TWENTY-THREE
by Lara A. Corona

 

[one]

This is always a story about somewhere else, someone else, something else, what could be, what never is, the ghosts of possible you’s & me’s.

They have cheap paperback fantasies.

If this were somewhere else, New York, for example, if this were Greenwich Village as they see on film and if their conversations sounded like reruns of early Woody Allen, she would leave a spare key under the doormat and he would slip in while she is out buying groceries, and she would come home, hands full of brown paper bags and hair in a mess, and Harry would kiss her under the door frame, and he would smell of her shampoo, smell of her all over, smell of her.

If this were somewhere else, if this were the Paris of a last-minute travel agency deal, or better yet – they think – the black and white of cinema and cigarette stubs, of hats and mattresses on the floor, no bedposts, of quoting making love with you always makes me think of ash, existentialist conversations about jealousy and menstruation, and with the right haircut and standing in the appropriate light, Joanne would look just like that girl selling the Herald Tribune on Champs-Élysées, a parody of herself, always taking herself too seriously, love always on the edge of fou...
– but this is not it. –This is not their life now. ­There's not even a “their life”. – There is a “their lives”, grammatical correction always on the tip of the tongue with a tsk, the warning tones, we said no expectations, meaning, of course, “no hopes” because there is no such thing as the perfect synonym, their lives in plural, always separated, intersecting but unglued: there´s little room for bohemian romance in a five star suite where the robes have the name of the hotel sewn in golden letters.
There's a room with a view, okay, but the view is to Hyde Park. It all rings too much of adultery, luxury, cliché, and that was what they were trying to escape from, in the first place. The kind of people they are (they have become): Hampstead, Primrose Hill, or so the common belief would have them, paparazzi waiting on your neighbour's door, Thursday dinner at The Ivy, Victorian maisonettes, not flats, and Harry wishes Joanne had a flat instead, small and shabby, with all her things piled up against the walls, and the clothes she has just slipped out of resting carelessly over the back of a chair, still warm, a flat that smelled like her – somewhere Harry could almost come home to.

(another addition to The List Of Words We Are Not Allowed To Use Lest We Forget What We Are Really Doing Here)

If only this were anywhere else.

 

[two]

It's always like this: he wakes up first.

Wakey, wakey, he says like it's funny or cute, but he is not, funny or cute.

Mmm, she replies. They talk to each other without quotation marks in days like today, everything a blur of arms and legs and skin and words. What he says and what he does get tangled up with morning and intimacy. Letters are fingertips, sentences embracing arms, silences are where they touch.

She goes back to sleep for a while, grey and blue behind her eyes, and Harry lets her, arm heavy around her waist. This won't last: she has a reunion at noon with the location manager, although she can't remember for which show, and then Harry is going to give her a talking to about budget some indefinite time after lunch and then the ratings will come in and they will be disastrous like every week and every week the end of the world and Joanne fucking hates Tuesdays.

 

[twenty-three]

I hate your ex, Harry says all of the sudden, softly kissing her elbow where muscle meets bone and a lost shred of sunlight meets them both. I hate him more than anyone I have never met.

There's an ex, of course. He broke up with her days before she accepted the new job at BBC, but it's a boring story so we'll skip that. Not every heartbreak is supposed to be interesting.
Why? She is only half-listening – but she can feel his words on her skin, the vowels through his tongue, the consonants through his teeth, sharper, they sting, and the pauses, on his lips, his pulse, the thumb pressed to her hip. Why? She repeats.
Because he got to know you when you were twenty-three.
There, a confession, a whole life before he came, a whole other life they will never have. Harry is jealous in retrospect; it's irrational, touching, almost out of character – her silence, Joanne doesn't tell him the truth: that they probably wouldn't have liked each other very much, If you had met me when I was twenty-three; but they probably shouldn't like each other (this) much now, anyway.
I don't hate your wife.
Then you don't love me.
(then you don't love me)
(that much)
(enough)
(like I do love you)

 

[one]

Tuesday actually started Sunday morning, when she went to pick up her car from the studio's parking lot. Harry had insisted on sharing a cab on Saturday night, after one too many complimentary drinks at Sound Stage Number Whatever. We are getting careless, she remembers thinking, or saying, or whispering, but London is a surprisingly small town at times – she wishes they were somewhere else – and people around them aren't stupid.

They keep insisting they are not in love (with one exception, see further below) but they repeat these patterns; Harry is living in a hotel and getting divorced and he was doing neither of those things when she first met him. That surely means something.

He should have read the relationship waiver more carefully.

(The first one to say the word “relationship” must pay a tenner, they agreed one very late night when they were less careless and the only place where they could fuck was his office, because he had one swipe card and one conveniently oblivious secretary; he carefully omitted to tell her that he knew he knew he knew he would be the one with ten pounds less at the end of this.)



[two]

Here be an oxymoron: Harry misses his wife, blond and quiet and petite and perfect – he is not a man cut out to be divorced. Divorce is for quitters, marriage was his one constant through changes of job and changes of car and many different tailors. He never liked making promises in vain. (He doesn't like making promises at all – Joanne doesn't get any, but she also offers none in kind.)
I am not meant to be not married, he tells her, knee against her thigh over the covers, the unmade bed. Restaurants, the theatre... I like having someone to go places with –
(I don't want to go to parties alone)
(I don't want to be alone)
I like having someone I can talk the problems out to, at night, when I go home.
(I can't be alone)
And I can't be that? Joanne wonders out loud. Harry touches her shoulder because he cannot lie – under his fingers her collarbone feels small, porous, like an ancient statue. Roman, not Greek.
No, he replies quietly, intently, and foul and cheap words flash across her mind, mistress, affair, slag. I don't think you are meant for that.
(I don't think we are meant for that)
But, anyway, he thinks but doesn't say – for they will always dance around words instead of with them – no one ever ends up with the person they were supposed to: Joanne is definitely not the kind of girl Harry ever likes, the kind of girl he can imagine himself with, sitting on a bed in the morning, quietly talking, with the TV on but the volume off, slowing the day until it stands still on their hands like stopping an hourglass.
Definitely not the kind of girl good, proper Harry had ever imaged signing the divorce papers for.

 

[twenty-three]

They had this fight once.

Joanne felt she was betraying her younger self. She was wearing her best What The Hell Am I Doing With You face and for a moment there Harry thought she meant it. He put his hands in his pockets and the jacket gave way and the waistcoat insinuated. He dressed like a small-time tycoon from a seventies movie and she resents him for making her like it, like Jay Gatsby and a young Robert De Niro stuck now in the wrong continent.
`It´s a beginner´s lesson.´

(she seemed angry, but Jack was not sure if she was angry with him, so he shut up, just in case)
`It´s pure 101. Never fuck your boss.´
(she said never but it sounded like NEVER to him)
`Plenty of women sleep with their bosses.´
(more so in this business, but he didn't say)
`No. I was – I was just using fuck as a substitute.´
(oh)
`Oh.´
(well, right, like you really wanted to know…)
`Yeah.´

`Me too. I do. You
Joanne thought this was the best fucking declaration she had ever heard.

 

[one]

It had been there for months, starting already, way before the beginning. Trapped in this hotel room that, no matter how big and luxurious it is, will never be the real world. It seems useless to think about that.

How it was there from day one, the first corporate party: She ruined her red cocktail dress, everybody wants to hear that story. He'd like to remember it as blue (and the Germans wore grey, they'd quote at each other). She could only be described with that phrase newspaper profiles love so much: “then she smiled nervously”. Her fifteen minutes of fame and he was just a shadow lurking at the edges of the cover photograph. Just her boss, and he knew (before she knew), this was headed for disaster.

She was drunk and he was in a bad mood. They were already playing the part of shadows for their future selves. Call it rehearsing. It was that kind of party.

Whatever you are thinking –

This is not that kind of story.

He didn't sleep with his wife through it all.
It´s a twisted sense of faithfulness he has, Harry admits but he couldn't bring himself to
(it´s not so much that he feared his mind would slip to joanne joanne joanne when he was making love to her and he could never forgive himself for that, or look at his wife ever again, but that he couldn't bring himself to cheat on Joanne,
he couldn't)

Harry can hardly believe it's Tuesday again. A pretty girl on his pillow, she is brushing her nose against his cheek, moaning against his stubble. He thinks, This can only end badly, but on the other hand it can't really get any worse, can it?

She turns and their noses bump, not meet, and it's almost okay.


 

[two]

I hate being divorced.
I know, she kisses his arm through the fabric of the robe, and it´s not as soft as the bill of this hotel might make you think. You are repeating yourself. She rests her chin on the pillow, their backs turn to the TV set, their feet tangled with each other´s and the sheets.
Harry still wears his wedding ring.
(he always will, the golden band – she knows this: Harry married when gold was still in fashion, he married young and he married forever and he meant it)
She wants to say I'm sorry, and it would be only half a lie.

He leaves her. But he only gets as far as the bathroom. He takes a shower and she listens to the water run like some kind of New Age-y, relaxing audiotape.

 

[twenty-three]

She used to make fun of guys like him when she was twenty-three.

She still does.

She remembers finding out he was going to be her boss, six months ago, remembers hearing his name before she ever met him:  “Harry” and “boss”, that combination conjured images of a middle-aged, slightly obese man in a three-piece suit, some sort of buffoon, some sort of destined enemy for her modern epic.

At least she was right about the suit.



[one]

Last night almost didn't happen – so many things about them almost didn't happen, and didn't happen again and again.

She hadn't meant to come by last night but some jerk emailed her a shitty productivity memo and she had wanted to talk it over with Harry. That was the plan. Instead: last night started with Harry pouring two glasses of champagne and undoing all the buttons of his shirt.

`What are you doing?´ She asked when he offered her the drink.

`Look, we can talk about productivity reports or we can shag, but I can't do both.´

And fair enough, she accepted the champagne.
Now it's after ten and Harry tastes sober, and of toothpaste, in the first kiss. In the second kiss she realizes his hair is wet. In the third kiss the smell of his aftershave fills the room.
Good thing we are not showing up early; she blocks the sun from her eyes, but her hands are too small.
You got pretty wasted last night. Admonishing, he always sounds admonishing.
She turns around (he can see the line of her back and his fingers ache), buries her face among sheets and covers and vaguely remembers coming down to the bar last night, after two in the morning. It was a place for the jet-lagged but she and Harry had become bored of champagne and anyway she needed somewhere to smoke a fag. They might have been fighting, she can't remember.

He appeared five minutes after (you forgot your purse upstairs), when she was striking up a conversation with the waiter (I was going to put this in your tab). His name was Don, or Ron, and he failed to find the perfect balance between vodka and lemonade for her drink. Another small disappointment, she thought. She greeted Harry a little too loudly, saying his name over and over at the end of the bar, gracefully swaying on her stool. Harry smiled and caught her elbow just in case.

She keeps repeating his name when she is drunk: Harry, Ha-rry, Ha-a-a-a-rry, she lengthens it, plays with it, splits it like an atom.

The water stops, the lock on the bathroom door clicks, open. Joanne wakes up, finally, completely, mouthful of sunlight and the worst mid-week hangover she's had in years. Something close to happiness.
Lost my sunglasses.
I know, one of the waiters gave them to me. Was it Ron or Don? she wonders.
To you? Well, so much for discretion.
Harry smiles to the bathroom mirror. Everybody has spies in this city.
Since you are up, he says over her yawning, I'm calling room service.
Like that? She gestures towards his robe, gasps, mocks him. Will you let any human being see you out of your Armani?
Shows what you know. I was wearing Zegna last night, actually.
Joanne laughs and takes him by the wrist, and knocks the menu off the table before catching it, and thinks eggs and bacon would be nice but there´s still too much alcohol in her bloodstream for that, so she decides she should go for the grapefruit instead.
(she keeps his hand between her fingers as he dials)

 

[two]

She hates Tuesdays, but then again, which day doesn't she hate?

I have a meeting at three, other than that... Joanne sits by his feet, playful, and starts to feel hungry. She never let him finish ordering breakfast, the receiver falling from his hand after just three digits, after two long kisses.
Maybe they´ll go downstairs instead, and her clothes will smell of sex and of him. She will wear sunglasses. Harry will call the waiter by his name, and nobody but her will ever know how thoughtful Harry is about these things. The oddest details. He remembers everything – no, we are not talking about the waiter here.
Maybe they will stay in bed and call room service. Maybe they will stay until lunch. Turkey salad and tiny bottles of wine. She will cancel her twelve o'clock meeting. Harry will switch through the channels, looking for some news. He doesn't like sports. Joanne rather likes tennis. The only thing they have in common is this bed, these sheets.
You cut your hair, Harry says, as if he has just noticed. She cut it a week ago. I liked it better before.
Bloody hell, Harry, could you stop for a moment? I mean. God.

Stop what?

And she doesn't know. This, probably. Everything leading up to this moment.

(The first time she meets Harry he offers her a job:

You have a very expensive way of chatting up girls, sir.

I'm happily married.

This is the first time Joanne hears that line and it sounds genuine. Not even in films –

Simple, this is where it starts.)


Her head pounds painfully when she raises her voice. Harry always gives her a headache. Joanne thinks she wouldn't love him (so much) if he didn't.

They fight and he takes his chance to phone again. The smell of black coffee conciliates them.
He switches to Sky News and places his hand between her shoulder blades (he liked her hair long and tied up and her dressing like she was fifty years old, playing the tough executive, pretending to be someone else, and he would sneak behind her and brush the back of her neck). They will not go downstairs for lunch, either.

 

[twenty-three]

If we were twenty-three, she says, the line of her neck hard and fresh, we would take the car and go down to Brighton. She sits upright in bed, remembers being a rebel rebel with The Buzzcocks stuck on repeat in the CD player. We would drive ourselves, we wouldn't even hear about chauffeurs.
She says it with the stress on even, her lips dry and precise.
No, chauffeurs, uh?
No, you would drive. The stress placed on you. You would wear really cool sunglasses. Not expensive, just cool. And you would slip your arm around my shoulders while you drove.
Joanne takes his hand, fingers firmly crossed and interlaced and entwined and Harry lets her, mildly amused. She shifts a bit and takes his arm and puts it over her shoulders – he lets her; they sit on the pillow, resting against the wall, pretending this bed is a car.
Like this? Harry likes the feeling of her skin under his wrist as he holds her hand, or she holds his hand, or somewhere in between.
She nods, doesn't smile. She looks dead serious like a tiny girl: there's only this moment, “the future is unwritten” she likes to remind him, quoting again. She is the wildest thing Harry's ever had.
We would drive forever. She brings him to her lips – she kisses him where hand becomes arm, the blue veins. She kisses the ghost of a wristwatch mark. Maybe not forever, but at least until we find a beach. And we would get drunk on something ridiculous like rum.
Gin, he kisses her hair.
Beer with lemon, she presses her ankle against his shin.
Ever done this? Drive to the sea on a whim, and party?
(I hate him because he knew you when you were twenty-three)

(I hate that I missed so much)
Many, many times. Haven't you?
He shakes his head. They are not twenty-three anymore. This bed is not a car.
What did you do during your college days, then?
Study, he replies, simply, not ironic, not Harry-esque. A bit sad, maybe. Like he realizes he missed something, like he missed someone, missed Joanne, even back then. She thinks she loves him for that bit of sadness in his voice. He looks so lonely whenever he is with her.
Then drive, now, she says.

The stress on now.

 

###

 

Lara A. Corona was born in Spain in 1983. She studied Film & Television in Madrid before moving to London to pursue a career in writing. She has translated Heidi James' novel Carbon into Spanish, and now she is looking to publish her own fiction.