The way the sun’s dropping into the sea, the whole neighbourhood and the mountain behind it are painted amethyst. But Carla, who has grown tired of living in portraiture, has her back to this as she tilts back her glass. It isn’t a good drink; it isn’t that kind of bar. She shakes her head, wrestles the stuff down, and says “Christing tequila,” in the brief pause between glass and lemon. She gasps into her chest, hands pressed firm against the bar, and looks sidelong at the man seated next to her.
“Jesus,” says Ray. “How many is this?”
“I don’t know,” says Carla, slotting her empty glass into his. “It’s vulgar to count.”
“It’s not even five yet,” he says, looking at his phone.
“What did I say about counting?” she asks, as he types something to somebody who isn’t there. “Anyway,” she adds, “that’s the point—get good and desensitized so we don’t notice when the scum gets here.”
“Is that the point,” says Ray, rolling his empty glass in a wide arc. “That’s good to know. I’d always wondered.”
The bartender, who has appeared from behind a beaded curtain to collect their glasses, smiles at this. The generous twilight sets the down on her cheeks glowing, and Carla snaps her gaze away to look down to the bartop—wooden, slick less with varnish than with the seepage of many such drinkers and indifferent cleaners.
“Two more, please,” she says.
“Ah, no, I really can’t,” says Ray, running hands through long, dark hair. “I have to meet my parents tonight. And I’m already quite, um. Unsober.”
“Two more,” says Carla, nodding in the bartender’s direction. Then, more softly, to Ray: “Two more and you can leave, okay? You never drink with me anymore.”
Ray offers a short, practiced, laugh. “Sweetheart that’s bullshit, I’ve been helping you fingerpaint with your liver for a week now—”
“And I’m very grateful for your time. Absolutely. It means so much to me that you’d carve out a few hours of your week for me to—”
“Don’t be shitty,” says Ray, smiling at the bartender as she sets down another two glasses of terrible alcohol.
“I’m not shitty,” says Carla, rotating her glass between thumb and forefinger. Then she looks up, and says, “Sorry. Cheers?”
“Cheers,” says Ray. They hold eye contact, Ray’s eyebrows quirked and Carla’s eyelids beginning to droop, and clink their glasses together before pouring the stuff down. Both shiver, slightly; both twitch away from the bar as two beers are placed in front of them. Ray does his best to frown at Carla, who lifts her hands up: “I swear to God I didn’t order these.”
The bartender snaps the beers open with a tool tucked under a wristband, and leaves the bottle caps where they fall. “You’ll need these to get the taste out of your mouths,” she says, and gestures to her wrist, which carries no watch. “The scum’ll be here soon.”
“Oh!” says Ray. “Thank you, that’s really sweet.” The bartender’s smile is smooth at the hinges, and she moves away—for no clear reason, since the bar is empty, but Ray appreciates the theatrics. “Cute,” he says.
“Not my type,” says Carla, punctuating the lie with a long pull from her bottle.
“She walks on two legs and breathes.”
“You’ve been trying to sleep with bartenders for years. This could be the one.”
“Ray—I appreciate what you’re trying here, but could you not? Please. I’m still sort of—I’ve still got one foot in the door. Grave? Water? I’m wanting to keep my feet dry, is what I mean.”
And at this point Carla cannot but be aware of her incoherence; so obviously so that Ray—Ray, who has ruined evenings, whole relationships over his failure to let go of a misplaced word or blunted wit—says nothing, but nods silently. Carla starts tearing apart the label on her drink.
At length, Carla’s blush fades, and Ray ventures:
“I don’t want to be indelicate—”
“Don’t lie to me,” says Carla, smiling into the small pile of beer label confetti she’s produced.
“Fine. This might be indelicate.” Ray draws himself up, raises his hands as if to attempt charades, and then lowers them again. “Did you two ever, um. Fuck?”
Carla frowns, looks behind her at the still-empty bar and sweeps her confetti away. “Drink your drink,” she says.
Ray claps his hands together, triumphant.
“Well that’s it right there. You didn’t fuck, which means you didn’t get to see her all bare and sweaty and made-of-meat, so you’re busy pining over this ethereal imaginary wood-elf who has almost nothing to do with the actual girl.” He pauses, to pour the rest of his beer into his mouth. “The actual girl who I introduced you to, incidentally. And who is, in real life, something of a vapid gash.”
“Don’t,” says Carla. And then, “You say this about every woman you know.” The sentence feels well-worn in her mouth.
“Well, that’s my prejudice. And yours is one that’s wholly in favour of gashes, vapid or otherwise—so find yourself one. We’re in a city of beautiful people—maybe not smart people, but who cares? Find somebody sweet and pretty and not too bright, fuck their…whatever it is you do, and lose their number. It couldn’t hurt.”
She laughs, softly. “Of course it could hurt, Ray. Everybody’s awful.” She pauses, hefting her drink. “And if they’re not, that makes you the awful one.”
Ray scoots away, and says nothing.
“Too much?” says Carla, not looking at him.
“A little. I mean—I know that you believe what you’re saying right now, but—”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
Ray winces away. “Don’t be sorry, it’s not about that. You’re just—you’re not being all that kind to yourself right now. Which, fine, do what you love, but maybe think about taking that unkindness and dealing with it somewhere dark and private—maybe in a stranger’s arms—instead of,” he gestures vaguely in Carla’s direction, “Whatever this is.”
Carla nods, staring at the bar as if from a great distance. “I rather thought you’d like the Fitzgerald thing.”
“You do look slimmer,” he says, smiling. In fact Ray has gained weight, while Carla remains largely unchanged—but these are two points that neither party would wish to consider seriously.
“Well! Maybe she’ll call me back if I get skinny enough,” she says, and immediately afterwards, “Jesus, sorry. I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me. Or I do, but—”
She bites into her lip, scanning the empty bartop for something safe to say to her tired friend, something which does not allude to the girl to which every sentence this past month has been directed, something which does not speak of jawlines or sex in the past tense or the failure to grow. She comes up with nothing, not without relief, and stays silent.
Ray sighs long into his beer, and paws at his face. “You’re no fun like this.”
“I’m sorry,” says Carla.
“Look it’s fine. Just—I get that you need to go through this thing, where you drink too much and don’t get any work done and worry all your friends, but it’s getting a little long in the tooth now.”
Carla looks down at her hands. “I get work done,” she mutters.
“You’ve missed the exhibition deadline twi—” Ray cuts himself off, hearing his raised voice echo in the still-empty bar. He waits, a moment, for his breathing to normalize. “I’m sorry,” he says, and before Carla can say anything more, “I should go, okay? But Jesus, cheer up. She’s just a girl.”
He can’t offer anything for the hollow stare she gives him when he says that, so Ray kisses Carla on the cheek, drops some bills on the bartop and makes his escape. Watching him obliquely through the bar mirror, Carla sees his face relax in the glow of the streetlights, free now of uncomfortable chairs and laminated bar menus, tinny jock rock and obligation. She counts his parents’ money and notes that he’s left enough for an extra round. She drinks it, pays without tipping, and leaves the empty bar.
The walk home is downhill, or at least feels that way. The liquor sways inside of her, and for a moment Carla is alone. On that artificially-lit street that curves on and out of sight, for a moment she forgets herself, and is content. She forces herself to notice this—she knows that her internal equilibrium is troubled by observation, but she knows too that this peace, this self-possession is too fleeting a thing to leave unrecorded. The wind carries the smell of pine and fresh water down from the mountain, briefly overwriting the smell of carbon and Chinese takeout. She is kept warm by the drink, and she can forget herself a little, forget the cars that doppler past, forget about the girl.
This could be nice, Carla permits herself to think.
And almost as if summoned by her admission of content, a beat-up Volkswagen appears beside her on the road. It has slowed down rapidly, too rapidly as indicated by the protesting honks offered by passing cars, and now idles next to her, rolling slowly forward to keep pace. Carla does not recognize this car but she recognizes the intent, recognizes the short, blunt noises generated by the driver tapping his horn at her. She does not look up. She does not alter her pace, or noticeably rearrange her expression. She walks forward, at once secured and pinned down by the high fluorescent lighting that marks her path home. She glances at her reflection in a dimmed shop window, and squares her shoulders more aggressively. Her glance rolls past the outline of the blue Volkswagen, which continues to keep pace with her. She can hear the muffled sound of laughter: male, adolescent. She keeps her gaze on the ground before her, her jaw set.
After perhaps a block, the car speeds off. Between the noise of the city and the insulation of the car windows, and the blood pumping in her eardrums, she tells herself that she cannot be sure that the young men shout “Fokken dyke!” as they depart—but this is a lie. Carla considers her reflection in stages, glancing at herself in the windows of parked cars and darkened bars. Picking out her primary-colour hair, her unsubtle piercings, her boots—she builds a composite image of herself, of her various indications of class, of age, of cultural capital and sexual preference as indicated by the things she’s bought and chosen to wear. It occurs to her that the young men are not inaccurate in their assessment, shortly before it occurs to her that this is not the point.
Alone again—although of course, not alone, because the gaze of those young men lingers upon her now, is echoed by every passing car, by every fleeting pedestrian with whom she crosses paths—Carla’s thoughts turn sour. Her face, composed earlier, contorts. It occurs to her that even here, near where she thinks of as home, she is conscious of being looked at; of the glances that linger over her posture and hair and shoes, of the imminence of confrontation, which seems to satisfy no-one; of the way in which she has to carry herself neutrally, neither combative nor evasive, but forgettable. She is conscious of a world asking her to diminish herself.
It does not occur to Carla, immediately, that the effect of all this is as good at distracting her from thoughts of the girl as her earlier happiness.
She gets home without further incident. A tramp of indeterminate gender briefly tries to engage with her, but she quickens her step and scowls, and mutters something inaudible but audibly negative, and is not followed.
When Carla’s apartment door swings to behind her, a long-held breath escapes her lips, and she realizes that she is sighing with relief. Keys in hand, she stands in the darkness trying to name the feeling that this realisation provokes in her. At length she identifies it as disgust.
She turns on the lights to her small apartment, largely indistinguishable from any other small apartment in the building, and moves towards the fridge, where she knows she will find an open bottle of wine. She pours this quickly into a tumbler, which she sets on a number of different surfaces—kitchen counter, book shelf, window sill—as she moves around the apartment, discarding jacket, shoes, blouse and trousers behind her. She circles the low plinth that takes up most of her living-room space, her gaze drifting only fleetingly over the rough structure sitting on top of it, swaddled in plastic, and the small chaos of tools beside it, before moving to the window and her allotted portion of the city view.
She’s halfway through with the wine, about to light a cigarette, when the prospect of throwing up begins to loom. She strides to her darkened bathroom, sets the half-empty wine glass next to her basin, lowers her knees onto the white tiles and throws up, twice. She pauses there to see if anything else is forthcoming, but her stomach appears to have calmed itself down. She stands up, wipes the tears from her face, and moves to switch on her bathroom light—and then remembers her mirror, and stops. She takes up her wine glass, pours what remains into her mouth; this she swirls around her tongue, and spits out again into the sink. She sets the glass down, and moves to bed.
Carla dreams of a girl, who, engaged in her own night’s work, has no reason to think that she might be dreamed of.
Carla will spend weeks trying to talk about this dream. To like-minded artists and uncomfortable strangers alike, she will attempt to describe or somehow express this night. She will try for too long, and become boring. Eventually she will realize this, and stop. The closest she will come to accuracy will be some weeks later, at the after-party to an exhibition she has a piece in. In the large space, cheaply rented because of its imminent demolition, she will monologue, on her third polystyrene cup of wine, at a resigned audience:
“So I mean I was dreaming? And I was with my—I guess my ex, or whatever she was, which I’d already flagged as weird, because I was obsessing about this girl at the time—no, I don’t think you know her, she was on exchange, already back—and I just, I don’t tend to dream about the things I’m thinking about all the time. I guess my brain wants some relief, if I’m thinking about sculpting then I’ll be dreaming about my teeth falling out, or whatever. And so—I’m with her, in the studio, and we’re making out and laughing and she’s sort of sitting on top of me, and she takes my head in her hands, and bends down to my neck, and she—she bites me? But like, tearing the flesh from me, and then moves back up to look me in the eyes with this bit of—of my meat, hanging from her mouth, and it doesn’t even occur to me to stop her. And she does this a couple of times, tearing into me, and then looking me in face with those just…horrible blue eyes, and swallowing the stuff. And then—she’s still holding my head, tightly, she gets another chunk of my skin, and comes up, and, and she feeds it to me with her mouth. Like a bird. And I start chewing on this salty, iron lump of me, and she holds on to me, rocking back and forth. It was just—I don’t know, it was weird. I finished Raven’s Work that night.”
She will shrug, and sip at her drink. The audience—a writer for a local arts magazine, who will not get paid for his review of the show, and his girlfriend—will laugh at this, because they must, and shake their heads at this strange artist and her strange mind. Carla will frown into her cup, and find some other people to speak to. Raven’s Work will sell to an unknown buyer for more money than Carla will know what to do with at this time of her life, and for a season, perhaps two, her name will be one that exists in the local art scene—and then it will stop.
But that comes later. On this night, Carla wakes up from her dream, her heart racing from the ethanol only now digested and pumped into her bloodstream, and she will reach across her empty bed for a figure that she imagines she sees there.
“Oh, fuck,” she says, when her hand touches nothing. “Shit,” she says, and rolls onto her face, the tears beginning to come, now that she is alone. “Jesus fuck,” she says into her pillow.
Her hand, which has collapsed on the cold surface of her bedspread, snakes slowly back to her torso. With some effort, she works up some saliva in her acid-tasting mouth, and spits into her palm, and begins to masturbate with an indifferent economy.
Her sobbing turns into something else, not wholly distinct. After a few shapeless minutes, she comes, without ceremony. She feels her body convulse, hears a low grunt escape her throat, and then she is done. She rolls onto her back, panting slightly, and then swings her feet to the ground. She looks at nothing for a few seconds, and then she gets up. Her legs wobble only slightly as she moves across the room to turn on her lights, to grab a t-shirt from the back of a chair, to find a cigarette. Thus armed, she moves over to the plinth that stands by her window, the thing on top of it enveloped in damp cloth and plastic.
Carla sits on the low stool before it, and begins to undress the larval sculpture, her hands still sticky. It is a delicate process, and her movement is steady as she pulls the black plastic bag up and away, folds it over and places it beside her, the clay smell of salt and rain filling the room. She is conscious of the fact that she is about to reveal a face that she does not wish to see, but her hands continue the motion, and the cloth falls away, and the face of the girl is before her—naked, pliable. Softly, Carla touches the bust, runs slick fingers over the surface of the lips and nose and brow that she knows well enough not to need a photograph for. There is the knowledge that this intimacy with features that do not belong to her is unbecoming, or uncomfortable. She thinks briefly of Ray’s face stiffening when she speaks about the girl, like she’s throwing up in front of him—Ray, whose face has never failed to be anything but amused when Carla has thrown up in front of him. She sees her reflection in the darkened city behind her window, and knows that it is not a healthy thing that she is doing—but even so, this copy of a girl she kissed a couple of times is the most beautiful thing Carla has ever made. Dimly, she is aware that she will not make anything like it again—that its creation has very little to do with her. She searches the bust for some whorl of thumbprint on the girl’s lips, the bend of her palm on the girl’s neck, but can find no evidence of herself anywhere—she can’t see herself at all. Her slick fingertips move across the sculpture’s surface, feeling the thing harden in the air, irrationally worried about bruising the cold skin, about distorting the small, upturned corners of her mouth.
She does not recall what the girl smells like—she can only think of clay, and the fading smell of sex and her own sour breath. It is at this that Carla stops in her massage of the work. She laughs, softly, helplessly, alone in her apartment as if discovering something funny about the world by accident. She moves to a bookshelf, rapidly, finding a hefty coffee-table book that she can’t account for to use as a reference. She places this on the floor beside the plinth, and picks up a sculpting knife. She begins to work at the clay, texturing the smooth skin with the mottled curve of feathers, shaping the thin mouth into something crueller, from a dream already half-turned into a story.
The work is not quick, but it is done sooner than Carla expects—it is not yet dawn when the thing from her dream sits before her. Still a little drunk, and shaky from lack of sleep, Carla leans towards this bust of a bird-faced thing, and briefly, kisses it. She is unaccountably disappointed that the clay thing does not return the gesture. Pulling back, she feels as if something is being torn from her. She re-wraps the clay thing in damp rags without reverence.
She will think on this, days later, with a different haircut, when she finds herself in a room with a girl with blue eyes and high cheekbones and fails, at first, to recognize her without the beak, or the sound of wings at the base of her neck, or the stink of clay—and then fails to feel anything at all.
Liam Kruger has had award-winning stories, essays, and poetry in a range of online and print journals, including The Rumpus, Brittlepaper, and Prufrock. Some of that writing’s ended up in anthologies like AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (Storytime Press), The Ghost-Eater and Other Stories (Umuzi), and Bloody Satisfied (Burnet Media). He’s hanging out in the Midwest right now.