Menacing shadows are circling above my head. They are drawing in slowly, getting closer and closer… My phone rings. It is 5 am. I answer with a groan. It must be Ella. She lives in blissful disregard for other people’s sleeping habits.
Wanna hear a secret? I made glow-in-the-dark zoologist business cards. Seventeen!
Wow, that’s awesome. I dreamt of sharks again just now.
Oh. I once had a bad dream about a Jello-tine! That’s a machine to chop off heads. I saw it in a magic show but the head of the lady was still glued on afterwards.
My back is itching. I think I’m growing wings. Are you babysitting me tonight?
Mmh, not that I know of.
She giggles uncontrollably at my teasing her. Yes you are. You know, you live in my brain even after I hang up.
See you later alligator.
In a while, paedophile!
I almost choke. Ella, did you just say paedophile?
Yeah. I know what it means. It’s disgusting.
A paedophile is someone who loves peeeeeeeeeheheheh.
And I am a cheesophile, because I love cheese. Do you know what you are?
What am I?
You are a niece-ophile. Because you love me.
I hang up on her wild cackling. There are a million reasons I love Ella. Her bad taste in puns is one of them.
Later I meet Berenice for lunch and decide to tell her about the sharks, but immediately wish that I hadn’t. She says it reminds her of that hotel, she can’t quite remember where she saw it, but there was this honeymoon suite, a horrifying room with glass ceilings inside a gigantic aquarium. Imagine being under so much water, protected by invisible glass only, the newlyweds must surely dream of drowning, what a wedding night. She grins and immediately starts a monologue detailing her own nightmares, all of which are filled with twisted sexual imagery. I make a mental note to subtly end this friendship. I will not tell her that I am in love with a boy whose eyes are the colour of the Amazon. That he still sleeps on the couch when I stay over. That I have read his diary, scanning for my own name and found another girl’s on every page instead, The Girl Who Broke His Heart. That she still smiles at him from his bedside table every night.
Instead I pretend to listen, trying for the appropriate shocked expression whenever she pauses. Just when I start worrying that I will never be able to escape this conversation, Ella interrupts her by calling me again. Sorry I have to take this, it’s my little niece. Hey Ella.
Ok but keep this a secret: When I dropped her car keys in the toilet this morning, Mum said ‘Fuck’ under her breath! Wanna hear my new song? It’s about eating bogeys!
Maybe tonight. When do you guys want me to come over?
Seven-ish. Sorry I have to go, there is a tornado in my palace. See you later alligator.
In a while, pedophile.
I hang up. Berenice stares at me, horrified.
On the way back home I pass an elegant young woman in the street. I recognise her face with a jab to my stomach. It is her. The one person I hate by default. The Girl Who Broke His Heart. There is something wrong with her. She is walking funny, like someone stooped under a very low ceiling. Then, all of a sudden she drops down to her knees and vomits her guts out in the middle of the road. I like to think that down in my heart I am a halfway decent person, so I swallow down my resentment, and approach her. Are you alright? A silly thing to ask someone in the middle of vomiting her guts out, but it is the best I can come up with. Do you have some water? She gasps, and I hand over my bottle of Evian. She washes her mouth and tries to rinse the bits of vomit out of her hair and off her sequined pumps. Then her eyes suddenly widen in panic: now she has shat herself.
The thing is, I know what it’s like. I remember a week spent half-dying in a dirty youth hostel in South India, after eating bad fish from a street vendor. This is where you want to be when the germs hit: in the bathroom of a very fancy hotel with an endless supply of toilet paper and soap. Not in a filthy rat hole where you have to share the facilities with four reproachful French girls. And most certainly not out on a street in your hometown in broad daylight.
I feel sorry for her, for humiliating herself in front of a stranger like that, but the resentment sits too deep.
I even think, it is kind of appropriate, that is what you get for breaking good people’s hearts, forever spoiling them for love. There is a righteous little viral avenger that will come and make you suffer for your sins. Even while I am thinking this, I am aware that the righteous viruses of justice are a horrible invention and their existence disproven by the fact that even the loveliest people get sick without having done anything to bring this upon them, that it is quite medieval of me to think such thoughts. But still.
Maybe I am not a decent person after all. Maybe the decent thing would have been to just keep walking and not pretend to be all helpful. I am pretty sure that the girl would have preferred to shit herself in private without witnesses. With more feigned friendliness I ask: Where do you live? I live really close if you can’t make it home. The girl nods, probably because she fears that saying anything might trigger another fit of gagging. But she is grateful.
Once inside my apartment, she locks herself in the bathroom and does not come out for two hours. I hear the unsavoury noises and dance around the living room in high spirits. I had no idea I was so nasty.
Later I hear the tap running. I gather a towel, clothes I don’t like anymore and a big plastic bag. I knock on the bathroom door and hand her the pile, catching a glimpse of the girl’s naked body. She looks like a goddess. I had felt splendid until this moment, a sadistic Mother Theresa, but the sight of her perfection darkens my mood again. His hands on her exquisite buttocks. His lips on her ideal breasts.
The girl has good manners. I can hear her cleaning the whole bathroom before she comes out, her soiled clothes in the plastic bag, looking pale and slim in my old clothes. She is still shaking. I tell her I am sorry I don’t have a spare toothbrush (a lie, there is one right there in the drawer). The girl says I dont know how to thank you, this is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me. I smile. Do you think you can walk home now? You can stay if you want. The girl declines with a weak grin. I’m all emptied out. I’ll manage. I watch her staggering off, fawn-like, still weak in the knees. Suddenly I’m not so sure that it really was The Girl Who. I should have asked her name.
Later I go around to my sister’s house to report for babysitting duty. Ella is in plain form. We play Stinky Skunk and Vegan Starfish, both her invention. We also have a long and serious discussion about poop, during which I learn that a fart means that your butt is yawning, that Andre is a good name for a turd. We round off with Ella performing a very convincing re-enactment of my earlier encounter with the girl.
According to custom, I swap two of Ella’s best paintings for a small bag of pink and yellow marshmallow mice. We both think we’ve cut a pretty good deal. My teachers at art school will love them. They always do. I have long stopped handing in my own work.
Ella falls asleep on my lap while inventing a complicated story about an mean otter who was pretending to be his own twin brother. Carrying her bedwards in my arms, I feel affection for the warm, snoring bundle well up inside me like a sadness. All that is good about humankind rolled up inside this little bug. As I tuck her in, Ella opens her eyes for a split second: You know, if the dream comes back tonight, just change into one of them. They can be your friends.
Insightful advice about sharks, but I fear tonight I shall be haunted by an even darker vision: the beauty of a girl who can shit herself in public and still break the hearts of gentle, green-eyed men.