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My brother’s wife and I go way back. As a matter of fact, I was the one who brought them together. I am reminded of this as I watch Maryam enter through the glass and brass door of the café, a Christmas decoration to her left, flashing Santa, making her face shift red-white, red-white. She does a little twirl, takes in the room, our eyes snatching on each other’s, sudden static, white noise in my ears. A small, gloved hand comes up to wave at me, points to the counter, smile, nod. She winks and blows me a kiss. Her blue cape moves in fluid-motion, as if of its own accord, around and her back is to me, she is leaning across the counter (I imagine the round fullness of her pink breasts under that white shirt pressing against the marble, everything is breast-height to her, she is abreast with the situation, pint-sized, brother’s wife), ordering hot chocolate with extra whipped cream from the baffled boy behind it. Of course, most people look slightly baffled at a distance. I meet my own eyes in the mirrorwall behind him. Look away.
[private]Maryam and I met at the university library. I was working extra there, trying to make ends meet. I had decided to go for my own apartment, never was much of the sharing type. You grow up with an older sibling, it’s all you get: share this, share that, hand-me-down trousers, toys, dreams. At nineteen, I just wanted something of my own, an uninvaded space, a place to just be me. Still, there on my top-most shelf: Kenny’s battered teddy, Kenny’s collection of illicit bottle caps. Stolen treasure, that I treasured the more for it. To work I wore his faded Nirvana t-shirt under my own purple waistcoat. Maryam was there every night, slaving away at her term paper. She did sociology, something like that. Social work. She was always carrying heavy books around from there to here and back again, it looked like an exercise program, a surreal version of a Victorian work-out: to improve a young lady’s posture, balancing acts with the Holy Bible, heavy stuff. After a couple of days of watching from the aisles, I offered to carry some of the books for her, I couldn’t help myself, she was so small. Myself I have always been willowy, long arms just made for carrying books, bad joke, awkward shuffle. “Oh, thank you!” she said, and after closing time she took me out for drinks. I had half expected her to be drinking girly stuff, peach schnapps, white wine spritzers, but she liked her single malts doubled, neat. I had a Guinness, two, three, straight to my head, I was scrawny in those days, and not a bite since lunch. When the pub closed she made some joke about her room mate’s noise levels, innocent wide-eyes, as if we didn’t both know she’d be coming home with me.
“Hey there, stranger.”
Her cheeks are flushed with the sudden warmth of the hot beverage. Her lips glisten like she just licked them, pink tongue, stray cream. “So,” she says, exhales, as she falls into the armchair I have guarded, hawkstyle, just for her. “I haven’t seen you for ages. How’s Glasgow treating you these days?”
“Och, you know. Same as always. It’s been too long though, Maryam, it really has.”
“I know!” She uses the o of her mouth to blow on the mug she has raised before her. “I’ve missed you! I miss us,” she says, oblivious, lips quivering slightly in anticipation of the first sip, “remember how we used to be?”
I remember how we used to be. You’d have thought I’d be over it by now, some kind of instinct of self-preservation erasing it all, the way you get with old relationships: years later you have no idea what you used to do with that person, what you saw in each other. You just don’t remember, you forget without even making the conscious decision to do so. It’s called moving on, I know. The memories are fuzzy, though, I’ll say that, dreamlike; Maryam in my bed, me in the red wing chair, and then, and then mixed up, she moves in her sleep, the duvet, my hands. Her eyes open and god and god it is everything, I think they’re going to flow over and then they do. How many nights? This game. How many weeks, months? Not quite half a year and not a word, I should have spoken, I know, it was unfair, it’s always unfair to expect the other to speak first.
“I miss you too.”
“Kenny and I are so happy,” she says, confusedly. We stare at each other for a bit, neither of us quite sure what she means by that.
“I mean,” she says, falls silent. Her fingers fiddle with the elongated tea spoon, staining the snowy napkin cocoa brown. Hidden speakers play Last Christmas. I want to rape George Michael’s skull.
“What’s up, Maryam?”
She looks up at me then, straight into me, and she smiles that smile, the dreamtime smile, the Maryam-in-love smile that I haven’t seen for so long, I was beginning to think I’d imagined it, that I’d imagined it all along. That she had so consummately wished we’d never happened she had somehow managed to erase it from objective history, if there is such a thing. Things that happen behind closed doors are only tenuously real, anyway. There’s no real link, no real link unless you leave some physical manifestation, unless there is a witness, unless you choose to make it known.
“I’m pregnant,” she says, her hands shaking. The cup clatters against the saucer, the spoon, an infinitesimal tremor moving up through the wood of the table and up my arms, into me, as she always gets into me, too easy, pitiful, into me. “I wanted you to be the first to know.”
I have heard this before. Seven years ago, in the coffee shop at Queen Margaret’s Union. Maryam clutching at my hands, my foolish, foolish hands, imagining themselves quite loved, held, till death, all that. She leans into me and I blush, thinking that everyone will see, everyone will finally see.
“I am in love with your brother. I wanted you to be the first to know. I think he fancies me too.”
“I fancy you.”
Blank silence. She stares into space, her coffee cooling, untouched, on the table. Her index finger is stroking my left thumb.
“It’ll be great, you know. I want children. You know that. I’ve always wanted children. It’s what I’m meant to do.”
“Does Kenny know?”
“Not yet,” Maryam leans her head on my shoulder, playfully, for all the world to see and not to see. She looks up at me, soft eyes, soft face, soft lips. “I’ll tell him tonight.”
“I’m so excited!” She scrunches up the cocoa-stained napkin. Her mug is already half-empty, the brown milk-skins clinging to the sides like the algae in a murky aquarium. “I thought it would never happen. You know how long I have wanted to have his child. Now we’ll be a real family, for real. And you will have a nephew. My child’s aunt will be my best friend!”
“I only just found out,” she’s glancing at her own reflection in the window, combing a stray wisp of hair back behind her ear. It has grown quite dark outside, already. The street lights tick on, one by one. Straining my eyes, I see a woman pass by, a child on her hip, her face white, orange, blue. She looks stressed, troubled. It’s in the way she walks. Something not quite right. The wean’s hands go up to her throat, as if to throttle her. Pat, stroke, pinch. They cross to the other side.
“I’m going to tell Kenny tonight. Didn’t want to do it over the phone, can you imagine it? He’d get nothing done all day. Besides,” Maryam leans in. For a second, I want to lean across and kiss her. Would she notice? Would anyone? Just one swift graze of my lips against hers, the barest caress, before it all ends. “I was meeting you today. I wanted you to know before everyone. Like it used to be. That’s what I want. We love you so much, honey. You should really come and visit more often. It gets so lonely here without you.”
“Uhuh. Look, Maryam, I don’t know how to tell you this…”
Her face is all lit-up innocence. Already the blooming virgin, haloed by multi-coloured fairy lights.
“Kenny’s sterile,” I say. Nothing more to say.[/private]
E.G. Jönsson was born outside Malmö, Sweden in 1981. She lives in Glasgow where she is about to graduate from an MLitt in Creative Writing. This story was previously published in Let’s Pretend (Freight, 2008).