By Julie Reverb - Dec 14, 2018
The squares were not windows. They were opaque, sucked in light; used it to hide bald patches, squints, birth marks the shape of UFOs. The little light that got spat back out was dolled up, girdled and only travelled one-way – like a punch. He found her squares – Ziren’s – long before he realised this, as he sat at his desk with his shoulders and stare hunched at the screen.
He was grinding his sandwich into chunks that he’d smear in a paste across his teeth. He was still tense and smarting from the morning chat with his manager: he needed to let others have more of a say in team meetings. She said this with a smile and a downy tash above her lip, sparkling in the open-plan light. He wondered how she was married; if the groom was the kind of man who could only grow bum-fluff on his face.
He was aware of his own faults: his spate of ingrowing hairs that congregated in his pits and groin; the homely women he could fleetingly attract. He’d seen the slim smiles on the dates who sat next to him in bars where they both felt too old. He’d try to appear as relaxed as in his dating profile, but could not work out how to sit on a tall stool. “Could you repeat that?” he’d yell as he tried to levitate above one, numbing his burning glutes with cocktails.
He came across Ziren while looking for someone else. He’d clicked on the hashtag for a wine bar where he’d taken another woman. Usually he met these women online – posing in poor light with a vacuum cleaner or crib in the background – but this one had been a benefit claimant he was investigating. Tanya – a dog groomer – said she had slipped at work while de-frizzing a spaniel. Her back was shot and she used a stick to walk – a sparkly cane with a dog’s head on top with fake ruby eyes. But her neighbour had tipped off the fraud team about footage of her screaming across the Mediterranean in an inflatable doughnut.
During the interview he had been been both horrified and delighted by her carefreeness, her deep tan, the way her chewing gum volleyed across her mouth as she talked. He felt there was something he could learn from her – maybe she could help him loosen up – so slid a note across asking her to meet him at the bar for a drink. By the end of the night, she was using the cane as a makeshift limbo stick on the dance floor. It was too much. He made his excuses and left.
He was looking for shots of them together so he could prove to old friends – the ones juggling families and hair implants and multiple affairs – that he was not completely indivisible. And if that did not work, he could always crop her out and use the photo on his dating profile. He recognised Ziren’s face because it had been his obsession when he was twelve. It was the opposite of Tanya’s: pale, moonish, with cheekbones stiff as blades buried underneath her skin. He had forgotten about its features and that innocent time – his careful drawings of her on his bedroom walls and exercise books – until he saw it on his screen.
He reduced the square to a small window which hovered in front of a report he was writing about an ex solder with PTSD who’d been caught on a ghost train. Ziren was alone in a DJ booth, wearing a Victorian smock dress, biker jacket, pouting, her arms bent into a flirty bow behind her head. She looked dewy and ageless, not the fifty-something she must have been. Her eyes were an incredible lilac colour, like the colour Elizabeth Taylor’s were supposed to be but were clearly not when you looked close-up online. He closed his own eyes and for a second it was 1983 again, before he had learned the pains of adolescence: the aches and thrusts that had no place to go besides his hand or the sports sock he kept wedged behind his headboard.
He licked cheese and pickle off his teeth and swallowed.
Back then, Ziren had been trapped and dancing in an analogue square: a boxy TV in his parents’ front room. Her face filled the whole screen and stayed there for him, long after the black-and-white music video she starred in switched to the news, long after the TV switched off and it was time for bed. The song was called Baby, Let Love In. It was not memorable and she was not even the lead singer or dancer; she did not do much in the video besides pout, blink and repeat a French phrase in a voice like soft lighting. But that was enough; his blood throbbed.
Whenever the video came on he would kneel as closely as possible to the screen. When his parents left the room he would press his face against the cold close-up of hers then stick out his tongue, feeling his body floodlit. It happened best with the lights off when he forgot everything but her face: no school, no acne, not even the new bulge in his trousers.
When his parents bought a VHS he was able to record it. His finger trembled above the REC button. His heart seized as the presenter introduced it and he pressed the button in the split-second silence before it started. He gasped at his perfect timing. He watched the video daily before breakfast but grew bored when the tape started freezing and skipping. He could no longer find new things about her. He had counted and memorized everything that made up a face, even the soft hairs in between her brows, which stood on end from her side profile as if she were cold. But there was no longer the same electricity that lit up his insides whenever the video came on unexpectedly or during the pious task of freeze-framing her face in his mind. The thrill of seeing her was gone – he had captured a rare butterfly, pinned it to a wall.
He still fantasied about how much classier she was than the hairy, easy French girls his friends told him about on school exchange trips. How instead of Pizza Hut, he would take her to cafes on the Left Bank, both of them wearing macs and intricately-tied scarves. But then his friend Ian found a stash of skin mags in the woods and the world turned flesh-toned. Romance still lurked inside him but it was as useless as his appendix. He took down his drawings of Ziren and replaced them with Page 3 stunners whose tits stared down at him like Cold War missiles.
He remembered his mother’s disappointment at the posters as he leaned in closer to his computer screen and the squares of Ziren’s life displayed. It was a grid of glamour and purpose. Exotic makeup, glowing close-ups, gaggles of flawless friends on nights out, slogan t-shirts and PVC miniskirts, throwback shots of half-dressed magazine features. He looked down at his paunch then at his keyboard, the letters clogged with crumbs.
Like watching the video had been, examining her became a daily ritual, something he looked forward to even more than lunch. Every pixel of her was a neon postcard from somewhere better. The layers of disappointment that had stacked up on him over the years had not buried his dreams. He could still feel what he felt watching that video, when the house was completely still but everything about him juddered.
He spent hours thinking of things to say that she would feel compelled to respond to. They would arrange to meet in the wine bar. He would sit comfortably on a tall stool, making her laugh and lean in and look at him without wincing. They would talk about their lives and realise that all of their victories and defeats – whether beige or glittering – were the same. By the end of the night, they would be finishing each other’s sentences. In French.
He looked up at the rain coming down as he waited outside the bar for the bouncer to frisk him, wondering if cracking a joke about intimacy would make him feel less nervous. He was alone and soaked, too close to the sweaty tang of the woman next to him in the queue. He looked over his shoulder and realised it was him, cooking in his shiny new shirt. This would ruin the night. He was next to be frisked but decided to head into a shop to buy deodorant.
The queue snaked back to the freezer section where he stood shivering, his sweat clammy and confused. He had thought the self-checkout would be faster but only one machine was working, and an old woman kept leaving her handbag in the basket area, setting an alarm off. She was swearing at herself and talking back to the machine in a Cockney accent while the rest of the queue seethed. Her hair was a black bird’s nest – a skew-whiff beehive with what looked like a dead crow lodged on top of it. The rest of her was a funeral draped in black netting and chiffon. He thought how Native Americans had the right idea – old people were better off left behind, exposed on some harsh plain.
She finally managed to pay then turned around. He stifled a gasp, lazered his shoes. But he had seen enough. He ran out of the shop, setting off an alarm. He dodged into an alley and leaned against a damp wall, clasping the deodorant to his chest, panting in the dark.
“Have a good night,” the bouncer said as he went inside. He felt relieved because the pounding bass masked most things: speech, thoughts, his trembling hands. The place was mainly empty; a dozen people on the lozenge-shaped dance floor in the corner. He stood facing the bar, lodging himself in between two stools as he downed drinks and decided why he was there, what he wanted. Yes, he would let love in for once. It would be gorgeous but faceless: steel-like with no sagging. Their reflections would blur namelessly into one. He took a deep breath and looked sideways at the DJ booth where Ziren stood with her back turned. In the corner of his eye she resembled an upright body bag.
He waited an hour, spiked up his single, gelled tuft of hair, then spun around and headed onto the dance floor. He pulsed his head out of time with the music. He watched as she pressed buttons, but she spent most of her time painting her lips as if to stop herself disappearing. He swayed a bit then approached the booth.
She stayed hunched over the decks, pretending to fade one record into another. He leaned in closer, pushed his fingers through the cross-hatched fence between them.
“I don’t do requests!” she screeched without looking.
He squinted at her and stepped back. In the strobing lights, and from a distance, she almost glowed. He leaned forward.
“Où est le piscine! Go on, où est le piscine!”
She rolled her eyes surrounded by lashes spidery and stuck together. He pulled out a notebook and pen from his pocket and wrote YOU’RE AMAZING! X in blocky capitals, but then crossed that out and started drawing with his eyes closed.
He sketched her face as he remembered it: dazed gaze, dangerous top lip, delicate mono-brow, charcoal pile of hair up top and strands tumbling down past her elfin ears. He hummed her song silently and moved his pen with the same claw-like clamp that his teacher had kept him behind after lessons to try to correct.
He opened his eyes and held the drawing up at her. He waited for a knowing beam of light to pass between them. She peered and scowled at it. Maybe she had not recognised herself, like when a dog looks into a mirror. He lifted the drawing higher, closer to her face. She turned her back on him.
He kept the drawing aloft as he became aware of the hot lights stenciling his forehead, the vomity fog of evening faces around him. Ziren was focussed on her phone, lifting it up and tilting her chin down in one seamless movement then mouthing the word “bitch” into the flash. She repeated this dozens of times with every pose and angle the same as the ones before. He thought how vulnerable she looked – he would take care of her. He would carry her tiny, birdish frame out into the night, into somewhere warm and satin. He would cook her breakfast in the morning and make her eat seconds. He folded and stuffed the notebook back in his pocket and thought how the drawing’s new creases would help her recognise herself. Maybe he should hold it up again, or fold it even further into an origami animal and launch it at her. He stepped back into the middle of the dance floor where he could see her better. A conga line weaved around him. He stayed still, anonymous, staring.
He pulled out his phone. She had posted a new square. It looked nothing like her. Je t’aime he commented underneath. He looked up, searched for her face, a dead-end. She was still absorbed in her phone but yawning so wide he could count her metal fillings. There was no blush or eyelash flutter of recognition, nothing that said she understood or felt the same. She put her phone down and looked at the decks, changed the record to something throw-away, forgettable.
He kept his gaze lifted as he swayed from side to side. A topless, twenty-something man who had led the conga line was climbing up onto the booth’s fence, trying to get Ziren’s attention. She winked and blew a kiss, patted her beehive, leaned in close to pose for a photo. He watched them touching as his sways became jagged. Ziren flicked one of the man’s nipple rings. They both laughed. They were laughing at him. He pulled out his phone and stared into its harsh glow, his fingers coldly tapping.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RAEGAN BIRD