We met him in a park down by the derelict part of the harbour. It was just an oblong of yellow grass and some lopsided play equipment. We used to go there at night and drink cheap, fizzy wine we bought from the lady who owned the Chinese market nearby. This man was standing by the water taking photos of the bridge. He told us we looked mature for sixteen. We told him butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths. Later that night, after we accepted the little blue pills he gingerly placed on our tongues, we warmed to him. Arms linked, we followed him to his home.
That was fifteen, maybe eighteen years ago. This is how we remember that long summer: lying together in one of our beds, the afternoon sun making us sweat and the sour fruit smell of digested wine heavy in the room. We were thin back then – six of us could fit into the one bed if we lay on our sides. Feeling each other’s breath hot on our backs, we would laugh about our friend from the park. He was old and he was ugly. We thought his head looked like a pink fleshy prune. One of his knees turned inwards so that he walked with a slight limp. We were careful not to look directly at his face.
He lived in a studio apartment with a toilet shower and sink combination in the corner. It was dark inside with the blinds always drawn and it smelt like piss. There were photographs sticky-taped to his wall: black-and-white prints showing a beach or a sunset or a dead bird. Some of my old work, he told us. We could tell that he considered himself artistic, old school, gentlemanly. He had a picture of Frank Sinatra wedged into the corner of his mirror, and he whistled old Dean Martin songs none of us knew. His speech was peppered with words like dollface, honey, and wildcat. It was embarrassing to listen to. He owned a small collection of blues and jazz records. He wore red silk shirts and a fedora.
We had nothing else to do that summer with no jobs and no school, and so we spent hours in his apartment with our cheeks flushed red, chewing the insides of our mouths.
Sometimes we danced for him in couples – a head cradled on a shoulder, a hand at the bottom of the back – doing a slow box step. He liked that. Sometimes we lay on his bed in one long line, spooning while he sat on his little stool watching us, one foot tapping manically to the New Orleans Jazz Band, his pupils glowing like two dark moons. He liked the way we laughed and he liked our baby fat. He told us this. What else he liked we did not say out loud, but we could guess. Whenever he greeted us, he would kiss us hello on both cheeks. Like the French, he’d say.
His apartment block was yellow brick with sticky carpet inside. It was full of single men and it was cheap. Most of them were divorcés and dealers, but there were travellers too, people just passing through. They were tanned and built and from places like Colombia or Brazil. Sometimes they stood in the hallways smoking with their shirts off. When we walked past them they’d wink or make kissing noises and we’d blush. If we were with our friend he would puff out his small chest and hurry us into his room. When we were alone, he would hiss at us: Please, girls, don’t talk to the men around here. He called them a bunch of bad cats. But we did talk to them, we even flirted with them, and they told us that the police were watching the apartment building – that they knew all about our friend. The implication seemed to be that no one cared; there were bigger fish to fry. How humiliating, we’d said to one another. Because now we knew that even the police considered him a loser.
We were nice suburban girls – which is to say that we weren’t very nice, not at all. We knew we could be cruel and we thought we were ugly. We were ashamed of our lanky bodies. Ashamed of our small breasts and our freckled legs. In our families, there were a few drunks and a few absent parents, the usual stuff. Nothing to make a big deal about. Nothing to make us more cautious. We were bored, sheltered, and hungry. We wanted to be other people. We wanted to look like the pictures of dressed-up Japanese girls we’d seen on the internet. The night we met him we were wearing little tunics and bobby socks, plastic pearls and too much make-up. He had his old Nikon camera with the large lens. He pointed it in our direction.
That night in the park he said he wanted to show us something and off we went. In that shitty room, he pulled out a black leather photo album from underneath his bed – his nudes. Inside were pictures of models. Women with small breasts and non-existent hips, crouching on the floor or bending over slightly, looking back at us. Eyes lowered and lips parted. And although it’s true that later in the evening we let him take our picture, we knew all along that these nudes were not his nudes. It was more likely that he’d found the images online and printed them onto photo paper. We remember how he traced the outline of the bodies in the photographs with his index finger, how he told us he was especially proud of the shadows and of the intensity the photographs evoked. Very powerful, we all agreed.
For the rest of the summer we were drinking orange soft drink with something he’d mixed into it, or we were swallowing little lumps of white powder he administered from a key, the chemical taste coating the back of our throats. We were walking down city streets with arms linked while he sulked behind us because we would not let him join the chain. He’d wear his red silk shirts, suspenders, that fedora, and sunglasses – even at night – and we were secretly happy about this because we thought at least it hid his ugly face. Under broken disco balls and behind stained velvet curtains, we felt unknown levels of sophistication and this was a combination of the little white lumps of powder and the thrill of breaking the rules.
When we remember all of this we laugh, but our bodies still recoil whenever one of us actually utters his name. We try to forget certain things he said; how often his hands wandered all over our legs. Or those muddled nights and mornings where, for a few hours, everything went black. We don’t talk about the times he took us to high-rise apartments where there were other groups of young girls – all of them sitting on the knees of their older male chaperones. Those other girls – they could’ve been our sisters! The way they all held hands, the doe-like looks they gave us. But we never talked to them. We didn’t so much as smile in their direction. It was a reflection we didn’t want to see. And when the six of us were alone in one of our beds laughing at the amalgamation of nights and days that had come before, we would imitate all the stupid things we’d heard these other girls say in absurdly high falsetto.
Stupid things. We rode in cars with strangers and we drank whatever was put in front of us. Once, we swam naked in the harbour near that derelict park, coaxed on by the fizzy wine and the dare of the water – blue-black and rippled and opaque, like a piece of silk. There were sharks in there, we all knew that. And we screamed and laughed when one of us held up her palms to the moonlight and they were cut from the sea urchins on the rocks. Her blood was mixed with sea water and streaming pink-red all the way to her elbows.
Stupid things. We would stand next to payphones in the city and tell the suits walking past that we needed small change to make a call. Our pockets jangled when we walked, our fingers always smelt metallic. We paid for our cigarettes in towers of silver coins. Whenever we called our friend, we were supposed to speak in code, but we didn’t. In fact, we rarely called him at all. When we wanted to see him we simply showed up.
During that summer, the idea of him softened in our minds. It’s true that our disgust turned into mild affection, though it was something like love for a little brother. We wrote him little notes with poems and pictures, and once we even made him a playlist of songs. We felt sorry for him and how he looked sitting on his bed in his shitty little apartment. And it was around this time that one of us opened up the back of his camera after he’d slipped out for a bottle of something and found what we had long suspected – that it held no film.
So why did he pretend to take our photograph? We suspect it has something to do with the way women are framed; with how badly we wanted to be desired. The way we instinctively knew how to imitate an expression we’d been aware of our whole lives. We saw it everywhere. It was in Renaissance paintings of women, on billboards, and in shopping catalogues. It was in the magazines our fathers hid. Eyes lowered and lips parted. We know now that the photographs were a way for him to encourage nudity under the guise of art. Look back at the camera, he used to say, that’s marvellous, pull your shirt down, just a little.
We never confronted him about the camera. It gave us a funny feeling we wanted to ignore. And anyway, it was soon after we’d found out that one of our brothers caught us with him in the city. Our arms were linked and he was in the middle, his two hands casually placed at the bottom of our backs. We saw the brother and he saw us. None of us were supposed to be there. And that look he gave us – we can still remember it. What it so clearly denoted. Shame. There were different rules for sons and daughters, we all knew that. What did it matter that the brother was high himself, surrounded by boys his own age, all of them standing in front of a club with a neon sign that read Girls! Girls! Girls!
Who the fuck is that? the brother said and we walked straight past him. One of us began to cry. We were scared to go home. We turned off our phones. We stayed out with our friend until the night turned into morning and then night again. More pills were gingerly placed on tongues. He made long lines the length of our arms on his dirty glass table and we licked them clean. We danced for him. We slapped each other’s face. We wrestled. On the second morning, he slipped out for a bottle of something and one of us stole money from the little case he kept in his kitchenette and had forgotten to lock. Put it back, the rest of us begged but she wouldn’t listen. At first, she began to count the money out on the floor, laughing manically as the pile got larger. We watched her silently. We chewed at our lips. She stopped counting and threw the money in the air. Then, all of us were running around the room, plucking the notes off the ground, shoving them into our pockets, shirts, and underwear. One of us heard him whistling in the corridor, she waved her arms and we froze. It happened in less than three seconds. He opened the door. He looked at the kitchenette and then he looked at us and we could feel it in the air – a danger that had not been there before. We ran out of his apartment. We practically bulldozed him out the door. We ran down the stairs and out of the building and onto the main road. We ran barefoot with money falling from our clothes. Cars were swerving and beeping, and we were screaming and laughing, while he, on his damaged leg, tried to follow but could not keep up.
Sometimes, even now, we see him around the city and our breath stops short before we realise it’s not him. Sometimes, we think that even if it was he wouldn’t remember who we were. Because there must have been so many of us. So many different groups of young girls – parading through the hallways of his apartment building, spending a summer in his room.
This all happened so long ago. Long before our babies were born and before those bad romantic experiences that some of us have never recovered from. Before one of our hearts gave out completely and we became wary of the expression died of a broken heart – so saccharine and inaccurately used.
Now we are fat, our eyes are tired, we are happy but anxious, we eat oysters – we have become something like our mothers.