HE SAT THERE staring, the book he'd been reading forgotten on the table in front of him. He hadn't had sex for one hundred and thirteen days now and any girl was starting to look pretty good but even allowing for that this girl was beautiful. He watched her move up the queue.
She bought an orange juice. As she turned and scanned the room she seemed to be looking right at him for a second. She found an empty table over by the window and settled down with a textbook. Now he could only see the back of her head. She had exceptionally clean hair.
OK. This was stupid. He was going to be late for class. He would leave. Just walk out like any normal person. He put his book in his bag and started for the door. He was not looking. Not looking at all. An unseen hand took him by the elbow and steered him to the counter.
The waitress, an older woman, took his order. She knew. He could hear it in the slap of her slippers. His coffee arrived and he turned, slowly. There she was, just across the room, head bowed, light falling through the windows. He started towards her, his face a brittle mask.
‘Do you mind if I sit here?’ His voice came out harsh and flat, as if he was accusing her of something. The girl lifted her head. He looked her right in the eye. He wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t smiling either.
‘Yes, of course,’ she said. There were empty tables all over the place. He could have sat anywhere.
He eased into his chair, making slow deliberate movements. He opened his book at random, took a sip of coffee. The girl’s head was down again but there was an immobility to it. She was no more reading her book than he was.
He asked her name. Asked about her studies, where she lived. She answered all his questions promptly and fully. She was serious, direct, polite. It was like a job interview. There were pauses in the conversation, during which she sat patiently, waiting for him to speak. There was a lot of eye contact. She liked him. Her pupils were enormous. She was attracted to him. He got her phone number, said he’d call her and left. He wasn’t even late for class.
NATHAN CHANGED HIS mind twice about his shirt. He bought aftershave, condoms, gelled his hair. He left home wearing a hat but turned back to ditch it.
She was already waiting on the corner - and as soon as he saw her he knew he’d made a mistake. In the cafeteria she’d been in jeans and a T-shirt like everyone else, but her idea of evening wear was a calf-length skirt and a lace-collared shirt buttoned to the neck. She had a shoulder bag and flat shoes. Makeup was at the absolute minimum. She came forward to meet him and they stood a few feet apart. She was wearing a brooch, a little golden elephant. The top of her head came only a little past his chin.
They ordered ladies’ fingers in a Lebanese restaurant which was popular with students because it was cheap. Throughout the meal, which was short, she kept her hands on the table, palms up, fingers loosely curled. The fine creases of her knuckles were pigmented dark brown and her palms were the same delicate pink as the beds of her nails. Her hands were incredibly clean, like the rest of her. She was so clean he could hardly look at her.
She was relaxed, confident, and talked easily, but he was tense and withdrawn. He didn’t know what he was doing here. He was wasting his time. She was full of questions: did he have brothers and sisters? Did he play any sports? What was his favourite colour? Did he believe in God? The answers were no, no, blue and no.
They went Dutch.
BY THE TIME they hit the street it was dark. It surprised him when, waiting to cross, she took his hand. They walked a few blocks, her small steps moving in and out of phase with his long ones, their palms slippery in the heat. There was no conversation. They came to a busy intersection.
Nathan stopped. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I live down here.’ He wasn’t going to invite her back. He wasn’t going to see her again either. But she wouldn’t leave. She kept hold of his hand and shuffled her feet. They turned right and walked a few doors to a dark entranceway beside a panelbeater’s shop. She stood quietly as he fumbled to get the key in the lock.
It was a tiny room with one window opening right onto the footpath. The curtains had to stay drawn and the traffic noise was unrelenting. There was nothing on the walls, the floor was covered with unwashed clothes. In one corner was a used dinner plate, in another lay a quarter-full whisky bottle. There was a tubular steel chair, an upside-down tea chest and a dirty single mattress.
They sat facing one another, almost knee to knee. Should he offer her tea? He had no tea. Coffee? He had no coffee. He found the whisky, expecting her to refuse, but she nodded. His bluff called, he unscrewed the cap. He had no clean glasses so he swigged straight from the bottle and handed it to her. She raised it carefully, holding it steady in both hands, took a small sip and coughed. He had another himself and went to replace the cap but she held out her hand for more. They finished the bottle.
She’d taken off the elephant brooch and she was playing with it, holding it cupped in her hand. To buy some time he told her a long story about how he broke his arm once. Still she sat, not talking, not really seeming to listen. He told her about his favourite foods. He told her about concrete, how it never stops drying. He told her about his father’s illness, his mother’s quilt-making, about a pet rat he’d had when he was ten.
He looked at his watch; it was late. She wouldn’t get a bus now even if she tried. But clearly she didn’t want a bus and that was not what she was here for and there was nothing for it.
When he knelt in front of her, their heads were level. When he kissed her, her eyes were already closed, her lips rubbery, hot and dry. He got his hand tangled in her hair, yanked it and had to apologise.
In rapid stages they moved to the grubby mattress, but then she put a hand on his chest to stop him. He rolled off. She burrowed her face into his neck. Her boyfriend, she said. He’d been killed in a boating accident a year ago. They’d been sweethearts, ever since high school. She ran her fingers through his hair and brought her face very close to his as she fiddled with his collar.
Nathan looked down. She had pinned the little elephant brooch to his lapel.
TRAFFIC HOWLED OUTSIDE the window, yards away. A truck hammered past. Headlights strafed the walls. They were sweating, crammed together on the narrow mattress. The damp patch was cold on his hip, the sheets were half on the floor. His arm was trapped. Her cheek was on his chest. She lay like a dead thing, her eyes liquid and huge.