By Dizz Tate.
I was walking down the street from our flat not knowing where to go. It was the tenth time my girlfriend had broken up with me in as many days, but this time had been the most vicious, leaving me no choice but to leave. The flat’s walls were closing in, and her silence was something else – I left her picking a label on a wine bottle at the kitchen table, pretty sure that if I stayed another minute she would throw it at my head.
Still, this isn’t a story about my girlfriend. In fact, she barely figures in it, except for the fact that everything I was thinking at the time, everything I was doing, was like a presentation I was laying before her feet, even though she couldn’t hear or see any of what happened. Or maybe I just see it that way. In primary school, a teacher once wrote in my report that I had a reflective nature. She also said I was lazy and had bad handwriting, but I still think she saw something special in me.
It was January, not so long ago, around nine at night, dark and dry. On the main road, cars spun by, headlights sweeping over the black road. I found myself at the bus stop, my hands starting to hurt from the cold. When a bus came along, I got on it – it was quiet, a Tuesday, and on the top deck, there was no one except an old man near the back, sitting on his seat with his legs wide apart, head angled back, hair dirty-white and to his shoulders.
I made my way to the front hoping for a distracting view through the front window, but all I could see was my own reflection, fuzzy but still unforgiving. The bus seemed to stay still for a long time while my reflection and I engaged in a long, hard stare, seeming to dismantle any hope I had for getting off the bus, returning to the flat, sleeping outside the door if I had to until a beautiful reconciliation occurred. If I loved my girlfriend, I thought, at the time, this is what I would do.
She had become obsessed with faking insurance claims in the last few months. We both owed money, family loans that could be put off but bigger loans too, fast-cash commercial loans that kept growing taller and more aggressive, leaning over us. We knew we would lose to any kind of bullying. That’s what brought us together in the first place – both of us were low-lying cowards, but we had big aspirations. We made each other feel okay about it, except that she wanted to change, and I just wanted to get used to it, same as anybody else.
She had grand plans to get money quick. One started with us arriving at a supermarket separately – I was always the first, the instigator, the spiller, while she came in after to cause herself some kind of injury. It started off as a joke, but as the letters piled up and we huddled together in a flat with no heating, working on ourselves, each other, in an exhaustive process that left us full of picked holes, it became more real to her. I guess it was a distraction– practicing her grand spectacle of a fall, a magnificent head-over-heels, ending with her on the bed, clutching her leg and shrieking, ‘There was no sign! This floor is fucking flooded!’
In the beginning, I played different roles – the dismayed supermarket manager, the fast-talking lawyer, the balding Sainsbury’s rep informing the BBC. Like I said, she went big. But eventually she stopped wanting me to take part – would shove me off to the kitchen while she muttered to herself and paced around the bedroom.
At this point, we still weren’t moving. Out of the bus window I could see the top of the bus stop, a smooth grey plastic roof, pock-marked with dirt and a puddle of dark water. I wondered how the dirt got up there. I thought how strange it was that we walked underneath things all the time but barely ever got to see the top of them. I passed these thoughts by my girlfriend in my mind, slid them right by her for amused approval. She stayed frozen at the kitchen table, a week of washing up behind her at the sink. Our flat stank; we couldn’t have anyone over. When had we stopped cleaning? Had we ever started? All we ever did was binge-watch TV shows in silence, staying up all night long, the kitchen full of blue light, our twenty-inch screen emanating rays to the walls.
I looked at the block of flats rising up beside the bus. Shadows scuttled across the drawn curtains and the yellow rooms. Some windows were hollow-black.
The bus started with a shudder, a jerky grunt. In the window, I saw someone wobble their way up the stairs and sink into a seat – a woman. She seemed to be all skin, arms bare, low dress – no coat. Crazy, obviously.
I watched the road in front, how close we came to hitting bare-boned trees at the next couple of stops. No one else came up the stairs; I watched the huddle of shadows waiting to get on the bus, followed the path of those who got off – two girls with dark hair, their arms wrapped round each other, laughing, and an older, hunched man, staggering. My eyesight isn’t too good so they were really just outlines of people – I filled in their features, interpreted the sounds I could hear, bubbling up from the bottom of the bus. Behind me, the woman breathed loudly, marking the minutes. I tried to ignore her, but I was painfully aware of how close she was, and started timing my own breaths to hers, instinctively.
They were the first words she said. I knew immediately it was the woman, had known that she was going to want to talk. She just had that kind of energy – her wobble up the stairs, the fact she sat a row behind me when the whole top deck was empty. The old man at the back – I knew he’d stay quiet.
It makes me feel ashamed now, but at the time, I didn’t even turn around to look at her. I couldn’t see her that well in the bus window, and I didn’t want to. Her face was overlain with the reflections of the streetlights, and the run of cars ahead of us on the road.
‘Yes?’ I said.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you,’ she started. I waited for the inevitable. This woman had clearly had a bad day. Maybe she’d been dumped too. Everyone is always dumped whose getting on a night bus alone on a Tuesday.
‘I think that man might be dead,’ she said.
I turned around to look at her, forgetting how close she was in the row behind. Our faces swung together and apart in a circular motion, as we both leant in and quickly leant back.
I blinked from her to the man. He was in the same position as when I’d first noticed him, still as a stone.
‘Have you checked?’ I asked, knowing, of course, that she hadn’t. ‘Is he breathing?’
The woman bit her lip. She had no make-up on, and her face looked stripped as a wall pulled back to plaster. It was strange to see such a large presence look so vulnerable. The skin on her arms was pricked up with bumps from the cold.
‘I’m a bit squeamish, you see,’ she said. ‘I’ve been thinking about it all the time I’ve been sitting here but I can’t make myself do it. It was difficult to make myself even say anything to you.’
‘Well, I’m not a fan of dead bodies either,’ I said. ‘I’m sure he’s fine.’
She furrowed her eyebrows, which were thick and black and met almost to her nose when her face was straight; when she frowned, they merged.
‘That’s a very selfish position to take,’ she said.
‘No more selfish than yours,’ I said. I was surprised to find that I was suddenly enjoying myself.
‘You have no idea what I’ve been through today,’ she said. ‘Do you know I have a beautiful fur coat, I’ve had it for years – and today some students, your age, probably, threw meat at me? Take-away boxes they’d found in the street, all rotten, and they were throwing them at me like until I was covered, covered!’
‘Well –’ I said.
‘Oh, don’t start,’ she said. ‘It was from Marks and Spencer’s, fake as this crap.’ She scratched the bright carpet on the bus seat beside her. ‘I had to throw it out. It smelled.’
‘Why didn’t you tell the kids it was fake?’
‘Why should I have to?’
‘They wouldn’t have listened anyway,’ she said.
We both sat in silence. The bus stopped again. There was no sound on the top deck, and I realised, in copying the woman, I was holding my breath. I looked at the old man, his still throat.
‘See,’ she whispered. ‘He’s not breathing.’
‘I can’t deal with a dead body today,’ I said. I would like to say my tone was genial. ‘My girlfriend dumped me – that’s worse than losing a shitty coat.’
I swung my jacket off my shoulder, instantly regretting it.
‘Here,’ I said. I threw it to her over the seat – somehow I threw it a lot more aggressively than I meant to. The zipper caught her in the lip, and I held my breath – her eyes lit up, but her lip was fine, no blood, though she checked immediately with a pink tongue, licking all over.
‘Sorry,’ I said. My breath still felt caught. I looked at the man at the back of the bus but he was blurry to me. I thought of a breath wriggling down his throat like a tadpole in a tube. I imagined the tadpole growing larger, becoming a fat frog that the breath couldn’t get past. I saw the frog’s long tongue, unpeeling, catching each struggling breath like a fly.
I expected the woman to cry or be angry, but she did nothing. She put on my black, fur-lined jacket, zipped it up to the neck and leaned back in her chair.
‘Is it your first time being dumped?’ She asked.
‘Yes,’ I lied.
‘Have you dumped anyone before?’ She asked.
‘Yes,’ I lied.
‘Then it’s time you went through it,’ she said. ‘Heartbreak can be useful.’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘But I’m not an optimist.’
‘You’re too young to be negative,’ she said.
I resisted the urge to stick out my tongue at this woman. My thoughts wandered again to my girlfriend. Would she be proud of me for giving up my jacket, if I avoided mention of the throwing?
The woman and I sat in another silence. We were both turned to look at the man, although I, in fact, examined the woman from behind. On the back of her neck was a dirty grey smudge crawling around the bottom of her hairline. The hair in her bun was shiny with grease.
‘I’ll look,’ she said, finally. She looked at me, as if she expected me to protest. I said nothing, but as she rose, I said –
‘I’ll do it.’
I held the rail and began to walk, a dramatic, slow pace. I imagined telling my girlfriend how I found a dead body and called it in, the trauma of it all. I would omit the woman entirely. I imagined myself wrapped in a silver shock blanket on the side of the road, waiting for my girlfriend to arrive, her face washed with red and her eyes frantic.
I reached the man. I turned back to see the woman. As she caught my eye, she held her hands over her mouth and squeezed her eyebrows in again.
The man was perfectly still. I leant toward him, watching myself in the window. The man didn’t move, at first. The moment seemed to stretch. Would my girlfriend do this for someone? I realised I had no idea what she would do. When I told her this, later, I would never tell it the way I am telling it to you.
As my hand pressed against his shoulder, he jerked, both eyes flying open, black eyes, wide as if about to bust from their sockets, like those joke glasses with their eyes on springs.
He clapped his big hands on his knees and laughed in a strange, high-pitched wail of a laugh, before abruptly shutting his eyes again, and turning back to still.
I scuttled back to my seat at the front of the bus, and was shocked to turn around and see the woman, bent over, tears sliding down her cheeks, shaking with silent laughter in my jacket.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dizz Tate can be found on Twitter: @dizzdizzdizz
ABOUT THE ARTIST
More of Laura Merizalde‘s work can be found on her Instagram: @lau.merr
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 9th, 2017.