Angel at the Dogs
In 2012, when the world didn’t end, you tore up your giant poster of the Mayan calendar and chopped your long purple hair off. Suddenly you adopted the air of a petulant French boy, even though to me you are and always will be a Convent school, half-Chinese, half-Dutch girl. You began to make sweeping, cringeworthy pronouncements.
There are two kinds of women, you like to say: the first is the kind who dress up to draw attention. They watch their weight obsessively, grip the sides of a chair during a focus group, dreading the turn to speak. Bag items in a ham-fisted hurry at the supermarket checkout, nervous chortles, always aware that someone might be judging their groceries. The half-priced wine, the fat-free yogurt, the pak choi bunched up in a clear plastic packet.
The second kind don’t consider superficialities, or seem above them. Theirs are the faces you fall in love with on the train, in a cafe, on a sunlit pavement; beaming incandescence, tucked strand of hair behind the pink whorl of an ear. They fling their cardigans over the light wooden back of a chair, order full pints and creamy coffees with two sugars, toss their heads back with laughter, exposing straight, tiny teeth and unlined throats.
Angel was firmly in the first, clumsy camp, the majority camp, we the humans, but you mistook her for the second. Everything about her was affectation, but what was she doing but bumbling along, just trying to make do? I hated her and I hated how alike she and I were, even if I saw it and you didn’t. I had enough time to assess our similarity; you forced me to live with her. I would have preferred it if I couldn’t decipher her hesitations. I would have preferred it if she was the real deal, celestial. It would have made it easier to digest how much she mattered.
Now that enough time has passed, my dislike for Angel is fading into something altogether more manageable. A blue bruise instead of a paper cut too fine to plaster, which smarted when I wet my hands. With less hatred in my body I feel healthier, less prone to heart failure. Still it makes me flinch whenever you bring up her name, when we’ve had one too many glasses of pastis in the tacky French bar down the road. Until this day you tell people that Angel is the first and only woman you ever loved.
If I am in the same room, which I often am, seeing how we live together, rarely spend a night apart– I will correct you. Erica, I say, in that low, peculiar way that I have reserved for the same old conversations: you’ve said that about like, ten other people.
Girls, women, what’s the difference? I am a girl, to you. Angel is a Woman. Womb, wound, woah, woe, woman. Scrawled signature on a receipt. Lipstick ghost haunting wineglass. Sentimental happening; main event. She is all of those things, and I can only aspire to that status, still get ID-ed, even though I’m pushing thirty (we both are) and the lines across my forehead and around my mouth are deepening.
I know what I am to you, I know what I am. An oversized hoodie covered in cat fur, a sleepy trip to the provision store, a private snacking ritual. Some nights you pull me over you, facing away, no kisses, so I am a blanket covering your hipbones and the ridges of your body. My spine curves at an awkward angle, I try to slacken my elbows. I wish I was soft, patient fabric and not this mass of care and fidget, shivering because we need to fix the radiator and even after fifteen years I still can’t relax around you, can’t be complacent. Your knobbly, damaged knees jut into me and I bend. Your breasts are plain pancakes under the oven-warm board of my back. Your unmistakeable face under my hair, tilted sideways, so you can breathe. We rise and fall like this. As I try to sleep I imagine the end credits of a film starring you, me and Angel. My name, Erin, and a line of dots: Second Fiddle.
We met Angel at the greyhound races. It was our first time there. We lived near this ancient dustbowl of a stadium, run-down and rattled through with roars and whistles. I’m tired of all that noise, I said. Well, you replied, let’s go in then.
The sun beat down on the top of our heads and both of us were confused about what was going on and about the betting system but because we were hungry and annoyed with each other we did not confer. The dogs were scrambling around the track and they were tired and their tongues protruded.
We spotted Angel at the same time. It would have been hard not to. She was four rows in front of us. From the back she looked like she had walked in from the set of a made-for-TV adaptation of a Hitchcock film. She had sloping, slight shoulders, and she was wearing this cream-coloured, bias cut satin dress and a white mantilla veil in the 28 degree heat.
Who died? I said, pointing at her. What’s with the outfit. She’s like the Black Dahlia getting married.
Whatever Erin, you replied. I like it. And then you pushed your way forward like a caveman and poked her on the shoulder.
Hey, you said. Want to hear a joke?
Angel looked at you from under her smudged eyelashes.
Go on, then, she said. She seemed one or two years younger than us. The edge of her maroon mouth curled up. Her voice was nasal, small, accurate.
Your eyes were sickly-bright. Your voice trembled. I know this look, this voice.
Why won’t the lobster share his toys?
Why. Angel replied like that, with a full stop.
Because he is shellfish.
Angel blinked slowly, not like she was contemplating a response, but to get the dust out of her eyes. She reminded me of a sheep, right then.
And then she chortled. It was such an artificial chortle, a galumphing hur-hur-hur.
You had told a bad joke, something from a cracker or a chocolate biscuit wrapper. Not even worth the adjective of terrible, not even worth a smile, but it worked. Angel grinned. She had a fleck of lipstick on her left incisor.
We were in the third-priced ticket tier of the grandstand. All around us people were roaring, raising their fists in the air. Today there were six dogs racing and they made me sad. All sinewy legs and suffering faces and different-coloured little coats printed with numbers. They looked like they didn’t get to eat much. I wanted to pet No. 8, chocolate brown, getting dirt kicked in its face by the forerunner.
Around us, men clutched the race programme with their hairy hands, others clutched bills of money, flung palmfuls of sweet-n’salty popcorn. The popcorn went everywhere. There was some of it in my hair, some of it in your pixie crop, none on Angel. That stupid, theatrical mantilla had a purpose.
Do you come here often? You asked.
Every other weekend, she replied. My father is a greyhound trainer. I’ve got a trifecta bet on Sooty, Sweep and Starshine right there. What about you?
Oh, you said, I wanted to do something different on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t know much about racing myself. You gestured toward me, and Angel’s eyes followed, registering me for the first time.
Erin and I are best friends, you continued. We went to secondary school together, left our tiny city a few years ago.
How many falsehoods can you fit into a sentence? Sure, some of those things were true, you can classify them as fact. But it isn’t enough, doesn’t do justice. I bit my tongue and felt the copper tang of blood. “Tiny city” was the second-most condescending thing I had heard all day. The first was “best friends”.
You kept talking, and Angel kept talking, and she had this way of turning her right foot inward so she was balancing on one kitten heel. I knew she wanted you. What were the odds you’d find a girl dressed like a ghost who liked girls, at the greyhound races? This situation was so niche and irritating that it made my teeth ache. I hated her already. I didn’t want to be there but I couldn’t tear my eyes or ears away. I had to witness.
When Angel moved into our cramped rental flat you bought me a decent air mattress. I took up deep breathing and raisin meditation. Raisin meditation is when you take a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand, allowing it to breathe into you, feeling its contours, finding stillness in this small edible object. At the end of the exercise you’re meant to lift the raisin to your nose and feel your salivary glands reacting. And then you eat it, slowly, even though it takes no more than one chew.
I became adept at long, purposeless walks and staying late at the storage facility where I worked, for no extra pay. I bought ear plugs and listened to audio books at night, with titles like MASTERING ASSERTIVENESS and UNSTOPPABLE YOU. One day I woke up to find Angel standing over me in her mantilla veil, her mouth bare and frowning. Around her were three Bag-For-Life wicker carriers, stuffed full of her vintage dresses.
I’m sorry for everything, Erin, she said.
I reached for my bag of raisins. She turned and left. She swung open the door and her patent heels clattered down the cramped, narrow stairs. You didn’t go after her, merely stood in the doorway.
Go back to your dog races, you said.
Yesterday I visited a mutual friend, Suzie. She asked me: Erin, what do you actually see in Erica, besides all that context? She is the most selfish person that I know.This is a bigger city than your previous. I’m sure you can meet a better girl.
It is 2015 and the Mayans have nothing left to foretell, or if they do, I’ve stopped following. I shook my head and I put my face in my hands and I said you’re right, Suzie, I feel like a veil has been lifted, and I can see her for what she really is. It’s as if I am coming out of a long illness.
Suzie nodded at me, and smiled. She couldn’t tell that I was lying. Only to her, not even to myself.
So you’re cruel and we share a bed, a room. In bars, in the post office, in the flat, every single time you cross the doorframe I feel all this at once; it is as dense and potent as a stock cube. I think to myself:
Erica, how is it that one body against another can lose its value over time if it is the same body, with the same intentions? How did I lose my traction? When did I get uglier to you, less vibrant? Back in our Convent school, years ago, you told me you understood when I said I didn’t know why I was here, in a life that didn’t feel like my own. Can you remember any of this? Can you remember how the running track of our old school dipped into the path at one place, as if it had been dented by years of white canvas shoes? Even the racing dogs would have stumbled. And you and I were two of a kind– we were lonely, and we were various, but we had each other, and you are the first and only woman I have ever loved. I don’t know what this says about me, or about you. I only felt not alone when I was with you, and although that has changed, I’ve kept my promise. I said I would follow you anywhere, and I did, I still would.
Photography: Paul Reynolds – https://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_reynolds/
Story: Sharlene Teo‘s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Esquire, Magma Poetry and The Penny Dreadful. She is the recipient of David TK Wong and Sozopol Fiction Fellowships and is at work on her first novel.
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