The colours of the room are barely discernible. They are muted by the faint, emerging dawn. There is a woman lying in the bed. Only her hair and forehead are visible, and the rest of her body is veiled by the covers. Next to her a man sits, covered by the same sheets from the waist down. In the just-there light, their figures are grey, shadowlike.
His eyes are open. Hers are hidden.
“It belongs to you,” the man says.
The sheets rustle as she stretches out her legs. Her calves rub against his shins. They linger, once more repeating the touch, as though savouring the friction.
“It’s all yours,” he says. His voice is streaked with early morning tiredness, but its insistent tone suggests the subject is not a new one.
She exhales, moaning quietly.
“Look at this,” he says.
Her eyelids open. He lifts his hand above her face, elongates his fingers, then quickly balls them up into a fist.
“It’s all part of you,” he says.
He releases the fist and rests his hand on her hip.
“It’s all yours,” he says, the final line of this morning’s benediction over her body.
She presses her face into the bedsheet. Daybreak outlines the shape of her hidden body.
Her hand moves the sheet to reveal her face. “We’ve met before,” she says. The lips carefully caress each of the syllables as she pushes them out of her mouth, one by one.
“No, we haven’t,” he says.
“We have. Just not here.” She won’t let him have his way.
“No. We haven’t.”
But then uncertainty quivers across her face.
“I couldn’t forget you,” he says.
She bites his forearm and licks the salty skin while the flesh is still in her mouth.
The man stands on side one of the bed, wearing only his underwear. The curtains are open. She’s on the far side, sitting, watching the creamy yellow sunrise. Her calves are bare too, but he cannot see them.
Despite its slight build, her back is muscled, its supple strength unmistakeable. Her hair, black, reshapes itself as her hand runs through it.
“I can turn around,” he says.
Her fingers pinch the white cotton around her middle.
“I hope we meet again,” he says.
He kisses her hair. She tilts up her forehead as his lips leave her body. The face is fair, the cheeks narrow but the jaw defined. The pupils and irises are indistinguishable.
“We’ve met before,” she says. Something is hidden in the curl of her smile.
“We’ll meet again, Ariane,” he says.
The light is fading but the day’s warmth has lingered and the tables of the terrace are full. The waiter moves quickly, giving to and taking from the customers as he comes and goes.
A piece of steak hangs from Ariane’s fork. Its bloody middle shines out between the streaks of grey-brown on either side.
“Ariane. I like it. Can’t keep the same name forever,” the girl across from her says.
She chews the mouthful of meat, hungrily, and washes it down with her red wine.
“It’s this woman’s name. Someone I met,” she says, softly. Her voice is lower than those of the diners around her and her friend leans in closer to listen.
Ariane’s top has slipped down, too low for comfort, and with a small shake of her shoulders, she pulls it back up. The material is frayed where it’s been cut off, just below her chest. Her breasts seem to swell under the clinging black fabric.
The waiter brings a plate of fries but she waves him away with a flamboyant extension of her arm, the hand of which carries her glass. After he has left, the hand swoops down and deposits the wine glass to her lips. She empties it.
“Real people are the best inspiration,” her friend says, refilling their glasses.
Ariane chews and swallows. Her hands dart back to her drink and hold it delicately, as though the cheap café glass is the finest crystal.
“We’ll see each other again,” Ariane says, “I’ve met him before.”
“Only so many men to meet, Ariane,” her friend says.
“I’ve met him. Before.”
She looks down, away from the girl. Her eyelashes, artificially long, hide her eyes.
The grass was damp. No shoes. My right foot stepped forward like it belonged to someone else. The ball came up to my knees. It seemed to get bigger. And bigger. My foot would not reach it though. My toes dug into the grass. The blades curled between my feet. Dad frowned.
Somewhat robotically, her hand finds its way back to her drink.
“So who’s Ariane?” her friend asks, smiling.
“She stopped me on the street. Asked me if I was a Christian.”
Her friend raises her glass and says, “To Ariane.”
Again, they laugh, soon silently. They sit, shaking and smiling, their mouths open wide. She crosses and then uncrosses her legs. Her skirt rides high. Her thighs shine under the café’s lights. She lifts it up, for a moment, showing her friend the pink underwear beneath. They snort, with laughter, together.
Ariane’s laugh, though, becomes mechanical. Its timing is slightly off. Her jaw is clenched and her eyes – they dart away from her friend’s face too often.
Dad kept saying my name. At first his voice was loud but then it started to fade. I could not see him from behind the tree.
They sit across from each other smiling. At first Ariane’s face is peaceful and pleased but a look of anger starts to emerge. It’s the couple at the table next to her. Their eyes are fixed on her and her friend, almost hypnotised. It is clear they have been watching the whole exchange.
Where I had walked on the carpet were little patches of brown. Mum was not happy. She shouted. And shouted. Dad was still outside. From the window I saw him. He kicked the ball into the net, picked it up and then repeated the process. Mum pulled me away to scrub my feet in the bathroom. With one hand mum used a towel to get rid of the dirt. With the other she held up the trousers I was trying to pull down.
Ariane stares right back at them. Her mascara has run.
From behind, the sun lights the half-drawn blind, which glows, lamp-like. The faintest breeze makes its way into the apartment through the gap between the open window and its windowsill.
Ariane lies on a yoga mat in cycling shorts and sports bra. The room is entirely quiet except for the sound of her skin peeling off the mat when she lifts up her shoulders. It sounds like a seamstress tearing a piece of cloth, bit by bit.
She lies down, giving in to the fatigue, and grunts, frustrated. Her mouth is closed. The deep breaths out, from her nose, fill the room.
They drove me there. The journey was silent. They did not turn on the radio. Or turn around to look at me. They went through the doors. I followed them in. The doctor wore glasses. He was bald.
She smacks her hand on the floor. “Fuck. Ariane, what’s wrong with you?” she says.
She manages, with difficulty, to make it to 200 reps, after which she stands up and leans her body to the right side. She does five sets of 20 and then repeats the same on her left side. Her body is limp, unhappy-looking, in the pauses in between each recital of what is clearly a daily routine. But today the movements are imprecise, irregular, and she has to slap her thigh at intervals to encourage a more consistent form.
The mirror on the living room wall has been repeating her actions. When she’s finished she stands proudly, erectly, and in the reflection looks herself directly in the eye.
The sound of children playing outside crashes into the room. She pulls on a t-shirt and leans over her desk to look. The kids have started a game of catch. Above them, there are only the faintest wisps of clouds in the sky, and they are only in the distance.
She pulls back from the window and sits on a chair. On the desk, next to a large glass of white wine, are a sketchpad and a box of pencils.
She picks up a pencil but then looks at the wine. She reaches for it, feels its weight in her hands, and drinks half of it in one quick gulp, putting it down quickly afterwards and again picking up the pencil, which she holds delicately with both hands.
“2B,” she reads out.
A whiteness came down and smothered me. When I woke up – there was no consciousness, only pain. Through the misty comings and goings of nurses and doctors, it kept throbbing. Throbbing.
The pencil, dropped, clatters against the table top, and her hand stretches out again for the glass. She holds the second half in her mouth for just a moment before swallowing it all in one go. A look of pleasure crosses her face.
She refills the glass from a bottle of wine in the fridge. Walking back to the desk she tugs at the underwire of her bra.
After five minutes, she looks at her phone. No new messages. Her fingers pinch at her bra, again. Her hand edges towards the wine. The liquid, cheerfully yellow, glints in the bright light. And then it’s all gone, in one long gulp, its happiness now finding itself in the look of pleasure on Ariane’s face.
At the top of the page, the words “IT BELONGS TO YOU” are written. The letters are etched in thick and, underneath, the image of a hand is starting to emerge.
It burned like placing your body into a too-hot bath. But that feeling was joined at intervals by shocks of pain. Unlike lightening it struck the same spot more than once. More than twice.
Her bra keeps irritating her and she continues to fiddle with it as she sketches. She has started to only slowly sip her wine, a change, but she does not have a choice: the bottle is empty.
The children can still be heard playing outside. Their squeals reverberate around the room. The sound distracts her and she glances up repeatedly.
She stands up, pulls off her t-shirt, unclasps her bra, and pulls it off. She sits down, then leans out over the window and shouts, “Shut. The. Fuck. Up.”
They answer her in laughter.
She stands in front of the mirror to examine her body. Her bedroom is dark; she has turned the dimmer switch down. First, she runs her fingers across her hips, savouring the feeling of bone under the skin. The same look passes over her face when the digits cross her stomach. There is a just perceptible layer of muscle beneath it. Her fingers pause on her lower back. She turns to examine it in more detail. Her fingers stay put, for a moment, questioning whether to continue their exploration of this project.
Mum’s face was always there, the lumpy mole on her cheek a reminder I was still there, still here. She carried food, the remote, a portable radio. All to me.
And then her hands are off again. They cup her breasts, then together, palms faced inwards, they move up, between her breasts, her pectoral muscles, until her fingers drop away except for the index fingers, which continue on to trace the line of her clavicles. She holds her left hand at the point where the clavicle meets the shoulder but moves her right finger down to her right nipple, slowly. Her thumb joins the forefinger and together they press tightly. The nipple hardens as the two fingers, a clamp, exert their pressure.
My dreams: black images that pulsed with the pain between my legs.
She winces and lets go. The muscles on her face relax. Flat and limp, her lips form a slight pout, the top one lying impotently on the bottom. Her eyes look at the reflection of the fridge in the mirror.
But I was new. Now I was me.
The door to the apartment building is old, solid wood, and far taller than she. It arches at the top, like the gate to a castle, and likewise bars her way. Her angular body, clad all in black, is insect-like against it. She’s humming an unfamiliar song.
The pale early evening sun can only brighten one side of the street. In this weak light, the long shadow that falls away from her feet is little more than a stretched-out smudge on the road.
She takes a sip from the open can of beer in her hand. And then another one, this one longer. She has to tilt the can up higher to get the amount of liquid out of it that she wants.
In between sips, the music she is making is the only sound on the street. It’s remarkably in tune. No one is around, not even anyone going in to or leaving the supermarket next door. The sky is pastel blue, silent.
Her back falls against the door with a thump. The door’s hinges creak.
Her song grows in stature. It becomes triumphant, joyous, as though it should be set to words and sung by a church choir at a thanksgiving service.
And then it stops. With her phone in her hand, she enters a code into the pad to her left. She puts it in again. Nothing.
“Fuck,” she says.
His phone goes to voicemail.
“Fuck,” she says again and finishes her beer. She sits on the pavement and lights a cigarette. The can rolls away from her, but she doesn’t notice. She’s more interested in the drink she’s taken out of her purse.
“Fuck,” she says, more loudly this time.
She stands up and looks up at the apartment building above her. This is his apartment. That is what he said.
“Baby!” she says, calling up to him. “It’s me, Ariane.”
“Benj, it’s me. Let me in,” she says. This time her call is louder but the tone is questioning.
A man walks up to her. His t-shirt has the logo of the supermarket next door on it.
“I’m meeting my baby here,” Ariane says, in English, pointing up to the apartment building.
You are not allowed to drink alcoholic beverages you have bought from the supermarket here, he says to her, in French.
“It’s my fucking drink,” she says, in English, and stands up.
He repeats himself.
“It’s my drink and I’ll do what I fucking want with it,” she says.
One of his colleagues from the supermarket walks out. In halting English she explains what the man said.
“It’s my fucking drink,” Ariane says, approaching the man. She stands a head above him. He steps back. Her face is marked by fear, loneliness, sadness.
The doctors made me.
“What’s your fucking problem?” she says, and kicks the rubbish bin next to her. It falls on its side and the lid swings open, falling onto the pavement with an empty, plastic thud.
“It is my drink,” she says again.
“My drink,” she says, kicking the bin again.
“It’s mine,” Ariane says, again sitting on the pavement. “It’s mine,” she repeats.
No, I made me. It’s mine. My body.
“And I’m not even fucking thirsty,” she says, her voice now husky, as she throws the can of gin and tonic against the shop front behind her. The bottle bounces off the glass. It lands near her. A thin trail starts to dribble towards her.
The staff place the bin in its correct place and then go inside.
She stays. The sky above has lost most of its blue, but it’s still silent. Again, there is no one on the street, no sound from the apartment, no answer to her voicemail.
When he comes down, she thinks, I’ll fuck him like no one he’s had before.
Her shadow is elongated far down the road now. It disappears for minutes at a time when a cloud covers the sun. It vanishes for good when dusk finally falls.
I made me. I made me. I make me.
There’s an autumnal chill in the air. It’s the second one of the year.
Copyright © Robert Akam, 2015
Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2015