Propping on an elbow, Claire tried to rub the sleep from her eyes. Smashing the alarm clock dead with a muttered curse, she got on her feet blindly in search of coffee. She couldn’t afford to be late today.
Madison would pick her up from the god-forsaken station in the middle of nowhere. There was no time to shower, and the idea of riding a bus for three hours to this tiny hamlet made her skin crawl.
But they had agreed on neutral grounds to culminate their online trysts of the last fortnight. This was going to be a meeting beyond the protected realms of online platforms and the passive confidence of texting. And despite having talked again after years, many things remained unspoken to Claire’s liking.
Checking her phone while lost in wary thoughts of disaster, Claire yelped and run to get dressed, the big clock on the wall ticking time away.
Bag in one hand and laptop further up her shoulder, she took her first step down the staircase, humming an old Joy Division song.
Why is the bedroom so cold?
You've turned away on your siii –
For a split second, she thought she’d go flying through the mezzanine window, but she managed to stop her fall by grabbing onto the rusty rail.
“Damn damn damn!” she exploded while squeezing her eyes shut in a grimace. Having made sure her ankles were still in place, she whispered the next line and her stomach lurched.
Is my timing that flawed?
She didn’t know where this one had come from. She hadn’t listened to that song for ages. Shaking her head at the perilous omen lurking in the corners of her mind, she forced an off-key whistling to chase it away.
“One last shot,” she reminded herself while getting in the waiting cab. Inside the dry warmth, Claire pondered on the connotations of that phrase. Was a last shot simply the sworn final attempt after endless failures or was it rather the right bullet to get the body rid of its clinging soul?
Soon, she knew, she’d be in a countryside flat testing her etymology theories on the new, cool, easy-going Madison that resurfaced online after years of bitter drama and blocking manoeuvres.
Having boarded the bus, she decided to let Madison know she’d be on time. Her annoyance at the pending reply was hampered by the passenger sagging right next to her. The acrid smell of tobacco, sweat, and a half-eaten burger flooded her nose despite the double mask hiding most of her pandemic paranoia.
Though she’d never dare to approach Madison in an intimate way, she did want to be at least presentable. Frowning at her reflection on the tinted glass, she focused on breathing through her mouth. After three hours being crammed in this bus shuttle, she’d be anything but presentable.
Closing her eyes as if to stop nausea piling up her throat, she admonished herself to act with the same calmness Madison had displayed when suggesting a weekend excursion to right the many wrongs between them.
Yet the farther the bus went, the more she found herself in that ragged bar where she had to break up with the red-haired woman six years ago. For seven months she had tried to ignore her quarter-life crisis by keeping herself busy with Madison’s whims and undisclosed thoughts. Claire had been too drunk on Madison’s mysterious appeal to notice how the flirting and night-out dinners turned into binge-watching, awkward silence, and one-sided sex. Breaking up had never been that easy, and Claire had severed all ties despite Madison’s persistent messaging and unsuccessful trips to see her.
Honouring her belief that people could change, Claire had felt the tingling attraction again while face-calling. As enchanting as ever, Madison’s familiar face had risen from a sea of strangers, promising a break from loneliness and mundane reality.
The bus finally reached its destination, and swaying on her feet Claire was desperate for a smoke after hours of restlessness, overthinking, and pretending her senses were dead.
A buzz let her know Madison was running late because she wanted to take a shower. Claire cursed her bad luck and sniffed her clothes. She only wished she didn’t smell as bad as the poor guy on the bus. She glanced around the empty station wondering why she had been stressed about arriving on time.
The ‘new Madison’ texted the same way the ‘old Madison’ did that there was traffic, too. She flopped down on a bench and lit a cigarette to curb the bad feeling threatening now in the form of a headache.
Twelve butts later, Madison honked and pulled over a good distance away. She was the same as ever in Claire’s eyes. Pastel colours, lean, fiery-red hair cascading over her shoulders, face safely hidden behind a mask. Claire had to walk to her, remembering how she always was the one to make the first move.
“I hope you had a mask on in the bus,” she offered by way of greeting.
“What?” Claire demanded, arching a brow and waving her hand where the mask was limply hanging.
“That looks dirty.”
“It’s bloody make-up,” she spat out, reaching for a new mask from her bag. “Happy now? Can we please move? I’m cold.”
Madison was already fastening her seat belt though, leaving no room for any physical or verbal declarations of welcoming. She looked at her and winked, turning her attention to her iPod.
Claire felt her shoulders rise in tension as the soft tune of a pop song filled the gap between them. She smelled disinfectant and a welcome waft of flowers as Madison brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. Instant awareness took over her body that this could go either bad or really bad. But she had to try at least once, even if only to exorcise the past heartache, her guilty consciousness prodded.
“Still haven’t managed to quit smoking,” Madison broke the silence, eyes on the road.
Claire sighed. “These are no real cigarettes. I’ll go outside when needed.”
“Right. When is your meeting over?”
“Maybe in an hour?” She smiled tentatively, “How have you been?”
“Not too bad. And you?”
“Pretty well. I’ll need a shower after work, but then I’m all yours.”
Madison nodded, and they drove on in silence.
Claire was greeted by the host and ran upstairs to get a chance to brush her teeth and comb her disobedient hair. She heard Madison chatting away with the middle-aged woman, and felt a sharp jab of pain in her chest. Madison was apparently no longer quiet, meek, or withdrawn around people, except for her.
When she came to the living room, she found her removing her things from the table, a spray bottle to hand. She had her mask still on and seemed absorbed by the cleaning task.
“I’m fully vaccinated, you can take the muzzle off,” Claire said.
“It’s become second nature, I guess. Where are you having your meeting?”
“I can take the couch if that’s okay,” Claire said while scanning the studio flat.
“Okay, I’ll take the bed then. Do you want some crisps?” Madison pointed to a bag on the floor.
“God no, the guy next to me smelled terrible, I can’t stomach anything right now.”
Madison laughed quietly for the first time while pulling down her mask. Yet Claire noticed how her eyes didn’t wrinkle accordingly. The flirtatious Madison of the last two weeks simply whirled and continued scrubbing.
The creaking sound under her weight made Claire look up from the couch just in time to see Madison’s lips purse.
“I’m done. Do you want to come sit with me?”
Madison got rid of her headphones and moved towards her, but at the last minute, she opted for a chair opposite Claire.
“I won’t bite, Mad.”
“Couches are filthy, Claire. And you’ve been sitting there with the same jeans you had in the bus.”
“Oh. Well… Let me cover it with the duvet then. Is that better?”
Madison moved to the couch, arching her back to avoid the plush pillows.
“You don’t seem comfortable” Claire’s voice came out softly.
“The pillows aren’t covered.” Madison turned around, wringing her hands and staring into nothing. “And it’s surreal you’re here. Are you comfortable?”
“Not if you aren’t. But I’m really happy to see you. You look amazing. How's work?”
“Same old. I’m not as busy as you, obviously, but it’s grand.”
“I thought you said you hated it. How about we check for further training or something? See how we can get you out of there,” she offered a wider smile.
“Let’s chill first, okay? You’re not here to find me employment. How about a film?”
“A film? Sure. Maybe later we can go out for a walk though?”
Two romcoms later, Claire’s invitation had gone unanswered, and she was fidgeting now with a crisp over the abstract notion that people might not really change after all. She had come to clear the air between them but now all she could think of was the heavy atmosphere in the studio flat.
Madison suddenly moved closer to her to lie back against her, and Claire felt a shiver down her spine. The woman seemed more relaxed now, apparently having forgotten about Claire's jeans. The incoherent film gradually turned to background noise as they both moved eagerly against each other, savouring kisses and caresses with an urgency Claire could not place. Jeans and defenses down, she followed Madison to bed and threw all caution to the wind.
“Dani, I’m telling you it’s so weird. No! She brushed me off after sex, like a leper. I know I shouldn’t have rushed it, but I did it. No no, she told me not to hug her because I would wake her up. She made me sleep in my panties because I sat on the couch with my pyjama bottoms when we had dinner. I don’t know, she really hates that couch – And shit, she had sex, not I. Again! It’s just the way it used to be. And now she’s watching yet another film. I’m losing it, I swear. She’s acting as if I don’t exist!”
It all came out in condensed breaths while she tried to balance her phone, cigarette, and freezing limbs under a tree.
“This is not helping, Dani,” she bellowed. “I know I hurt her when I left, but she asked me to come here and she was fine till yesterday night. Or so I thought. This isn’t one last shot. This is a bloody shooting spree!”
Madison was chuckling away at the screen when Claire entered the flat. Fists clenched, Claire walked to the bathroom. The only room able to block her from Madison’s view. She found the woman staring intently at her though when she emerged.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Did you wash your hands?”
“What the hell? Of course, I did!”
“Before or after flushing?”
“W- What do you mean? I don’t know, I – .”
Madison swaggered towards her, took her by the elbow, and gave her a full-blown demonstration on the right way to flush by using a piece of paper instead of bare hands. Claire was watching in awe, eyes drifting between Madison and the silver dual flush button, almost having an out-of-body experience.
“ - And then dispose the paper. Your hands are still clean. No filth, no nothing,” Madison finished.
“You think I’m dirty? Is that why you would not touch me last night? Why you freaked out about my pyjamas touching the sofa?” Claire was struck by not having connected the dots earlier.
“I never said that.”
“But you believe that!” Claire could feel her control slipping away, “You don’t allow me to touch your face while kissing! Your hands are like sandpaper with all this sanitizer you’re splashing around! You’re constantly spraying things! Is it because of covid?”
“Hands transmit germs. This is basic hygiene, Claire, not just covid. I don’t even touch my own face. I like things being neat.”
“Neat? You’re staring me down like a hawk when I dare to move a finger. Are you disgusted by me?”
“No. I just like things to be neat, and you’re not like me in that,” she almost pinched the bridge of her nose. Almost, Claire noticed.
“I’m not clean enough for you? Is that what you’re trying to say?” Claire insisted in a hoarse voice.
“All I'm saying is that you're different. More different than I thought you’d be.”
“But that’s normal. It’s been years. We’re both different from before, no?”
“Yeah but I’m not feeling it, Claire. You’re here and I wanted you to be here, but it feels like you’re a stranger. Don’t you have work to do anyway?”
“But Mad, I thought you wanted to give this a go, too. I told you I had to work today. I told you from the start.”
“I know but I don’t think I can do it. All of it. We have different lifestyles. You’re too active for me, and you work when I don’t. This could simply never work out,” she concluded with a sigh.
Madison urged her out of the bathroom and closed the door to her face. Claire’s mind was reeling in silence at the turn things had taken. She hadn’t just been rejected. This was more than a past grudge and bitterness. Madison might have kissed her last night, but the woman was surely rinsing her mouth with betadine now.
“Can we at least talk so I can understand what’s going on in your head? Please?” Claire attempted later on. “Did I push you somehow? Do you want to go? Was this to get over your ex?” she had to force herself to pause and wait for an answer.
“No to all of that. Though you may not believe it right now, I actually thought we could try and see what happens. But I’m not feeling it.”
“You said so already. I get it. Did something happen though? Cause I feel used and scorned. You called me dirty and you make me feel unwanted," Claire kept her voice as flat as possible.
"There’s nowhere to go, Madison, not until tomorrow morning. So we have to resolve this.”
“There’s nothing to resolve, and I never called you dirty. It’s all cool.”
“Cool? You won’t even talk to me like a human being!”
“Isn’t that what you did when you left?”
“That’s what it is then? Pay-back time?”
“No, I really wanted to believe it could work. But you’re not like before.”
“Yeah, I’m not miserable anymore!” Claire yelled despite her best efforts to be as calm as the woman before her.
“And I don’t know you,” Madison continued as if Claire had never uttered a word. “I loved you even after you left. I thought I could do it again. I’m sorry if you feel bad, but I can’t force it,” Madison explained, her face an emotionless mask made of taut skin.
“For two weeks you’ve been acting like you fancied me, you even suggested a holiday in the summer. You contacted me, remember?” Claire said, flailing her arms in all directions.
“Yeah, I did,” her flat eyes flashed as if in anguish. “What can I say? I’m sorry you had to come all the way out here but we’re not clicking. Can’t you see it? You’re driving me insane with your tiny bottles of serum and creams, your clothes scattered everywhere. Your fork is still in the sink. When ever are you going to wash that?” she snapped.
Claire knew this was the end of their conversation as Madison turned her attention back to her beloved screen, making crystal clear she had issued an order. She rushed to the sink to wash that one fork that had driven Madison over the edge. She then hid in the shower for a good hour, washing away Madison’s implication of not being clean enough. Not sparing a second to mull over the romantic rejection.
This was a real last shot – bam! She couldn’t feel anything anymore, so she deducted her soul must have left her dirty body behind. She spent the night on the sofa, staring at the dirty pillows Madison had avoided as much as her.
Looking at the young students carelessly sitting on the train floor, Claire snorted at how Madison would probably faint dead at seeing them. She had the urge to join them and rub herself against the filthy moquette, just out of spite.
By the time she got home, she realised Madison had blocked her on the apps, turning the tables on her for what she had done in the past.
Claire poured some more wine, replaying the flush and fork scenes in her head. Each of her friends had offered a different interpretation of things but all agreed on it being the worst disaster in the history of dating. She decided to text Madison and let her know she was hurt and offended, still unable to accept being called dirty.
Two hours later, Madison’s lengthy message assured Claire she was neither dirty nor to blame as she had finally realised by seeing her in the flesh that they could never be in real life what she wanted them to be in her head.
I don't want to be heartbroken again. Sorry I was blinded, Claire. I thought my obsession was love. But I’m not obsessed with you anymore.
Claire closed her eyes finally in understanding.
And we're changing our ways
Taking different roads
She sang along while lying on her dirty sofa in a sense of victory over her own unacknowledged obsession with the past. And then she cried.