She smacked Ahmed’s hand away from her shoulder. He was moving his hand absentmindedly. His fingers kept circling around the letters. As if his touch was emphasizing the name. Those four letters she wanted so badly to have removed. It was like having a permanent third degree burn. It irritated her to no end. In the middle of the night she would wake with deep scratches. It was as though she had been trying to dig it out of her flesh.
It was her idea to get the tattoos in the first place. Her fault, Nina hadn’t wanted to. Nina said they should get matching necklaces. But no, no, Hannah had insisted. Necklaces could be lost but tattoos were forever. Paid for them both and everything. Her guilt was unending when Nina’s got infected. She had to take antibiotics. Nina did not have health insurance. Hannah paid for the antibiotics too.
Those first few months after, they both enjoyed the thrill of having gone through with it. The best feeling came from simple acknowledgments. On campus people would see them together and ask them all kinds of questions. Would commend their commitment as though they had made the decision to get married.
When Hannah started dating Ahmed he called it sweet. Nina was very mean to Ahmed but Nina was mean to everyone. Especially men. Ahmed pretended to be oblivious and always let Nina make jokes at his expense. Sometimes the jokes crossed lines Nina had never crossed before. Hateful. Ahmed laughed it off like he did every other of life’s cruelties.
Hannah was often cruel, though he would never tell her this. Getting meaner all the time. She was billed as the nice one of the duo. Sweet Hannah and salty Nina. When Hannah smacked his hand he retracted and chuckled to himself. He asked her if she had made up her mind about the festival.
Hannah ignored his question. She got up and started folding laundry and stacking it into those neat little piles that only she could. Fabric like Legos.
She was going to the festival. But she would only go on the first day. Their film was showing on the last day according to the schedule online. Nina could have that day, Hannah had better things to do. Was she sure? Her glare in his direction was her final answer. Ahmed went to the desk and opened his laptop. He typed out an email that sounded too long from the clicking of the keys. What else was he saying to her? What could he possibly have to say?
This man hated by Nina and coveted by Hannah was now the liaison between the two. He got the job only because he did not complain. And they had no one else who knew them both and had not taken a side. Ahmed was on Hannah’s side, of course. But he was a very nice person. And he loved Hannah very much.
Her hate could have reached through the screen and choked Ahmed and Hannah both at the same time. She pushed each finger so hard against her computer keys that they felt sore by the time she was done writing back.
No, Hannah was not allowed to play the martyr. Not this time. Nina crouched over her laptop on the floor. She spread her legs across the carpet knocking over some of the piles of towels and the glasses. They were all empty, it didn’t matter.
“Hey, I didn’t know you had a tattoo. How have I not noticed that?”
Nina had forgotten all about the girl she had let spend the night. Quiet as a mouse, like her name, Eva. Stupid, Sophomore, Strawberry haired Eva. Eva had turned the overhead light on. Nina screamed at her to turn it off.
No more spending the night. She needed to kick them out. Why had she broken her rule?
She looked at Eva’s round and doughy face which was on the verge of tears. That’s why.
Eva watched as Nina smacked her laptop closed and did some stretches. In a pigeon pose Nina told Eva that she was sorry and urged her not to cry. Did Eva want to come to a film festival? It was in Hartford. Eva’s dumb face lit up like a kid at Christmas. Of course she had nothing better to do. She was unendingly impressed that her girlfriend had directed and starred in a film.
Nina winced twice. Once when Eva used the word girlfriend. And again when Eva ran her too long fingers across Hannah’s name emblazoned on Nina’s shoulder. She would have pushed Eva away, but she knew she had hit the cruelty threshold for one day. And Eva was very nice. Nina very much did not want to go to the festival alone.
Connecticut was supposed to be beautiful. Big sprawling country estates like Old Hollywood stars used to escape to. Katharine Hepburn. But there was a yellow sour cloud of smoke coloring the whole of the upper east coast. And it had reached Connecticut.
Hannah did not thank Ahmed for booking the bed and breakfast. It was romantic in theory, but Hannah would have preferred a hotel. Hotels were cleaner.
She fussed for a few hours that morning over what to wear. It was unlike her not to have planned better. The shirt she wanted to wear was too hot. And her other options all revealed the tattoo. She settled on an off the shoulder number which still concealed the bottom half of Nina’s name.
They were running late. It did not matter, but Ahmed still should have reminded her. He got the silent treatment as they drove through the sallow countryside and into the ugly city. The insurance capital of the world. It looked it.
At the table to pick up her name tag Hannah was accosted by an older woman holding a clipboard.
“We need at least two more directors for the panel later this morning. Can you please do it?”
Ahmed stood off to the side. He was grinning, he had dropped the hint to the woman. He had probably been emailing her too. A conspiracy. Hannah did not return Ahmed’s smile, but she did not want to look like a jerk. She told the woman that she would love to be on the panel. No one told her what the topic was. Just that it was in room 108B at eleven.
Hannah checked her phone. It was already ten thirty. And Brad had texted her. Twice. She had told him to stop texting. She had been paranoid that Ahmed was becoming suspicious. In truth, Ahmed had no idea that Hannah was still having sex every Sunday with her ex fiancé. He thought she was going to church. He did not question. Ahmed was very nice. And he thought that surprising her with the panel would be a great idea. That she needed to be broken out of her shell.
Hannah stood with her back to Ahmed outside room 108B. She tried to do a few breathing exercises she picked up from her days at the yoga studio. They did not help. She moved her shirt up and down on her shoulder. She scraped her nails over the fabric and then underneath. It was burning like the smoke outside.
Only two other people were on the folding chairs onstage. The other directors were running late. She sat at the end of the line and watched as people trickled in to fill the seats on the floor. Ahmed sat directly in middle of the room. He beamed at her. She smirked back.
At the check in desk Nina discovered that her plus one ticket was already taken.
“Each filmmaker, even if they are more than one person, are considered to be one person. For festival purposes only. Your film’s plus one ticket has been claimed.”
Eva had insisted on holding hands. She was a hand holder. Even on the drive over, Eva’s hand kept resting on Nina’s hand on the gear shift. The traffic was terrible, Nina had to shift often. And Eva’s skinny clammy fingers heightened Nina’s annoyance to an insane degree. She itched her shoulder as she asked the older woman how much an extra ticket would be. Maybe she would be very nice and buy Eva a ticket.
Eighty five dollars. No, Nina was not going to be nice today. Oh well. Eva handed over a credit card and wrote her name on a badge. Nina wanted to protest. Only the artists were supposed to wear name tags. Eva put a heart at the end of her name. Big bubbly letters. Like a kindergartner. Nina wanted to take her in the bathroom and do terrible things to her but it was already ten fifty five.
“Where’s the director’s panel?”
The woman pointed down the hall and Nina stalked off, dropping Eva’s hand. Eva trailed behind contemplating asking for her money back and leaving. She had had mean girlfriends before. It was a pattern she’d like to stop repeating.
But then Nina came running back down the hallway to Eva. That was sweet of her, she needed a pep talk. Or advice on public speaking. Afterall, Eva was a theater major. Nina was double majoring in literature and psychology. She would need advice.
No. She needed a camel. Nina unloaded her giant tote bag and jacket and file folders into Eva’s arms.
“Aren’t you nervous?”
Eva asked, still hopeful Nina might show her some glint of vulnerability. No, Nina had never been nervous in her life.
Eva watched her hurry back down the hallway and into the conference room. The doors to the room were heavy and sighed as they closed. Eva took a deep breath and trudged down the hallway. Nina’s stuff felt heavy in her arms.
The panel had to start two minutes late. The chair on the opposite end from where Hannah was sitting on the stage was still empty. Someone was very late. The moderator was the same older woman from the lobby. She was futzing with a microphone. It screeched and she hit it with her hand. As she did, the conference room door swayed open and Nina came like a tumbleweed into the crowded room.
Hannah found it so typical that Nina did not even bother to look around the room. She did not look at the full line of chairs. She saw the empty one on the end and went for it. It did not phase her at all. She walked up to her seat as if she were traipsing through the aisles of an empty grocery store. As she settled into her seat and the moderator got the hang of the microphone, the doors opened a second time. A skinny little strawberry blonde with her arms full of junk came into the room. She was not as brave as Nina. She apologized and slunk through the aisles. Helpers who were already seated led her to one of the only empty chairs. Dead center right next to Ahmed.
Nina watched the girl take her seat and blew her a kiss. The girl blushed until she was the same color as her hair. Then Nina noticed Ahmed sitting next to the girl. Her face fell and her head whipped around to the end of the line.
Hannah held her breath and stared straight ahead. Her arms went stiff. She anticipated the scream, the expletives. She rocked in her chair a little. These chairs were light weight. Nina could easily throw it. Maybe break one over Hannah’s back.
The moderator went through the introductions. Nina went first. She kept it short. The woman next to Hannah smiled and asked,
“Isn’t that your co-director? Would you like to sit next to each other?”
Hannah stole one more brief glance towards Nina. Nina’s shirt was strapless and showing the tattoo of Hannah’s name. Its misshapen bloated letters took up most of Nina’s bony shoulder.
They had not faced each other in nine months. As the moderator started in with questions, Hannah scooted her shirt further down her back. Nina’s name was completely visible.
Nina observed Hannah’s act. She was pretending to be shocked and nervous. She was still wearing those ugly fake eyelashes. The ones that make a person’s eyes look like moth wings. Hannah wore too much makeup, like a mask. She hid her pimples and her spite under all that stuff.
Nina would not fold. It was the longest forty five minutes of her life. Neither her nor Hannah responded to many of the questions. It was only at the very end that they were both forced to speak. Ahmed. Hannah’s stupid boyfriend. A puppy dog disguised as a man.
“Yes, I have a question for the partner filmmakers. What was it like working together so closely with another artist? What were the challenges working as a pair?”
That was a rich question coming from him. He was one of the biggest problems on set. Always late to every call, always dropping the equipment. The boom mic.
Hannah kept quiet and fluttered her eyes at Ahmed. Nina gave in.
“The problem was not each other. It was all the other people. The actors, the editor, the crew. We worked perfectly fine. It’s other people. They’re the worst.”
This got a bit of a chuckle from the crowd. No one took this very seriously. No one except for Hannah who knew she meant it.
Nina felt eyes on her. She looked over and saw through Hannah’s mask. Hannah was looking at her and Nina was looking at Hannah’s tattoo.
They had not even been introduced yet but Eva followed Ahmed dutifully into the lobby. She stood next to him as they waited for the girls. They waited half an hour. He asked Eva if she would like a coffee and it was like he had asked her if she wanted a free vacation to Paris. She was overly grateful, a rug of a person. Nina certainly had a type. Then again, so did Hannah.
They waited another half an hour. They grew tired of waiting and went to one of the films being shown. It was thirty eight minutes but felt like three hours. He heard Eva’s stomach making noise during the quiet parts. He was hungry too.
“Do you think they’re still in there?”
Eva looked towards the closed conference room doors. Ahmed sighed. He could hear the cackling. Eva walked up to the door and put her ear to it. She heard it too. The girls inside were in hysterics, catching up after lost time. Ahmed felt himself shudder. This was what he had wanted, what he’d been planning for. He knew as soon as they were back in the same room they would be two peas in a pod once again. But rather than the sound of their laughter making him happy, he felt unnerved, a bit afraid. The sounds coming from the conference room reminded him of the witches in Macbeth. Just like old times.
As Eva backed away from the door and adjusted the load of stuff in her arms, the conference room opened. They had their arms on each other’s shoulders. Their tattoos were touching. They were still laughing and their breath was like a stinking cloud. Like the smoke outside.
Where had they gotten whiskey? Ahmed felt a sense of doom. He did not want this. He did not want to do this anymore. And looking at Eva, even if she wanted to, she’d never survive. None of Nina’s companions had. Not Chloe, Rachel, Kelly, Victoria, Marisa or Christine. Poor, poor Christine.
Before Ahmed could open his mouth Nina and Hannah both started talking at once. Interrupting each other with little sinister drunken giggles. They wanted Ahmed and Eva to go home. They would not be needing them. All they needed was each other. They made a film together, didn’t Ahmed and Eva know that? And they wanted to have fun at their festival which would be showing their film.
“And you’re no longer invited.”
Hannah shoved her finger into Ahmed’s chest to emphasize each word. The two strolled out of the lobby still cackling. Long dark hair swishing around. No one dared tell them to be quiet. Everyone just wanted them gone as quickly as possible. Out they went. And Nina’s sapphire Volkswagen bug sped past the front windows and onto the highway in the distance.
Ahmed felt a rush of relief. He heard a sniffling and saw that Eva had dropped the junk in her arms. Her face had disappeared behind a curtain of strawberry frizz.
“How am I supposed to get home?”
Ahmed rolled his eyes, sure that Eva would not see. He was always cleaning up after them. What was one more very nice mess?
“Come on kid, let’s get some lunch.”