For Daws to Peck At
She started dating the celebrity in June. That summer Mari's air conditioner broke and three days later the roaches showed up. She weathered through six weeks of it. Her landlord refused to step in until she'd paid her rent, and she wasn't really in the mood to do that. There was no point being broke and living in filth: she'd only take one. They went back and forth, fighting in polite text messages about who would sue who, until early August, when Caroline stepped in.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “Look, why don't you come and stay with me for a bit, until you find a new apartment?”
Mari didn't answer for three days, then called her brother at four in the morning, stoned out on her fire escape, after she found a roach in her cereal box. “I know it's too soon. People are going to make so many lesbian jokes.”
“They already make those jokes,” her brother said. “Move in. If she pisses you off you can steal some of her t-shirts and sell them on eBay. You'll make a fortune. Shit, you should do it anyway.”
“Yeah,” Mari said. She sat on the fire escape for a while longer, sweating, before she gave up and went inside to start packing and resigning herself to losing her security deposit.
She'd seen Caroline Porter's house before Caro ever brought her there. There'd been a feature on it in Vogue. Mari had flipped through at work, bored, and only remembered when, six months later, Caroline shyly showed her around. It was the swimming pool that jogged her memory: palm trees growing around it, ferns bordering the sides and sweeping over the lapping edges of the water. The pool looked like a shady lagoon cradled under the fibreglass and white walls of the house, something natural and unexpected. Mari had lingered over it for a moment in the magazine. It was better in real life, rippling invitingly, though Caroline said that all the trees and shade meant it was almost always too cold, and she had to have the heat turned on.
Actually, the whole house looked better in real life. It had that 3D shimmer to it, all greenery and gold. Caroline was messier when there weren't photographers around, and there were clothes strewn around the place, empty spirit bottles crowding up a kitchen corner. Once a week a cleaner would come and take the worst of it away; Caroline resisted having anyone come more often than that. She'd said, twisting her fingers, that she couldn't find anything living like that.
Caroline insisted on coming to pick Mari and her stuff up herself. She showed up around eleven, in sunglasses and a car Mari didn't recognise, which wouldn't trick anyone. By the time they drove back up into Caroline's winding hills they'd picked up a wagging tail of paparazzi. Caroline didn't acknowledge them, except that as they pulled up in her driveway she looked over her shoulder to watch the heavy automated gates swinging closed. Her eyes were blue and sharp. Mari raised her hand and pressed her thumb against the corner of Caroline's mouth, watched that attention snap to her.
“Come on, then,” Caroline said. “Is this really all you have?”
“I travel light,” Mari said. “Let me just roll a cigarette.”
She did, feet kicked up on Caroline's dashboard. She spilled tobacco from her pouch, cursing, and Caroline leaned in to pluck it carefully from the buttered leather seat. It wasn't concern about the car, though Mari had thought so the first time Caroline did it. Instead, Caroline scoured the rescued tobacco with that same careful, thorough look, and picked out any detritus before she restored it to Mari's pouch.
Mari grinned at her, licked the rolling paper. Caroline didn't smoke, but she liked to watch Mari.
Caroline picked up one of Mari's boxes but Mari took it off her and gave her the garbage bag of sweaters and sweat-stained t-shirts instead. Caroline looked ridiculous, with her beautiful even tan and her hair all blown out and her immaculately tailored Chloe dress, and the stupid garbage bag thrown over one shoulder. Like a dolled up Mrs Claus, but when Mari laughed Caroline only looked a little shocked.
“What?” she said.
“Nothing.” Mari slipped the unlit cigarette into the corner of her mouth, hanging tacky under her lip. She stacked the box of clothes on top of the box of books and hoisted them both up onto her hip with a grunt. When she looked back, Caroline was watching her, that stunned look on her face again. Mari took a couple of steps forward, feeling the muscles in her arms bunch and tighten.
“Come on,” she said. “Or aren't you going to let me in?”
Caroline took a step backward. Her cheeks were flushed. She looked as surprised as she had six weeks ago. “Yeah,” she said, turning her back on Mari. She took quick steps in her heeled sandals, her long tanned legs flashing ahead. Mari followed her up and through the unlocked door, into the whitewashed room beyond. Caroline threw down the bag like a challenge, and Mari ignored her, going over to set the boxes down on a table. When she turned back, Caroline was still hovering by the front door, keys clutched in both hands.
Mari took the cigarette out of her mouth and tucked it behind her ear. She pushed her hands up to the ceiling, shaking out the tension of a long night and the weight of the boxes. She hooked her thumb through her belt loop and sauntered toward Caroline who stood, taller than her, rigid by the door, as though she were about to bolt.
She put her hand on the plaster by Caroline's shoulder. The grain was rough and cool, and Caroline's flush was spreading.
They'd met at one of Mari's worse jobs. She'd been awful at it, and it had paid well enough that every now and then she'd attempted to be better at it, which only made her crosser when she failed. It was her boss's fault, really.
The salon was famous for being one of the city's best. It treated celebrities with whimsy and respect, and the entire thing was fitted out to look like an elderly French spinster's apartment, a woman who had loved deeply and romantically but never married. Mari had liked it at first. After a while she resented it for being sucked in.
Her boss had hired her because they went to the same grocery store, and she'd “seen Mari around”, and Mari had “such an original look”. Her boss loved original people. She loved that Mari had worked as a cashier in various health food stores (run by people who had also enjoyed Mari's original look), as a copywriter for a string of depressing agencies who fired her for not remembering to come to work on time, as a grapepicker up in the vineyards for two long, hot summers. She loved Mari's dungarees, though Mari would not be permitted to wear them to the salon. She loved Mari's thick brows, the sprinkling of hair over the bridge of her nose, and she offered to give Mari's upper lip a laser treatment, free of charge. Mari had laughed her off and kept bleaching it when she remembered. There were spots on her favourite pair of jeans where she'd accidentally wiped small smears of peroxide. She liked the way her lip felt after, the hairs crisp and tingling.
Her boss was a curator, and she was good at her job: the thriving salon—with its expensive clientele, its features online and in magazines, its rising status amongst the stars—testified to that. But she hadn't picked well when it came to Mari, and especially not when she put Mari, who lacked any beautician experience whatsoever, on the front desk as the receptionist. Mari forgot names. She wasn't good at smiling. She took cigarette breaks too frequently, leaving the desk unattended. When she met Caroline, she was one, maybe two weeks away from getting fired.
Caroline came in with the same breathless ease most celebrities did. She'd bestowed a sweet smile on Mari and said, “I have an appointment, my name is—” only then Mari's boss had come bustling in to greet her personally. It didn't matter. Mari knew Caroline's name. She was very recognisable.
Nearly forty minutes later, the office intercom buzzed.
“Mari,” her boss said. “Can you bring in some of our new aloe samples?”
“Sure,” Mari said, heaving herself up from her stool.
In the little consultation room, Caroline was fixing the top button on her blouse.
“Really wonderful,” she said. “I mean, I was quite nervous, honestly, but it hardly hurt at all…”
“Ah, thank you, Mari,” Mari's boss said. “Ms Porter, these were the samples I was telling you about—why don't you try out a couple over the next few days and see what works for you?”
“Thank you,” Caroline said, and Mari came forward and handed them to her. Caroline's hair was very slightly mussed, she could tell when she got closer: flat at the back where she'd been lying on it. She smelled dry and tart, like green tea. Underneath that was the faint, violent scent of electricity.
Mari grinned at her and rubbed the back of her wrist against her mouth. “No worries,” she said, which was one of the things she wasn't meant to say in front of clients. In the corner, her boss flinched.
When Caroline came out again, Mari handled the payment. Their card reader had been playing up all week: Mari pulled Caroline's black Visa out and rubbed it vigorously against her sleeve, shoved it in again. It beeped at her. She said, “Oh, fuck off,” and glanced up at Caroline. “Sorry.”
Caroline smiled uncertainly, her eyes a strange, deep blue. “Don't worry about it,” she said, and she came back the next day, to buy a product, she said, except she kept looking at Mari, looking and looking, and Mari had been looked at before.
Caroline had meetings the afternoon Mari moved in, and Mari still hadn't slept. She went to Caroline's bed, which was the luxurious centre of the house. It was enormous. The sheets were always a pristine white, the blankets huge and rumpled and inviting. An entire wall of Caroline's bedroom was glass, with gauzy white curtains that could be drawn across for privacy, but Mari kept them open and sprawled out on the bed, the valley green below. She slept without noticing, between blinks.
The sun shifted, giving the game away. Mari got up and went to Caroline's kitchen, where there was barely anything to eat. Her fridge was full of leafy greens and yoghurts and containers labelled with calories and days of the week. Mari rolled her eyes. She took out a sparkling guava juice and found the packet of paprika crisps she'd hidden the last time she was here. Then she went and sprawled by the pool, in her sports bra and heavy jeans. There were birds trilling above.
She called her brother. “I'm in.”
“What's it like?” He was giggling a little.
“I've been here before.”
“I know, but now you live there. You have a—a Hollywood address.”
“It's not Hollywood,” Mari said, amused.
“Metaphorically. Really, what's it like?”
“Nice,” Mari said. She stretched out a bit. It was nice. It was a good way to live. Mari had noticed, when she first started dating Caroline, that things almost immediately became easier.
“You should throw a party.”
“Hmm. Give it a week or two.”
“Yeah.” Her brother laughed again, then sobered. “You called home yet?”
Mari twitched, made uncomfortable, and irritated to be uncomfortable here, where it seemed so unlikely. “No. Why? They're fine.”
“I think they're worried about you.”
“They don't need to worry about me,” Mari said. “They should see where I am.”
“Yeah,” her brother said, and his voice was congratulatory and surprised, like everyone's was.
She dozed more, by the pool with the light shifting over her and ladybugs nesting in the hollows of her ankles and hips. When she woke up Caroline was standing by her, almost awkward, her eyes tender and surprised. She leaned over Mari, hands dangling empty between her knees, and Mari yawned and reached up to curve a hand around the back of Caroline's neck and pull her down. Caroline's mouth was minty and her lipstick had a flavour of its own.
“I was thinking about making you dinner,” Caroline said.
“Just thinking about it?”
Caroline laughed, low. The laugh had been named by GQ as one of 2017's sexiest. “If you feel like it.”
“Well,” Mari said after a moment, “will it be pizza?”
“It can be. Marilee,” Caroline added, almost as an afterthought, Mari's full name unexpectedly sweet in her pretty mouth.
Mari grimaced all the same. “Don't.”
“It doesn't sound very Greek,” Caroline said, not for the first time.
“Well, neither do I,” Mari said, though if she concentrated she could sometimes pull some of the old murmured words of childhood from warm hidden depths in her, stained red-gold from afternoon naps.
“You should cook for me sometime,” Caroline said, determined. “I like Greek food.”
“Your personal trainer probably doesn't,” Mari said. “My mother says you're not cooking properly unless you use a cup of olive oil.”
Caroline laughed. “I'd like to meet her.” Mari rolled her eyes and let Caroline guide her into the house.
Caroline made pizza with a base out of cauliflower rather than dough: two of them, one for Mari which had cheese, and one for Caroline, which didn't. They drank gin with diet tonic. When Mari gave Caroline an amused look, Caroline looked unhappy and said, “Don't.”
“Do you mind my belly?” Mari asked, grinning, leaning forward to snatch at Caroline's braid.
Caroline batted her away, cheeks hot again. Sometimes she looked at Mari like a dangerous animal that she'd let into her home: frightened, proud. Mari didn't mind. Most of the time she liked it even though she knew she shouldn't.
“I just think I've upset my mother enough this month, that's all,” Caroline said, and Mari shrugged.
“Are you busy tomorrow?”
“I've got some more meetings in the morning,” Caroline said, and then her eyes went steely and she continued, “but I've told them I want the weekend free. I'm sorry I haven't been around much. I—I wasn't expecting it to be this big a deal.”
Caroline was no longer at the stage in her career where she had to keep busy, hustling after new work, forcing herself into the public eye and making herself unforgettable. She'd told Mari that, a little shy, a little smug, when they first slept together. She picked projects carefully now, and when she met Mari she was in a quiet period, had just wrapped up a publicity tour and filming on another set and was going through scripts, searching for her next role. It was nice, Caroline told her, she was almost starting to feel settled, secure, like she knew what she was doing. Mari had looked down at Caroline, wrapped up in Mari's cheap sheets, managing to make Mari's scummy bedroom more glamourous just from the faint shadow of her presence. It had been easy to believe.
Except a week later Mari, who'd never managed to find Caroline's celebrity anything but a passport to good things and mildly hilarious, pushed Caro up against a wall outside a well-known restaurant. The next day shiny magazines lined supermarket shelves with Caroline's flushed cheeks, her bitten mouth, her eyes half-closed, leaning down and in, offering herself up. Since then Caroline had a lot of meetings with her agent and publicists and well-meaning journalists, and Mari's abandoned Twitter account, with its three whole tweets from September 2013, had picked up twenty-two thousand followers.
“I'm glad you're here,” Caroline said now, her hand on Mari's knee. “It'll make it easier to see you.”
“Yeah,” Mari said, but that gave her an idea. She looped Caroline's shirt over her head and tied it around Caroline's eyes.
It was too big a blindfold to look anything but ridiculous, a grey sleeve batting at Caroline's nose and obscuring her mouth. Caroline's back went straight all the same. Mari twisted her hand in Caroline's hair.
“I wouldn't be so sure about that,” Mari said in her best James Bond villain voice, and Caroline whined and let Mari lead her to the bedroom.
Before Caroline, Mari had never been adverse to couches, walls, floors, but Caro's bed was so nice it seemed a waste not to use it. The curve of Caroline's back, hunched like a snail against spotless sheets. The way she panted and scrabbled at rough rich cotton. Mari eyed her with pleasure, Caroline's warm arms tucked down and trapped. Underneath her, Caroline was reaching up with astonishment, and Mari's internal universe contracted, and expanded, and contracted again.
When Caroline went to her meetings, Mari lounged around in bed with her battered laptop and wrote copy for the website that paid her $3 per article. If she was concentrating she could churn out ten in an hour or two; she'd always written fast and the articles were based on search engine hits, with titles like 10 Tricks to Getting Rid of Brain Freeze and Your Guide To Changing Broadband Providers and How To Safely View An Eclipse. Her computer froze after a couple of hours of that, laptop fan grinding. She got up and poked through Caro's tea cupboards, picked one at random and brewed a heavy, fruity cup of something that smelled vaguely like kids' antibiotics.
There was an iPad on the counter; she tapped in Caroline's passcode and swiped through her calendar with interest. She sipped the tea, which didn't taste so bad. After a while she put on her dungarees and a crop top and piled her hair on top of her head and tied one of Caroline's scarves around it, to amuse herself. She slid on her sunglasses and shoved her feet into her boots and went to find a bus.
It took her quite a long time, first to find one, because most people in this neighbourhood didn't catch buses or even remember what one looked like, and then to get where she wanted. She had to transfer three times before she reached the high rise glass slopes of Caroline's agent's office.
She arrived just as Caroline and her personal assistant were coming out the door, ducking their heads under the flood of paparazzi spotlights.
“Caro,” she called, and Caroline looked over. Her face lit up, flashed with fear like a thunderstorm. Mari shouldered aside a guy with a camera who was gaping at her. “Can we go get breakfast? I'm starved.”
“Caroline, David's waiting,” the assistant, who hated Mari, murmured, but Caroline was smiling.
“Come get in the car,” she said.
Mari shook her head. “There's a good place down the road. C'mon,” and after a frantic look at her bodyguards Caroline came and took Mari's hand and they set off as fast as they could, people trailing everywhere behind like flotsam.
The diner was a greasy one Mari used to come to when she had essays to complete during her second attempt at college. Mari dragged Caroline into a corner booth and flagged over a waitress. She ordered two cups of coffee and a stack of pancakes and the French Toast.
“And some water,” Caroline said.
“And some toast to start,” Mari added, “I'm starving,” and the waitress brought over toast and butter for her while the rest of it was being prepared. She dragged the butter knife over it and took a dry mouthful, spraying crumbs to make Caro laugh. Caroline smiled, quiet and polite. There were paparazzi outside the window; Caroline's bodyguards were holding them back so they didn't bang on the glass or go through the door. Mari asked, “How were your meetings?”
“Fine,” Caroline said, and smiled again, that quick, neat one. “No, I'm lying. Quite bad. Harry, the, uh, the director for the film I was planning to take up next—”
“Right, the one about the…horses,” Mari said.
“The western.” Caroline nodded. She glanced around. “Well, he's dropped me.”
Mari coughed on her toast-dust, thudded her fist against her chest. “Why?”
“He says with all the attention I'm getting right now, I'll be a distraction from the film,” Caroline said. Her mouth twitched very briefly in its right corner, and she looked pleasantly amused, as though she'd surprised herself.
“That's bullshit,” Mari said, leaning back and stretching her arms over the booth. “Attention for a film should be good.”
“Not if it's the wrong kind, apparently,” Caroline murmured. She took a breath. “I think he's getting quite a lot of funding from a few of the more conservative media groups.”
Mari rolled her eyes. “Jerk.”
“Well.” Caroline went quiet. She was still smiling, her dark eyes trained eagerly on Mari, but Mari was pretty sure it was just for the benefit of the paparazzi outside. Mari slouched in her seat. She stretched out her legs to tap her foot on the edge of Caroline's seat, and slipped her foot under Caroline's skirt, gently kicked Caroline's thighs apart. When the waitress arrived with their food Caroline had high spots of colour on her cheeks and her knees pressed together. Mari was laughing.
“So what next,” she said. “If not the western.”
Caroline shook her head. “I don't know,” she said, hesitant. “My managers want to… We have to pick the right film to fix things. My mother might fly into town.”
Mari frowned. This all seemed very difficult, the first snagging hooks of resistance dragging at Caroline's charmed life. Mari didn't like difficulty.
“If this is going to have such a shitty impact on your career and stuff,” she said, clumsy with the unfamiliar offer, “we could always take a break, you know. Cool it off while you get on with stuff.”
Caroline's eyes went huge and shocked, her complexion blanched with fear. “No! No,” she said, stammering a little. “Please don't leave. I'm in love with you.”
“Oh, Caro,” Mari said, surprised and touched. “Have some pancakes.”
Caroline's big house made awkward gestures toward a command centre, hosting an endless stream of publicists and assistants, directors' messengers swinging by to assure her nothing was wrong, producers' assistants sending their apologies. Caroline stayed up late and didn't leave the house much, swam laps in her pool and worked out in the room upstairs dedicated to it. Mari went walking around the unfamiliar neighbourhood, peering at the tall wrought gates and what lay behind them. Everybody seemed curious and alien.
In the evenings Mari made huge, elaborate dinners, because it entertained and shocked Caroline, and because it meant Caroline ate. Mari spent afternoons scribbling down long-forgotten recipes dragged grudgingly up. She started with crispy quesadillas and mango chilli salsa and her old favourite guacamole recipe, and Caroline was so pleased, like Mari had pulled off a magic trick. Mari made the slow-roasted Jamaican goat curry that she'd perfected in her student days, coming back triumphant from the downtown butcher with three plastic bags dangling from her wrist. Caroline poked at them like they were party tricks. Mari made roast chicken with all the expected sides and a creamed cabbage that came off particularly well, and Caroline yelped with laughter when she realised Mari had shoved the chicken down onto an open can of lager and roasted it around that, forsaking all lemon and garlic forever.
“It's good though, right,” Mari said, leaning back in her chair, licking her fingers, grinning.
“It's good,” Caroline admitted. Her face was still bright with happy surprise. “I just never even thought of it.”
“I think it's relatively common,” Mari said, and shrugged. “I got it off Jia, I don't know where she found it.”
“My ex,” Mari said.
“Oh,” Caroline said. “You never mentioned her.”
Mari shrugged. “It was a while ago. We were married for a bit,” she added, remembering it almost by accident, and at Caroline's face she laughed, got up and pressed her greasy mouth against Caroline's, pushing her back against the chair, lapping at Caroline's throat like a dog until Caroline laughed again and shoved her back.
“Gross,” Caroline said.
“Nah, you don't think that,” Mari said. When she reached Caroline came back, quite obediently.
Each day Caroline's face paled and strung itself out and every night Mari coaxed it back into gluttonous health, filling her up, watching her glow. “You're beautiful,” she said, and felt as satisfied as though she'd made Caroline herself. Certainly the way Caroline looked at her gave Mari all the credit.
Then the house emptied out. A break, Caroline called it. A regroup, her agent said. Some time to figure out what you want, Caroline's mother said, who had, after all, flown in: a short, tanned woman called Jenny who drove a green convertible and had a tattoo of a cactus on her arm and looked at Mari and Caroline with an exasperated brand of enjoyment. They all left, and the house was Mari and Caroline's again, though by that point they were bored of it. Mari had poked through every single cream in Caroline's high bathroom cabinets. She sat on the high marble countertops and watched Caroline get ready for bed, sweeping in and out of the room, handling droppers like a chemist, pressing her pulse points to each cheek.
Caroline couldn't go anywhere crowded, so Mari took her to all the ghost tracks she knew. They spent Caroline's wide open days wandering through suburbs where they were the only pedestrians, hand in hand as they crossed identical tracks of lawn. Mari drove them to Chawick two towns over and led Caroline down backstreets until they got to the high boarded up fences of the old swimming pool. She gave Caroline a boost, fingers linked loosely and palms waiting for Caroline's foot. All afternoon they tracked across the bottom of the emptied dried pools like some turquoise desert. From above they must have looked like beetles scuffling across jewels.
“This is idyllic,” Caroline said, eyes bright. She applied sunscreen every morning and put it on Mari, too, even as Mari stood there with her face screwed up and unwelcoming. “I feel like we're in a novel.”
“Not a film?”
“No,” Caroline said. “We're so alone.” She stood in the centre of the pool, head turned up to the sun. Her eyes weren't quite closed. That night Mari took her to one of the tiny student cinemas that put on films for free on the university campus to audiences of whoever was hungover or bored enough to show up: in this case, two or three shuffling history students. They crawled in through the gap in cheap plyboard and sat up the back and watched an early Sylvester Stallone movie from 1974. He swaggered around in a leather jacket and talked so thickly that Mari grew bored and started fitting her fingers to the hollow in the small of Caroline's back.
It became easier as it grew colder. Caroline wrapped up in heavy jackets and rigged Mari's tattered scarves around her mouth. She looked like a hypochondriac and not a celebrity. Mari fixed them flasks of dirty chai and they patrolled the street like morning watchmen through the clear haze of ten AM.
“What would you do if you were rich,” Mari said. She pointed. “Would you buy that house?”
Caroline stared at her.
“It's a game me and my brother used to play,” Mari explained.
“Sure.” Caroline paused. “I am rich. What do you want?”
“You want a new house?” Caroline said blankly, and Mari laughed at her. Caroline floundered. “We could go on holiday if you liked.”
Mari didn't want to do things like that. It amused her that Caroline, who had spent two weeks slack-jawed and awed by her own city, thought she could show Mari anywhere else. In any case, Mari didn't like to actually have or buy things, her memory was too short, she only wanted something for the pure pleasure of wanting it. What she liked to do was talk about things that she could do or have, and watch people believe her and crawl in closer to hear more. Mari liked to sell.
They went on a hike organised by Caroline's agent, who was quietly reinserting herself into their lives, reminding Caroline of her presence. Halfway back along the ridge with the mountains behind them and the dirt strewn with brown and green bracken they realised they were out of water. “You didn't bring your own bottle?” Caroline asked, astounded, and Mari rolled her shoulders back. Mari chased Caroline along the last mile, loping easily after Caro as she laughed and called, “This is dangerous, you know,” over her breathless shoulder.
There was water in the car, stale and lukewarm. Caroline drank a few mouthfuls, making a face, and Mari picked it up and slogged the rest of it down, tipping some over her hair, grinning and shaking her head.
They stopped at a 7-11 on the way home. Caroline waited in the car while Mari walked in. She was meant to be getting soda and fresh water and a packet of almonds for Caroline, and she strolled up and down the aisles, trying to decide what she wanted. She called her brother.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” Mari said. “What are you doing?”
“Packing,” he told her; he was going home to spend a week with their parents. “Are you having fun?”
“Hmm, yes,” Mari said. She picked up a can of bug spray and turned it towards her idly. There was a moth on it dolled up to look like a 1930s starlet, a black beret over an odd curly wig and a flashy red dress. The moth was bending un-mothlike hands up to its chest and stepping back with one knee buckling, halfway between a swoon and a curtsey. Why, I never! it was saying. The can read: STOPS BUGS IN THEIR TRACKS. Mari turned it from side to side and wondered if Caroline would like it. “I haven't seen you in ages.”
“I'm not coming out there,” her brother said. She could hear his shudder, like the moth's.
“Yeah, I know,” Mari said. “Maybe I'll come to you. Maybe I'll come home, too.”
Her brother paused. “You going to bring your girlfriend with you?”
“Nah,” Mari said. “I think that's almost done.”
She couldn't carry the bug spray with everything else, so she left it on a shelf next to packets of beef jerky. At the counter she said, “Oh, uh, I'll have a slurpee, too,” and looked idly up at the security cameras while the guy poured it out for her. It was an odd angle to see herself at, attentive, looking in what felt like the wrong direction. Her hair was curling longer, heavy with dried sweat and dust from the desert. Mari turned back to pay, eyeing the tiny filthy glass boxes with their grills of hot dogs and packets of stale fries. Beside them was a row of glossy magazines. Mari picked up the top one. There was a picture of her girlfriend in it.
At home Mari offered to cook but Caroline's assistant had been round and dropped off dinner for them. They ate the salad sitting out on Caroline's balcony, mostly quiet. Mari slung her legs up over the rail and Caroline chewed each leaf very slowly, her face clear as honey. Have you told her, Mari's brother had asked, but Mari didn't think there was anything that needed to be told—either she was wrong or it would all sort itself out. Mari believed in signs. Things would appear for her when they were ready. Over Caroline's high gates the sunset came brewing in clouds and gouts of orange and cream-puffed gold, like milk added to strong black tea, or a forest fire. They went to bed and fucked slowly, worn out, testing the reach of each strained muscle.
In the morning Mari woke with the thought hello reaching towards the scratching on the floor.
The sound was very familiar, the lowest kind of shuffling, a rasp only hideous in its endpoint. She got up and picked up her shoe. She tiptoed around the bed, glancing briefly at Caroline, asleep in the pearl-sheened light. When she reached the other side the roach's blunt head was perked up towards her, like a cat pausing its bath at some intrusion, and Mari leapt forward, boot on her hand and joy in her heart.