A Space of their Own
By Kele Okereke.
Carina watched as the silver trail of smoke from her mouth fogged up the windscreen of Terry’s 1977 Sedan. The Jersey skyline was now almost completely obscured and all that could be seen from inside of the car was the starkly lit pier and the big black of the River Hudson. She passed the tightly rolled joint back to Terry’s waiting fingers and watched as the plastic Virgin Mary on the dashboard gazed at them disapprovingly. The conversation had run out but it was alright, the pot was making Carina’s mind go backwards not forwards. She had finished her 8 hour shift an hour ago but she didn’t want to go home yet, Todd would be at home, sleeping in their bed and she hadn’t worked out how she was going to break the news. Carina noticed two shapes walking along the pier. She could see that they were holding hands, a man and a woman she thought. They walked for a few meters and then without any warning, stopped and the larger shape leant down and kissed the smaller one. Carina felt like a voyeur, watching this private moment. As they held each other, she wondered what it felt like to be the kisser, not the kissed? She had never instigated a kiss before, Todd had been the only boy to kiss her. What would happen if you leant in to kiss but you both closed your eyes at the same time? What would happen if your lips never met?
“Tell me again,” said Carina to Terry, whose face was hidden in a cloud of smoke by the steering wheel.
“What did you say about love when I was cashing up? How did you know that you were in love, when you were?”
“Well…I said that there were 3 types of connection, Carina. The physical, the intellectual and the emotional. For love to happen, there needs to be all three. You might have a bit more of one than the other, but there needs to be a balance. That’s when you know that you are in love Carina.”
“I see” she said wistfully.
“Why do you ask?”
Terry looked at her again and then turned her face back to the rolling River Hudson as the light from the end of the joint went out, leaving them both in complete darkness.
Carina and Terry had been coming to this same spot every Saturday for the last 4 weeks. Terry would meet her at the Pizzeria in which she worked, and when her shift finished they would drive to 11th avenue and park the car by the Hudson River Park on 15th street. Without fail Terry would then spark up a joint and they would sit in the car, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Terry was paranoid about patrolling cop cars so they did not open the windows and even though their hair and clothes would always smell like pot, Carina didn’t mind. It felt like they were in a cocoon, sealed off from the rest of the world, a space of their own, where nothing else mattered. But today something was different. There was something on Carina’s mind that no amount of marijuana could make go away. Earlier this afternoon she had found out that she was pregnant. It had not come as a surprise, though, for she was 5 days late and usually she was as regular as clockwork, but she still needed to be sure. So, on her lunch break, Carina walked the four blocks to 17th street Duane Reade and bought the OV Watch Midstream Pregnancy test. As she walked back, she thought $19.95 was pretty expensive for something that she was only going to use once, but this was not the time to be worrying about that. In the restroom, at work, she read the instructions as she sat on the toilet. It felt like there was some sort of force propelling her whilst she took the test; like she was watching herself from outside of her own body. And as the two red lines appeared in the viewing window of the applicator, her mind came sharply back into focus.
“Hey”, said Terry with an abruptness that snatched Carina from her daydream.
“Did I ever tell you that I had a twin? He died when I was born.”
“No,” replied Carina, quietly. She wondered if somehow Terry had read her mind and could see little babies crawling around in it.
“Yeah, he was still born. Hold on,” she said as she picked up the joint from the dashboard. She brought it back to her lips and lit the end with her lighter as she took a long deep drag. Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently, I don’t know why. She told me this when I was 12.” She paused before adding “I kinda wish she hadn’t but I think it kind of explains a few things.”
“What sort of things?”
“Just things, Carina.” Terry smiled as she said this, a smile that was as tender as it was firm. It meant “please don’t ask.” It was the same gap-toothed smile that had hypnotized Carina almost 2 months ago at the Creative Writing class in Midtown.
On the first day of the course, she had been so nervous walking down 8th avenue that it felt like her feet were going to buckle from underneath her. She arrived in the classroom on the 14th floor and took the furthest corner seat. All the other class mates introduced themselves by name but she kept her head down and pretended to jot things in her notepad. Why was she even here, she wondered? Todd had not wanted her to join this class, “$400 is a lot of money” he said, “and you don’t even like books, Carina” but she had carried on regardless, she needed to do something for herself, serving pizza was not enough. But as the days got closer, she was starting to doubt herself. She didn’t know anything about writing and she had hated school at the time, was this a whim that she was just going to regret? She started to wonder whether it would be too late to get her money back when the door opened and in stumbled a tall olive-skinned girl, with a mop of sun-kissed curly brown hair underneath a battered backwards Knicks cap. She was over 20 minutes late and clearly out of breath, “Sorry, I’m late y’all” she said, in a breathy southern accent that Carina could not quite place. The girl walked the whole length of the room, passed all the vacant desks and sat down directly next to Carina. She smiled at Carina as she got her notepad out of her bag and that was the first time Carina noticed the slight gap in her front teeth and her heart-shaped bee stung lips.
There was something different about this girl, Carina knew this immediately. She seemed almost perfect, not perfect in the way that all the other girls she had met in New York had been perfect, with their perfectly accessorized handbags and their perfect false smiles. No, she was perfect in the way that she seemed so effortless, so fully-formed, like she had just gotten out of bed wearing that men’s shirt and paint-splattered brogues on her feet. It felt like she wasn’t even trying.
As the lesson proceeded the teacher read out notes on character development and plot arcs. Carina felt a sharp nudge on her side.
“Hey” whispered the girl. Her voice was raspy and velvet-like, like Carina’s aunt Vivian that smoked a 10 pack of Marlboro Reds a day.
“Hey” whispered Carina in reply. The girl’s eyes were so green that they made Carina feel that she was riding through the Greenhill countryside at the height of summer. She suddenly became self-conscious.
“I don’t mean to bother, do you have a pen I could borrow?”
“Sure I do!” Carina reached into her bag and pulled out a black biro. As she handed it to her, she wondered what sort of person would not bring a pen on the first day of class. Someone with other things on her mind, Carina imagined.
“Thank you, I’m Theresa by the way, everyone calls me Terry.”
“Nice to meet you Terry, I’m Carina”.
Terry smiled again and turned her head back to her notebook. As she turned Carina caught the smell of her hair: it smelt like pot.
They sat next to each other every week as the classes went on, and after classes they would go to the diner on 32nd street and eat chilli fries with milkshakes. Slowly Terry started to open up about herself. She was writing a book, it was going to be the next great American Novel she assured Carina, “up there with Huck Finn and the Great Gatsby“. The self assurance in her voice was so convincing, Carina had no doubt that it could not be great. Terry told her that she was an artist, she made light installations and Carina wondered what light installations were. She had decided to take writing classes to help her with her book. It was a love story, she said but that was all she was willing to tell Carina. Over the weeks that they hung out, in the diner and in Terry’s car, Carina found out that Terry could be secretive. She didn’t like to talk about herself and when she did there were lots of gaps in her stories. As she didn’t work a full-time job and as far as Carina was aware her art had not been sold anywhere, she wondered how Terry made her money. She imagined that it probably had something to do with the pot she always seemed to have on her but she knew better than to ask. Terry was different when she smoked pot. It was as if her guard was down, Carina thought. Sometimes in class she could be loud, bullish even when stating her opinion but when they would get stoned in the car together, she became tender and her voice became delicate and sometimes distant. The first time Carina got into Terry’s car she asked her about the Virgin Mary on the dashboard. “It was a present from my mom,” was Terry’s response, and for the first time ever Carina felt she heard a faint trace of sadness in Terry’s voice.
Carina never knew why Terry had left home as a teen but she did learn a few things by accident. Her father had been a Minister in Virginia and she had 3 older brothers; she was the youngest. Something in Carina clicked when she heard this. Sometimes speaking to Terry felt like she was talking to a boy. Her mannerisms were slightly more masculine, like the way that she stood or the way in which she argued in class. She even walked like an athlete, Carina thought, not graceful but powerful, like she could spring into action at the drop of a hat.
Carina felt supported when Terry was near, she was always giving her advice. “Pay more attention to your surroundings, It’s the first step to being a good writer.” Under Terry’s guidance, Carina started to carry a notebook with her and she would eavesdrop in the line at the Gristedes and on the subway. For the first time she noticed that there were subtle cadences in the way people would speak, affecting the meaning and the intention. There was a difference between the things that were said and the things that were really meant. Before the class started she had never really thought about the mechanics of writing, but thanks to Terry, her world was opening up. She was starting to see all the starts of stories in her notebook and hoped that one day she would finish them.
“Earth to Carina! What’s going on in there?” Terry hit her lightly on her arm.
“Nothing, I was just thinking.”
“Well, enough thinking. Tell me something about your day. C’mon, what was the best thing about it?”
“Hmm, the best thing about my day? It was kind of a quiet day today.”
“Well, there must have been something,” said Terry, not willing to let go of the thread.
“Well, there was one thing that happened. I had a funny conversation with Angelo. Have I told you about him? He’s this older Dominican guy that comes in every week and orders the same thing, a slice of Sweet Sausage with extra cheese. Beppe doesn’t like him because he talks too much, but I don’t mind that. I can see that he’s lonely and he’s nice, so, whatever, right? Anyway, today he was telling me this story about a raccoon that climbed through his living room window earlier this week.”
“I didn’t think that we got raccoons in New York,” said Terry.
“Neither did he, he thinks that he came down from upstate. Anyway, Angelo didn’t know what to do. Raccoons are quite territorial, so he didn’t want to upset it, but he had to get it out because his cat Picassa…”
“Picassa?” Said Terry in disbelief.
“Yeah, Picassa, I know right? anyway, Picassa was in the other room trying to get out. Can you imagine? It would have been a fight to the death!”
“So what happened?”
“Well, he called the cops, he didn’t know what else to do. He sat watching the raccoon in silence for 30 minutes, just watching it — him and the raccoon — making sure it didn’t freak out. But get this, as soon as the cops pressed the buzzer the raccoon got scared and pee’d all over his sofa before climbing out the window. Apparently, the police officers were good about it though.”
“Yeah, I bet they were just glad that they didn’t get peed on!” said Terry, and they both laughed.
“Hey, what time is it?” asked Terry.
“Its gone 2am,” replied Carina looking at her watch.
“Shit, we need to get you home girl. Todd is going to freak!”
“Maybe, I don’t know,” said Carina. She had almost forgotten about telling Todd.
“What do you mean I don’t know? What’s wrong with you today, girl? You’ve been spaced out all day, is something going on between you and Todd?”
“No, it’s just been a long day, that’s all.” It felt hard putting on a brave face, when there was so much she wanted to say.
“Well, relax! Tomorrow is a brand new day, girl.”
Carina knew that Todd would be over the moon and he would make a great father too, but this moment was a sad moment for her. As the engine started, Carina heard the sound of two fog horns coming from the river. Ships that were passing in the night. Their mournful tones, one after the other, resonated throughout her body, making the blood rush round and her cheeks feel hot. As Carina watched Terry starting the engine, a wave of sadness hit her. This would be the last time she would sit here with Terry: Todd would make them go back to Cincinatti as soon as possible and whatever this had been would be over. He had never wanted to come to New York, she had to bully him into accepting the job driving for the Brownstein’s and now he would have his way, just as she was starting to find her feet. It didn’t seem right, like a flower being clipped just as it was about to bloom.
“Wait!” shouted Carina as she put her hand over Terry’s hands on the steering wheel. “Please,” she added softly.
“What’s wrong Carina? What’s going on?”
Carina paused and took a deep breath, she knew it was now or never. Her hand remained on top of Terry’s. “I don’t really know you, do I Terry? I mean, I know what you tell me, but there is so much that you don’t tell me and, I need to know…I don’t know.”
She knew the words were coming out all wrong but she had to keep talking. It would become clear to her, even though it wasn’t clear now.
“When I first met you, Terry, I thought you were so fearless. But now I see that there is something else inside of you, something that you rarely let me see. I think that there are some things that you are scared of Terry.”
Carina looked over but she couldn’t read Terry’s face. She wasn’t sure if she was angry or if she was going to start crying. She waited for her to say something.
“Like what, Carina? What am I scared of? You tell me.”
“Just things, Terry” she paused before adding, “just things”.
At this point, Carina took her hand off the steering wheel and rested it on the top of Terry’s thigh. They looked at each other eye to eye, neither of them saying anything as Carina left her hand on Terry’s leg.
And for the second time today, a force overtook Carina as she watched her body from afar. She closed her eyes and hoped that Terry would do so too as she leaned in and wondered what would happen next.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kele Okereke lives in London and New York. He is the singer/guitarist of UK British indie band Bloc Party. He has had stories printed in Punk Fiction, Five Dials, and Attitude magazine. He is currently writing a collection of short stories called Midnight on a Bicycle.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 12th, 2011.