Heidi North-Bailey (Auckland University, New Zealand)
It happened the night I met Wanda. I didn’t know it was going to be that easy. The night I met her I knew. There it was, plain as the white lines that run clean down the middle of the road. My life.
‘Honey, you didn’t know it was gonna be that easy?’ Wanda would say if she heard me talk like that, disbelieving, in that big gravel-pit-soft voice of hers. I can still see her now, standing in our kitchen with one hand on her hip, concentrating on the pan of slow sizzling oil. But I don’t let her speak. If she speaks she might break into the coughing, which would become wheezing and I’d just have to face the whole damn thing all over again. So I just sit quiet like, in the darkness, watching, the morning light making a silhouette of her broad back.
If I shut my eyes, lean back into her voice, I can hear her crack eggs hard against the cast-iron rim of the frypan, watch her big practised hand slide them eggs into the rush of hot oil. Back when we was first dating that same girl cooked me a bucket load of eggs one morning. I’m talking a clear dozen. They arrived all yellow and jiggly, riding in their little pools of fat. Barely fit on the plate. I ate them all, too. Every last greasy mouthful.
‘I knew you was hooked the moment I saw you, boy.’ Crack, swoosh. Wanda would say a lot of things if you let her. She’d clean run her mouth. She’d laugh her big crackly laugh and her whole back’d shake with the laughter. But she don’t need to speak. I keep her for her pretty… nah, you probably don’t wanna hear ‘bout that.
Wanda always had grease on her fingers. A fine smear of oil. It glimmered. When she pressed her fingers against things she always left a little imprint. A tiny cluster of whirls from her fingertips. She used to press them against the water glasses. Each mismatched glass in our cupboard bore her marks. All the windowpanes in the house were covered in smudges. Sometimes I used to think if you stripped me down I’d be covered in these tiny little imprints. Wanda’s grubby fingers. She’d pummel and roll her hands over me as if I were a lump of dough she was soothing into submission. It was her way of claiming me. I’m man enough to say I bloody loved it. I’d been brought up in a house where cleanliness was next to godliness and boy if my mother weren’t always trying to get more holy. But I got used to Wanda’s smudges on everything. Grew to like it. She had her hands in and out of oil – no matter how much she washed them something remained. When she wasn’t cooking at the diner, she’d do the cooking at home.
She was a darn fine looking lady – all bosom with a thick mane of glossy black hair. Reminded me of a horse tail. She had strong olive arms, ropey. She couldn’t bear anything covering them so she had a wardrobe of loose slouching shirts – always deep purple – that sat low under her pits, and strained tight against her magnificent cleavage. She’d twist her hair up in a messy coil on toppa her head, and as she worked the grill bits’d fall out, lil’ damp curls sticking to the sweat at the base of her neck.
Back when we was courting and I was still driving overnighters, I used to sneak in the back door of the diner kitchen when I got in, watch her from behind for hours. I never quite lost the habit. Sitting in that greasy heat, trying not to cough in the burnt out smoky smell, I’d watch Wanda. Sometimes she’d catch me doing it, shoo me away, but other times she knew I was there. She’d look over her shoulder, wiggle her broad hips, do a little laugh. You can always tell when people know they’re being watched; they move differently, the space around them becomes more aware, the air taut. The light brighter. It was like that with Wanda. Watching her rickety chest go up and down. The air around her was so taut it was hard for any of us to breathe, in the end.
People tell you it’s gonna be easy. Moving on. It’ll just take time and all that. But what if it don’t? What if it never goes away? They laughed at me, at first, lightly, when I said I couldn’t wash the windows in the house. Couldn’t even step in the shower at first, but I got over that. I’m a practical man, after all.
They don’t laugh so much now. Just sorta look at me. Drippy-eyed. I know what they see. This loose old sack of bones; they think my mind’s gone. They make me endless cups of black coffee and stalk ‘round the house fingering the dust. Ask me, don’t I want to see the view? Tell them I can see the damn view. It’s the same as it was twenty years ago. They cough politely. Clearly, they mean. Don’t I want to see the sun? Let the good Lord’s light in?
I want to tell them about their damn light. I want to tell them a story about me and Wanda, back before I hardly knew her. When she was just a girl and I was just a lad, back when she used to wear eyeliner and lipstick just to stand behind the fryer, wiggle her tight little hips. Back before the soft loving of the years put layers on her.
So this one night, I says to those people, I got awful drunk with the boys, came upon me a hungry kinda madness on my way home. ‘Course, the diner wasn’t open then, was it? It must have been done midnight. But I went there anyway, was determined to get me some fries. I must’ve been knocking on that door for hours. And in the end, the light went on and this slip of a girl came out in this blue dressing gown sort of number. Black hair sticking up all over the place. Opened the shop door, just a crack.
‘Fries,’ I muttered. ‘Darling, I’m damn near to starving.’ And I fell over then, right into the pile of old newspapers and discarded take-out containers in the gutter.
Well ‘course she just burst laughing. And I looked up, through my blurry-eyed drunkenness, the sweet stickiness of tomato sauce smeared on my hands, my stomach turning, lurching away from the smell of cold fries. And I saw her then. Really saw her.
Wanda. Her wild mane of hair making a sort of halo against the light behind her. Her big warm laugh so unexpected from such a small body.
‘Oh, boy.’ She reached down. Took my arm.
And damn it if that ain’t the nearest I’ve ever needed to be to God.
Heidi North-Bailey won an International Irish poetry competition (Feile Filiochta International Poetry Competition) in 2007. Returning to NZ in 2011 after four years in London, she received a grant from the NZ Society of Authors for help finishing her first poetry collection, Things I wanted to tell you. She now aims to get it published.
A writer and freelance editor from Auckland, she is currently studying towards a Master’s in Scriptwriting and Directing for Film at Auckland University. She is working on a screenplay and chipping away at a novel.