A short story by Kath Grimshaw
(Image: Hotel Room by Edward Hopper, 1931)
At twelve, Lucie logs out, grabs the bag from under her desk and makes a break for the bathroom. It’s busy with women angled over marble-topped basins, reapplying lipstick. When a cubicle becomes free, she grabs a handful of paper to stuff down the toilet to muffle the sound, and pees. She glances briefly at herself under the ghost lights, then swings through the door and down the stairwell. She’s been taking the stairs every day since February 9th - “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” Plato.
It’s sunny and crisp outside. So bright, as if she’s under stage lights. So cold, she zips up her parka right under her chin and pulls on a green beret before she sets off across Lexington. Her outing is inspired by today’s page - ‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.’ Picasso. The desk calendar sits between a vintage Snoopy dog and a paper mache pot full of coloured pencils on Lucie’s desk. It was a Christmas gift, from Susannah of course. An inspirational quotation for every day of the year. A joke present, unwrapped carelessly in a bar. The real gift had been in an envelope sitting in a sticky circle of prosecco, Lucie reluctant to open it, knowing it would be - as always - embarrassingly generous. Membership to Moma, The Met and The Whitney. This year, Susannah does culture, she had thought. The year before it had been self-defence classes and the one before that, an artisan bread making course. In recent years Susannah’s gifts have all been about self-improvement, her gentle implication that Lucie is drifting through life, in need of a tug boat.
As if I need reminding, thinks Lucie, breaking into a brisk march up Madison. She had given Susannah a screen-printed wash bag bought from the Renegade craft fair and had buried her disappointment that her friend had forgotten she loved the spiral-shelled Guggenheim the most.
She had met Susannah on the Art History graduate programme at NYU. Lucie, fresh off the boat from England, a little lost and on the run from a messy breakup. They shared a scruffy apartment on Bowery. Even then Susannah was citrus sharp and ambitious, ferociously tidy, minimalist. Susannah had slim black-framed Mondrian posters on her side of the apartment. Lucie’s were blue-tacked, dog-eared Matisse. But they had clicked over that first cup of coffee in a cafe on Bleeker, perhaps a shared joke about the number of goatees in their seminar.
Lucie still lives in that apartment. Susannah now lives with Simon, her fiancé, in a loft on Hudson. She seems to squeeze an hour’s worth into every minute of her life, which is full of committees, work, relationship with a capital R. She is sharper, buttoned up. Heels and neckline higher. Expensive silk scarves. Always busy. You can’t blame her. He is kind of perfect.
The gallery squats, grey and sulky, in the cold sunshine. She stands in the shadow of its square overbite and finishes the wrap she grabbed on the way, then flashes her new membership card and heads towards the elevator in a vague search for some Hopper. Ten minutes later she’s still looking, disorientated and frustrated. There appear to be no maps and nothing instinctive about the layout of the white cubic spaces, all so similar with their blank walls, dark grey concrete ceilings and black wood. It feels as though she’s not been let in on the secret, not passed the test, not deciphered the labyrinth in order to understand the complexity of the art all around her.
Eventually, by chance, she stumbles into a room that has a Hopper. She stops in front of it and looks. It is called Hotel Room. A woman sits on a bed , the hopeless curve of her back bent over as she reads a letter. It seems intensely private and Lucie feels like a voyeur. The woman’s face is in shadow, cast by the impersonal glare of the hotel room light. She looks lonely. What’s in that letter? Lucie imagines she has walked in on her, into the wrong room, by mistake, and wants to close the door and retreat down the hotel corridor.
She’s distracted by a loud spurt of laughter and a blurry movement in the corner of her eye. A couple. The grim-faced guard in a dark jacket is heading over to break it up. A guy has a girl pinned up against the wall. His back is to Lucie and she can see the girl’s laughing eyes over his shoulder. His hand is on her thigh, up her skirt. Lucie can’t look away. The warden mutters something to them and, giggling like teenagers, they slide, holding hands, into the next white cube, away from her.
Her diaphragm is a trampoline. Lunch rises in her throat. The white room spins, and she wants to lean on something. But this is a gallery; there is nothing to support her. All around it is look, don’t touch.
Simon, who is in love with Susannah, who chose Susannah. Simon, one half of the perfect couple, gently bullied by his superpower fiancée, just as she, Lucie, is. They have Susannah in their centre. Lucie and Simon. That girl with the rucked-up skirt isn’t Susannah. But the man with his hand on her thigh. That is definitely Simon.
She actually met him first - though she buries that childish claim deep down. Dark brown dancing eyes, a touch of fingers on the small of her back, soft cashmere sweater the colour of blueberries, pressed together in the tiny kitchen at a party in a Chelsea apartment. It has nourished Lucie that there was a small parcel of time when he beamed his charm at her - there was no doubt a connection - before her glittering best friend had burst through the door.
Si? Can we meet up? We need to talk.
Hi Luce, Sure! Where is good for you?
B + N, tomorrow lunchtime?
Great, see, you there 1 ish.
Her heart is thumping as she slips the phone back in her bag.
He’s already sitting in an aubergine tub chair, sipping an espresso, flicking through a thick-paged photography book. His head is bent forward, almost like the woman in the painting, but as she approaches he glances up and smiles warmly, easily, stands and folds her into a firm embrace. She’s flustered, with nerves, or something else. She resists an impulse to brush his dark hair back where it falls across his eyes, to touch the warm suede of his jacket.
“Gorgeous Lucie! I’m intrigued. Let me get you a coffee - cappuccino right ?” Without waiting for an answer, he is at the counter. She takes off her coat, sits down, feeling damp patches blooming under her armpits.
“I was at the Whitney yesterday. I saw you.” Now his easy expression changes. A flash of surprise, then something else... He puts his head in his hands. “I haven’t told Susannah. I’m just so.... shocked. Please tell me what to do, Simon. What’s going on?”
His shoulders hunched, he looks up at her, leans forward and takes her hand. She blushes despite herself. “Lucie. You know what it’s like. With Susannah. What she’s like. Sometimes, she makes me feel, I don’t know... not enough. I can never live up to her perfect expectations.”
But you are perfect.
“Please don’t think that I’m trying to hurt her, I just... oh, God, I don’t know what I’m doing.” He moves a thumb across her palm. She inhales. It’s not the first time. There have been other touches, hands brushing, knees resting, glances.
His voice is low, “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if things had gone differently after Chelsea.”
All the time, I think about it.
“Who is she?”
“Nobody. Honestly, she’s a... a symptom. Look, I know what you must think of me Lucie. It hurts to know I’ve done something to make you think badly of me. I deserve it. Your judgement. But, with Susannah... I know it looks as though we have a perfect relationship, Lucie, but people can’t see how it really is.”
Lucie remembers the laughing eyes of the girl in the gallery and pulls her hand away, “I don’t know what to think. Or what to do Simon. She’s my friend.”
“Please Lucie. Give me some time.” He stands up. “I can work this out. We can. Just don’t talk to Susannah yet, please. Look, I have to go, but let’s meet for dinner, and talk more tonight...?”
She looks at him, mute, and nods.
“I’ll call you later. Thanks for being a friend.” He squeezes her hand one more time then he’s striding towards the stairs of the bookshop away from her.
Lucie sits for a moment, watching tiny milky bubbles popping into nothing in her undrunk cappuccino.
She can see the flash of his red scarf disappearing around the corner of the block. He stops, and turns to look back at her, waiting. Breathless from the dash though the bookshop, she weaves through the sidewalk traffic and catches up with him. Heart pounding, her breath a cloud between them in the frigid air.
“Simon. What was I thinking? She’s my friend.”
“What are you saying?”
“I think you should tell her.” A pause. “If you don’t, I will.”
They are in a bubble of stillness as he regards her, people moving behind them oblivious, on the busy street. Lucie notices his nose is pink from the cold, a little dribble of snot beginning to form at the end of it. She wants to laugh, inappropriately, at his sudden imperfection.
Something like a shadow passes over his face. His warm brown eyes flatten and he appears to be momentarily lost in contemplation. Then, he grabs her wrist with a leather-gloved hand, so tightly it hurts, and something deep and instinctive constricts inside her. His eyes leave her face, flicker left, then right, and before she can grasp what is happening, he twists her arm and wrenches her into the narrow passage of scaffolding that hugs the building perpendicular to the busy street. Pulling her roughly into a tunnel of plyboards, they are plunged from the brightness of the day into shadow. His other hand moves up to grip her throat and he pins her to the icy brick of the wall. A thrill of anticipation, fear, but still, she wonders, what on earth is happening? He leans in, his handsome face contorted in the semi-darkness, and hisses,“You are going to regret meddling, you stupid bitch.”
The rush of this transformation has numbed her, allowed him to pull her, without a whimper, into the tight little space. In a split second her understanding of the world has flipped. His grip tightens, crushing her neck, his leg jabbing between hers, hard hip digging sharply into her pelvic bone in a sickening parody of something she has fantasised about.
She cannot breath, cannot scream... and a dispassionate part of her brain assesses the situation. The quiet street, a wide sidewalk on the other side of the boards. No-one is going to squeeze through the corridor of rusted poles to disturb them. In a rush of adrenaline, survival instinct, she understands him. Understands everything. Susannah’s withdrawal, her brittleness, her silk scarves, long sleeves, her tightness. Her desperate need for perfection, distance, protectiveness.
Lucie brings up her shaking hands up to the side of his face, and rests them there, like a caress. She tries to speak but her lips move silently. The mask of his face contorts in derision. “I always knew you always wanted me, you pathetic little bitch. I’m not going to let you ruin everything.” Anger and control are battling and bubbling just beneath the surface, spittle dancing in the corners of his mouth.
I can’t breath. But now she knows what to do.
She tenses her throat and tucks her chin down, dropping her weight. His grip loosens infinitesimally and before she can think about what she is about to do she pushes as hard as she can and slides both her thumbs into his eye sockets, gripping the side of his face with her nails. Hot and slippery. He makes an animal sound, half scream, half grunt, and loses his grip on her throat, and she brings her knee up. He doubles up and her thumbs come out with a quiet pop. He’s a ball on the ground. She staggers out towards the street, gasping for breath, clutching at her raw throat.
A small crowd is gathering - brusque NewYorkers rallying in a crisis. Cell phones dialing 911. She is trying hard to catch her breath. Her throat burns. From the corner of her eye she can see the shadow of him, hunched, emerging from the scaffolding. She is shivering and somebody drapes a jacket over her shoulders.
With shaking hands she pulls her phone out of her bag. In a hoarse voice she whispers, to no-one in particular, “I need to talk to my friend.”