It begins here… maybe…
When I am twelve years old, my mother sinks into her own depression. Her own bad childhood resurfaces like a drowned corpse. While she sleeps and drinks and gets hospitalised, I line my eyes and paint my mouth dark. I want to offer my face and skin repainted and reinvented for recognition. Pushed up breasts, pulled down t-shirts, for my friends to accept me, for them to teach me to shoplift lip gloss and cigarettes and show me abandoned warehouses. Holding hands, smoking, and tonguing each other’s mouths, telling all our secrets, crying drunk, and perhaps feeling an element of safety there.
Or maybe it begins here…
I am eighteen. I have a boyfriend. This is a real thing. At eighteen I believe it is the most real thing possible. Jonathan is twenty seven, an engineer from Edinburgh. He is somber but bright, persuasive too, with dark hair and pale eyes. He pours me tumblers of rum and lifts me over his broad shoulders before elegantly throwing me down on to his crisp white bed. I move into his house across the motorway from the airport. I work two jobs. Mornings are spent at the coffee house where I steam silver pitchers of milk with a machine that collects brown skins and burnt milk fat which must be soaked and scrubbed from the steam arms. Nights are at the local casino’s restaurant where I stave my hunger with plastic cups of diet lemonade on ice. Here I lay down ceramic plates of gravy downed potatoes, and hot roast, and ‘all you can eat’ spaghetti, and the chef’s salad with chunky orange dressing on a counter that is lined with single men who lean over their daily specials and fork food into their mouths as though eating is its own kind of work.
When they are finished they look up at me.
“Hey, blondie. You sure look good tonight.” I am wearing my uniform: black skirt, red blouse, nylons. I have a name tag too. I smile. I blush and giggle at their short hand abrasive flirts, anticipating their tips, already counting them in my head.
I have plans to move to London to study. I had won a poetry scholarship, £3,000. But Jonathan is short on rent. He needs his car fixed. He needs help with the electric bill. I pay for these things with my scholarship money and with my tips I buy us dinner.
Before my nineteenth birthday comes I have given all of the money to Jonathan. This happens just before or after I turn nineteen. It’s May or March and we’re in bed. I am straddling him. He reaches up to touch my breast.
“You are so beautiful. People would pay to look at you,” he tells me. He speaks about Dave, his friend who is looking for young girls to pose nude for a college website. “I know you need money for school.” He pauses for a moment. The windows open above the bed and we are laying next to each other now. It is spring and accompanying the cornflower blue skies is a breeze. The white cotton comforter feels like a net, something holding us. I am sleepy and Jonathan’s voice lifts above me into the dim air between the bed and the ceiling. “Dave says he’ll pay be a finder’s fee, £50, but I wouldn’t even keep it. I’d give it to you to pay you back.”
Or I can tell it like this…
I am eighteen and I am in love with Clare Ryan. She is Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend and we meet first at one of his many house parties with spilt beer and a red-shaded light where Jonathan and his band play so loud and beat heavy and everyone is dancing in a way that makes me feel nervous. It makes me want to dance with them but also to hide. I am lost and feel out of place in my own home, as though I am struggling in the depths of a river with a growing tide. I walk through various rooms before sitting on the couch at the front steps and watch different textures of darkness blanket the canal. I wear my flannel cut low and swallow more rum. Clare is in there among the bodies. She is dressed in a slip dress and a fake fur coat and her hair and lips are the same colour red.
Later, another evening, she’ll stop by alone and I’ll be watching her at the kitchen table, admiring her. She sits on the edge of one of our old metal chairs, shading her lips with her red pencil before smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. Her lips imprint her mark over the cigarette and bottle top. I long for her mark to be left on me, for me to be hers. Hours later we’re in Jonathan’s bed together. I’ll be kissing her mouth and then between her legs where I don’t know what I am doing but I want the taste of her, the smell of her, the presence of her. I want her lingering fragrance to intertwine with my curiosity, the scent of coca butter and aloe. Her skin is soft too, softer than mine, and her eyes and smile could easily light up and fill this darkened room in an instant.
Jonathan will be there too, in bed with us, but I’ll ignore him. I’ll watch her body move and listen to her caught breath. It will be intense and magnified like a held note in a powerful opera. In the morning, I acknowledge the way she pulls up her skirt, the way the thin fabric glides up her thighs. She tells us how she never over stays her welcome. It will be Christmas morning and she’ll leave. She’ll be gone either escaping from, or chasing, her personal nightmares, her demons. She was welcome to stay. She was welcome to stay forever.
Later, still, it will be summer and another party. Clare will be in a black dress and fidgeting with a red hat while sitting on the floor, leaning against the end of the bed with her hair behind her and her dress fanned across the carpet. We had the door closed. On the other side, there’s all the noise but in here it’s just us. Quiet. Isolated. Warm. I want to kiss her but I’m too scared. Instead I listen to how her father treated her as a child, how he disciplined her, how he pushed her away. She tells me when she first moved to Scotland and how she pawned her grandmother’s gold bracelet to buy toilet paper. And then how she met Jonathan. I had never seen her so vulnerable and unsure of herself. She projected such confidence all of the time. She pulls a bottle of silver glittered nail polish from her purse,
“My mother sent me this,” she laughs, “The colour is called ‘Psycho’ so I guess it made her think of me.”
And now, at her house, in her cluttered bedroom in Merchant City in Glasgow. She is in a little white tank top with no bra and we are sharing a bottle of vodka and ice. She shows me a picture of herself at the strip club where she used to work, the one Jonathan introduced her to. In the picture she is wearing tall boots and the flash glares against the vinyl reflect the white of her eyes and teeth. Her eyes are greyish blue and they penetrate me as I take a closer look at the photograph. I am looking at the shadows that define her shoulder and thigh muscles, her breasts and collarbone. I see the way she grins lazy at the camera, her gaze somewhere outside of the frame, her face sweet but distant, like no one can touch her ever. I sensed that Clare avoided close relationships, avoided even the proximity of love, avoided most of the range of human emotions. But I was still here. I had stayed the night and it was now the afternoon. We are sitting cross legged, facing each other on her bed as though together we are floating on a leaf on the hugest river, the currents taking us wherever they wanted.