By Blood We Live Page 5

Except of course it turns out that wasn’t only yesterday.

Los Angeles Times. Monday, 27 August 2012. There were the facts, in black and white. I’d slept for twenty-one months. The better part of two years—gone.

Justine had made me sit down in one of the study’s two obese armchairs—cowhide Thomasvilles decadently left behind by Las Rosas’ former owners—while she’d gone to the kitchen to fix herself a drink. (Eagle Rare seventeen-year-old single-barrel bourbon, my nose said. She’s come a long way from her days of Jack Daniel’s and Coke.) Now she perched on the edge of the desk facing me, tinkling tumbler in one hand, American Spirit in the other. I’d found the softpack stuffed down the side of the cushion and lit one up myself. Blood-drink your fill and nothing rewards like nicotine. I remembered seeing the first colour billboards go up: MORE DOCTORS SMOKE CAMELS THAN ANY OTHER CIGARETTE! Which detonated—along with chrome and fins and Elvis and ferocious canned laughter and Budweiser neons and the lady-shaped Coke bottle—the memory of a buxom stenographer’s dewey nape smelling of Elnett hair-spray and Pond’s cold cream, her tough-bra’d breasts filling my hands. Her apartment had a fold-out bed and an Alba record-player. In the bathroom cabinet hidden behind cosmetics and Band-Aids a flesh-coloured diaphragm in a plastic case like a scallop shell. She’d thought it was going to be a seduction. She’d thought it was going to be sex.

“What do you remember?” Justine said.

I felt the room tilt, intimate its mountains, cliffs of fall, got an inkling of how sick all this might make me feel, while all the Lears I’d ever seen went O, let me not be mad, not mad sweet heaven … So I said, out of my dry mouth: “Well, thanks for easing me in gently.”

“This is what you told me to do if this happened. You told me … Jesus, I can’t fucking believe this.”

I didn’t blame her. Every morning for twenty-one months she’d woken up hoping the coming night would restore me. Every night for twenty-one months been denied. The study’s book-surrounded atmosphere bristled with how tightly that had wound her.

“Are you even here?” she said. “I can’t believe it. Fuck.”

I was very aware of my face, hot and overfull. In spite of the shock of twenty-one months gone I was still being ravished by the in-creeping sense of things meaning things. This is the gift of the blood: Slake the thirst and the world gestures beyond itself to an underlying blueprint. The world is a series of vivid clues to the riddle beyond appearances. The world has a purpose, a pattern, a story, a plot. The world has Meaning. Even Justine, standing there with the chunky tumbler and smouldering cigarette, backed by Tiffany lamplight and red drapes, her dark eyes and her mouth like a bruise, the schoolboy haircut …

“For fuck’s sake,” she said. “Hello?”

“I’m sorry. You look like a Vermeer. Girl with Drink and Cigarette.” Which winked its connection to the memory of the stenographer’s diaphragm. Vermeer, Dutch, Dutch cap, diaphragm. It wasn’t continuous, this blood-joke of design, but it was, once you were back on The Lash, continual.

Justine shook her head. Feelings jammed. Too much, too fast. Meanwhile I blew the rich smoke bullishly through my nose. The thought of sitting still and letting all this take shape around me made me queasy. All this? All what? What was this?

“Did you move out?” I asked her.

“Of course I didn’t move out. Do you have any idea what this has been like? You told me you’d know if a long sleep was coming. You remember telling me you’d know, right?”

“I imagine I would have told you,” I said. “I’ve always known before.”

“Well, you didn’t know this time. I’ve been out of my goddamned mind. Two years. I thought you weren’t coming back.” Suddenly she got really angry: “You fucking promised me you’d know when it was coming.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I truly am. I have always known before. I would never have promised, otherwise. You know that. This must have been awful for you. I’m so sorry.” It was a relief to concentrate on the way she was feeling instead of the way I was. I stood up and went to her. “May I?” I asked. She didn’t respond. She hadn’t decided if she was letting me back in. Me. This. All of it. “Please,” I said.

She put the drink down and laid the cigarette in the desk’s onyx ashtray. Her hair smelled of Flex shampoo. She had a lot of mascara on. Black eyes full of her mutilated history, full of everything she’d wrapped around her past to make it survivable. I’d saved her and damned her. Therefore with her love for me was always a little hate, with the hate always a little love.

Very gently I put my arms around her. She let herself be embraced without fully softening. She was still angry. I could feel how much she wanted to rest her forehead on my clavicle. But she didn’t do it. I loved her for that, her loyalty to how angry she was. The small muscles of her back were determined. I wanted to say to her: I’ll do everything in my power to prevent anything bad happening to you ever again. But I didn’t say that. She doesn’t trust words. Actions got there first with her, violently, prematurely, indelibly. (I had a memory of Niccolo Linario saying: Is it like owning a pet, then, this business of having a human in your life? Like keeping a dog or a talking bird? We were in the low-life streets off the Mercato Vecchio, the air warm and choked with the smell of raw sewage and foully smoking oil lamps. He was new to The Lash, and flabbergasted that I enjoyed a close friendship with an old blind harper I’d picked up from the street and taken to my house, where I cared for him. I’d said to Niccolo: Do you know what it is to embrace a human in tenderness? To feel the racing blood of a body ruled by time? But he’d barely been listening. Too busy eyeing up the laced breasts and ribboned thighs of the night’s blood buffet.)

“Are you all right?” I asked her.

She didn’t answer.

“It’s been vile for you. I’m so sorry.”

She remained resistant in my arms. She was angry with herself for the relief she felt now I was back. In joining her life to mine she’d cut the ties to her kind. It had taken losing me to bring that severance home. It had aged her. She used to run on anger and damage. Now there was sadness, too.

I kissed her small forehead. She yielded a fraction, but then extricated herself. It was a soft tearing pain to lose the flicker of her mortality, the fluttering angels in her wrists and throat and groin. She retrieved the cigarette and the tumbler and moved out of my reach. Paced away. Halted and turned with her back to one of the bookcases.

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