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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Blondes

A Novel

Emily Schultz

Picador

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ONE



WOMEN HAVE STUPID DREAMS. We laud each other only to tear each other down. We are not like men; men shake hands with hate between them all the time and have public arguments that are an obvious jostling for power and position. They compete for dominance-if not over money, then over mating. They know this, each and every one. But women are civilized animals. We have something to prove, too, but we'll swirl our anger with straws in the bottom of our drinks and suck it up, leaving behind a lipstick stain. We'll comment on your hair or your dress only to land a backhanded compliment, make you feel pathetic and poor, too fat or too thin, too young or too old, unsophisticated, unqualified, unwanted. For women, power comes by subtle degrees. I could write a thesis on such women-and I nearly did.

Don't get me wrong. I am one of them too. I've had stupid dreams, and you yourself are the result.

You: strange seven pounds of other.

Here you are, under my hand, swimming in blood, about the size of a turtle. I know my voice must sound far away, muted, like someone talking under water. Maybe it's crazy that I'm nattering on, having a conversation with you when you aren't even born yet, just tumbling and turning in the big cloud of my abdomen. You can't possibly understand ... Still, this is where I've got to. I'm here in this cottage in the woods and the snow-stuck here, really, because Grace has taken the car with gas and left me with the one on Empty, and how far can I walk in this state? To be honest, I don't know what else to do. So I talk.

Let me tell you where we've been over the past few months, baby. You'll never understand, but let me tell you.

Right now, I can see our neighbours outside the window and through the trees. They're the only people other than Grace whom I've seen in nearly three months, always from a distance and only sporadically-perhaps they aren't home all the time, or don't go outside any more than I do. There are just the two of them. I can see the red of her coat and the blue of his. I only know who is who by their heights. I can smell the smoke that's rising up, the stench of something singed. Even through the closed door and the window glass I can smell it. Like sulphur. I smelled it the first day I came here, but there was too much happening then for me to think to ask what it was, and Grace probably wouldn't have told me anyway. She had her own troubles-and I ... I was just looking for Karl.

Now I know it's the smell of hair. Burned hair. It flares up quick and bright, and then it's gone in a breath of dark smoke. Before Grace left she was shaving hers and flushing the trimmings down the toilet-although where does it go except to the septic tank? Our neighbours are even more cautious than Grace. If any of them had seen what I've seen, they wouldn't worry. They'd know that disease comes or it doesn't, and if it comes, there's nothing you can do to prevent it.

Just as I can't prevent you growing inside me, little baby, my skin bulging more around you each week. I can't stop your growing, can only watch and wait. I'm sure that Grace has left me here all alone on purpose, that this is a power play in the ongoing sad tale of the fallout from my affair with her husband. She's left me in this, their second home, with all their things-and still I have nothing. She must know that to be alone out here at this stage in the pregnancy is more dangerous for me than anywhere I've been.

* * *

It doesn't seem that long ago I was in New York. I remember the day I found out about you: I lugged the weight of a suitcase behind me, down four flights of stairs at the Dunn Inn. There was no other way to move between rooms. So I had packed up everything I owned and taken it down to the check-in desk to check out-and then check back in again. I would have to heave the case up those stairs again when I got assigned my new hotel room. The stairs were steep, narrow and twisted, the green banister caked with paint from being retouched many times. My calves knotted as I descended. Forty pounds of suitcase behind me, handle sweaty, as I shifted my laptop bag on my shoulder. It was always with me then, like a growth, a clumsy but permanent part of me. Down I went, down, the wheels of the suitcase sticking on the fireproof carpeting. I lost a shoe on the landing and had to wriggle it on again before the suitcase bumped me down to the next step.

For a legal reason I didn't understand, the hotelier wouldn't let me keep the room for more than fourteen consecutive days. I hadn't been in Manhattan long enough to know about squatters' laws-that if they let me stay longer in one room I could deem it my permanent residence. I'd been in New York only fourteen days times two, and was moving for the third time already.

I had started out in an apartment-an old railroad flat, just a room for rent-but it was overrun with roaches and roommates. The bugs darted up along the shower pipe in the tub in the morning, and we rinsed them down before we stepped into it. One of the girls was a student, the other a stripper (although it was never said). How they knew each other-or even if they did-I have no idea. I had found the place online, sight unseen, a bad idea. All of our rooms were one after the other, with me in the middle, and not even a window. I didn't sleep for the first two days-it was ninety degrees and the air in the room was so dense. Of course, the student had the least privacy of all: her space was not really a bedroom so much as a cot and a desk in a screened-off dining area that the stripper and I had to walk through. The third morning I saw two rats in the alley, scuttling from one garbage heap to the next. So I found the Dunn Inn in Chelsea. It was overpriced but clean. And now I was moving from one hotel room to another as if playing musical chairs at a birthday party. I've always hated birthday parties.

But the hotel was quiet, and I didn't have to sign a lease, so I stayed. It was close to NYU, and I could go in and out at night as I pleased. I admit it was kind of thrilling to be right in Manhattan, even though I didn't have many places to go. The courtyard that my rooms-plural-looked onto was still, as if not in the city at all. It made me meditative and I found it easy to think about my thesis, my excuse for being there.

I remember the landlady asked me, "What is it you're workin' on?"

She was really the concierge, but I preferred to think of her as my "landlady," perhaps as some sort of dodge around the fact that I was living in a hotel, not an apartment. Was it even a real hotel, or just a flophouse? I wasn't the only occupant, but the halls had a transient feel. A few tourists, a few students.

Bent over behind the desk, looking for my new key, the landlady wasn't really waiting for an answer. I was about to try to explain "the study of looking," also known as "aesthetology," when I found myself staring at the top of her hair: a permed and dyed chestnut head. Redheads are an interesting group-ing, and one I'm quite familiar with. We've been labelled by society as cold but competent. A study back in 1978 found that 80 percent of those surveyed expressed a dislike of redheads; the same test group ranked the skin colour of redheads the least desirable of eight hues. Of course, 1978 was a long time ago-I wasn't even born yet-but here was my landlady, who had chosen this colour of her own accord. A red-brown, really. The colour of squirrels. Her sister, with whom she ran the place, was dark and I was sure my landlady's hair was naturally the same colour. She was bobbing around near an ancient computer she used for the bookings. Beside her was a stack of business cards that doubled as breakfast vouchers at the coffee shop next door.

"It's an essay on what women look like and what we think they look like." Aesthetology, or the study of looking, began when the Harvard School of Anthropology created an advanced course of studies in partnership with Empire Beauty Schools as a way to increase female enrolment in the sciences. It was still a buzzed about subject last year, and I selected it as a banner for my studies explicitly to attract a particular adviser. Also known as Professor Karl Mann. Also known as your father. Also known as Grace's husband.

The landlady came up with the key. "Three-oh-five. Don't forget to undo the tap lock with this one," she said, holding up one of the two keys. She spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent even though we were at Seventeenth Street. She meant "top lock." We'd had a funny exchange around that phrase the other time I switched rooms, where I said what? and sorry and pardon? and she kept repeating herself until something clicked and I figured it out. When I first arrived, she had also asked me if I needed to "pork" my car. I told her I didn't have a car, then mulled over the phrase all the way upstairs to my room.

She handed the keys over the partition between us. I remember being relieved I wasn't on the fourth floor anymore-there was no elevator in the place; it was a long, steep climb every day; and I suspected they'd put me there to give me the exercise. In spite of this, I'd lost no weight since my arrival. And every time I got to the top of those stairs, my chest would heave like an old engine.

"What we look like?" the concierge asked, a hint of distrust in her voice. "Like, you study advertising or something?"

"Yeah," I said with some resignation. "Like advertising."

"So you make ad campaigns?"

"No. It's complicated. I just look at them."

"They give you a degree for that?" she asked.

I nodded. "Communication Studies, PhD."

That's when she told me there was someone in three-oh-six. She told me that I'd hafta share the bathroom, that it was in the hall between our two rooms. "But it's only for the one night. She'll be out tomorrow."

I said fine, and the landlady slid me a form. I printed my name, then signed it in cursive for her: Hazel Hayes.

A smile played across her lips when I passed the document back, and she said, not derisively but as if it had only just occurred to her: "Maybe I should go back to school."

She was a decade or more older than me. I thought her name was Natalie, but couldn't have said for sure. I still don't know. Let's say it was. I forced my lips up at Natalie as if I'd never heard that kind of response to my thesis before. "Maybe!"

It pays to be polite. Especially to someone who brings you clean towels.

* * *

It's surprising what the mind remembers, and what it forgets.

My new room had velvet drapes, peach. The light came through, giving the white space inside a soft, womblike glow. It felt hidden, and I immediately liked that. The bed was the same as the one in my previous room, a double with an old gold frame and a quilt, and beside it was the same basic round table that would become my desk. I had bought my suitcase in Toronto's Chinatown for twenty-two dollars before I left for New York, and now I unloaded it once again and placed my things into the dresser. The drawers were not deep, but I didn't have many clothes, so it worked out. When I was done with the clothes, there was nothing left in the suitcase except the paper bag with the drugstore initials. I'm sorry to tell you I didn't remove it. Not then.

Instead, I flipped the suitcase shut and unzipped the side pocket, where I had stashed some of my books and photographs. I had a fabric CD case, full of sleeves that contained DVDs people had given me or I had downloaded over the years. Schlock and art movies kissed inside the plastic sleeves. I wish I still had them, but the government seized them. They're gone now, like everything.

I also had the journals. They contained articles with titles such as "Beauty's Moral Majority: A Meaning-based Explanation for Complexions Used in Advertising," "Barbie's Secret Plan for World Domination," and "Metaphor in the Microprint," which was an examination of metonymic progression in beauty product ingredients-i.e., how to come up with a comforting phrase for "includes placenta" or "exactly like Preparation H but for facial use." Things I hoped to reference in my own work. It's strange to think how, only a few months later, they seem hopelessly archaic.

In the side pocket of that suitcase were two photographs. I hadn't taken them out in my last room. Bringing the first was an accident-or at least, not my choice. My best friend, Larissa, had presented it to me when she drove me to the airport in Toronto. Presented is the only word for it. The way Larissa gave gifts always made them seem bigger and grander than they were. This photo had been housed in a cheap dollar-store frame but gift-wrapped in expensive Japanese paper.

"In case you need something to stare at in New York besides the brick wall of the building next door," she'd said, which, I have to admit, turned out to be not inappropriate.

I peeled back the paper to reveal a photo of the two of us. Grinning, we were sitting on the same side of a booth in an upscale Toronto diner called the Swan. My eyes were slightly red from the flash. Hers were very blue. She had her hair in a slick ponytail that spilled gold threads over her shoulder, her face slightly turned toward me. It was last summer-oh god it was just last summer ... I could tell because my hair was still four inches above my shoulders. In a white flowing tank top of Indian cotton, Larissa looked diaphanous. In a red-checked shirt I looked both lumpy and stunned. In spite of hair that is an obsessive, salon-created, middle-of-the-road mud brown, I've never been able to wear the colour red. I'm not sure why I persist in attempting it.

I've always wondered why people who love you do that to you-give you photographs where they look beautiful, you not so much.

I thanked her and reminded her that my place would have wireless: I could look at her photos online anytime I wanted. She squeezed my hand and kissed my cheek and said, "I know, but still," and I thanked her again, shoved the photo in the side pocket, and didn't pull it out again for twenty-eight days. It wasn't that we weren't good friends-she really was my best friend-it was just that she had no idea what was going on in my life, and I didn't know how to tell her. We'd grown apart. She had her husband and toddler son, and I had-

What I'd do to have that photo back now. It was from a better time.

The second photograph was no accident. The image was of Karl. Just Karl. You'll need to know about him-but what can I tell you? I took the photo on my cellphone camera and went to the trouble of printing it out-as if to convince myself he was real, tangible, could occupy physical space. It hurts me now to know the image is out there, somewhere in the world, but without hope of recovery. I imagine Karl's face inside a file folder, or a box with my name and number on it, or buried in a recycling bin that hasn't been emptied in months.

Karl's photo had no frame, and I remember laying it over the glass of the one of me and Larissa, where it fit very well. I moved around the hotel room, holding the photo in one hand, yanking open the heavy peach curtains with the other so the daylight flooded in. In the photo Karl's in his office, staring up at the crammed bookshelves, not at me. When I close my eyes, I see him there, as if he still inhabits that space. He had known I was snapping the picture, but at the last second he'd looked away, up, as if something of great importance had distracted him.

I lay down on the bed with Karl and, beneath him, the photograph of Larissa and me. The light was coming down on his face perfectly, which was why I had gone to the trouble of having the photo printed. There are many pictures of Karl here in Grace's cabin-but not my Karl; they're of a Karl I don't really know, someone else's Karl. In the photo I snapped of him, he looked thinner than usual, younger, his hair more brown than grey, chin pointier as he craned his face upward. He usually wore glasses, but he wasn't wearing them in that shot. A white shirt, tucked in at the waist, concealed a body I knew by smell, touch, and taste, one that was whorled with small brown hairs, dotted with pockmarks, scented with sweat, semen. I shouldn't say this to you, but all the way in New York, so far away from him, there flared in my nostrils a musky smell with an underlying tang of time and neglect. Just talking about it now I can almost smell it still, and ... Why did looking at the photo conjure such a physical response? I felt panic rising in my throat like bile, and I swallowed it before it turned into a weird repulsion-desire. Karl was complex. My feelings for Karl could change quickly then. Now ... well.

I placed the photo of Karl on the dresser and turned back to the suitcase. I couldn't neglect that paper bag from the drugstore forever. I'd already avoided it for two days.

Clutching the paper bag, I opened the door to the hall. A black-haired, trench-coated woman was standing opposite, cursing under her breath and struggling with her room key, an immense backpack hunched on her thin shoulders. My neighbour in 306, the one the landlady had mentioned. I didn't say anything, just shoved the bag behind my back and stood there, blinking. I hadn't run into many guests in the twenty-eight days I'd been living in the hotel. When I had, it was usually in the stairwell or downstairs at the check-in desk. There were some foreigners who made apologies in stilted English as we shuffled past one another, and a gay couple returning from a night of clubbing, speaking too loudly then suddenly silencing their giddiness as they rounded a corner and realized they weren't alone. This woman was different-our two rooms were joined by an intimate hallway, about the size of a closet. At the end of it sat the bathroom, which, now that she had arrived, we were to share.

"Didn't mean to disturb you, just can't quite..." the woman began, and then the top lock turned. "Oh!" She laughed. It was a guffaw that was almost musical. She leaned into the room, pack-first. "Let me-" There was a thud like a body falling. "There."

"It's all right," I told her. She had a golden complexion and small dark freckles like someone had flicked black paint at her. She had a wide everything except for her frame: wide nose, wide mouth with dimples at the corners, thick lips, large eyes. Or perhaps it only seemed that way because her neck was so thin and her hair so dark, coiled, and choppy.

I told her I hadn't known she was there and gestured to the open restroom door.

"Of course!" She grinned. It caught me off guard, and not just because of what I was about to do. "At least now there's space for you to get by. I'm Moira, by the way." She held out her hand.

I looked at it. I was holding the pregnancy test in my right.

Either she sensed my urgency or I struck her as weird, because she moved inside her own room, muttering, "Sorry, sorry, of course, of course."

I tried to smile, but it was too late. I do that quite frequently, you'll learn once you meet me: fall out of beat with others and respond too late. I'm not awkward, really. I just take an extra moment, that's all. I hope it's not a trait you'll inherit.

Moira missed the smile. She'd bent down for the gigantic rucksack at her feet.

"I'm Hazel," I said as I sidled by.

"Hazel, Hazel," she repeated from inside the room, as if she were storing the name for later. "Hello, Hazel."

I went into the bathroom and closed and locked the door. It didn't take the full minute the pregnancy test promised-more like fifteen seconds. A little pink cross marked the place my life as I knew it ended.

* * *

Never had the colour pink so disturbed me. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, but it was the colour of girlie drinks and girlie-drink puke, peeling sunburns, and Grandma's bathroom. The pregnancy test was called First Response, as if an emergency were already waiting for me inside the pink box. Little pink firefighters with little pink ladders waiting to climb up me.

The oblong pink window of the test contained a plus sign. My urine had seeped across and revealed it, like some kind of secret code. I felt I had not been pregnant before that moment, although of course I had. I'd been exhausted and short of breath, falling asleep early, waking late, becoming increasingly greasy-skinned, and intent on chowing down New York bagels and pizza slices on every corner. My symptoms I had attributed to travel, to my new environment, and perhaps to "low-level depression," a phrase of Larissa's that felt more comfortable than labelling what I'd been feeling as heartbreak. At that moment, though, I realized my true label: wholly and undeniably pregnant.

How can I say this? And yet I am saying it-the thought of a fetus inside me clung to my mind like a brown swimming leech, which was probably about the size of you then. I thought about my body breaking open and tearing down, and something screaming and bloody the size of a football emerging, and I fell to my knees-yes, fell-and vomited into the toilet. I had just peed into it, and the smell of urine combined with regurgitated breakfast made me heave again, but this time nothing came up. I tapped the handle and flushed it all down.

I sat beside the toilet feeling nothing, hearing nothing, seeing nothing-because I was crying, although I didn't compute that until a light rap came on the door.

"H-Hannah...?"

It was my new neighbour.

"You all right in there?"

I scrambled up, wiped my sleeve across my face, looked at my watch but couldn't make out the numbers. My glasses. I found them and pushed them back up my nose. How long had I been in the bathroom? Five minutes? Ten?

Another rap at the door.

"Hazel," I corrected my neighbour through the door. My voice sounded shredded. "One minute."

I began running water frantically-off with the glasses again-and splashed it on my face, grabbed the folded white towel from the bar. I looked terrible. This may very well be the worst impression I will ever make on anyone, I thought-which of course is hilarious now-and then, oh dear ... I laughed. But it was, you know, like a hiccup, and I threw up again, right there in the sink. Bagel is not a nice food to barf.

When I came out, there she was, hovering in the little hallway, a narrow, pinched expression on her wide face. She had ditched the trench coat and wore this short-sleeved sweater that was the colour of an old tennis ball. It seemed tatty, but later I'd realize the texture was only because I'd left my glasses on the sink again.

"It's-it's not my business," she stuttered. "I mean, I don't even know you, but are you okay? Can I get anything for you?"

I shook my head. I could feel how dreadful I must look, how my eyes burned. "It's all right. I'm just pregnant," I said nonchalantly, shaking my hair back.

She looked past me toward the bathroom. "Why don't I get someone from downstairs?"

"Sorry if you heard me in there. I didn't mean to disturb you," I said.

It was then that her gaze seemed to fasten on to something, and I turned and recognized the oblong shape: I'd left the pee stick sitting on the bathroom cabinet.

"Oh," she said in a voice that was suddenly squeaky, and I realized for the first time that she was maybe a little younger than me. "Oh, Hann- Hazel. Hazel, why don't you come in and sit down for a minute?" She gestured me into her room, and even though I had forgotten her name, strangely, I found myself stepping over the backpack and inside room 306.

* * *

The neighbours have finished burning the hair. I can still smell it, hanging in the air like a thick sheet. Brown; it smells like the colour brown. The smoke goes quickly but the odour lingers. I don't see the man and woman now-not even from here at the kitchen window, which has the best view past the hill and that row of evergreens. They've gone back into their own cottage.

When do you develop your sense of smell? I think Larissa told me that babies practise breathing while they're still in the womb. At his mid-term ultrasound Larissa's son was also practising sucking, and had placed his small, transparent thumb up next to his mouth. She had a black-and-white image of that one taped to her fridge. But I don't know if breathing and smelling are related in the womb.

You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to go over to that neighbouring cabin tomorrow if Grace hasn't come back, and I'm going to tell that couple my situation. A pregnant woman alone out here? How can I be a threat to anyone? They'll have to help me. I did go banging on their door once before, but that was at night and they didn't answer. I'll try during the day, when they can see me from their window. They must have a car. If they have a car they'll have to agree to drive me to a hospital when I go into labour. Ordinarily anyone would, right?



Copyright © 2012 by Emily Schultz