The Splash Dabbler: An Inky Splatter

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Apartment 13

JOELY BLACK
Splash Dabbler Columnist

 

3.

 

 

     The next time I saw her, she had the job. We met in the elevator, juddering downwards. She was wearing the raincoat, boots and sunglasses, but her hair was loose under a black bakerboy. She shone me a smile when she stepped into the elevator, and we said hello.

“How did you do with the job?” I asked, looking for a way to start a conversation. It was the easiest way in, as I didn’t want to keep showering her with compliments; that would be far too obvious.

“I got it,” she said brightly, and her smile turned into a bright grin. She even took off her sunglasses, and behind them her eyes were grey. I’d realised that they changed colour, but I couldn’t decide whether it was her mood that altered the colours between that pale white-blue, through grey to a sort of sea-green-blue, or just the light. Her hair was too pale to be ginger, too dark to be strawberry blonde, and reached a few curling inches below her shoulder blades.

“Are you planning a celebration?” I asked next. “Going out with friends?”

“I’m going out for dinner sometime with somebody,” she answered with a slight, shy little shrug. She looked embarrassed. “I don’t really know many people here. I haven’t been here that long.”

“A week? Maybe more?” I offered.

“Well, I moved down here two and a half years ago, but I lived in the sticks,” she explained. “But I was busy. I, um, I was a bit preoccupied with other things, didn’t have time to socialise. And I was doing some minimum wage job so I didn’t exactly have the cash to spend on drinking. Wow, what a sob story!”

She headed out of the elevator and paused just long enough to ensure I was still behind her. I was going out more often that way, taking the car less, just in case. We headed down through the beautiful oak panelled entrance way to the street. The building had once been an institutional library, and it had kept its academic air. I followed her down the steps, watching her take them with careful grace.

“I keep meaning to take photos,” she said. She glanced around at me, offering me that smile again. “It’s such a beautiful place.”

“I know,” I answered. “Look, why don’t we go out tonight. It’s Friday, I’ll pull a few strings and get us into the Cocoa Rooms.”

She arched an eyebrow at me. “Very nice,” she said, and smiled. “Just us?”

I shrugged. “I’m sure I could find us a party, if that’s what you wanted,” I offered.

“What time?” she asked.

I paused. “Why don’t we go out for dinner first?” I suggested, since it was obvious I wasn’t going to be treading on another man’s toes by asking. “Celebrate in style.”

“Ok,” she said, and this time she seemed quite shy.

“I’ll stop by around eightish,” I said as the elevator doors strained themselves open and she stepped out ahead of me. “Number 13, right?”

“Mm-hmm,” she answered, and then she was gone, picking her way over the cobbles beyond the back exit to the building with care.

I timed it carefully so I was five minutes late; I didn’t want to seem too keen. Took the stairs down to her apartment, suddenly a little more conscious of myself than usual. I knocked gently and heard her call out for me to come in. I tried the door handle and found she’d left the door unlocked. I stepped into the small hallway and looked around me, getting my bearings a little. Immediately ahead of me was the bedroom, the door propped open by a strange-looking statue of some kind of fairy with wire wings. Her bed was a double, metal frame done up to look like it was wrought iron, made up like something out of a catalogue with enough pillows for a whole family and a dark blue throw over the duvet. Beyond that, all her belongings seemed to have been crushed onto one side of the room. She had a tiny chest of drawers, the top of which was crammed with perfume bottles, deodorant and fake tan.

I didn’t have much time to look around. She was in the bathroom, leaning over the sink and applying lipstick like an Old Master at his canvas. For the first time, I got to see her hair loose and without clips or hat to hold it back. It was curly in places, straight in others, complimenting bare, pale shoulders; she hadn’t been using the fake tan much.

“Hi,” she said, concentrating on her make up. “Make yourself at home.”

“Ok,” I replied and headed into the living room, which was on the right. I paused at the doorway to take in the scene. Directly ahead of me was an oval wooden table with a laptop and big display on it, all crushed into the corner with a spotlight highlighting what was obviously some kind of workspace. There was some kind of DVD playing on the screen. I was impressed: The Usual Suspects. The green cage was still in the same place, and inside, two furry creatures looked out at me.

“Rats?” I asked, recognising them mostly from the pictures all around town warning people about them.

“Uh huh,” she replied from the bathroom. “It’s ok, they don’t bite.”

“What do they do?” I asked, and then looked around me at the rest of the room. A table that must have come with her, like the bed, stood in the middle, cutting between the kitchen and living areas. It was glass topped, with a curved metal frame and six chairs. It was gothic, but stylishly so. Wouldn’t have looked out of place in some plush Manhattan apartment. Besides that, she had one bookshelf in a corner so loaded with books that the shelves sagged under the weight, and a black metal set of shelves piled up with DVDs, CDs, and to my surprise, a tarot deck or two. On the walls, she seemed to have a preference for dead celebrity icons: there were two canvas prints of Audrey Hepburn and a Kurt Cobain. Behind her desk she had hung a panorama of Manhattan, although it was an old one; the Two Towers were still standing.

Leaning over the laptop, I had a look at the books on her shelves. It was a dizzyingly eclectic selection, and left me utterly confused about her as a person, other than that she was obviously a voracious reader. There were quite a few histories of different places, the odd fantasy novel, some Stephen King novels, books on programming in various languages, two different editions of the Complete Shakespeare, some other books that looked like university text books, and then most puzzlingly of all, two leather bound Jewish Bibles.

She clicked into the living room after me, and started fussing with her little black handbag.

“Interesting reading,” I remarked, trying not to watch her too hard. “I didn’t realise you were Jewish.”

“Oh, I’m not,” she said with a shrug. “I just keep them around, you know. For reference.” I wondered why she might need a Chumash for reference, but was distracted by her as she stepped around her glass table, hunting for her keys. She was wearing a black dress that was completely backless, revealing a narrow frame and pale skin. The front was a halterneck, with tiny chains across the gap between her small breasts. She was very slim and lightly built, although I had to pause at her hips, which were curved and still very feminine. The dress spread into a skirt that was short on one side and pointed, close to her ankle, on the other. It was difficult not to stare, so I decided to return Kurt Cobain’s troubled gaze for a moment, and then arch an eyebrow at Audrey Hepburn, sitting in that classic pose as Holly Golightly.

“You’re a fan?” I asked, pointing to the picture.

She gave me a nod. “It’s one of my favourite films,” she said, and tilted her head as she returned Holly’s gaze. “I’m rather like her, I think. Well, like the film version more than the original. You know Capote’s Holly was completely different to Audrey’s? Have you read the book?”

“It was a while ago,” I said, trying to remember if it was something I’d read at college.

“I’ve just discovered Truman Capote,” she said, building up to her classic high-speed chatter again. “I don’t know why I didn’t read him before, but the original, well, she’s a bitchy slut, basically. She knows exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. Audrey made her look like she was … well, I suppose like she was being taken advantage of. D’you like the film?”

She looked at me for the first time. Her eyes were blue again, highlighted by delicately drawn black eyeliner. She had long eyelashes and wore pink eyeshadow. I found myself taking in details I never really noticed in women before. She’d developed a certain style to her makeup, emphasising the size of her eyes, and the soft pout of her lower lip, which was bigger than its partner.

“Yeah, I like it,” I said. “You like Marilyn too, though?”

She grinned. “Some Like It Hot,” she said. “Because she plays sax. Like me.”

“You play sax?” I asked, seeing yet another facet to her. She pointed beyond a glass table under the huge window, to a large black case.

“Tenor,” she replied. “I’m Lisa Simpson personified.”

That wasn’t the character I’d had in mind, but then I hadn’t seen the framed certificate yet. I couldn’t see Lisa Simpson in a dress like that, and certainly not moving the way she did. She ran her hands through her hair and flicked it down her back. I found myself wondering how much celebrating she wanted to do, but then I was distracted by a noise behind me. The two rats, in their cage, were squabbling over who had exclusive rights to their plastic water bottle. I wasn’t sure how I felt about rats, to be honest, having grown up with horror stories and basement scratchings in my parents’ home, never mind my grandparents’ place. These two were cute, though. They watched me with intense curiosity, as though they might suddenly asked me if I intended to do right by their owner. Hallowe’en was only a week behind us, so I silently reassured them I’d be good to her, just in case.

I turned back to her, and she was obviously waiting for me, standing in the middle of the living room with her handbag on one arm and smiling. “You look great,” I said honestly. “Fantastic.”

“Thanks,” she said shyly, and swept past me, letting me get a scent of her perfume as she leaned over the laptop and turned off the DVD. “Right, I’m ready now.”

I wanted to make some kind of an impression on her, I guess, so I took her to one of the best restaurants in town for dinner. It worked; she was nothing short of star-struck by the experience, and carried herself with all the grace of an A-lister. We were shown to a table in one corner and she immediately went for the chair against the wall. She scanned the menu with a light frown, as though she was engaged in some very complicated deliberations, and I found myself watching her rather than making any kind of a choice. Then I discovered something new about her. When the waiter appeared, she very politely asked if one of the dishes contained wheat.

“I can’t have wheat,” she explained, as though she was telling him his father had died. “Does the sauce have wheat thickener in it?”

I’d planned to be an old-fashioned gentleman and order for her, besides paying for everything. There was an air to her that said she needed to be cared for, as though she was adrift in the world and utterly alone. Maybe that connection to Holly Golightly wasn’t that far off. We managed to find her something ‘safe’ on the menu that featured none of the odd assortment of things she couldn’t eat. These included wheat, certain types of lactose, and oranges. I didn’t remark on it, so we exchanged meaningless chatter for a bit, while she either looked at me with her eyes turning shades of greenish-grey, resting her chin in her palm with her fingertips resting on her parted lips, or at the various diners.

“I like to look at people,” she said. “That’s why I like buses. I like watching passengers.”

I smiled at her. “Is it interesting?” I asked. “What you see?”

“Well …” She hesitated self-consciously. “I’m a writer. It’s the most important thing you can do. Observe.”

It made sense, a lot more sense than the job as an analyst. “I guess I should ask you all the usual questions then,” I said, watching her. “Like, what d’you write and are you published?”

“Fantasy, and no,” she answered immediately, refusing to meet my gaze but instead focusing on watching her fingers as they rotated the stem of her wine glass. “I have a little online empire but nothing significant, I guess. Usually I talk myself up, but I’ve written far more than I’ve achieved, in terms of being published. People don’t think you’re a real writer unless, you know, you’re on the shelves in Waterstone’s.”

“I can’t say all the best writers make it that far,” I said, smiling. I wanted to ask if I could read some of her words, but she seemed suddenly vulnerable, and it was like asking her, very suddenly, for a kiss. “Some of the worst do, though.”

She smiled at this, but still didn’t look at me. The shape of the glass and the movement of her fingers seemed to have her captivated. Certainly, they were distracting her from meeting my gaze. She was more appealing, now, more than when she was confident and straight-backed; the first indications of her hidden vulnerability and fragility showing through. I started probing her about the writing more and the vitality came back into her face; her eyes turned that pale ice blue again and she was alive with the passion she felt for what she did. In the middle of all of this, I paused to order wine.

“Oh, um, not for me,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I’m a total child and I can’t bear wine.”

“No problem,” I replied with a shrug. “What d’you want? I’m paying, so you can have anything.”

She made a thoughtful face, and then ordered an alcopop.

“Would you like a glass and ice with that?” the waiter asked politely.

“Yes please,” she said, as though he’d just offered her ice cream. He disappeared and she turned to me. “Sorry, that’s hardly sophisticated, is it. I’m always amused by the way they offer to put it in a glass for you, so you can pretend it’s a proper adult drink.”

“You can drink whatever you like,” I said, grinning. “If that’s what you want, that’s what you have.”

She smiled and glanced down coyly. I searched for a new topic of conversation, and we ended up talking about movies. After that, everything flowed smoothly. Her taste in film was as varied as her reading preferences. Every time we touched on something that excited her, her eyes turned that bright pale blue again and she seemed overcome with energy. After movies we moved on to our lives, and started that crucial exchange of more personal information. I decided it was probably best to wait before I confessed the worst.

“So, where did you grow up?” I asked.

“Oh, on some tiny farm in the West Midlands,” she explained, her tone changing. She lowered her eyes again, a characteristic sign that we were heading onto thin ice again. “I’ve moved about a lot since then, though.”

Our food arrived and we decided it would be better if we shared what we’d ordered. We put the plates in the centre and she began to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to eat spare ribs with grace.

“I worked with a guy once who ate them with a knife and fork,” she said, smiling as she wrapped a napkin around the end of one rib, holding it delicately between her fingers. “It was quite something to watch.”

“I bet,” I said. I was making an effort not to look like a total pig, and regretted having ordered the ribs. “You know, I should’ve picked food that didn’t involve getting so messy.”

She laughed. “At least it wasn’t spag bol,” she said. “My parents always made that when we had guests. I mean, there’s no way on earth you can eat that and look good.”

“There should be some kind of dating rule,” I suggested; “that includes a list of appropriate foods.”

“I’m sure somebody’s done a book about it,” she said. “Probably one of those sexperts who include a section on what sort of foods are suitable for different situations.”

“Remind me to have a look out for it,” I said. “I could probably use some advice. Maybe I’ll pick something easy for dessert.”

I watched her pick her way through the duck she’d ordered herself. It was a slightly puzzling contrast: she was very thin, but didn’t seem to have any trouble eating. I’d only just noticed how thin she really was, now she was wearing such a revealing dress. It wasn’t enough to be worrying, I guessed, especially as she happily devoured plenty of spare ribs.

“You know you must be one of the first women I’ve dated who hasn’t mentioned being on a diet,” I remarked, and suddenly realised I might’ve just said something completely inappropriate. “Not that you need to be, of course.”

She shrugged. “I’m not,” she said. “I just work out a lot.”

“How much is a lot?” I asked. “Sorry, I’m just curious. I guess I’ve spent too much time in L.A. with women who only eat lima beans and the occasional apple.”

She offered me one of her coy smiles. “I can’t stand lima beans,” she said. “Or beans of any sort. They’re very boring. I try to get to the gym every day if I can. I’m training up for a run. I want to be sponsored so I can do it for charity.”

“Wow, I’m impressed,” I said, raising my eyebrows at her. “Well, you probably need all this protein, then.”

“Quite likely.” She gave one of her delicate little shrugs. Once we’d finished the main course, she politely refused dessert, but sipped at her drink quietly. I asked for the bill and refused her offer to pay her half.

“My treat,” I said and she gave me a grateful and very sweet smile. “Now, how d’you feel about a club?”

“I’m a little tired,” she said, giving me an apologetic look. “I haven’t started work but I’ve been doing a lot and … well … d’you mind?”

“Not at all,” I said. “We could do that next week.”

I was dying to ask her how she came to be single, but I guessed if I did, it would mean explaining my situation, and I wasn’t quite ready for that. I couldn’t tell if she really liked me, or if she was just pleasing me for the sake of it, because it either entertained her or appealed to her to do so.

“Of course,” she said, smiling and looking quite relieved.

I played the gentleman and walked her back to the building, which wasn’t far. At the bridge on the same road, she stopped suddenly and looked up at the clear sky.

“That’s the only thing I miss about living in the city,” she said; “I miss seeing the stars.”

I followed her gaze and noticed one star doing its best to shine through the light haze over the city.

“You’re a country girl at heart?” I asked, and put my hand lightly on her back, testing to see how she’d respond. She didn’t seem to react either way, but rolled her shoulders back.

“I just miss the stars,” she said, and started to walk on down the bridge, shivering slightly.

I offered her my coat, and she refused it with the kind of gesture that suggested I shouldn’t ask again. She led the way through the gate outside the front entrance.

“You know, I find it puzzling,” she remarked as she passed the buzzers; “whatever possessed them to put the bells on the inside of a locked gate. What’re visitors supposed to do? Use telekinesis?”

I laughed at her, and followed her into the grand entrance hallway, which was panelled with oak and smelled of old wood. At the top of the stairs, I decided it might be worth trying for a kiss, just a peck, to let her know how I felt about her. We had reached that really awkward moment of parting, exchanging meaningless little words while I tried to break down the invisible boundaries around her that stopped me touching her hands. I moved towards her, leaning down for that kiss, and she glanced up at me. Her eyes were suddenly grey, and edged with fear.

“Goodnight,” she said quickly, and she disappeared through the fire door to her apartment, leaving me to stand there at the top of the stairs, wondering what had happened.

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