‘Picking your nose?’ you say to the kid with braces in the park.
‘I’m trying to put it back,’ she says.
Her lips are plush, like the bows of a ribbon. Her coffee eyes are wide, natural astonishment. Her youthful eyes are unmarred by life experience. She is wearing a turtleneck inside a pinafore dress. Butterfly socks to her knees.
She climbs a seesaw, rocks, but it is weighty for her frame.
‘I can’t do it,’ she says.
‘It’s a start.’
‘On that end,’ she points. ‘You sit.’
You smile. You are easy like this with girls: little ones, big ones. You genuinely like them. Without ulterior motive, you find fascination with them. Perhaps they remind you of Rocket. You see them, you see her, your demeanor warms.
Rocket, before she died.
Your mother never recovered from the loss of a child. Barely brought herself to set eyes, let alone fingers, on the sole breathing child. If she’d had her way negotiating with Death, obvious which child she would have offered. But cancer is random, unpicky. There is no negotiating with it. The odds… like Vegas. When the house wins, it snatches everything.
Stepping into Rocket’s private room at the Royal Children’s was like entering a den filled with rot. Her stool: tarmac-black goo painted in nappies. Hair gone, bone-thin, she never lost her belief in you. The feeble squeeze in her palm when you held it told you of her trust in your devotion.
‘Seesaw with me,’ the girl pleads.
‘Ask your mother.’ Your tone is gentle.
A woman stands by a swing, her meerkat eyes alert to strangers.
But strangers do not hurt you like people you know.
You shiver, not from a late evening breeze. Pepper’s betrayal was heartless. It takes a certain kind of person… A tinge at the side of your head hammers to a migraine.
Pepper lay on top facing you, rubbed her body against you, sat when you put hands to her waist. Her mouth fell open, the muscles of her face relaxed. She took a breath. Watching her, your head felt lighter. You put fingers to her face, closed your eyes.
In that silence, as you lay consumed by her scent, she spoke. ‘He’s a dentist.’
Your body betrayed you, ignored the conflict of her words and your desire. When she hooked her legs around your waist, you rolled, uncurled her leg and raised it to your shoulder. You took her with a cry and, for the first time, you led. When your lips caressed her breasts and she gripped your head, you pushed her against the pillow, gazed into her eyes and thrust again and again and again.
Later, much later, she untucked from the bed, traces of you on her thigh still. She tossed her fringe. Door open, door slam. The roar of a shower. Mute, she snatched scattered clothes one by one from the bed, the floor, atop the chiffonier. Lace stockings. Slid into leather boots. You locked eyes for a moment. She opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it. The silence between you was one that shouted. It was an unusual kind filled with different energy. The kind of silence before a bullet.
She grabbed her purse, exited without makeup. As a door snapped you wondered about her dentist, if he had an opinion about the levels of propylene glycol in the whitening toothpaste, minty fresh, in your bathroom.
Long after you pushed off the park and strolled hands in pocket, walked against the rasp of weary wind beneath a setting sun, you remembered the little girl’s smile, genuine and big.
When Pepper left, clicked the door and abandoned your house, your heart, you thought you would stay proud and strong. But all you remembered were three words: He’s a dentist.
Couldn’t she just have said: ‘His name is Jack?’
Or: ‘We’re done.’
Why did she have to bring up a profession? Was it a white-collar thing, a comparison: you’re a plumber, he’s a dentist? Didn’t she… was it not… how she said over and over about loving the sand in your hands? Course from plumbing, rousing on her velvet skin. A single touch and her whole body came alive.
Yet how swift, so strong, those three words from her mouth.
But they were not enough to kill your desire. Every dawn, at dusk, clutching the pillow against which you held her as you claimed her one last time, you swallow the fullness of her lips, interlock your legs with hers.
Finding solace in the park is different, much less primitive than your first instinct to go as far as possible, to Africa, to a place you could sleep with lions, swim with crocs, at sundown in some wildlife lodge. Perhaps it was a death wish. Hippos are, after all, the biggest killers of humans in the wild.
You’d even got a brochure from the girl with canary-yellow hair and gazelle legs in shimmering tights at the travel agency. She was dressed like a teenager. Easy rapport. You allowed her to talk you into a cultural experience in the heart of some jungle full of trails and hills and a meander of rivers.
‘It’s more than scenic,’ she cooed, oblivious to the sudden tears stuck in your eyes.
She was on a yarn about how the safari escapade would make you happy, breathless, safe and wild when you shot to your feet, hands balled into fists.
But your voice was full of implore: ‘Could I please not?’
At the door, you tripped past an incoming client wearing a floral dress and a fedora.
The whip of wind on your face was a welcome distraction from the shock of solitude that suddenly struck you.
You circle a few blocks, hands in pocket still. The night is red, angry. A side street. The creak of a door. A cat drifts out like a ghost. Shimmers of rain…
You walk until your headache washes away.
You turn the lock to your apartment. In bed, you wonder about the streets. People. There must have been people. But you cannot remember them, same as you cannot remember how heavy the rain. You were drenched when you got home.
You make a mental note to visit your mother at the nursing home, bring her flowers, even though she will gaze out the window and refuse to acknowledge your presence.
You contemplate the girl in the park, her lips like the bows of a ribbon, her eyes wide with the curiosity of childhood.
You wonder how she will turn out. Will she grow into a woman with long, long legs that climb out of boots to her navel, who wears a musky rose fragrance with a hint of cedar, who likes gold highlights on a sidewise fringe, who loves with no borders and then in a twink whispers three words of change: He’s a dentist?