The work exchange scheme I’d signed up for was a reciprocal thing between my university in London and Columbia over here. Henri had come over on the same programme. She was seeing out her summer working in a fusion restaurant down in the East Village. That was my idea of hell – serving posh dim sum to picky diners and wearing a perma-smile for tips. But Henri was always the more pragmatic one. If there was a job to be done she would get on and do it. She was studying for a degree in hospitality management and had plans to run her own restaurant someday.
'People will always need to eat, Nat,’ she told me when I asked her why hospitality, and I could see there was a logic in there somewhere. My own degree was in Classics, so I never questioned her any further. The study of dead civilisations did not qualify one to pass comment on anything that might be considered useful.
My job in the gallery was straightforward enough. It was mainly answering the phone, updating the website and processing bulk orders: thirty framed Orchids in Bloom to some airport hotel that was having a re-fit; forty Crashing Waves to a Jersey City health spa chain. Passing trade was few and far between. When people did wander in, they tended to be confused tourists or else middle-aged men on a business trip, whiling away a lonely afternoon.
Today had been slow – I’d been checking my phone every five minutes. Henri was supposed to call me when it was all over. It was five o’clock and she should have been dealt with already. The last text she sent this morning said: ‘Do we need Raid?’
We always needed Raid – our brownstone apartment was overrun with cockroaches. The stuff would keep them at bay for a couple of weeks and then they’d be back, breeding, vast armies of them, shiny and brown, in all the cracks and crevices. Henri had been waging war against them from the day we moved in, and mostly I just left her to get on with it.
‘Yes we need Raid - I’ll get some’, I’d texted back.
If neither of us were going out after work, Marcella and I would walk together to the subway. Finally, she put the keys in her bag and nodded in the direction of the door, so we started off along the street. I tried to get a good pace going but Marcella kept stopping to look in shop windows. We were almost at the subway when she said she had a favour to ask me – could I could come in an hour earlier next morning to supervise the new delivery of Ethnic Girls Looking Pensive? Normally stock deliveries were something that Marcella would oversee, but tomorrow there was a breakfast meeting with one of her suppliers and she couldn’t be in two places at once. I told her it was fine. She’d been pretty good to me so I didn’t mind, even though she did tell me one time that I’d only got the job because of my accent. My work resume sucked, she said, but an English accent sounded classy to people who didn’t travel enough to know better.
We parted at the ticket machines, then I waited till she’d disappeared before heading back outside to call Henri.
The phone rang for a long time before she answered. When Henri did pick up, she didn’t sound like herself. She was still thick-tongued with anaesthetic.
‘You ok?’ I asked her.
‘Not really,’ she slurred. ‘I just got out.’
‘Where are you?’
There was a pause.
‘Ok,’ I said. ‘Well don’t move, I’ll come and get you. Stay where you are. I’ll jump on the subway.’
‘You alright, Hen?’ I sat down next to her. ‘How you feeling?’
‘Like shit,’ she said.
You could tell as well. Her face was a dirty white colour. I put my arm around her.
‘They were running late. I didn’t get seen till four. Woke up – I dunno – maybe five thirty. They close at six. They said I had to go.’
‘They told you to leave?’
‘I sat in the loos for a while. The cleaner pretended she hadn’t seen me, but then she had to go too. I left with her.’
‘Nice,’ I said. ‘You could sue them for that.’
Henri shrugged. ‘You get what you pay for, I guess. An overnight stay and a nurse who would give a shit wasn’t in my price range.’
I looked down at her handbag open next to her on the bench. They’d given her some drugs and an after-care leaflet, and stocked her up with Maxi Pads.
‘We should get a cab,’ I told her. ‘You’ll never get a seat on the train now. Not at rush hour.’
Which was true, but I doubted we’d even get that far. I had visions of her passing out on the platform. There’d been a report in the paper only last week about some drunk woman doing the same and falling onto the tracks.
‘Can you flag one?’ said Henri. ‘I tried to just before you called but the driver wouldn’t take me. He must’ve thought I was off my tits.’
‘Cab drivers, huh?’ I tutted and turned to look at her, but she didn’t smile. José was a cab driver and worked the two till ten shift every day except Sunday.
‘Yeah, cab drivers,’ she said, and pulled a bottle of water from her bag.
‘You stay here, then. I’ll flag one down and wave you across. Put some lipstick on or something, make yourself look normal.’
I left her rummaging in her bag and walked towards the oncoming traffic. Eventually a cab stopped. Henri came walking over stiffly, wearing a scarlet pout and straightening out her fringe so it hung in a perfect line above her eyes.
The driver nodded when I said the address, then we pulled away from the kerb. From there it was all stop start, stop start; the cab lurching backwards and forwards. Henri was moaning to herself. I reached over to take her hand.
‘Are you ok?’
‘Just crampy. I’ll take some more pain killers when we get back.’
‘It won’t be too long,’ I said.
Henri closed her eyes and leant back in her seat. The cab driver had turned his radio on: some talk-sport station boring on about the Mets’ game. I turned to look out of the side window.
We’d been going about five minutes when Henri nudged me with her elbow.
‘It’s not good, Nat.’
‘Not too far now,’ I said.
‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s really not good.’ She flicked her eyes towards her lap. I looked down. A stain was spreading between her legs. A perfect inkblot test – a leaf, a butterfly, a human heart – turning her jeans from blue to dark red.
I started pulling off my jacket. She took it from me and draped it across her lap.
I leant in closer to her. ‘
Should we tell him to take us to the emergency room?’
‘Let’s just go home’, she said and started chewing on her thumb nail.
Tonight things were much more sober, but the climb was just as tough. Henri had no energy. I had my arm around her waist, taking some of her weight. We had to stop for a breather on every floor.
'Did you get the Raid?’ she asked, just as we opened the door of the apartment.
‘No, I didn’t. Stop worrying about the fucking Raid for five minutes will you?’
‘I was only asking,’ she said, dumping her bag on the floor and disappearing into the bathroom.
I dug around for the after-care leaflet and stood reading it in the hallway.
‘Says here, Hen, if the bleeding is still heavy two hours after the procedure then you should go to the emergency room.’
I could hear water running.
‘Henri? It says…’
‘I heard you,’ she called through the door. ‘It’s not been two hours.’
‘We need to elevate your legs.’
Henri unlocked the door and stuck her head out. ‘Are you going to stand there reading the entire thing? Why don’t you make yourself useful and stick the kettle on?’
‘Ok, Hen,’ I said. ‘Ok.’
On the nights José stayed over, I gave up my side of the bed and slept on the sofa. I didn’t mind – it was cooler sleeping in the living room. The air con unit was bust, but I could open the window and it was good to have some space to myself. The living room faced onto the street, which meant it was noisier. Police sirens, drunks shouting, exhaust pipes, the rotor-drone of helicopters cutting through the sky. Henri’s bed springs working overtime in the room next door.
José was fairly easy on the eye. He had a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his left shoulder.
When he talked about his family in Mexico, or his hopes for a green card, he would reach round with his right hand and touch the tattoo for luck.
Only his inking wasn’t like any holy woman I’d ever seen. This one looked like it had been done for a joke, with half closed eyes and a bee-stung mouth.
After a bottle of wine one night I told him so. Only he didn’t understand what I was saying, so I simplified it: ‘She looks like a whore,’ I said. ‘Puta?’ He understood that alright. He hit the roof: shouting at me in Spanish and waving his arms in front of my face.
Henri had come running out of the kitchen.
‘What’s going on? What happened?’
It turned out I’d offended him, so I apologised to keep the peace. And besides, what did I know? Maybe they did Catholicism differently in Mexico – I’d never been.
‘You should call José, tell him what’s happened. He should be here,’ I told Henri when she came out of the shower.
We were sat around the kitchen table having tea and biscuits. Henri put her feet up on the coffee table.
‘What’s the point?’ she said.
She was in her pyjamas already. The bleeding had stopped.
‘Don’t you think he needs to know?’
‘He might want to.’
‘I doubt it, and besides, he’s got enough to deal with.’
‘Why do you always try to protect him?’
‘I’m not. It’s just that term starts in three weeks and we’re going home. Why bother telling him anything? It’s not like he’s coming with me. And I’m not coming back here to him.’
I took a sip from my mug.
‘Anyway,’ she said. ‘If you want to know the truth, I feel stupid. When he said it was against his religion. The condom thing. I should have…you know.’
‘Stupid happens. Don’t beat yourself up.’
‘Yeah but what? Spilled milk and all that.’
She tore another biscuit from its packet.
‘Good idea,’ I told her.
As I left she was settling down on the sofa in her pyjamas, getting ready for Good Morning America.
I’d only just got out the subway when the phone rang. It was Marcella. She was calling to tell me where I’d find the keys to the store room. Really she was calling to check I was on my way in.
The supplier was running late. Marcella hated to be kept waiting. Plus this guy always made her anxious, she said. He was Texan, a married guy, with a big moustache and a Stetson. He’d been dropping hints for a while that he wanted to take her to bed. Marcella wasn’t sure how to handle it. She thought maybe she’d just play along for a while until a new contract had been signed. Her words were coming thick and fast down the phone and I could tell she was nervous about how it was going to go. I told her not to worry, I’d have everything under control by the time she got back. She didn’t need to rush, not if she didn’t want to.
'Thanks, honey,’ she said, and the line went dead.
I put the receiver back in its place and hoped I’d sounded reassuring enough. I needed some time after the Ethnic Girls got here and before Marcella arrived to compose Henri’s ‘Dear John’ letter to José.
She asked me last night.
‘Will you do it, Nat? I really can’t face it.’
‘Me? What am I going to say to him?’
‘I don’t know. Say I had to go back early. Say whatever. Only don’t be a cow about it.’
‘Jesus, Henri. Can’t you just call him?’
She said she couldn’t.
My first attempt took the ‘it’s not you it’s me’ approach. But I knew that would never work. José was thick-skinned. Subtlety wasn’t going to play in our favour, and I didn’t want the rest of mine and Henri’s time here spent dodging phone calls and dreading the knock at the door.
My second effort, telling him she’d left the country, wouldn’t cut it either. He would just swing by the restaurant, or park his cab up outside the apartment and find out it was a lie in five minutes flat.
I was running out of time. Marcella had texted to say she was on her way back, and I was still no nearer finishing it. I’d promised Henri it would be done today. There was a stack of orders lying on the desk waiting to be processed. Realistically I only had an hour to sort it out, at the most.
There was only one way I could think of.
In the back of the store room was a collection of prints, the slow movers, the least fashionable stuff, which Marcella might shift a couple of every year. Snow Scene in Maine was one. Pebble Triptych was another. The Assumption was a third, Mary Mother of God ascending into Heaven on a bank of fluffy clouds and pastel colours. She had a mysterious little smile. There was euphoria in her eyes. I took a screengrab of the face in close-up from the online catalogue and printed it off in black and white. I still had some time to work on her so I took a black marker to her eyes, making her pupils darker, dilated. I Max-Factored her eyelashes and gave her a perfect pout in bright red pen.
‘It’s over,’ I wrote across the top, ‘but good luck with the green card.’ I signed it Henri.
I folded it twice, stuck it in the envelope and locked up the shop behind me. The sun was climbing high in the sky – the afternoon was going to be hot. I walked the four blocks to where José parked his cab up and popped the note beneath the windscreen wiper for him to find before his shift. Then I checked the time and jogged the distance back to beat Marcella, yellow cabs racing past me all the way, and the heat prickling at my skin. ●