Robbed, Rob & Robbie
By Lillet Dorothy
She’s dicing potatoes over the sink by the window, with the carrots in a steamy boil. The window’s always open a crack -- the old wood all swollen with age and too stiff to close. The salty air mingles with carrot steam in her nostrils. As she peels the potatoes, purple-blue blossoms grow under the skin of her hands beneath the cool stream of water, and she watches as the skin falls away. Baby screeches from the corner of the kitchen in his awful bright green rocker, and she wonders if he screamed this much back home.
Her phone chimes - the potato skin curled tensely upward in-between the peeler’s open blade. One more chime and she won’t have the will to ignore it. The corridor is a long labyrinth lined with different bedrooms, and barely anyone has a key. So, whenever the door, that’s rarely ever locked, is disturbed, it sends a flurry of anxiety through Ri, her lungs rejecting oxygen, like a fish hurled to land. She remembers Beth’s warning words;
“You’ll get used to being on your own again, and you’ll like it, Ri. I promise! I’ve been there.”
She looks to this memory for strength, but it folds back in on itself, again and again. Baby’s cries wash away as her hand takes up the phone, all on its own. She presses the home button, which leaves a jagged, wet ring. The tired old floorboards creak beneath her weight and dust snakes upwards and around her ankle. She leans down to read the tiny line of text and finds that her palm attaches itself to her longing cheek; cool and wet with starch.
He's hunched down, arms bare in a football shirt, middle of winter. The steam from the hot tap water and dish liquid floods his nose. It was strong lime, eco-packaged, and stung his nostrils – 79 cents more than he would’ve paid. The kitchen’s been a tip since she left, with the pile of dishes growing in to, and devouring the tap. Up to his third-last dirty plate, the rush of water erodes the dry tomato sauce and fattens the dry pastry flakes into specks of gooey dough. His tight lips conceal a clenched jaw that grinds gently as bubbles chatter through the rush of water. One plate now, all smeared with out-of-the-jar pesto - once a bright and chemical green but now all browned and hardened with age. He has to press real ‘ard to get the tiny hard flecks off. It'd tasted like crap – too garlicky, and even worst coming up out of him later.
“Why don’t I make it fresh this time? You’ll like it.” Her voice seeped into the quiet folds of his mind.
“Nah, not for four dollars, Ri. Not for some leaves.”
“Right … I’ll get it then.”
Made him miss the one she used to make. Real basil and garlic and the lot. Pricey though. The jar one had been alright for a dollar twenty, and it could last a month if you weren’t goin’ nuts with it.
The tap squeaks loudly off with some effort – made in the 50s. it’s all stiffened like an old man’s hand from arthritis. Passing from the kitchen to the living room, he switches off the light with a click behind him, the glow of the TV summoning his feet forward. The ground could have bloody fallen out from under him and he wouldn’t have noticed. Closer now, he’s all warm. There’s a Corona on the floor, a dazzling yellow in front of the TV, with a sip in the bottom keeping it from’ empty. The couch is encompassed by a loose ring of its dead siblings - mates. His arm dangles off the couch, never straying too far. There’s a fist-sized puncture in the wall, left of the TV. Hadn’t gotten round to telling the landlord yet. Bird got in and smacked the wall, he’d say. Further left, through the bedroom door, the bed covers strewn open in a messy, clumped silhouette. Empty crib; lights out and dust collecting on the switch. Hadn’t been able to eye it since she left. The site of her fleeing, frozen in time. There was a pillow on the couch and a decent blanket, and the TV to keep him warm – don’t need much else. And he took that last sip down his throat and opened another.
It’s late now and baby’s quietened down. She revels in the quiet hum of the heater, like her own private music. She’d pulled her mattress right over to the window so she could see the stars through the stripes of the plastic blind while she lay there. She’d never had such a generous, tall window before. She lay there quietly for as long as baby stayed asleep, which was about an hour or so. As the night rolled darker and colder, she began to hear music play, as she had her first Tuesday night at the house. The rest of the house was students, or ‘artists’, who were weekday blind. These were Ri’s worst nights. Since baby, her sleep had become a delicate procedure. But she’d never complain, grateful that Beth had taken her in at all. Beth even said she didn’t have to pay rent till she got back on her feet.
“You’re in a fucking tough spot, Ri. It’s the least I can do.”
The music would warp with the chatter and cackling of youth being spent.
Her eyes linger on baby, and her vision clouds over as she thinks – robbed. She looks down at his tiny, fat fists and dark hair.
Rob’s skin. Her gaze lifts outwardly, to the belongings not yet her own.
Baby’s comb. Baby’s toothpaste. Rob’s mum’s suitcase. Beth’s desk. Beth’s bedding.
She suddenly felt not at all herself, and when she grasped for her, she was nowhere to be found. Her thoughts flew desperately, Ri? Ri? Where is she? The room suddenly seemed very small and dim, as the belongings closed in on her, overwhelming her vision.
She finds herself sat in a ring of twenty-somethings, in the neglected jungle backyard’s many palms and eucalyptus. They’re all cross-legged on the thick grass, eyes squint at the smoke coming from the joints between their fingers. It passes round and a small voice far at the back of her head is shocked as it balances delicately in hers – like it’s always been there. She’s tingly and warm and everyone acts like her best friend although they barely know her. She falls back on the grass heavily and looks at the coloured fairy lights dodging zigzaggedly between the ferns and palms above her. She reaches her hands out above her and pretends that the joint between her fingers is baby, being held up like SImba. She laughs to herself and thinks about how heavy he is, how her arms would bend like noodles beneath him if he were in her arms right now. She can almost hear him wailing, and she thinks he must not like being imaginarily dropped.
“Ri? Where’s Ri?”
Beth emerges into Ri’s wavering view upside-down through the hodgepodge of plants and trees with teary-eyed baby on her hip. Beth squats down next to her, her dark blue nurse’s uniform tightening at the knees, “Ri, what are you doing?” Robbie was screaming. How long have you been out here?”
She touches Ri’s bare shoulder, but recoils. “Jesus, Ri! You’re like ice!” Ri’s arms are all goose-bumped. “Come on. Let’s get you warm,” and poor Beth hoists Ri up with the other side of her tired night-shift body, and takes them both inside. Ri’s wobbly in the legs and wet in the face.
“Rob texted that he loves me and wants me home”, Ri’s words swayed out intangibly like a mirage.
They reach Beth’s room which smells thick with incense. Beth unhooks Robbie’s little fists from her hair and passes him to Ri. He cries and beats her chest.
“Yeah, well I’m not too fond of you either!” Ri rolls her eyes. Beth withholds a polite chuckle.
“What? What is it?” Frowning now, defensive.
“Well it’s just that…it would be alright if you wanted to…change his name, Ri.” Ri hadn’t been expecting this, and her mouth hung slightly looser on her face.
Her face leaks some more, then gushes. They become an undistinguishable, little mound of people. She folds back her own well-worn quilt for Ri, not minding that the grass stuck to her cold bum gets in the sheets. Beth pulls the curtains closed, which are leaking in the pale, new-born light. Robbie calms down as he nestles into his mother. Beth climbs in on the other side and wraps herself around Ri’s icy body.
“Everyone that can love you is right here, Ri.”
Ri’s chest heaves with sobs then. Beth rubs her hand up and down her goose-bumped arm. “We’re right here, Ri - right here with you.”
They all slowly drift off into warmth and sleep.