Different day, same nurse with a stump where her empathy should be. ‘And you’re absolutely sure you fell down the stairs again?’
Sienna nodded and the nurse rolled her eyes. ‘You sure are a klutz,’ she commented and licked her finger to turn the page on the form she’d filled out last time. ‘Still no family history of inner ear disorders? Strokes? Brain tumours?’
Some nurses at the emergency department tried to coax the truth out with words dripping like honey, but Sienna was allergic to honey. Some raised their eyebrows so high they looked like they were about to detach from their faces, transform from caterpillars into beautiful butterflies, and fly off forever. No matter how raw Sienna felt, no matter how many stitches she needed, she knew to keep that big mouth of hers shut.
In Sienna’s native, Eastern European language, the oversized mouth she supposedly had would be called unblanched. She wondered if that would have made a difference to her husband. If he knew the expression, would it inspire him to pour boiling water down her throat and watch the red skin on her tongue come away just like it would peel off a tomato?
When she came home from the hospital, a cardboard box was sat on the kitchen table. She could see from the way it was dented slightly near the bottom that it had been simply dropped on the surface.
Bob emerged from the pantry. ‘I found some shit of yours in the garage,’ he said with his mouth full, pointing at the box. ‘Now let’s see your face.’
He approached her and a familiar grip closed around her jaw, but she knew that this time, it wouldn’t end up dislocated. Bob had a process, and part of it was sweet, post-fight reconciliation, especially if she’d needed ambulatory care. Sienna suspected he probably imagined her making out with one of the nurses after the stitches had been put in place, which would explain why he was always so insatiable whenever she came back.
‘They cleaned you up well,’ was his final judgment and he ran his fingers along the cut. She didn’t flinch. ‘You’re a brave girl after all.’
The box had bits and Bobs in it. Sienna’s old life and new squeezed together, things of no consequence that never got unpacked when she’d finally moved in with her husband. The contrasts reminded her of a charity shop display window, with tennis rackets next to evening gowns next to books on stargazing. She couldn’t remember the transition from a lone immigrant to a lonely immigrant wife.
On top, a guide from a London museum Bob took her to when he was still trying to impress her. A framed picture from a holiday he booked on condition she would work for that beach body. A plain, boring Valentine’s card in an obscene shade of pink. Pink stands for flesh that reveals itself from beneath the burnt sienna skin, she thought, and her hand wondered absentmindedly to a scar on her forearm.
Underneath, she found a diary she’d kept when she’d first moved to the very foreign country. Her native rambling got progressively interspersed with more and more English words, flippant and proud like children on their first day at the kindergarten.
At the bottom, she saw a book in translation she didn’t recognise at first: Rose Madder by Stephen King. She opened it and found a stamp claiming the paperback as the property of her town library, its name embedded on the first page, all red and accusatory.
She couldn’t recall how it was ever possible that she’d brought the book along with her.
She told herself she would only read for ten minutes to jog her memory. But she couldn’t put the book down and a dangerous feeling crept up on her: an opening to a person she once knew as herself was widening like a creaking door. If her thoughts got loud enough, Bob would hear them and come running with lubricant to put an end to the incessant noise.
Here was a book about a Rose Daniels, a woman escaping domestic abuse by walking into a painting made with a type of dye called rose madder, pictured on the cover. Sienna remembered how incredulous she felt reading it for the first time, how little empathy she could muster for the protagonist. How eventually, she abandoned the book halfway through.
Who was that silhouette in her distant memory, so sure she would never be beaten around the bush, never get bent out of shape? Bob managed both at the same time once when he broke her arm behind some rose bushes on their trip to a botanical garden. He dragged her there after she’d been on his case like the world’s smallest violin for hours on end, going on and on about their sterile lawn. Sienna learned a lot of English expressions that day.
Bob had a unique way with words — they could suddenly invade the physical realm in the most literal way. He once told Sienna she ought to have her mouth washed out with soap, and he did it for her, holding her head in a steady grip under his armpit until she gagged on the bitter suds. That’s how she learned the expression.
Nails were regularly hit on their heads until they turned purple and had to be tugged off Sienna’s fingers. Curiosity did once kill her old, blind and beloved cat when it had to suffer the consequences of peeing in the marital bed. In her ideal world, it would rain cats without the dogs, and she promised Bob she would never forgive him.
She closed the book and looked at the cover. She spotted some raw sienna in the painting, which was the same hue her bruises would always eventually pale into: the most curious, sickly shade of brown.
She realised that simply turning up at the airport wasn’t a solution people opted for anymore: they all booked their tickets in advance. But she couldn’t do that either way, not with the joint account. Bob loved going through the statements day by day to investigate Sienna’s outgoings. ‘What’s the public transport charge for?’ he’d ask innocently and she’d reply with such zest it only made him more suspicious. ‘It was raining hard earlier, so I took the bus home.’
‘Why is there a supermarket bill from today? Did you go out?’
‘An international fee? Have you been sending money to your mother again?’
‘What does Bitchbox stand for?’
It was Birchbox, the only waft of monthly luxury she would ever get. A few pathetically tiny samples of cosmetics she had no use for, with a beautiful calligraphy brochure attached every time. Love yourself, queen. Every day is your day. Look beautiful, feel gorgeous.
None of the travel-sized bottles and plastic containers had made it into her hand luggage. She had the book and a few changes of clothes in her bag, and the pristine woman at the counter with no discernible facial expression was staring her down like some artefact of the past.
‘You’ll have to wait until there’s a cancellation or a no-show,’ she explained after giving Sienna’s request for a plane ticket some thought. ‘It might take a while.’
‘No problem,’ Sienna replied and wondered whether the woman would just forget about her. ‘Thank you,’ she added with emphasis. People in this country loved expressing gratitude, even when nothing was being done for them. ‘Thank you in advance,’ she remembered to pile on. She walked away in a chuffed-to-bits state of mind. This should make the robot lady feel obliged enough.
The sweats started like some twisted waterworks as soon as she inserted the credit card into the terminal. She waited, suddenly feeling like her bladder was flooded, and ran away the moment the boarding pass was printed and handed to her.
She didn’t make it. She felt a warm, spreading fullness in her underwear which made the material cling to her skin, and then a tiny trickle ran down her thigh. She changed out of the ridiculous thong she could floss with into boxer shorts — the forbidden pair, reserved for the messiest, bloodiest periods only, as per Bob’s Bible of Bootylicious.
There was nothing remarkable about the flight, no unnatural buildup of emotions, no dreadful turbulences which would symbolise Sienna’s rocky path to a smooth landing. She fished the book out of her backpack for comfort, but she ended up stepping eagerly into the pages. Carts were wheeled and plastered smiles were flashed at her, but she barely raised her head to shake it. No, thank you. Thank you in advance for not bothering me any further.
She remembered the name of the narrow side street the library was perched on because one of her school friends had lived right above it, and she gave the address to the taxi driver at the airport. She’d withdrawn as much money as she could, fearing her husband would block the card as soon as he caught on. It would cost her wordy Bob a pretty penny, as he often said. At the same time, with no pain, there was no gain.
The library was just how she remembered it, tucked into an otherwise normal building with floors and floors of flats above it, one of which her friend had occupied. Sienna gave the librarian her name, but her loan sheet couldn’t be found. ‘Do you get rid of members if they’re inactive for long enough?’
The woman shrugged. ‘On occasion.’
The book card was also not in existence anymore, which the librarian proclaimed after sifting through a folder with the words LATE RETURNS written across it in red ink.
Sienna put Rose Madder down on the counter. ‘I’d like to return it anyway,’ she said.
‘You don’t have to pay anything,’ the woman reassured her, hoping Sienna’s determination had an obvious, financial source. ‘Stuff like that happens.’
‘No, no,’ Sienna interrupted. ‘I’d like to return it. I can’t explain it right now.’
The lady stepped back a little. She knew that inexplicability wasn’t a real word for a reason, and its adjective form, inexplicable, often prefixed news reports about terrorist attacks and school shootings in faraway lands, and she felt something foreign about the manic woman on the other side of her meagre barricade.
‘I’m really sorry,’ she said finally. ‘Checking that book back in is a lot of paperwork,’ she added. In a country where mentioning bureaucracy was equivalent to pulling out a bleeding, beating heart, surely, the Sienna woman would understand. ‘Treat it as a gift from the library.’
Sienna stepped out and the sour smell of old paper and old people subsided with the next inhale, so warm and dry it could only be continental. She looked around. Her childhood home wasn’t far, only a thirty minute walk, but she was in no rush to surprise her parents. Her feet and hands weren’t tingling, and she wasn’t apprehensive, not anymore.
She discovered that her favourite ice cream parlor had been replaced by a tiny shoe boutique with touching pairs of flip-flops and sneakers clearly selected by someone with provincial taste trying to impersonate Gucci. They told her the old owners had moved to a bigger building nearby and she found it without a problem, now clinically clean, stickers of excellence and hygiene in the windows.
Sienna only tucked into her treat when she’d reached the park, by which time the four scoops inside the waffle boat had melted out of their spherical shapes. She turned her phone on and it buzzed in her hand for so long she could feel the tips of her fingers numb from the vibrations. Missed call from Bob, message from Bob, email from Bob, missed video chat with Bob.
She answered when his palindromic, ridiculous name next lit up her screen. ‘Yes?’
‘Where the fuck are you? Why is there an airport charge on our account? And ATMs? Twice? Sienna?’
She got distracted by two children rattling past her so fast it shouldn’t be possible on a tricycle, and she admired their need for speed. ‘Yeah,’ she replied.
‘Yeah? What kind of an answer is that? Where are you? I’m coming to get you.’
It occurred to her briefly that he could, but she realised he wouldn’t know the name of her home town if he had a gun put to his stupid head.
‘Alright, Bob. Come get some,’ she replied and clicked off.
The sun was shining and the children were making more noise than should be possible when you’re that small. She would get up soon, her stomach pleasantly filled with sugar Bob would have called charged with cellulite, or pumped with the bingo wing mutation. But she wasn’t going to call it that anymore, no, it could just be called ice cream again.
She felt a little dizzy when she got up and her hand wandered up to the dissolving stitches holding the two parts of her left eyebrow together. She realised with all the force in her thrice-concussed mind that she wouldn’t have to wrap bandages around her head anymore. And that somehow, she’d need to wrap her head around that.