In a rundown Canary Wharf apartment, they sit at the kitchen table, chairs and feet scraping at the linoleum floor. He’s staring at her arm, at the curve of her elbow and the heavy red lines protruding from her too pale skin. She’s looking out the window, ignoring his sharp gaze and instead focusing on the steady beat of the rain and the slow churning of the Thames.
He starts babbling on about Hemingway, trying to tempt her into conversation, but she refuses to respond to him. Instead, she turns away from the water and takes in the changes in his apartment.
There are still books piled everywhere; copies of The Sound and the Fury and Invisible Man line the window, along with a well-loved anthology of Tupac’s poems. A mess of papers and folders crowd the small desk shoved into the corner, and the dark couch that she always hated is proudly placed right in front of the television, mocking her. Not much has changed in the months that she’s been absent, but there are small differences that make her heart clench and her stomach queasy. He has a new lamp on his desk – an awful lime green thing – and even worse, he has a strange abundance of perfectly sharpened number two pencils carefully held in a black mesh pot.
By now he’s moved on to discussing the merits of Ezra Pound, but still, she pays him no heed. She has just noticed the birthday card pinned to the pale yellow wall. She yearns to rip it down, wishes she could scribble her name all over it and claim it as hers.
He makes a last-ditch joke about Virginia Woolf, and she finds herself suddenly fascinated by him once more; fascinated by his dirty blond hair and his barely tan skin and by the scar precariously balanced above his left eyebrow. She stares at the freckles dotting his cheekbones, at the strong jaw and the symmetry of his nose. She thinks that maybe if she stares at him long enough she will be able to find herself again.
After a moment, she realizes that he’s stopped talking. He’s playing with his hands –right in a fist, left splayed over right – and looking down at the scratched and stained wood of the table. He’s pushed his plate away from him.
“Lis,” he finally says, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine David,” she repeats.
He looks her in the eyes for a moment – brown on blue –, but then quickly glances back at her wrist. His eyes linger on the abrasions –on the matted reds and pinks – and the stark, stark white.
“Lissa,” he begins, “I need to know.”
She pauses, peeks at the birthday card on the wall. She feels that desire well up in her again, she strains to fight it, and she almost (almost) succeeds.
“Why am I here?” she asks.
“Because I asked you to come,” he says. “We need to talk.”
He snorts and turns away, looks directly at all of those signatures splattered across that perfect, shiny cardstock.
“You know,” he says, “it was my birthday two weeks ago, on the 19th. You didn’t even call.”
She bites her lip, tucks a piece of hair behind her ear. She could lie and say that she forgot, that it simply slipped her mind, or she could tell the truth; tell him that she knew it was his birthday and that she dialed his number three times before she realized that she wouldn’t know what to say if he did answer and that she eventually stopped trying. She’s not sure which of the two is worse.
So instead, she whispers, “I’m sorry.”
His eyes bore into hers. She feels naked under his gaze, like her diary is in his calloused hands. He inhales and exhales through his nose, and then smiles at her, one of those smiles that strangers always give her on the street.
“It’s ok, Lis,” he says, “I know things have been tough recently.”
“Right. Right, yeah they have been; so fucking tough.”
“What? It’s not like they haven’t.”
“Please, just – you know it doesn’t have to be like this.”
“Oh god,” she says, “is this the part where you tell me that I can do everything and anything if I set my mind to it?”
“You and I both know you’re perfectly capable of anything.”
She lets out a shaky breath, and then starts again.
“Right, right, right. I can do anything in the world. I can dance, I can sing, and look! I can fly.”
“Lissa, I just- God, I just need you to listen to me.”
“Well what are you trying to say, David?”
“I’m trying to say what I said three months ago.”
“Lissa, stop being ridiculous. I’m just trying to help you. You know this; you know me.”
“I don’t think I do anymore.”
“Lis, come on.”
“I said no David. I fucking said no.”
He looks down again, bites at his already worn-down fingernails and smiles another soft, sad smile. She turns back towards the window and stares at the grey waves washing against the boats, big and small. They stay like that for a while, just staring at things that aren’t each other. He eventually brings his head up and she looks back to meet his gaze. For the first time in a long time, he stares directly at her, not the cuts lining her arm or the bags under her eyes, but her. He sees her.
“Lis, I –
“I can’t do this right now. I don’t think – I just can’t do this right now.”
She stands up, grabs her too heavy bag and her cup of cold coffee. She puts her plate in the sink and walks towards the door. He lets her go.
She stumbles down the narrow flight of stairs and emerges from the apartment building heaving and clutching her head like a crux. The rain has picked up and she has no umbrella, but she needs to cross the road to get to the tube, so she blindly runs through the street. There’s honking and shouting and cursing, but she makes it across alright.
The bottoms of her khakis are soaked through and her dark brown hair is matted down on her head. She pulls at her shirt, brings it farther down over her stomach and her waist. There’s a wetness on her face, and she can’t tell if it’s the rain or if she’s crying.