Julie Morrissy

Modifiers

 

I remember Laila sunk into a navy suit on her first day. She was elfin; a comparison made easier by the red pointy boots she often wore. Her black eyes gloamed at me from behind the granite desktop. Each time she opened her mouth a grin escaped onto her face. I understood later that this was a symptom of nervousness. I saw it another time when I ran into her in the car park. She was doubled over, clutching a pink moccasin that was hanging half on, half off her bare foot. Her face glowed peach and she pushed her lips together, suppressing a smile. I walked to my car, fixing on the wall in front of me – wanting so badly to turn my head. I watched Laila incessantly – made up excuses to walk by her desk or call her into meetings. The office corridors were our catwalks but Laila didn’t sashay down them like the other women – she skipped. Pretty soon she stopped wearing suits. The pleats on her tartan skirt sprang as she moved around the floor. It was hard to tell whether she was seventeen or thirty-three. I actually never found out what age she was.

 

I planned my lunch hours so that I would run into her in the elevator. It was rare that I managed to synchronise it, but a couple of times I did. I began to notice that her hair was always wet after lunch. The way it hung around her face reminded me of the sticky flycatchers that dropped from the low ceilings of my grandparents’ house in the country. I was mesmerised by them as a child. Each time we visited, my mother warned me not to stare but I couldn’t stop. My eyes were drawn to the spirals. Laila’s damp hair provoked me into imagining what she did on her lunch hour. I wondered whether she was some kind of obsessive showerer, or if she was fucking some businessman, slipping in and out of the nearest hotel, winking at the doorman. One day I was alone with her in the elevator, catching sly glances of her dripping hair. She knew, and turned herself towards me devilishly, taunting me to satisfy my curiosity. Shyly, I asked her. The words fell out of my mouth without my brain agreeing to their expulsion. Laila blinked her eyes. I watched her lips. I swimI swim on my lunch break. Immediately my head was flooded by a torrent of images of Laila standing at the edge of an empty pool, dipping her toe in, or maybe shaking her hair and diving right into the water. I hadn’t realised I was staring at her. Do you want to touch it? The torrent halted. I coughed. “Touch what?” My hair. Do you want to touch my hair? Her speech fell slowly and deliberately from her lips. She stepped forward toward the elevator doors. My eyeballs nearly dropped out of their sockets as she pulled the emergency stop lever. “What are you doing, Laila?” She swung around. I’m taking a moment. I shifted. She was taking a moment. “You can’t do that, Laila.” Why not? Who’s going to stop me? And she was right. Nobody stopped her. After a minute of me not touching her hair, the air between us grew as thick as her heavy denier tights. Her strange grin pushed into her cheeks and she released the lever as quickly as she had pulled it. You should have touched it. She said that, and she stepped off the elevator, leaving me holding my eyeballs in the palms of my hands.

 

Six weeks later I proposed to Idra. Idra wants to have my children. I arranged to get rid of the cats so that she would. Laila was there when the engagement was announced. I felt embarrassment radiate between our faces. She looked me in the eye and quietly said, Con-grat-u-lationswhat’s her name? “Idra”, I said. Laila nodded – her lips glued together. I have never felt anyone’s pupils drill through me like I did that day. I could smell the hardness in her eyes. For weeks before I bought the ring, my stomach whorled whenever I saw Laila. I thought about her when I made love to Idra. I only wanted to touch Idra because I could imagine she was Laila. I whispered Laila’s name inside my head. The sound of it felt like something I could swallow and hold inside me. I felt it in different parts of me. I came home from work and pinned Idra to the countertop. I dragged her clothes off in my car. Idra thought it was because I had decided to marry her. Really, I wanted to marry Laila but by the time I realised I had a chance; I had already given the cats away. It was my fault. I started it – sending her messages outside of work. She pretended to have a boyfriend. I pretended to not have a girlfriend. I began injecting Laila into every moment of my life. I imagined her giggling in the grocery checkout line. I thought of her sitting on my desk, swinging her legs. These thoughts gave my life breadth. My days became full of her life – the brightness and possibility that poured out of her. I thought of coming home to my three-bedroom house to find her sitting on the kitchen floor with paintbrushes, smirking to herself at my suit, rubbing acrylic on my tie. I asked her once if she would ever have an affair with someone. She moved her eyes around me. It depends on how much trouble it would be. That’s what she said. Her life was about something different to mine – something different to Idra’s. A couple of times she asked me on fake dates – the type that could be interpreted as a date, or not, depending on what happened. The kind of date you could pretend was not a date if you needed to. I could have gone. I could have faked it. A friendly drink with a colleague would be reasonable, maybe even encouraged. Instead, I kept telling both Laila and Idra that I was working late, and I actually was. I started staying in the office until the bars closed – imagining myself sitting in a booth with Laila sipping a vodka martini. I had decided that’s what she would drink. I sat at my desk, looking out at the city until it was safe to go home. Idra was delighted that I was working so hard. I would make partner in no time, she said. The cats could have a bigger garden – except for the fact that they were indoor cats. I kept having to tell her that.

 

The week before I proposed I saw Laila at the pier sitting on a curb with her bicycle. She was holding an ice cream cone. She had bitten the end off and ice cream was dripping all down the front of her jacket. I stopped to talk to her, pointing out the mess of sweet liquid on her clothes. She shrugged and bit further into the bottom of the cone, sucking the ice cream down from the top. She spoke to me between slurps. Do you live around here? Her fingers were covered. I watched as she rubbed her hands on her shorts. I gestured past the bay. “I live over there.” I want to see it, she said.“See what?” I want to see your house. I shrugged. A friendly tour of one’s home with a colleague was reasonable, so I took her. She followed me on her bike, and breezed into my driveway after breaking every traffic light we passed. I slid my keys in the door, questioning each jerk of my muscles. She walked ahead of me into the house, running her fingers against the walls. Hmmm, she said. Didn’t take you for the carpet-type. I stood awkwardly in the hallway. I didn’t know if I should offer her something. I followed her as if it was her house we were in. She surveyed the rooms like a vaguely interested renter. I stood in the doorway of the living room as she lifted books from the shelves. Law books…haven’t you ever heard of fic-tion? That’s how she said it. Fick-shun. She pushed by me and went to the kitchen, taking off her jacket on the way and dropping it on the floor as she walked. I bent down to pick it up. As I lifted my head I caught sight of her back. She was wearing some kind of low-cut leotard that dipped into a deep U-shape, hugging the small of her back. She stared out the patio doors, twisting her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck. I could feel my dick getting hard just looking at her. She turned slowly. How do I get out there? I angled my body away from her. “It’s open”, I said. She hesitated. Aren’t you gonna come? I nodded. “I just have to go to the bathroom. You go ahead.”

 

My mind darted in one hundred directions as I climbed the stairs. In the bathroom I splashed cold water on my face and pleaded with my body to calm down. I tried to concentrate on the items in the room, staring intently at the arrangement of colour-coordinated soaps on the sink, the weighing scales, the beige hand towels with the seashell trim, the special spray in the shower that stopped the glass from streaking. As I leaned against the sink, I caught a glimpse of Laila out the window. I moved my face closer to the glass to see if she was doing what I thought she was. In the middle of my garden, there she was, cartwheeling. I leaned my forehead against the window and watched her as she outstretched her legs into the warm summer air. Her body flipped upside down. She kept going, the whole way around the perimeter of the flowerbeds. Perfect cartwheels over every inch of my manicured lawn. One after another after another. Plant, flip, land.

 

 

 

Julie Morrissy’s work was first published in 2010 in Dear John, a Berlin-based literary magazine. She was shortlisted for Dave Lordan’s Planet Cabaret writing competition in 2013. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from UCD, and is working toward her first poetry collection.

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