"Dude" by Alex Hindley
What did I just read?
He picked her up from arrivals at 5pm on Friday, pulling up outside rather than coming to the gate. He was driving a shiny red compensator of a car with the top down, and as she approached he patted the passenger side seat in invitation. She did as she was bid and hopped in.
“Hey.” She replied, resisting the urge to touch or kiss him in public. She had to wait. Out in the desert they’d be free.
“Do you need a navigator?” She asked as he pulled the car away from the curb.
He stared at her, open mouthed and mock-offended.
“I know the way.”
“Ha ha! Okay, okay. So you’ve been to this place before?”
“Nah, just memorised the directions.”
He drove fast, but she felt safe in his hands as the concrete receded from view, soon replaced by sand and cacti. In her ecstatic frame of mind the prickly plants seemed to have gathered to welcome them. He caught her smiling at them.
“You’ve never seen those before?”
“In a pot on a windowsill, but these are huge!”
He nodded “They get bigger the further out you go. Just you wait.”
As the long drive continued and the euphoria, but not the high, of their escape began to wear off. She shifted nervously in her seat and rubbed a self conscious hand along the outside of her exposed thigh.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for so long.” He said suddenly.
“Really?” She squirmed, playing up to him. “You missed me?”
“I was lost without you!” He cried, eliciting giggles from her. “No, really. I’ve been thinking about you the whole time. I’ve got the whole weekend planned out for us.”
She leant across to kiss him on the cheek. He turned and caught her lips, lingering.
The radio crackled and whined as the city area station began to lose signal. She worked the dial util she heard the opening tones of an old favourite of hers.
“The power of love, a force from above, cleaning my soul…”
She wondered if he really meant the things he’d said. Unwelcome thoughts swirled up from a dark place within. She pulled away before they swallowed her, but there were things in there that must be fed.
“I always thought,” She began, watching him through the side of her eye “that if I got married, this would be my first dance.” His brow folded inward, “Kind of a hard song to dance to.” He muttered, staring intently at the fuel gauge, feigning distraction.
“Are we running out of gas?” She said pointedly, and his expression cleared.
“Nah, we’re good.”
She sank down in her seat, watching the passing landscape. Baked, scrubby earth flowed by, the mountains in the distance seeming never to get any closer. She began to feel the dryness of the air, and the sun was strong even at this hour. Her throat clicked as she swallowed. How had she forgotten to bring water to the desert?
They reached the house at dusk. While he carried their cases inside she stopped a moment, taking in the exterior. It stood squat and alone, a tasteful brick glowing malevolently in the orange light of a spectacular desert sunset. Moving inside, she found the decor to be modern with a seventies twist. The large, low-ceilinged room she’d come in to was the hall, living room, and dining room of the place. To her left she saw that he’d opened the bedroom door, and glimpsed an en suite. Further into the room she turned a corner into a modern kitchen. The back wall was all glass windows onto wide, unbroken desert. She poured herself a large glass of tap water and swallowed half of it, staring out at the vastness, watching the light change.
He approached quietly from behind, wrapping himself around her, gently pulling her hair over one shoulder, resting his chin on the other. “You are irresistible in this light” he murmured into her neck, kissing the exposed skin. They went to bed for an hour or so. She felt saturated with joy.
Afterwards he set about making dinner. Gathering up their discarded clothes, she found herself naked on her hands and knees, scraping her hand back and forth in the small gap under the bed, trying to find her underwear. Finally she laid her hand on a scrap of material and began to withdraw it, only to lay her hand on another. She grabbed that too, pulling them both out. She stared at them in her hand, feeling strange. One was red lace and hers, the other pair was black, plain, and completely unfamiliar. Her mouth opened to call out to him, then closed. She put everything together into the wash basket, then went to get clean herself.
Stepping out of the shower later, she watched the mirror, taking an inventory of her naked self. There were red, blotchy patches on her chest and stomach. Scratching at them absently with one hand, searching her toiletry bag with the other, she figured that this desert dryness was going to be hard on her vanity. She found her moisturiser and began to work it into the rough patches, wondering how she could be so thirsty again, blaming the heat of the shower.
He called to her. Dinner was ready. She pulled on a dressing gown and went through to find the table set restaurant style, complete with roses. He pulled out her chair, gesturing with great solemnity for her to sit, then disappeared into the kitchen. She poured them both some wine. When he reappeared he laid a bowl in each of their places.
“Broccoli and Stilton soup, madame.” He announced, still playing maitre de.
“Ahh, cheese from the stinky family, and a vegetable! We are sophisticated tonight.”
She reached across to clink her wine glass against his. He accepted her toast, sipped his wine, then reached out and clasped her free hand
“I love you.” He said in a low, earnest tone.
“I love you, too.”
They ate in silence, honouring the moment. As the minutes passed the wine wove its way into her, releasing trapped thoughts. She wasn’t able to resist them this time, surprising even herself when she asked:
“But what about her?”
Regret and resolve surged through her in roughly equal measure.
“She’s got nothing to do with this.” He said slowly, his eyes still on his bowl.
“I don’t think she’d feel that way.” She said.
He dropped his spoon, rose, and began clearing their plates.
“Well she’s nothing to do with you.” He replied as he retreated to the kitchen.
He stayed in there for too long, rattling around, making too much noise. She scratched at her arms, feeling the fine hair there like sharp bristles. She gulped down more wine to soothe her burning throat. Finally he returned with the main course.
“Cajun chicken with crème fraîche, ma cherie.” he said, half heartedly reviving the joke.
She wanted badly to accept the olive branch and move on, but it was not in her power. The course of their night was set.
They went back and forth for hours. He played with the definition of every word she threw at him: “future”, “love”, “promise”, “coward”. She watched him weaving a reality around them which became less defined, less solid, even as she became harder and sadder. She was like a boulder in the rushing stream of his rhetoric.
“You’re being impossible.” He said finally. Then, shrugging with a nonchalance he could surely not feel: “I’m going to bed.” When he was gone she crawled onto the couch she sobbed until she slept, with the help of the last of the wine.
She woke late the next morning. The heat. Her head. So dry. She shuffled to the kitchen, ran the tap till the stream was ice cold, and drank three glasses of water. She scratched at her middle, a look of disgusted confusion covering her face as she looked down. The itchy patches from the night before were much larger and had taken on a greenish tint.
She ran into the bedroom, finding him in bed but awake and engrossed in something on his phone.
“Look at this. What is this?” She said, pointing to her disfigurement “I think I need you to take me to the hospital."
He carefully placed the phone face down on his side table without looking away from her body. He shook his head.
“You’re fine, there’s nothing there.”
“No, no, look!” She dropped her robe and turned slowly, pointing out yet more patches on her back and calves. He reached out, gently taking her by the hips and pulling her back to bed.
“Shhh” he soothed her
“I’m scared-” “Shhh, I can’t see anything. It’s all fine.”
Then they made up. Slowly. Rhythmically. As she finished a great calm overtook her. She was fine. She could deal with it later. He shook her shoulder gently.
“I planned an adventure for us today. Let’s get up.”
A couple of hours later they were turning off the main highway towards a giant balloon spread out on the desert floor. A basket lay on its side, attached to the balloon by thick ropes.
“That’s ours.” He said, waving his hand in a grand, sweeping motion.
She grinned till it hurt as they climbed in and with each roaring blast of the flames their balloon roused itself, righting the basket and them along with it as it left the ground. And then they were flying. He held and kissed her as the desert shrank beneath them. Though her throat still scratched and her strange rash itched, she felt such peace hanging there in the sky. Just him, her, and their pilot - a man in a wide brimmed hat who seemed content to pretend that they weren’t there if they’d do him the same kindness. He kept an eye on their course without any pretence at tour-guiding, even as they leant over the edge as far as they dared, laughing manically. The world below was perfectly ordered, almost twee, at this distance.
Half an hour later they floated gently to the ground. By the time they landed with a soft bump some of the world’s chaos of details had returned, but not all. The sense of inner stillness stayed with her as she meditated on the experience on the drive back. Perhaps she could live like this? Here in the glorious moment? Perhaps she could keep treading the water beneath her without a thought for the tides?
Arriving home the state of the house banished these thoughts. The mundane reality of the smell of breakfast dishes still on the table, the sight of bedding rumpled on the the couch, her empty wine glass and bottle nestled within. He moved them to one side, sat down in the cleared space, and looked up at her. “Takeout and a film tonight?” She recoiled “We can get delivery this far out?” He nodded “There’s a town just along the road.” He pointed in the direction of the big windows. “We could go out if you like?” “No. Let’s just be us alone for a while longer.”
He accepted this without much reaction, and began scanning the TV menu. She sat down, gesturing to him that she wanted to cuddle. This, too, he accepted without objection, but without enthusiasm. She felt as if she was tearing up, but no tears came.
Hours later he was asleep, snoring lightly while the film he’d chosen played on. She wasn’t really watching. Her physical discomfort had reached a peak. From her toes, to her neck, down inside her throat she felt tingling, itching. Her skin was raw but stiff, and had taken on a rubbery texture. She knew should call an ambulance, but somehow she couldn’t make herself do it. She’d hold on till it was time to go.
She was in desperate need of a distraction when his phone lit up on the coffee table. His arm dangled over the side of the couch. She hesitated for a fraction of a second before gently gripping his index finger and scanning the tip on the phone’s touch pad.
The message was from his wife. She began to read a few of her rival’s messages, then more. To her absolute mortification she found nothing unusual. Plans for family parties, requests for groceries, small errands to be run. Sometimes one kiss, sometimes three, sometimes a flirty five. An account of a normal, loving relationship. She sobbed drily, scraping bristled forearms against tearless eyes, her cheeks feeling strangely firm and numb. She pressed the back button. His inbox came up on screen, and here she found Rachel, and Zoe, and Louise. Their innocent, incriminating phrases all there in preview.
“Night night, babe xxxx”
“Can’t wait for next weekend! Xx”
“Where are you? What have I…”
Her stomach heaved. She ran to the kitchen, abandoning the phone. She choked over the sink. For a minute nothing came, then a small amount of thin, green liquid. She heard a sound behind her. He was there, holding his phone. “What the fuck?” He screeched. “You were going through my phone?”
She gaped in silent rage for a second or two.
“I deserved to know!”
“No, no you didn’t. This,“ He shook the phone at her for emphasis “is mine. It’s private. You had no right…”
“You had no right!” She raged. “You! When you don’t have any intention of ever…” She ran out of words, moving past him to sit down at the dining table. She rested her head in her hands.
“Who asked you to come into my life and say those things?” It wasn’t a rhetorical question.
He seemed to consider his options.
“Look, I do want to be with you…” he said impatiently.
She lifted her head and shook it, looking him in the eye though it cost her dearly, hands over her mouth in disbelief.
“Really! You’re special, we’re special together. The others… I can’t go straight from her to you. I need time. I need space.”
She couldn’t stop shaking her head. “Do you think I'm stupid?”
He sat down next to her, caressing her forearm, somehow oblivious to the green skin, the yellow bristles which were now as long as his little finger. “I don’t want lose you.”
She laughed bitterly, still unable to cry. “This is insane. What are you saying?”
He flew to his feet, startling her. “Why are you making this impossible? I feel like I’m being torn in two!” “Between me and her?” She asked. He ignored her.
“You can’t imagine how hard this is for me. It’s stressful, dealing with the guilt…”
“But you chose it-” She began, but if he heard her he showed no sign.
“… and you’re always at me, all the time. I need peace!”
“You said you loved me.” she tried to say, but only croaked. He didn’t look at her as he walked away towards the bedroom.
“I’ll see you in the morning.” He shouted back to her, and slammed the door. As she watched him go her throat began to close - a strange, cool sensation replacing the burning dryness. She heaved her shoulders, trying to pull breath into herself. When nothing happened, she panicked and ran to the bedroom door, trying to scream, rattling the handle. It was locked, and no response came from inside. She ran back through to the dining room, dragged open the glass doors, and escaped into the desert.
She kept running in the direction he’d pointed, the direction of the town. The prickly brushes scraped listlessly at her tough calves. The cacti watched on in horror as her legs stiffened from her hips down, joining to form one prickly column. She made it about fifty feet before they rooted to the spot. Her momentum tripped her and she threw her arms up in their final pose as the stiffness overtook them. Her face vanished from the outside in - jawline and hairline to cheeks to eyes to nose - rounding out, losing all definition. A gaping black hole remained where her mouth had been. The coolness inside spreading through her limbs as they stretched and ripened, she met the sunrise as a cactus. A tough, green, rubbery monolith ridged and crested with sharp yellow spines.
Later that morning his eyes passed over her as he closed the sliding door, pausing briefly to admire the view. He guessed she’d left in the night, too angry to even pack her things. He was only a little surprised to feel relieved. Things had been drawing to close between them anyway, he supposed. He climbed into his car, texting his wife as he pulled away from the house. She’d be happy to have him home early.