The guy’s sitting on the end of the bed. I hear my boyfriend’s voice in the room across the hall. He’s drunk. Or high. His voice too fast, too loud.
I vaguely recognise the guy from the run-down housing development a few blocks over. It’s like that. You see them hanging out of patched up cars, standing on street corners, smoking.
He leans forward, stares alternately at my face, my chest. His eyes swim in a blank, wide face, like one of the flat fish on the market stall downtown.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for you,” he says, slurring the s’s on soft and spot. I look down to where his eyes keep resting. I’m wearing a pink vest, low cut, no bra. I pull the thin duvet a bit further up towards my chin, the farthest I can tug it with him sitting on it. I try to keep it light, not antagonise him.
“That’s nice,” I say. The sun is coming up slowly out the window, throwing a slice of light across the bed. I can’t remember going to bed.
I think back to the night before, Alex bringing back several guys for drinks, most I knew. The nicest, Harry, is also the most dangerous. An ex-con, one of Alex’s old mates from school, he’s always the most respectful, tries to include me in the conversation, asks if I mind him helping himself to beer from the fridge, makes conversation about the books I’m reading, tells me he developed a taste for reading inside.
I remember Alex had come home last night excited about something. I knew better than to ask questions. When we first lived together, I’d asked what he was up to constantly. He’d accused me of being suspicious. I was much younger than him and knew he had a reputation with girls. He’d disappear for hours, sometimes overnight, leaving me lying in his bed anxiously wondering where he was and who he was with.
After one disappearance, he brought home two dogs, an underweight Golden Labrador with tan ears that felt like suede, and a scrappy little auburn mixed breed. He said somebody who owed him money had given them to him. He thought they’d keep me company when I was alone at night.
The dogs usually slept on the bottom of the bed. Tonight though, or rather this morning, they’re nowhere to be seen. I can hear yapping coming from outside. Alex must’ve grown tired of them and put them out into the yard.
I remember drinking a bottle of something, Budweiser I think. Harry passed it to me, clinking bottle heads, smiling over the rim as he’d taken a sip. He had piercing blue eyes that would have been attractive on anyone else. But on Harry, they were unnerving. He seemed to see right inside you, and his stare was intense that night, never moving from my face as we drank together.
I’d been in a relationship with Alex since high school. Since I was in high school, that is. He’d already left several years earlier by the time we started dating. He was six years my senior and with his own car, a black Ford Capri with a red stripe down the side.
All the warning signs were there, if I’d wanted to see them.
As he sat leaning on his car outside the school gates just before summer break, I became fascinated with him. He flirted, I reciprocated. Flattered, I accepted his offer of a lift home. I couldn’t believe somebody so cool would be interested in me.
I spent that whole summer riding around in his car, driving to the coast, hanging out at his place with a group of mates. He smoked, drank, sneaked me into pubs and hung his arm around my shoulder protectively. By the time I returned to school for my final year, I was hooked.
I started to flunk my grades. I started skipping school and meeting Alex, who worked ad hoc hours in construction. I was never exactly sure what kind of construction he did, but he earned enough to run his car and rent a small flat. I was just flattered he paid me attention at all.
When school ended, I knew I’d failed most of my exams before seeing any of my grades. I got a job as a secretary in a small law firm. When arguments with my parents about my failures at school and my relationship with Alex escalated, I moved out and into Alex’s cramped flat.
I’d been living with him for around six months before this night, the night when I woke to some strange guy sitting on the bottom of the bed, the sun coming up through the cheap curtains, and me not remembering how I’d got there.
The flat-faced boy is starting to move further up the bed. I keep the duvet up to my chin as tight as I can. It’s gone quiet in the flat. I’m both praying that Alex will come to bed, and afraid what he’ll think.
The door opens, and he stands haloed by the light bulb on the landing.
“What the fuck?” he says quietly, measured. The guy on the bed turns round, takes him in, starts to get up.
“Alex, I…nothing man, nothing. I got lost on my way to the bathroom,” he said. He scrambles up, trips over the duvet on one side of the bed. I stare at Alex, waiting for him to ask me if I’m okay. He doesn’t say a thing. His eyes stare, his breath is deep and concentrated. I wonder if he’s going to blame me for this.
The guy staggers toward the door, and Alex moves an inch to the side to let him pass.
“How did I get to bed?” I ask.
“You passed out,” Alex says. His face betrays no opinion on this. He closes the door and doesn’t come to bed.
Once he’s gone, I check myself out. I have on underwear, no pyjama bottoms. An empty bottle of Bud lies on its side by the bed. Everything seems intact. An image of Harry clinking bottles with me hangs at the back of my mind.
Over the next couple of months, Alex starts earning more money. Says he’s had a good run on the construction site, yet his work clothes remain unworn. I know something’s going on, but I don’t dare to ask. I live here for nothing, he never takes rent. I’m too young and inexperienced to realise this means I also have no rights here.
Alex is getting ready for a night out. He pulls on dark trousers and an old shirt. I ask where he’s going, and he says “Out”. This is the answer I usually get. I’m laid on the bed, the duvet crumpled and skewed. We’ve just had sex, and I thought this might mean he wouldn’t go out tonight.
Harry arrives, and they drive off in the Capri. I can still hear its engine revving as it turns at the end of the road heading toward town.
I have a car by now, an old Ford Fiesta with two tone panels bought with birthday money. I love it. It gives me a sense of freedom to ride along the roads with the windows down, the old stereo Alex fixed up for me blasting rock tapes.
Alex must love me, I think. He fixes my car, takes care of me, in his own way. So he disappears from time to time, brings strange guys to the flat, drinks too much. But I’m still only 18, and this is my first relationship. I’m not sure whether this is how all relationships are. I’ve seen enough losers that my friends date to realise Alex isn’t all that bad.
I decide I’ll go for a drive. I’ll just take the car out for a spin, buy some milk from the petrol station on the main road. Maybe I’ll drive down into town, just for the ride, just to feel the summer breeze through the open window, listening to the new tape I bought. I free myself from the duvet, slip on some jeans and a t-shirt, run a hand through my hair. I tell my reflection in the bedroom mirror that I’m not going to check on him. I’m not thinking he’s with another girl, in his nice trousers and crumpled shirt.
I get the milk. The guy behind the counter takes my money, gives me change. I recognise him from my fifth year Biology class. He doesn’t acknowledge he knows me, nor me him.
I drive toward town, over the tarmac hills that make my stomach flip, press the pedal down toward the floor, feel freer than in days. At the bottom, I circle the dead-end town with its two small nightclubs and handful of pubs serving alco-pops to underage girls. I know, because I used to be one of them.
Drifting slowly, I pretend I’m not looking for a glimpse of black Capri in the car parks. As I’m about to give up and leave, I see the familiar back axle jutting out of a small car park by the side of one of the clubs. I park round the corner. I’m not sure what’s got into me, but I know I’m sick of hiding, sick of playing the dumb young girlfriend.
I see Alex and Harry leaning on the bonnet of the car, the windows down, his stereo turned up loud, the Beastie Boys blaring out. Two young girls are giggling in short tight dresses, one black, one red. Alex passes one of them something and they hand something back. They walk off in my direction, tottering on high heels. I see Alex and Harry turn to watch them walk away.
I get out of the car as they come round the corner, still giggling. They’re much younger than I thought close up. They look at me, surprised, as I block their path in the middle of the pavement.
Hey, what you got there? I ask, trying to sound casual. They look suspicious. Then, figuring I’m no threat, the black-dressed one opens her palm and shows me two coloured pills. One has a butterfly on it, the other a smiley face.
“The guy in the black car sells them for a fiver,” she tells me. They walk off down the street, giggling. I see them take a bottle from their bags and tip their heads back, swallowing the pills.
I wonder why he never tried to get me to take them. I get back in my car and sit there for a long time. I don’t cry. I need to think. I’d been heartbroken at the thought he had another girl. Yet, sitting here in my tiny car, I see everything in sharp focus, like the montage of a film. I see a girl whose ambitions have crumbled to a one-bedroomed flat in a run-down housing estate, to living with a guy who disappears for days, who sells ecstasy to young girls in a parking lot, girls who are the age I was when I’d met Alex, girls trying to pretend they know what they’re doing.
I see the future, too. I see that girl getting older, getting pregnant, getting stuck. I know if this was a friend, I’d tell her to get the fuck out. I’d tell her to run as fast as she could.
I start the engine, drive back up the hill to the flat, load what I can into the boot of the car, throwing in what little I own, figuring I’ll sort it out later.
I know I can go home, though it’s not a prospect I relish. But I figure I’ll get through the lectures and the silences, Dad’s disapproval. There’s always a bed for me there, at least. It won’t be forever, I convince myself. I’ll get out, look for my own place as soon as I can afford it. I’m still young. I drive away in my two-tone Ford, trying not to hear the howling of the dogs from the back yard.
Streets were quiet when we left, but when we turned at the end of our block ten minutes later, a parade of parents and kids with shiny backpacks and fresh haircuts lined the sidewalk. As they bunched at our heels, their enthusiastic chatter at our backs, Riley stopped and moved to the sidewalk’s edge to let them pass. This happened over and over. If he made any comparisons about their speed versus his, he never said a thing. Still, we arrived before first bell on the first day of school.
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