Megan’s eyes opened with love, or vigour, it wasn’t quite lust although the colour behind them could be as vibrant as lust. Tara wanted to feel it was a love for her. Yet the openness of Megan’s eyes was different to the openness in Tara’s stomach. Megan’s eyes were filled. They were full eyes. They were strong eyes. The hole in Tara’s stomach was longing.
Megan brought the plastic cola bottle to her lips and the smile she wore—charming, mischievous—as she drank back the vodka mix went some way to fill Tara.
Drink never filled Tara, or the prospect of drink, or the night of partying, more her hand brushing Megan’s as Megan passed the bottle to her.
They had everything sorted, parents dealt with, excuses made, friends to meet up with, a club to go to, a place to crash. It was Megan’s enthusiasm for life, being shared with Tara, in this night, with the darkness of the trees casting small light-broken shadows over her girlfriend’s near perfect face that gave her goosebumps.
“Yer man looks lonely,” Megan said, pointing to a loner sitting on a bench, behind the darkness swamping onto the water laden, muddy field of brown-green.
He was beneath the cover of a dense weft of leaves and branches, hiding from the slight fall of rain, hidden in the shadows of the thick night of their city, but not hidden from Megan and Tara.
Megan’s eyes held a glint. Tara wanted no part of this. “No,” she said.
“He’s all alone!” Megan laughed. “He needs a friend.”
“What’s he doing out here?”
“That’s even worse,” Tara said. “Please, no, Megan. Don’t do this.” But Megan had already put the top onto the Coke and was making her way towards him. Him still seemingly unaware of them, now with his head tilted back and what Tara could only assume were closed eyes.
It was cold here. The rain had brought coldness and James dug his hands into his pockets. His right hand met his phone. It was cold to the touch. It was a cold device. Used to reach out to the world but he could think of no-one he would ever wish to contact. Not right now. Now was a time for something else. If he sought what he needed he would only wake people from sleep or take them from an easy evening in front of a TV. Everyone with so much that it amounted to so very little to ask for. He had friends—right now—painting artworks, writing poems, singing songs. He had friends making love, making dinner as little signs of love, making space on their laps for pets that were closer to them than to anything else in the world. There was the clink of a cup being placed on a glass coffee table, steam rising from a freshly made tea and filling their little world with sweet lemon and cinnamon, a drop of honey that seems as much as anyone could want. James didn’t know what he wanted. That was one purpose of tonight, to find some way to find a way. To find a purpose for the next week, or month.
It never lasted a year, these escapes, his walks through the night finding purpose. He didn’t even know what he was escaping only that he had to.
His thumb traced the rough texture of the phone in his hand; deathly, romantic if he would allow himself, necromancy for his memories. It was a funeral home to all the thoughts he couldn’t bear to live in the moment. His ideas, wonderings, verbal wanderings on what he deemed worthy of his sluicing attention, carefully noted as a memo for a time like this, when he faced the night with nothing in his store.
He would write a thought, to himself, within its 64gb memory. He thought it preservation, the laying down of treasures for a later archaeological dig. Then on these nights, nights of searching an escape, he would brush aside the dirt in his mind with his phone’s prompting, finding small pieces, some gold, some iron, most only of significance to him. By putting these thoughts into his phone he exorcised himself. Possibly damned himself. Confirmed himself. On nights like this he searched them again, looking for some moment, a thought on a break from work, a question for the woman whose straight stance he admired, a memory another’s happily laughed reminisce sparked. He could find those moments, forgotten to days when everything seemed in order and he could try to make sense of all that was left abandoned—forgotten, ignored—in daily life.
He looked up to watch the river flecked with white spray speed through a rapid, over rocks and down ledges. He remembered before—a non-time, no specific time, just remembered—standing on a bridge, staring into the water, thinking of jumping. The fall of the pull into nothing, disappearing in darkness. He hadn’t had that feeling in a long time. All desire had left him except for the desire to walk into the night. A river fall was a calling, that jump into the unknown but this night, all alone, was an escape. His head tilted back and he forced all imaginings gone as he tried to remember his purpose.
She knew Megan would be OK. Megan always was OK. That’s what made Megan who she was. Especially as she walked towards the man, out of place on a bench, alone in the dark, without a care for what she was leaving behind. Threats were left behind for Tara, threats always left for Tara—always there for Tara—as someone non-traditional, different, outside and beyond—supposedly, hatefully—from those who made their way of the world. Not just a queer woman, more, a black woman. Threats, she knew, rarely made material but always in your thoughts, beneath the surface of those who gave twisting words, hateful words that strangled with honest meaning, at best. Cold and harsh words gnarled through age-old, built-up hate; fear and pride they would never decipher but plain to her. Whatever came their way Megan—unlike Tara—was unaware, carefree and determined, and always charmed her way through.
Tara wasn’t allowed charm but even then Tara was generally OK. That wasn’t as good as always OK. OK meant that there were times you weren’t OK, times you were more than OK but mostly Tara balanced down. Megan balanced up. It was the way of the world.
Tara didn’t understand why, with all the charm that kept that balance tilted just Megan’s way, that Megan directed some of it towards her. Why she picked her, rounder, plumper, squidgier than she would want but she only had herself to blame for that with a biscuit, beer, and burrito habit. Her, a woman with spots on her chest, of all things, which Megan didn’t seem to mind.
Why Megan would have time for her—someone who kept a dead goldfish collection for an entire year when she was fourteen—over anyone who could fill her time with more than the same pub, the same clubs, the same bedroom with, yes, a family who approved, but who made them sit down to dinner, family dinners as though Megan was her family, and the same, always the same, boring life where nothing happened beyond school, study and her never ending sharing of Mixcloud playlists that Megan claimed to listen to, to love. Tara wanted more. And more to share with Megan. More to experience—to be part of what Megan felt, knew and desired—and she hated herself for not looking for it, asking for it.
Holding her breath Tara followed Megan as Megan tiptoed towards the man, his arms spread wide wrapped over the back of the bench as though welcoming the world to watch his ease.
Despite her exaggerated sneak it wasn’t that Megan was trying to be silent, not to disturb the man or stalk him. Tara could see Megan’s cartoon creep step was for her benefit. A way of dramatically preying on a new adventure, early as it was in a night of sneaking fun.
Megan gave one last look over her shoulder before breaking into the regular, confident gait Tara knew so well. The man on the bench looked up and nodded at her and Tara could just hear Megan calmly say, as was the way she was, “Shitty weather, isn’t it?” with a laugh in her voice.
“It is.” He smiled. He knew this would happen at some point. People coming to him. It was his always hope, when he was aware, that he would be in control of it. That it would be his choice to expand his night, to go to someone. His strength to initiating. A decision made, no matter how many moths it puts in your stomach. Taking the first step was control.
She was only young. A teenager. Maybe trying to spin her way into a club, maybe old enough to be there, amazed at the night, or maybe, even, already too tired of herself, her world, her place, this place. He wanted to know what she brought to the night, what she brought herself to. Maybe she was the insight he needed. She came to him and that was the beginning.
Tara arrived at the bench just in time to see the smile disappear from his face. At least that was honest, a temporary smile. The greeting smile. Enough to welcome but not a smile that hides wanting more; wants you gone, wants you on your knees, or doesn’t know what they want only they’ll take it.
“Are you homeless?” Megan asked, voice so laced with inquisition that she’d never recognise the fire behind her words.
He laughed. “For tonight,” he said. “But I have a home I can go to.”
“What do you mean, ‘for tonight?’”
“I’m going to spend the night out, by myself, alone. It lets me think.”
Tara took a hold of Megan’s elbow and pulled at her. No man spending time creeping into the night, like this, in the dark and wet, and hidden beneath trees, was anything good. They might think themselves interesting. They might think themselves above what’s right and wrong, or just not care. They might be dangerous, to themselves or to others, or maybe just to people they hated, people maybe like Tara. They might be building resolve to drag themselves down. She wanted to look at the sky, to her ancestors, for a blessing, a reason to pull herself away. Instead she looked to Megan, it was up to her to pull them away. “We should go. We’ll be late.”
Megan ignored her.
“It’s cold. You should have a drink,” Megan said. “Vodka,” she added as the man leaned forward and looked closer at the almost-translucent cola that was maybe a third spirit, and their third bottle of the night. “I have more.”
The man took the bottle from Megan’s hand, unscrewed the top, and checked over his left shoulder but not over his right as Tara thought he surely would. As though he was hiding, but from something specific he was aware of and not just someone checking their way. He began to drain back the bottle’s contents.
Drinking back the liquid was difficult. It was weak, there was vodka there, but the Coke wasn’t fizzy any more. The flatness absolved any mix of flavour. Bubbles rising up were the solution. Still, he drank.
At first Megan smiled, seeing him down the liquid. Then she laughed as he kept going. Tara pushed Megan in the ribs with the man showing no signs of giving back the bottle, instead holding it upright, straight in the air letting their drink empty out, over his tongue, down his mouth, a few drops spilling from his lips to his springy, hair-flecked skin.
The man kept drinking. Tara’s laughing stopped as her arms tucked in by her side, rigid and strict.
The liquid already warmed him. The divide between cola and vodka lost. His stomach eating, filling. Him filling. Him full. He wanted to feel ownership. He did at first. Taking a gift. The power in taking. This wild young girl was sharing and there was nothing else he could take from her. There was nothing else he would admit to taking from them. He drank.
If it was anyone but Megan she’d have turned, sharp, with doubt, but quick, and walked away, but Megan was too sure. She was unknowing of danger but if she did come across it she’d make her way to it, into it, past it. The danger wouldn’t find her, there wouldn’t be a consequence because Megan had charm and confidence but Tara needed to be there to observe it or the protective bubble Megan’s charm gave would burst.
The man stared at her, drinking their night.
James finished. Screwing the cap back on the bottle he simply said, “Thanks.” A reflex as there was nothing he was thankful for. It was freely given, and he freely drank.
He handed the bottle back to Megan. Despite him spending what seemed like an age with it, despite him draining Tara of warmth with a slow, steady stare as he drank, the bottle wasn’t emptied. Megan handed it over to Tara who opened it, wiped down the lid with her coat and took a necessary boozy glug.
“I thought you were going to finish it all,” Megan said.
Tara took out her next bottle. Megan would want more.
James shook his head. If he took it all they’d have nothing to think on. They’d have wasted their generosity, and felt foolish. He wanted them to dwell on it, realise it was his choice to bestow on them their own gift. Their coming to him, as the night had ordered. That he would take, but leave them with enough to allow for pity. He didn’t pity them. They were young, but they needed to understand what the world was around them. He didn’t know himself, but with his drinking, his taking, and his granting he felt he knew a little more.