"Sorry, sorry. Excuse me please." Lydia's voice was scarcely audible as she wormed through the cluster of women blocking the time clock. Her colleagues' stiff spines and unrepentant immobility blocked her path. They hated her. It was always that way, wherever she worked. Her cheap shoes and unstyled hair drew fire from the brittle, bright cotton-clad secretaries and giggling file clerks. Her deferential manner provoked contempt.
She had to get through to the time clock. Her heart beat quickly - she was about to have a stroke over a niggling little thing like a time clock.
Loitering around to cop a few extra minutes pay could get her a reprimand or worse. Damn. Lydia needed this mean little job in the sterile office full of hateful laughing women. She barely made it from one paycheck to the next on generic canned soup. A five-dollar hike in her heating bill choked her with panic, filled her with pillow-pounding rage.
Lydia hurried to her car. It was high school all over again. She always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. She never knew what the joke was or what clothes to wear. Her lipstick was a laughable, out-moded shade. The rest of the staff laughed at her, the other women said cruel things about her polyester skirts and nylon blouses.
She would just die if she lost this miserable job. The fear of being homeless inserted itself in her thoughts like a blaring advertisement that played on all channels. She stepped into a puddle splashing cold muddy water onto her legs. She was always one paycheck away from homeless.
The creaky door of her Ford argued when she opened it. The window protested when she tried to roll it down. She twisted her neck struggling with the window. The ancient engine wouldn't turn over. She jiggled the key, turned it again. It wouldn't crank. The only sound was the clicking of a dead battery. The radio wouldn't even play.
Lydia clutched the steering wheel until her hands ached arthritically. Gulping air she waited a few minutes. She hoped she had simply flooded the engine; the battery couldn't really be dead. She turned the key again, nothing, not even clicking. Shoulders slumped in defeat she peered out the windshield at the disappearing taillights of cars. No one would stop to help her. They hated her.
Pushing open the heavy door, she exited into the night. Darkness moves swiftly in the middle of February. One anemic security light shone at the far end of the parking lot. With the damp cold seeping through the flimsy soles of her shoes, she trudged back to the front door of the building. Locked.
Lydia didn't have a key to the office. She beat on the door until her knuckles were red. There was no one there.
Resigned to her mundane misfortune, Lydia locked her obstinate vehicle and headed towards the bus stop. The road was poorly lit. She passed a row of silent warehouses, their dark windows like gaping mouths, their ominous silence foreshadowing the grave. The crunches of her own steps on gravel made her anxious. Time slowed to a malignant cadence. The minutes grew into hours.
She felt as if she'd walked through the darkness for literal days. Dread curled like a snake low in her abdomen. She felt it coiled there, preparing to eat her guts from the inside out.
She sensed someone following her - it was a chimera, the mirage of her own hindsight, evidence only of her fear. The imaginings of a small scurrying female in silly shoes walking alone in the dark through a deserted part of the city can swell into a drowning flood. She clutched her own ribcage as if that feeble gesture could ward off the knife of the mugger, the grasp of the rapist.
"Hey bitch! You too good to speak?" the voice was several feet behind her.
Lydia walked faster. Her heart was in her throat. "You think yours is made of pure gold?" Panting, her chest constricted, feeling as if a target was plastered between her narrow shoulders she concentrated on moving her leaden legs forward. Lydia focused on the dry cleaner at the end of the block. The bus stopped there. An open newsstand was just around the corner. She counted her steps, sixty-three, sixty-four, and sixty-five. She would be around other people soon.
As she reached the bus stop the bus pulled away. Lydia ran to the door shouting and waving. She may as well have been invisible. The bus pulled off, dousing her in squalid slush.
"White girl be waiting for the bus like everybody else." A scrawny black man slumping beneath a mass of braids slouched against the wall of the dry cleaner, his hands jammed into the pockets of his baggy pants. Lydia stared at the street in front of her. "Shit! You too ugly to be fooling with... wasting my time." He placed unusual emphasis on the word time, as if he had exclusive proprietary rights to that commodity. She could feel hatred radiating from the black man like a slap across her face.
She darted around the corner into the newsstand. The short mustached man behind the register tracked her with his eyes, as if he suspected she might shoplift a copy of Glamour. His teeth were heavily stained. She got a Styrofoam cup of thrice stewed coffee and went to the counter to pay for it.
"That be all?" The man's tone implied that she best move on if the over- priced coffee was all she wanted, he certainly wouldn't welcome her hanging about until the bus returned. He looked as if he hated her.
"Yes, thank you." Her eyes downcast she handed him a crumpled dollar bill.
"Three cent more." He sounded as if he believed she had tried to cheat him.
She proffered another dollar; she would need change for the bus. He dumped the change on the counter, a quarter rolled to the floor. Lydia scalded her hand with the coffee as she bent to retrieve the coin.
Leaving the newsstand she wrenched her ankle when she stepped onto the sidewalk. The jolt from her misstep spewed the remaining coffee down her front.
Finally the bus came. "Hurry up," the driver barked as she fiddled through her pockets to collect the coins to pay the fare. She sank gratefully into the first seat. "You elderly? You handicapped? Or, is it you can't read?" the driver shouted. Her cheeks flaming, Lydia noticed the reserved sign over the first seats and crept back to an empty seat in the mid-section of the bus.
An older woman with a brooch shaped like a dragon sniffed at her, a cluster of teen-age girls giggled. "Can't read?"
The bus shuddered and jerked. The shops and offices looked unfamiliar as Lydia rode past them. It's just the perspective she thought. Everything looks different when you're sitting up this high. Three boys clambered aboard with a shrieking radio; the driver did not challenge them. One of them poked his tongue out at Lydia; he had a stud in the center of his fleshy pink tongue. One of his mates thrust his pelvis obscenely in her direction. She stared resolutely out the window. The writing on the storefronts seemed to be in Arabic.
The bus careened around a corner at alarming speed. Flashes of light illuminated the night. Bits of shrapnel torpedoed through the bus. Shattered windows rained glass across Lydia's lap. The bus seemed doomed to a head-on collision with a tank. To the left of the bus the city looked like news footage of Beirut. The bus swung around another corner, the rear section skittering crazily into a subcompact car leaving it crushed flat as a forgotten sandwich.
It was nine o'clock when the bus stopped across the street from Lydia's apartment building. The front door had two missing windows; the stairs were slick with ice. The foyer was littered with crushed beer cans, bits of cellophane and ashes. A used condom lay limply across the first step.
Lydia's mailbox had been raped, the door hung awkwardly, like an unset fracture. A squashed soda bottle nested inside in it. There was no mail. She dreaded looking at the place where she lived. Most days she was exhausted enough to ignore her surroundings. After the frightening walk and harrowing bus ride she was hypervigilant. She saw every bit of trash, every rotten bite of food vomited onto the floor.
She pulled her aching body up the two flights of stairs to her apartment. She felt as if someone was behind her, she did not dare turn to look.
Blistered wallpaper hung in tatters; water stains obscured the pattern. The entire first floor reeked of boiled cabbage, cat litter, and dirty diapers.
Dropping her handbag and coat beside the front door, Lydia stepped out of her shoes en route to the kitchenette. She poured cereal into a bowl. Dumping the milk in the bowl, she wrinkled her nose at the unmistakable stench of curdled milk. She threw the entire mess into the leaking garbage can.
Plundering through the freezer she retrieved a frozen meal and stuck it into the microwave. She took a deep breath; something awful was going to happen.
She could almost feel the cosmic tumblers clicking. She flicked on the TV and deposited her dinner on the rickety coffee table.
Lydia was watching CNN while methodically chewing the rubbery chicken from a generic low-fat meal. A tank thundered into a brick wall. The homicidal rubble buried Lydia. She had been watching a woman with very stiff hair earnestly deploring the depostism of Saddam Hussein when she became Awaz. He was a young Afghan male struggling to find a pocket of air in the gritty debris of the crumbling wall.
Lydia saw the beautiful coffee-colored skin of the body she inhabited covered with gravelly fragments. The abrasion drew ruby droplets of blood across the taut skin.
Lydia was shocked that his trapped body was shivering. She had imagined that all of Asia was eternally hot, arid, with volcanic winds spewing sand across ancient desert trails.
Awaz/Lydia was cold. He could scarce open his eyes for the fine rock dust that settled in his lashes and coated his face with the stinging scratches of a thousand demons. The cold settled into his fragile bones as he crouched beneath the dangerously descending rubble. His scraped and bleeding hands clawed at the chunks of brick and cement that entombed him. Dry mouthed with fear, he thought he felt the warm flesh of his lover Zohreh but he didn't dare to hope that the slender youth still lived. Hope and human flesh are both so easily crushed beneath tumbling walls.
Under Taliban rule sodomy was punishable by death. The sentence was viciously specific. Sodomites were crushed into oblivion by being buried alive under a brick wall knocked down by a tank.
Awaz could not get his arm up to his face; he would cloak his mouth with his sleeve if he could. He was inhaling disintegrating brick. Each second was fragmented; he seemed to have been struggling to get air for all of eternity. He envied the women their full veils; it would be useful to be veiled if one was to be buried alive. Crazy thoughts: recalling the Kabul night sky years ago - illuminated with the airline offices, hotels, and government buildings giving the city a deceptive western veneer. In 1992 those buildings were reduced to broken stone - did they only fall on queers?
It is the way of Asia; all cities are built in alternate layers of decay and rebirth. Kabul has one public telephone that works. Awaz had heard that in the west there were telephones on every street corner. He didn't believe it.
A stew of voices---Pashtu, Uzbek, Pashai. He believed that he had been entombed forever. His fingers felt something sticky, wet - Zohreh's blood, or his own? A louder voice, speaking Dari this time, giving orders. The mountain of brick shifts and Awaz is hoisted out of the pit of death. Inexplicably he is dragged across the brick like a sack of wheat and stuffed into a waiting ambulance.
The frosty air slapped his face, cut his lungs. It must have been snowing. The ice crystals in his hair liquefied in the heat of the ambulance; his hair was filthy, disgusting, he had hoped to die unsoiled. He caught a glimpse of the battlements skirting Kabul. The snow covered Kush Mountains, dominated by the Minar-e-Eim-wa-Jahil, loomed ominously around the city. Through the mucky window, he saw the blue dome of the Masjid-e-Pul-e-khesti towering above the multi-storied shops lining the Kabul River. Awaz was bleeding from many places. He thought he smelled goat stew. The ambulance turned off the narrow street onto Sher-Shar Mina Ave. and passed the modern buildings of Kabul University. Awaz had been a student. Did Zohreh live? Had Awaz alone been pulled from their legally mandated grave?
Lydia - just Lydia - was rocking back and forth on the sofa, her sharp fingernails assaulting her sweaty palms. A low keening moan rose from her throat. She was nauseous. Lydia kept rocking back and forth, she willed herself to stop swaying, and she said it aloud. "I have to stop." But, she continued to rock like a Hasid or a madwoman. She had no control over the motion and it seemed to soothe some beast within gnawing dangerously on her vitals.
The newscaster was talking about the S & P five hundred. Trembling, Lydia picked up the remains of her dinner, the wilted broccoli suspended in congealed sauce, the potatoes spongy, the chicken rigid. Her legs seemed separate from her body; she ordered them to move as if they were prothestic limbs. Lydia floated atop her robotic limbs to deposit the food in the trash can. Tears escaped her eyes. So many people are hungry, how can I throw food away?
Thinking of Norman Bates she stood beneath the shower until her skin went pruney and the hot water wheezed its last. She stood on the faded bath mat and looked at her hands in dismay.
"Skin slippage," the coroner said. "She's been in the river so long we have skin slippage." The cold blue flesh slipped off the bone as neatly as stewed chicken. "The cause of death seems to be strangulation prior to being submerged. There are ligature marks around the neck. The bruising on the abdomen and thighs is pre-morbid, likewise the defensive wounds on the forearms. The abrasions on the buttocks and calves indicate she was dragged quite some distance before she was put in the river."
"But, can we determine who she is?" Detective Sanders was clutching the edge of the counter. He hated autopsies. He hated informing parents that their child would not be home - please God let her be from somewhere safely far away, outside the city, outside the parish, outside the goddamn state please God. He could not look another mother in the face.
"Jane Doe. Between 15 and 17, height 5'2" weight approximately 110, well- nourished white female with extensive orthodontia, and double pierced ears. Five foot two, eyes of blue."
Lydia was a decaying corpse who heard the voices, who saw the sodden skin slip off the gelatinous muscle clinging to her bones. Sometimes you are the hero, and sometimes you're the goat.
Lydia dried herself off hurriedly and pulled on a faded flannel nightgown. The gown smelled of fabric softener. She ran to her bed with the speed of a four-year-old fleeing the bogeyman. She huddled beneath the patchwork quilt and squinched her eyes against the dark. Her knees curled almost to her chest. She hugged her pillow and meandered toward sleep.
A tubercular cough from the next cot and a chorus of snores disturbed her slumber. Lulu felt beneath her pillow for the vinyl wallet housing three dollars. It was all the money she had in the world. Magda coughed again, a hurricane phlegm-filled, window-shimmying cough that shattered the silence and penetrated Lulu's molars. Magda was known to steal. Lulu shoved her wallet into her panties and rolled over onto her tummy. She was so tired. Tomorrow at seven, after a breakfast of cold cereal and watery coffee she would fill ten aimless hours on the sidewalk until the shelter opened its grudging doors at five.
Get a job. Yeah, right. With her turquoise skirt and olive green sweater, her shaggy hair and torn tights. No car, no phone. Yeah, even Mickey D's wanted to call you. It was only in bad movies that people walked in off the streets and got hired on the spot. In the real world, you didn't exist without a phone number. Even Lydia's job was preferable to whatever Lydia/Lulu could find.
Wayne lay on his thin prison mattress singing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." He knew he was driving Llwellyn crazy, stupid bastard. Lew didn't understand that the goal was to drive him crazy.
"Could you please shut the fuck up?" Llwellyn whined. Bastard had a sniveling, nasal voice.
"Could do, if I wanted to. Coming for to carry me home. Hey, Lew, is your old lady a big fat momma? I just ask because so many of you skinny mothers have big fat mommas." The entire cellblock stank of piss. "Must be a lot of places you can stick it in those big mommas."
Lydia rolled over. She shoved her head under the pillow. Llwellyn's life wasn't as bad as meeting Mengele. It wasn't as bad as Cambodia. It wasn't as frightening as Algeria. There were so many bad places.
Just before dawn in the achromatic emptiness between night and day Lydia ran down a cobblestone street. The stores were slippery with blood. The misty air was metallic with the stench of blood. She felt as if knives pierced her side. Her heart seemed in danger of exploding in her chest. Her long dark hair flogged her face. She ran like a hunted beast, slipping and sliding on the rough surface yet continuing in her flight. She fell full face on the vicious stone and scrambled to her feet, her palms bleeding, her knees beginning to swell. She ran further. She was dizzy with running and crazed with fear.
"Juden raus! Juden raus!" She ran as she had so many times before past the smoldering ashes of the synagogue, through the cemetery where her grandparents slept. She would not escape, yet she ran.
She clawed at the yellow star stitched to her threadbare coat as she ran into a barrage of bullets.
At ten o'clock Lydia hit the snooze alarm on her clock radio. She yawned and stretched luxuriating in the soft bed as the universe sought balance. Her silk nightgown tangled around her legs as she rolled over and snuggled under the comforter. The air was soft with the scent of gardenias in a bedside crystal vase. Bird song intruded gently, the postcard blue sky stretched out beyond the French doors leading onto her deck. The sun poured down on the array of ginger and hibiscus reposing in wicker baskets that served as a privacy screen. It was a wonderful room - the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the sea masked by flowers instead of drapes.
Shrugging into her robe she padded downstairs to fetch a cup of coffee and a croissant. Adding a bunch of sweet seedless grapes and a miniature pot of strawberry preserves to her breakfast tray, she drifted back upstairs and went out onto the deck. The sun flirted across the waves like an ephemeral ballerina. Seagulls were waltzing with the wind. Sipping her coffee, she inhaled the exhilarating sea breeze. Tiny sailboats bobbed against the limits of the horizon. Palm trees waved at the sapphire water.
After her second cup of coffee she retreated into her suite. Selecting a jazz CD, she inserted it into the concealed player. Filling a steamy tub with rose scented bath oil she slipped into a soothing bath. Lydia followed her soak with an invigorating shower and shampoo. After drying her expertly cut hair she massaged cream into her face, lotioned her body and sat at her well- stocked vanity table.
She put down her sable eyeliner brush and regarded her meticulously painted face with enormous satisfaction. Good Lord, it was already early afternoon. Time passed so quickly.
Dressed in Irish linen, her hair loose and flowing, she floated down the staircase to the marble foyer. She rifled through the pile of mail waiting on a silver plate. Most of it came in heavy cream colored envelopes addressed in exquisite script. Picking up her purse she carefully locked the door and strolled down the flagstone walkway. So many women had cushioned lives - Lydia had so many lives to visit.
Lydia smoothed the pleats in her black watch plaid skirt and luxuriated in the feel of her cashmere twin set. As her driver opened the door she stepped out gracefully onto Brompton Road. Entering Harrods she followed a familiar route to the cosmetics section. She wanted a particular herbal facial masque.
After making her essential purchases she whiled away the time looking at spring fashions, accessories, and shoes. Indulging one impulse after another she spent three thousand pounds and five hours in the landmark department store.
Laden with the trademark green and gold bags she collapsed into the commodious leather seat of her car. Glancing at her watch she knew that in an hour she was due to meet Arthur for drinks.
She walked into the dimly lit bar, fire glinting from the diamond studs in her ears. Her eyes adjusting to the light she spotted Arthur in a corner booth. He looked up expectantly and smiled at her approach. Lydia loved the way he smiled, the tiny crinkles radiating from his dark eyes.
He stood as she arrived at the booth and took her small hands in his. "You look more beautiful each time I see you." Lydia sat next to him on the narrow seat. Their fingers were intertwined. She plucked the cherry from his whiskey sour holding it delicately between her manicured fingers. She popped the fruit into her mouth and licked her fingers suggestively. It was quiet in the lounge despite the clamour of the city swirling outside.
"Excuse me a minute, darling." Lydia brushed a butterfly kiss across his temple and exited towards the ladies room. She passed the restroom and walked to the end of the hall and stepped out into a formal garden with an emerald carpet of manicured lawn extending into the foreseeable distance.
Lydia stood on an immense terrace flanked with huge urns full of cascading flowers. Around the perimeter of the terrace stood topiaries carved to mimic chess pieces. From her vantage point she could survey an expanse of velvet lawn, a formal garden in the flamboyant colors favored by the Victorians, and a rose garden surrounding a series of fountains.
Adjusting her mauve hat she swayed towards the huge green and white striped tent erected on the lawn of the palatial home. "Lydia, how wonderful to see you," a bejeweled matron gushed. Lydia smiled and nodded. Her wide silk skirt festooned with mauve and lavender flowers rustled as she walked.
"Lydia, darling, it has been forever." A horsy-set type hugged her, crushing her dress. The large woman smelled of Chanel. "I think I last saw you at Ascot."
"Lydia, good to see you." A beauty in pale peach chiffon waved. Lydia accepted a glass of champagne. Edward moved through the crowd to her side. "I was afraid I'd lost you in this crush, darling." A roving band of waiters circled the guests, hors d'oeuvres and champagne at the ready.
"There are more people here than last year, if that's possible." She sipped the bubbly liquid. "I always enjoy Katherine's party." Lydia gazed around the tent, her heart swelled with love for the blonde man standing beside her and the scores of friends they shared. Katherine, her dearest friend from childhood, was resplendent in cream silk and her heirloom emeralds. Lydia felt as if she could embrace the colorful chattering crowd. It was a milk- warm evening laced with music and spiced with laughter.
"I enjoy anywhere with you." Edward placed a possessive hand upon her shoulder as she smiled up at him. They were the personification of a thousand romantic daydreams, the rich adoring husband, the slender beauty in couturier clothing surrounded by the glitterati. A chorus of friends and would-be friends stopped by to chat or merely to stand in the light cast by the fortunate couple.
As the moon rose in the onyx sky, Lydia waltzed with her husband. The crowd kaliescoped around them, the air was heavy with flowers and French perfume.
Exhausted, Lydia leaned against Edward's chest and listened to the reassuring thumping of his heart. "Tired, darling?" he asked.
"Yes, a bit." She murmured. She relished the clean shirted, scrubbed, man-scent of him. She leaned against him, almost resting her entire weight against his broad chest.
"Do you want to sit the next dance out?" He asked solicitously.
"Oh, no, darling. I'd just as soon dance until dawn." Lydia nestled into his arms. "I really want to dance all night."
"Then you shall," Edward piloted her into the shadows for a sweet stolen kiss. "If you wish to dance all night then we will dance until dawn." His eyes were luminous. He cupped Lydia's chin in his hand and studied her perfect features. She wanted to wrap the moment in tissue paper and press it between the pages of a book.
Time sprinted toward dawn with a total lack of compassion.
Lydia brushed her lips against his neck and prodded him back into the crowd of dancers. She desperately wanted to dance until sunrise. She wanted to stuff succulent canapes into her mouth, guzzle champagne, make love to her husband, and rub the fine texture of silk against every inch of her greedy body. She hungered for all the good things of life with a compelling craving. She needed luxury more than she needed air. She wanted to devour the moment. She had a feeling tomorrow was going to be a bitch. The universe loves balance.
d. g. k. goldberg has had work in a variety of anthologies, web, and small press magazines. She is an over-educated, under-employed, small person who would make an excellent ornamental monarch for a country requiring a Queen. She is particularly indebted to Steve Algieri, editor of Eternity, The On-line Journal Of The Speculative Imagination, for encouraging her to continue writing.