Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Her stories have been published in the Sunday Business Post, the Nivalis 2016 anthology, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Anthology 2017, the Lakeview International Journal of Literature and the Arts, Bare Fiction Magazine, Occulum, Wasafiri and Number Eleven Magazine.
I learned his name because I left my keys in the car door. I guess it was all the driving, and the heat. It was so dusty dry my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I drank and drank but all the gin in the bottle wouldn’t unstick it.
I had been driving through the night, thirsty and in a soup of sweat. When I stopped at the motel at last, my head was so stunned by everything it was ringing like a bell, and I left the keys in the car door. So thirsty and sweaty that when I heard the knocking at the door I opened it in just my t-shirt and panties, with the half-empty bottle in my hand hidden behind the door, and there he was with my keys.
He looked so young that I didn’t think. I didn’t even say hello. I just asked him straight up what his name was. He gave a grimace that I didn’t understand that moment and looked down at his name badge and said, very softly, Ruby, and kept his eyes cast down. So I guessed he was waiting for me to make some remark concerning what a boy must be like with a name like Ruby attached to him, and just because he was expecting it, I didn’t say anything at all. It wasn’t the first time I thought it was a good name for him, though. That rich skin like heavy wine, that almost transparency in his eyes; pure but shot through with something, like a streak of blood clouding out into clear water.
While I was thinking this and hefting the bottle in my hidden hand, he slipped away, all innocence and sharp edges, his eyes still cast down. As I closed the door, I thought of how I might have drawn him into the room and taken off his button-down shirt.
Then I drank some more and fell asleep until later, when I woke even thirstier, with an echoing vice binding my skull. The curtains were shut and it was still daytime and I contemplated the light turning dirty and nauseous as it filtered through the dingy material. There was a stain on the curtains, a big blotchy one, and I wondered how you get a stain like that all the way up there on a curtain. Then I thought that even though the room had the grimy feel that comes from brushing the dirt under surfaces instead of off them, and an old smell of ashtrays and glue that rose off the walls, and an odour of ancient toxic shit that snuck in from the drains, I didn’t want to go outside.
I so much didn’t want to go out that I lay there until the pressure on my bladder obliged me to brave the discoloured toilet. Then I sat there for a while, listening through the open door to the fan whirring feebly, combing out my sweat-damp hair with my fingers. The greasy residue made me think briefly about taking a shower, but I didn’t have the energy for it.
Back in the bedroom, I pulled back the edge of the unstained curtain and there he was, passing right by, giving a little furtive glance at the door but not looking at the window. Before he could go too far, I took one great stride towards the door, which made my head jangle and my eyes echo, and opened it and called out, Ruby! Come here a minute wouldya?
He turned his head and looked at me, and then he came back a few steps. It cooled my eyes just to look at him, the freshness of him, the soft lines of his arms, a man but only just, not hardened yet fully into the muscle he would soon be able to sport.
I said I wasn’t feeling too good, some kind of flu, and would he mind buying a few things for me; food and stuff, I said, and I added that of course I’d pay him. There was a tiny pause and I could see him thinking it over, wondering what he was getting himself into, but I must have looked like hell so I guess he believed me. He said ok in a quiet voice like a cool underground place. I could see myself reflected in his eyes before he turned away. I didn’t close the door straight away, but stayed on the threshold to watch the way his whole body participated in the way he walked, the way his back held everything else in balance. When I closed the door I lay on the bed and thought about him climbing onto it, onto me, how smooth his body would be, almost hairless, how it would gleam in the hot dimness.
Later on, I woke up again and saw something flashing in the corner; my phone. I had turned it to silent when I’d been in the car earlier, or yesterday, or whenever it had been. Too much ringing. I hadn’t been able to think. I listened to the first message as I opened the minibar and checked out the selection. It sounded like the same words over and over, where are you where are you where you are are you where where, and I selected a miniature bottle of whisky which I figured would make a change from the gin. I didn’t down it all in one but sipped it carefully, trying to keep my mind on the taste of it as I listened to the other messages. They were all variations on the first one, the tone rising to anger and ebbing to anxiety. I growled, toasted the phone with my bottle and tossed back the last drops.
The whisky made my head feel lighter again and I did end up having a shower. There was a little window in the bathroom, high up, that I could look out of while I was in the shower, and I kept watch in case Ruby came by, but he didn’t. I imagined him coming in while I was showering, padding over to the bathroom, slowly taking off his sweaty clothes and climbing in behind me, but I got stuck then because I couldn’t quite visualise the man’s body hidden underneath the boy’s clothes.
I didn’t bother to dry off, just put on the same t-shirt and panties again, since I didn’t have a change of clothes, and my jeans too this time, and turned on the TV while I had another of the miniatures – vodka this time. The first thing that came on was a sales channel: a guy with hair implants and too much makeup and a woman my age trying to look twenty years younger, exclaiming at length and with far too much enthusiasm about some apparatus that was supposed to make chopping things in the kitchen a cinch. I got caught up in it after a while, started wondering whether I would be better at cooking if I had something like that. Then I got bored and flicked around, looking for porn, but you had to pay for that, so I started watching a police show instead. After a while I started laughing at it for no particular reason. I was on my third miniature bottle by then so I guess that had helped to lighten my mood. I hadn’t eaten for quite a while either.
The light had almost all leaked out of my stained curtains when I heard that soft knock I had been waiting for and before I thought about it I heard myself shouting, Ruby! I thought, shut up, act cool but already my body was bounding up like a big dog with its tongue hanging out. When I opened the door I thought, he’s young enough to be my son, but even so I was conscious of how transparent my t-shirt was, and that he was trying not to look and not quite managing.
His face was afraid and daring at the same time, like a child doing something his parents have warned him not to do. I guess I was the stranger he’d been told not to accept sweets from. In his hand he held a bulging plastic bag and I realised I hadn’t even told him what to buy and that I should have said I needed a bottle of gin, but it was too late now.
He said, I got you some food and stuff, like you asked, and held out the bag to me. Stumbling over the words, he said, it was $6.39, here’s the receipt, and I said, of course, hang on Ruby honey, I’ll just get my purse, come in, no need to stand outside like that when you’ve done me such a kind favour, and he stepped in stiffly and looked around as if he had never seen one of these rooms before. His eyes were white in the dimness.
As I was fumbling through my purse for change, the phone started to ring again. I must have turned the sound back on by accident. I pretended I didn’t hear it at first, but Ruby began to look so uncomfortable that I snatched it up.
For some reason, instead of turning it off, I pressed the green button and then stared at it as it said, hello, hello, honey are you there, hello. Ruby said, I can come back, and began to back towards the door but I shook my head and stuck the phone to my ear. What, I said and there was a pause. I dumped my purse on the bed and pushed the fingers of my free hand blindly through it, keeping my eyes trained on Ruby. The phone said, where are you. I snapped, nowhere. Are you coming home soon, it said.
Of course, I retorted, what do you think this is, some TV show? Good, the phone said and I snarled, Good good good, that’s all you’ve got to say, I’ll come home when I’m damn well ready. The phone said, Jesus you’re drunk aren’t you, and I pressed the red button hard and threw the phone onto the chair. Sorry, I said to Ruby. I came up to him, close enough to smell him and took his smooth hand in one of mine and put twenty dollars into it with the other and closed his fingers over the money.
Sorry, Ruby, honey, I said again, that was my husband. Oh, said Ruby. He looked scared. Yeah, I said, I had to get away for a while, sort my head out. He says all sortsa mean things to me, I wanted to work out if he’s worth it. What do you think, Ruby? Do you think he’s worth it? Should I go back?
I-I don’t know, Ruby said and I moved even closer, so that our chests were nearly touching. Do you have a girlfriend, Ruby, honey? I purred and put my hand on his chest and he jumped back, dropping the twenty-dollar note on the bed. Uh, he said, uh, uh, don’t worry about the money, I don’t have change anyways, uh, I gotta go, my, uh, my momma’s waiting for me. He gave me a desperate look and I smiled at him. Come on, honey, Ruby, honey, I said, your momma’s gotta learn someday that you’re a man, and I stepped towards him again.
He slipped out the door and walked away so fast he might as well have run. I shouted, Ruby! Ruby! as I rushed to the door, but I was too slow. He had already disappeared into the night.
I stayed in the doorway for a while, calling him every so often, until a man emerged from the room next door and said, Quit your hollering, and I shouted at him, Quit hollering yourself, and went back into my room and banged the door as hard as I could. I went to the fridge to check again, just in case, but there was nothing left to drink, so I banged that door too. After a while I made a sandwich with the stuff Ruby had brought me. It tasted almost as good as if he had made it for me with his own soft hands.
When I woke up in the early morning, it took me a while to realise why I felt ashamed. I felt like I’d wet the bed or been told I stank. Then I remembered the look in Ruby’s eyes when he had understood what I had been offering, and I covered my face up with the rancid pillow.
Then I got up and threw my couple of belongings into my bag. Maybe I’d go home. Or maybe I’d just keep driving. I walked out of the room and left the door swinging wide.