Short fiction by Alison Frank.
Ioana combed her hair back and secured it with a red elastic. She revived her eyelashes with a coat of black mascara and applied dark pink lipstick. Across her cheeks, a sweep of blush with a slight sparkle, and she was ready. She allowed herself one last glance in the mirror. Were her cheeks starting to look sunken? She would be thirty in six months’ time. Still in her twenties for the moment, she was on constant alert for signs that her beauty was starting to fade. She would have her PhD soon, but an academic’s salary wasn’t much, especially not back home. Her mother and sisters had always given her the impression that a woman’s looks were an important part of her power in the world, no matter what. And her own experience had shown this to be true.
Sam sliced an orange into wedges. He’d read a column in the weekend paper explaining how to peel them. He chuckled at the time, shaking his head at these Westerners who needed rules for everything. All his life, if he ever needed to peel an orange, he would simply do so with his hands, using a thumbnail to slice through the skin at its thinnest point before tearing it away in meandering bands. But, according to the columnist, this was all wrong. It is necessary to have a knife in order to peel an orange, and the correct procedure is to make a shallow incision starting from the spot where the stem used to be, and continuing around the fruit’s circumference. Once you have a series of incisions, like lines of longitude, running around the orange, explained the columnist, the peel can be removed easily and elegantly in symmetrical sections, starting at either pole of the orange-globe, where each strip of peel comes to a point. Although the mathematician in him appreciated this precision, Sam rarely peeled oranges, and had his own ideas about their elegance. He was convinced that the way an orange was eaten affected its taste. If it was peeled, the orange’s pale self-contained segments seemed to reserve their flavour prudishly, revealing their hidden succulence only in the privacy of the mouth. For aesthetic reasons Sam preferred to leave the peel on; he thought it a pity to remove that beautiful outer layer, as the remaining fruit appeared smaller and its uneven covering of pith reminded him of human skin peeling away after a sunburn. Cut longitudinally, orange slices vaunted their beauty, Sam thought: this was the style in which the fruit was prepared for display on a platter, or to perch on the edge of a cocktail glass. Oranges sliced this way tasted delicate, whatever the thickness. But now, Sam was about to eat an orange his favourite way, in wedges, beginning with the thin edge where the delicious flavour seemed to tease the tongue, and working his way greedily into the thickest and juiciest part of the flesh.
Jo carefully balanced two blocks of fresh clay on the back of her bike, and secured them with yellow and green bungee cords. She was looking forward to the ride, the first of the season. Spring had finally begun and, having struggled through so many months of winter, Jo felt rewarded by the soft warm air on her face as she rode through the neighbourhood streets, streets bathed in sunshine. The sunlight was still gentle but she could feel it strengthening each day as summer approached. She began to cycle south towards Kensington Market. She tightened her grip on the handlebars as a pleasant tension buzzed through her palms. She was going to attain what she desired most, or at least, second most: he was going to let her sculpt him. With shame, Jo remembered how she had blushed and stammered when she finally came to the point of asking. Agreeing immediately to her request, he had only smiled: he appeared to think that she was shy, when in fact she only felt this bizarre feeling of anxiety when she was the company of an attractive man, or just before a written exam. After she passed the university campus, the buildings crouched smaller and closer together. The smell of overripe fruit prickled her nose, and she swerved every so often to avoid languid pedestrians who meandered from sidewalk to street and back again. Her chest tightened as she made the left turn onto the quieter side street where he lived. Having secured her bike to the chain link fence next door, Jo took the blocks of clay in her arms like a heavy baby. She negotiated the stone steps to the front porch, and rang the bell with her elbow. No answer. Her arms were already aching under the weight of the clay.
Sam swivelled the handle to stop the flow, and stood still in the shower, water dripping through his hair and down his body. Yes, that was the doorbell, and it was ringing again. He flung open the shower door, grabbed a towel, and slipped the Japanese silk robe around his shoulders. He ran downstairs and opened the front door just in time to catch a retreating figure.
She loved hearing him call her in such an urgent way, his delicious accent making her own name sound exotic. But as she turned around, still cradling the clay, she beheld a strange sight. For a moment, the figure in the doorway reminded her of her own mother waving goodbye to her as she went to school in the morning. As she once again ascended the front steps, it got worse. Sam’s hair, usually fluffy and curly, lay flat and thin on his head. Without his glasses, his eyes looked smaller, less generous. She suddenly realised that she had never seen Sam wearing anything other than black turtleneck sweaters: she had never before had a glimpse of the thick black hair that crept up almost to his collar bones, a disconcerting profusion now revealed by the V cut across his chest by the effeminate robe. She couldn’t imagine that his shoulders were broad and capable, now that she’d seen them veiled only by thin silk rather than thick rib knit. As Sam disappeared upstairs to get dressed, Jo was left alone for a few minutes to recover from the violence perpetuated against her fantasies.
Ioana had arrived at 8am, well before even her most diligent lab mates. Nobody would be able to fault her when she left at eleven thirty for a long lunch. She had a slight headache from having woken up so early. She didn’t know why she took such trouble to see him. Objectively, he was not that special. His skin was as dark as a gypsy’s. She couldn’t stand to hear him talk about mathematics. He wasn’t even rich. Yet with the modest living allowance provided by his scholarship, he showed that he was generous and had a taste for quality: every time she went to his house, he had a new box of Belgian chocolates waiting for her. And when he met her at her apartment, he always came with a long-stem rose. The roses had been white, at first, for purity, then yellow for friendship. He had not said so, of course—he wouldn’t consider it seductive to speak so directly. But she knew the language of flowers: she had read about it once in a women’s magazine. Lately the roses had been pink, and the most recent one red. His floral expressions lagged behind his physical professions of love, or lust anyway: they had been sleeping together even before he moved on to yellow. Once the yellow roses finally did begin to arrive, she had taken to calling him, somewhat ironically, her ‘best friend’. It was a useful term to use with people who asked for details about the identity of the man who sometimes walked her to the lab in the morning. After all, she was engaged, and the Romanian community in this city was small. If her fiancée back home heard about this friendship, he might pay her a surprise visit. And if he heard that there was something more than friendship in her life, he would definitely stop giving money to her family. She was damned to return home either way: if she remained with Ovidiu, he would expect her to go back immediately after she finished her degree; if she broke off the engagement, she would still have to go home to help her family to pay off their bad debts, and prevent them from taking on any new ones. Even if she wanted to marry her ‘best friend’, it was unlikely to work. And there was no way that he would move to Romania with her. She could tell that he had already become very much attached to the simple luxuries of life in his adopted country, and it was clear that he considered Romania a tourist destination, only a small step up from Morocco.
When Sam returned downstairs, Jo was immediately able to repair her mental image of him. His hair was back to its usual jet abundance, luxurious curls that she longed to run her hands through. His glasses made him look intellectual, and helped him to carry his thirty-something years with sophistication rather than an air of decay. As Sam turned to go to the kitchen to make coffee, Jo was hit by a frisson: a spectre of age and weakness reappeared in the slight stoop in Sam’s shoulders, and the beginning of a thin spot on the crown of his head. Some minutes later, Sam returned with a tray holding two gold espresso cups, a small plate filled with Guylian chocolates, and a pink rose tucked inside a bud vase. As he placed the tray on the table in front of her, Jo’s stomach tied itself into a pleasurable knot, her gaze moving from the flower to Sam’s eyes, those irresistible pools of chocolate that instantly reduced her to shy nods and smiles. As he returned her smile, she noticed that he had a bit of orange stuck in his teeth. His spell faltered again.
Ioana reapplied her lipstick under the harsh lights of the lab washroom. She looked tired, but that was natural. A good night’s sleep should erase those dark circles. The sunshine revived her: even though it was only May, it felt so warm, almost like summer. She paused, waiting for a streetcar to rattle past, then dashed across the street. As she approached the market, she admired the profusion of fruits spilling across the stalls: she was still amazed that you could buy so many different types of fruit here all year round. She stopped at a fruit stand on the corner, her hand hovering over mangoes, passion fruits, lychees and kumquats, none of which she had ever tasted before she came to study here. Finally she bought half a kilo of oranges, a fruit she had known since she was a child. Such a rare treat during Communism, the orange would forever be her favourite.
‘Should I take off my glasses?’ asked Sam.
‘No,’ Jo immediately replied, remembering how small his eyes looked without them. Then, in case she had spoken too quickly, she added, ‘they’re part of your personality. I’m planning to include them in the final sculpture.’
‘Oh really? How am I going to see without them?’ asked Sam with a laugh. ‘You are going to have to guide me around the city. And do audio descriptions for me at the Cinémathèque.’
Jo shared a smile with him. She hoped it looked more complicit than nervous. But what if she did look nervous? Maybe he would find that seductive. Her trembling had driven Tahar crazy: it had been an exciting sign of innocence to him, she supposed. Once he had started offering her free samples from his corner shop, a white peach or a blood orange paired with a gaze so meaningful it seemed to want to read inside her soul, she had been unable to prevent her hand from trembling when she held it out to accept the piece of fruit. When he cornered her for a kiss at the back of the shop, just outside the security camera’s gaze, Jo’s shaking hands had made him think he was the first, even though that had not been the case. It was just that he was the first truly good-looking man to kiss her—well, the first man full stop: the other guys who had made attempts to kiss her could hardly be called men at all. They were so hesitant, and their gazes still so childish, they had repulsed her. Sam and Tahar must be about the same age, but she had known Tahar when he was in his twenties. She wondered now if she would ever leave this country again, go back and perhaps find that Tahar was still working at that same corner shop near her school. He had not e-mailed her once since she had returned home, which was normal given that she had refused to marry him. But that too was normal, since she had only been seventeen when she went on exchange to Paris. Sam was nowhere near as sexy as Tahar, but there were nowhere near as many Moroccans to choose from here: Sam was the best she could find. With his deep brown eyes and warm olive skin, he reminded her of Tahar, and that was enough.
‘Let’s start with a profile,’ said Jo, not trusting her hands to be steady enough if Sam gazed straight at her.
Sam put his feet up on the sofa, and draped one arm over the side. Jo tried not to look at the dense fringe of dark hair protruding from the sleeve of his black turtleneck sweater. She focused on his strong nose and ripe lips and began to mould the clay.
Posing for Jo, Sam relished the opportunity for quiet reflection. Of course, he had silence and space for thought in his office, but when he was there it was impossible for him to think about anything but numbers. A mild breeze from the window reminded him of Agadir around the time of the clementine harvests in the valley. Sometimes it felt like his only tangible link with home were the wooden crates marked ‘Maroc’ that appear in this country at the same time as the Christmas decorations. He had met other Moroccans here, but most of them were old, had been here for thirty years or more, and remembered a Morocco much different to the one he had left behind. These men had told him that he should move to the French-speaking part of this country, to be with younger immigrants like himself, but it was here that he had his scholarship. And in any case he wanted to improve his English: that was his best hope for the future. He would have to go back to Morocco soon for a short time, to meet his sister Houda’s fiancé and see if he was acceptable. His mother had made a rare phone call to him three days ago to voice her own concerns. But even after just three years here, he felt like a foreigner at home: he was no longer Samir, but Sam. He was losing his accent, or so he hoped. Sam heard a familiar knock. His worries about Houda had made him forget that he had invited anyone over that day. But he was glad to have the opportunity to sneak a glance at Jo’s work as he got up to answer the door. So far, he wasn’t convinced of the resemblance. He’d even hoped that her vision of him might be flattering.
Ioana kissed Samir on both cheeks, and cast a seductive look over her shoulder as she walked past him into the house.
‘You forgot I was coming, didn’t you?’
‘Of course not,’ he said, graciously. ‘In fact, you will see that I have arranged it so that two very good friends of mine may meet.’
He had forgotten, the bastard. Here he was entertaining another girl with chocolates and roses. If she had not taken an early lunch, he probably would have been too busy to open the door.
‘I brought you some oranges,’ she said, turning back to face Samir and pushing the bag forcefully into his hands.
‘Thank you. Ioana, I would like to introduce you to Joanne.’
‘Hi,’ Ioana paused. ‘Everyone in this country is always calling me Joanne,’ she added. God, that sounded bitchy. But Ioana was tired of the resentful glances other women always gave her.
Jo’s chest constricted and her scalp prickled, as though it would lift away from her head. Between her thumb and the edge of her index finger, she squashed into a pancake the small piece of clay that was to form one of Sam’s nostrils. She was angry with him for having this other woman in his life. Of course she had heard Sam mention the name Ioana before: that more strange and seductive version of her own name, which she could now connect with a taller, thinner, older but, in return, more stylish and self-possessed version of herself. Here was a real woman in makeup and perfectly tailored clothing. She compared Ioana’s sophisticated black suit jacket, pencil skirt and high heels to her own tired plaid shirt with its sleeves rolled up, her oversized jeans and cheerful yellow Converse. Who could blame Sam for preferring Ioana? But it was certainly possible to blame Ioana for turning up now, interrupting Jo’s work and anything that might have developed between her and Sam later on. Surely the rose and the chocolates meant something. Surely he didn’t share such seductive looks, laughs and words with every woman.
‘I was just working on a sculpture of Sam’s head,’ said Jo, unable to think of any other pleasantries to exchange with Ioana. A compliment would only highlight the already glaring differences between them. Ioana’s perfection was clear for anyone to see, especially Sam. Jo was impressed that Sam was able to take his eyes off her for an instant: she could almost believe that Ioana was not more than a friend to him. But it was impossible, such a beautiful woman…
Ioana stopped her mouth from twisting with distaste at the way Jo disfigured Samir’s name with an almost American pronunciation. ‘Saaaaaay-m.’ Of course, the way that people in this country massacred her own name was worse still: she hadn’t even given them permission to anglicise it, and yet they did. Samir actually called himself Sam, but this hurt Ioana even more, as it was a sign of his assimilation. She watched Samir as his gaze turned away from Jo and back to her. She saw that look in his eyes that he only shared with her. This girl was here to sculpt his head, not his whole body. She imagined possessing a life-size sculpture of Samir to take back to Romania with her. She would display the model impudently in the large house she was going to share with Ovidiu, and never tell him who it was based on. It would be like having Samir there with her, the same age, forever. His light, lithe body so different from Ovidiu’s, which was already overweight like that of a middle-aged man, even though he was only 27. The thing that disgusted her most about Ovidiu was the way that his bottom protruded like a woman’s—it was far bigger than her own. Samir’s was tight and firm. She could imagine how athletic it looked when they made love. Ovidiu crushed her with his bulk. Ioana’s cell phone rang: of course it was him.
Sam resumed his position on the sofa so that Jo could continue sculpting him. He listened to Ioana as she spoke in Romanian. He had not learned enough to know what she was saying: his vocabulary was limited to ‘my darling’, ‘desire’ and ‘eyelashes’. But even before she said ‘my darling’, he knew she was talking to Ovidiu. He could hear it in the softening of her voice. She had told Sam that she didn’t love her fiancé anymore. If this was true, she was a very good actress. If she could lie so fluently to Ovidiu, what would prevent her from lying like that to him? How could you ever know if such a woman was telling the truth or not? In the past he had rejected the idea of having a bride sent over from Morocco one day: a shy sixteen or seventeen year old who would look up to him and look after him without complaining. But he had yet to meet a sincere woman in this city. He knew that Ioana was a racist: since coming to this country, she had learned to hide it most of the time, but sometimes she let her guard down with him. Not to say that he didn’t know a lot of racists at home, starting with members of his own family. But he couldn’t accept the idea that Ioana’s relatives might despise him for being North African, just as his family would pass judgement on her loose Western morals and ugly pale skin.
Jo watched Sam’s face become disfigured under her agitated thumbs. There was no point continuing today: she couldn’t concentrate with another person there, let alone when that person was speaking in seductive Slavic tones on her phone to someone who surely must be another lover. It was true that Sam could only ever be a poor substitute for Tahar, but it was still frustrating that even this second-rate replacement was being denied to her.
Since they had met at the Cinémathèque last year, after almost every screening Sam had retreated with Jo to the café across the street where they exchanged impassioned opinions on the films they had seen. Why couldn’t she simply take pleasure in this warm platonic friendship? But it wasn’t platonic: not entirely. He had been misleadingly flirtatious—nobody could deny that. He had not only admired her sculptures, but her eyes, which he said were like a gazelle’s. He only mentioned Ioana when forced: when Jo insisted he explain why he was late for a special screening of a rare film, or why he occasionally had to miss their usual coffee. Ioana had just been a name, another ‘friend’. Now that Jo had seen her in the flesh, and realised that her own flesh had no chance of competing, she tried to think logically and detach herself romantically. But she couldn’t help feeling betrayed.
‘I think that’s enough for today’s sitting,’ said Jo, packing up her tools and wrapping the sculpture in plastic.
‘So soon?’ asked Sam. ‘You must be tired. I think it is hard work being an artist. Do you want to leave the sculpture here?’
‘No, I’ll take it with me: I might want to work a bit from memory.’ Jo attempted a meaningful smile, but only looked sad. ‘Say goodbye to Yo-anna for me,’ she said, and left before Ioana had finished her conversation.
When Ioana ended her call with Ovidiu, she pulled Samir towards her.
‘Any more surprise guests I should know about?’
He shook his head.
‘I’m going to Morocco in two weeks. Do you want to come with me?’
‘I can’t: Ovidiu is insisting that I go home to visit this month.’
As Jo cycled back to her parents’ house in the Annex, she remembered how she had felt when she lived in Paris: different, almost special. When she went to the market, there would inevitably be a stallholder who would exclaim with delight, ‘ah, une petite Anglaise!’ when Jo asked for a half kilo of Gariguette strawberries. She had been told by her host family and many schoolmates that her accent was ‘charmant’: imagine, ‘charming’, that English pronunciation and intonation that she had tried so hard to erase from her French! Now that she had met Ioana, Jo felt as though she was still beside her, a merciless yardstick. She thought that Sam had been able to perceive her unique qualities, but if he had they clearly weren’t enough.
She was within a block of home when one of the bungee cords snapped and Sam’s head fell onto the road. It didn’t make a sound as it fell, but one side was squashed completely. It looked like an undifferentiated mass of flesh, this clay from which anything could be made.