The doorbell rings in the evening and I am tempted for a second to pretend I am already asleep. Maybe it is one of my neighbors although I doubt it, I have never seen them and they could be dead and rotting in their apartments next to mine for all I know. My friends rarely come over to my small place and they text before or, in case of emergency, call for what they know will be an extremely one-sided conversation. That leaves literally no-one who could be impatiently ringing the bell at such an odd time.
I push off the bedpost and slowly make my way towards the entrance door, using the walls and leaning on furniture because I have already taken off my braces and my gait is even more unstable without them, all the time gritting my teeth at the never-ceasing sound of the bell above my head. I wrench the door open, huffing, ready to rip off that annoying person's head when I realize who is standing in front of me.
„Hi, Noel. Am I interrupting something?”
She has dyed her blond hair jet black and pulled it into a messy bun on top of her head and there are more piercings in her left ear than before. She is wearing a black leather jacket and ripped jeans, both of which must be much too thin for the cold outside since I am pretty sure it has not ceased snowing the whole day. But she looks at me unwavering and her cheeks seem somehow fuller and less ghostly white and the dark around her eyes mostly stems from a coal pencil and less from lack of sleep or pain or drug abuse. In her hands she carries a big flat and rectangular thing, wrapped in brown paper.
I open my mouth to speak although I already know it will be useless, the muscles in my chest have seized up the moment the shock of unexpectedly finding her on my doorstep after all these months has cursed through my body and my tongue feels like a slowly dying fish.
She waits for a few seconds, watching me impatiently while I try to force a sound from my lungs without an idea of what I am going to say in the unlikely event that I manage to form actual words and finally she rolls her eyes. “I will just assume you asked me to come in then,” she says, stomping past me and nearly knocking into me with that huge wrapped thing she is carrying. I manage to grab the frame of the open entrance door to keep my balance and turn a little, dumbfounded, to watch her make a beeline into the bedroom, her heavy boots leaving muddy stains all over the tiles in the corridor.
I know exactly how long it has been since she collapsed on my kitchen floor in blood, sweat and tears, since I nursed her back to relative health before she vanished from my life without a word and I had been too proud, too cowardly to return to Victoria's house once more although I had been there so many times while Rachel recovered. Despite my surprise and still lingering anger, I catch myself grinning as I stand there and realize I missed her, missed her aggressive attitude that might fool some people into thinking she is tough, missed her inability to be embarrassed on my behalf when I get stuck on words, missed her being ignorant and rude because it makes me feel so fucking normal. I push the door close and follow her to the bedroom, cling onto the door frame.
“Ra- Ra- Ra-...” Yeah… not happening right now.
Rachel has slipped out of her boots and is standing on my bed, her skinny feet sinking into the mattress, pillows and blanket and the brown paper strewn around her as well, and she has turned her back towards me, holding the painting that apparently has been in the package against the white wall, craning her neck back.
“What do you think? Is this straight?”
I take a few steps into the room to see past her at the painting, suddenly self-conscious under her glance and very much aware that I am dragging my unbraced feet a lot, trying not to think how ridiculous I must look, with my knees bent and turned inwards and swaying precariously fighting to stand still in the middle of the room. I quickly thank god for the lucky fact that I am wearing my long sweatpants and knitted socks and she cannot possibly see the ugly scars running along my legs and my feet.
I nod carefully.
She hums and turns back to the painting, plucking a pencil from the bun on her head and marking the edges of the picture on the wall before sliding it down and leaning it against the headboard. She jumps back down herself, her socked feet agile on the sleek ground.
I grab the bedpost, holding onto it until I am sitting on the mattress.
„I suppose you have hammer and nails, don’t you?”
I nod distractedly because I just got a full view on the picture. It is a silk painting, the flimsy material stretched over some kind of frame, and the colors, all shades of blue and green and black and white, swirling together, fading in and out at places, mixing to new colors altogether where they flow into each other but still forming a clear picture in the end.
“It's a silver thistle,” Rachel explains.
I nod again because I knew and I try to say how beautiful it is and ask if she painted it although I guess she did and then I realize she is staring at me expectantly with her eyebrows lifted. Right, hammer and nails. I push off the mattress and lead the way towards the restroom, lurching from wall to furniture to wall, finally lowering myself down on the closed toilet lid and rummaging around in the cupboard under the sink. I hand her my tool kit and grab the sink to get up again. I do not have any grab bars installed in my apartment, some of the rooms are so small it is literally impossible to fall when inside them and everything else is at least narrow and crammed, perfect for me to find support when I need it.
Rachel hammers the nails in with surprising vigor, hangs the painting on the wall, adjusts it a little and then turns around to me, smiling, nails still sticking between her lips.
I sit down on the far corner of the bed. „W-w-why?” I manage finally, maybe not what I wanted to be my first word but certainly something that has been burning under my nails.
Rachel shrugs, plops down on the bed amidst pillows and paper and spits nails into her hand. “The wall was empty,” she simply says. “You like it?”
I nod and she fixes her eyes on me, shifts a little to put the nails and hammer on the nightstand and has pulled off her plain black T-shirt in one movement, faster than I can make any sound. She is not wearing a bra underneath, her small, firm breasts so perfectly round and symmetric it makes my heartbeat pick up in an instant and she crawls towards me on all fours, her dark eyes fiery. There are more tattoos on the rest of her body, the largest one is a rose, running down the side of her torso, the blossom huge and unreal, the thorns cut off. She has taken my hand and lifted it in both of hers, my gnarled, callused fingers – too big, too ugly – hovering over the white, smooth, unblemished skin, only a hair-width away from a dark, hardening nipple when I manage to come to my senses.
She jerks back as if I have slapped her, my hand falling between us on the mattress, her eyes staring at me wide and hurt, and scuttles backward, away from me. “What the…?”
I shake my head a little, trying to think clearly, trying not to focus on her beautiful breasts, on her pink lips. I know what she is doing. “Ra- Rachel… p-p-please, d-don’t.”
She pulls her legs under her chin, wraps her slender arms around them, hiding from me, curled into a protective ball. “Don’t you like me?” Her voice is small and raw and in that moment I see her for what she really is, still young, and so vulnerable.
I watch her fondly and suppress a sigh, forcing myself to stay calm. Oh, Rachel, if only you knew just how much I like you. That is exactly the reason why I cannot. “I do, R… Rachel. I l-l-like y-y-you.”
She lifts her chin, hope glimmering in her eyes, uncurling her limbs a little. “So why won’t you-“
I close my eyes, shivering inwardly at the desire threatening to overcome me. “N-not l-like that.” Not when she is doing it to pay for what she did.
She frowns and shakes her head. “But that night…”
I draw a hand through my curly hair, trying to compose myself, trying not to think of her hot body next to mine, the longing. The longest night in my life. “N-nothing h-h-happened that n-n-night.”
She stares at me, puzzled. “You mean… nothing? I slept here and… nothing?”
I smile weakly. “Y-you were v-very drunk and… h-high? I g... guess.”
She fixes her eyes on me, frowning. “Why?”
I shrug. How can I explain to her that I could have never done to her what most of the men she knows would do without batting an eye, without thinking it wrong. Sure, I have dreamed about it, literally. Her hands on me. Her body, naked, wrapped around mine. But I had not acted on it, not when she was barely conscious. “I… Thank y-you. F... for the p-p-p-painting.”
She is silent for a few minutes. Then “Are you mad at me?”
I shake my head. I could never, not really.
“Have you been mad?”
I shrug. “M… maybe. I’m not a-anymore.”
Rachel sighs, rocks a little back and forth on her heels, then rolls her eyes at me and finally relaxes, stretching onto the mattress like a cat in the sun. I have to force myself not to stare at her exposed breasts. “You are weird.”
I flinch and bite my lips.
“But I like you,” Rachel says cheerfully, hopping off the mattress and ruffling up my hair. She slips back into her T-shirt, pulls on her boots and has grabbed her leather jacket and left, the door to my apartment banging shut, before I have even started speaking.
If I had thought that was the last time I would see Rachel I was certainly wrong. From that day on Rachel regularly drops by on weekends and on some days during the week when she apparently cannot stand staying at the clinic any longer. I sometimes wonder if the therapy is helping her. Sometimes it seems like it. On other days I have my doubts. But we never talk about it. She always sleeps at Victoria’s overnight, but because she does not like the day nurses that care for Victoria she usually waits out till evening at my place.
Rachel becomes a constant in my life, waiting on my doorstep for me to come home, hovering around the kitchen while I cook, shoveling food in her slim body until I am wondering where all the calories go. She is sitting at my side in bed while we watch videos on my laptop, making fun of me when I cry if the movie is sad but snuggling close afterward in the silent minutes before she leaves. I listen to her rant about the therapists at the clinic while I watch her deft fingers roll cigarettes on my kitchen table. She looks over my shoulder when I study and I try teaching her to cook, with little success, and she tries teaching me to draw, with as much success, but it does not matter. She exchanges the broken light bulb in the bathroom that I have ignored for a long time because it is almost impossible for me to climb onto a chair and reach above my head without risking to lose my balance and fall down, cracking my skull open or something, and I give her knitted gloves that I buy at the market so that at least her hands do not get cold and nearly blue when she has been waiting for a long time in front of the building again. I enjoy watching her, sitting Indian style on the hastily cleaned table in the kitchen because I still only own one chair, her sketch pad in her lap, pencil in her hand, in her mouth and her black hair and looking at me and down on the paper periodically, one eye squeezed shut critically sometimes, drawing me sitting down, scowling up at her when she looks and smiling to myself when she is not, or standing at the sink and washing the dishes, scrubbing the surfaces or putting cutlery away into the drawers, my hands moving slowly but methodically, until I forget that she is watching.
“I-I’m so b-boring to sketch,” I protest one day. “You should draw s-something more interesting.”
“You are not boring,” she simply answers with such conviction as if it is a fact chiseled in stone somewhere, not even looking up and I feel a warm fire kindling in my chest.
One night she shows me her scars, countless tiny bright dots from needles on the inside of her arms, on her thighs, calves and even her feet and as many countless small white lines where she has cut herself on the insides of her thighs, the outside of her upper arms, all old and nearly faded although I never ask to see the fresh ones that I know are there, somewhere. And I show her mine, carefully, in small portions, afraid she might shy away, repulsed, disgusted at the thick bulges of skin attached to skin, accompanied in regular distances by the marks caused by the stitches, from where the bones in my body were broken and sometimes fused together and tight muscles and shortened tendons cut to make it easier for me to walk. Our clothes always stay mostly on, always cover the essential parts and although I enjoy seeing her comfortable with me and I start feeling that way with her, I still regret sometimes that I told her to stop that one day.
It feels like we hit a streak of luck, Rachel and I, and I want nothing more than this to continue as it is. Not all days are good, though. On some I can sense she is really being somewhere else, fidgety, and she usually leaves early and comes back days later, calmer again.
One of these days however she stays, pushing the food around on her plate, staring at the table top after I have cleared it, rubbing a fingertip into the spaces where the wood has been chipped away from overuse, frowning. I do not address it, I never do, not anymore, she seldom speaks about it and if pressured she is gone faster than I can tell her that I am sorry and it usually takes her days to return.
“Can I borrow your laptop?” she asks and I startle, nearly letting my book drop, a reading assignment for tomorrow.
I carefully place a bookmark between the pages before I close the book, put it on the nightstand and push more upright against the headboard. “W-w-w-what do you need it for?”
She sits across from me on the mattress and rubs her left arm, then grabs the sleeve of her hoodie as if trying to refrain from moving. “Some design project in therapy,” she says, her face half turned away, her eyelashes catching the light.
I frown and hesitate but then I nod. “I need it back till M…Monday.”
It is late that same night as I drowsily blink at the number flashing on the screen and I need a second to realize that Rachel is calling me instead of texting. She never calls. Least so in the middle of the night.
“Ra- Ra-…” It is hopeless.
I try answering but her voice, shrill and desperate, cuts into my bones and makes it impossible for me to force out any sound, my mouth opening and closing silently, my chest contracting painfully.
“Noel, please, I need your help, you need to go to Victoria, she-”
I hear people in the background, rattling sounds, a harsh voice bellowing something.
I hear people in the background, rattling sounds, a harsh voice bellowing something.
“W-w-w…” God damn it! Panic starts creeping up my spine as my lungs try to inflate without success and I force it down, knowing I will be completely useless to Rachel if I lose it now. “W… where?”
Fortunately she understands at once. “I am at the police station. I cannot go, they are keeping me. Please Noel!” She is begging, words rushed, as if the conversation could be shut down any moment.
Keeping her? “I-I-I… I’m coming,” I manage.
“No, Noel, no! You have to go to Victoria, please, I tried calling her, I tried so many times, I know something is wrong, please, I know it!”
Cold dread grabs me, fills my lungs, making me pant for breath. What happened to Victoria? What did Rachel do? “’kay…” I gasp.
“Will you, Noel? Will you go?”