She paces back and forth across the length of the tattered area rug beneath her feet. Shuffling in tiny circles over the stale, hardened carpeting. She lowers her eyes and folds her arms tightly into her chest as if that’s all she can do to remember to breathe. I wonder if she thinks of me this way now: Tainted.
The wine. We had laughed about it all through last night. How it had tipped, and she was able to yank it free from my hands before I had the chance to take it down with me, and we joked about how she saved the bottle and not me. I asked her why? And she had said because she had already made a habit out of it. I blamed a snag in the carpet. It’s not a conspiracy, she had countered. I couldn’t blame her for blaming me.
Her eyes stay fixated on the same small patch of crimson pooled and crusted at the edge of the carpet, as if she wants to dematerialize and shove her entire being into that stain.
“Five years,” she says weakly, pulling me from my thoughts and back into the room. She wasn’t talking to me. “I wish it’d been before that.” I follow her gaze to a familiar machine resting on top of a glossy wooden desk in the far corner, engulfed in a soft glow of silvery light, waiting for one of us to make it come purring to life.
Neither of us did. Screen to screen. Tiny messages floating around, tying us to one another. The familiarity of the two of us echoed in my mind. The soft ping of an instant-message received resounded like an egg-timer going off in my head. That’s all they ever were up until this night. Two women falling in love over the same story, with every stroke of the keyboard. Guilt and comfort collided and knotted in my stomach. “How long?” She asks, now talking to me, I tell her I don’t know and decide just then that it must have only been a few months.
It had been this small, ordinary room so many times before this, and so many others before her, but last night, if you had just happened to walk by room 419 - the last room at the end of the corridor, with its heavy white door and half-peeled flakes of paint plastered on underneath the crooked gold-plated numbering-if you paused to listen, I mean actually listen, you would hear it.
And maybe you would shake your head and smile at the familiar sounds of two girls falling in love beyond a computer screen. You’d hear wine slosh in the glasses they clinked together. “Wind it again”, one of them would say in between heaps of laughter, as the other one cranks the old dial and with a ping, the jets come roaring to life.
The familiar sounds wafting out from underneath the door and into the hallway soon go silent and are replaced with the low fizz of evaporating bubbles. You realize what is happening now and know it is all coming from the heart-shaped tub because you only choose a room on this particular floor if you want a heart-shaped tub, and you turn to leave.
She pivots on her heels and drifts over to the novelty vanity that juts out of the center of the room. She stares past herself back at me and absent-mindedly thumbs the torn ticket stubs and worn playbills that are dog-eared and tucked inside the edges of the elongated circular mirror.
Her eyes settling on a small black tube of red matte lipstick. “I’ll be back,” I tell her. “Do you like her stories better than ours?” “We all love the same story,” I reply. “That’s not what I asked” she says. “You don’t have to, you know. You’ve already made it your own.” “No, I haven’t.”
I leave her asleep and slip out of bed, silently padding against the cold tile floor. One of us must have left a window open because a breeze rides in on the curtain, slamming the door shut behind me. I go to listen and talk about the same story a thousand different ways. The same story that once started the same way we did. Over a keyboard. She’s right. I wasn’t paying attention. I was always chasing them while she’s chasing me. She left this behind years ago, tainted before we had even started.
“It should have just ended.“ She would always say, and then “but I would have never met you,“ she would add with a smile.
Moments later, a hand swats at us through a small slant in a bathroom door. Orange light begins to spill in, revealing the two of us, clad in our underwear. I squint my eyes to try and keep the spins at bay. A bar attendant waves his arms and mouths what looks like “Get out!” Suddenly I realize how I got here. Drinks, and lots of them. It didn’t matter, though. Because I was talking about the show, and my idols were there, and I even justified it down to this very moment, standing barefoot in this dingy bathroom with a stranger who only three drinks earlier, I was calling a friend.
A white hot flash of pain spikes through my forehead. We’re back in that room. I am sitting on the bed propped up on one elbow. I clamp my eyes shut to combat the woozy motion of the spins and wipe the memory from my mind. She doesn’t look up. “I don’t know how long.” I reply, my voice shaky, but all I can manage in this moment. My eyes plead with her to come back to bed. To wrap herself against me, both of us shrouded in the protective covers that shielded us from everything that lived outside our bubble and the walls of this room. Our room. She was wide awake and I hadn’t even gone to bed. Last night it had been the low, sweet scent of a dark aging red and us. Limbs intertwined underneath a blanket of soft foam, hissing and popping, gathering, hiding us where we didn’t want our hands showing on one another.
A distant ping slices through the thick silence that hangs in the air, like white noise after your favorite podcast has ended. That show. That’s what got us here in the first place. Blaming that something that brought us together felt backwards and sour rolling around on my tongue. I shook my head and swallowed hard, banishing the thought from my mind and pushing it back down my throat. Burying it away somewhere deep down inside my chest.
Her eyes flicker towards an old-fashioned wind-up timer. “Is it over now?” She asks softly behind me, her voice tinged with sobs. “Time’s up,” I reply back. “That’s not what I asked,” she says. I stumble to the bathroom almost tripping over a black tube rolling in place back and forth on the carpet leaving dark matted streaks. I turn to face myself in the overhead mirror above the sink and cross my fingers, quickly starting to wipe away any existence of red smears. Any admittance of a past mistake made outside of this room, trying to make something my own. She was right. I wasn’t paying attention. "Yeah." I lie.
Jennifer Ledbury is a writer living in California.