Fortnightly Fiction | Tanja
Joe turned over in the bed. The walls beyond the bedroom door shone with the bluish gleam from the laptop’s screen. He had grown accustomed to Nicole getting up in the middle of the night so she could IM with her older sister, stationed with the US military in South Korea. This night was different though. They went to bed one before the other, the smouldering embers of an argument flickering in their minds, words not easily taken back.
He considered simply shutting the door. She would hear him. This would require a conversation then. A conversation he sensed she wanted neither. He dozed, things becoming heavy and dull again.
It was minutes later…seconds…He could not tell. The mattress subsided as someone sat down heavily upon it.
“Joe! Joe! Wake up!”
She was knelt on the bed with the laptop.
“Joe I think Tanja’s going to kill herself.”
Tanja, a friend of Nicole’s from college, a baby-faced fellow American enrolled on the same student exchanged program.
“Look!” demanded Nicole, “read it.”
Onscreen was Tanja’s Twitter account. The tweet, posted an hour earlier, read: Only in death and rebirth exists the possibility of true beauty
The previous tweet was dated three days before.
“I’m still reading it.”
“We have to stop her Joe.”
Joe snapped down the screen and set the laptop at the edge of the bed, not caring in his weary state if it slipped off.
“Doesn’t mean she’s gonna kill herself. It’s pretty vague.”
“She’s on her own. Her two roommates are in Galway. She’s been really down lately. I’m worried about her.”
“Where does she live again?”
“Out in Belfield? Come on!”
Joe turned heavily in the bed.
Her teary sniffles had him sit back up.
“Just ring her.”
“Her phone keeps going to voicemail.”
Joe was already shaking his head.
He flipped up the laptop screen. Tanja’s picture again, a smile that seemed more of an inverted frown. Joe scratched the sleep from his eyes and stared at his girlfriend, trying to focus as much scrutiny as he could muster. He was going. He already knew this.
Joe had unearthed his tracksuit bottoms amid a crumpled pile of clothing, but could not locate in the semi-darkness the correct leg for the correct foot. He knew they were on backwards.
Outside, a distant car alarm sounded against the din, as if some nocturnal birdcall. There was not a trace of the daylight warmth; the inside of his second-hand Mazda was cooler still. Staring up, Joe saw their window light flick off two floors above. This had him switch the key in the ignition. A small part of him hoped the engine would sputter into a cold dead silence. Nicole had grown up in Oakland, California, the daughter of a third-generation Armenian car mechanic. She had told him how she had learnt to change the oil in her first car. He could create no worthy excuses.
The dashboard had lit up and the engine puttered into a healthy tottering rhythm. Soon the front passenger door was open. Nicole was in her apple green duffel coat and the purple polyester bottoms she used as pyjamas. She was glowering at him.
“Where’s your coat? Why’d you not bring a coat?” asked Nicole, adding before Joe could answer, “Just forget it. We don’t have time.”
They drove along the Grand Canal, seemingly the only two people out that night. They passed a pub, whose pale interior light projected not even a sliver of shadow against the frosted glass. Nicole was on to her other friend Amy.
“Yeah, we’re going over there now.”
The canal slid by, sleekly oleaginous under the night sky and street lamp glow. Ahead Joe could see Leeson Street Bridge.
“Where are we?”
“We’ll be turning on to Leeson Street in another few seconds.”
“But we have to get Amy?”
“That’s back the way we came!”
“I don’t want to go on my own.”
“But I’m here!”
The lights were green, the bridge approaching fast on his right. Nicole folded her arms and looked away. Joe made a left after the lights.
Like Nicole, Amy was an American student on her Junior Year Abroad. Her Taiwanese parents owned a taxicab firm in Portland, Oregon. “Amy’s folks are rich,” Nicole had said. Nicole rarely mentioned the aunt that was putting her through college.
Joe had met Amy on numerous occasions. Whenever they talked it always seemed like rapidly dwindling interest on her part. “Uh-huh, yeah,” she would say before quickly glancing away. He sensed she disapproved of him. Yet Nicole had said Amy was actually quite fond of him.
“Joe!” cried Nicole.
He had accidently sounded the car horn with his elbow as he tried to rest his forehead against the steering wheel rim. Part of him wanted to press it, his grogginess producing vindictiveness. They were waiting five minutes now. Further up the street stood a takeaway, outside which a small cluster of people feasted from fat brown paper bags. This sight strangely reassured Joe.
Amy traipsed toward the car, calm and unhurried. Her arms wrapped around her dressing gown, azure blue with pearl polka dots. Joe heard the rear left door open and then clonk shut, scented the unfamiliar perfume. Nicole had started to cry. Amy seemed to draw a breath before she reached between the seats to give her friend a reassuring hug.
“It’s been two weeks since I called her,” said Nicole, stifling a sniffle. Joe nodded a hello, Amy flashing a smile over Nicole’s shoulder.
“I’m a bad friend,” cried Nicole.
“She’s probably OK.”
As he eased the car out from the kerb Joe could hear Nicole again.
“Why would she listen to them? They don’t even know her. They’re idiots. She’s fine the way she is! Not everyone has to look like a Barbie!”
Amy voice became a murmur to Nicole’s outrage.
“They know she’s lonely here. And they go off and leave her on her own…”
They were driving back down the street. Joe watched the takeaway go by on his left. Soon the light from its front shrank to no more than a glimmer in his peripherals, like a beacon.
Nearly three years after graduating Joe found his alma mater had taken on a strange otherworldly feel, like revisiting a holiday through photographs a friend had taken. He drove along the road that skirted the blocks of student residences. Further away, shut faculty buildings emerged greyly against the night. Nicole’s mobile had been ringing out for the past few moments. Again, the call switched to voicemail.
“Turn, here! There! In here!” ordered Nicole, as she swatted Joe’s shoulder.
He took the winding road through a cluster of three-storey residences. He expected a security barrier, but they were able to drive all the way around to an empty car park shaded by tall flanks of cypresses.
“It’s on the second floor,” said Nicole, racing up the steps.
Amy seemed to know the way, coolly following her frantic friend up another flight of stairs. Joe tailed behind, a shortness of breath already kicking in.
Nicole rapped on the door. They waited. Amy sneaked a peek at her iPhone, with its glass-diamond cover.
“Alright, we’ll ring campus housing,” said Nicole, rooting for her mobile.
“There’s probably nobody there,” said Amy.
“I could kick it open,” said Joe.
He turned back to Nicole who stared over at him like a scolding parent.
“There’s the twenty-four hour security office over by the arts block,” said Amy, “Guess we could try there.”
“I’ll go,” said Nicole, “But one of us needs to be here.”
“I know where it is though,” added Amy.
Nicole seemed to think for moment.
“OK. Joe, go with Amy. I’ll stay.”
Joe was a step or two ahead, Amy tracing her fingertips along the stainless steel handrail with the distractedness of a child.
“This probably got you up out of bed, huh?”
She gave Joe a knowing smile.
“I work night shifts,” he replied.
“And how’s that working out?”
She nodded in interest but asked no further questions. Joe felt uncertain of what to say next. They proceeded down the last few steps in silence. Just as they reached the corridor at the bottom of the stairs, the entrance doors ahead of them opened. Someone stepped inside.
Joe and Amy moved aside as Nicole rushed over and clutched Tanja’s wrists.
“We tried calling you Tanja.”
Tanja shuffled past Nicole towards her door. Her gaze dropped and she had trouble bringing it up.
“Sorry, my phone was off.”
Tanja rummaged in her wicker tote bag for her keys.
“Tanja, we read that tweet you posted earlier,” said Nicole.
“It was pretty weird,” added Amy, brushing back her hair.
Tanja appeared to grimace. “Yeah…it was kinda dumb.”
“We’re not happy leaving without talking first,” said Nicole.
She put an arm around Tanja and then exchanged looks with Amy. She then glanced back at Joe, “Wait out here a minute.”
Joe watched Nicole disappear inside with Tanja and Amy. Not long after soft sobs filtered through the door. A few minutes later the door reopened, Amy offering an apologetic smile.
Joe entered to find all the windows wide open. A single bulb lit the living area with a weak light. At the kitchenette counter Nicole diligently spooned coffee granules into a mug. A grime-streaked white plastic kettle boiled next to her. Joe asked if he could help. Nicole rolled her eyes and raised her arms as if to make a gesture.
“Just…just…sit down, OK.”
On the sofa Tanja picked at a wad of Kleenex. Amy had eased into the adjacent armchair. Here, she took another peep at her iPhone.
“I’m sorry for you guys having to come all the way out here,” Tanja said.
Nicole handed her the mug of coffee and sat down. Joe repositioned himself on the sofa armrest.
“It’s OK Tanja,” said Nicole, “we just wanted to talk.”
Joe observed his girlfriend shoot a barely perceptible glance over at Amy, who promptly tucked away her phone.
“Yeah,” said Amy.
Tanja looked about her slowly, as if awaking from a long slumber. “I got some movies on my laptop hard-drive if you guys wanna stay?”
“No, it’s cool,” said Nicole, “we can just talk.”
Tanja told them about the 2001 insurgency in Macedonia. Her aunt blinded by a wayward bullet that blew-in the front windscreen of her car as it idled at a military checkpoint. “It’s my home. I don’t really remember it. I left when I was little.”
Nicole made them each coffee.
Tanja enlightened them about Disneyland and EuroDisney, tailless Manx cats and Dingle Bay dolphins. End of year exams were only three weeks away. She said she would miss Ireland and wanted them to visit her in Chicago, Joe was also invited.
More coffee was made.
When at last they looked over, Amy was soundlessly slumbering on the armchair.
It was inevitability of it for Joe. Nicole’s student visa expired in less than two months. On a sprawling Californian college campus another life awaited her.
The pintsized bedroom was tidy, if somewhat disorganised. Tanja convinced them to spend the night in the room of one of her absent roommates. Joe lingered at the doorway as Nicole entered, flinging her coat on the end of the bed and flipping off her plimsolls. Small heaps of brightly coloured socks and underwear bulged from gaping bedside drawers. Nicole knocked off the bedside lamp as Joe got in beside her. The narrow bed reeked of some nectary female deodorant. The duvet seemed too short and the pillow too flat. He wanted to say something to Nicole, a nuanced distillation of the emotions bubbling inside him. Joe tried to concentrate as tiredness shunted aside each new thought. Nicole had taken his arm and draped it across her like a stole. She kissed him on the cheek.
Two words, this was all.
Featured illustration by Delaney Davis.