She wakes early to capture the morning dew. Sits on the toilet, holds the stick between her thighs, and sprays it with pale lemon piss. The curtains are almost drawn, the bathroom almost dark, but a gap lets in fingers of light that fall upon everything that hasn’t been cleaned. Paint flakes from the walls like dead skin. A shadow of stubble rings the tub; so dirty that when she takes a bath she comes out dirtier. A cup on the sink holds six exhausted toothbrushes, yet she lives alone.
She holds the stick in one hand, watching as it absorbs the urine. Just one band of rose appears in its little window, slowly like the dawn. This means the test has functioned. Two rose-colored lines and she will be forced to take action, or her body will lose control.
She fills the seconds by watching the stick. Still just one rose line. A negative result is positive. Her hands lose their tremor. She stands up, pulls open the curtain, still holding the stick in one hand, and looks out at the rooftops, which are starting to look back as the growing sun makes the red chimneystacks brighter. She looks down again at the stick, now fully exposed by the light. Another line has appeared, just a faint line, but a line drawn between this morning and any other. She feels nothing. Her reactions always delayed.
He holds the ultrasound scan between his thumb and forefinger, holds it up to the glare.
“No,” he says after scrutinizing the grey clouds for a moment, “there’s nothing there. But the blood tests you’ve done tell us that the hCG levels are rising every day. You’re pregnant. There’s no doubt. But not very pregnant. It’s too soon to see anything. The sexual act took place just over two weeks ago, you say?”
The act. There hadn’t been one act. There had been multiple acts, multiple orgasms. She’d given up trying to be like all of them, so she’d tried to distinguish herself. To stand out from all the other thirty-somethings either settled down or scrounging around for the one. She’d multiplied her desires, acted them out. With all kinds of shirts: sleeveless, crumpled, striped, smelling of smoke, empty stomachs or booze.
Which act had it been? Too much acting. A blur of acts where she couldn’t differentiate between tears, saliva, and sperm any more.
He shows her a packet. Mifepristone. Breaks the seal and leans forward, a little white pill between his gloved thumb and forefinger.
Years ago, that final year of school, when her hair dangling in braids suited her face and her baggy clothes hid a body so fresh everyone wanted to squeeze it, in a toilet cubicle someone had shown her a little white pill while people hammered on the door in time to a techno beat. Back then that little white pill had seemed like it might be a solution. Would it give her rhythm? Help her to dance on a podium without feeling shy? Would it make her feel like everyone else? Back then she’d just asked one question:
“Is this going to make me feel good?”
“It will make you feel better.”
He has the pill in one hand and a plastic cup filled with water in the other.
“Take this one now and then you need to take another pill, the Misoprostol, in thirty-six hours. The second pill will help you to expel the embryo, like a miscarriage. It can take up to six hours. All the information is in the booklet I gave you.”
She could sit there forever or at least a couple more hours. Looking at the pill in one of his hands, the cup of water in the other, thinking about the combination of water, pill, and her mouth, the implications of putting them all together. But he can’t wait much longer. This is only his life for a moment. He has a girlfriend who has ten-minute pasta boiling on the stove.
“So I have to take this pill right now?”
“Yes and the other pill thirty-six hours from right now. Do you have a friend who can be with you when you take the second pill? It’s very important that you’re not alone.”
Yeah right. A friend. No. They were all enemies. They didn’t approve of her multiple partners. Her filthy bathroom and its multiple toothbrushes she kept as trophies. Her odd jobs that gave her loose cash to spend on frivolities. They had planned their lives properly and had drawers that could be shut full of embarrassing memories where they danced on podiums at the age they were expected to. Now they had husbands, salaries, babies, and dogs to feed, and they were almost ready to care for their aging parents as well.
She swallows the pill.
“Don’t worry, it will just be like a heavy period. It’s too early, too small for you to see anything.”
He starts to shuffle papers, a conversation stopper as brutal as a yawn.
She spends the rest of the day and well into the night opening and closing drawers and cupboards, scrubbing the tub until it is off-white, trying to make her apartment new. The clock sweats, each hour drips by. She’s always skeptical of expending too much energy like this, feeling she’s hastening her own decay. Slow down, she thinks. This time it’s different. Slackening her pace is more important than ever. Each minute that passes is another minute something swells inside her.
The next day she slams the door behind her, but the bang isn’t loud enough, so she opens and slams it again. Outside, people walk around with plastic bags for umbrellas, dripping birds splash in the puddles, and children cry over the rain. Paris is a smear of grey she wants to leave behind.
Four hours later she sits crumpled in a corner of a taxi. It’s early evening, but the sun bores into her bleached arms, highlighting deep freckles like cigarette burns. She looks at her watch, waiting for the hands to hit 36 hours later. She never feels like she’s living in the instant. Always waiting for some future point. Imagining the shower she’ll take when she reaches the hotel, but when the stream of cool water cracks against her skin she’ll be thinking ahead to another moment.
“First time you come in Barcelona?” the taxi driver turns around to sum her up, her pale face bruised under the eyes made more funereal by her dark dress.
She nods as half-heartedly as she can.
“Won’t be your last time. Ladies like you always come back to Barcelona. This city was made for ladies…Do you speak Catalan? Spanish? Doesn’t matter if you don’t. All you are need to know how to say is Que calor!”
“Here we are, miss. Plaça de Catalunya. And Las Ramblas.”
Her luggage is a battered brown case like she had when she was at school. With her hair hidden in braids and her black dress, she feels out of place amid all this sun, color, and hair. For a moment the jolt from the calm interior of the taxi to this confusion of people is too much. They are moving in groups, linking arms, creating barriers to scare off the lonely. She wants to give up, collapse in the middle of them all, close her eyes and play dead.
The street is lined with markets selling birds, with benches where men perch. All the faces around her look vaguely familiar. This always happens when she goes to a foreign city, she finds mangled versions of people she knows.
“Mademoiselle! Miss! Hola guapa!”
The benches come to life. Men think they can tell her who she is with an ogle of approval or a dismissive once-over.
She walks faster. Someone is breathing hard up against her.
“Leave me alone. Que Calor! Que Calor!” she waves him away with her hand.
Clammy fingers reach out to grope her. They will leave prints on her arm.
“Slow down. Who do you think I am? The guy you read about in some guidebook, the guy on the Las Ramblas who is going to steal your handbag? Poor pretty tourist.”
His clothes are too big; a t-shirt hangs from him like it has been pegged on. He is looking at her, and she wants to ask him what he can see.
“You need help finding somewhere to stay?”
“I have a place to stay.”
She shows him where she has starred the map, and he studies it for a moment.
“It’s just down here.”
They veer to the right on to a side street full of people walking up and down, looking up and down.
“What’s your name?”
She doesn’t answer, pretends she has her work cut out smoothing her hair.
He stops before the stench of drainpipes and a drab looking pension.
“This is it.”
She goes to enter but he restrains her for a moment with a hand that circles her arm familiarly.
He still has her map. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a pen, spreads the city across the wall, and draws an X.
“You can find me here later. Well, if I’m not there, just ask at the bar for Jaume.”
There’s no soap in the shower, and as the cold water dribbles on to her she thinks about the pill, whether it’s wise to go out after she’s taken it…but the doctor said she shouldn’t do this alone. There is no towel rack, but there are no towels so it doesn’t matter. She dries herself with the bed sheet.
She opens her suitcase and makes this basic room hers, throwing her clothes all over the floor. Her suitcase is no longer a suitcase because it doesn’t contain any objects, doesn’t serve its purpose, everything expulsed.
She steps on to the tiny wrought iron balcony. He’s still down there, smoking, looking up the road at something she can’t see. No one seems to be in any of the surrounding apartments; they’re all out contributing to the brouhaha in the street.
There are no plastic cups in the room. No receptacle to drink from at all. She swallows the pill without water, and it becomes a lump in her throat. She cups her hands under the tap, gobbles water until she can no longer feel it.
When she goes back down to the street, wearing a pale blue summer dress, he’s gone. She walks fast. There are bars dug into the walls like caves, full of people who already know each other and look like they don’t want to know anyone else. She passes people strolling in groups, drinking their Mojitos from plastic cups. A sign reads Boadas. The window is frosted so she can’t see inside. This gives her the courage to push the door and enter.
The bartenders are wearing tuxedos, their mouths groomed into smiles. The interior is wooden and brass like wintertime, and a few people elbow the tables.
A man whose nose is webbed with broken capillaries stands at the bar. He pins her into place with his eyes.
She says to the bartender, “Give me something colorful.”
“American?” the man repeats.
“All on your own? Got a boyfriend? Married? Kids? How old?”
She doesn’t say anything. The bartender shakes her colorful cocktail. The cocktail shaker looks like an urn.
“Can’t guess your age. Parts of your face look old, parts look young. But you have the face of a woman who has children…I’m right aren’t I?”
He taps her on the arm to try and feel the proximity to her his words aren’t giving him.
She slides down the bar, away from him. People fill the space between them, and the power of her drink, all yolk and streaming blood like a Catalan sunset, makes him seem even further away.
He taps her on the shoulder as he leaves the bar.
“Listen, you’re just a woman in a dress, nothing special. No reason to be a snob.”
She leaves not long after him, the cocktail sticky in her throat and on her fingers. She follows narrow streets to smaller bars, always searching the extreme, the narrowest street, the smallest bar, the tallest person she can dance with, the person with the longest beard, never believing she’s found it, always believing there has to be a step further. Crossing lines, crossing into personal space, rubbing up against people. She leans against a bar and traces with her fingers a woman’s tattoo, burnt into her strapless back: “Less is more.” She reads it backwards, “More is less.” She tells the woman she likes it, and the woman smiles. She grabs the hand of a boy with Down’s syndrome and the two of them dance to Billie Jean. The boy tweaks her nipple, which is eyeing him through her dress, and says, “beep.” She lets him do it again.
“Michael Jackson is dead!” he shouts.
“Dead! Dead! Dead!” she shouts back.
They both laugh, too hard, spitting laughter everywhere.
People turn to look and then look away. This crowd of people that seemed to be moving towards her to hack off a chunk of her joy are recoiling now, turning their backs. Someone, perhaps the boy’s sister, places an arm on his shoulder and steers him away from her. Who was she, this outsider, come here to make trouble? Her handbag leaps from her hands and a few coins and tampons make their merry way across the floor. Objects always come to life when she’s drunk. She leaves the bar, banging against the glass door like a fly, pretending to be drunker than she is, intoxication an alibi.
She can’t find herself in other people. Just finds herself in things. In these walls losing their paint. In these cigarette butts, all the good parts of them used up. The day has peeled away to reveal nothing but night. She stands in the street. The buildings are pressing in on her, like trees barring all the paths in a hostile forest, their foliage covering the sun. She thinks she must be in the Barrio Chino. She pulls out her map and walks until the X on her map transforms into a bar beating in blue light.
“You’re here,” he says, as she sways before him.
She feels so relieved she wants to fall into him. The most familiar face she’s ever seen. Saint James. He is sitting at the bar, drawing in a notebook. Swirls and zigzags that end off the page. It’s really just scribble.
They down a shot together.
Her throat is in flames.
“Are you an artist?”
“I draw to relax,” he says.
He takes her arm and turns it over, exposing the soft underside. He digs ink into her flesh. A circle for a face. Two triangles for ears. Lines for whiskers.
She can feel it now. The pen in her skin.
“That feels nice.”
“I’ll show you something nicer, come on.”
People look at them curiously, the blackest man in the world pushing the whitest woman towards the toilets. Under the harsh light of the bathroom the pores in his skin open; he has shades of grey, his face a pumice stone.
In the cubicle, he reaches into his pocket. Something flashes in his hand. The quick silver of a razor blade. She waits for him to produce pills to crush or powder to align. Wonders if this mix of drugs and alcohol is wise.
He has no drugs. Just a razor.
She flinches, reaches for the door, almost leaves.
He begins to cuts stripes into the underside of his arm, carefully, avoiding the veins. He closes his eyes for a moment, blocking out anything that might distract him from pain. The blood doesn’t trickle, the wounds aren’t deep enough.
She looks at the razor bleeding in his hands.
With his other hand he pulls out a clean one from his pocket and she holds it between her thumb and forefinger. She can feel violence at its tip. She can see the moment ahead when it will be bloodied in her wrist.
Now there is a sliver of blood down her arm. She feels a swirl of pain, an instantaneous sting that makes her lightheaded. She can feel this, right now.
When she puts her arm under the tap, cold water rushes against the sting. Ink and blood race together. She looks in the mirror. Her face has been tickled to a deep pink. She undoes her braids, lets her hair curl.
Saint James is waiting for her. Pitter patter, pitter patter, they hurry through the streets. Somewhere she feels something isn’t quite right. They are on a tree-lined boulevard now. Restaurants are bloated with people who look like they’ll be awake forever.
They walk into a snare of narrow streets and stop at a square. Transvestite prostitutes, caught up in fishnet, totter up and down.
They sit down on a concrete slab and lean their backs against a building.
“You want to smoke something?”
He pulls out an obese joint, lights it, inhales, slips it through a crack in his fingers and forms a pipe with his hands.
“It’s strong. Be careful.”
She puts her lips around the hole in his hands, sucks in the smoke and immediately wants to lie down. Something not quite right, somewhere down below, has become something wrong everywhere. She stretches on the concrete, so cold and hard, an ancient altar, and her head falls back into his mighty lap. She doesn’t feel like she can control anything now. The pill she took willingly, the razor she controlled, all that is finished. There is an uncontrollable tremor between her legs. Her clitoris beats violently. Her legs start to twitch. Her cotton dress tightens around her in a cloud of sweat.
“You OK?” He’s stroking her hair.
“Just a cramp. Cramps.”
“Is it the dope?”
“My period. Like my period.”
“What do you need? How can I help you?” His faraway questions have now become the close voice of fear. He bends towards her face. “Shit. Your eyes. Your eyes are rolling. Shit.”
She uses all the energy she hoarded somewhere, ages ago, and turns over, into the fetal position, pressing down below with her hands, wrinkling her stomach, trying to contain the cramp by holding tightly, but it clenches again. Her whole body is in spasms, everywhere violence she can’t control.
He tries to take her hand, to pull her up, but she has to keep clutching, to contain everything, to keep everything inside her or her body won’t be doing its job. He tries again, and she has no energy left to resist him. She passes him her hands and he pulls her upright, scoops her high into his arms.
As they pass by, people who have lost their faces pause mid-laughter to say, “Is she OK? What’s she taken?”
Someone says, “Bring her in here.”
The man opens the door to the back room of his falafel shop and they sit her down at a table. Her body is going through a rapid series of changes. From hot to cold, from blotchy to queasy green.
She is a heap on the chair, still holding herself just below her stomach where all the pain is gathering. She puts her head on the table and Saint James crushes her tears with his fingers.
“This man wants to know. You’ve only drunk and smoked the dope tonight right? You haven’t taken anything else? He says you should take this pill.”
All these men. They want her to take another little white pill. They think they know who she is. That taxi driver who knows she’ll come back to Barcelona. The man in the bar who knows she has children, who knows she isn’t special. They all know her better than she knows herself. Like she’s just been chipped off an old block. All these men. But all these men wouldn’t be able to put her together again.
“I’m not all these men. It’s Jaume,” he says. He is trying to make her look at him. Trying to make her eyes stay in one place.
Something escapes, gushes between her legs.
“Bathroom. I need the bathroom.”
Sitting on the toilet seat, she looks at the pale blue cotton of her underwear shattered by blood. The cramps have subsided. She looks down at the clots. He said it would be too small to see. Like a heavy period. She’s not here, not in this instant, already thinking about when this will all be over.
“You OK in there? Can I come in?” He is pushing the door.
No one can put her back together again.
She flushes and then genuflects before the toilet bowl and vomits. The toilet is animated, possessed, it won’t stop flushing. She vomits until she feels that there won’t be anything left inside her, all her internal organs will soon be in the toilet too, will disappear into this roaring and foaming, everything that was ever inside her will drown in this vicious sea.
She enters a day that has been awake with honking cars for hours, the morning light already stale. The whole of the previous night has been tucked under the covers with her, and she kicks the sheets away.
The dusty light targets everything, shows up the stains on the pale blue dress hanging over a chair. She’ll never wear that dress again. Like a wedding dress can never lose its symbolic value, that dress will never have any new meaning.
He is standing at the door to the room, in bright shorts, his nude torso swollen now that it isn’t concealed beneath an ill-fitting T-shirt.
“Que Calor,” he says, spreading sweat across his face. “You want to wear this?”
It’s the red and yellow of a slaughtered sun. The kind of dress she noticed on the racks outside the boutiques she passed the night before.
She puts it on and it hangs tight everywhere. Her face in the bathroom mirror is the same face she had when she was a schoolgirl, dark rings and lines around her eyes the only efforts of time. That was her body yesterday with something growing inside it. This is still her body today.
The only sting she can feel is on her arm where a straight red line claws the skin. It’s really just a snick.
“I’m out here. On the balcony.”
He is sitting at a table, smoking; she can see the purple stripes down his arm. He pours her a cup from a pot of coffee in front of him.
Her whole body is in a state of relief. This relief overpowers all thoughts and leaves her open to sensations. She feels the sun creeping all over her, the coffee waking her up. She starts speaking in a rush, instinctively.
“When something happens to me, like some kind of upheaval in my life, it’s as if the world has been revealed to me under a harsher light. I see things more clearly, and for a moment I feel I’ve learned something. But then, well after a while it seems like I’m still as ignorant as ever, but just in a different way. Like my ignorance has taken on a new form. I keep doing the same things, but just see my actions in a different light.”
He nods to show he’s listening.
“Look over there. Do you know what that is?”
A vision in the polluted haze.
“La Sagrada Familia. It’s still not finished, is it?”
Later in the day they will probably visit the interior of the church, still a construction site, and view drawings of how it will look when all the work is done. But for now it’s as unfinished as she feels.
Melissa grew up in Australia and now lives and works as an editor and translator in France. She is an expert at drinking wine and reading very long novels.