Just Like Me
by Adelaide Faith
We cross the road. To make up for the way my desirability has been decreasing over time, I’ve been trying to act like a smoker, though I haven’t smoked for years. I’ve started leaning against shop windows, leaving cafes to stand in a corner, out of the wind, out of the way of the pedestrian flow. I’ve been conjuring up these pictures I used to have on my wall, of Winona Ryder driving a taxi, smoking. I picture them, then I say to myself: just like me.
Before we go in, to get our coffee, I pull Megan to one side. I’m so happy to see her, but I use a swift seamless motion that reminds me of the school bullies. My palm feels damp on the silky folds of her blazer.
“You’re doing the normal world thing,” I say to Megan. “I can’t believe it.”
Megan’s hair is dark brown. It’s nearly black, but not quite, and there’s a big difference. I know what she’s trying to say about herself by keeping it dark brown. When Winona Ryder is driving the taxi, her hair is black. I scan Megan’s face for signs of ageing. There are clusters of moles on her cheek but they could have all been there before, I can’t be sure. Even though our faces are close, even though they’ve been closer.
Megan sighs. She knows what I’m talking about, we’ve been friends since we were seventeen.
“I always do the normal world thing now,” she says. “I do it all the time. Everybody does.”
My hand twitches and I release her arm. “They don’t do it when they’re with me,” I say. “Why is that?”
Megan goes in and holds the door open for me behind her. She is going to carry on the conversation. She’s probably thinking she doesn’t deserve this, and she doesn’t. She came here as a favour that could be called the culmination of a favour ten-years-long.
“Maybe because you give off a certain air,” she says. “Maybe without meaning to.”
We stand in the queue. The place is dark and the floor is concrete, but it’s not a dive. There is a jar of dog biscuits on the counter by the till.
“An air of…” I say, stretching my neck forward to see the side of her face.
“I don’t know… superiority?” she says, looking up at the menu. “Maybe people are afraid you will judge them for acting normally.”
I hold open my bag as if I’m looking for my wallet, and in the dark folds of the bag’s lining I can see a small hologram of my therapist. Her mouth is open. Her beautiful wrinkled hands are cupped with the palms facing upwards because she’s raising them in supplication.
She is speaking slowly, too quietly for me to hear, but I can lip read one word: judgemental.
Megan has come to return my box of personal effects. She has looked after them — without looking through them — for ten years. Diaries, scrapbooks full of pictures of sleeping boyfriends, break up letters, naked photographs of ex-girlfriends, polaroids of my chest with various names written on the flat part in black eyeliner. And then art books containing “explicit” images, unread paperbacks with “explicit” scenes. When I agreed to get engaged, my fiance stayed up all night going through everything in the flat, because it had suddenly become our flat. He made a pile in the middle of the lounge, which he showed me the next morning, leading me there by the arm, and stopping me a safe distance away. Everything in the pile, he explained, made it hard for him to breathe. The off-licence that we lived above opened its doors just at that moment, we both heard the bells, and he encouraged me to stay put with a hand gesture, and ran down the stairs, taking quite a few at a time, it sounded like, and asked if they could spare a medium-sized cardboard box. They could.
I packed the box myself. I carried it to my car and strapped it in the passenger seat, but on the way to the dump I stopped off at Megan’s. She’d been out the night before, she opened the door in a black t-shirt covered in different stains and no pants. She wasn’t quite awake, but she managed to give me a worried look as I passed the box over to her. Whenever Megan moved house after that — roughly once a year, for the next ten years — she took my box with her. It had taken ten years for me to come to my senses, and here we were.
Megan puts the box on the table and does the motion of wiping dust from her hands to indicate she is done. I blush. I pull the box down onto the seat next to me.
“Thank you,” I say.
We look at the things that are still between us on the table: yellow cake with pink icing, soft milky coffee. Nice things that people had made for us to enjoy.
I rub the flap on the cardboard box with one hand, reach my other hand across the table towards Megan. I want to be more specific.
“Thank you for ten years of trust,” I say, and she takes my hand, and smiles and looks around the room.
“It seems nice here,” she says. “People seem relaxed. It seems like a nice town.”
“I think it’s that there’s more space,” I say. “And it’s like everyone has chosen a spot, and they know they never have to give it up, that no one else will try to take it from them.”
Megan nods and cuts her cake into lots of small pieces, as if to feed children.
“I always see the same people, in the same places,” I say. “And there seem to be so many … lookalikes.”
Megan looks up, interested, keeps eating the pieces of cake.
“There’s this man that looks just like Nick Cave,” I say. “He’s always standing outside the snooker hall. Tall, thin, a 3-piece suit, a mullet, dyed black hair. He’s like the person Nick Cave based his look on. I don’t know. Either all the famous people are hiding here, living a quiet anonymous life, or…”
“Or it’s the lookbook town,” Megan says.
I laugh and cough on cake crumbs.
“And there’s Eliza Douglas,” I say. “She walks past my house every day.”
Megan pumps one hand in the air in excitement. I watch the silky ripples her blouse makes.
“She’s tall and skinny,” I say. “Wears big druggy t-shirts, and long black trousers, with black ribbons dangling off them, at certain points.”
“Lovely,” Megan says.
“She has very long hair,” I say. “She looks like she’s never had her hair cut her entire life, like she’s completely refused.”
We both need the toilet at exactly the same time.
“Sisters” I say, and she laughs.
We started calling ourselves sisters when we found out our birthdays were on the same day. What we must have meant was twins. We sit on toilets in adjacent cubicles and wait for the lower half of our bodies to relax. I keep one foot on top of the box.
“Would you move here?” I say, facing straight ahead.
“I don’t think I could, logistically,” she says back.
“But if you could?” I say. “Would you?”
She says either “sure” or “not sure” as the toilet flushes. I see her shoes under the partition – wine coloured loafers with tassels. I wonder how natural she felt when she chose them.
We look at each other in the mirror when we wash our hands.
“Wasn’t this how we got to know each other,” Megan says. “Through a mirror? In the toilets?”
I look at her reflection.
“In the Barfly?” she says.
She’s right. That’s where we had met. I was always in the toilets in the Barfly. Not because I needed the toilet, but because I wanted a break from not knowing what to do with my body.
“Did you ever enjoy yourself,” I say, “at the Barfly.”
“Nope,” Megan says, shaking water off her hands.
“I went every week,” I say. “I didn’t want to miss it, I don’t know why it seemed so important not to miss it.”
“I think I wanted to keep an eye on people there,” Megan says. “To check how much of a good time they were having.”
“And now?” I say. “Do you…”
“Who would I check,” she says, stepping sideways, to the dryer.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I feel like there should still be a group of people we want to check, somewhere.”
We stand at different dryers and they make their loud noise, then we leave, me carrying the box now.
There is household rubbish all over the pavement beside a charity shop. We step over wine bottles, takeaway foil trays, used blister packs of meds.
“People have been having a nice time,” Megan says, smiling.
Megan seems so warm now.
I stop and look closer to try to make out the name of the meds then run to catch up with her.
“They had unicorn ice-cream,” I say. “Did you see that?”
We turn the corner and there’s the sea.
We walk towards it, it brightens our faces. I put the box on my hip.
“I worry that I’m not doing the normal world thing at all yet,” I say. “All I do with people is, I look at them. I don’t help them, like you are doing. Like everyone seems to be doing now.”
“Well you’re doing other things,” Megan says. “You’re… helping… animals.”
She’s right. I’ve been volunteering at a wildlife shelter. I’ve been walking old ladies’ dogs.
“Nobody would expect you to do the normal world thing, with humans, at the moment,” she says.
On the beach I start trying to count the animals I’ve helped, then decide I’ll do it when Megan’s gone and I’m by myself again.
“What’s it like in London now,” I say. “It seems strange that it’s still there.”
Megan looks at the sea. “It’s as if there was an explosion five or ten years ago,” she says, “and everyone flew off, in different directions, and now no one is left, at the centre.”
“Except for you. You’re at the centre,” I say.
Megan turns to me. “But not in a good way,” she says.
“I liked the feeling, when we all lived in the same place,” I say.
Megan nods. Her mouth seems to turn down more now, when her face is just at rest.
“But being older seems… better,” she says.
We are playing with the pebbles, picking them up, holding them loosely and letting them drop from our hands. It’s relaxing.
The next time we need the toilet we go to public ones, outside. The building smells bad but we can easily ignore that kind of thing, now, together — we both know humans stink. Megan goes to the biggest cubicle and pulls me in with her.
I put the box on the floor and push the lock in. Megan pulls down jeans and knickers in one go, then sits. I lower myself onto the box, and our eyes are level.
Megan says: “I won’t be here tomorrow.” She says: “It’s good to see you.” She reaches out one hand and because I don’t know if she wants toilet roll or my hand I do nothing.
She leans further forwards to reach my hand, and something shifts, my brain remembers a former mode.
“Sometimes I just think: it’s over,” I say.
“No,” she says, “it was much more over before.”
“If it was over before, what’s this,” I say. “Heaven?”
“Maybe,” she says. “You can do what you like now. Nobody’s watching you.”
She moves both our hands towards the toilet roll, but pauses mid-air.
“There’s more,” she says, bringing our hands back to rest on her knees.
“But does it still seem like me”, I say.
“It’s obviously still you,” Megan says.
“Maybe just a different version of me?” I say. “The heaven version?”
The top half of my body feels very relaxed and Megan smiles and I don’t smile.
Megan looks past me, at the door.
“Someone has written moonface there,” she says.
I twist my neck to see.
Megan stands and flushes and says: “Have you seen those tall shoes everyone’s wearing at the moment? Do they wear them here too?” She’s really shouting, maybe to compete with the flush, maybe from excitement.
“Yes,” I say. I start laughing and I realise I’m enjoying myself.
“Platforms,” she says. “They’ve even got them on trainers, these really big soles. They make people so much taller. I don’t understand,” she says.
“Why people like them?” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “Why they want to wear them. Why they think they deserve to wear them.”
We hear someone open the door of the next cubicle, and turn our heads to look, as if we can see through partitions.
“I’ve wondered about it too,” I say, quietly. “I don’t know where they came from.”
“We should both get some, for our birthday,” Megan says. “We’d be further away from the floor.”
I shake my head.
Megan puts her arm past me to open our door. She tips her head down, then says through her hair: “We can both pull it off.”
We don’t speak when we wash our hands, there are no mirrors in these toilets, just white sheets of plastic nailed to the wall. I look at Megan’s hands washing each other and imagine another bed getting delivered to my room. I picture two men sliding it into the space between my bed and the wall. Then I picture those shoes on the floor — the shoes with the giant soles — one pair at the foot of my bed and one pair at the foot of hers, both super white and clean, both standing high off the ground. “Megan,” I say, turning my top half towards her but shaking the water from my hands away from her, “did you look in the box?”
Adelaide Faith is a vet nurse from Hastings and London. Her writing appears online at Forever Magazine, Hobart, Maudlin House, Stone of Madness Press and ExPat Press. She is currently querying her first novel: a story about obsession, half told through therapy sessions. Instagram: @lollipop_pierrot
Image original: Kelli McClintock/Unsplash