Now that he’s lying here beside her, his skin sweaty, her body warm and still against his, he wonders whether he has crossed a line. His hand caressing her torso, fondling her nipples, moving down along her belly button and the scar on her stomach, he is suddenly beset by doubts. There is the great difference between them, between his wealth and freedom to go wherever he wants to, and her life lived in the shadows. He tries not to think about whether he needs to pay her, and how much. What would be enough?
A few hours earlier, he had stood on the doorstep of the apartment and rung the doorbell four or five times, the sound of the bell echoing through the closed house. When no one came, he had called the number on the sign. Somewhere deep inside the house a phone began to ring, but no one answered. After he had received his booking confirmation, the owner had asked him to get in touch before his arrival. He had replied to her message and told her what time he would arrive. When he didn’t receive an answer, he had simply assumed all was well. Now he sat down and waited until finally, hours later, a woman turned up. She rummaged in her bag, looking for keys.
‘Fatima apartments?’ he asked.
She had a pale, tired-looking face and eyes that did not meet his gaze.
‘Yes … but it’s closed. It closed year ago.’
He showed her his phone, the cheerful exclamation mark next to the booking confirmation. She frowned, took out her own phone and started a conversation he didn’t understand a word of, except the oft-repeated word ‘booking.’
‘Are you the owner?’ he asked, but she hissed at him, annoyed, as if he were a badly raised child. Finally, her conversation finished, she picked up her bag.
He followed her through a narrow passage alongside the house. With every step she took, her dress moved a little, the fabric spanning her buttocks. Towards the end of the passageway was a door that opened into the apartment. It wasn’t much: a kitchen-cum-living room, a bedroom directly behind it.
‘Sit,’ she said, emptying a chair for him.
‘Do you live here?’ he asked.
A fleeting expression crossed her face, a reaction he could not quite read. She turned away from him, took a bucket and filled it. Her hands were broad, yet her wrists were slender, almost fragile. His gaze followed her as she took the bucket to the bedroom, where she began to scrub the floor. There was a pile of evening gowns on the bed, some protected by plastic, others uncovered, hinting at someone else’s parties, elsewhere in the city.
‘The owner,’ she said, pointing at the dresses. ‘How you say? Storage.’
He asked her again whether she lived here.
She hesitated. ‘I’m not here,’ she said. ‘The owner. I’m not here.’
Her hair had been dyed black and one strand had come loose. She angrily blew it out of her face. He suspected that she didn’t exist, not officially, that she lived unnoticed in this house, which was itself withdrawn, away from the street, the hustle and bustle of the city. All noises sounded muffled in here. He got up somewhat awkwardly, randomly opened some kitchen cupboards, found cutlery, a few pots and pans, a bottle of wine. He had disturbed her existence. He had paid for this room, had every right to be here; yet he felt sorry for her.
‘Stay?’ he said hesitantly.
He saw how she scrutinised him, assessed him. He was no danger to her, of course, he had never been a danger to anyone. He opened the bottle and poured her a glass. She looked at it and again he said, ‘Please?’, his voice questioning, begging almost.
They sat opposite each other at the table. Within these walls, time was different from that outside. He put his hand on the table, palm turned upwards, an invitation. She looked up from her phone, saw him. For a long time, they sat like this.
When she got up, he followed her. She took a dress off the bed, and then another one, making room for him. She stood there in the middle of the room with the pile of dresses over her arm. When she thought he wasn’t looking, she briefly, carefully, almost tenderly, caressed the glittering fabric with her right hand.
‘Please?’ he said, as if there was nothing left of him but this question, this one word.
He pointed at the dresses and then at her. Perhaps he would be ashamed of himself for what he was going to do, what he was asking of her, but right now there was only her face, the slight hesitation. The tenderness with which she put the evening gowns on the bed, the way she straightened up and abruptly, jerkily, pulled her own cheap dress over her head, dropping it before her on the floor. She bent over to pick up one of the gowns, held it in front of her for a moment, as if wondering whether this was the right one. His bone-dry body, his yearning slowly awakened – if anyone here had any power, it was her. Her power lived in her naked body, which wasn’t young, but younger than his; in her raised chin and the breasts she didn’t hide from him. He looked at her – he was all eyes, his gaze transforming her into someone else, into herself.
Outside, far away, a car sounds its horn. He presses his nose into her hair, smells the scent of cheap, heavily perfumed shampoo. He doesn’t know whether she is asleep, fears the moment when she will turn around to him. He feels a deep, impossible longing to stay here, in this slow, undefined time. It won’t last long, but for the moment she is no different from him. At home, two strangers.