Oblivion The night I met Escoe, I was at a party with a man who wore blue suede shoes without a hint of irony; also, he kissed without using his tongue. I left him on the balcony, talking to a girl with the same long blonde hair as me, though happily without my exquisitely symmetrical bone structure and translucent complexion. Kane, my dealer, lived in the kind of apartment that makes you wonder if selling crack is worth the risk. It was a huge, white warehouse loft, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the sparkling lights and shimmering waters of the Thames. Naturally, he had the penthouse. There were pictures hung in odd places, like down by the skirting board, or beside a window. He collected sculpture and it was mainly neo-classical and white. Kane liked to mingle with the elite of the art world and they had shown up in droves tonight. He was celebrating his twenty-eighth year of being alive without incarceration for his crimes. Achingly fashionable people lounged on the minimalist cream sofas and held whispered conversations beside bowls of pale roses. Caterers roamed the crowd, balancing trays of black and white sushi on their fingertips. The music was soft and sophisticated, some kind of jazz. I thought about sleeping with Kane, just so I could wake up the next morning in that wonderful space. I had a lot of ketamine in my blood, which made me gregarious, and once I left the balcony, I ended up slurring for about three hours to someone I only remember now as Escoe’s cousin. She was tiny and wore her hair in a thick plait of dreadlocks to her waist. She called me ‘Girlfriend’ and laughed a lot. But when she introduced Escoe, she suddenly got serious. ‘Girlfriend, this here’s my cuz, Escoe.’ She waved her arm in my
general direction. ‘Essie, this is Rachel. I think she wants to fuck you.’ I flinched at the profanity and stared at my feet, which were bare. I was nearly always barefoot in those days. But when I looked up, there was a golden man smiling at me, hurriedly doing up his jacket, so that I wouldn’t see the .45 in the waistband of his wheat-coloured jeans. He looked like he’d just stepped off a cinema screen. He was obscenely good-looking. The ketamine suddenly wore off. ‘Nice gun’, I said. He frowned and half turned away; then he seemed to change his mind and offered to get me a drink. I asked for water; if I drank any more vodka I was going to puke. When he passed me the glass, his jacket sleeve rode up and I saw the track marks on his arms. Afraid of offending again, I pretended not to see. He downed his own glass in one. ‘It’s nice to meet you, Rache,’ he said. It was strange that he called me Rache from the very beginning and it didn’t sound obtrusive. I felt like I’d known him my whole life. There was something so familiar about him - his gun, his beauty, the whole self-destructive thing he had going on - that I barely noticed I was meeting someone new, except to feel a little excited, because I think I knew he was going to be important in my life, even then. ‘Escoe…’ I tried out the unusual name, ‘…do you live around here?’ He smiled his big, warm smile. ‘All my life. St James’ Park is right on my doorstep. It’s best in the autumn, though. Think you’ll be around then?’ I took a careful sip of my water. ‘Maybe. It depends how the novel goes.’ I was always a little shy of telling people I was writing a book. ‘A writer,’ he said, with another smile. ‘And are you gathering material right now?’ Gathering, I thought. What an odd word for him to use. ‘I suppose I am,’ I said, still cautious. Then I thought, What the hell. ‘I’ll write you in. The addict, who looks like
Adonis.’ He raised one eyebrow. ‘Adonis? Don’t call me Adonis,’ he said. But there was a laugh in his voice and I could tell he was not displeased. He told me he had been a research analyst, until he couldn’t make it to the office any more for shooting up. Now he worked freelance, doing the accounts for small, burnt-out firms. He knew he was going to have to stop using soon, but he wasn’t in the right mindset just now. He talked about getting clean for New Year. It was June. In turn, I told him about the modeling I did to make the rent and how my agency said I was the first girl they’d had to tell to put on weight to get work. I told him about the sleazy photographers and the bitchy make-up artists. I told him how ridiculous it felt, standing in front of a wind machine with a photographer on his knees, yelling, ‘Show me horny, babe, horny’, until I tuned out and made up stories about them all in my head. Escoe seemed to understand, and I quickly decided he was the most compassionate and articulate man I’d ever met. I smiled inside. His cousin was right. I wanted him.
A little later, or maybe a lot later, we left together. The party was winding down and, anyway, we wanted to be alone. I was already half in love with him and I was almost sure he felt the same way. When we touched each other, we practically gave off sparks. He had a crummy old Beetle, an original classic from the first time around. I remember standing there on the pavement in the hot night, as he held the door open for me, waiting for me to get in. It was one of those potent moments where you feel omniscient, and I hesitated. I looked at him, his eyes unfocused from smack and vodka, and I looked at the car, which plainly hadn’t seen a mechanic in a good many years. I almost turned
to go back to the party. But then I thought about spending the entire night pressed against Escoe’s golden-brown body. I gave a fateful shrug and climbed in. I don’t remember much of the drive. I think he glanced at me once or twice, but mostly he stared at the dark road ahead. My hand rested on his thigh and we were just biding our time, enjoying the anticipation. We thought we knew what was coming. I saw the wall first. It seemed to jump up at us out of the darkness. There wasn’t time to scream, however. I felt the sickening thud of bone crunching into metal and then the nightmarish scraping sound that was the windscreen searing my torso. Another thud as I landed on the street outside. My face went strangely numb, like someone had slapped me hard across both cheeks. The road was full of twisted steel and shattered glass, torn skin and spilt blood. I heard a siren and then people arriving. They seemed desperately busy; they were all shouting and rushing around. And then I saw Escoe. In fact, there were two of him. Both screaming. ‘Her face! What the fuck’s happened to her face?’ I don’t know if it was pain or horror that made me black out.
They told me I had lost a month. A month. Thirty days just lying in the darkness, waiting to wake up. I was groggy and disorientated, and my legs wouldn’t work properly. But this was, in fact, the good news. The scar cut my face in half diagonally, from my left temple to my right jawline. Where they’d sewn me back together, I was all wonky. The doctor who came to explain was tall and twinkly with heavy eyebrows and kooky square glasses, the kind of guy I would’ve flirted with if I met him in a bar. I didn’t feel like flirting now. He introduced himself as Dr Ellis and took a seat at my bedside. That 4
freaked me out right away. Doctors don’t sit, they stand. How long was he planning on talking at me? ‘I’ll be honest with you,’ he said, ‘we don’t often get survivors from collisions as serious as yours.’ His voice was too sober for his dancing eyes. ‘The passenger side of the car was practically inside-out. I know it doesn’t feel like it yet, but you’ve been very lucky.’ He opened a slim blue folder. ‘The driver, Escoe Romero, tested positive for two strong opiates and his alcohol levels were three times over the legal limit.’ He closed the file again and carefully folded his hands. ‘The night was clear, the road was well-lit and apparently there was nothing wrong with the car. It was a gentle bend, but Mr Romero just veered right off the road. Really, it’s amazing he got you that far.’ My fingers reached for my face; it was hurting again. ‘Can you fix me?’ I could hear the desperation, the hope and the fear all mixed together in my voice. He met my eyes. ‘No. We can help you with the pain, which will probably be on and off for the rest of your life, and we can talk about surgery when you’re closer to recovery, but there’ll always be a scar. I’m sorry.’ I practically imploded with panic. ‘But then there’s nothing!’ Dr Ellis frowned. ‘Nothing?’ I could hardly speak through the haze of horror, but I was also desperate to be understood. Someone had to understand. ‘You didn’t see me before. I’m a model. A knock-out.’ I didn’t worry about sounding conceited. My looks were just a fact of life: some are born rich, some are born smart, I was born beautiful. ‘My face… my face is my life. Now there’s just nothing.’ I put my head in my hands. ‘Worse than nothing.’ He didn’t answer right away. Instead he looked around the ward, at the nurses going lethargically about their duties, at the other patients, all of them grey with the fatigue of long illness. Then he looked back at me, and smiled determinedly. ‘This is as bad as it gets, you know. You’ve hit rock bottom, life can’t get any worse. So now it’ll get better. You’ll recover, learn to manage the pain, start to have 5
fun again. You’ll find another line of work and, when you’re ready, maybe someone to share your life with, someone who doesn’t spend their life escaping reality. It’ll be different, I grant you. But it’ll be better.’ He stood up, perhaps not wanting to hear my answer, perhaps knowing it was too soon for me to give one. ‘By the way,’ he added, his tone too casual, ‘You tested positive for opiates too. We see a lot of the fall-out from drug abuse here. You know, you nearly died in that crash. Your friend’s not the only one who needs to start living in the real world. I’ll have one of the nurses stop by with a mirror.’
I’d always loved mirrors. I had a lovely big square one perched on the chest-of-drawers in my bedroom, with lightbulbs up and down the sides like an actor’s mirror. It lit up every contour, every accent, every line. I think I actually loved my own face, the jutting cheekbones that disappeared if I ate too much, the subtle nose that had it’s own special shadow resting just so on my cheek, the flat brown eyes that didn’t look like much until you clicked a camera and then – wow! They flashed like a cat’s, flooding the shot with heat and raw energy and a little danger. The Day of the Mirror, as I came to think of it, was more terrible than the day we crashed. The Day of the Mirror was the day I crashed. A come-down like no other. An enforced cold turkey. A brutal full stop to my life. A brick wall. Those days in hospital seemed to trickle out of that day like sand through my fingers. Rough sand, that cut a little on its way down, the kind of grit they use to make sandpaper. I don’t remember the nurse who held the mirror, or what I said when I saw myself. Just that it wasn’t me. Beauty queen, daddy’s darling, mummy’s angel, teacher’s pet, model, girlfriend, all gone. The future me was gone too: loving wife, yummy mummy, 6
graceful grandmother, all so much dust. I wondered who I was now, who I would become.
The rhythm of the hospital began to feel like a cocoon. The sudden snapping on or off of the lights over which I had no control. The toxic tang of the cheap cleaning fluid they used to mop the floors, the weaker whiff of mushy food that lingered after every meal, the sickly sweet scent of the other patients, all women with crinkled faces. Those who whispered about me gradually found fresher gossip. The new patients looked away. Whenever I fell asleep, I was immediately woken again, for tests, or doses, or meals, so I got used to sleeping in twenty-minute snatches. My bed was far from the window and I kept the curtains around it drawn, so day and night blurred into one. If they brought toast, I knew it was morning. If they brought a double dose, I knew it was night. When the pain kicked in, I rang the buzzer, or stumbled around to the nurses’ station for drugs. They took the edge off, but I caught myself dreaming of Kane’s stash. Dr Ellis always seemed to be there. On his ward rounds, but also when he was off duty, white coat tucked under one arm, jeans, Converse boots, a Man U t-shirt. He liked to stop by on his way out, or on his way in. I didn’t know why. I just knew it wasn’t because he wanted to fuck me.
One day, close to my proposed discharge, Dr Ellis brought me a newspaper. ‘Maybe this will make things easier,’ he said, tapping a two-column story on page four. There was a tiny picture too, a little out-of-focus, but I’d recognise Escoe’s startling golden face
anywhere. ACCOUNTANT CHARGED – MANDATORY FIVE-YEAR JAIL TERM. The headline scorched my eyes. Dr Ellis waited quietly while I read the story. Escoe wasn’t even up for drink driving, or being a smack-head, or fucking up my face. They wanted to put him away for “possession of an illegal firearm”. I almost laughed. ‘I’d forgotten about the gun’, I said. How insignificant it seemed now. Dr Ellis rubbed his temple with the heel of his hand. I noticed the wedding band, slim, silver, solid. His life apparently unmarred by the traumas that threaded in and out of his working day, but I easily pictured him a few years on: bowed, the twinkle gone. ‘It doesn’t make things easier,’ I said finally. ‘I need a shitload of plastic surgery, not some sort of twisted retribution.’ Dr Ellis half-smiled. ‘Okay, but at least he won’t be able to do this to anyone else. That’s something, isn’t it?’ I considered, my face tingling. I’d just topped up my codeine. ‘Did I tell you I only met Escoe that night? I didn’t know him. But I knew him. You see, it really doesn’t matter which one of us was driving. It doesn’t matter which one of us is disfigured, which one of us goes to prison. Because if I hate him, then I hate myself, too. There’s no difference between him and me. None at all.’ Dr Ellis shook his head gently. ‘The difference is, you get a second chance.’ He closed his eyes for a minute. ‘When I was still training, just started at this big hospital in Birmingham, there was a guy there who used. A lot of doctors are addicts. It’s pretty well known. So easy to get the drugs, you see. Temptation’s always there. Anyway, this guy, he held it together most of the time, but the signs were starting to show. Little things, at first. He drank too much when we went for after-work drinks, he forgot conversations he’d had that morning, and then he began to make mistakes. I knew why he used. Lost his father young, a distant mother, the usual sob story.’ He paused, then dealt a heavy
blow. ‘I know your parents haven’t been to visit, Rachel. That’s tough and I’m sorry.’ Normally I told people how busy my parents were, how important their jobs were. But I found I could no longer summon the energy to make excuses for them. Dr Ellis didn’t wait for me to respond anyway. He switched smoothly back to his student friend. ‘Some people cope, some use. In the end, it got so bad, he made a mistake on a prescription, almost killed a little boy. That kid, he got terribly ill-‘ He broke off for a second and I suddenly suspected he was talking about his own mistake, his own life. ‘Anyway, lucky for him, a beady-eyed nurse spotted it. He knew then it was kill or cure. You can take it from a very jaded doctor, it’s not a way to live, it’s a way to die. So, he quit. How did he do it? It was more minute by minute than day by day, but he’s clean. Still an addict, of course, always will be, but clean. Does his job, married that nurse, she’s pregnant now...’ I thought he’d finished, but he shook his head as if to clear it and carried on. ‘Before I started working here, we went travelling, me and my wife – well, she was my fiancée then. We travelled around Africa, ended up in Ghana. We visited one of the old slave trading posts at Cape Coast. There was this immense white castle with the original courtyard and cannons and church, and underneath the church were the dungeons where they kept their slaves. Our guide told us that when the slave masters were in the mood, they gathered all the women slaves in the yard and then picked out the prettiest ones to take to their bed that night. My fiancée whispered to me, “It was good to be ugly in those days.” But the guide overheard and said she needn’t’ve worried. Pretty in those days meant fat, a wrinkled neck, and hirsuite.’ I thought I saw the point to his story. And it did make me feel a little less self-pitying. He stood up, a busy doctor again. ‘You have a chance now, Rachel. A chance to stop using. To see what life is like without – how did you put it? Razor-sharp cheekbones? To find out if people like you. To find out if you like yourself. If you can. I know you can.’ His 9
eyes challenged me and I tried to meet his gaze. Suddenly, savagely, I didn’t want to let him down.
Eventually, my mother came. I thought she was wearing one of her business suits; it was hard to be sure. She didn’t really dress down, even when she wasn’t working. She checked her watch and I had to stop myself apologizing for interrupting her schedule. She placed her briefcase on the bedside chair and stuck her head on one side to consider her only child. Please don’t recoil. My whole body tensed under the sheet, waiting for her reaction. Just please don’t recoil. I didn’t think I could cope with that on top of everything else. She went on looking at me, a slightly annoyed expression on her face, like she used to get when I interrupted one of her business phonecalls to tell her I’d scraped my knee. Finally, she sniffed and picked up her briefcase again, already preparing to leave. ‘So. I assume you’ll be out in time to help us clear out your old room? I’m sure you recall, we’re having a little do next month, your father’s boss will be there, so we’ll need to show off the whole house.’ It was worse than if she’d recoiled. I felt something inside me, maybe the last bit of hope, or love I had left, shatter into about a million pieces. Dr Ellis was wrong. Life can always get worse. I surprised myself by sobbing, great wracking sobs, in a way I hadn’t since I was a little girl. My mother looked away, as though I was being distasteful. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she said, her tone light, but laced with menace. ‘I have to go now. Your father would’ve
come, but…’ She didn’t bother to finish, just swiveled on her spikey heels and left. I cried for so long, they had to give me a shot.
After my mother’s visit, I cried on and off for a few days. I felt delicate, transparent, like a pane of glass. I kept remembering something my mother had said to my father when I was about six and having a full-blown tantrum. She said, ‘You deal with it. You made me have her.’ Dr Ellis still came to sit with me, but he no longer spoke. There was little left to say. I knew it was almost time to leave my curtained cocoon and I had a face not even a mother could love. The world outside was desperately ominous. I was horrified at the thought of people – not medical people, but bus drivers, shopkeepers, photographers, seeing me like this. I realized there was only one person I did want to see and he had a bottle of pills with my name on it. As soon as they discharged me, I went to find Kane. There was no way in hell I was going through another day without drugs. Not the pathetic excuse for painkillers they’d tried to fob me off with on the ward, but proper, soul-numbing, pain-deadening, life-evading drugs. When Kane saw me, he looked like he was going to puke. ‘God, it’s even worse than I heard.’ He couldn’t look me in the eyes. I tried to shrug. ‘Just give me the fucking gear, Kane.’ He shook his head and went to get it. He wasn’t known for taking orders; he was obviously giving the poor disfigured cow a break. As I stood in the vast whiteness of his apartment, I remembered the last time I’d been there. How casually I’d considered sleeping with Kane. Now he wouldn’t screw me if it would save his entire marijuana crop from ruination. I shuddered. No-one would ever
sleep with me again. Especially not- I had deliberately avoided thinking about Escoe since the crash. But now I couldn’t help it. His memory was everywhere. He’d sat on this thin silver strip that passed for a chair. He’d swallowed a canapé beside the Jeff Koons sculpture. He’d looked out at the river with me from the balcony. Suddenly, I knew I was going to be sick. I rushed to the bathroom and emptied my stomach into Kane’s loo. I suspected it had often been used for that purpose before. I avoided the mirror above the sink as I rinsed my mouth. As I came out, Kane headed me off. ‘Here you go.’ I looked at the bottle he placed in my hands. I’d asked for a lot of drugs, but this was ridiculous. There was enough in there for a month or more. Little white pills twinkling up at me. About a hundred of them. He noticed me staring. ‘Listen,’ he said, looking out the window, ‘it might be better if you found yourself another place to score from now on. People talk, y’know.’ I clutched the bottle. ‘Sure. You don’t need a deformed hag showing up at one of your fancy dos. Wouldn’t look good, I agree.’ He tried to look at me, and failed. ‘It’s not like that, Rachel. I mean, come on. You met that fucker Escoe right here in this room. If anyone grasses, if they find out that smack-head junkie got his fix here…’ The threat hung in the air. Like I cared. I was already leaving, unscrewing the bottle-cap as I went. Soon I was out on the street, swallowing the bitter little pills that would bring oblivion. I couldn’t wait.
I saw Escoe one more time before they locked him up. I was heading home, my woolen hat pulled low over my eyes, my scarf carefully placed to cover my nose, despite the blazing sunshine. ‘Rache!’ I stopped and turned around. Only one person called me that. There he was - tall, golden, and striding towards me. A prominent black tag decorated one ankle. ‘Rache, wait up. Oh God.’ He looked at my eyes, which were all that was 12
visible through my cover-up. ‘I’ve been hanging around for ages, hoping to catch you. Come get a coffee with me?’ I hesitated, then nodded. ‘Okay. But I’m not taking my scarf off.’ He almost smiled, then thought better of it.
I waited while he queued for drinks. He hadn’t changed. His handsome face was untouched by any blemish from either the accident or his habit. He was still film-star good-looking. Brad Pitt’s better-looking little brother. His long-sleeved t-shirt covered his messed-up arms. There were no clues to the mess inside his head. He placed an espresso in front of me. I took it with three sugars, but he didn’t know that. ‘I have tried to contact you, Rache. The police held me for ages. Then the hospital wouldn’t let me see you. I didn’t even have your number. Fucking Kane pulled his two-bit piece on me when I asked for it.’ I nodded. I knew all this. Dr Ellis placed a security guard outside the ward at one point. Escoe kept turning up off his face and threatening the nurses. ‘I’m going to plead guilty.’ His voice startled me with its intensity. I realized I hadn’t even considered how he would plead. But it made me feel about a stone lighter. He looked right at me. ‘I wanted you to be the first to hear it. It’s not about the gun. You know it’s not about the gun.’ Under my scarf, I smiled slightly. Escoe pushed his coffee aside. ‘It should have been me.’ I nodded again. I felt so bad, I would have given my fucked-up face to an innocent child, let alone Escoe. The man who was so high he’d driven me into a brick fucking wall. A new stab of pain pierced all the other pain sitting on my soul.
Escoe took my hand. ‘I’m so sorry, Rache. I did a terrible thing by you. I know you can never forgive me. No-one could and, god, I won’t ask you to. But you know something?’ I stared at the steam coming off my coffee. ‘We would have been so good together. We would have been amazing.’ I was surprised to hear a catch in his voice and I looked up to see his eyes were wet. Slowly, I raised my hands and pulled my hat off. I deliberately unwound the scarf and placed it on the table. He just looked at me. I heard a child at another table ask her mother why that girl had such a funny face. What was wrong with her nose? I ignored her. So did Escoe. After a moment, he reached out his hand and tenderly touched my cheek. I felt a little bit of the pain disappear. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said again. ‘I truly wish it had been me.’ Then he got up and quickly walked away. As I looked at the space where he’d sat, I hesitated. Maybe meeting Escoe wasn’t a full stop after all. Maybe that doctor was right, it was about seeing beneath, feeling something real, finding meaning in the small things. Maybe I could be the fabulous person he described, living, laughing and loving without sedation; it would be viciously different, of course, but maybe somehow better? I closed my eyes and a hundred little white pills winked at me.
© Omma Velada 2009 (4,700 words)
When Layla meets Escoe, she knows her life is about to change, but what happens next is the very last thing she expects...