One evening everything changed. I had just come home from a day-shift at work and stuffed myself with food while watching television. Rosie and Peter were occupied. Mum and Dad had visited me the day before. Ben would not be home for weeks. I had finished all my due assignments. Tonight I would be watching some chick flick and devour a whole bar of chocolate. During the break of Legally Blonde I heard needle heels clicking down the corridor. I expected the slam of my neighbour’s door. More needle heels clicked, a pair, maybe three or four woman. Their voices were mumbled, but still obviously drunk. It was not before long when I felt loud music shaking my couch. Distorted laughing filled the air. I crept to my balcony window and peeked. The wooden fence was a bit see-through. I saw bodily shapes and a cloud of cigarette smoke. I could make out flashes of conversations, but nothing that made sense to me. I decided not to care. I sat back on my couch and finished the first chocolate bar. I had two more, a white and hazelnut one. I managed to ignore the beats assaulting my couch until I heard man’s voices.
Some of the women giggled, others screamed inaudible words. It was only now that I realized I had never seen any woman around my neighbour’s. Did she have friends? I forced myself to my feet and opened my front door. A man was holding a woman with bleached-blond hair. With emphasis on was, since he kind of dropped her against the wall of our corridor and walked inside the apartment of my neighbour through an unlocked front door. In one hand the woman held a bottle of orange coloured liquor. Her bald slit locked my gaze from under her chequered skirt. She was dressed as a school girl, with the bottom of her white blouse folded somewhere under her disproportionate tits.
I went back inside and felt sick. The taste of chocolate that still lingered in my mouth suddenly turned bitter. What was going on next door? Should I call the police? I dabbed my wrists and neck with a wet towel and went back to my television. I watched a talent show but it could have been anything as I did not absorb anything that appeared on the screen. I switched to a Spanish movie with subtitles and tried to read, but the dialogues were long and full of complex poetic sentences. I made myself tea and walked restlessly from one side of my living room to the other. All my plants were doing fine. At least the ones I still had. I was about to try my bed-time ritual, when I heard a man’s voice that I could tell apart even if I was asleep. Ben’s.
I rushed into my kitchen. There he was. Talking to my neighbour. She wore something more decent than the bleached-blond, though I did not like the way her perfect ass bulged in her tight jeans. Jealously jolted through my body, piercing my heart that felt as glass that could actually break now it was hit so hard. I opened the door. Ben noticed. He smiled to me and excused himself to my neighbour. I swallowed. He could talk to her. Talking was innocent. But the moment I let Ben pass to go inside, my neighbour looked at me straight. I knew what I feared. I knew what was hidden behind that oddly symmetrical face. I knew what sharp and heavy something would cut its way into my body and crack me open from the inside as soon as she had had my Ben.
‘She is nice’, Ben said the moment I closed the door. ‘Do you get along?’ I shook my head. ‘I do not like her’, I said shortly. ‘She is a whore.’ Ben nodded but why would he nod to that? He should say he now thought differently of her. That he might never talk to her again. I took a deep breath and then took in the weirdness of this evening. Ben was here. He was standing in my apartment. He was not supposed to be home again within a month. ‘Why are you here?’ I said, colder than I had wanted to. ‘Mission’s aborted’, he said. He frowned. ‘Aren’t you happy to see me?’ ‘I am’, I assured him, but I knew how dull I sounded. ‘It’s just, I am just tired.’ He suggested we sit at my couch and have some wine. Ben really liked red wine. I preferred white, but I did not want to open a bottle just for me so I took a bottle of Corette Merlot from my storage room.
I told him that I had started my master’s and was now making arrangements for my thesis research. Ben’s eyes were glued to the television. It was a late night show in which a bunch of guys discussed a new health care system. I realized he had not asked how I was. He had kissed me and smiled and put his hand at my back while we walked into my living room, but he had not asked how I was. I supposed he was tired too. It was almost eleven. He had probably travelled by plane from one of those desert countries and been on a train and bus afterwards to get to my apartment. But then Ben told me had already arrived yesterday. That he had visited his parents and Jake, his best friend, and that he wanted it to be a surprise. That he was late because the train had been delayed. He had wanted to be here at the time I came home from work. I nodded and imagined I felt happy by his intentions. But I felt strangely angry because it was not me who he had come to see first.
At twelve the vibrations in the couch stopped. The silence that followed was so dense that it touched my skin. I had drunk three glasses of wine. Usually I would turn into the same giggly state as the women next door, but tonight all the alcohol seemed to be absorbed by some dullness that penetrated my brain.
That night Ben moaned in his sleep. When I tried to calm him, he woke up with a sudden harsh expression on his face and grabbed my arm so tightly that I let out a little scream. ‘I am so sorry’, he whispered as I clasped my own arm and wished away the pain. From the next day until Ben had to go abroad again, we spent all my spare time together. We met with Rosie and Peter once. It was a fine night where Peter announced his graduation and his new job and that he and Rosie would soon buy their own place. When we got back to my apartment it was past two in the morning, but Ben made his moves to me and I accepted his presence between my legs but actually I felt disgust building up in my stomach. As if the butterflies that roamed my insides ever since the day I met him where crushed under a pile of stones, a pile that was growing his way into my throat. When he had finished, he rolled to his side, as usual. It had never bothered me. Now it did.
Birds were singing while beams of light peeked under my curtains. Too many thoughts that had never circled in my head before but I could not express in words had kept me awake. I felt the urge to move. I wanted to move to a place where Ben and I could live together. I wanted that. At breakfast, Ben was unusually quiet. He seemed rested, maybe after so many weeks together he simply was done talking. I told him of what I wanted. He observed me, like he had observed in the café where we had met. A careful smiled broke his face. ‘But only if you take a job here’, I added. I do not know if he fought to keep the smile on his face. It was something in his wrinkles, maybe they deepened even more, that made me think he did not want to take a job here. But he nodded and took my hands between his rough fingertips.
I was doing well in my master’s. I past all my classes at once and arranged participation in a research project on improvement of maize production. The long days at the lab squinting my eyes above a microscope and entering my findings into a computer made me long for another physical exercise. I was done with the gym; it felt like routine. I needed something different. I asked Rosie and she signed us up for some hip-hop class for 21+ women. It was horribly difficult, I felt like a wooden puppet compared to some of the girls at our class that had obviously done years of ballet training and had beautifully shaped bodies with well-developed muscles that controlled their every move up to the position of their upper pinkie’s phalanx. But I loved it. The dancing exhausted me physically and cleared my head into a state that I did not know existed. It was what I needed to make me go through with the moving to another apartment although Ben was not here to help me. He had however found a way to answer my e-mail about the payment of the new apartment and promised me to lay in his share once he got back and that he would like whatever apartment I liked.
Mum and Dad and Rosie and Peter helped me move my stuff to a ground floor apartment of a three story building close to the city centre. I liked the red bricks and the glass entrance. I liked the willow trees and pond with ducks that were at the other side of our garden’s border. A supermarket allured from across the street, as well as a children’s day care. And I liked the garden! I already had tons of plans in my head to use it surface as efficient as possible and create my dream garden. Only now I would need to take a bus to get to café Anjou, or buy a bike and park it at our car parking spot. I laughed at the idea, but then my Dad surprised me by bringing me a brand-new bike that he then smeared with paint to make it look old, otherwise it would be stolen.
For a few weeks I spent all my time working on the thesis project, working at Anjou’s, wearing my limbs at hip-hop, and still enjoying Rosie’s meals once a week. Then Mum called. Mum never called, unless something was really wrong. Something was really wrong. Dad was at the hospital. They suspected throat cancer. They were checking now if his lungs had not been infected yet. Mum’s voice sounded so different. I felt her fear and desperation. There was nothing we could do. Only pray, but we were no praying people.
Dad was stable, but also the doctors could not do anything but ease his pain and coughing. For hours Mum said beside his bed and served him with drinks and magazines although it was the job of the nurses now. I visited as often as I could, but I could not bear long the smell of disinfectant and the over-the-top friendly smiles on top of sickly white uniforms. I often wondered if the nurses would not carry cancer cells from one patient to another, but then I knew that was impossible. I just wanted them to cure Dad. I just wanted them to take care of my Dad in any way they could and make him look better. Because his eyes had sunk in their sockets and his cheek bones were lifting up like there was some mechanism in his body that had been activated to shape-shift him from a healthy Dad into an anonymous cancer patient.
The light that fell through the window of the spacious living room looked not as bright as before. Leaves in all shades of red and gold drifted bravely to the ground, as if the end of their life as freshly green decorations was not completely over. They would provide the tree with nutrients once soil-dwelling organisms had penetrated their cellular structures and turned them into biological debris. Some days I went out and felt the moist remnants that felt closer to life than anything at that moment. My garden plans seemed unimportant. Weeds were taking over. I liked to determine them and observe species composition which could indicate ecological succession.
Sometimes I stared at the framed picture of Ben and me while I used my vibrator. My imagination felt frozen; I just closed my eyes and had the vibrations do their work while no sexual fantasy coloured my mind’s eye. I thought of the show I had prepared for Ben but never performed. I would dress up in this waggish flower dress with broad, flat shoes and my hair all tight up and then have him rip off the dress and reveal a new set of silk red lingerie. Somehow I thought that it would not matter to Ben if I made something special out of the sex. He would never do such a thing for me anyway.
Ben was back. He had liked the apartment. He had hugged and kissed me and said I was truly capable at picking a good apartment. I smiled but felt empty. He did not ask how I was. He did not ask about my master’s or my job at Anjou’s. He did not ask about the garden; he must know I would like to design our garden, I had talked about it often enough before we had moved here. I was a plant scientist, for Christ’s sake, I liked to fuzz over plants.
I cooked dinner, even put two candles at our brand new dinner table. We ate in silence. I had asked Ben how it had been overseas. He had provided me with the same answer as always. I looked at his soft, tanned neck. He was good-looking. Lots of girls would want him. ‘Have you found a job here?’ I asked him. His face darkened. ‘No. I want to do one more mission. Iraq.’ I started to shake my head. Ben took the table salt and put an awful lot of salt on his food. Was my food not tasty enough? He could have simply told me. ‘Why do you want to go one more time?’ Ben chewed his food and swallowed before he answered: ‘I like what I do there.’ I sensed he wanted to say more. But no more came. Maybe he wanted to say he did not want to take a job here. Maybe he felt important when he was a target in a desert full of rocks and enemies. Where did he get that ridiculous thought of defending his country overseas? It was dangerous and pointless! And I would be waiting here and imagining him being hit by a bomb and his body in a thousand shreds at the road side. Ben assisted in putting the dishes in the dishwasher and then sat down to watch television. I asked him if he liked coffee. He said yes and looked at me. I wondered what he saw. Was it me, or just the girl he could fuck and ask for coffee?
He went with me to visit Dad. I nearly chocked on the sight of this alien creature wrapped in pale sheets. Death was approaching and its smell had already taken hold of the room. Mum just sighed and stared and I felt so unable of anything. The machine that kept track of Dad’s heartbeat bleeped on and on and I wished for it to never stop. To never stop Dad, but of course it was not the machine keeping Dad alive, but his heart keeping alive the machine. And while I thought all this, I noticed Ben was not at my side. He was outside the room, reading some announcements attached at the wall. ‘He should have given up his cigarettes’, he said without looking at me. Tears filled my eyes because I felt this same strange anger as I had on the night he had unexpectedly visited me. I did not want to hear the truth. I wanted him to comfort me.
That night he hit me while he was fighting the enemies in his nightmare. The next morning Ben left saying he had an appointment. He never had appointments. He only met with friends, and I would come along. But this time he went out alone. Maybe he had a job interview after all. I did not believe myself. My thoughts sped-up to such an extent it made me feel tired everywhere. What if he was visiting my previous neighbour? The thought woke an anger in me that I had not known I could feel. It was sharp and heavy and I knew exactly what it was and I could do nothing more but take in gulps of air until I went into the garden, where an icy drizzle bit my cheeks and then my tears.