She sits on the bed she’s slept on for more nights than she’d like to remember. Sometimes alone, sometimes not. She’s always desperate to be elsewhere. There’s an ache in her she has no name for, a space inside that nothing can fill. A wanderlust for a world that doesn’t exist.
Pulling the towel back through her damp hair, she begins to untangle the strands with her fingers. There’s a flash of memory to her childhood, of someone else dragging a brush through her hair, either with hurry or care, she couldn’t say. Maybe that’s the ache, she thinks, it’s just the ghost of love.
Later, hair dried and burnt into submission, she puts her make-up on in the mirror, the acrid smell of heat still lingering in the air. The glass is dirty, but she won’t clean it, she never wants to be fully seen, not even to herself. She layers on the concealer thick, and feels sorry for the men who can’t - or won’t - do this, who won’t hide themselves in plain sight.
If she could strip away everything, she thinks, she’d be a different person. She could pass her brother in the street, and he’d never know who she was. It makes her feel powerful, to transform into someone else and to become whoever she wants to be, even when most of the time, she wants to be no one at all.
She can’t remember a time when she didn’t perform this ritual. The pain of beauty, the pulling of hair taut, and the sharp tang of chemicals swimming on skin. She does it all, and still, no one has ever told her they love her. Maybe it’s not love she wants. It’s belonging she craves.
Then there’s the tight bond of clothes that she’d never choose to wear, if it was just her, alone in the world. Clothes she puts so much thought into, only to be removed hours later. Sometimes she never sees items of clothing again. They are forever lost to her, these small pieces of dignity that always cost more than they’re worth.
But it’s her shoes that always catch her. It’s the inelegance of crouching down to reach them, the skin folding upon flesh, her body collapsing into itself. She’d like, just once, for someone to do it for her, to tell her which ones to wear and place them on her feet. There’s another sharp memory of getting ready for school, of someone tying her laces, teaching her how to do it for herself. There’s a small sting in her chest when she realises that was the last time she felt loved.
Just before she leaves, she strolls into the kitchen. It’s her prerogative to be late, and she won’t be rushed. She always pours the same: three parts vodka, one part soda, no ice. It dances on the tongue, all fire and hot sparks down her throat. This is being alive, she thinks, when all of the senses are right under the surface, their little claws pressing against her body. There’s a hunger in her now, a need to be sated and full.
She chooses, before she leaves the house, what will happen. Whether her bed will be filled or empty. If the ache will pull her further open, or if she can keep herself balanced for a day longer. She might ask this one to brush her hair. That ghost from long ago can creep across in the night and hold her, just for a moment, and she’ll think, maybe she can rent love until dawn. Maybe it will be enough.