L’Étranger

Life with a disagreeable new flatmate and some unwanted visitors. An excerpt from the new short story collection Wallflowers.

 

After my master’s degree in England, I moved to Marseille to let my hair grow. I lived with a Ukrainian woman in an apartment with stick-on floor tiles that peeled from the corners of the walls. I tried to not look at the corners too closely. Or the walls themselves, which were tacked with ribbed, oily paper. The apartment was ground level: when it rained, slugs slinked under the gap in the door. These weren’t banana slugs from B.C., but slimmer and nut orange. Their trails shone in the glow of my cellphone when I walked to the bathroom at night. I used my cellphone for light so I wouldn’t need to touch the walls for the light switch. Irina carried hers for music: Beyoncé while she cooked or bleached her underwear in the bathtub. I always knew where in the apartment she was standing.

Every week, Irina boiled potatoes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She peeled the potatoes into the sink and left the skins in the drain. I had to scrape the peels to the side of the basin before I could rinse my lunch plate. Because I washed my hair on the same days, I started to see the potatoes as her detachable body parts. The potato halves like heels she unscrewed from her feet, or milky lobes she plucked from under her knees.

*

She had, let’s say, certain tics. She hid dish detergent in the cupboard, though I bought a bottle when I moved in. She kept her own forks and spoons in a coffee can, her own sponge in a plastic punnet for grapes. I used to leave spare toilet paper on the tank, but the rolls disappeared. I moved the pack to my wardrobe. Every morning, I carried squares to the bathroom with me like a camper. Most days, we did not speak. She knew English—I heard her on the phone with her boyfriend. But she avoided the common rooms. When she accidentally entered the kitchen while I cooked, she walked around me to the kettle, then circled out again. Once, I sat at the breakfast bar and ate my couscous as slow as I could. I read the newspaper. I tried the French crossword. When I left, her bedroom door opened as soon as I tugged mine shut.

*

One day I sliced eggplant for a stir-fry. I had walked home from the market as it started to pour. The clouds blocked the sun like the pelt of a lint trap, and in the kitchen horizontal rain smacked the window glass. Irina opened the front door with her pale hair slick to her cheeks. She walked past the kitchen and switched off the light. She continued into her room. I paused. I could not see the eggplant well enough to guide my knife. I walked to the light switch and flicked it back on, then returned to my cutting board. I sliced eggplant. I would fry it with the garlic, ginger, and cèpe mushrooms I found at the market. Irina entered the kitchen with her hair in a towel. She turned off the light. She opened the fridge and removed a pot of yogurt and set it on the counter with a spoon from her coffee can. She left the kitchen. I flicked on the light. She returned in a bathrobe. She sighed and turned off the light and switched on the kettle. I sliced my eggplant in the dark until the kettle boiled and she poured her tea and left with her yogurt.

*

I think I started to hate her. She is the only person I ever started to hate. The internet jack was in her room, and she turned off the router at night. I bought her black electric tape to cover the lights, but that didn’t work. I suggested she cover the router with a blanket. She said the router was loud. I said routers don’t get loud. She said: This router is loud. She turned the internet off at ten thirty every night, which was her bedtime, and the time I wrote my emails. I lost approximately four emails.


Sometimes I came home and played music in the kitchen because there was no light in her window. But then I heard her voice on the phone, and realized she was sitting in the dark. Not to save bills. She showered three times a day, and every morning it rained she turned on the heat. Even though the temperature was thirty degrees outside. I would turn off the heat and go to my room. She would come out and turn it on. I would turn it off and stand behind my bedroom door and listen for her feet in the hall.

*

I do not know how the slugs got into the sink. I visited Marrakech for two weeks, and when I came home, the gastropods had harvested. I couldn’t distinguish them from the peels: the skins plump and waterlogged, mired in gelatinous slime. The slugs narrow and orange like yam fries. Pan grease beaded the water that had not drained, and threads of chicken. A hard shell plugged the centre of the basin. It was either a snail or a peach pit.

The kitchen window was open. I had planted geraniums in the flower box on the sill. Perhaps the slugs came from there. But they wouldn’t have mated if Irina had not clogged the sink with warm, organic matter. She must have been at school—I could not hear Beyoncé. So I opened Irina’s cupboard. My eyes shifted from her spoon can to her sponge, her dish detergent to her chestnut spread. I considered what to do.

First, the sink. I emptied her utensils and scraped the slugs into the coffee can. I scrubbed the basin with her sponge. I wanted to dump the slugs on her bed, but she had locked her bedroom door. Instead, I opened her chestnut spread. I pinched a slug with my fingers and released it into the jar. When the body uncurled, I pressed it to the bottom. I added a second slug. I smoothed the paste over their eyespots.

*

She came home around six. I turned my music down so I could listen to her movements. I heard her set grocery bags on the counter and switch the kettle on. While the water boiled, she went to the bathroom. The hooks of the shower curtain clinked across the rod. She ran the taps.

I had tossed the other slugs outside, in the mulch of the palm tree planted in the courtyard. It was tempting to leave them in the can, with her forks and her soup spoons, but I did not want to kill so many. After her shower ended, she returned to the kitchen and opened her cupboard. I stood against my wall. I could almost gauge the weight of items she set down, but she restarted the kettle. The steam chortled too loudly. It was all I could hear. When the door tapped beside me, I jumped.

I waited until my pulse had calmed, then opened the door. She stood in the hall in bare feet, her bathrobe clutched around her waist. Pimples lit over her forehead where she had removed her makeup. Normally her skin was smooth as wax.

“Can I come in?” she asked.

Her fist trembled where she clenched her robe. I opened the door wider and she stepped inside. She sat on my computer chair. I did not know what to do. The sash of her robe dragged on the floor and I lifted it for her, but she did not see. It dangled off my palm like a braid of hair.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She gazed at my computer screen, though the monitor had blacked.

“I think I found a lump.”

“What?”

“On my breast.”

I stared at her.

“Can you look?”

She stood and opened her bathrobe. I did not look down.

“There,” she said, though she did not point.

I lowered my eyes, but did not know what to look for. Her breasts were larger than mine. That is all I saw. Two large breasts.

“Which one?” I asked.

She nodded to her right breast. I could not see a lump.

“I don’t see anything,” I said.

“Touch it.”

“Touch it?”

“Underneath.”

She gathered her hair to one shoulder, though it only fell to her collarbone and was not long enough to block my view. I leaned in and touched her breast with two fingers. I pressed gently. I could feel how cold my hands were.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know how a lump feels.”

“Lumpy,” she said. She stared hard out the window like she might cry.

I continued to probe her breast, then felt it under her skin. The lump was small but firm, wimpled like the shell of a walnut. I lowered my hand.

“You feel it,” she said. “I’m really not an expert.” “But you feel it.” I nodded. She nodded too. She left her robe untied and
walked out of the room.

*

In the morning, I cycled to Carrefour for a new jar of chestnut spread. I arrived fifteen minutes before the store opened, so I continued to the pâtisserie. I bought two pains au chocolat while I waited. When I got home, I cracked the seal. I removed spoonfuls of the new spread until its level matched the original jar. I tapped the spoonfuls into a bowl, then licked the paste off my fingers. From Irina’s room, I could hear the furniture shift across her floor. It sounded like she was cleaning. I did not know if I should knock on her door with the pains au chocolat or wait for her to emerge. I did not know if we were friends yet.

After half an hour, she came to collect her underwear from the rack in the courtyard. She walked in the kitchen while I sat at the breakfast bar with my empty bowl. She turned on the kettle.

“Hi,” I said.

She flinched at my voice and dropped the tea bag.

“Sorry,” I said.

She bent to pick up her tea bag. She blew it off, then tossed it in the trash anyway.

Pain au chocolat?” I offered. I slid the plate toward her on the table.

“No, thank you.”

She retrieved another bag from her box. I paused with my hand at the end of the table. After a moment, I drew the plate back.

“I don’t eat sugar before noon,” she said.

“Oh.”

I tugged the plate closer to me. I felt nauseous from the chestnut spread, but did not want her to think I bought the croissants for her alone. I tore a leaf off one pastry and nibbled.

“Listen,” I said. “If you want someone to go with you to the doctor …”

She looked startled again, as if she forgot I knew.

“No, thank you,” she said again. She opened the fridge and studied the contents. She started to pull items off her shelf and set them onto the counter.

“Are you sure?” I said. “I wouldn’t mind.”

“Would you like my crème fraîche?”

“What?” “It’s nice with soup.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”

She set the container on the table, next to my plate.

“I fly home today,” she said.

“You’re flying home?”

“Olives?” she said.

“Thank you. Why are you flying home?”

“I am sick.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”

She shook her head.

“You should see a doctor before you fly home.”

“I see a doctor at home,” she said. “Plums?”

“Okay.”

“Chestnut spread?”

I paused.

“It’s nice with baguette,” she said.

*

She left me all her food. She set each item on the table while I watched, as if otherwise I would not see. After she went, I sat before the mountain and felt I needed to eat everything. Like if I didn’t eat the crème fraîche and plums and chestnut spread then, they would spoil. So I did. I ate until I could not eat, and then I sat on the stool with lead in my stomach. I wanted to retch, but could not bring myself to try. I stared at the containers, half-full of their creams, and the windows darkened. By midnight I could not see the food on the table, or even my hips, the lap of my jeans. I stayed until morning. I never bothered to turn on the lights.

_

Excerpted from Wallflowers, published in August 2014 by Hamish Hamilton. Read another story in Volume 3 of Hamish Hamilton’s free ePub sampler, Upfronts, which also features an exclusive preview of Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Johanna Skibsrud’s forthcoming novel, Quartet for the End of Time.

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