The best thing about the apartment, Kate realized quite quickly, was the fire escape. Beyond the bedroom window and above the street you could nest there, held halfway between the inside world and outside world, suspended and sequestered. Today, she’d carefully furnished the space, made a small universe of select things: iced coffee, pack of cigarettes, cushion, book. Things to hold on to, to make you feel you were held on to. Which was a lie, of course. She was catastrophically unheld, and at the same time terribly conspicuous. That, maybe, was the worst thing about being lost: everyone could see you.
She’d had to ask for this iced coffee three times, as if she were speaking an entirely different language. Even before she’d opened her mouth, she had seemed to palpably discomfit the honey-haired barista. When she’d finally made herself understood and Honey-Hair had turned to shovel ice into a plastic cup, Kate checked her own shoes, left and right, and confirmed, definitively, that her soles were unshitted.
Everyone is invincible at eighteen. In that first year of university, in the weeks before she met George, Kate had experienced the sensation of being at the center of a web that tilted with her as she moved, as if the world were yielding to her, as if she were putting it in motion. Everything was smaller then. Now when she thought of Cambridge, she thought of the city’s model, on the raised circular plinth, about half a meter in diameter, on the edge of Market Square, the colleges cast in bronze, blocky and smooth as chocolate. You could loom over the model and put your forefinger on the street you were standing on. Just remembering this brought on a rush of claustrophobia.
She met George when their colleges shared seminars. His college — bigger, grander, more photogenic and famous — hosted. Two dozen of them sat around a huge round wooden table, where dead canonical poets had sat before them, soft January light pouring in through the windows. The second term was the seventeenth century. The first class was John Donne. They’d all bought the same edition, Everyman, handsome in its black-and-white jacket, the thin scarlet ribbon of a bookmark as proper as a Savile Row necktie. Only, the book in George’s hands was different. It was the first thing she noticed, his large hands holding that book, a charcoal-black volume with elegant silver lettering down its spine. He read aloud without hesitation, as though he already knew these rhythms. It was at least four months later that she realized the book in his hands was the same version everyone else had. He’d just taken the dust jacket off.
A few weeks ago, before she left, they’d gone to a friend’s dinner party. The friend — more George’s than hers — had just bought a West London flat, or rather her parents had, and the evening was an elaborate performance of adulthood. There were canapés from Fortnum & Mason, and place cards bearing names in careful calligraphy, a strict boy-girl-boy-girl seating plan around the table.
“Champagne?” the hostess kept saying to people whose flutes had been diminished only by a sip or two. She looked, bottle and eyebrows raised, as if she were about to strike a dainty bell.
George had sat opposite Kate, and as the dinner progressed he seemed to be drawing in the air around him, tightening it.
Who knows how the conversation reached the place it did. But one young woman called Annabelle began talking about pornography. She was petite, fine-boned, and her high voice seemed to undulate erratically, as though subjected to its own tiny weather systems, little breezes and quick currents over which she had little to no control.
“Ugh, it’s disgusting,” she said. “Just so degrading to women.” And then something rushed into Kate, some renegade idea riding on a red-wine crest. “Why do you think it’s degrading?” she heard herself say. Every eye around the table stared at her face. Her words had been strangely loud. Without looking at him she could feel George watching her. Annabelle frowned, then blanched and reddened, an impressive chromatic succession. With a kind of tremble of refusal, she said, this time to the plate in front of her, “It’s degrading!” And when she snuck a glance upward, at Kate, it was hot and sharp. She’d been made to repeat herself and sound stupid; she’d been held to her own opinion by another woman. She went on: “It’s demeaning to women. To be gussied up like objects and” — her eyes glinted now with what Kate feared were tears — “fucked like animals.” And she reached for her napkin to cover her mouth, as if she were wiping away that bad word. The table seemed to shift, in sympathy, unease.
“But isn’t it possible,” Kate had said, because why stop now, “that some women might like to be fucked like animals? That they might actually want and enjoy that.”
Kate saw the eyebrows of the young man to Annabelle’s left shoot up in a show of scandalized amusement; he took a large gulp of wine to show he was stifling a smirk. And then, “Oh-KAYYY!” the boyfriend of the hostess bellowed, a broad, good-natured putting-to-bed of the entire discussion. “Who wants Eton mess?”
People laughed, relieved. Kate rushed with homicidal urges. Annabelle extricated herself from her chair and walked stiffly in the direction of the bathroom. George issued Kate a deliberate, dark look, then refilled his wineglass.
She stretched her hand across the distance of white linen, reaching for his wrist. His arm jumped at her touch, knocked the wineglass over. A vast, blood-colored puddle spread as the bowl of the glass rolled away from its severed stem.
If the look he’d shot her a moment earlier had been dark, this one was like a black hole. An unequivocal, hateful Look. What. You’ve. Done. They didn’t speak in the taxi home. He had to be the first to say something. She would hold out. He had to apologize for that look, which she had then obsessed over with some strange devotion, like a child with a freshly grazed knee. He’d flinched when she’d touched him! As though she were something toxic. She sat up against the chill of the window, the London streets blurred with rain and streetlights, and cried silently and steadily. And when they were home, in bed, they talked in quiet, truncated sentences until hopelessness silenced them and they lay there in the no-light, miserable.
She brought herself back to herself now, and to this day, to this fire escape, to the cat inside that she was supposed to be sitting, to the tiny beads of condensation sheeted over the clear plastic of the cup of iced coffee like some lovely reptile skin, to bicycle bells on the street below. To the sight of a tall woman, with short white-blond hair, strolling down the sidewalk exuding ease.
Hot hair-dryer blasts and all the giddy top notes of expensive spritzes greeted her as she entered the salon. The stylist had tattoos of roses up her arms, and Bettie Page bangs, and if she saw fear in Kate’s eyes, she was professional enough to ignore it. Buxom, grinning, she hummed along to Rihanna as she calmly twirled Kate’s hair into a ponytail at her nape, and then, with no warning, jauntily scissored through its base. Kate felt a lurch. How did hot air balloons come down? How did they land?
Bettie Page held up the rope of hair in the mirror and gave it a morbid little shake as she grinned. It looked thoroughly creepy, a thing neither dead nor alive. And then she tossed it on the floor. Kate saw the mistaken assurance in the gesture. It said, Fuck him, right? And the stylist kept working, humming, satisfied in her narrative: boy dumps gal, gal gets fierce new hair. No, that’s not it, Kate thought, that’s really not it at all. But how do you correct someone who’s said nothing?
Months ago, George had told her he thought she’d look good with . . . he didn’t have the words, had tried to describe the haircut to her, haltingly, heterosexually, and she’d frowned, picturing a TV news anchor in a royalblue suit. It wasn’t a news anchor who’d given him the idea. It was a woman in one of his seminars. Facebook had thrown her up in a sidebar on Kate’s screen one day, announcing that George was now friends with her, and there she was, in a professional-looking photograph, with the shoulder-length bob and side-swept feathered bangs that George had failed to adequately describe.
Kate realized she’d been staring somewhere beyond herself in the mirror with an expression of contempt and she caught it, for a split second, as she came back to her reflection. Bettie Page had tenderly painted each section of her shorn head with a dye-dipped brush and wrapped each little bit in tinfoil as though preparing a series of snacks. Kate was to sit there and wait for them to marinate.
By the time the work was over, her face looked sharper, her eyes wider. She looked older, too, now that she was a white-blond woman. A little frightening, rather than a little frightened?
“Yeah?” said the stylist, and then—the final flourish — she handed Kate a mirror, spun her around, and showed her the back of her own neck. There it was, naked and strange. When was the last time she’d seen the back of her neck? Wasn’t there a sort of delicious indecency to it? She paid, tipping too much in her terror and pleasure, and once outside in the thick of the afternoon she kept reaching for it, this bare new neck with the sunlight on it, fingering the point where her short hair finished and her skin began.
From Neon in Daylight. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2018 by Hermione Hoby.