Her bedroom reeked of cigarette ash and stale perfume. Two ashtrays were packed with lipstick-stained filters as if she’d just popped out for another pack. A suspender belt hung from a chest of drawers, a mink scarf was curled like roadkill at the floor next to her bed. A mirror opposite the bed reflected an image of me lying fully clothed and out of place on the crinkled sheets. My haircut and body could have been that of a boy, but my oversized eyes made me look like a Gothic Virgin Mary from a museum postcard. I wore a sweat-stained T-shirt and a pair of navy-blue tracksuit bottoms. My skin still smelt faintly of grease and coffee from Dad’s café in London, but now the smell was mingled with dehydrated aeroplane air and smog from Los Angeles traffic.
Lily stared out at me from framed photographs around the room. In one photograph she was standing beside a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket. In another she was wearing a white T-shirt over a bikini and sitting cross-legged under a tree in the sunshine, laughing for the camera. In a third she was naked apart from vivid red lipstick and a floppy sunhat. Her skin in that last image was albino-white, as mine is, and also marked with four dark circles – heavy eyes and dark nipples. Her hair is black in the photograph, though, while mine is naturally blonde.
I got up from her bed and picked up a bottle of whiskey from a dresser near the door. There were no glasses, so I took a sip from the bottle and padded past her bed towards the bathroom. A pair of frilly knickers lay next to the toilet, and I tried not to let them touch my bare toes as I crouched to pee. Her bedroom was at the very top of a pink hotel in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. There’d been a funeral earlier in the day, but I hadn’t made it to the crematorium. By the time I arrived in Venice Beach, Lily’s wake had become a drunken vigil with over two hundred people dancing and talking and snorting and drinking all over the hotel. Nobody knew who I was, so I pulled my grubby baseball cap over my eyes and walked through the corridors as a child would walk through a cocktail party. I saw long fingernails and wet mouths; dilated eyes, bony shoulders and flashes of impossibly white teeth. I took a beer from an ice-packed bathtub and wandered uncomfortably around all five floors, examining people: an unshaven giant swigged vodka from a bottle and a skeletal middle-aged woman danced with her eyes closed in the middle of the room. There was a man with red hair who wore pointy snakeskin shoes and a half-open white shirt. People hovered around him and his freckled hands clenched into fists as he moved from guest to guest.
“I can’t believe it,” said a woman to the red-haired man.
“I keep thinking that she’s just late,” he replied, squeezing his freckled fists.
“Oh, sweetie,” said the woman, “she was always late, wasn’t she? She would have been late for her funeral.”
“She was late for our wedding,” the red-haired man continued. “Said she couldn’t find matching underwear.” A smile forced itself up through his frown, and others in the crowd laughed sadly. The red-haired man had a nasal twang like Bugs Bunny, which I guessed was a New York accent.
“You were a great team here,” someone said to him.
I watched the sweaty red-haired man for a few moments longer. When he turned away from me I couldn’t hear his conversation any more, so I continued through the carnival of mourners, eventually finding my way up towards the top of the hotel and a door marked “Private.” Through the keyhole I could see a bicycle and a pair of Rollerblades. I expected this private door to be locked, but something was stuck, and it opened with a yawning creak onto the bare wooden floorboards of a cramped corridor that smelt of air freshener and closed windows. It was a relief when the door behind me clicked closed and muffled the sounds from downstairs. There was a dusty naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling above my head and sand in the cracks between the floorboards at my feet. The walls of the hallway were poached-salmon pink, much paler than the bright stucco façade of the beachside hotel. Through a door frame to my left the kitchen contained only a blue Formica table and two wooden chairs with padded seats. Dirty glasses and burnt-out scented candles cluttered the table, and unwashed dishes filled the sink. Doors were open on either side of the corridor – a living room with a flat-screen TV, a toilet, a small study with a desk covered in papers. The only door that wasn’t open was the one at the end.
If it’s possible to feel nostalgia for things you’ve never known, then it was a mixture of nostalgia and curiosity that made me lie down on her sheets and run a bath in a tub scattered with millimetre-long armpit hairs caught on a tide line of scum from the last time she or her husband took a bath. The party reverberated underneath, and I locked the bathroom door to take off my clothes as she must have done a million times, although she was likely more elegant about it. She wouldn’t have nearly tripped as her ankles caught in the elastic of her sports trousers, and the various cuts and scrapes on her body probably didn’t burn as they accepted the hot water. Her scabs didn’t fray and dissolve in the heat as mine did. Her skin was probably flawless. I scooped bath water into my mouth and let it spill slowly down my bottom lip. Sitting on my haunches with my torso crouched over my knees and my nose just above the bubbles, all I could smell was steam. A moth watched from the window ledge above the tub, steaming her wings. Outside the window there was a bright-blue sky and palm trees. I flicked water at my mothy audience, and she scattered up towards the light bulb above the mirror.
I wondered what Dad was doing at that moment, and imagined him sitting at our greasy kitchen table biting his nails while his wife Daphne paced the room. Daphne would be trying not to shout about the stolen credit card, but every so often her voice would reach an almost inhuman pitch and then get cut off by its own aggression. Her bony fingers would be working their way repetitively through her mousy hair, while her shoes squeaked against the plastic tiles on our kitchen floor. Dad would be still and lost in thought, pretending to listen to Daphne repeat the same angry sentiments in slightly different ways until she was hoarse. Except this scene would have happened hours ago. It was midnight in Lily’s bedroom, so it would be tomorrow in my flat at home. They would be encased in the morning hush after a night of screaming, putting on clothes and pouring water on instant coffee and unlocking the café. Daphne’s lips would be pursed together, because she doesn’t like working Saturdays, and Dad would be slamming things against metal surfaces. Dad looked nothing like the red-haired man from downstairs. While the red-haired man had seemed to glide around the hotel lobby, serpentine as his shoes, Dad only moved if he had to. The red-haired man had gaunt cheeks and laughter lines. Dad had paunchy pink cheeks and deep frown lines.
I blinked away the image of Dad from my mind and sunk slightly deeper into the bathwater. I was just about to light one of Lily’s cigarettes – kept in a jewelled box of razors and bath salts next to the bath – when a creak sounded in the corridor outside the bedroom. The bathroom was blurry with steam, and I only just managed to scramble out of the bath water to open the window above the toilet before the creak made its way into Lily’s bedroom. The steam dissipated. I nearly slipped on the white tiles, tugged my tracksuit bottoms over wet legs, held my breath and then slowly descended to a crouch in front of the bathroom keyhole. I squinted and peered through it.
An extremely tall man was sitting on the end of Lily’s bed, bang in front of the keyhole with his head in his hands. I’d noticed him earlier drinking from a bottle of vodka in the corner of the lobby downstairs, and had thought that he looked like something from a fairy tale about giants or ogres. He was in his mid-thirties and wearing a stripy shirt, a tattered black jumper and a pair of blue tailored trousers with holes like full stops and commas on his thighs. His black hair was only slightly longer than the stubble on his face, and he had a pair of stupid gold-rimmed sunglasses resting on his head. His trousers might have been expensive, but they were frayed at the hem as if he were dressed half in designer castoffs and half in items he bought on eBay when he was drunk. He sat still on Lily’s bed, his shoulders slumped.
After a moment, the Giant looked around Lily’s room and picked up a photograph from the bedside table. It was the one of Lily sitting cross-legged under a tree and laughing. The Giant fumbled trying to get the picture out of the frame with his big hands. He nicked his thumb and put the tip of it in his mouth like a child. I was glad the man was stealing the picture of Lily laughing in a big white T-shirt, not the one next to it, where she was naked. He eased the photograph out from under the glass and, just as he slipped it into his pocket, there was another noise from the hallway outside Lily’s bedroom. For a moment the Giant seemed to consider making a jump for the bathroom. His green eyes flicked towards me and he put his hands on his knees as if about to haul his drunken body to a standing position. I held my breath and waited to be discovered inexcusably topless and sopping wet in a dead woman’s bathroom, but the Giant’s body was slow with alcohol and, before he got off the bed, Lily’s bedroom door opened.
“What the fuck?” slurred the Bugs Bunny voice of the red-haired man. I couldn’t see him through the keyhole, but could hear his heavy breathing.
“I’m sorry,” said the Giant, who got off the bed and stepped towards the red-haired man, out of the keyhole’s vision. There was a shuffle, and the muffled sound of skin hitting skin. The red-haired man swore, and the Giant made a noise that could have been a groan or the exertion of a punch. I couldn’t see exactly what was going on, but the Giant stumbled backwards and nearly fell. Skin hit skin again, and then it was the red-haired man who collapsed onto Lily’s bed. Everything paused, except the moth at the bathroom ceiling. The red-haired man didn’t move from his horizontal position, but his blood-shot eyes were open, staring dumbly up at the Giant.
“Get out of here,” slurred the red-haired man. He turned his cheek to the side on Lily’s pillow.
“I’m so sorry,” said the Giant.
“Then just get the fuck out of my apartment. There’s nothing here any more. You can all just fuck off.”
“I’m so sorry,” repeated the Giant. “I’m so sorry.”
Copyright © 2011 by Anna Stothard