ONE PERFECT DAY
They sit on the bench in the courtyard against the brick wall of the next building. Close, heads closer, the taller one bending slightly so their hair touches. Curly brown caught in and interwoven with straight black. They smile, talking … sharing secrets. Watching them from my balcony every week begins accidentally. They arrive at the same time I stop for my morning coffee.
One of them says something funny and their laughter floats on the air and wraps around me, inviting me to join them. They move apart a little, their heads tilting back as their mouths open for the happy sound. I smile but they don’t see me. I’m too far away. Their heads dip and gravitate towards each other again as the laughter fades.
I lean on the balcony railing to peer into their shadowed world. The sun doesn’t reach them under the overhang but they seem to be sitting in a pool of light, like they’re chosen for happiness. I look down at my hands, dark in the dimness, dull cloth covering most of them and, around the edges, new skin shining in the heat.
Laughter floats on the breeze again and I make a decision. I rush from the balcony into the bedroom and run a brush through my hair. Just in case. The sun stings my arms and face as I run out into the courtyard. I’ve forgotten to put on a long sleeved shirt again but have my hat. I come to an abrupt halt just inside the courtyard, take a deep breath and then walk slowly towards them.
They both raise their faces towards me, comfort and humour and happiness glowing in their eyes until they see me. Until they realise what they’re looking at. Their words die quickly, the sudden silence echoes inside my heart and my smile falters. Their smiles freeze and they look away quickly, guiltily, as if they’ve been caught stealing.
They don’t look up again. I can’t smile or say ‘hello’ if they don’t make eye contact so I keep walking. I circle around so they don’t have to see me walk past again. By the time I get inside, my face is bright red. I step into the shower to run cold water over it to take some of the heat out but it’ll be days before I can touch the skin without pain. Gingerly I rub soothing gel into ridged skin, hating it, hating myself. Hating them too for not trying.
Today is not a good day.
I stay inside over the next week while my skin heals, the agony intensified because the original pain still throbs beneath it. It’s my constant companion but not the one I want. Slow tears leak from between my eyelids without control but I don’t know if the tears are from the pain or the self-pity. I avoid going onto the balcony and looking into the courtyard.
The next time I go out I remember the shirt as well as my hat. It’s another hot day and the sweat trickles down my back, but only on one side. The other side doesn’t sweat. Nor do my arms, neck or face.
Only one of them is on the bench seat this time. The woman looks up as I approach and I smile and say ‘hello’ but keep moving. My stomach rolls and I swear my heart is fluttering in my throat. I might vomit if the woman speaks to me.
She doesn’t, but she does nod.
I smile all the way home.
It’s a good day today.
I go out again the next time I see her. She arrives before the other one again and again I say hello as I walk past. The woman says ‘hello’ back. I take a deep breath and ask if she’s enjoying the warm weather. I can’t remember what the woman says because I see her friend come around the corner just then. I wave my hand a little and keep walking, my heart pounding so hard I can’t even smile as I walk past the short one. I get out of sight and run home, slamming through the house until I reach the balcony and sit and watch them as they talk. They’re quieter today. Not so much laughter. I wonder if they’re talking about me. I know what they’ll be saying if they are.
‘I wonder what happened to her.’
‘Aren’t those scars ugly? I wouldn’t want to go outside if it was me.’
They’re right. I don’t want to go outside but I can’t stay inside either. I’m rotting in here. If I stay here there’ll be nothing left of me but the anger and the resentment and the fear.
This used to be so easy.
I keep trying but for weeks nothing changes. The tall one arrives first, I walk past and we say ‘hello’, I go home and watch them talk as they sit there. I wonder where they go when they leave. Could I follow them? Should I follow them? I shudder at the thought. I don’t want to turn into some scary-assed stalker. I’d rather be lonely and bitter.
One day I get a letter that sends me running from the house too early. I don’t even get time to put my hat on, just grab it in a crunched ball as I run out of the door, the slam of it echoing in my head as I run. Eventually I have to come back.
The light in the courtyard, my small balcony mocking me, slams into me and I stop, breathing hard. The muscles in my legs jump and twitch, threatening to crumble under me. I drop onto their bench, fisting my hands on the hard wood in an effort to hold myself upright. My chest heaves, the breath catching and sobbing through my throat. My arms tremble. My mind stutters against the reality I must face. I close my eyes, squeezing out the moisture, ignoring it when it falls in fat droplets onto my lap.
I’ve taken it all. Everything that’s happened. Every time they told me there was more surgery, more therapy. More pain. I did it all because I knew it would help. But I can’t take this.
Gradually I become aware I’m not alone. Two bodies, warm but feeling cool against the raging heat of my fear, bracket me. The tears stop and my breathing slows. I raise shaky hands to my face and wipe it. I stare at my wet hands for a second before rubbing them on my jeans, then I raise my eyes and look at them.
“S-s-sorry,” I stutter. I suck in a deep breath and try again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realise the time. I’ll go and leave you to your talk.” I push myself forward on the seat but a hand lands on my arm, long black hair brushing against it. Soft, light. Tentative.
“It’s ok.” There’s a pause. “Are you alright?”
It’s a stupid question. We all know it. I huff a laugh at the same time the tall one groans, “Of course she’s not alright.” She puts her arm around me. Nothing tentative in this touch, and I find myself drawn into a buxom hug.
My breath hitches in my throat and I’m suddenly close to tears again. I pull away. The woman lets me go but keeps her arm around my shoulders. The short one holds my hand. My damp, snotty hand. I want to cry again.
For a long time we just sit there. No one talks. They don’t ask what I know they’re dying to ask. They’re inquisitive, these two. I’ve watched them long enough to know that. And while they sit there silently, my breathing slows and the knots in my stomach ease. I lift my head and look at them; smile a little to let them know I know what they’ve done for me.
“I’ve just been told there’s nothing more they can do. I’ll look like this forever.”
The tall one frowns at me. “As opposed to what?”
I don’t understand. There’s no choice. The fire destroyed everything for me. I’m lucky to be alive.
I’m lucky to be alive.
Those words echo down the tunnel of my self-pity and I realise it doesn’t matter what I want. Not with any of it. And just like the rest, I’m going to have to deal with it. I sit back, leaning against the brick wall of the building, my floppy hat limp on my lap. I sigh. “You’re right. It’s this or nothing.”
Silence blankets us again.
“So, you want to come to the park and have really bad coffee while we watch the cute guys walk past?” the short one asks.
I’m surprised and swing my gaze between them to check if they mean it. They both smile.
“I’d love to.” I jump to my feet, thinking I should wash my face but then grin. It doesn’t matter. It won’t look less mottled and scarred. No one will know the redness is from crying.
They link their arms with mine and, as they introduce themselves, they lean their heads close. Their hair tangles with mine. Curly brown, flighty blonde and straight black.
It’s a perfect day today.