7 December 2012

Red by Rebecca Howden

Red by Rebecca Howden (24)

They’re crazy, these girls who want to get married. Look at them all in their white lace, drowning in silk and tulle and crepe de chine. They buy our magazine and before they know it they’re crying like it matters over whether their bridesmaids should wear lilies or orchids in their hair; they become genuinely interested in china patterns. They’ll spend all their savings on a veil hand-woven by nuns in Nicaragua, and they’ll think maybe, with a train that falls just so, life won’t be so bad. They’ll look so freaking beautiful, delirious, as if they’re not diving headfirst into everything dead and confining, as if the thought of suffocation never crosses their mind.

It just drives me insane, that’s all.

Still, this is my job, retouching their faces so they look poreless on the page. Make them otherworldly, iridescent. Make their teeth that little bit whiter, their cheekbones a bit sharper. Smooth out any creases in their sweeping mermaid dresses. Then the real fun starts, and I get to style pages and pages of different types of table settings, lay out features on how to choose the perfect bouquet, arrange spreads filled with wine stoppers and napkin rings and little bags of sugar-coated almonds.

Go on. Ask me anything about bonbonniere.



So, I’m at work. I’ve at least bothered to put on lipstick today, so that’s a good sign. Most days now it feels too hard to brush my hair, or pick out nice clothes. It’s tough work in this office; the advertising girls all clatter about in their high heels, all shiny hair and big fur vests and brown skin. In the cold mornings I lie aching in bed while Bear showers and puts on his suit and eats his egg whites. The first snooze alarm goes off, then the second and third, and then I grope around the bedside table for my glasses, pull on a dress and stockings and boots and shove my hair into a ponytail while I’m walking to the tram stop, munching on the piece of toast Bear has left for me.

But look, today I’ve found a semi-clean cardigan, even put my contact lenses in. I sip at my coffee, and the little pink crescent my lips leave on the cup makes me feel a bit more real. A ghost, I think. A ghost on my coffee cup. The coffee starts to warm my veins and get the fibres in my brain sputtering up a little, and I watch the rain tickle at the window, just lightly.



This is my idea, doing the photo shoot at the aquarium, so I hope to hell it comes together. In my head it’s beautiful – girls dripping in tulle and chiffon, arching their backs like gymnasts while clownfish and stingrays float behind them. Everyone’s a little anxious that it might be just a bit too artsy, but I can just picture the water all bright and clear on the glossy stock, the colours of the fish like jewels against the perfect white of the dresses, the brilliant paleness of the girls’ skin, the white flash of their teeth.

The black garment bags are heavy draped over my arm. Body bags, I always want to call them. Long and lifeless, weighed down by layers and layers of georgette and charmeuse and Chantilly lace. I drag them into the little office they’re letting us use as a dressing room and let them fall from my arm onto the desk.



Natasha greets me with a hug, pressing her shoulders into mine.

‘Hiii-ii!’ she sings. Her body in my arms feels like a bunch of sticks, and I have the idea that her skeleton might suddenly fall apart and I’ll be grappling with an armful of ribs and scapulas and hipbones.

‘Thanks so much for coming,’ I say.

‘Oh of course.’ She steps back and looks around at the mess of shoeboxes and garment bags and camisoles. She seems thinner and younger than I remember from the casting, almost childish wrapped up in her white dressing gown, her face all made up like a little doll. Natasha the beautiful, all ready to be our blushing bride for the next three days, her cocoa-coloured hair pulled back in a loose, romantic chignon.

‘So, what first?’ she says, shrugging off her dressing gown. Her body, naked except for a little nude-coloured Calvin Klein g-string, is impossibly long and taut. I look away, focus my attention on unzipping a garment bag and carefully extracting the first gown. Her eyes are on my back, or maybe on the dress, and layers of frothy skirt spill out onto the floor, endlessly.



The back of the dress has thousands of little hooks and eyes, following the long line of her spine. I fasten them one by one, my fingers fumbling against her warm, smooth back. As the bodice tightens around her the boning squeezes her ribs, forcing a little hourglass shape into her rail of a torso.

‘Can you breathe okay?’ I ask her. She laughs, making her shoulders and chest shiver a little.

‘Oh, I’m fine,’ she says. ‘I’m so good at breathing.’

‘I’m not,’ I say, finishing up the last of the hooks and smoothing out her skirt. She twists her head around to look at me, one perfect eyebrow arched.

‘You need to do some yoga,’ she says. ‘Practise.

‘Mm,’ I say. I reach for the box of jewellery I picked out yesterday and sift through the little tissue-wrapped parcels.

‘All that deep breathing or whatever is too hard,’ I say. ‘My chest just feels too shallow or something.’

I find the necklace I’m looking for and unwrap it carefully. My favourite one, from Tiffany’s, worth more than I make in three months. The silver chain spills out into my hands, cold and delicate.

‘You’re doing it all wrong, probably,’ Natasha says. She lifts her chin and turns back to face the wall so I can fasten the necklace around her.

‘You’re trying to breathe in as much as you can,’ she continues. ‘That doesn’t work. It’s all about the exhale. You have to breathe out as much as you can, and then breathe out more and more, and more and more and more. And then, when your lungs are properly empty, they just fill all the way back up by themselves.’

In my head the necklace has been mine somehow, but against her skin it looks like a part of her, a little chain dangling down her back like precious silver vertebrae. She suddenly twists to face me again, flashing her brilliant Cheshire smile. She grabs my hand with both of hers.

‘I can just tell, we’re going to be best friends,’ she says.



I get home before Bear does. My clothes are feeling heavy and I peel them off, leaving them in little dark puddles along the hallway. In my stockings and underwear I lie down on the couch, cuddling in to a beige mohair blanket. My chest hurts and I close my eyes. Normal people breathe ten to twelve times a minute, the doctor told me, not twenty to thirty. I try to breathe so the air fills my belly.

I wake up to Bear letting himself in, knocking into everything with his gym bag. I stay lying on the couch and hold my arms out to him, and ambles over and lies on top of me, his skin hot and sticky against mine.

‘Guess how much I pressed at the gym,’ he says, burying his face into my shoulder.

‘Um,’ I say. ‘A million.’

Almost,’ he says, and he starts gnawing at my neck and tickling me below my ribs until I’m screeching. He collapses into me, and I breathe in his sweaty, familiar Bear scent, tangle my fingers through his damp hair. Then he leaps up, gives me a loud kiss on the cheek.

‘Must shower,’ he says. He whistles Party Rock Anthem as he walks off, doing a little dance with his shoulders, and I pick up one of his big woolly jumpers from the floor and pull it over my body.



Bear is doing some kind Paleolithic diet, which as far as I can tell means he can only eat what a caveman could have hunted and foraged himself, plus protein shakes. Tonight, it’s a little fist-sized portion of rib-eye with spinach and strawberries on the side. I sip at a vanilla shake, pick at a few of the berries.

‘Caveman love strawberry,’ Bear growls, looking up at me with a little grin. I roll my eyes at him and he leans over and kisses my cheek.

‘Caveman love you,’ he says.

‘Eat your spinach,’ I say, and I stab at his arm gently with a fork.



When I sleep, my teeth break and fill my mouth. I spit them out into my hand, little jagged splinters and chunky bits of molars, just gummy gaps where they should be. I wake up and move my tongue around my mouth, checking with my little finger as well just in case.

And I lie awake. My ribs bulge out like tree roots growing from under my skin, and I can feel them pressing into the mattress. I try to think about my breath, try to breathe out as much as possible. Breathe it all out, then more and more and more. My lungs fill back up, and for the first time it feels effortless.

Bear shifts beside me with a sleepy little groan. He opens one eye and makes a face at me.

‘What are you doing?’ he asks croakily.

‘I’m breathing.’

‘You’re so crazy,’ he murmurs into my neck. Then he kisses me and rolls on top of my body, and I shift my legs and raise my hips to let him in, and we make quiet, languid love, my arms wrapped tight around his waist, his breath hot against my ear.



The next day is just a blur of glamorous stills of Natasha. Natasha leaning backwards, looking over a milky white shoulder. Natasha clutching a single rose and holding it close to her face. Natasha laughing and simpering and gasping and looking like the perfect glowing bride, long and thin the way nobody should look in white.

I help her in and out of gown after elaborate gown. She demands that I tell her stories, so I tell her about models who spill cigarette ash on the Vera Wang, models who steal $7,000 Cartier necklaces and everyone knows it only there’s no way you can accuse them, and she says, ‘No, tell me stories about you.’ I lace up bodices while she lifts her arms over her head, loosely holding her elbows with the opposite hand. Naked, you can see her ribs through the dusty white of her back. She pronounces necklace the American way, like neckless.



The stem of the wine glass is cool in my fingers. Out the window, winter-withered leaves skitter along the street in the wind. It’s just starting to get dark, the sky taking on that murky purple tinge of late winter, like the clouds are slowly filling up with ink. Soon, Bear will be getting home, and we can eat his steak and berries and curl up on the couch and it will all be nice, fine. They’ll find us one day, in thousands of years, with me curled around him, fossilised into his back. Our bodies will fuse together as one, and I’ll just be a skeleton imprinted in his skin.

I drink my wine, raking my fingers through the tangle of my ponytail. Already, the wine is making my limbs feel a little looser, my head less cobwebby. I feel less like a bunch of nerves and fibres held together by skin.

Then Natasha bursts through the door and flashes her huge white grin at me.

‘I thought I might run into you here,’ she says.



Her hair is everywhere, thick and loose, her hand languid as she tousles it lightly. Natasha in her tiny charcoal jeans and soft white t-shirt. A slithering red necklace dangles from her neck, and her long nails click lightly against the bar like knitting needles.

‘It’s strange, wearing wedding dresses all day,’ she says, watching as the bartender pours our vodka and sodas.  ‘Full shots, please,’ she tells him, then turns back to me.

‘It’s just different to wearing anything else.’

‘Well,’ I say.

She looks at me, her dark eyes snake-slitted.

You’re not into all that stuff though,’ she says.  ‘All like flowers and veils and stuff.’

She sips at her drink, and I can see her in pieces, the way we’ll capture her at the shoot tomorrow for the accessories spread. Just fragments of Natasha, disembodied. Just her garnet-coloured lips against the rim of a champagne flute, diamonds blinking from her fingers, from her wrist. A gloved hand resting against a billowy white skirt. Little flower blossoms scattered like confetti through a stream of hair.

‘You’re right, I hate it,’ I say, and she laughs.

‘Well, you’re very sage then,’ she says. ‘Who needs romance when there’s Absolut.’

Then she notices my empty glass and leans towards the bartender to order us another round. I ask to make mine a double and she says, ‘Make mine a triple.’ I roll my eyes at her and she grins brilliantly.



Natasha eating a salad, glamorous with a mouthful of lettuce. Natasha with tawny hair spilling over her shoulders, with those collarbones, with long, tapering fingers holding her silverware the way you’re supposed to.  She tells me about how her ideal wedding dress would be black, all inky and moody and witchy. She tells me about the cowboy boots she saw in RUSSH and now desperately covets, so much that it aches. She tells me about her ex-boyfriend, a real cowboy, she insists, or sort of, he played country music at least, but he cared more about his music than things like going to watch her perform in her plays or staying up to talk with her at night, and he wrote love songs about all of his ex-girlfriends and never once about her, but she still checks his MySpace page in case one day maybe he will.  She breaks off suddenly, fixes me with her big dark eyes.

‘You’re so pretty,’ she says. ‘Why are you wearing such blah clothes?’

‘They’re not that blah,’ I say, even though they are.

She pushes her salad towards me in offering and I shake my head. Cucumbers make me angry, I tell her. She stabs at them with her fork and tells me between mouthfuls that anger comes from the gall bladder, and I should just eat apples for two days, and I’ll be all better.

‘It’s true,’ she says. ‘Feelings belong in different parts of the body.’

I ask where boredom comes from, and she rolls her eyes.

‘I wish I knew,’ she says, and finishes off her drink.



In the bathroom, our reflections are dark. Mine is like a ghost of hers, sickly ashen where she’s elegantly pale. The circles under my eyes look like deep hollows. The low light against the black tiled walls. I’m washing my hands and she looks at me in the mirror. She’s reapplying her blood-red lipstick, so I pull out my mottled tube of coral-coloured lipstick for something to do. She glances at it and lets out a little breath of laughter.

‘Here, you should try my shade,’ she says. She replaces the cap with a clean, sharp click and tosses it to me. I roll the little gold tube around in my hand.

‘I don’t know,’ I say. She rolls her eyes.

‘Come on.’

So I uncap it again and slick it on slowly. And it does something to my face. Makes it sharper, brings it into focus. Makes me look older, more alive somehow. I untie my ponytail and my hair falls around my face in loose waves.

There you go,’ Natasha says.



And we drink, and my veins feel warm. At some point I text Bear to say not to wait up, and then Natasha makes me turn my phone off. I tell her I do honestly love him, I really do. She says she knows, but that’s not always the point, is it.  We dance, our bodies close together, her hands on my hips. Our hair gets sweaty; leaning in close it mixes together in a stream of pale brown and dirty blonde, just shades of chestnut and cinnamon against white arms and white collarbones and I forget whose skin is whose, whose shoulders and hips and elbows.



Bear is asleep, one arm stretched out. I am outside myself as I unfasten my earrings, unzip my dress, kick my boots under the bed. In the nook of his arm I can see myself, dishevelled and damp, red lips like a child playing dress up. I feel the hard knot of his muscle underneath me, the feverish heat of his skin.

In my dream, Natasha. Cold and diamond hard, her pale hair weaved back in a knot. She stands by an open window, turned away from me. There are just pieces of her, shards of glass with her image glinting back at me. Red lipstick stains on her silver-white gloves. The marble of her wrist bone. A necklace made of teeth, trailing down her back.



And now I’m dehydrated and my hair smells like smoke and I’d kill for a proper shower. I let my body slump forward, elbows heavy on the desk we’ve turned into a vanity dresser the past few days. This little room we’ve made ours, a perfumed mess of stockings and jewellery and slips, like sisters getting ready for a party, or something. It’s the wreck of the Hesperus, my dad would say. I unwrap the Tiffany necklace, my favourite, with the tiny vertebrae-like links of silver. Natasha should have been here almost an hour ago.

Natasha’s lipstick, still in my handbag. I fish it out and apply it to my lips, slowly, watching myself in the mirror. I’m a spectre, all sick-looking skin, a spattering of freckles like berry seeds across my nose, but the deep red colour makes me feel defiant, almost pretty. I pull my hair back in a chignon, teasing out a few waves that fall around my face. Thin, feathery hair, not quite blond, not quite brown. I fasten the necklace and the cool silver feels light against my skin. That little tail-like chain, trickling down the line of my neck. And I look at myself in the mirror and for a second, I think, I look almost like Natasha.