I saw the familiar impatience around her mouth. The full lips reappeared, hungry and dark. “Dee,” I said, “I don’t think we should – ” She lunged, attacking me with an angry kiss, thrusting her tongue to the back of my throat to silence me. “Don’t!” I said, pushing her away. “Please!” I shook her off, but she stayed close to me. Then the familiar lopsided smile grew on her face again, and she leaned in, waiting for me to yield. She thought I was so malleable, so weak, that this could be saved. I wanted to hurt her. “I don’t want to see you any more,” I said. Her face began to change, fell into shadow, every part of it shifting downwards. But once I said the words, there was nothing I could do to slow the change in her face. I didn’t want to. I enjoyed the way she fell into a kind of ugliness. Exhaustion ages a person, makes them like their worst self. Dee looked terrible. I felt that I was in control for the first time since Black Bo’s, or, The Black Bough.
In the morning, there was my creased white ceiling. Its constancy touched me. Every morning it hung there between the wider world and me, protecting me. I felt the length of my body beneath the blanket. I was warm. I lay there for a long time, happy. When I finally rose I moved gingerly around my room. I expected Dee in my closet, in my drawers. She had gone too easily, walking quickly away from me across Saint Patrick Square. She almost fell as her heel caught on a cracked stone, and I had to restrain myself from going to help her. The morning crawled. But by the time I had drunk my flatmate’s Indonesian coffee, it seemed to me that I had done well. I had been honest with Dee. I had been a gentleman.
I was satisfied until I printed that day’s manifest. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the first stop on my rounds that day was back in the Cowgate, back up the blue stairs above Steak and Mussels Bar. What did I expect from that empty apartment, that waiting place for Dee and her sorrow? There was fire in the living room, fire in the bedroom. The firefighters were there already, hosing her absence of things down, looking in vain for her. They shouted at me to leave, told me I had no business being there, but I had an incident to investigate. They did not stop me as I pushed past them and into the flat. I went through the telescoping rooms. They had been emptied out. No furniture, not even the pot on the wall in the kitchen, not even the bed. She had taken everything and left only a stain, the way she had introduced herself in the first place. In her bedroom, bright copper paint was splashed on the walls and the floor, even on the ceiling. It was easy to imagine her with the can, hurling it up above her head. In the center of the floor, soaked in paint, was a length of something. At first I thought it was rope, but when I kneeled below the smoke I saw that it was her braid, the one she’d constructed the night before at the Indian restaurant. The bottom was still tied with the long piece of hair. The top was jagged, as if she’d cut it from her head with a serrated knife.
Beside the braid, also submerged in paint, were a score of passport photographs, cut from the strips they were printed in by the machine at the rail station. A collection of tiny Dees, smiling and frowning, looking straight at the camera and avoiding it, her shorn hair sticking out in points from her head like flames. Here she looked up, there she looked down, but it was as if each photograph was looking directly at me, like those trick paintings in some roadside attractions. Was this her final trick, or was it just in my head? I thought of taking one of the photographs, letting the paint dry and keeping it in my wallet as a reminder of this moment, but some remnant of sense stopped me.
I was alone in her bedroom as it filled with black smoke, on my knees for just another minute before a firefighter ran in and lifted me in his strong Scottish arms. Seeing Dee’s face, trying to understand what it did to me, trying to make its power my own. My mind went away with the face, warred with it, argued up and up. Just my body crouched under the words JEREMY LOVES DEE painted everywhere, on every wall, and the smell of incense left burning in the closet overnight.