Joss’s phone rings. The notification glows ‘Fleur’, which surprises him. The vibrations rock into his hand and he taps the green circle to answer.
“Hey,” he says. He can hear her breath first, deep and slow. Then there’s the low rush of the night; cars pass, electricity hums. Her voice shakes.
“Something’s happened, can you come and pick me up?” she says. “Sorry, I know it’s late.”
It is late. His computer says it has just passed 11pm on a Friday night. She hasn’t spoken to him in a few days. When he asked if she wanted to come over, she said she was busy. She had been busy the weekend before too. His chest felt like somebody was scooping his bones out when she said that.
“Where are you?”
“At the Rite-Aid near yours.”
Whatever’s happened, it’s only a few blocks away.
“Yeah. I’ll be five minutes.”
Two weeks ago, on New Years Eve, Fleur kissed him outside Bad Decisions, a bar on the waterfront. He had met her back in August when Joss’s friend Nathaniel had told his boyfriend Yahya to invite whoever he had made friends with at grad school in the first week. He felt weird about kissing her, like he shouldn’t have done it even though he wanted to. Not because she was 23 and he was 28, but because he knew he wasn’t the only person she had kissed recently. Nathaniel and Yahya had said something about a woman called Erika who worked at the AVAM, an architect called Lucas, some others too. He didn’t like knowing this information, mostly because she had not given it to him. Instead, it had trickled from a seminar room to Yahya and Nathaniel’s dining table and then to Joss on his lunch break at the local newspaper.
January has settled, the air cold enough so his breath fogs. His windscreen is covered in an opaque layer of condensation. Halos of orpiment light hang around the streetlights. He unlocks his car, hurries into the driver’s seat and pulls out onto the quiet road. Late night radio crackles with a dancehall song. The pharmacy is a few blocks away, but too far to walk at this time of night. He glides the car down the avenue. His headlights pass the rowhouses, some boarded up with glass spilt out on the sidewalk like starlight.
The pharmacy glows with bleached light. There are a few cars parked in the lot. Through the windows, people shuffle in the line for prescriptions, condoms and baby formula. A neon sign curved into the words ‘Open 24/7’ splutters with hot cinnabar light. He parks away from the entrance and turns the radio down to call her again.
“I’m here,” he says.
“Are you the black Chevrolet?”
He thinks he can see her, hidden from the haze of the streetlights.
She hangs up and starts to move like a phantom across the parking lot. From her silhouette, he can tell she is wearing a thick coat made of fur. Her hands are wrapped around herself. As she approaches he can see her wobble in high heels across the cracked asphalt. Her sangiovese lipstick is bled out and feathered, her teeth gleam with the alkaline taste of mint and a wash of blood. She swings the door open. The feral smell of the night clings to her, then the smell of some other man’s cologne. It stings his nostrils and makes his stomach drop. When she climbs in, she apologises againand hugs him. She’s not crying, nor does she look like she has, but there’s a vacant expression on her face that makes him uneasy.
Fleur is quiet on the short drive home, as if the phone call and the hug was enough emotion for the night and now needs to compensate for the outpouring and melodrama. She slinks out of his car and follows him up the two flights of stairs and waits like a cat to be let in while he unlocks the door. His apartment is small, but lit by warm incandescent lights that banish the dark shadows from the corner. The kitchen is up against the back wall with a Morrocan tile splashback, a small dining table is littered with vague personal belongings: a floral patterned mug, his MacBook, a notepad scribbled with shorthand. All he can think about is the unwashed dishes in the sink and the mussed sheets on his bed. Not that she will see them.
“Are you hungry?” Joss asks.
She nods and quietly removes her coat and shoes. He takes the coat from her and carefully places it on a rack next to the door. Expensive perfume and jasmine deodorant nests in the fibres. Her rib cage aches, her lungs are heavy. The alcohol in her stomach is unpleasantly warm, an alarming feeling that indicates how sober she is.
Fleur had met George on Tinder, the same way she had met Lucas, Erika and everyone else she’s slept with since moving for grad-school. She had slid her age limit up to forty, and George appeared after swiping left on dads on fishing trips and gym bros in grimy bathrooms with off-white subway tile. He had a square jawline and his salt and pepper hair was tapered and greasy with gel. The suit jacket in the photo he wore was too big at his shoulders. His skin shone like plastic, his teeth were bleached white, so American and generic he could have been ordered from a catalog. That was of course, part of the appeal: he could have been anyone.
“Canton is good for me,” she said when he suggested a bar in Brewers Hill.
He kept his arms folded across his chest and only drank water. At first, this signified responsibility: no drunk driving. But then he kept ordering mojitos for her, even though she wasn’t sure she wanted them. The syrup tasted gritty, the rum astringent and the soda water flat. After she had gone to the bathroom, she saw him take a pill and then tuck the packet labeled with “sildenafil” into the inside of his jacket. She wanted to leave then, but he insisted that she finished her cocktail and that he could drive her home.
Once Fleur has eaten and Joss has done the dishes in the sink, he sits close to her on the sofa. He has a reassuring, soft face and round, bovine eyes. A cowlick up near his forehead makes his hair swoop to the side. It has taken her a while to decide he is handsome. Kissing him on New Years confirmed her feelings about the matter. He had worn a shirt that was rolled up to his elbows, his arms lean with muscle. It had rained that night and his hair was gorgeously wet and slicked back. His skin was feverishly hot against the cold.
“You want to talk about it?” Joss asks.
George indicated to pull into the parking lot of the Rite Aid. Fleur looked at him, his eyes burning on the road and then the grid of parking spaces, the asphalt cracked and glittering with frost. The air swirled – the clinical glow of the pharmacy mixed with the sulfuric beams of streetlight. The car park was empty, except for the cars close to the entrance. When he extinguished the lights, he was only lit by the numbers of the speedometer and car stereo.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“When are you going to stop being such a fucking whore?”
“What the fuck is your problem?” She went to pull the lever of the door, but was met with a dull thud.
He only let her out after she bit his lip hard and drew blood. He recoiled, his mouth red glistening, a thin gold band strangled his finger. She scrambled for his keys in the ignition, grappled for the remote and smashed her fingers until the car chirped, the doors gasped and she tugged on the handle.
“You bitch,” she thought she heard him say. His car growled as the engine ignited and he drove off. Her mouth tasted ferrous and hot.
In the pharmacy, she snatched a pack of gum from the shelf and stood in line to pay. The woman at the counter’s face was pressed in a straight line. Fleur couldn’t tell if it was from exhausting night shifts or the disapproval of what she had seen through the smeared windows. Fleur paid and smiled apologetically. Outside she took three sticks of gum out of the packet and chewed until she couldn’t taste him anymore.
As she tells him, she cradles a tub of ice-cream from his freezer, picking at it with a spoon to check if it’s melted down enough to eat. If it was worse, would she react differently? Would she still feel as unphased? Joss is shocked by how bluntly she recounts the details, his face cold and smushed against hers until she tears at his lip, the metallic taste of him in her mouth.
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