To Zeplins in a Hand-basket
Zeplins is half-empty. We’re pretty drunk by the time we arrive—all those tequila shooters at the Pink Fairy have finally hit me. I wobble, and I’m in trainers, can’t even blame it on heels. I need to start drinking a thousand glasses of water now, got to pace myself. Also, I need to get a handle on the amount of cash I am throwing around like I just won the Lotto. I slip my wallet out of my bag and do a quick double-check. It’s not looking great: a few fifties, a twenty, a ten and change. Gah. I shove the wallet back and take a deep breath through my nose. Don’t worry about it, Today-Irene. This is Tomorrow-Irene’s problem.
It’s worth it just to see Rain loosened up, laughing at stupid jokes. His body unclenches a little. I fall in love with him for the thousandth time at the bar, with his choked laugh and his grey eyes. And I can pretend that it’s not happening all I want, but that doesn’t change things. I want to touch him, to take his fingers in mine and press mouth to mouth and breathe him in like a hit. He catches my look and for a moment it’s as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking, that he’ll lean forward and change everything. My heart is going cold with feverish hope.
He grins, and everything stays the same.
Damn me for a fool, right? “Come with me.” I grab his hand. “You need eyeliner”
“What—” But he doesn’t pull free. “If I get beat up for this I’m never talking to you again.”
I haul Rain into the girl’s bathroom and smear eyeshadow into the hollows of his eyes so he looks like a panda that’s been molested in a bamboo grove. He has a sloppy grin when he’s drunk, and after I’m done tarting him up, he kisses the corner of my mouth once, quickly, under the bare electric bulb. Our reflections meet in the stained mirror. Who knows if that’s a thank you for the smudged eyes, or for something else all together. He pulls away so fast afterwards that I can almost imagine it never happened, that I wanted it so much I dreamed it up.
Whatever it is, it’s mine, and I’m keeping it. Like a cigarette burn.
We head back out to the club, which is still forlornly empty, revealed in all its grotty dank glory. At least when Zeplins is full, the press of people hides the industrial carpeting, the cheap veneer, the poor fish in their tank above the bar counter.
I order another round of beers from the very bored-looking bar lady near the retro floor. “Make this one last.” I lean the cold beer against Rain’s cheek for a moment, and he shivers before he takes the slippery bottle of Black Label.
“I’ll pay you back,” he says.
With what, I’d like to know – is he planning on taking up streetwalking? “Yeah, yeah, I know.” I wave his offer away. We both know that it will never happen. Rain’s never been able to hold down a job. He’ll be fine for a week, and then with the first little setback he’ll crack like a little glass.bubble Some nights I lie awake wondering what’s going to happen to him, even though a cold little part of me keeps saying, “It’s not your problem. It’s not your problem.” But it is my problem, because I chose it. Maybe I didn’t stand a chance – we’ve known each other since we were eight. By the time I understood that Rain was a lost cause, I was already too deep into the tangle.
The club fills as we wander through the caverns, looking for a place to sit and drink, and where the music attracts the right sort of people. Another bottle of beer passes before we settle on the ebm floor. My least favourite. I’ve nothing against the music, some of it, but the people drive me up the wall. They are layers and layers of false faces, all stacked up to try and make themselves look deep and interesting.
Rain squeezes up next to me on the bench, setting his beer carefully down on the scarred table. He’s moving with the over-exacting care of the utterly wasted. Great. As long as he vomits before he gets back in my car. I drag my attention off him, and try concentrate on the other people. I need to snap out of this stupid Rain-thing of mine. It’s ridiculous, and it makes me pathetic. There are other people in the world. Who knows, maybe tonight I’ll get lucky. I press my index finger against the burn of a memory kiss.Ha. Ha.
The dance floor is empty except for one sad prat twisting himself up like a pretzel, lost in an electro-trance. He’s seal-sleek, pvc glistening under the strobing light.
Rain’s distracted by him, and I can mostly see why. The boy is all hard shiny edges and hair dyed black with cheap dye, so that it looks dry and oily at the same time. Gutterglam, with his face perfectly made up. He dances with his eyes closed, like he’s praying, and his absinthe-green chiffon scarf is fluttering in the air-conditioning. He’s beautiful in the way crabs are beautiful, spiky and angular, and hard to catch.
The song ends and the glam crab sidles back to his pals. To a girlfriend who watches him with a predatory glint.
“Taken,” I yell into Rain’s ear. “And straight.”
Rain sees the couple glued together at their shiny hips, and grimaces. “Dammit.”
“The night is young.” Although, being the possessive little cow I am—yes I can admit it to myself at least—I’m really hoping that his pickings are slim. I snap my fingers in front of his face. “Water.” I nod at him. “Don’t pass out.”
His eyes clear a little, and Rain sets off to go get himself a glass of water from the bar.
While he’s gone I scan the room. A girl squeezed into a red corset tracks his movements along the edge of the dance floor. She’s pretty in a china-doll way, the white of her foundation powdered flat and smooth, and long sweeps of liquid liner give her a Cleopatra look. She’s dyed her hair an electric red, the colour of liquorice strings. For a moment, I’m jealous of her and her girlish perfection, pissed that I’ve thrown my hair away; that it’s too late to do anything about that now.
Not that I could ever be her. I could never show myself off like that; white peach tits spilling from the top of her corset like an offering.Who’d want to see eczema girl and her amazing collection of gross skin conditions? I send a spike of envy in the doll’s direction. Her velvet and lace skirt sits low, revealing a perfect curve of belly and hip. She’s untouchable. The only thing that consoles me is that Rain will pay her about as much attention as he’d pay a hag.
Rain’s white halo of cherubim surfer hair appears out of the gloom. Amongst all the dye and darkness, he stands out in a solitary, skinny beacon. He’s holding two glasses of water, although he almost spills both when he stumbles by the edge of the dance floor.
“Idiot,” I say, when Rain finally makes it to our table and hands me a glass. “Thanks.”
“Because.” It’s the extent of our conversation. The music is too loud to talk, and we can only communicate by leaning in close and shouting in one another’s ears. So close that I can smell cheap deodorant and sweat; stale cigarettes and beer on his breath.
We measure out the night in little sips, until the beer goes from cold and dry as sour apples from the crisper, to warm and flat and piss-horrible. We make our way to the goth floor, which is looking a little crowded – a feat in itself. The night batters on and I talk to random strangers. I pontificate. I’m beautiful. Rain entrances some boy in a corner and comes back to me with his mouth a sticky red, bruised and puffy. He leans against the wall, looking drunk and happy. I hate seeing him and knowing I’m not the one who makes him feel that way.
I don’t care what song the DJ is playing; I need to get away and any damn song will do. Alone in the crowd, I close my eyes and dance. Calm rushes through me, curling up my spine slow as a snake, and when the song changes and I open my eyes, the crowd parts.
There’s a boy sitting on a low couch, watching me. He has a jagged face and a hunch back, and he smiles when he sees me notice him. The stone at my neck—my mother’s little trinket—chills against my chest. It takes me a moment to realise that the hunch isn’t the boy’s back, but something he’s carrying—a bag. The predatory way he looks at me makes me shiver. He shifts, and as he stands, I realise the thing on his back is not a bag, but two stunted black wings, folded closed against his shoulder blades.
Not again. I thought this shit stopped when my mother died. It was her. She was the one who saw things, and then made me believe it was all real.
The boy crosses the floor towards me and my whole body feels like it just erupted, skin crawling with an itching rash that I can never scratch away. I turn and head back to Rain as fast as I can, pushing my way through the crowded dance floor. “We’re going,” I shout. Even I can hear the panic in my voice.
“Now?” Confusion spreads slow across his face.
I glance back. Wing-boy’s way is blocked by a girl doing her best impression of a baobab tree caught in a gale. Then he’s rounding her, grinning, his eyes still fixed on me. His face might be human, but those long, sharp teeth sure aren’t, and neither are the claws on his hands.
“Now,” I say. The mellow drunk buzz has gone, and instead I’m filled with teeth-chattering manic fear. I’ve been here before.
I pay the car guard with my last ten rand and scramble with the key in the lock, checking over my shoulder that no-one has followed us out. Everything here seems so normal; the lights on in the closed shop down the road, the tarred road rainbow-slick with oil and water, the mouthwatering smell from the boerewors stand that makes shit-tons of money off every drunk leaving Zeplins. It’s all normal. No winged monster boys with shark teeth appear. Great I’m going mad, it’s hereditary and I’m going to end up killing myself or whatever it is that really happened to my mother.
Rain says nothing as I shoo him into the car, though he looks grim, frowning and confused. He stays silent as we navigate out of Pretoria, just lets the music fill up the space around us.
I hurtle the Beetle down the empty highway, my skin too tight for my body. My eyes are dry and blistering in my head. I keep watching the rear-view mirror, expecting somehow that the boy with the wings is following me. Of course there’s nothing. It was in my head. That’s it. My mother’s voice is gone, the stories she read from her book can’t scare me any more.
Rain leans forward and turns down the volume. “Do you want to tell me why we’re leaving already?” he drawls.
I shake my head. I’ve never told anyone—not even Rain, who is supposed to be my closest friend—about the people I used to see. The people she made me believe I saw. She encouraged all that crap, I realise now. Told me my imaginary friends really existed and that she could see them too. She let me talk to them like they were real. None of it was real, just like her book of changing stories was never real. It was a game. All of it.
There was no winged monster boy in that club. I was imagining it. I think. And maybe eventually I’ll convince myself.
My mother is dead.
I don’t see things.
My mother is dead.
She killed herself.
She knew her death was coming because she killed herself and you are an idiot for thinking anything else. That final thought near breaks me. A surge of hate and pity directed at my dead mother. How could she just up and leave like that—didn’t she care? I can’t help it. My eyes prickle, and I sniff deeply, blinking to stop the hot swell of tears. I will not succumb to self-pity. I’ll never claw myself out if I do. I shake my head, and concentrate on the real world. The now.
The sky is still dark, but I can make out the faint outlines of the jacaranda trees. I guess it’s about three in the morning. Rain snaps the Led Zepplin tape back in, and sings along off-key. I can’t think straight, and I tighten my hands on the steering wheel so that he won’t see them shaking.
I drop Rain off at home. The curtains flick as he gets out the car. Lily’s watching. He kisses my cheek. It’s dry and distant, sexless. I watch him as he staggers off, convinced that if I don’t stand guard like that, someone will swoop in from the shadows and snatch him away. I wait until the door is shut behind him before gunning the Beetle back to life.
Finally, I can go home and shower. As soon as I’m alone in the safety of my little flat I strip out of my smoke-and-beer-perfumed clothes and dump them on the floor. My skin is a war zone – I look like I was dragged naked through a nettle patch; great ugly swathes of raw weeping skin, with tiny little blisters everywhere. Great. Not only am I going mad, I also look like something out of a horror film. Even if I do ever manage to get a boy (read: Rain) to like me, what exactly am I planning on doing—telling him I’ve sworn a vow to never ever remove my clothes so help me god? I run through my night-time regime of moisturising, and I cover the worst bits with my steroid cream. It doesn’t matter how tired or out of it I am, this stuff is routine now. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. It’s so damn normal that it makes me almost believe that whatever I saw tonight was just my over-active imagination. It didn’t happen. I’m over-reacting. Except the stone of my mother’s evil eye pendant is still like a block of ice, so cold it feels like it’s burning a hole through my chest.
I pull the pendant away from neck and hold it for a moment in my fist as if I could somehow warm it up like that.
It stays ice-cold and I start to shiver. From fear, from exhaustion, from memory. My mother cold and dead, and me, touching the skin of her arm, wondering why she was so so cold, why she wouldn’t wake up. I make a gasping sound and let the pendant go. Allergy meds; I need to take them anyway, and they’ll help knock me out. Or else I am going to be haunted and sleepless, caught in a web of terrible moments it is too late to change.