“You wanna know what the problem is with people around here?”
The cigarette between her lips muffled her words; her fierce eyes fixed upon me with a typically unnerving intensity, always startling against the soft, tapered roundness of her kewpie-doll face. Her hands were struggling with her Lucky Charm lighter, slick with the rainwater that was dripping with great gusto down the sides of the awning we were huddled beneath and sloshing to the ground all around us. She was standing too close to the edge.
Knowing better than to challenge her when she had reached this perfect storm of intoxication and belligerence, I shook my head mutely, reaching for her sleeve and gently pulling her out of the rain. My other hand reached for her lighter and wiped it on the bottom of my still-dry coat, igniting it and lifting it to her face as if paying homage, lighting her cigarette for her, my lips stitched neatly – I hoped – into an expression of attentive interest.
The wildness drained out of her face as she nodded her thanks, taking a deeply studied drag on her cigarette – as if she’d learned how to be cool from watching old Steve McQueen movies. As she looked off into the night, this posturing dropped slightly – I wondered if she was aware – and then she was before me, small and vulnerable, as the cocoon of smoke curled around us. The heavy, torrid bass from inside the bar beat furiously against my chest in perfect time like tiny synchronized heart attacks. As she gazed into the night, unusually unconscious of being observed, the sudden, aching desire to scoop her into my arms like a child and to carry her home, head laid gently against my chest flooded through me as if a levy had broken. But I said nothing, waiting for her to go on.
“None of them want to do anything special. They just want a shitty 9 to 5 and a wedding and kids.” She wrinkled her face with contempt – the idea that others could be content with so small a life garnered not only her bewilderment, but also her derision.
“Everyone wants different things, I suppose,” I shrugged my lack of commitment to her ethos, despite my better instincts. “Doesn’t seem so bad to me. Everyone is just as special as the next person. So no one is. I guess.”
She stared at me flatly and I felt the familiar upwelling of simultaneous besotted admiration and embarrassed resentment as I met her gaze, waiting for her to speak. At that moment the two feelings were perfectly balanced, but even then I knew it couldn’t last. I even knew which one would eventually win out, though at that point I had done everything I could not to consider it.
“Some people are more deserving than others”, she countered. “Boring people deserve a boring life, and the others – well…” she trailed off, taking another deep drag, and it was clear on which end of the spectrum she placed herself. I had the sudden sensation that I was seeing her simultaneously at her best and her worst, and an old children’s rhyme inexplicably danced into my head, though I hadn’t thought of it in years:
And when she was good
She was very, very good
And when she was bad
She was horrid.
Caught, as she suddenly seemed, between the ignorant cruelty and the perfect, vital beauty of the very young, I suddenly felt intensely lucky to know her in that precise moment, before life made her less. Fully understanding the impermanence of it, I let myself love her for the moment, pressing her half-sodden body and shivering lips against mine. It was the most perfect kiss I would ever have.
“You kids wanna hear a poem?”
We were interrupted by a voice like turpentine, and we turned to see an old woman standing far too close and looking vaguely unhinged. I shrank back, always uneasy around those I couldn’t predict, but her eyes lit up as they always did when she was riding the wave of life’s unexpected moments.
“Yup,” she affirmed. “Sure do.”
The woman was silent, eyeing us warily, wondering, I suppose, whether or not we were making fun of her before apparently deciding that it didn’t matter.
“Three dollars,” the old lady ventured, swaying unsteadily from side to side.
“Done.” The words were out before the woman had a chance to withdraw, and already she was digging through her soggy pockets for spare change. She extracted the required coins and plopped them triumphantly into the dirty, outstretched palm, then crossed her arms, her face an unspoken challenge.
The old woman held her ground, but remained silent, and I wondered whether or not she was used to being taken up on her offer. At last she opened her mouth and spoke again, her whiskey-soaked voice growing deeper and more cultured somehow – almost beautiful. I was suddenly hit by the understanding that this old woman was a real person, who had had a whole life’s worth of experiences before this moment, and that she did what she did for reasons that made sense to her. I felt a slight, but gnawing sense of shame for not having considered this sooner, and hung back as she leaned forward towards the woman, her interest always piqued by the behavior of those she could consider from above.
“Think twice,” the old lady intoned ominously, “before letting what flies pass you by. But to grasp without thinking, is to sink without feeling that you’re sinking, and” – a bony finger held up in the night air fixed her attention. The old lady observed her interest and a look of arrogant satisfaction that I knew all too well spread over her deeply lined face like butter on toast. Watching the two of them face off was like watching someone gazing at their own warped reflection in a funhouse mirror.
A glimmer of annoyance darted across her face, and she sighed, waiting for the old woman to go on.
“We are all sinking, every moment, every day, until we reach the bottom. It ain’t turtles all the way down, and there is no higher plane even if you think you’ve already reached it. The sinking is all, and everything else is…” the old lady trailed off again, looking as if she’d lost her train of thought, or her marbles, or both simultaneously. We leaned in, in spite of ourselves, and in an instant the light flashed on in the old lady’s rheumy eyes, and she looked at us like she had something important, something real to say, and was trying to discern whether or not we were worthy enough to hear it. I swallowed and the sound thumped deeply in my ears.
“BULLSHIT!” Her voice smacked us backwards, and with a startling peal of laughter from deep within her belly, the old lady clutched her three dollars close, triumphantly gave us the finger, and disappeared into the rain.
Left behind, we both started at one another, slack-jawed, before dissolving into laughter, uneasy on my part and gleeful on hers.
“Bullshit!” She parroted, and the likeness was uncanny. “What a crazy old bitch.” She cackled with laughter around the replaced cigarette, until suddenly her face grew serious. “She’s kind of right though.”
“About what?” I had the unnerving sensation of being toyed with by a predator.
“Most of it is bullshit.” She shrugged nonchalantly, but a look of troubled understanding flickered across her face. It was gone in an instant, before I could be sure of what I had seen.
“What people worry about, I mean”, she exhaled smoke, the thoroughly bored look I was accustomed to seeing on her face returning once more, whatever innocence and vulnerability had crept in with her intoxication ebbing gently away as she sobered up. A wave of understanding washed over me suddenly, like a riptide and I couldn’t pretend that it hadn’t. Not this time.
I left then and there, heading out into the night, disregarding the rain. I called out what I hoped was a casual goodbye and hear her own, – lazy and indulgent – offered in response. I looked over my shoulder and saw that I was already forgotten, as she worked to bum another smoke off of the bouncer. I watched her for a moment, skin glowing in the lamplight, magnetically manipulative and quick as ever to make friends when she needed a favour. Suddenly she turned and I swear that her eyes met mine with a flash like desperation – but it was there and then gone in an instant. I hoped against hope that I really had seen it this time, and turned away.
I never saw her again, but I still look twice on every street corner at every stormy-eyed once-beautiful drifter and wonder where her endless pursuit of distraction and dominance took her until one day I realized that I already know.
About the author:
Siri Williams is a recent graduate of the prestigious English Honours program at the University of British Columbia. Her previous studies include the Enriched Certificate of Performing Arts with a Focus on Playwriting at the Canadian College of Performing Arts, during which she was able to write and mount her own play. While still a student at UBC, Siri worked on a number of on-and-off campus publications in addition to working as an actress and singer. Siri followed her heart all the way to Australia upon graduation. She currently lives in Erskineville and is working towards the completion of her first novel.