Cold Bone to Clotted Cream
by Jane Bradley
Since Suzie’s boyfriend died in that car crash, whispers follow her round. People are sympathetic, but there’s something else to it too. Something ghoulish and hungry, and I understand it because I’m the same. Fascinated but repulsed. Like with picking scabs or looking under someone’s bandages. Seeing the blood bubble up and bead, or the stitches like something ancient and horrible, edged by yellow-jelly pus. Wanting to know that wounds can heal. Turning away from how ugly it is.
Suzie’s not ugly. She couldn’t be. But she’s not the same as before. It happened sudden; called out of lectures one day and collected before we got back. She stays away until term ends and until then we trade theories and rumours about why she’s disappeared. As her next door neighbour everyone asks me, but I don’t have the answers they want. The silence from her empty room is so loud it keeps me awake. We know it must be something bad. Curiosity curls into obsession. I look her up online but it’s like she’s deleted herself. It was long-distance love so we only find out later, when someone sneaks a look at her mounting-up mail and sees the condolence cards.
When she comes back to campus, Suzie says she’s got too much energy, but really she’s too scared to sleep. She takes a flask of coffee everywhere. She plays music all night and I can hear her through the walls. I ask her if she wants to talk and she says no, but nice, with a tired, sweet smile like a saint. But then sometimes I hear her tapping on the wall between our beds, like she’s asking if I’m awake. I rap back but there’s no answer. Not to start with.
We weren’t friends before but there’s this odd intoxication now. An energy that sucks me in. I want to save her from herself. I want saving her to be how I save myself. No one here knows my secret shames and sadnesses, that I tried to leave them behind but brought them with me all the same. No one knows how they stutter and squat between my ribs and sometimes give me palpitations or make my thoughts too fast and my head hot, so I have to count down in sevens from three hundred to zero to make everything spin the right speed again. I can pretend, of course, to be like everyone else. But the face I show in classes and the corridors, on Tequila Tuesdays or sitting with the others in my PJ bottoms and bunny slippers, eating beans on burnt toast, it feels an elaborate fake. It’s sick to say but I almost envy Suzie. That all-consuming emotion seems purer, cleaner. Simpler than all the other mess.
I see how not-simple it is the night they find her in the fountain, her toes turned blue because it’s so cold. I see security bundling her in one of those tinfoil blankets, holding her shoes. Debating whether to take her to hospital, whether she needs to be sedated, whether she’s on pills, whether they should report the incident to someone up the chain or if it’s just student hijinks even though she was all on her own. I say I’ll stay with her until she settles. Her fingers are icicles. I hold her hand until they thaw.
She tells me how the doc at home gave her meds, but she was scared to take them. Thought they’d make her too numb so she wouldn’t feel how much she loved him. And how that would feel even worse, like disloyalty, because feeling it is all she can do. She sells her Zopiclone to the two stoner girls on the floor above. One falls asleep in the shower and floods the entire block. We arrange mugs and pans to catch the drips, and she tells me she still has nightmares about him, about insides like tinned spaghetti smeared inside the smashed windscreen.
I get her on hot chocolate instead of coffee. She knocks on the wall when the nightmares come and we pretend we’re awake because it’s fun and innocent; something sweet, a slumber party, even though it’s nothing like. I don’t do any counting while we wait out the time left ’til dawn. She tells me about their first date, their last and the ones in between. The sunrise seeps and the walls change inch by inch, cold bone to clotted cream. She falls asleep with her head in my lap. I’m the calmest I’ve ever been.