Winter in Madrid and you need to get rid of the coat. You bought it from a vintage store four months earlier. It’s made out of ridged black wool and you like the look of the coat well enough but you’re leaving today to go to a warm place; you can’t foresee a time you’ll need it. Your bags are already over the airline limit. The reunion will be awkward enough. Feel sick of the coat heavy on your shoulders and hate the idea of lugging it through departure lounges. Resolve to give it to someone on the ten-minute walk to the metro. If you can’t find someone to give it to, you’ll leave it on the metro.
Every other day homeless people bombard you with requests. This morning, when for once you could have offered them something, you see none. Hot from carrying your bags and wearing the coat, wait for a moment at the metro entrance, trying to spot someone under-dressed. The streets are just light and busy, people’s breath ballooning foggily out in front of them. An old woman walks by. She seems very poor and very unhappy but, just as you are about to offer her your coat, worry that you might offend her. Stand for a moment more, looking wide-eyed and generous, but no one approaches you.
Down the steps the platforms are crowded. Look for somewhere you can sit and leave your coat when you stand, but all the benches are occupied.
On the train strangers’ limbs are entwined in complex ways. Balance your bags between your feet and reach for a pole, adding your arm to the tangle. The coat is resting on top of the bags. As the train shudders you against the bodies of the other standing passengers, remain aware of the coat. When you reach the airport stop, pick up your bags but let the coat fall to the floor. Just as you are about to go through the doors there is a commotion behind you. A tap on your shoulder and a man is holding out your coat to you, his face delighted to be sparing you such an oversight. Thank him, and take its woollen weight.
From the metro, take escalator after escalator up, then follow signs directing you along corridors to different terminals. All the while look for some kind of alcove or bin where you might put your coat. In the cavern of departure terminal B, ask at an information desk where the rubbish bins are. For security reasons there are no indoor bins, but there are some out the front by the taxi stand. Through the automatic doors you can see them, small and steel clad. Taxi drivers stand around them smoking. Don’t trust your Spanish enough to be able to explain what you’re doing. Worry that if you leave it anywhere now you might be detained under suspicion of a bomb scare.
In your check-in queue the coat goads you. It’s playing the game you used to play with your sister when you were children. The only rules were that one person lay down and the other person had to try to move them. The aim was to see how cumbersome you could be. You used to win by imagining that you had turned to lead. The coat is good at it. You no longer believe it is wool, but that it has willed itself into some toxic, pliable metal.
In the departure lounge, go to one of the cafés; get yourself a tortilla sandwich for breakfast. The coat is on the chair next to you. Stand to leave and its buttons glint a warning. Sling it over your arm.
In the airport toilet mirror the hollows of your face are dark, lines harsh around your eyes. You’re alone. Feel exhausted just thinking about the journey ahead, with its transit stops and time zones. Question, again, why you are leaving. Ask yourself, again, if he is worth it. Wash your hands and splash water on your face. A chiming voice tells you that it is time to proceed to the departure gate. Try to dry your hands under a malfunctioning hand-dryer which gasps out hot air bronchially. Your coat slumps to the tiled airport floor. Sigh, go to pick it up, and then stop. Instead, push it with your foot under the sinks, into the corner. The coat protests as you leave the bathroom. Try to ignore its calls. Fail.
The coat is higher than the clouds. It is triumphant in the overhead locker.
A hot day in Rome and everywhere there’s something of overwhelming significance and age. It’s your first day in town and you want a quiet place to sit, so follow what seem to be some small and quiet roads. You prefer not to use maps and are annoyed to find yourself by what you realise is, realise must be, the Trevi Fountain. Water gushes importantly, camera lenses hum, and guards tut at anyone who tries to touch. There’s no room to sit.
Walk on past pizzerias and stores full of elegant pinching shoes and find yourself in a market in a square. The most interesting things here are the zucchinis. They are young, grass green, and end in a wilting flourish with their flowers still attached. Lament your transitory state. Wish you had a kitchen.
Look through a rack of t-shirts and stop at one that has a picture of Pope John Paul looking stupefied, with the words underneath saying I Like the Pope, the Pope Smokes Dope. Feel drawn to its lack of historicism. A man next to you starts talking to you, laughs wryly, commenting that they think people will buy anything. You aren’t sure what he means at first, who they are, what anything he means. Decide he means Italians think tourists will buy irreverent, juvenile t-shirts. In his hand he has a t-shirt printed with the famous image from the Sistine Chapel, God reaching out and touching fingers with someone. He says he needs a new t-shirt and anyway, when in Rome… Think this is a silly thing to say, as you’re yet to see any Italians wearing t-shirts like the one he’s buying, but recognise his accent as originating from the same part of the world as your own. This excuses a lot and is reason enough to walk around together for the rest of the day. Say goodbye at a bus stop. Neither of you are catching a bus, it’s just a place to part.
Over the span of six months, change city, country, job, partner and hairstyle. At times find it hard to remember which change came first, and which change is the most important and which change worked as a trigger for the others. Ease into your new life. Go to a new bar to watch a band play. Stand in a queue for the toilets. They’re uni-sex; it’s that kind of bar. In the queue in front of you, see the man from Rome, remembering in that instant that this is the city he lives in. He half-turns, smiles at you, vague and non-committal. Your memory for faces is embarrassingly good. All your life you’ve been aware of recognising people whose eyes glide blankly past you. Sometimes you let people know, often you don’t. Introduce yourself, remind him how and when you met.
‘Whaddaya know!’ he says with a gesture you think is a little too big for the occasion. He pulls up his shirt to show you the image on his t-shirt underneath, the hands stretching across his chest, the fingers touching where his ribs meet. ‘First time I’ve worn it!’
Make a joke about the t-shirt invoking you; if he wears it, you will appear. Say you’ll see him round. Go back to your friends. Feel glad for life’s sudden consistencies. It’s comforting that when so many things have changed in your life, your connection with this stranger has stayed so true to its origins.
It’s easy to feel invisible in New York, where everybody looks so self-assured in the yellow autumn light. Fall, you mean, the yellow fall light. Feel colourless.
Conversations around you have an unexpected formality, an easy eloquence. Hear a young woman say to a young man:
‘No thank you, but I appreciate your concern.’
Later, hear a different young man say to a different young woman:
‘Thank you, no. But I am so grateful for your kind offer.’
Try similar phrases in your own head but even unvoiced your tongue stumbles over them. Wonder if there’s a school you could go to learn to speak like that. Remember that you are in New York; there are probably several.
A group of women walk past. They look sassy. You’ve never had cause to use that word to describe anyone ever before. They have hair and make up like guests on tell-all talk shows. In the past you scoffed at the outfits on those shows, thinking that real people didn’t dress that way. Realise that here, real people don’t dress like you.
Assess the reflected sight of yourself in the plate glass of a department store window. The sight confirms your feeling. Try to decide the antonym for sassy. Anti-sassy? Drab. You don’t mind feeling like this in other places but here, in this city, you would like to belong. Men’s gazes flick past you as if you were invisible. You want to be admired. Adjust your gaze and look through the glass. Instinctively covet the clothing on display. Become aware at once of its cost and impracticality. Covet it all the same.
Something has to be done. Walk through the swishing electric doors into the cosmetics section of the store. You hate the feeling of make-up caked on your skin, of colour greased on your lips, but feel that there must be something you can do. Scan the shelves with a feeling like you’re starving. Walk to the nail-polish section. The first one you pick up, at random, is called Fifth Avenue, startling in its appropriateness. The sales assistant hands it to you in its glossy little bag after you’ve paid.
‘Thanks,’ you say, then remember where you are, smile wider and try harder. ‘Thanks a whole lot.’
Find the toilets, you mean the bathroom. Your nails are quite long but uneven, a little jagged. One forefinger feels serrated. Be confident that your bottle of Fifth Avenue will hide these imperfections.
Sit on the edge of the toilet seat brushing the colour in three strokes on each nail. Avoid your cuticles with haphazard success. The bottle proclaims ‘dry in 90 seconds’ but wait a little longer, blowing on your nails until they’re dry to touch. As soon as you see your nails in the mirror, wish you hadn’t painted them. They are garish, alarming. You’re too clumsy to maintain this kind of thing. Wash your hands. To prove yourself right, accidentally hit your thumb against the tap, the faucet you mean, gouging a line through the colour on your nail.
Walk around, dazzled by the ordinary, amazing things. The painted ceiling of the public library! Chip some colour off your middle finger nail. Hot pretzels from a street seller! Knock your right hand and the polish flakes off three fingers. Posters advertising swimming pools for dogs! Absent-mindedly chew your thumb nail. The tiles in Grand Central Station! Scrape some colour off on a rough edge on a handrail.
Tire suddenly, irrevocably. It’s time to go back to the place you’re staying. In the metro, you mean in the underground, you mean in the subway, the train is only half full. Gratefully sit down. There is a girl wearing a short top showing elaborate tattoos on her midriff. A middle-aged woman sitting opposite in the aisle leans over and asks her what they mean. Strain to hear the answers. Make out something about rebirth and the spirit of the land. There is a group of teenage boys, each of them is listening to headphones but somehow still conducting conversation. Hear the muffled beats of their music, impatient as fingers tapping on a desk. After two stops, a woman carrying a baby gets in the same carriage but doesn’t take a seat.
Her accent-laden voice beseeches in a steady stream that loses individual words, except for ‘mercy’, which recurs. As she walks along the carriage she makes a movement with her hand; a constantly repeated sign of the cross. Her eyes are huge, searching for charity in everyone, in you. Closer, her feet are in view. She’s wearing sandals and her toes are visible. Each nail is painted pink. It is the most delicate pink, like the underside of an ear lobe or pale fat-rich pork. The nails are blemish-free, pearlescent. As she passes, reach into your bag and find your wallet. Try to hide your fingernails as you do so but they are determined to be noticed and one catches painfully on the zip of the change compartment. Drop coins into her cup but don’t make eye contact. Avoid the pitying look you feel sure must be gazing down on you and your chipped red attempts to belong.
A spring evening in Sydney and after the restaurant he suggests going for a drink. On the street his touch is careful; in the bar he sits opposite you at a table and says that it’s time to talk. Suddenly feel very distant from him, even though the positions of your chairs haven’t changed at all. He talks about how things will have to end, about things being not quite right in the relationship, of there being something imperceptible but wrong between you. Pull him up on the word imperceptible. If it is imperceptible, how does he feel it? And how can something be wrong between two people? Something is wrong with one person, or something is wrong with the other person, or something is wrong with them both. All that is between you at that moment is a table with a wooden veneer that they’ve tried to disguise as authentic with low lighting. There are many things wrong with that but you don’t see how a cheap table surface is a reason to end a relationship. He sighs, with a don’t make this difficult expression on his face.
Walk into a toilet cubicle. As you lock the door try to count the things between you now. Three tables; eight chairs; a bamboo partition; a thick wooden door with a W painted on it; a thin formica door with a red semicircular ‘engaged’ like a small rising sun. You didn’t need to use the toilet, just needed to get away from him for a moment, but think while you’re here you might as well.
There are things wrong with him. There are things wrong with you. You had hoped they were complementary. You didn’t realise they were incompatibly wrong.
As you sit on the toilet, look at your moisturised knees and think of all the small things that you’ve done to your exterior for his benefit, so that there would be nothing bristly or sharp or dry between you. Even your underwear was chosen with this in mind. It rests timid and lacy and not quite taut between your knees. Look at it more closely and feel your heart sink.
It’s inside-out. The seams are visible. The tag chattily explains they are size medium, a cotton/polyester/elastane mix, and made in China. The soft cotton part, called, horribly, the gusset, should have been against you, hidden between your legs. Instead it has been on the outside, mortified.
Take your underwear off and put it on again the right way but know it is too late. So many things in life are wrong when they feel perfectly right. So many things are unknowable. It would help if you could at least keep everything in its place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pip Robertson was a member of the 2004 MA class at IIML. ‘National Costumes’ is part of the short story collection Conditions of the Skin, which she completed on the course.