She runs out the door without breakfast to take her child to daycare. In the classroom the Surinamese teacher is juggling three tangerines – she throws them all the way up to the high ceiling and then catches them again. The toddlers clap their hands in delight. She is reminded of the piece by John Baldessari that she fell in love with in Brussels: Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts).
Her child runs over to the wooden castle and climbs inside it, only to emerge again via the slide. Everything seems normal. She waves and walks off down the hallway. No one notices anything. She’s dressed in her work clothes – dark dress pants, a nice blouse. She was supposed to be covering a conference today. She has seven and a half hours.
Once she’s on her bicycle, she’s out of breath after just two streets. She doesn’t want to run into anyone she knows. At least he is nowhere to be seen, she notes with relief. Why would he be, anyway? He barely leaves the house these days. He sits at the dining table, reading teletext and the paper. He paces back and forth in the living room. He stares at his bank accounts to see how much is left of the golden handshake.
Is she headed in a plausible direction?
She’s not on her way to a conference, but to a hotel room with J. It used to be that you had to wait until after marriage – now you want to fuck first before you’re willing to take it to the next stage, before you’re able to. It has to feel right when you have sex. She was wrong often enough, in another lifetime, a long time ago. A basketball player with curly hair and cute crescent-moon eyes whose dick smelled so bad she’d already started making her way back up to his lips before she’d kissed her way down to his bellybutton. They never got as far as fucking. You have to know what it’s like.
She rides down the shopping street around the corner from her house. The two washed-up Ibiza ravers with their pet store, their shrivelled glamour and barely disguised revulsion at catching sight of each other. The expensive eyewear shop run by the smug conservative guy.
The toy store where she buys baby-shower presents and where shady underworld figures do their impulse buying: life-size stuffed lions or mini-Teslas that they always pay for in cash.
She rides past the hotels, past the station, scanning the crowd for a man with a spring in his step and long legs under a knee-length black raincoat.
A boy who is still steeped in punk and the melancholy of the 80s, which makes it feel like there was never a time when she didn’t know him. She doesn’t see him; she looks at her phone and heads on toward the ring road. She rides on underneath it to a more anonymous, more spacious part of the city.
The hotel where they’re meeting has rooms for stranded travellers who want to get a few hours’ shut-eye before making their delayed connecting flights. She suspects that it’s also used by business travellers, clandestine yearners, dream-ers, horndogs, members of sad little platforms with names like ‘Second Love.’
She parks her bike with the child seat behind a row of bins by the discreet entrance. In the building, she enters an interchangeable zone of brown travertine and muted light, greyish-pink runner rugs and large vases with silk cherry-blossom branches. You can order tea there and talk at leisure in deep armchairs, even if you’re not a guest. You never run into anyone you know.
The small room has two semi-single beds. An astonishing light shines through the net curtains, dappled through a row of greyish poplars. The bedspreads are as busy as the roads that coil around this building, and when she lies down on them they make a rushing noise. Seven hours to go – it’s 9.30 p.m. There are four tangerines in her purse. Lying on her stomach, she opens the minibar. She’s hungry.
The room is eerily quiet; the whole floor seems deserted. She puts a hand between her legs and sees herself lying there, in an endless row of empty rooms. So many warm, unoccupied hideaways when almost no one in this city can get an apartment anymore.
A short, hesitant knock on the door. She jumps up and looks through the spyhole. He is standing there, grinning awkwardly.
‘This is kind of weird,’ he says.
Yes, but this is also one of the best days of her life. A day when she can live off tangerines and his skin. And a wheeled cart with scrambled eggs, warm bread rolls, a white Russian and a whiskey with no ice. That’s what they order in the afternoon, when all that’s left in the minibar is bottles of sour wine and soda. A day when years’ worth of hunger are satiated, when she is desired and healed and ripped up. When everything becomes skin.
They get naked and fuck and come about five times in six hours and everything is floating in the air and aligning perfectly. At the end of the afternoon, she rinses off in a bath made of cream-coloured plastic. She doesn’t feel guilty; she feels liberated. She wants to stay in this room, with him.
With the sun burning between her legs she mounts the saddle of her bicycle at 4.45 p.m. The pain is proof that she’s alive. She flies on the sun to the daycare. John Baldessari kept throwing his orange balls into the air and taking pictures. Wanting to get a straight line was just an excuse. It was about the challenge, the passion, about taunting gravity. She always thought they were oranges. High up against a brilliant blue sky, sometimes with a few palm trees, the edge of the sky above California. Thirty-six attempts. Today everything is aligning. The abyss yawns, the sun is hers and she is lost.